#44: The Recipe for Success with Pete Angelis

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:02

On the menu for dinner tonight at Bruin play at UCLA is a kale hummus, winter greens and red quinoa flatbread. You can’t help but salivate as you read through the menus posted daily online for the dining halls at UCLA. But this is just another typical day at UCLA. Dining colourful, vibrant, delicious, and well balanced meals. How does UCLA dining sir performing meals every day to its residents living on campus? Well, Pete Angeles, the Assistant Vice Chancellor of UCLA housing, hospitality will tell you, it’s all made possible through the care for and care from his remarkable team. What I’d like to start out with is not just how we first got to know each other, and how you really have been an inspiration to Semel healthy campus initiative for so many years, over seven years. I think it’s been from beginning Yeah, from the very beginning. And I think I’ve been reflecting on when you first came to these monthly EatWell, pod meetings that you now lead yourself. And I was reflecting on how you dove into the scientific literature that was brought to these meetings initially and read all the papers. What brought you to do that as a food operator and a person who’s in business? Like what made you decide to do that?

Pete Angelis  01:36

I love reading at the topic of health and wellness fascinates me. And the first study, I think you’ve mentioned is the one from the Netherlands where they did a vending study. So I always thought that, you know, I’ve been to Amsterdam, and I’ve seen kind of a Dutch viewpoint in their culture. And I thought that’s interesting that how would the Dutch handle this vending initiative to have people choose healthier vending options. And when I read through, it’s just it’s not wasn’t an extremely long study. But it was a meaty study done me that we have at that time was about a $2 million vending operation. And why couldn’t we try to replicate that study here. So I think we’re just that we have a vending business. And it’s a vending study. And I thought the perspective would be interesting on that study. And I enjoy it. Part of the thing I enjoy the Healthy Campus Initiative is getting connected to the academic side of campus. I’m an operator, my team, we do operations, some development, with our capital programs, partners. But it’s basically a big operation. That’s what we focus on and healthy campus gives me an opportunity to take a step back, look at things maybe from an academic perspective, or learn things from the academic side of campus, that gives me the opportunity to bring that back to my team and see what we can implement. So I think that’s just the motivation, the way that played out

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  02:58

How you ended up reading and actually even asking if you could do a similar kind of, you know, the healthier items with lower price at eye level and drop, the less healthy items lower and

Pete Angelis  03:10

And product placement and pricing. That’s right, moving. Yeah, through items at the top and promotion to marketing the machine with labeling that we made.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:20

Healthy, healthier choice

Pete Angelis  03:22

Pricing, the healthier

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:23

Not the healthiest choice, but the healthier choice.

Pete Angelis  03:25

And there’s still a choice. Yes, exactly.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:29

Not hurting the bottom line.

Pete Angelis  03:31

And we almost I think we’ve pretty close to replicated the Dutch study.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:34

That’s right.

Pete Angelis  03:35

That was fascinating to me that yes, that that is transferable. That was

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:40

That’s true science, actually, isn’t it?

Pete Angelis  03:42

And the other part was really fun was getting introduced to Joe. Yeah, the grad student was working on it and seeing how good the bright mind he brought to the table and how he was working with the data from the vending sales. That was fun, because I don’t do that. In my normal day. We take care of students. I’m surrounded by students all the time in my job, but I don’t get to engage with them.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:04

Yea you really mentored, yea you mentored him

Pete Angelis  04:08

I learned a lot about how grad study student goes about a project published paper. That was fascinating in and of itself.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:17

Did that give you a little more respect to publish papers? How much work it takes to get what you’re out?

Pete Angelis  04:22

Yes, definitely not my line of expertise. Very fast. Yeah.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:27

Well, I know it Joe used to talk talk to me about how was a real eye opener was to go into the warehouse where all the products for the vending were in place and try to categorize them in terms of what was healthy and not healthy. And he obviously landed on a criteria that was used by our public health department here in Los Angeles, but really, even categorizing snack foods as what are healthy and not healthiest is a challenge.

Pete Angelis  04:55

Yeah, but it was kind of interesting in hindsight, looking at that whole experience is That’s the magic of academic campus at UCLA. Is that really an academic solution? Police, my perception of it is, from my experience when I was an undergrad is that it’s where ideas or hypotheses are put out there vetted, the vetting process is rather intense. It’s for the sake of moving knowledge. And it was fun to really be involved with that project, because I saw that whole thing, the vetting of what was a healthy item, and what was not how rigorous that debate was, and how those.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:30

That’sr ight. You had all your nutritionists and yes, same time,

Pete Angelis  05:34

And campus nutritionists. It was like it was across campus bedding. And went on after we tried to get it and successfully moved it towards UCOP. President to have included in there was further vetting in that dialogue and discussion. So that’s the beauty of it. I think it was really a marvel for me to see that aspect of working at a university. And how that plays out with so many things I get to work with is this vetting it’s so natural for a university. And unfortunately, thE great people I get to work with here, a lot of the vetting. It’s like you’re having big discussions, and no one gets defensive on it. There’s like, No, I love that. That’s kind of that’s kind of like how I’m wired. I like to have debate. But however it works out. There’s no emotional attachment to the argument. It’s just make sure we argue this out, make sure that you get the right truth from it from the process.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:30

Wow, I never thought of it from that point of view. Yeah.

Pete Angelis  06:33

Yeah, seeing so much of that on this campus. And he has kind of an unselfish

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:37

Pursuit of knowledge.

Pete Angelis  06:38

Exactly I love it. I can see the team loves that. So yeah, definitely exciting project. And we’re really glad to be involved with it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:47

Would you say from your perspective, having spent a lot of time in business, that that is a different kind of way of, of having a discussion?

Pete Angelis  06:56

Oh, I think my experience, absolutely, I mean, I think in business world, my experiences, you can have debates and hopefully you have the skill set to argue a point or debate a point in a way that’s not defensive or is not received defensively. But just the openness and how that whole process is embraced in the university world, and how transparent that all has to be, it’s definitely a different level, I find that one of the things I really enjoy, about being working at a college campus.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:25

You know, it’s what that perspective, I mean, you’ve opened my eyes to a lot of different viewpoints that I would never have considered based on your perspective, from a business, operating kind of way and my scientific perspective and having you describe just what you said to me about being able to disrupt, discuss something in a, in an open manner to then accept what is considered to be a better, you know, practice or investigate an idea that could be something that promotes health or well being in this case, makes me think how important it is for not just a university to do research for the sake of research, but especially in this area of health and well being where a lot of businesses have co opted, co opted the the narrative, even even around healthy food and healthier food. But having a university be defining these kinds of theories or identifying points of practice that really are based on true science and not based on profit or other motivations that would then promote that particular idea. I mean, to me, what you’re saying to me is, this is something that really is behooves universities to be working on, for the health of individuals and the community.

Pete Angelis  08:51

I think you were interesting business because we’re an auxilary. We don’t take any state funding. And we have to pay our own bills and cover the payroll and I’ll put money aside to develop and renovate as necessary to keep on our mission of continuing UCLA to transition from a commuter campus to a residential campus.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  09:11

It is news to me as well like that. I never knew that about your operation until you explain that to me, which is interesting. Being part of the umbrella, UCLA,

Pete Angelis  09:20

Right, but also part of the umbrella and I see this every day, when I see students arrive to the hill or residential community on campus. I realized these are because I’ve went through this myself as a parent, you send your, your kids, your young adults off to college, and they become formulating themselves as adults and really growing to a different level. Real developments are real. And you see I get to see that all the time. And with that you recognize the responsibility that you have, and the opportunity that if you can nudge or steer students at that point of their life into healthier decision making healthier behaviors healthier living You know, you overtime, year after year as the classes come in the classes graduate year over year, you can make a difference. And I think everyone on our team really recognize that they see that because all of our staff working with students, I think they appreciate that. And they understand that that’s a really unique opportunity. So are a lot of our decisions just not dollars and cents. You know, a lot of the times we’re making decisions on what’s, what’s the right thing to do big picture for these students as they grow and mature. And that’s what I love, again, by the healthy campus initiative, it’s just requires us to put that lens on for a while and really think about things. And then we get to see how that plays out on on the Hill. Not only do we see it now we hear it one meeting, and have Jeremy tell about the these pianos that might be available on campus. And what about a great idea of dropping a piano out in just a public space, and letting whoever wants to walk by play on the piano. I’ve watched that we’ve put the two pianos on the hill, the hill where most of us live and eat these pianos, we have to put a we have to lock them up at night during when students really want to study and go to sleep. But the day that they’re open, they’re constantly being played. And I am just amazed by how many students have such great talent and musical skills. And I never knew it before those pianos showed up. And then you watch the dynamic of it. And you can see maybe a student, you might come across kind of shy, and they’re playing incredibly well on a piano and people that I know have not talked with him because we have 14,000 plus 14,000 living on the hill. They’re they’re meeting people they would not have now without these interactions taking place around the piano. Ah, and it just changed the whole environment of the place where it’s just you can feel there’s a relaxing, you know, sound, the melodies the vibe, that just a couple of pianos made just kind of miraculous to me. That’s it’s been how many years? We’ve never had that. And it would have been how many more years?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:24


Pete Angelis  10:50

Without the Health Campus, meeting that steering committee meeting and getting exposed or noise worrying about it. I never would have heard about Yeah, go for some you don’t know. That’s

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:10

Right. That’s right. It’s the connectivity. It’s really is. Yeah,

Pete Angelis  12:13

Awareness is a big part of unleashing potential. That was another perfect example. Yeah,

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:22

I hadn’t imagined where they were. And then last week, I saw that once at the entrance of Bruin play, you’re standing there and you’re listening to someone on the piano. And then tell me what happens when you walk into that incredible dining hall, which you’ve now had accolades nationally as being one of the top the top dining hall for undergraduate dining. We are very proud of BruinPlate. Yeah. And, you know, I think the entire team was such a team effort. Yeah, the culinary side, the marketing team, the design group. It was so much effort into that concept. And like all our dining concepts we looked at, we look out at the private sector and see what’s taking off in the LA food scene in LA has become a great food city. I don’t know if you recall la from the 80s?  Not really.

Pete Angelis  13:09

I do. Yeah. I don’t think it was a fluke city. Yeah, I would say in the last 15 years, this place has really been put on the map with great chefs, great culinary talent, and people recognize it as a Food City. Our students come with a very mature palette. They’ve eaten in a lot. A lot of our students have eaten a lot of these restaurants and Los Angeles. And so we look at the private sector. And at that point in time, some of the healthy concepts were coming out of Lemonade, Seasons 52. At the time Tender Greens are these healthy concepts were starting to percolate. So we saw that that’s something that’s on the horizon. But what really put one one together as the Chancellor’s announcement of making UCLA, the healthiest campus in the country. So when we heard that proclamation, we said this is like perfect fit, perfect timing. Now, how could we have timed this any better?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:01

Let’s do it well, in our own backyard, and others will be inspired.

Pete Angelis  14:04

Yeah and what was really great about that project is we were able to build it from the ground up. So it’s not just the food. And we were able to design the architecture, in a way broke with the architects to have sky lighting, lots of curtain walls of natural daylighting surrounded by trees, plants, the artwork from our Southern Regional Library, medicinal plants that are indigenous to the campus landscape, incorporating all those things, the music, we worked with our students to have all the music tracks picked out. So you go there in the morning, it’s classical music. And throughout the rest of the day, it’s really kind of just a meditative, nice, relaxing, musical experience there. And so it’s not just food, it’s this whole

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:51

That’s right, which I think is what you’re breaking. You’re really breaking ground in terms of health and well being because it’s not about just food,

Pete Angelis  14:59

Right? And what I really love about the project too, is it didn’t open as a success. And I think that part, I think, is also something amazing about UCLA. So when it opened, you know, it seats close to 900, we need to turn those three times at least we had this thing, or the concept had to produce at least 25-2700, almost 3000 covers in the meal period, for the day. To be able to see, to expand to that number, at least do a minimum of half that on a meal period. And when we first open, I don’t think we were getting more than 350 people through there. And it was a long time. It wasn’t a week one week two, it took till about week 10 for it to hit its full

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:43

That means the last week of

Pete Angelis  15:44

of fall quarter. Wow. And we were nervous the whole time because a significant investment. Do we miss it? Students don’t like the spoon. When it first opened, it was a women athletes that were pretty much only people going there.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:58

Why do you think they –

Pete Angelis  15:59

I think they I think they knew they’re a women athlete. They knew you know, diet is important health, this alphas nutrition is important for athletic performance. And maybe they were on the cutting edge of realizing you can eat healthy food and it can taste good. Because I think they were the leaders of convincing their peers or their colleagues, other students that this is something that you should embrace and try. And it was fun to watch. It’s since it opened, it’s continued to be our top dining comments. And it’s healthy, nutritious and

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:31

No commercial soda,

Pete Angelis  16:33

No commercial soda.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:34

That was another area that was really brave.

Pete Angelis  16:37

Yeah, the whole thing. desserts are very small. They’re bite sized. A lot of fresh fruit Greek yogurt, small play well plate portion sizes, it’s so plant forwar, meats are condiment, not the center of the plate.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:51

Trays are hard to find.

Pete Angelis  16:52

No one uses trays there that we make trays available for our students, but they’re so conscientious of sustainability. We have locally sourced products there

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:00

Your vertical towers up stair towers.

Pete Angelis  17:03

Aeroponic towers, not 50 of them on the roof. And we leveraged what we produce up there into our salad bars. And it’s just a great overall concept. And, you know, again, what I really love about that is it didn’t open up successfully, we had to get traction to watch it and make it work. It was a hypothesis we took Yeah, and a gamble and never wants all the way up from the administrative vice chancellors office to the Chancellor’s Office. Did we ever get a concern that you know, you know, it’s a failure? It’s and I think that’s another great thing about campus, it’s okay to to make it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to have an experiment that doesn’t play up. Fortunately, it played out. Yeah, but you know, when we look back in hindsight, I don’t think we’re ever really afraid of political repercussions or something, we would have to change the concept map and make it work. But it was not ever this feeling of you didn’t pick the right. Never none of that. So we were allowed to let it play out and see how it worked. And definitely a tremendous success story. I’m glad now we have the cookbook out. Yeah. And the net proceeds go to address student food insecurity. So

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:15

I think you know, what you’re describing is this very organic way of change. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Rome wasn’t built in the day. Right. And he there was UCLA. And yeah, and you know, also changing somebodies sense of where they go and eat a dining hall with dining hall you just described is very typical of dining halls in college. And so it takes time for people to accept new ways of experiencing their dining experience at college and didn’t take that long if you really think about it 10 weeks, which shows I think the receptiveness of this age group, this developmental stage of students to accept new ideas and new ways. And that was what you were describing earlier. I am not sure if I share this with you but I had a student described to me she didn’t realize how much I knew about BruinPlate and how much I have admired your work Pete frowns and others in your team. And she described to me how her life was transformed by Bruyne plate. The food was so delicious to her and she just ate as much as she felt, you know, she listened to her hunger cues which were very well satiated and, and she also became a lover of healthier food of sorts, and she has brought it all home to her family, including the cookbook. She brought the cookbook for Christmas for her parents. And she was so excited to bring this knowledge and these experiences in this ability to share with her her parents at her next vacation time with them.

Pete Angelis  19:49

Yeah, I’m involved. I’m involved that menus have changed. Yeah, university research collaborative or other universities are trying to embrace more plant forward dining and talking to my colleague at Stanford. pouring some numbers in just very quick on a napkin. If you look at the 1000s of students that graduate, all these universities just that are members of MCRC, you’ve got 58 of them now, just all the numbers of meals that they will produce consume, once they’ve graduated over the lifetime, you’re in a billion, you’re past the billion. So if you look at trying to make a difference, or find some way of making a contribution to the planet, I mean, I think that’s what I think the team really gets is that this is something we’ll do every year.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:38

That’s right, and you can vote with your fork. Right?

Pete Angelis  20:42

And the student you just mentioned, as we look at it, it’s going to be on any given year of almost 6000, right that come through every year. 5700, I think is the exact Yeah, so it’s, it’s fun to see when they graduate, what we hear is that they want to maintain friendships with undergraduates are still residing on the Hill, so they can get swiped in and join them for a meal at BruinPlate. So yeah, we’re very proud of that. That project. And, you know, I think over time, it will make help move the needle.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:13

Yeah. You described the one of the reasons that you were particularly drawn to Healthy Camps Initiative and reading the research papers and so forth, was your longtime interest in health and well being where did that originate? And then also, how did you get here from the private sector

Pete Angelis  21:31

Coming to UCLA was the greatest professional thing that ever happened and probably happened in a period of my life that for my family is I can go into great story about that. It’s just It was a miracle how he ended up here and start with the setup but like arrowhead that’s after working 20 years plus, with Hyatt and Hilton through a variety of mergers and acquisitions. And so hotels and hospitality was my background.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:56

And why did you get into that in the first place? You know, you were a Berkeley boy.

Pete Angelis  22:00

Yeah, I went to Cal, I went in wanting to be pre-med. I think I read a book called paying for the party. And I think I look back at those days in these The danger with, with our big public universities, you can kind of fall through the cracks. I met my wife as a freshman in a calculus class. And in my mind wasn’t 100% on my studies where it should have been at that point in time. And it kind of steered me away from after you have one or two bad quarters there. And you got to say, well, you know, now I’m not going to go pre-med now. What else am I gonna do? And so what economics instead, and then I worked my way through there, we got married after we graduated, it was a recession. And you I worked my way through college in a hotel that was near the campus, the Claremont resort there. And so when there’s a recession, you’re looking for any kind of work, you’re looking at, what can you show on a resume, and I had some hotel background. So fortunately, we were out in Hawaii, and I found a job with Hyatt and I kind of worked my way up in the hotel business and, you know, I loved it. You know, hospitalities, kind of where I grew up with my father money. My family when we immigrated from Greece, my father worked his way up from a dishwasher, the Palmer House and ultimately became a restaurant manager that became a general manager with holiday ends. And he did a great, you know, he had a great successful career with them. So I kind of saw it, I kind of grew up in the industry. So that’s where I went through a career. But coming to UCLA, even though I started in the hospitality side here with Lake Arrowhead conference center, or Bruin Woods family resort for Bruin Woods, alumni, it started different, like I could see there’s so much more potential UCLA is just an amazing place. And when I interviewed here, I remember the person I interview with at the end, I said, you know, in a hotel business, you typically move every as a general manager I moved every two years is promotion my whole time to the different towns different moved all over so many different cities. And then a GM usually moves every five or six years, I would say, as my experience from what I saw colleagues doing. And when I study what happens at UCLA only have like arrowhead, the conference center here. I don’t know what, five, six years from now. And he said, Pete, at that time, there are 20,000 jobs at UCLA. I’m sure we’ll find something happened a lot faster than I thought. But it’s been a great ride. I’ve really enjoyed making that transition from not just hospitality, but also to learn, you know, kind of the university business environment. Let’s say that the scale is amazing. It’s mind boggling the scale that a university does. And the other thing that amazes me about the university is having that come in with a lot of experience in development and renovation work to the degree that we’re hiring architects, designers going through all that work. The university has so many great people that to help guide you and educate you and work with you and so much experience at the University that’s here already. that, you know, it could never happen, I could never have done this journey elsewhere. Just, it’s just a miraculous place. And it’s like a treasure hunt here a treasure hunt. Yeah, and if you look at our operation is something I talk to people very often about. It’s so complex, like the BruinPlate concept to do that number of covers with the execution that they do the technical execution that they do. If we were a typical hotel, you’re going to turn over about a 30 year staff every year. And at Bruin play in any university, we tend to have staff stay longer. And because we have staff stay, make careers with us stay with us, we can do things that are very complex that a typical, like place couldn’t do at that scale, because of the complexity of the whole chain host, supply chain production chain, to get to BruinPlate into any of our dining commons, everything, not just dining, but everything is really complex. Because we don’t have a lot of turnover, we can be complex. Yeah. Have you ever watched move in and move out? Here at the Oh, yeah. That’s a military operation. military operation? And the team does it. Like with no problems that are becoming less seamlessly? Yes, experience. There’s knowledge, continual training of the new people that do come on board.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:16

You can trust each other

Pete Angelis  26:17

And there’s a lot of trust. Yeah, that’s great. So it’s really unique or just a miraculous situation. I pinch myself every day coming to work, because so many ways I look at this place and marvel.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:29

You know, it’s really, I think, amazing about the way you operate Pete is that your ability to be a businessman but also to value parts of people’s lives that aren’t necessarily related to the bottom line with the knowledge that this is the right thing to do. And I mean, you you do that also, when you build building, tell me about the Luskin conference center because to me that epitomizes your vision of blending, health and well being and the environment and then a building that comes from the bottom up

Pete Angelis  27:06

On the Luskin conference center is the result of a generous gift from visionary people Meyer and Rini Laskin to make that project happen. And you know how fitting that that conference center is built at the very center of the very heart of campus. And one of the moves we made early on was we wanted to have this at least LEED Gold. And we succeeded in having a property that’s LEED Platinum. You know, 95% of the construction debris from the project was diverted from landfill. Over half of all the wood in that facilities sustainably harvest. Every meeting room has natural lighting. The lighting systems are highly energy efficient, are no tubs in the room, we have these beautiful showers, low water but high pressure. And there’s just so many different elements of making it a LEED project. So that I thought was fitting is that UCLA would welcome having a LEED building had it’s very hard, but it’s

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  28:09

And then the art.

Semel HCI  28:10

It was a miracle how all the art got gathered and installed. And every piece is Vicki Stealer. Past librarian here for the campus described that every piece had a destiny to be where it is in the facility. If anyone gets the opportunity to walk, just come into the campus walk through the lesson conference center. Look at the artwork. It’s all from faculty on the first floor. It’s all artwork, faculty that either currently teach at UCLA or have taught in the past. Many of them are in the Brode Museum at the LACMA we have an incredibly rich history of talented faculty that are artists. And you can see that all in one space on that ground level of the Alaskan. When you go above the ground level. There’s over 440 historic images of UCLA and walking the corridors up on the floors, walking the upstairs meeting space. You’re basically seeing the history of UCLA unfold visually through the archive of prints we’ve been able to assemble from the project. But it was it the amazing, probably most exciting project I’ve been able to be a part of in my career. And being a hotel person from the start. You don’t get those opportunities to get involved. From the moment the architect is brought on board and providing a program, seeing it constructed and opened and seeing the donor who made it happy with Mr. Meyer and Rainy Alaskan, be there at the opening with the chancellor and provost and do the ribbon cutting and see the joy of having them be able to see in his own lifetime that that property development. I’ll say this one I love this part of the story is that we had to go to all the different departments at UCLA to pitch this conference center and tell them why it’s important for UCLA. I always like to start with two images in the presentation one was a blimp photo and black and white of the original campus with the are the original four buildings of campus, right? You Powell library Royce Hall and the quad there and taken from a black, black and white. And the second image I show is the Google satellite image and color of the campus today with a huge medical enterprise, all the academic buildings, athletics, the residential part of campus, just how much that has all happened in the span of one lifetime. And when I told my Alaskan about these presentations, he said to me, Pete, he goes when I was a freshman at UCLA, it was just those four buildings. Whoa, that’s amazing to me. Wow. So it sounds like a big project. But this is like UCLA does this a breeze this it? That campus is continually transforming. And, you know, just great to be part of that one aspect of that one project and always the important place, at least that for me, when I look back in time at that property,

Pete Angelis  28:34

That just gets right back to like, how did you decide or what drives you to emphasize health and well being and also these other parts of your job that are, some people might consider ancillary or mission drift. I have to look at my upbringing, you know, my dad being Greek, or lived in Greece young. And I remember him, I used to always, like, want to study hard, and he was the one who always told me up, you know, it’s important, just be well balanced, maybe it is a great thing, or shows many cultures that share that. But you know, this importance of being balanced. So I like to work out hard, whether it’s lifting weights, or running, or eating healthy. But there’s this part, I work hard, and I never see one competing with the other because I just tried to, it’s just like, I’m just wired from my childhood, to just try to keep it as a balance, and just be happy. And I have confidence that everybody I work with is just, like really talented, very capable, and that we’re working on the right things, you’re focused on the right things. And we just keep focused, being focused on the right things and giving our best effort on it. And every year, our operation will continue to grow and be better and better.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:18

You know, I’ve heard you say a lot about your, you know, in the hospitality business, you expect people to go the extra mile or whatever. And it just What is your secret sauce? Pete? Because I see it? I mean, I see. And there’s not let not that much turnover with what you do. And hospitality traditionally has a bit of that stress or pressure?

Pete Angelis  32:40

Absolutely. And coming from the private sector. I didn’t know what the secret sauce of that thought I knew what the secret sauce is, I still talk to people in the private sector. I think they think they know what the secret sauce is. I learned secret sauce at UCLA. And what it is, to me, is the whole difference between a great hospitality operation average one or a good one is how readily people will go the extra mile. Right? And

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:08

So how do you get them to do that

Pete Angelis  33:10

That’s the magical question and the revelation that came to me at UCLA is hospital is all about caring, right? You at the very we’re looking at the personality traits, the branding traits of your organization, if you’re in hospitality, what’s the most important thing you have to have? And that is that the team members, all of them have to care. And if they don’t care, they’re never gonna go the extra mile? Well, how do you make them care? You have to interview and hire for that personality trait? For sure, that’s very important. But I think you can, you can make it happen by showing them that you care. I mean, you got to constantly talk to them about how they need to care for our students, how do we take care of our guests, but you need to show them to that you care about that about that? Yeah. And you know, perfect example, we’ll talk a moment about the Diabetes Prevention Program, our mentorship program, our many professional development programs that we do for them. So we provide him with so many different ways that they can grow personally and professionally, and constantly encourage them and help them along that way. And that is probably like the big connection I have to have with healthy campuses. What can I bring back to the team, right, that we can install that lets them know that we care about them. And what I’ve seen from this is, the more they sense that you care, the more engaged they will be. Right? And that’s the secret sauce is engagement and this diabetes prevention program where we learn from healthy campus initiative meeting, a steering committee meeting where we heard a presentation that the CDC saying that we’re on a global tsunami of type two diabetes, the financial impact on the health system, the economy that when added to a product Becker, diabetics, the human pain and loss and costs involved with it, it’s mind blowing. And then they hear from that presentation at that meeting, that if a person goes through 22 training sessions in a one year period, and these training sessions are not over an hour there, I think over the course that or maybe average close up 45 minutes, ballpark, they go through 22 training sessions, they reduce their proclivity for type two diabetes by over 50%, or 53,

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:30

or 58 58%, to be exact. But yeah, so

Pete Angelis  35:33

I did the quick math, we got 3000 team members, a third of them, according to the statistics, or the CDC statistics, we’ll be getting Type Two Diabetes, we put 1000 them through this program, we can get 500 from getting type two, we had our first group go will graduate here,

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:50

Huge retention rate of like 85 percept

Pete Angelis  35:53

Yeah amazing.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:53

And a lot of males, which is uncommon, actually for wellness programs.

Pete Angelis  35:57

And the results of what we’re seeing with them is either replicating or exceeding the results from the study the CDC, my study

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  36:04

I think so.

Pete Angelis  36:05

But to me, that was showing our team that we care about you that we’re going to provide you these training sessions over the course of a year.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  36:12

And then you’re doing it on paid time

Pete Angelis  36:14

And doing it – We’re paying for that time. I think it’s probably one of my goal on this. My hope is that over time, we will show that this is a great business investment. And we should be scaling this Yes. To not only just easily housing group, it should be scaled up to you. You see, yeah. Universities countrywide worldwide. Yes. And it’s, you know, I see the benefit and the kind of the unique thing, the, the secret sauce we got from that program, is I’m watching these groups going through the training. And it’s not just dining staff, we have dining people working with, with maintenance people, with some managers with a marketing person or two. And you have like a broad range of people, all in the same meeting, getting the same training, helping each other out as cohorts, and tear down barriers that brings people together and that you see engagement happen at that meeting. And I you know, I see this and I, it’s the same thing we were talking about with you get a freshmen class comes through, they go through the system they graduate. We’re gonna do this year after year after year, and over time, these team members, they’ll have a healthier life, we can prevent over half of them getting from type two diabetes, and I look back to my career that’d be the thing I’m most proud of most happy of being affiliated with any project is that

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:35

It gives me that makes me feel so good just to hear you

Pete Angelis  37:38

It gives me the goose Yeah, talk to him I you know, I have I talked to one person he’s a manager or mains group dropped 40 pounds is a one C level drops so far that he stopped taking insulin. And I didn’t even think that was possible for a type two diabetic. Wow. And just so inspiring. And I tell me, one of our personality traits we do branding on is we want to be pioneers are innovative. And they’re being our pioneers. They’re that first group to go through.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  38:07

They took the dive, their eyes closed.

Pete Angelis  38:11

They sure did. And so proud of what they’ve done and, and when you talk to them, and you see him the smile they give you when they’re in that meeting, I’ll work in the gather. I mean, that doesn’t get your juices flowing to go to work. I don’t know what it is and, and I That’s the secret sauce. And I think you’ll feel that when you go into Luskin conference center. You’ll feel that as a parent, when you come to UCLA, I’m Bruin Day and you come up on the hill and you go to any of the dining commons, you see our housekeeping staff, you see our culinary team, you see our grounds crew, just look at that. I think being hospitality. First thing, I look for smiles and eye contact. And I invite anybody on the Hill, anybody in the lesson conversation, you can’t take two steps into that building without getting smiles and eye contact. And we’ve got the secret sauce. And we learned here at UCLA.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  38:59

And doing that it’s really innovative for a business to take it on and pay for people’s time to do it. I mean, I that’s one thing that wellness programs or well being programs have often been offered. But you know, time off, or lunchtime or having it during work time actually respects their time as well there.

Pete Angelis  39:21

It’s more than just time, you know, we got to care about the people we work with. I have a son who’s a type one diabetic, he had no choice in the matter and I see how much the disease impacts his life, you know, on what he can do what it can all these impacts, and he’s gonna have it for his entire life. And you realize that a third of our population is on that track. And, you know, people don’t deal with the problem. It’s just gonna get worse, that’s for

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  39:53

sure. And what’s really good, it’s almost a full circle conversation because but you’ve also with this particular further program have invited our researchers on campus to look at the social well being impact of this program on your staff and or team members. That to me is I, I picked up a couple of things, your nomenclature is so respectful. So you don’t use the word staff use team don’t use always dining hall instead of cafeteria.

Pete Angelis  40:23

Yeah, I don’t like the word employee. Yeah, just by saying it, you’re, you’re casting a person in a like in a different light than you’re calling them as they are. They’re a team member or in it. Yeah. And I hate the word customer. I mean, a customer is very transactional, saying, Who buys a soda beverage gives you cash and just maybe at a gas station goes. I mean, there’s, you’re not looking for a guest experience in the hotel? Well, it’s an experience. It’s a deeper level. I mean, we’re responsible for their health, their well being their safety. Yeah, it’s a deeper obligation. So we always refer to them as, our guests or residents, our students. Definitely not customers,

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  41:03

Right, and team members. So I noticed those sort of details, which are all all add up to some message subliminal message of carrying,

Pete Angelis  41:13

The message has to be every day that’s really, we can’t do announce something once a year or twice a year. It’s not gonna it’s got to be a drumbeat that happens every day. And, and hopefully, we’re all singing that same message and believing and it’s more important, and I definitely believe in. You know, that’s another thing with healthy campus that just the Healthy Campus Institute HCI constantly gives me this reinforced belief that there’s something we can do. And it’s, why are we doing it and I go back to that point, a lot of the stuff we don’t do is because we’re not aware, right. And I think that’s the beauty of what you do for UCLA, and what the potential of this institute over time, is increasing awareness outside of just those who at UCLA will participate with this group, and bringing more people together that are focused on wellness, right, so they can share the message and make people aware, when I talked to that DPP group, that diabetes prevention group, our team members, one person told me lost 10 pounds in the first month. So what was what was the worst and he said, I had a refrigerator full of sugary beverages. And I didn’t realize how many ounces of a sugary beverage I would drink every day. So DPP, we just switched it, and I lost weight. My kids have lost weight, my wife, my family is like we’re like just that one move, total awareness that they weren’t aware of what they were consuming in terms of calories, and sugar. So that perfect example just raising the level of awareness.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  42:51

Like, just to me what’s really cool about our experience here and working with you, Pete and the university is this researchers and academics and also physicians, often they have challenges to translate their knowledge and their research and communicate it to the broader population or, or influence the influencers. And having people like you be exposed to the researchers in nanoseconds, you can translate Yes, what is happening, which is like, I mean, it’s like heaven for everybody. I mean, it’s heaven for the, you know, researchers and the, and the scientists and the practitioners definitely operator AND operator. I mean, it’s like, this is like a magical. And here we are at a university where all this is happening. We’re a little mini city. And we’ve got the experts, the experts didn’t have the opportunity to share it with our own people in our own backyard, which is what’s happening. Yes. And you translate. Yeah. And you translated your experience to UC San Diego, thanks to you, they’re going to have a DPP program because their dining, their dining group, were afraid to do it. But because your dining group did, they felt Oh, well, we could probably do it.

Pete Angelis  44:13

Well, we’re all the UCs. I mean, we’re here to help move the needle right from now on in so many different areas and HCI the network that over the campus network, yeah, how that how that network builds over the years, that’s gonna get stronger and stronger. And I love that the thought that the chancellor made this proclamation, the Semels made a commitment to make this happen. And, and he can just see it’s just not a short term short lived.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  44:44

Right? Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? I mean, they, again, it gets back to this sense of patience and understanding that things don’t you know, you don’t have immediate change or you got to take risks.

Pete Angelis  44:57

We talked earlier about the whole thing about them. Adding the university’s vetting. And what I what I love about if I can see in the future with HCN is the vetting over time is going to show that this is a real positive thing for each of these campuses to not only embrace but to really be active in implementing as many things that university can that touch people make their work experience while at campus or their study their student experience a campus healthier and better, you can see it’s just not something that’s been a one year program to your program. This is something that will evolve over years and years and years. And I think you said it’d be a different place 10 years from now than it is today and a healthier place, a far healthier place.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  45:42

That’s right. And we can then also learn, I mean, I think you and I learned a lot from UC San Francisco, and their removal of sugar sweetened beverages and how they handled that and how it can be an evolution not a revolution, how we can enhance our own healthy beverage.

Pete Angelis  46:00

There’s another example. I mean, we talked earlier about private sector, my private sector experience, you don’t share your business secrets and the private sectors, you guard them. That’s your intellectual property rights. That’s your that’s your competitive advantage. Right? You don’t share that. In our world, we are so eager to share everything. That’s right. That’s the beauty of another thing about the academic world is like, we’re here to share knowledge, right? Or experiences, things that happen well, and things that maybe we’ve got to redo a different way. And that’s really been fun to watch this HCM, I can see how that’s gonna grow just by how knowledge gets shared from campus to campus. Yeah. And then the fun thing, going back to scalability, it’s not just the UC’s, I mean, we have this right. So a lot of college campuses,

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  46:44

Cal States and community colleges. Yeah.

Pete Angelis  46:46

Then you see how, like the evolution of how sustainability happened, and was really grassroots driven? Was students really pushing that?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  46:53

That’s right.Oh, well, it’s really related to health and well, exactly. I mean, we can’t be healthy without a healthy planet.

Pete Angelis  47:00

Yeah, it’s a joy to be involved.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  47:03

You’re right. Well, you know, I guess I’d love you to leave all our listeners like what would be your vision for the future, like what would be your ideal scenario that you’d like to see happening here at UCLA or on a college campus and then percolate out to the community?

Pete Angelis  47:20

First and foremost, our primary mission is to complete the CLAS transition from a commuter campus to a residential campus. And I grew up seeing UCLA many, many years ago, or everybody drove a car into the 405. To get to campus, get, in my opinion, can’t be premier world class, academic institution, unless you have a residential campus, I firmly believe it because I see with my own eyes, students learn so much, not only in the classroom, but outside of the classroom, in a residential environment. So I think, why do you think they learn, I think they learn a lot of life skills, they make lifelong friends, they, they learn interpersonal skills, that opens the doors to so much because we can make impacts to their environment. And that’s our secondary mission. So our secondary mission is to create environments that empower people to reach their fullest potential. And when we say people, it’s not just our students, or our guests or residents, it’s also our staff. And this is where I think we’ve come perfectly in line with HCI is what elements that we can learn that we can employ in the hill in terms of design in terms of services, in terms of programs that really make everybody involved with that area thrive. And so that’s what I’m, you know, I’m looking for that Eudaimonia living a life of purpose and meaning. Exactly, exactly. And having that fostered through the environment that students live in. I think that’s the that’s your goal. That’s my goal. Yeah. I’m sticking to it. Yes.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  49:01

Well, I think that we are turning out the future parents and leaders of our community in our country, and our world. I’m UCLA. So a world that needs great leaders, that’s for sure. And really are pursuing a life of meaning and purpose. So thank you, Pete. Is there anything else you want to share?

Pete Angelis  49:19

Thank you for your leadership, your vision, the assembles vision for healthy campus and just thinking you thinking UCLA for the opportunity, a part of the team that tries to move the needle? Yeah. Thank you all.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  49:33

Thanks, Pete. Because you know, with your vision, your partnership and your ability to take ideas and translate them into action and nanoseconds to me is what is brought Semel HCI to where we are today and it continues to just amaze me how you can translate and see how programs and work that is being researched or published from our great scientists here. How it can really be applied to practical, you know, settings like where the work you do.

Pete Angelis  50:06

Some may have a great team or talent. They inspire me great too. So yeah, they’re they’re the ones who

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  50:13

Oh, right on team.

Semel HCI  50:16

Thank you again for joining us. For more information about today’s episode, visit our website@healthy.ucla.edu backslash live well podcasts. today’s podcast was brought to you by the Seminole healthy campus initiative Center at UCLA. To stay up to date with our episodes, subscribe to UCLA live well on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Leave us a rating to tell us how we’re doing. And if you think you know the perfect person for us to interview next, please tweet your idea to us at healthy UCLA. Have a wonderful rest of your day. And we hope you join us for our next episode as we explore new perspectives on health and well being

#43: Food through Storytelling with Joseph Nagy

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:02

Today we are going on a journey through space and time, we will be exploring food through stories and folklore. The stories we tell the stories we hear have the ability to transport us to a different time in place. Join us in our conversation with UCLA emeritus professor, Dr. Joseph Nagy about the symbolisms of food and folklore, specifically medieval Celtic folklore, Dr. Nagy’s research and work aligned with the greater purpose to keep oral traditions alive. That means telling stories. He believes in interdisciplinary dialogues, and has been a great advocate for ensuring literature and ancient texts remain in the current academic dialogues of today. Join us as we explore the centrality of food and storytelling through events from the grim such as the Irish Potato Famine, to the whimsical, such as the baking and sharing of gingerbread figures.  Hello Joseph, thank you so much for being on our live well podcast today. I’d like to start our conversation off by talking about food scarcity and how it relates to stories. Food scarcity has been such a prevalent issue over the centuries. I mean, think about Marie Antoinette famously sang let them eat cake when there was no bread to be eaten in France at the time. Why do you think that people are focused more on food scarcity, as opposed to food abundance and stories?

Dr Nagy  01:33

Well, remember, I’m also very much interested in Irish tradition. And of course, in the mid 19th century, there was the Irish famine, and Irish folklorists have done wonderful work on stories that were still being collected from survivors of the famine, or from the children of survivors of the famine, in the early 20th century. And the fascinating thing is, is that there are stories told about the famine, and about how terrible it was. But the people in the stories that people tell, are never the ones who are actually starving, that the premise of the stories is very often that we in our village, we were fine. But then this poor shell of a human being came to our village, and her family had died or his family had died. And we essentially took this person in and we fed this person and the person went on. So in the case of those famines stories, it’s not so much even about the impact of the famine upon the individuals telling the story, but about how people responded to the famine. And if you want to be cynical about it, it’s a very self serving kind of story, because it suggests that number one, we were provided for. And number two, we were very good to the people who had to go without. So it’s a way to remind ourselves not just about the importance of food, but also about the importance of human connection and social connection. And of there being situations where even if it’s a complete stranger, you have to be hospitable. And in many cultures, including Irish culture, hospitality is one of the prime areas of concern. And to be hospitable is one of the most important values within the value system. And oftentimes being hospitable, even to strangers. And that’s interesting, because we sometimes think of pre modern cultures as being very isolated and very paranoid about people from the outside and so forth. But I don’t think that’s true. Or it may be true to some extent, but there are these cultural forces that are working against that, or that are trying to overcome that kind of fear of the stranger. And many of these stories having to do with the lack of food, end up in a situation where the person lacking food, receives food from someone who does have it, and then that person is sometimes supernaturally rewarded. If we go back to the world of fairy tales, for example, very often the hero, or the heroine receives that magic power or that magic Assist, which makes it possible for the hero or heroine to reach that happy ending. Because she or he was kind to someone and shared food,

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:24

Right, or Snow White or you get poisoned.

Dr Nagy  04:27

Well, again, know that that’s the darker side of it. Yes, yes. And of course, she’s being poisoned by someone who, in the version of the story, as told in the Grimm collection is her stepmother. Yeah. So again, it’s this tight relationship with within the nuclear family, and how that is sometimes not reliable. And how sometimes people turn against each other even in that kind of situation. So yes, there is that realism or even that cynicism you sometimes see and stories, but there’s also that hope, that when push comes to shove it People are going to be generous, right? And that they will do the right thing.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:05

You are an Irish folklorists? And how did that come about with your Hungarian background? Like what drew you to the Irish? Versus? Hungarian

Dr Nagy  05:17

I’m not sure it was the food. Though I’ve always thought that the characterization of the Irish and of Irish restaurants and of Irish home cooking as being boring, is very unfair. Because in fact, I’ve had wonderful food in Ireland whenever I’ve gone for a visit, and the bread and the milk, even in these more modern times when all the dairies have been consolidated. And bread is being made more centrally, as opposed to individual little base shops through the country. The still the food is quite wonderful, the basic food, the basic food, but I wanted to go into a field where I was in love with the material, but that it was not actually part of my own background. How come? In part because I think I wanted to have that objective distance. And that’s something I have with with Irish material, because yes, I am in love with it. And why are you in love with it, because it’s so wonderfully imaginative. And there’s so much of it. And there’s so few people working on Irish material. In Ireland. Well, there’s there’s only one Celtic department and that’s the one I’m at. There are some Irish studies programs, however, but they tend to be focused on more modern Irish affairs and topics. I’m very interested in the Irish Middle Ages, extraordinary period of creativity, of bringing together different strands of the Western medieval tradition with pre Christian with Christian with innovative concepts and ideologies coming into play, and also the remarkably cheeky idea, which probably occurred to the Irish first of all, and this is in after the fall of the Roman Empire and after the glorious period of Greek and Latin literature. Basically, Latin was the language of literature in Western Europe. And the Irish came up with this brilliant invention of a written form of their own language, using the Latin alphabet, which was perhaps not ideally suited to conveying the sounds of Irish. But it was a remarkably bold step to take. And not only to creating this vernacular Irish for writing purposes, but producing this vast literature, which includes a lot of native material, a lot of innovative material. For several centuries, despite all kinds of political and military pressures coming from the outside. You have the invasion of the Normans in the 12th century. Before that, you had the Vikings wreaking havoc. And then later during the Tudor period, the attempt on the part of the English crown to basically subjugate the Irish. But throughout all this period, there’s this wonderful literary activity going on in a huge body, which fortunately has actually survived, for us to enjoy for us to learn from, for us to edit it to translate and to try to figure out. So there’s a lot there. Unfortunately, as you said, it’s not an area that is that explored in the academic world. And I’m not sure I would recommend it to students unless they really have a passionate attachment to this, because there aren’t too many jobs in Celtic studies. And here at UCLA, for example, I was hired as a folklorist, I was not hired as Celticist.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:38

So what is that? What’s the difference between that folklorists versus Celticist?

Dr Nagy  08:43

Well, a folklorist compares. So a folklorist oftentimes has some base of operations has some kind of lab, shall we say some culture where the folklore is of special interest. And by the way, for me, folklore is almost synonymous with oral tradition. So it’s what doesn’t necessarily get written down, or that which in many cases lies behind what does get written down in oral tradition operates in a very different way from written tradition. And oral tradition, even in some ways has a different etiology. From what you see in written tradition. It’s a little bit like comparing what we save versus what we actually are willing to put into print. So folklorist, you compare, so you don’t limit yourself to one particular culture. As a Celticist, I do limit myself to specifically medieval Irish literature, and looking at that as a reflection of medieval Irish oral tradition, and also a precursor to modern Irish oral tradition, which is still alive and well, and which has been amply recorded by Irish folklorists in the 19th and 20th centuries. I’m very much interested in storytelling. And I don’t think I’m relying too much on a cliche to say that the Irish are master and have been master stories tellers?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:00

Oh, I was just thinking that I mean, all the Irish friends of mine, I just can sit for hours in the evening to hear their stories.

Dr Nagy  10:09

The gift of God, yes.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:10

Yeah. I mean, how do people become good storytellers? I mean, what is what? How does that happen that this cultural group of people or have this talent?

Dr Nagy  10:21

Well, I think we see that with other cultures too, is that there’s a premium put on developing your verbal skills, and developing a rhetorical style, which catches people’s attention where you can maintain people’s attention with a good story, and a story, which is a good story, in part because of how you tell it. I think we find that in, in Irish culture, I think we also find that to a great extent in African American culture, where again, there’s a great deal of emphasis placed upon being a good talker, appreciating the power of the spoken word, to influence people. It’s also something that comes through in various career or professional areas, we as teachers, now you are, of course, a master teacher, I’m just still learning. But teachers very often use stories in order to bring the students into what they want them to be thinking about. Preachers, people in religious situations, again, they very often are especially successful if they can also also tell a story well, so telling a story well is wonderful for its own sake. But it’s also a way to, to bring up larger issues to exert a kind of control. And usually, we hope of beneficial control over people, of course, it can also be used for, for bad purposes. And we can all think of politicians who use stories to encourage wrong thinking. So there is also that, of course, we humans, very interested in stories, and we like to hear stories.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:54

And is that what you would when you referred to the fact that you were attracted to Celtic literature, because of the creativity? Was it when you define creativity? How do you define that?

Dr Nagy  12:05

Very good question. Part of the the fascination that this material holds for me, the medieval Irish materialist, is really the narrative material that we find in it is that sometimes hard to find the punch line, sometimes hard to figure out what the story is actually getting at. Or you have the feeling that this story is being addressed to people who already know the story. So you’re just hitting the highlights. And so it becomes a detective work really, to try to figure out what the missing gaps are in the story, or to try to figure out what the clues are in the story that give you a clearer sense of what the story is really all about. So for example, if you have a story that consists of 100 lines of text, which would probably only take a few minutes to tell if in that text, which is survived in a medieval Irish manuscript, if you find the same word, or the same element of a word, being repeated more than once being repeated several times, that may well be a clue as to what the story is about. And so you focus on that. And you think about that, and you, you consider what the significance of that word is, and also what the significance of that word is for the narrative situation that’s being presented. And it’s a technique that’s been used by scholars in the last century. And some of us still find that to be a very effective way to try to crack the nut that lies within the story, you’re cracking the code? Well, we Yes, we are trying to crack the code. And the code is one that is doubly encoded, because of course, there’s first the language and I the Irish language, is not an easy language at all, and especially medieval Irish, which is different from modern Irish. But medieval Irish is a very, very, it’s a beautifully complex language. So there’s, there’s that code which we as non speakers that medieval Irish have to break through. And knowing modern Irish helps. But again, modern Irish is quite different from the evil Irish, in the same way than modern English is different from Old English or even from most Middle English. So you have to crack the code of the language. And then once you’re inside it, and once you sort of understand what the language is saying, there still is the language of symbols, the language of metaphors and the language of illusion, which, which then you have to figure out, there’s also another school of thought, according to which much of this has to do with contemporary politics of the Middle Ages in Ireland, and that these references to Kings into saints into heroes and so forth, are actually encoded references to historical figures at the time when that text was produced. And I think sometimes that’s taken too far, because I’m not sure that that’s necessarily the only thing that the story is about or doing. There’s this one very delightful medieval Irish tale for example, which has to do with a poor student who decides to become a professional poet, because professional poets are successful, and they have prestige, and they’re given all kinds of gifts, it’s much better than being a student in some drafty monastery. So he leaves the monastery and he goes off to become a poet. And he ends up on the other side of Ireland, in the court of a king, who has been magically affected, so that he eats everything in sight. And this is a people not he does not go so far as to be cannibalistic, but he eats all the food that’s available. And that’s a very bad way for a medieval Irish King to be because the medieval Irish King is supposed to be someone who offers feasts to people. And kings, of course, also can expect hospitality in return, but kings are supposed to provide food, they’re also supposed to have this magical affinity with nature, so that if the king is a good king, then the crops will come in on time, the harvest will be plentiful, the fruit, the trees will bear fruit, and so forth, and so on. So here you have this king who used to be a good king. But because he struck by this magical disease inflicted upon him by a rival by an enemy, he’s become this omnivore. So the poet comes to him. And the poet realizes the reason why he’s like that, and how this magic is working, is that there’s a little demon inside him, which is actually the one with the ravenous appetite. And he has to somehow lower that demon out of the king’s mouth. And he does this by telling a story by telling a long, long story about how he supposedly in a vision he had at night, went to a land which was made out of food. And here it becomes this fantastic adventure where the walls are made of butter. The sausages are are decorations on people’s bodies, and so forth. And even the people he meats are, in fact, edible. So there, we almost get that hint of cannibalism in while he’s telling you this story. He’s also conducting a barbecue with pieces of meat on a spit. And he’s doing this all in front of the king, who meanwhile, has been tied up, so that he can’t actually approach the food that the former student, now poet and storyteller is telling him. And finally, the demon inside just can’t stand it any longer. So he comes in, he actually does leap out from the mouth of the king, in order to get the food. But our hero then quickly finds a cauldron and pops it on top of the demon, and then exorcise the demon. So there’s a very strong Christian element here to exorcise the demon so that it goes back to wherever it came from. And the king now is fine. So it’s fascinating in that story, how you’ve got a problem with food. And the solution is to use food as a kind of weapon, or to use the process of cooking food, a kind of weapon, but also storytelling, about how storytelling can gather storytelling can attract the attention even of a sinister demon from another world. So you can’t beat material like that. You can’t.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:21

I mean, that’s, that’s tremendous. And did someone cracked the code on that? Or was that more obvious that story

Dr Nagy  18:28

We’re getting there. And I’ve written about it somewhat. Some colleagues have also written about it. This is another great thing about medieval Irish literature, this text has been translated has been fairly well edited. But there really isn’t that much that’s been written about it. So probably, you could cover what’s been written about it in two, three hours. And there’s so much left to say, and there’s so much left to explore. It’s actually a rather lengthy text. And so you don’t have that feeling which you have in other academic fields, where you come up with a brilliant idea, some brilliant insight or interpretation of a text, and then you find out that someone’s already published this 50 years ago. So that doesn’t happen so much in the study of medieval Irish or other medieval Celtic literature’s

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:15

So what are you the most proud of, in terms of you cracking the code in a story?

Dr Nagy  19:22

Well, I’m not sure if I’ve really cracked the code yet. But I think probably what I’m best known for, is for having brought to the foreground of scholarly discussion over the last 30 years or so, a body of story, which centers on a figure called Finn F-I-N-N and who, in the earliest strata of medieval Irish literature doesn’t appear very much. But then starting in the 12th century, more and more of the texts that are written in the stories that are told in these texts have to do with this hero Finn, and with the other heroes associated with him, and in part because of the lack of reference to Finn in pre 12th century Irish literature, not as much attention I think had been paid to him as two other heroes who have a longer shelf life or who, who have an older pedigree. And we have characters like this and other Celtic traditions too. So for example, the figure of King Arthur, in British Celtic tradition, even though this is a story that’s not told in any British Celtic source, it’s only told in French and English sources and so forth. But it’s probably coming from a Celtic source. We all know the story about the sword in the stone, yes, that the young Arthur has to remove this sword from the stone, and that demonstrates he’s king. And then he’s off on his heroic career, even though in fact, most stories that are part of the Arthurian cycle, don’t really have that much to do with Arthur himself, they have more to do with the knights in his court.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:52

That’s right.

Dr Nagy  20:53

Now, in the case of Finn, he becomes the leader of this band of heroes. But he too, like Arthur doesn’t actually play that major, a role in many of the stories. It’s really the other characters who take the central roles in the story. So he’s more of a leader figure someone in the background. But we do have this story about him in his about his fan in his youth, and about how he came into his own. And it has to do with, he’s still in hiding from his enemies. He’s still a very young man or a boy. And he is helping a poet who is waiting for a salmon to come down the Boyne River, which has been prophesied as the salmon which once this poet eats this salmon, he will have all the knowledge that a poet would wish to have

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:45

Power Food

Dr Nagy  21:46

And BrainFood too, It’s fish, right. And of course, I read salmon is delicious. So the salmon finally arrives in the public knows this is it. So he catches it, he’s fishing and he catches it. And he gives it to His servant who happens to be Finn at the time still incognito, to cook it for him. And that’s the big mistake.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:07

I know it sounds like Finn might eat it.

Dr Nagy  22:09

Well he doesn’t he doesn’t eat it. But the the poet says, I want you to cook this so that it is absolutely perfect while finished cooking it this blister and he’s cooking it on a spit. This blister emerges on the side of the salmon. And he thinks all without blister. My master will say that this is not a perfectly cooked fish. So he presses his thumb down on it and pressing his thumb down on the blister. The hot juice inside, goes on to his thumb and burns it. So he does what many of us might do in that kind of situation. He puts it in his mouth. And by so doing he ingests that essence of knowledge, which was  contained in the fish  That was supposed to go to the Poet that was supposed to go to the poet. Now in this earliest telling of the story, which is from the 12th century, the poet is actually a very good sport. And he says to Finn whose name is sort of not yet Finn. He says to him, Well, you must be the one that the prophecy was about. So why don’t you take my name which happens to be Finn.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  23:16

Ah ha.

Dr Nagy  23:17

So this is the story of how Finn obtained the special wisdom, how he became a master poet, and also how he acquired the name Finn. In later tellings of the story that we have from oral tradition. It’s not really a poet anymore. It’s a giant for whom he’s cooking this fish and boys, the giant mad he tries to, to capture a fan who realizes what’s happening and runs away. But of course, Finn succeeds in killing the giant and maintaining possession of this wisdom. So he’s a hero, who is a poet, and possessor of knowledge, but he’s also a warrior. He’s also a leader, he’s also a hunter. He’s also a lover. He’s a very complex figure. And my first book, The Wisdom of the Outlaw, was essentially about that particular story, and about how that particular story and Other Stories having to do with this hero and cooking reverberate throughout the whole cycle of stories that developed in later medieval Irish literature, and also are still to be found in the oral tradition of Irish storytellers. Probably still today. This is a character who is very well known in modern popular culture In Ireland, and there still are storytellers who are telling stories about this character. A lot of them have to do with food, with his special thumb of knowledge. By the way, he he activates this knowledge by chewing his thumb.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:40

Hmm. I wonder what you think about thinking about your own life as a fairy tale. And I was thinking it you started with your mom and your grandmother’s cooking and you’re actually living in your house where you grew up, and traveled to Harvard at 16 going to college, and now you’re traveling to Harvard, as a Celtic chair and teaching at the same institution, and I wonder, do you sometimes think about that like as a full circles fairy tale, in a way,

Dr Nagy  25:14

In many folktales, the hero or heroine does go back home more so in the case of heroes than in the case of heroines, because in so many cultures, for women, when they are married and live happily ever after, have to do so in the homes of their in laws, or in the homes of their of their husbands. And that connection with home, with their own home and their own childhood is not maintained or cannot be maintained as much. But in many, many stories, especially the youngest son, goes back home, and then takes over the kingdom.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:50

Are you the youngest?

Dr Nagy  25:51

I am the youngest of four boys. But I have some pretty intense competition, because I have two brothers who are also academics, they’re both professors. And one of them is actually at Harvard. And one of the great things about going back home, so to speak, is the chance to have even more of a connection with my brothers than I had when I was living in California. It’s it’s also … there’s a lot of competition there. Because especially the our my oldest brother, Gregory, who is a humorist, and a classicist, he is just remarkable. And he, he, he’s, he’s considerably older than I am. And he was very much like a father figure to me. And I, when I say he taught me everything I know, it’s not an exaggeration, he really was a very, very good mentor to me growing up, and you just can’t help doing that of comparing yourself and comparing your work to that of your older siblings.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:47

You never grow out of it, huh?

Dr Nagy  26:48

And brother number two, brother number two Blaze, he also is a classicist, and he’s now retired. But there are two, it’s just a very looming figure in my life, and someone who has been both a role model but also someone by to measure yourself and to measure your own success by this wonderful term, we use nostalgia, which originated as a medical term. And it means in Greek pain having to do with home, specifically with leaving home. And in the early modern period, this was used by physicians as a way of as a diagnosis for a problem that young people would have when they left home for work or for various reasons. And they missed their families, they missed their place where they grew up, and so forth. And I think even well, into the 19th century, this was considered to be a medical condition, which would require medical attention. And one of the earliest doctors to write about this said that one good cure is to have them sing the folk songs of where they came from. That will, that will comfort them, and make them think about home as being more immediate than it seems to be. But the funny thing about the word nostalgia is the way that we use it now in in current times, and have been using it for several decades, is that what you’re missing is not so much home, but the past. And of course, home does have to do with the past, we can go to Wizard of Oz, or any number of Twilight Zone episodes and see how that operates is that you’re you’re not just missing the people, you’re not just missing the place. You’re also missing that time, and you’re developing this romantic sense of the good old days. And you sort of want to go back into the good old days. And I would say that one lesson that we learned from both the film material we’ve been talking about from Ireland, but in general from from folklore is that it is important to maintain some connection with home, and home in all three senses of of people, place and time. I as a person who deals primarily with medieval culture, I don’t think of that as putting me out of touch with the modern times at all. I think I think of it as in effect going back home, and bringing things into the present which we may have forgotten, or which we can use be reminded of it also, is a way of vindicating the past which we sometimes one of the things I really hate is when people talk about something being from the Middle Ages, as if that were something horrible. And the Middle Ages had wonderful things about it as well as terrible things about it. And the same can be said about modern times. And we have we have much to learn about the Middle Ages and we can apply that knowledge to what we what we have today in our world. So that’s in a way, going home in a more broad sense, and a way of going home that at least for me justifies what I do and makes what I do seem to me and I hope to others as well. very important. What you mentioned about Finn and value of putting the value of poet and knowledge in somebody who’s also a fierce warrior, we could learn a lot from that. In our day and age, I also have reminiscent of the comedies that come around about when people transplant people from the Middle Ages time to now, and I don’t know if you ever saw the movie Late Visitor, where they have all this food in their mouth and, and their habits, you know, grabbing the mutton and eating it by hand. So, you know, the, the, the customs of the time, mostly related to food actually, are quick can be quite comedic compared to ours. But I’m sure if we had to go back, if we went back and brought our food, you know, habits to the medieval time, they would probably find it like extraordinary that we pour water in a cup, and it has all this sort of synthetic food to eat every day at lunchtime, or whatever it might be. Have you thought about those kinds of

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:58

Well we’re still using too much sugar? Yeah, that’s right, which was also characteristic of wealthier diet in the Middle Ages, because sugar was a very valuable import. So you would be using it just to show off the fact that you have the wherewithal to obtain this precious import from afar. Though I suspect they also had beet sugar. But of course, cane sugar would be the kind of sugar you would want to have. So yeah, I think I think we could we could find some things in common. Maybe more of us are vegetarians today. But roasted meat is still something that’s very popular today, and certainly was popular back then. Yeah. And the eating habits too, I think are interesting comparison as well like how people ate, then versus now is there any sort of reference to that in the work you’ve done?

Dr Nagy  31:57

There isn’t much sense of forks. Though there though there is this fascinating implement known as a flesh fork, or that’s how the word is translated, which is in fact a very old, it goes back to a very old indo European root. Celtic languages, including Irish are part of the larger family of languages known as indo European, and indo European languages are attested as early as maybe even the second millennium BCE. And so there’s this word in Irish, which describes an implement that you use to plunge it into a cauldron of boiling meat, you fish out a piece of meat with it. And there are some traditions according to which you only have one shot at the cauldron. So go with the flesh fork, that’s what you’ve got. And, and that, in fact, reflects upon your heroic nature, or the lack of a heroic nature, depending on what you what you can get out of the cauldron. But the knives are important spoons are also important. And we and we see references to those and there might also be, I don’t – there was eating with hands, there were implements that you would use and of course, the love of vessels, and various kinds of vessels in which to drink out of which to drink was also very much appreciated.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:18

So I think the end this with like, the fact that you have this amazing amount of knowledge regarding our world and worlds before it. And from the alternate meaning of bread rising and Celtic passages to the Latin origins of words, and their meanings tied with food. What is your one favorite lesson to teach about food?

Dr Nagy  33:37

Well, one lesson I would impart, which is actually something that was brought to mind this morning with my wife, Martha. We were we were eating at McDonald’s, I have to confess. But we were in a hurry. And she was reminiscing about a novel by Louisa May Alcott, the great American writer in the 19th century, Eight Cousins. And she was wondering about this passage where the heroine meets her cousins who are out there in the Midwest. And their mother refers to the boys is very healthy. And I think healthy there in the sense of not just healthy, but also very lively as young young people can be, and she says, because they’re so healthy, there’s no hot bread, and no fried food for them. And she was wondering about that and thinking whether this was a reflection of Louisa May Alcott or her father Bronson’s eating habits, Bronson Alcott was very much caught up in fads. In the 19th century, some of them involving food, and the idea and actually how contemporary that sounds you shouldn’t eat too many carbs and things that would raise your cholesterol level. But my conjecture was is that this may be a reference to a very common idea we see in many cultures, where children are thought to be very hot in their nature and in their fluids. And so if if you want to keep them from becoming too difficult, you try to cool them down, you give them cold foods as opposed to hot foods. So then maybe that’s being reflected in this curious comment by a character in a mid 19th century American novel. So these attitudes about about food and about good foods and bad foods and so forth, very often are plugging into other important idealogical concepts such as what is a child? And what constitutes the nature of childhood? And how do you get how do you cook, children. And you’ll notice in that case, there’s this the idea that actually children are already cooking themselves, because they’re so hot. And so you don’t want this to over. You don’t want it to overflow and you don’t want them to be burnt, burnt out before their time. So these kinds of assumptions, so often play a role in literature and oral tradition, still very much in our own time, it’s so fascinating to see how, again, talking with students and talking about students in their various ethnic backgrounds, and to see what kinds of concepts there are about food, I wouldn’t go so far as to say as they’re teaching us lessons, I always hate that when we talk about folklore, or when we talk about culture as if it were some gigantic class in which we’re being taught things, no offense to us as academics. But still, there is a way in which there are these messages being put out there for us to maybe on some subconscious, or even unconscious level to pick up on that can affect our behavior, it can affect our Arctic,

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  36:44

I feel that you’ve given me a perspective about food that will actually enhance the work I do here at UCLA with students because all these students are coming from so many different cultures, and storytelling cultures. And it sounds based on what you’ve just shared with me how much food is intertwined in those stories. And that really will change or, or create different perspectives on food, and how you deal with it and how you even manage to cook it or not cook it or, and what it means to people. And that might actually even ultimately help people’s nostalgia, when they come to school to be less nostalgic, because they might be less homesick if they have the foods that remind them of home.

Dr Nagy  37:33

That’s all. That’s all wonderful.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:35

Any anything else you’d like to add? Before we wrap up?

Dr Nagy  37:38

It’s nice the way this conversation is gone. Because the two favorite courses I’m teaching one is what is called Food and Fantasy, which I’ll be teaching at UCLA again. In fact, in the spring,  Ooh, how exciting. Oh, for undergrads, or graduates,  Undergraduates, but graduate students are of course, of course welcome.  And the other favorite course is The Art of Storytelling.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  38:02

So are you teaching that here

Dr Nagy  38:03

These things are coming together. No, no, that one that one’s actually newer, and I’m teaching that for the first time at Harvard?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  38:10

Oh, you make that an online course I’d like to take that  You are kind. The Art of Storytelling. I do. I really love

Dr Nagy  38:18

You may take my course if I may take your courses.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  38:23

And I’m going to share with you some of the stories my grandfather wrote down about his experiences, one of which is about a thunder mug. And we’ll leave it at that for next time. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Semel HCI  38:41

Thank you again for joining us. For more information about today’s episode, visit our website@healthy.ucla.edu backslash live well podcasts. today’s podcast was brought to you by the SEMO healthy campus initiative Center at UCLA. To stay up to date with our episode, subscribe to UCLA live well on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Leave us a rating to tell us how we’re doing and if you think you know the perfect person for us to interview next. Please tweet your idea to us at healthy UCLA. Have a wonderful rest of your day. And we hope you join us for our next episode as we explore new perspectives on health and well being.

Episode #17: The Compensatory Role of Education with Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza


Dr.  Wendy Slusser, Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:03

The pandemic and the nationwide uprising against racism have starkly exposed deep disparities and inequities and the quality of access to basic needs like education and healthcare. Today, I’ll be chatting with Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza, the founder and executive director of the Social Justice Learning Institute, and former president of the Inglewood Unified School District, about what we can do to address our nation’s inequities in the compensatory role of education.  D’Artagnan, I’m really looking forward to this conversation for many reasons. We’ve already had one with you in our podcast prior to COVID-19. And you’ve been one of our favorite podcasts for our listeners, and actually quite inspirational for many. A lot of people have been listening to your podcast and feeling inspired, and so I’d like to just start off with your thoughts and feelings about the movement that we’re currently in. And I say movement, because Dr. Alonzo Plough from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation really emphasized and I agree with him that we’re not in the moment, we’re in a movement. And so I’d love to hear your thoughts around this particular pandemic, and how it’s exposed deep disparities and the quality and access to basic needs, and also the issues around racism and what we can do to combat racism and engage in anti-racism.

Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza  01:33

Yeah, no, I really appreciate that. So first of all, thank you for having me back. This is just an amazing podcast and series. You know, I think we are in a movement, there’s sort of a, not only the era of change, but the recognition that there’s a lot of learning that needs to be done about where we are as a country and as a society, as we reckon with the history in the past, right? Not just with the original sins of slavery, but with the elimination of the indigenous peoples of this land. Right now, we’re in Los Angeles, and we stand on lands of Tongva. And there has to be some sort of recognition. And I think that is beginning to happen. So, you know, as it relates to the George Floyd protests and you know, the protest of the killings of unarmed Black folk in our country, from Ahmaud Arbery to Breona Taylor, whose murderers are still not yet been arrested, to Tony McDade, and to many others in our society that have died at the hands of those who are intended to protect them. I think what we’re now seeing, and what we have seen as related to the civil unrest across the nation, and in our communities was just simply not the product of isolated incidents. Right, these incidents that I just named were our patterns. And in many cases, I think the response that we’ve seen for folk in our society, the protests that we’ve experienced, I think there was a Washington Post or New York Times article that came out and said, the number of people that turned out in the streets for Black Lives Matter has been one of the largest social movement protests in the history of the country. You know, it’s been spurred on, largely because of centuries old racism and oppression that’s been manifested in these deaths, and these men and women like George Floyd and Breona Taylor, and Atatiana Jefferson, who died at the hands of those who are protecting and serving them. The murders violate the social contract that we have between community and police. And I think people were able to see very clearly that that social contract was violated, right? And that their, you know, their experiences of their neighbors and their friends who are people of African descent, people of color, that those experiences might actually be true, right? Often Black and Brown folk are not believed, when they say, look, I’ve experienced racism or experienced this, just like during the #MeToo Movement, women were not believed when they experienced sexual harassment, right? So there seems to be this sort of visual experience in the murder of George Floyd, that has gotten people to start questioning what they believe around the experiences they hear from people of color, specifically in African Americans in our society. And so, again, I think, for me, as a Black man who is an organization supporting the growth and development of Black male youth and as a father of a young Black boy, I’ve been anguished, and in some cases, and I’m sometimes filling with rage, feeling both tired and fed up with the cycles of police violence, and some cases, the promise of change. But I think we’re in this movement right now because we have power to transform the systemic barriers and challenges we face.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:49

That’s really well-spoken and I feel that hopeful and also feel your anguish because as you said, this is something that’s been going on for centuries. And I wonder, with this pandemic and the health inequities that have been greatly exposed from this pandemic. And then the Black Lives Matter protests that have been so engaging, especially for the youth of our country, I think that many people that attended those events were the youth of our country. And it was very multiracial and multifaceted group of people. Many of my colleagues at UCLA have talked about how, in order to address health inequity, we have to address anti-racism. So they’re really integrally connected. And I’d like to understand from your point of view, what would be some of the major or like two or three steps that you think would be essential to reach or take steps towards an anti-racist agenda?

Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza  06:01

Yeah, that’s a really good question. And thank you for that question, Wendy. The American Public Health Association has recognized that racism is a public health issue. And the challenge with racism is that it restricts opportunity and it assigns a specific value, right, based upon how someone looks or what we perceive someone’s race to be. And as a result, that also unfairly advantages someone else, right? So it gives sort of power and strength and opportunity to others when you restrict it from some. And I think it’s that restricting of opportunity and assigning of value, and that hurts Black and Brown, people of color, right? The Laotian community and the Hmong community and others who experienced racism either intentionally or unintentionally. So as it relates to public health, you know, there are some significant things that we need to do both in our communities as well as within ourselves. And I was having this conversation with a colleague of mine who’s a faculty member at a California University, here in the state. And one of the things that she expressed was that she has had to walk into rooms, where people have made assumptions about her intellectual ability, or they’ve made untoward comments towards her, because she’s a woman and a Black woman on top of that, and/or treated a certain way without fully understanding how the way in which their behavior or their words or thoughts affect her. And as a result, she’s had to spend a lot of time trying to teach people how to engage in ways that are anti-racist and anti-sexist. And as a result, she said, look, I’m really tired of that task. Because I’m really tired of having to spend my lifeforce, my energy, educating people. So what she told me the other day, she said, D’Art, you know, what we really need for people to do is to educate themselves. She says, we need to look at this moment as an opportunity for people to educate themselves, to learn the history of Jim Crow and the role that restricting opportunity has played.  You know, I just read an article about a Black family that was in I believe, Bruce’s Beach, that’s what it was. And they had a thriving business. And the white people in that community drove them out. More than a century ago, it was a popular resort where Black folk could come and not feel like, this is in California, right? This is in the big cities, you know, just 15-20 minutes from where I live, right? Where this very affluent town in California that is known for its beauty near the beach, these amazing homes, actually kicked out a Black family that had a thriving business that would, you know, be worth more than 30 some odd million dollars in land value today, had they not had their land eminent domain from from them because there were people who were upset about their ability to do well as a business. Like learning about those things, the things that happened in our own backyard, learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, learning about the role of the Federal Housing Administration played in 1929, when it created redlining and put in its lending guidelines that Black folk should not be lent to, because if they were it would decrease property values. And the data actually showed the exact opposite because Black folk were so in need of good housing that they would pay more than what the local values were, right? Learning about the Bakke versus UC Regents, here within our own system to understand how our admissions policies shifted as a result of sort of these court orders that favored discriminatory practices, right? So understanding these things can help people situate and learn about our conditions and recognize why things happen the way they do today. Because if you don’t understand why conditions are the way they are, then it’s going to be really hard to figure out how to properly diagnose and then subsequently solve and/or treat those problems, right? Just like a doctor, you got to read someone’s medical history, right? You got to listen to the history of their complaints, right? You can’t effectively treat a patient, if the patient is not able to tell you about what’s going on with him. Or you have to you have to spend a lot of time guessing, try to figure it out if they’re incapacitated, right? But there are enough stories out there from people that have gone through these circumstances from African Americans, from Black folk, that folk don’t have to guess, right? I can tell you about stories from my grandmother, and my cousins and my uncles in the south, my great, great grandfather, who was on a slave plantation in Arkansas, and got moved to Louisiana, right? I can tell you those stories. There are many of us that can tell those stories I can tell you about the time when I was in Portland, and I was racially profiled by a flight attendant who pulled me off the plane because she thought I was a terrorist. And I was literally less than six months out of the military, having served my country in Iraq, right. I can tell you about the time when I was at a student convention in my undergraduate days, and somebody drove by a group of us and nearly ran into us and called us the N word. Right, I can tell you about, I can tell you about the time where I was even pulled over by UCPD, the UC Police Department, for having a brand new car on UCLA’s campus as I was leaving my office when I was a student regent. So these experiences happen. And often, if you want to know how to address these things, it’s to learn about them by educating one’s self, but to also listen to the stories of others. And then finally, I would say, to take action, right to take action. To push back against these narratives, we have to do some heart and mind-changing work. People need to see each other through a lens, dare I say, of love, right? There’s far too much dissention, misinformation, disunity and hatred out there. And we got to do the heart and minds’ work to shift narratives in our own families at the dinner table at the kitchen table, but also in our places of employment, to change the way people talk about the names they see on resumes, to change the way people talk about opportunity for someone to be explicit about ensuring that Black businesses are actually supported, because they’ve been cut out of economic opportunity, to really be intentional about shifting resources to those who are not as well resourced, to really be very thoughtful about, you know, TA shifts, for example, and GSRs, and understand how these things can be more equitably distributed, to those who might walk out of the university with a higher degree of debt, right? So it’s not just one thing. But it’s a way of thinking that needs to change so that we address the whole picture.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:44

D’Art, I need to unpack this because every single topic you just covered, I really want to dive a little more deeply in and also respond because I feel that what you’ve just identified as an agenda to me really resonates with what we’re hearing from the scholars at UCLA, from the Bunche Center, for instance, in regards to educating, listening to stories, and taking action. And I’d like to start with the first comment you made around the turn of the century in the 1900s and the Jim Crow laws and drive our listeners to a really incredible book that could describe and share stories that can educate us around the Great Migration from the South to the North, secondary in response to the Jim Crow laws, which is “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. So yeah, well, it sat on my book stand for about two years because it’s so thick, and then I started reading and I couldn’t put it down. So don’t get worried when you look at how thick it is. It took the author 10 years to write it. And I actually heard her read excerpts of it at the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting about five years ago and she just came out with another book that’s supposed to be incredibly profound as well, on racism. The other thing that I’ve been directed to and what in terms of education was in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, there was a call to action for academics and researchers to take a day and a pause. And there was a huge reading list and viewer list that we were shared across the country, I believe. And I took that day and I spent time listening to different podcasts and various readings. I read, and there’s so much more I can do. But the idea was, is that in order to really engage and create change, just like you’re saying, you have to educate. These lists of readings, and whatever, which will take much more time for me to go through than others. One of the points is that in the academics in the universities, there’s not as much differences between the individuals who are at the high levels. There’s mostly white men really. I shouldn’t say it like that, but it’s probably true. And so why is that? And that’s where this reflection was meant to help bring more integration and more equity and more variety of differences, whether it’s their skin color, your background, or where you come from, and, and this kind of experience of reading was meant to help people bring people up. And what I’d like to talk about with you is your work that you do with the high school students, because many people have talked to me about how well, sure, you can do that in universities, but really the foundation of science and math has to happen, even way before K through 12. So how are you managing that and and building that opportunity so that students can really excel once they get to these high level, you know, very challenging universities?

Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza  17:04

Yeah, you know, thank you for that question. As a school board president of the Inglewood Unified School District right now, I can tell you that we have been centering this principle of equity and everything that we do. It is literally infused and embedded in all of our conversations. We focus on advancing social justice, and think about what it takes to provide opportunity for our young folk. You know, I think that’s what I appreciate about folks saying that it starts in K -12 level, is that at least it recognizes that K-12 institutions have a role and a responsibility to support our young folk. But what I don’t like about that narrative is that it makes people in higher education think they can abdicate their duties to support young folk who don’t have opportunities. So what does that mean for the millions of individuals who get to the doors of a university and are shut out from future economic opportunity because they didn’t have a shot when they were a minor? Right, they didn’t have a shot when they were children? What does that mean? Does that mean universities don’t have a role to play in equity? And I think that’s what I hear when I hear someone say, oh, it’s really because of the K-12 institutions, right? Yeah, K-12 institutions have a role and responsibility to play. But often, the ones who do make it to university are coming from well-resourced and affluent communities that have the support they need to invest in educational opportunity for their children, to give them additional tutoring, right; to give them SAT and ACT courses; to make sure they have an essay specialist to help them write their personal statement, right? Or they come from a family that’s already navigated through higher education, and they’re able to make it through. So I think institutions like our universities, such as UCLA, and Berkeley and others, and Miles College in Alabama, they have a responsibility to our communities and to our society to facilitate equity. They have a responsibility to do that. And that requires additional resources at the higher education, and higher education institutions, much like we have at UCLA. And those resources help to compensate, right, for the inequities that we experience. And that’s really what it boils down to. That K-12 institutions and institutions of higher, to the P-16 pipeline is a compensatory pipeline for inequity in our society. That’s what it is. It helps to compensate, you know, from a child’s very beginning, from the early beginnings, all the way to the point that they become an adolescent to a young adult. It’s intended to compensate for concentrated disadvantage, to compensate for lack of opportunity, to ensure that opportunity is able to be sustained for those that come from positions of opportunity, right, come from positions of influence. Our K-12 institutions in this moment, as a result of the pandemic and COVID, are suffering and they’re unable to fully address the inequities that they’re experiencing. So people like me who are on the school board, have a responsibility to make sure that our institutions step up, that they do all they can do and then more to address those challenges. But our friends and allies and faculty members and administrators in higher education also have a responsibility to create accountability and to hold our higher institutions of higher learning, responsible for opening up those doors to opportunity as well and finding ways to reduce barriers so that children who do not come from great, catered-to institutions have a fair shot. This is about fairness. This is about what’s right. And this is about chance and opportunity to succeed so that we can all go on to live a healthier and more vibrant and thriving life.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:02

Well said, and I’d like to ask two questions, follow-up questions, based on what you just said, and then go back to some of the other follow-up questions from your previous comments. But the first one is related to, just a quick follow-up, what is your dream for what a university like UCLA could do to help those students that you just described as maybe coming in with maybe not as strong a background in the science, for instance, or math?

Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza  21:29

I have to applaud UCLA, right, because UCLA, while not always initiated by the institution, but UCLA has put some additional resources in place. And more recently, the Chancellor made a commitment to doing the same to ensure that not only Black lives matter, but to ensure that there’s opportunity for the next generation of students and leaders in our society. More specifically, pointing to the Academic Advancement Program to VIP scholars, right, to some of the educational outreach programs, that there’s an investment. So there’s been this sort of commitment, right, that’s been led by students as a Student Initiative Access Committee, and the Student Retention Center and the Community Programs Office and all these sort of student-initiated efforts. But what I think an institution like UCLA or others need to do to help strengthen opportunity is to create a more direct pipeline into the university, right, with specific commitments to communities so they have an opportunity, so they have a shot, right? And I think that’s going to take a broad array of stakeholders to help design what those commitments ought to look like. But I think the Chancellor has begun to do that, right? To create safe spaces for students who feel vulnerable on our campus, to make investments in faculty lines, to identify resources to support the research enterprise, to address these challenges, to invest in the service needs of these multiple populations, and to make sure that students still get good teaching, right? There’s investments in the teaching enterprise, so that if a student does come in underprepared, they have the resources and support they need to overcome the lack of preparation that unfortunately, they may not have received at a K-12 institution.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  23:20

So, right, your comment regarding K-12 and the challenges currently, under the pandemic conditions. There’s no question there’s huge challenges, in particular for K through 12. And for families that might not have access to internet or strong enough internet and working families. What are you exploring to try to at least minimize the negative repercussions of what’s going on, for the learning environment for these children?

Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza  23:50

So here in Inglewood, specifically our district, we are working with some of our internet providers and partners, to access internet service for our families, and to try and provide that access to the families who are in need. And so we’re negotiating lower costs for those families so that they can take advantage of them and receive the services and support they need to effectively participate. I’m proud to say that we’re making a significant investment in upgrading our technology throughout the district, and we’re providing one-to-one devices for every child, regardless of income level and/or status, we are making sure that every single student in our district has access to a device so that they can learn. We’re also making significant investments in our IT services and technology, as well as working with our teachers so that they have a structured but supported Professional Development Series in our workshops, so that they can help deliver curriculum and instruction in a way that meets the needs of our families today. And then I’m structuring the day, based on the government’s guidelines, in a way that facilitates effective instruction, but then also still working to take care of the basic needs of our families, right? So making sure they have access to food, so we’re still running our food distribution programs, still making sure that families need to access the resources we have at our school sites. They’re available to them. And so it’s both thinking comprehensively, but also planning comprehensively. We launched about five taskforce groups to look at things like instruction and operations and safety and social-emotional learning needs of our young folks. And so as a district we spend a lot of time and energy responding to this moment. We’re responding to the pandemic to ensure that we do all that we can to support families.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:43

D’Art, what are you hearing from the families? What are they saying to you, like, what are their concerns or solutions?

Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza  25:50

A lot of our families are expressing gratitude for that work. But they’re also expressing deep concern about the fact that they know if they have a job and need to work during the day, and they need to figure out how they’re going to work and help their children deliver instructions, right ? Or have the children take advantage of instruction. If you have a school aged child right now, and you have a full time job and your job is maybe remote, you’re sort of in a more privileged position than someone whose job is not remote. But what if you are that parent, and we have a lot of these, that has to go work in the service and/or hospitality industry or retail industry, and they’re still going to work every day. And not only are they going to work, but they are also having to find a way to commute through all of this. So they’re exposing their families to sort of health challenges they may be dealing with. But then there’s no one at home to actually help take care of their child during the day during the pandemic. But if they don’t go to work and then they’re going to lose their jobs, and they’re going to be behind on their rent. It’s a mess, honestly. So we’re hearing a lot of concerns from families who are trying to figure out, just how do they help their children during the day, get through an actual school day. And if they don’t have the internal support they need to get that done, it is significantly burdensome. And then we’re hearing a lot from our families who are facing both economic challenges because they have lost their job and are facing housing insecurity. So there’s financial and housing security, right now, let alone not being able to access testing, because a lot of the testing centers require insurance, right? So if you don’t have insurance, or health insurance, then as a family member who might be concerned about being exposed to COVID, you know, you have to search for free testing. And that’s not always been easy either. And then cities and municipalities are not always in favor of allowing to have free testing and public testing because they don’t want to attract, quote, unquote, “the virus” to the community, right? So we’re hearing concerns about stuff like that. So, there’s just a lot of challenges that we’re having to navigate through.  It seems so overwhelming just to hear the list and not even being one of those families as experiencing these challenges. What are families doing in your community to address these challenges? That’s a beautiful question. I will say that I’m hearing a lot about families coming together to create these sort of pods, right, and supporting each other. A lot of homeschooling teachers are really responding in this moment as well. And homeschooling families are helping out other families because they’ve been used to doing this. I’m also hearing a lot of residents come together, meet virtually, and talk about organizing or planning for their school communities. We’re seeing the parent-teacher associations, or parent-teacher organizations come together and plan around parent engagement and parent involvement. I’m also seeing in terms of innovation on the COVID side, folk like [name] who’s actually a Bruin, [name], who launched a COVID pop-up event called Offer the Love. And she graduated from UCLA and was in the Black Free Health Program. And she came back to the community to provide these pop-ups for at least 120 people per event so that they can safely test people and provide things like food and grab bags and materials. And so we have these local heroes who often go unrecognized, but they’re out here on the ground doing the work.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:32

So if you were to suggest, say, our listeners who might be listening to what’s going on in your community, and they wanted to do something, because I think there are a lot of people who want to help whichever way they can, what would you suggest?

Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza  29:46

I think that getting involved and reaching out to community-based organizations is always a great place to start. But I will say, recognize, that that sort of effort takes a lot of energy on behalf of CBOs who are out there doing the work, who are providing goods, community-based organizations who are providing goods and food and engaged in all that work. But I think there’s also, you know, donating directly to community-based organizations, and donating directly to school districts who are in need of those resources, I think, is another way that people can get involved. You know, I can’t tell you how many times I got somebody, you know, who called us and said, I would love to just donate laptops, right? And that goes a long way. I would love to pay for five families’ internet service for three months, right? That is really, really, I know, it seems small and somewhat insignificant, but it is so meaningful, and it is so helpful to so many people, and to the people who receive that type of support, because they don’t have the resources to buy a mask right now. They don’t have the resources; they’re barely getting by, with food. And as we’re all aware at this sort of point in time, unemployment insurance benefits have expired at the federal level. So you know, families don’t know what they’re going to do. What I’d also say is if you have a skill set that can help people be inventive, and utilize their their ingenuity. I mean, there’s a lot of folks that are earning a lot of income right now during this pandemic. But that income is not being shared widely, I think, using one’s voice to help ensure that we have in sort of equitable distribution of resources, but also opportunities so that people can start their own businesses or, you know, respond to the needs of the day, I think, for our business community, and our members who are out there that that run businesses, I know, some folks may be struggling. But if you’re not, you know, lend a hand to to another person. Lend a hand to another business. Lend a hand to someone who’s trying to earn a living during this time. So those are some of the things that I would recommend.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:56

So in a sense, what we are doing right now is running through your list of three activities that we could do to help reduce health inequities and bring more racial justice. Things like educating, listening to stories, and taking action. And I’d love your third point about taking action through the lens of love. And that giving and the act of giving in itself is, in my opinion, a great cure-all for you know, people’s depression and anxiety in a lot of ways. It can really raise your your sense of well-being. Going to that space and to what you’ve done, which I think you’ve done quite well with your own CBO that you started, and you educated yourself with a PhD. And then you wrote up your thesis that then became really an act of love. And you now have this tremendous organization that’s over a decade old. Can you explain what your organization does in Inglewood, and how that might be also a space where people can give?

Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza  33:06

Yeah, you know, in short, when I came back from the military, and I returned to UCLA to finish my undergrad degree and move into my PhD program, I came up with the intention to serve my community. And while it relies upon a lot of the research I did as an undergrad and graduate student at the university that focuses on utilizing education as a tool for civil and social empowerment. What I really do is I helped to build people. And I helped to build people who understand their material conditions and have the resources and the tools and skills they need to transform those material conditions. My goal is to develop returnees, people who come from our communities that understand these conditions that go off to, you know, to college or to university, get their degrees, and they come back to our communities to serve, right? I want to support folk, so they can do for themselves right and not rely upon sort of external agents to improve the local conditions, right, I want to help young folk come back to our communities and be the local grocery store owner who’s providing access to healthy food and teach them how to come back and start the cleaners’ business with environmentally safe and friendly chemicals, right, and teach them how to come back and pave the roads, thinking about material that reduces urban heat island effect. We want to teach them how to come back to our communities and get an engineering degree so that they can build an appropriate, build a bridge that is safe and sound for folk, right? It’s about helping our young folk, and our residents come back to improve conditions and then also build opportunity for the future. So that’s what my organization does, but we do that in a number of ways. And we do that by taking on these larger issues around both basic needs but also racial justice. by training our young folk to be leaders by helping them learn how to address policies by shifting narratives throughout the state. I’ll give you a good example. And I’ll be quick with this. Our young folk wanted to build a community garden in the city here in Inglewood and they built the first one and that initial led to building one hundred school, community, and home gardens in Inglewood. And when we learned that they could not build those gardens and apartment buildings, we took that issue to our state legislature and they got a state bill passed to allow for the building on gardens and apartment buildings. And so now residents and state of California with the identification of a place from their their landlord can actually build their own small garden in their property where they rent, right? So it’s looking at that issue at the local level. And to me, I’m want to change the very system that prevents it from being solved. D’Art, you’ve got so much to talk about, I think this is gonna be the second of a series of podcasts with you. We’re gonna have to have a third sort of line of podcast, D’Artagnan’s Wisdom. So thank you so much for everything you do for our community for UCLA, for Inglewood, for California, for the country. We look forward to the next conversation. I am so grateful to be here today. I’m grateful for your leadership, Wendy, I think you’re pushing many of us to explore what health means with a much broader context. And I’m grateful that you’ve been able to help lead this work for the university and for our communities. It’s serving so many of us, more than you can imagine.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  36:31

Thank you, D’Art. Thank you for tuning in to Six Feet Apart, a special series of the LiveWell podcast. Today’s episode was brought to you by UCLA Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. To stay up to date with the rest of the episodes in this special series, and to get more information on maintaining your mental, social, and physical well-being during COVID-19, please visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcasts. Thank you and stay remote.

Episode #13: Fixing our Food Systems with Galen McCleary

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:03

With the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of us are paying more attention to our food supply chains. This present moment is bringing issues in our food systems to the forefront. Today, I’ll be chatting with Galen McCleary from Patagonia Provisions about how this current moment presents an opportunity to shift our perspective of food towards a more sustainable and healthful one, and how Patagonia Provisions is rethinking our food chain. Galen, thank you so much for coming on today and joining us for our Six Feet Apart special podcasts. And I know you’re in Molokai at your family’s ranch, so I’m sorry to have taken you away from your morning surf, but I know you’ll do this after the podcast. But I’d like to start this conversation with a question that is rooted in where you are right now, in terms of sustainable food sourcing. What are you doing in Molokai, and how has your experience been there in terms of sourcing your food and also how it’s giving you perspective on local food in general?

Galen McCleary  01:12

Yeah, that’s a great question, Wendy. Overall, Molokai in Hawaii as a whole, we are incredibly dependent on outside sources of food and material. We import over 90% of our food, so we really rely on all those tankers and all those containers coming in on a daily basis from the mainland and from other parts of the world. Luckily, none of those food sources have stopped coming in, but it has definitely become harder to go to grocery stores to shop. And I think what we’ve realized in this kind of tumultuous and strange time, is how weak that food system is. And during these kind of strange times, it’s harder to actually be able to access a lot of this stuff that we take for granted on a daily basis. And I think it’s really made people look more to their local community and see who’s growing things locally, what are we growing locally. And luckily, specifically on Molokai, which is an island of 7500 people, mostly Hawaiian peoples, well, there’s already this kind of subsistence lifestyle, where over 20% of people hunt and fish, and they rely on hunting and fishing for their main protein sources. A lot of people have gardens. So luckily, we have not been impacted as much as other outer islands. We’ve been able to kind of rally as a community: we’ve done community hunts with axis deer and been able to distribute that meat as a ranch. We’re selling out within five minutes. All the CSAs of produce are selling out. So there’s definitely been kind of a rally within the community to kind of support more local farmers and purveyors of food. That being said, I think islands like Oahu, they say in one week of barges halted, you would have no food left on that island or there’d be major food scarcity. So I think there there there’s still food coming in, but people are starting to realize the fragility of that whole system, which is hopefully going to kind of be the impetus on the other side of this once kind of the storm clears for a lot of people to invest more in local food systems, for people to support more local farmers. And I hope that this can be kind of the real kind of pivotal point where we invest more in building local food systems across the US and really the globe.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:28

It seems, I mean, you’re already identifying a silver lining that might be coming out of this, is that there’s this highlight of needing to be more local in terms of our resources and our basic needs, in particular, food. And so from Hawaii’s perspective, what would be one of the ways, it sounds like with Molokai, you already have a fairly integrated local system that you can rely on. What about on the bigger islands? What do you see as a solution?

Galen McCleary  03:57

You know, I think one of the big solutions is just putting more emphasis on agriculture and food production. And what we’ve seen in Hawaii and economically what we’ve seen in Hawaii, is we’ve taken a massive hit with tourism, which is pretty much halted completely. And that’s the number one revenue driver for the Hawaiian Islands, number one for most people are employed by some sort of tourist related industry. So for Hawaii, I think we need to after all this, there needs to be more of a balance of tourism, local food production. And we need to look at the islands more holistically. It’s not just that we need to have hotels and timeshares and just these large buildings for people to come enjoy the beach but we need to really build a food system and also invest more in renewable energies. I think we’ve also seen oil and gas during this whole COVID time become quite tumultuous as well and strange and what’s happening in the stock market there. So for me it’s been kind of an insightful time and I think for a lot of people in Hawaii in these larger islands too, to just recognize, sit back and recognize what we’ve created and how fast all the development has happened in Hawaii, and how little space we’ve allocated to actual local food production during that. And I think and I hope that younger people and just people as a whole, and people in the community will see opportunity there after all of this, the dust is kind of settled from from COVID.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:28

I mean, as a major driver in the Patagonia Provisions work that you do, you’re out there seeking sustainable foods and sourcing them in different places. Using that experience, and I’d like to dive more deeply into what you’re doing with Patagonia, but using the experiences that you have, with Patagonia, what would be the first step you would want to do in Hawaii? What is out there that you think might be able to be cultivated without even necessarily intentionally growing it?

Galen McCleary  06:00

That’s a really good question. You know, there’s a couple different things. I think, one, we’re incredibly blessed in Hawaii to have a year-round growing season. And that’s one reason you have Syngenta and Monsanto and some of these big agrochemical companies doing tests and stuff out in Hawaii, which is unfortunate, but we can grow a number of things. We can grow everything from citrus, there’s even parts of Hawaii that can grow olive trees, obviously tons of different tropical fruits. Taro is a big one, breadfruit, these really prolific crops that produce a lot of food in a small acreage.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:34

What is taro fruit?

Galen McCleary  06:35

Taro is, they also call it kalo here and it essentially is a starchy fruit that the Hawaiians brought over from Polynesia, and it’s purple when you cook it, it’s a root. It’s just a really good kind of starch that people use as a staple in Hawaii. And they also make poi out of it, which is a kind of blended up mashed taro. It’s a liquidy paste, and it has a lot of carbohydrates and different key vitamins as well, so it’s been kind of part of the Hawaiian diet for hundreds of years. I think there’s a lot of important food crops that, if you look back traditionally, what the Hawaiians were growing: sweet potato, taro breadfruit, there’s a lot of these crops that we could easily start growing on a larger scale. And I think the hardest thing to get out, the hardest thing to change in Hawaii is really the kind of Western palate of what we eat. And luckily, a lot of people cherish and love eating and cooking breadfruit and taro and these other crops, but there’s also this kind of Western diet mentality here, where people are used to eating just very simplified ingredients, such as white rice, white potatoes, beef, pork, these kinds of things that we can grow in a more sustainable way, but they’re not necessarily the most optimal crops and livestock for the land and for the place. So I think there has to be a little bit of more of a shift in that regard as well. And then I think we can kind of produce things in a more sustainable way through agroforestry, through just organic intensive and organic farming methods. And a lot of these practices that actually regenerate the soil, they don’t deplete them, they don’t take away nutrients, so we’re leaving the soil better than it originally was. So for me, that is kind of the way that we can, in a way, look to the past for kind of answers of our current agricultural system in Hawaii, but also introduce new cover crop practices, new practices that we’ve learned and that we know, benefit both those crops and the soil and start incorporating those into kind of our current farm systems here.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:44

Yeah, I think that your point of looking to the past and relying on traditional foods is a really important perspective that I know others that are looking at, you know, improving climate health, in general, or really trying to reach out to traditional societies because of the practices that’ve been employed for hundreds of thousands of years and without any detriment to our environment or soil. So that’s a very promising approach not only for Hawaii, I think, but for every community to look at what was traditionally grown there and work with that. I love your idea of also looking to the newer practices that are now being recognized around the world in terms of, you know, regenerating the soil and I know that’s something that you’ve used as a guidepost to identifying and sourcing foods for Patagonia Provisions. I remember one story you told our students, you are a highly popular speaker at our UCLA Food Studies Colloquium and you mentioned the ancient grain and that particular story as one that you highlight for how you developed a new product for Patagonia Foods. I’d love for you to share that with our listeners.

Galen McCleary  10:04

Yeah, that’s a wonderful story. It’s actually something that’s been in the works for quite some time. Wes Jackson, who runs the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, he’s been working on developing through crossbreeding and shuttle breeding, generating perennial grains. So essentially, the way we have grains right now in current commodity systems is just annual grains that every year the soil is tilled, those grains are taken out, and we till up the soil. And then we replant plant seeds, and we grow new annual crop every year. And the issue with that is every time you disrupt that soil, you’re actually exposing all that good soil microorganisms to oxygen and killing them. And so the best thing to do, and now that’s what’s become really popular is kind of a low-till or no-till practices. And in order to do that, especially with kind of commodity grains, you need to have a type of grain and a wheat that will stay in the soil and actually produce multiple crops year over year. So it becomes a perennial crop. So what they’ve done, they’re actually working on a number of different things. The first one was this thing called Kernza, which is there, it’s spread between kind of a wheatgrass and a grain, and it’s a perennial grain that produces the grain we now use for our long-brewed ale, we have two different beers actually, that we use in it. And they’re also working on a sunflower and a sorghum and a number of different crops that are used quite often that are currently annual crops. But the whole idea with that is to allow this grain to stay in the soil to build this long, healthy root system. And through that, you build increased soil fertility, you build soil organic matter, you don’t disrupt the soil as much, you don’t release as much carbon dioxide into that atmosphere, during that kind of tillage period that you see. You can see these maps of when soil is tilled in the US, and you can kind of track the carbon dioxide levels during that time. There’s a massive release during that time. So that’s kind of an example of what we’re trying to look at, these different crops, that we can kind of be the tip of the arrow to bring to market and then to inspire other larger companies like General Mills, which is now also using Kernza for some of their crops, to start adopting similar practices that are certainly better for the soil and long-term going to be better for the planet and for us. So that Kernza developed by the Land Institute is certainly a pretty exciting example of that and kind of a really good example of what we’re looking for to bring to market for Patagonia Provisions.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:45

Yeah, I love that the strategy that you have, which is really, I love calling it like a catalytic investment where you can catalyze the opportunity through your efforts, and then hopefully, it propagates. That’s really fantastic. How do you find these people? I mean, you’ve mentioned a number of other people like the kelp farmer, I mean, how the heck do you learn about who is doing these innovative efforts?

Galen McCleary  13:14

You know, we definitely go out and look for these different amazing kind of needles in the haystack sort of stories of these people going against the grain doing things differently. But I have to be honest, with a brand like Patagonia, a lot of things also come to us. And people see us as a real North Star, kind of the brand equity, the sustainability goals that we have, I think people really look to Patagonia as a leader in this space. And it’s been interesting going from just an apparel company to now also a food company. And so I get a lot of things that kind of passed across my desk, and just a lot of things you have to sort through that aren’t really solid and on this kind of social environmental side. But there are things like Bren Smith and what he’s doing with GreenWave and kelp growing, that are truly unique examples of the way we should be looking at our food system and the way we need to move forward from an agricultural standpoint to build the food system for posterity. So, I would like to say that I’ve, you know, we find all of them, but I think a lot of them just people reach out to us people inquire people are interested to work with us. So that makes it a bit easier. And then the real fun part is actually meeting these people who are the real heroes and the people on the ground growing food and, you know, diving into the research and figuring out these new creative ways to feed people. So that’s kind of the fun part is actually getting out in the field, seeing them and then trying to take what they’ve done to actually grow food or produce food or, you know, have livestock and then figure out how to turn that into a finished product where we get to kind of amplify their story and and bring it to market.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:57

Yeah, so you’re describing one of the important steps that you do in terms of your research with these people is that you meet them. That’s a big step, I’m assuming as part of your buying into this, their whatever they’re growing or harvesting. What else, how else do you determine, you said also making sure their methods are sustainable and within the ethos of your mission with Patagonia Provisions? How do you go about that?

Galen McCleary  15:30

It kind of depends on what that product is and what that category is, because obviously, the scope changes, whether it’s, you know, a land-based crop, or whether we’re looking at fisheries or, you know, kelp farming, it kind of really depends. And luckily, we do have a large network of scientists and nonprofit organizations and stuff, who can kind of help us vet those and look at these practices and really sift through kind of the smoke and mirror sort of players who are just greenwashing and the ones who are really doing good work on the ground. So that helps. But the other part of it is just looking at the impact of that specific category. So for example, back to kind of the Kernza, if you look at wheat production, and you look at these large commodity, you know, soy, wheat, corn in the US, and the detriment that those kind of commodity systems cause, and then you see what this unique, but very nascent early crop Kernza could become and could do, and the impact that that could have, I think that’s the that’s the way we kind of look at it. What is the reason to bring this to market, the reason for being and what’s the impact that it could have? And when you see something like Kernza, where if we can get in early, we can start making products with it, we can kind of lead the way and other people adopt this crop and adopt similar practices, and we show incentive for farmers to grow this, that impact just in the US and then globally, is massive. And so we really are looking for those interesting examples of crops that can sequester more carbon and alternative meat production, that’s going to be far better for the land and for people. So that’s kind of, if that makes sense, that’s kind of how we look at it is the impact that it will have. And then the specific practices that kind of differentiate it from what’s being produced in the market currently.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:24

Yeah, that sounds like a very systematic approach to making those decisions and also relying on so many of the other experts out there. That’s a really good strategy, I think for a lot of us to take. Before we get to how you create, you find the product, and then you create something delicious that you sell, which I could attest to, you’ve gone all over the globe, really sourcing these really unique agricultural products that fit the sustainable model. And I’d love to hear about somebody or some product that you discover that you were surprised by.

Galen McCleary  18:04

I definitely have one that is kind of in the R&D phase that I can’t talk about quite yet. But I wish I could, but one that we’ve come out with is actually the Spain example, in Galicia on the western coast of Spain. We were looking for different within the seafood category, different kind of innovative, and also just really solid kind of sourcing environmental criteria to that of what seafood proteins can we put out into the market that not only do less harm, but actually do good. And one of those things is bivalves, is mussels, oysters, kind of this whole class of filter feeders that are actually cleaning the ocean, remediating the ocean, and making it a healthier place while producing an animal protein. And obviously, there’s amazing projects like the Billion Oyster Project and the Hudson, and these ideas of kind of cleaning up waterways where you wouldn’t necessarily want to eat those crops. But we eventually went to Spain. And this one small family owned group called Pres Lafuente Conservas, Pres Lafuente, and they’re a cannery over there that’s fifth generation, family-owned. And the current owner, Juan Pres Lafuente is in his mid-60s and incredibly nice guy. And essentially what he did 20 years ago, there was a massive, just like everything in the food industry, kind of, there’s a lot of concentration and power of wealth within these larger processors that push out all the smaller processors and kind of just create a couple big players in the field. And that was happening and he realized that one, him and his family knew that for kind of the longevity of their business and the oceans needed to be healthy for their business to be healthy, so he decided to switch his whole model, source only organic ingredients work only with fisheries that are traceable, that are responsibly sourced, that have healthy stocks. And so we started working with them. And they work with this whole group of mussel farmers within Galicia, these stewards, and they’re the third largest producer of mussels now after China and Chile, and they produce a ton of mussels. And through these, this production, it all cleans up the waterways there. It’s all within a couple hundred yards of where they’re processing them. And we actually took that we created a canned mussel product that we came out with about two years ago, and brought to market. And I think just the experience of working someone like Juan who really, one, you know, depends on kind of the success of our business and the story that we’re telling, but was also just doing this good work on a small scale beforehand and knew it was the right thing to do, would continue to do that even if we’d hadn’t come along. But I think the strength of kind of a Patagonia brand coming in recognizing the good work that they’re doing and the people that they’re supporting on their sourcing side. And then bringing that product to market in the US and really shining a light on the good work that’s being done, just totally changed their business, how they’re operating. And I think it’s just that exactly what we need more brands to do is to go out to find people doing the right kind of practices in a righteous way. And really support those folks, not just look for commodity ingredients at the cheapest price, but find the people who are doing it the right way for the right reason.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:37

That’s lovely. Well, you know, it’s very interesting I because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve done a lot of focus on social well-being and how do you promote social well-being, especially when some people feel forced into quarantine or sheltering at home? And one of the ways for people in the long term to feel better is to feel like they’re being altruistic, that they’re doing it for the good of the community. And I asked this professor, well how do you promote altruism, when, you know, some people might not be naturally altruistic? And he said by telling stories. And so what you just said about this family-owned business over generations who are now doing this work about the mussels, it could potentially convert some people who might not be necessarily as committed to sustainable foods by hearing that story. Well, we might as well take that story one step further. Once you get the mussels, what do you do to make it palatable or delicious or interesting to the consumer to purchase? What’s your next step once you find the raw ingredient?

Galen McCleary  22:48

That’s a good question. And it’s a good example to use because mussels, I think are polarizing and that some people love them, but a lot of people even in the US have never tried them. A lot of people think they’re gross and look gross. And you know, when you can them that even makes it harder when you preserve something. Of course, fresh food is always kind of the best thing possible. And we’re trying to make these foods taste as fresh as possible, but make them shelf-stable. So that whole process kind of, we start with, obviously playing with the raw ingredients, cooking them up, we actually leverage our chef down in Ventura, who leads all of our kind of main brand Patagonia kitchens down there. And she helped us develop those recipes. And we kind of all have input, we have a whole tasting group that we try them, we iterate, we try them again. Kind of the whole team, we’re, you know, we’re a pretty small team that’s pretty bootstrapped and it’s really a startup within a larger company. And so we all kind of get involved in different capacities, but also collaborate on things like the tasting and feedback and then we, I think we had about four rounds of trials there and even the founder Yvon Chouinard, he’s very involved with things that are close to his heart, like the mussels and seafood. So he’s tries those, he tastes those, he gives us feedback. He also tinker’s in his own kitchen, you know, he’ll add some spices, and he’ll try a different, really unique pepper that comes from some far-off place that he gathered during his travels. Then, of course, if he wants to use that pepper, then it becomes a whole another kind of supply chain chase to try to find that thing, grow it organically, bring it into the fold. So it’s always a long kind of process to get to a finished recipe, and not one that you would traditionally see and kind of most food R&D, you know, development for consumer packaged goods companies. So it makes it definitely interesting. It keeps us on our toes. And I think it gives us really unique products, both from an ingredient standpoint and a recipe standpoint, that you’re not going to get from anywhere else just because there’s so many people with good ideas that are playing a part in that development.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:00

This collegial work that you do among your colleagues, and also it sounds like also with the people you source with, can you explain the approach that you take in general, which is called “rethink our food chain”? Where did that originate in Patagonia, given the fact that it is a clothing company?

Galen McCleary  25:21

That’s a great question. You know, it really started from Yvon Chouinard, the founder himself. And back in late 80s, Yvon decided that if he was going to have a clothing company, he didn’t want to have an extractive harmful company. And at that moment, he decided that he went to move all of the cotton, all of the raw material cotton that they were sourcing into organic. And of course, to just make that decision overnight, people have to scramble, it takes time, they have to talk to the farmers who are growing cotton, switch practices over so it kind of created this whole search for how to grow cotton better, how to grow it organically, what does that mean, what are the differences between conventional and organic cotton? A lot of people from the leadership positions went to some of these farms and saw the difference, you know, the stark contrast of conventional cotton, where you have just cotton growing, dead soil underneath, no avian life, no birds over and then go into these organic cotton fields that were full of life full of, you know, moths and butterflies. And so I think they saw that and then realized why Yvon was making this decision and kind of became more fired up than ever to make it. And within I think it took a couple years, but these transitioned over to all organic cotton. And then the company continued to innovate and for every part of their supply chain tried to cause the least amount of harm, and to try to make it more sustainable. But I think, at the end of the day, apparel, it’s extractive in nature, and you’re making things that hopefully you wear for a long time, hopefully, you don’t buy new things very often, but it’s inherently unsustainable. And then Yvon looked at the food system and realize that you buy a jacket once a year, you eat three times a day. So there’s a lot of impact being had there. And really, by growing food, there were these practices that people knew of that are regenerative, that are actually building soil organic matter, sequestering more carbon, being a net positive to these ecosystems and to the world as a whole. And it’s an essential thing that everyone on this planet, seven plus billion people have to do is have to eat. And so for him, it is the way that we are going to solve our current crisis, solve global warming, our current global crisis of you know, extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to grow food better. It’s to transition, what we have currently as pretty deleterious, like bad agricultural system over to a more regenerative system that’s actually benefiting the world as a whole. So that’s kind of the reason that he started it in 2015, I believe he started it, just with one hire who’s, you know, currently, our senior director, and they just started with a salmon jerky product, and then kind of moved it into bars and then started growing it. And I joined that team fairly early as well. And we went from having five different products and now have over 30, and are growing pretty rapidly. So it’s taken off. And his goal is to make it larger than the actual apparel company. And it’s been interesting, actually, because during this, you know, strange time with COVID, and this kind of non-normal that we’ve hit at this point in time, the only business that is open for Patagonia is Patagonia Provisions. So we closed down our whole apparel business, our distribution center, we closed our stores first, then our e-commerce site as well, just to prevent any sort of spread of the virus. But what we did see as essential was to continue providing people with healthy sustainable food and keeping Patagonia Provisions up and running. And during this time, our business has grown immensely. Obviously, it’s a surge in buying due to of all of this, but it’s definitely an indicator for us that we are in the right space that we are providing the right kind of food and that there is a demand for this. And our hope, and I think Yvon’s hope as a whole is that Patagonia Provisions becomes a leader in the space and becomes a much larger part of the whole Patagonia business.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:38

You know, referring to the COVID-19 impact and its demand on Patagonia Provisions, it’s interesting because many of your provisions were created for the outdoor and for long life and I know you’ve since then gone into you know, people are purchasing them just for the busy lives that we all have. And I’m wondering, have you been developing new products during this time, or is it mostly that you’re sustaining the products that you’ve already developed?

Galen McCleary  30:06

No, we’ve definitely been developing new products, you know, products take a while. And of course, from kind of actually identifying what those products are, where their supply chains are, and then bringing them to market is quite a long process. So we haven’t made anything in this short, you know, a couple months during the COVID time. But we’re definitely still making products, I think we have a couple things in the works, that we want to get out more than ever during this time to customers. And we are also spending a good amount of time just making sure that we have secure supply chains, making sure that all our farmers or fishermen are still operational. And if not, you know, what are alternative supply chains that we need to look into that are equally as good or if not better, kind of from the environmental and social standpoint, when it comes to sourcing. So it’s definitely been a scramble during this time, I think, like many businesses have experienced is a lot of disruptions to supply chains. And that being said, I think it is just the most important time to make sure that we’re doing what we’re doing. And I think everyone within the business is kind of been as inspired as ever to get products out and made sure that people are getting packages, you know, as quickly as possible through e-commerce and through their orders. Because we realize that some of these folks, of course, are getting products to store and to, you know, as kind of a disaster relief kit or something like that. But a lot of people are also relying them on them for kind of their daily eating habits. So I think it’s an interesting time in that regard. But definitely one that has, I think galvanized kind of the whole mission and what we’re doing more than kind of disrupted it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:47

You know, it almost feels like Patagonia Provisions, in your work, there’s some integrity that is in your production of food that’s not just value-driven, but also the fact that you and even Yvon are tasting the food. That there’s this sort of boots-on-the-ground kind of experience that’s going on and your story about the cotton, and why people who worked at Patagonia were willing to go full on with it when they actually visited the farms, it’s a great lesson for everyone that you can’t lose sight of what you’re doing, you always should be aware of what’s going on on the ground floor, so to speak, so that you can be more productive knowing where how everything is happening at every level. It’s a great lesson and also in this day and time, I feel people really need to have confidence in where they’re getting their food. I mean, because people feel less safe in general.

Galen McCleary  32:46

Yeah, that’s a really good point. And I think just having transparency for us, you know, working on kind of the supply chain side, knowing firsthand what’s happening with these farmers, what’s, you know, what are those bottlenecks that are happening? You see, right now with COVID, you know, massive processing bottlenecks. And people trying to figure out the food safety side of things with workers, what that distancing is like how they operate under these current conditions. You see massive Smithfield and these large meat processors closing down due to huge COVID outbreaks and stuff. So I think for us, it’s working outside of that commodity system and not working with middlemen and wholesalers, really going direct to farmers, knowing how it’s being milled, having direct contact with those people who are milling our grains and processing our stuff makes the biggest difference because we have transparency and insight into what’s happening, everything from you know, the seed going into that ground to that dehydrated bean that goes into our soup. So I think it makes a big difference. And it’s it’s made us realize that there really is a lot of value to working with smaller growers, the smaller farmers, instead of having to deal with large commodity crops.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  34:04

I have to thank you for giving us the opportunity to be able to vote with our fork and actually eat things that we can feel okay about given the state of our world right now. There’s a lot of food choices that aren’t necessarily as responsibly grown or developed or produced. And so I think all of us who are listening to this podcast, I mean, we all should feel empowered that we can vote with our fork and our pocketbook. And we do at least with our fork potentially two, three, four times a day. And you know, I think that, I think everyone should feel empowered by that because I think we can all make a difference. One of our professors analyzed our choices and if we could just one less time a week, a red meat kind of meal, if we could just one time a week, not eat that, we could really reduce our carbon footprint by 30% in the United States alone. So you know there’s ways of doing that and individuals can make a difference. So and I you know I picked up this from your website from the Patagonia Provision website that I love this quote that said “Together we are building a bigger marketplace, a powerful alternative to industrial agriculture, a path to restore and regenerate our home planet. ” And I’d love you to finish this podcast off with how you feel about that, that mission or statement and what you’d like to add, to leave us with as we conclude this really powerful interesting conversation.

Galen McCleary  35:39

You know I think the biggest thing is these these shifts, these paradigm shifts. They take time and I think everyone is working on it. I think what chefs are doing these days to inspire people and change kind of palettes and put you know vegetables at the center of the plate, and put meat on the side. I think a lot of people are doing their part and I think it’s it’s truly something where we all need to change the way we eat, to change the way we make consumer choices. And for me kind of that bigger table I think it’s also about the education piece that you’re providing, that you guys are doing as well through these podcasts, through you know the university, through your course and developing more kind of inquisitive consumers. I think people need to ask more questions about where food comes from, where material comes from the things they use and purchase and just become more interested in the system as a whole and how intricate and connected. So yeah for me it’s kind of that, it’s for that inquisitive part and it’s to also through our choices, especially with food, to communicate to farmers through those choices of what we really value and what we really want. I think for so many years we’ve asked farmers to produce food with the main priority of kind of increased yields and decreased prices. We haven’t really included the actual health of the land in that, so I think as we move forward, we need to also asked farmers to take into account the health of the land and their own well-being. And they would be thrilled to make those shifts and changes and try to make systems that are going to be you know more rewarding and that their kids can even come and take over and not kind of run to the cities and stuff. So for me that bigger table is about kind of not saying, oh we’re eating the right way, you’re not. You know we can’t operate that way on a kind of right-or-wrong basis but we got to be really inclusive in all of this.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:38

Well it’s almost like this pandemic, I think has given people the understanding that we are borderless. And so you know, and pandemics definitely have a relationship with global warming so there’s, you know, not necessarily this one but there’s the future of our health and the climate health can impact and promote unfortunately pandemics. Well, these are really great wisdoms. Thanks so much, Galen. I know you’re probably aching to go out there and get catch the surf right now so.

Galen McCleary  38:14

Well, Wendy, thank you guys. Thank you for what you do. I really appreciate it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  38:22

Thank you for tuning in to Six Feet Apart, a special series of the LiveWell podcast. Today’s episode was brought to you by UCLA Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. To stay up to date with the rest of the episodes in this special series and to get more information on maintaining your mental, social, and physical well-being during COVID-19, please visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcasts. Thank you and stay remote.

#18: Water: A Public Utility for Health with Andy Gere


Dr.  Wendy Slusser, Andy Gere

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:02

Hello, my name is Dr. Wendy Slusser. And here at the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA, we strive to be trailblazers in building a culture of health and well-being. Starting in our own backyard, Semel HCI transforms ideas into reality to create a campus-wide culture of health by promoting physical, emotional, and social well-being. Welcome to our center’s podcast, LiveWell. Join us as we interview leading experts and discover new perspectives on health and well-being. Each episode we will bring to you scientists and world-class operators who will share with you cutting-edge research and practices and never-before-broadcasted tips to live a more healthful life for yourself, community and our planet. Today, I chat with President and Chief Operating Officer of San Jose Water, Andy Gere, about the ins and outs of running a water company. What does it take to provide affordable, clean, and safe water to drink? How does running a water company relate to environmental stewardship? Join me as I chat with Andy about what happens behind the faucet. Okay, Andy, so I want to thank you so much for being part of this podcast, this virtual podcast, and I think this is the way of the future for all of us. And I have to say, I mean, inviting you to teach at our Food Studies Colloquium and also our undergraduate food studies minor, Sustainability Through the Lens of Food. You’ve been so open to sharing your wisdoms to our students at UCLA, and now with this podcast, hopefully, more broadly. And I want to thank you for that. In spite of many challenges, I mean, we have to stop meeting this way, you know, two years ago was a fire here in Los Angeles that cut the power and you had to improvise with your PowerPoint, sort of describing the beautiful photos you had in it. And now this time around, which gives us sort of a time frame of where we are, it’s the coronavirus. And I think this is interesting, because I’d like you to talk about water and your role as a CEO and what the importance of water in our infrastructure and why you actually are probably almost better prepared for all of these kinds of natural disasters, so to speak. And we can start with that.

Andy Gere  02:36

Sure, yeah. Well, thanks so much for having me, you know. I’m passionate about water and providing water service to our communities. And so it’s an easy thing for me to say yes to these kinds of opportunities. And, you know, my ulterior motive is that I’ll interest one or more people to say, boy, I’d like to have a career in the water industry. So I’m putting that out there, because we’re always looking for bright people to join us in the really important mission that we have. You touched on something that is, you know, kind of front-and-center today, but it’s always sort of part of what we do, and that sort of readiness and disaster response. And, you know, I would consider response to a virus outbreak like this one is very in line. And in fact, a few years ago, we developed a pandemic response plan, when a previous episode was threatening, it didn’t manifest itself like this one has, but you know, we have a responsibility to provide water service to customers 24/7, and so we can’t sort of take a day off from that. And when our work conditions get challenged by our natural surroundings, or events, like an earthquake or a flood or a fire, we have to be ready to do it in other ways. And so we spent a lot of time planning so when these things happen, we will be ready, and the coronavirus is right in line with that. So, you know, I was on a call just prior to this, with my greater team, working out details on how we move into telecommuting for folks. We’ve already done a lot of internal social distancing. But we’re continuing to look at ways to minimize the opportunity for transmission and the disease. And you’ll still serve customers. And so we still have to have people that get out in the field and repair water leaks and operate treatment plants and wells. And make sure that we’re meeting all of our regulatory guidelines and requirements. And so we’re doing that, we’re doing it with less face-to-face contact and leveraging technology and changing the way people report to work and the way they get to work. Instead of having folks meet in a ready room, we’re conducting meetings outdoors at a safer distance and then having folks report directly to their trucks and taking a lot of sanitary measures and wiping down surfaces and wearing gloves and things like that. And there’s some things that we’re temporarily discontinuing where we think that the risk is too high and, and the benefit is too low relative to keeping everybody safe.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:59

Yeah, I mean It really speaks to the fact that water is such a critical part, not just of our daily lives, but our health, and in the importance of it being clean, but also accessible and ready and available 24/7, like you’re saying. And I feel that, especially in these kinds of roles like yours, which is an essential, essential role on a daily basis 24/7, I feel your work is important to not only be continuing, but also to give people a sense of confidence, that they’re going to continue to have that kind of essential resource. So, you know, a lot of people don’t really think about where their water comes from. And you kind of take it for granted. And so I’d like you to, if you could, sort of step us through what happens on your end, and how do we receive this incredible resource on a regular basis that’s in most of our communities, safe and and tasted?

Andy Gere  05:59

Yeah, so that’s really our primary mission. You know, when folks asked me, you know, what is it that you do? What business are you in? I always tell everyone, we’re in the public health business, you know, water service is the only utility that folks ingest. And they need to be able to do it without questioning whether it’s safe, wondering if it’s healthy, that has to be sort of a given. It has to be 100% of the time, and highly reliable, which means the water has to be on, right, not just, you know, when it’s convenient. And so there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. And I think it starts with our source water monitoring. And you know, we’re regulated by the state Water Board and the Division of Drinking Water. And what they do is they take regulations that are promulgated both at the state level and at the federal level, through US EPA, through effectively what is the Safe Drinking Water Act. And the Safe Drinking Water Act was enacted in 1974, and it was it was sort of the first piece of legislation that said, you know, we really need to be very specific about what a public health standard for water is. And that has evolved quite a bit over the time since then. And so there’s a lot of monitoring that goes on, there’s a lot of water sampling, we take about 400 laboratory tests a month for our source waters, and our wholesale supplier does even more than that. And then, in addition to those monitoring programs, we have a lot of treatment at our two surface water treatment plants, where we really focus on making sure that source water meets all the requirements for good public health. And so we have certified operators that operate all of our plants and our groundwater wells. We do a lot of monitoring. And then system integrity is the other piece that most folks don’t think about, I mean, water is delivered to people’s homes through water mains that are typically buried several feet under the street out in front of their house. And so we need to maintain that infrastructure and make a lot of investment in taking care of that infrastructure, replacing it, before it reaches a point of failure. And when it does break or leak, you know, make sure that we make those repairs and do it in a way that is protective of public health. And make sure there’s no opportunity for contamination. We do a lot of follow up sampling after we do repairs, and work directly with consumers to make sure that they understand what’s happening and what we do to protect public health. So it’s sort of, you know, one of those, it takes a village kind of businesses, you know, we have a lot of departments that all work closely together to ensure that the good source water that we start off with makes it all the way to the consumers’ faucet in healthful and potable condition.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:31

Yeah, so I’d like to unpack what you just said, because I really like what you described as the step by. So when you refer to good source water, what is that good source water for you?

Andy Gere  08:42

So we’re very fortunate here in Santa Clara Valley to have sort of three primary types of source water. And one is groundwater, so this is water pumped from deep in the aquifers below Santa Clara Valley, anywhere from 500 to almost 1000 feet below the surface. And it’s a confined aquifer. So it’s the third of three aquifers, the deepest of three. So the natural soil layers and structure do a very good job of keeping potential contamination that may be up on the surface of the Earth from reaching that water. But it’s not a foolproof system because there’s places where that’s not completely intact, although it does a great job. So we also provide a lot of monitoring for both natural and manmade contaminants and disinfection to make sure that once that water comes out of the wellhead that it remains biologically inactive until it reaches customers. The other source we have is what we call our imported supply. So we have a partner and it’s a wholesale water supply agency here in Santa Clara Valley called Valley Water. And they supply us water through three of their surface water treatment plants from either local reservoir supplies or water that’s imported from one of the two big California Water projects. The Central Valley project, which is run by The Bureau of Reclamation, it’s a federal project. Or the California Aqueduct, which is the state water project. And that’s delivered to two of their plants. And the third, the federal water is delivered to the third of their plants. They have a very rigorous treatment process and monitoring process. And we take that as finished or ready-to-serve water at 14 locations in our distribution system. And then the third source is from our two treatment plants where we collect water at intakes and in reservoirs in the Santa Cruz Mountains. So this is our local source. And both of those treatment plants use a membrane technology, which is sort of pretty state-of-the-art, treatment technology for surface water. And the idea is to remove naturally-occurring contaminants, primarily microorganisms that can potentially make folks sick. So we have a very diverse water supply. It’s not completely interchangeable, but there’s a lot of overlap and where those supplies serve. So if we have difficulty with with any one of those, we can generally shift some things around and pump water from one location to another, make sure that we meet our needs. And we do a lot of contingency planning. So we know exactly how that works. And if we have a well that needs to go offline that we have other wells ready to serve, or we can replace a groundwater source with an import or surface water source. So flexibility is key and we’re quite fortunate in our service area that we have three different sources to work with.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:19

Is that common that many of the other water companies that serve or services around the country have these kinds of multi-source water?

Andy Gere  11:29

Probably not as diverse as ours. You know, there are a lot of areas in the country where it’s all groundwater, although you know, the larger system certainly don’t rely on a single well, but they may have many wells drawing from a single aquifer. So if there’s problems with the aquifer, that problem can translate. Here in California, there are certainly many other water districts and water companies that have at least two different sources. And sometimes three, I think California is a little bit unique in that water scarcity sort of drives to redundancy or, you know, multiple supplies. So that one is not available or not available in the volume that would normally be there that there’s another source to fall back on. Yeah, we look at our groundwater basin as the biggest reservoir in our system. And that’s where we have the most water stored. It’s about a three-year supply, not just for our system, but for the other communities that draw from that aquifer. And it’s a managed aquifer, which is not completely unique, but is a growing trend in California. And what that means is that the withdrawal from the aquifer never exceeds its safe yield. And so the way that works is that our wholesale agency actually collects water in reservoirs, and uses that to recharge the aquifer artificially. The natural use, back when it was an agricultural area, as opposed to Silicon Valley was really overtaxing the natural recharge. The natural recharge would be what happens through rain and just would infiltrate through creek bottoms, after storm events and so forth. It wasn’t enough and so they began as early as the 1930s, developing a system where water would be collected in surface water reservoirs. And then the groundwater basin would be artificially recharged so that those groundwater users would have an adequate supply. And that continues. Today, there’s recharge basins all over the valley in areas where there’s good infiltration zones, so places where there aren’t those thick clay layers that prevent water from flowing down. And so that’s a very good system and it provides a high degree of reliability.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:29

So there are two things that you’ve just said that are really fascinating to me. One is the the recharge concept. And are you recharging it with rainwater? Or what is the water that you capture that then recharges?

Andy Gere  13:42

So that’s right, and so the idea is that, you know, during a big rain event, a lot of the water that would you know potentially be available will just roll off the surface and wind up in San Francisco Bay, it’s a very slow process to to recharge the groundwater basin. So what happens is the Valley Water has built reservoirs and they capture that that runoff, that rainwater, in a surface reservoir and then very slowly transport that into the spreading basins that allow the the recharge into the underground and then so it’s sort of a winter-summer cycle. So the you know, the reservoirs fill all winter, and in the summertime, they’re drawn down and the aquifer recharges slowly over the dry months. When the winter rains return, those reservoirs are at their lower levels so that there’s capacity to capture next season’s rainfall and so on.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:32

So that speaks to safety, given that you’re talking about it being slowly recharged over time, right, because that cleans the water right? And you also described how having a system like you have where you have multiple sources also contributes to the safety of the water if there’s a problem with one water or another or even just supply right. How do you in general, communicate and reassure your customers around safety and the water that you’re offering to the population? How do you instill confidence?

Andy Gere  15:06

Well, that is one of our biggest challenges. And not just in San Jose Water, but in the industry in general. And so we’re using a lot of methods. And we’ve sort of really changed the way we do this. You know, when I started my career in drinking water over 25 years ago, sort of the the motto is kind of the less folks know about us, the better, we’ll do our work and the product speaks for itself. And that’s really changed, right? The user base is informed, folks understand they’re really focused on their own health and really want to understand what’s in their water, and what are we doing to take care of it. And so we’ve had to use all kinds of tools. And certainly social media is probably the one that’s grown the most. And we spend a lot of time and effort getting messaging out on that and really trying to communicate. We also use things like direct mail. So when we send someone a water bill, we include information in there about what we’re doing, and sort of little articles and stories that sort of help people understand in bits and pieces. Because you have to sort of recognize folks’ attention span is not that long, and they want to kind of be reassured. But you know, we can’t write a novel either. We also do a lot of community events. And these are perhaps the best way where we can get in front of our customers and really kind of help them understand what it is we’re doing. So whether it’s a festival, or, you know, a community event, like Bark in the Park is one where folks bring their dogs, and there’s dog events, and we sponsor activities for the dogs there. But we also have information and you talk with folks, one-on-one and things like that. But we’ve also started doing community open houses. And so just about every month, we’re out in a different neighborhood and within our service area, and we advertise these as much as we can to get folks interested in attending. And then we have displays kind of throughout a community room or auditorium that show the whole sort of process of where does your water come from? How does, how do we bill you? What are our customer service opportunities? How do you conserve water? And what can we do to help you with that. Near and dear to my heart water quality and water treatment, and what we do to ensure the quality of water, so folks know that it’s safe to drink. And those have been very popular and well-attended. And I think it’s something that we’re going to continue to do, because that’s where folks can one-on-one, talk with a water treatment operator or a you know, water quality manager or an engineer and say, you know, what exactly does it mean when you say you do this, you know, what is, what is the treatment plant really doing? What are you removing? And those things, I think, are very useful. And we’re also using a lot of things like YouTube videos, and putting those on our website and getting those out on social media. So folks can really get a kind of an easy to digest, but sort of, you know, sort of news-rich bit of information about what we’re doing to ensure that we are maintaining public health, and we are doing everything we can to provide the safest product into people’s homes. Yeah, I mean, I’m a big believer in tap water. And I just scratched my head about this sort of shift where people are often looking at bottled water as being safer than tap water in general. I know there’s some places and communities where that’s the case. How do you deal with that general belief that seems to be cropping up all over the last decade, two decades? Well, it’s certainly something that we’ve really focused on. And you know, the bottled water industry has a big marketing budget, and that really works against us. And you know, they usually indirectly, but sometimes somewhat directly, you know, plant the seed that you know, you need to be drinking bottled water if you want water safety. And so, you know, that’s a tough message to get past people if they’ve sort of been ingrained with that. But we really build that into a lot of our messaging and really want folks to know that for a penny a gallon, and that’s about what tap water delivered to your house costs, you have a product that is as good or better than bottled water. And so one of the things that a lot of folks don’t know about bottled water is it’s often just reprocessed, repackaged tap water. There’s a bottling plant often in a community water system. And you know, they have a large service and eight or ten-inch service and they have a bottling plant, and sometimes they’ll polish it up with something like ozone that can improve the taste or they’ll add some minerals, but it’s often the same product. What folks don’t know though, is that while tap water is monitoring and tested daily, bottled water has much less frequent testing requirements. Even though they are supposed to meet the same drinking water standards, they are not regulated by the Division of Drinking Water here in California or US EPA. It’s Food and Drug and their requirements for testing are much lower. And so I’m not suggesting that there’s necessarily a problem but then the amount of assurance and the amount of review and double checking that we do far exceeds anything you would have in bottled water and you know, I think something that folks are also becoming aware of. And I think, you know, we’re certainly kind of looking at it and wondering why folks are not sort of worried about plastics and sort of from two perspectives, you know, are there opportunities for compounds that are in the plastic to leach into bottled water? There’s studies out there that suggest that this can be happening. And you know, I think the jury’s maybe out a little bit on what those health effects may be. But I think that’s, you know, if you don’t have to be exposed to that, why would you? And then there’s the trash problem, you know, bottled water creates this sort of waste product, and it’s the bottle. And while most folks I think, would like to say, well, I recycle that bottle and it goes, you know, it’s reused. The reality is that is an ever shrinking truth. Because there’s so much waste plastic out there, there’s not enough beneficial uses for that. And a lot of those bottles do wind up in the landfill.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:55

Yeah, the single-use plastic bottle too, is particularly concerning for our environment, there’s no question. And in fact, you see, I think we’ve just passed a policy that in the next decade or two, I’m not sure about the exact date, we’re going to be removing it from all campuses. So I think there is that trend, fortunately, and I agree with you. The other thing is as a pediatrician I’m concerned about is the plastic bottle that’s been hanging around in your car and getting heated up. Or often many people are putting their plastic water bottles into the freezer to freeze it. And we don’t know completely what that does to the plastics in terms of its leaching into the water. So those are two other kinds of scenarios that the jury’s still out, I guess, is really what we’re up against. But I know with plastic bottles with babies with breast milk, they’re recommending not freezing breast milk and plastic bottles for that reason.

Andy Gere  21:52

That makes a lot of sense. You know, I guess you could say it’s troubling, or maybe it’s an opportunity, depending on how you look at it. It’s the cost. In 2018, US consumers spent 31 billion dollars on bottled water. And this is a statistic that comes from the bottled water industry. So we know it’s, you know, it’s probably pretty reliable. At the same time, US EPA has estimated that in the United States water infrastructure would take $24 billion a year to fund the needed upgrades nationally in US water infrastructure. So, you know, Americans are out spending on bottled water, you know, by $7 billion a year what it would take to renew and replace the US water infrastructure that, in so many cases needs that renewal. And it’s sort of a misguided spend, if you will. And if we can get consumers to think more about that, yeah, we’d like to make those investments and the money you saved by getting off bottled water can go to much better use and much sort of longer lasting benefit.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:51

Yeah, that takes a collective effort, right? I am sort of like thinking, how do you move that needle? Do you have any dreams that you’ve thought of that would help that?

Andy Gere  23:00

You know, it’s, you have to do it a little bit at a time. I mean, we are San Jose Water is an investor-owned water company and infrastructure renewal is a big part of what we do. And certainly we know that, you know, renewing infrastructure impacts water bills, and it impacts rates. And so we’ve been really working hard to communicate to our customers, to the communities that we serve, to local elected officials, and really anybody who is who is sort of engaged. That investment has long-lasting benefit. And it provides folks with a reliability and a public health benefit that’s really a good value and it’s relatively inexpensive compared to alternatives. And bottled water would be considered an alternative by a lot of customers. Look, rate increases are never popular, right? But I think when when folks and what we see when we talk with people, when they understand that those increases are often for in our system, for example, we replaced 24 miles of watermain per year. And we’ve been doing that for decades. So that’s a 1% a year replacement rate. They feel like oh, wow, you know, I’m getting some value for that. So I’m not going to have to worry about waking up one day and my water’s out for two weeks because the watermain is completely destroyed, right? That’s something that I think when folks understand it, you know, maybe they’re still not that happy writing that check every other month, but they understand where it’s going and they feel like it’s a good investment.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:22

That’s a very interesting perspective and strategy that you’re taking on through San Jose Water Company, which is an investor-owned public utility. It just brings to mind what happened here in Los Angeles a number of years ago, where the water main burst and it was 30 feet high spouting on Sunset Boulevard, and then rushed down UCLA down to our newly floored pavilion, basketball pavilion, and everyone’s saying always because infrastructure was so old. I think that was LADWP. And they’re publicly owned, is that right, or publicly run? Explain to me the differences between these two approaches to running the water systems.

Andy Gere  25:08

Sure. So a publicly owned utility, and it could be either, you know, owned by a municipality, a city or a town, or it could be a California special district. So it’s sort of its own government entity with an elected board of directors and its own sort of funding sources through water rates, and sometimes taxes, or an investor owned like ours, where it’s a private company, and I think most folks sort of think of their power and gas company as sort of the typical investor-run utility. But we are what’s called a regulated monopoly. So we have a service area that is sort of granted to us by the Public Utilities Commission. And then the Public Utilities Commission is our economic regulator. And so what they do is they represent the consumer, they sort of serve in that role of protecting the consumer. And the idea is to make sure that we’re making prudent investment in the system, we maintain the utility infrastructure that we operate it well, which means we provide the right level of treatment, the reliability, we do everything we need to do to make sure that service is really good. And in return for that, we get to earn a rate of return on the investment part and actually on a portion of the investment part. And so we have an opportunity to earn an authorized rate of return if you meet the obligation of running your utility properly. And that’s what they sort of call the regulatory compact. The municipals and the and the quasi-government in the special districts, they work in a similar way, except that they set their own rates and it’s done through either their city council, or through an elected board of directors. And they typically have processes to do that. But one of the disconnects, I think that is out there with the municipal side is if you’re a city councilman, and you’re a mayor, and you’re running for office this year, how popular are you going to be if you raise the water rates? And you know, the answer is probably not very popular. Folks look at that probably akin to raising taxes. And so there is often negative motivation to raise water rates, which means deferring maintenance and infrastructure. And I wouldn’t want to suggest that this happens universally, there are many, many, well-run special districts and city water departments and so forth. But that exists and it maybe happens at micro-levels sometimes and that there’s less of an incentive to really push for not just you know, enough infrastructure renewal to kind of just keep you above water, but really to be sustainable in the long term. And in our model requires us to go out and attract capital, and we take risk doing that, right? But if we make those investments, and we make the right ones, and the commission gets to weigh in on that, we have to sort of bring a rate case to them and say, this is the infrastructure we need to renew or replace, or build anew. And here are the reasons, you make a business case and they sort of arbitrate over that and say, yeah, that’s reasonable, or no, we want you to do that, but at a lower cost, and there’s this negotiated process. And then you ultimately get the opportunity to recover those costs through water rates, and then earn a rate of return on the investment portion or on half the investment portion. And the way that works is a little complicated, but we borrow about half the money we need to make investment and then we use, you know, retained earnings or investor money for the other half. And so we’re allowed to earn a rate of return on the investment part, because that’s what’s considered to be at risk. And so, but it provides a good business incentive for us with, I think, good checks and balances to make sure that the investments we make are prudent. And we don’t just decide that, a very strong and competent regulatory agency decides that. And then we have to deliver on what we say we will do and make good on those promises.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  28:55

Yeah. So the whole challenge that you’ve brought up in the past about how the water system in general is quite fragmented, and there are, what, 200+ water systems in LA County itself, and Bay Area’s 50. And under your umbrella, you have the capacity to do this infrastructure improvements and so forth. What’s your thoughts about this fragmented water system that we have?

Andy Gere  29:20

Well, I think it’s something that the entire industry is is really focused on and perhaps even more so by by the investor-owned industry, because in some ways we have some unique capacity to help be something of a solution. So as you said, there’s there’s over 50,000 water systems in the United States, more than half of those serve 500 or fewer customers and why that’s a problem is they lack scale. And so often these small water systems were maybe built by a developer when his subdivision went in and they laid the pipes and they drilled a single well and put a little tank in and they were up and running or you know, they were a small community that, you know, got together collectively and built a water system. 50 years ago, that was probably a viable thing. You know, certainly the requirements in terms of water quality management and monitoring and treatment were a lot easier, just environmental requirements to make sure we’re good stewards of the environment. And the operations were easier. What’s happened now is in many cases, that infrastructure is aged out, and they just don’t have enough customers to afford an infrastructure replacement program or an asset management program that can really renew that infrastructure as fast as it’s wearing out. And so it was sort of built once it was, you know, sort of kind of run to failure as opposed to built and then renewed over time. So the small water systems, their biggest problem is, they just don’t have a big enough customer base to fund the improvements and the operation that they need to, which is, you know, more expensive and more difficult than it was when they were formed. So consolidation is the idea of, instead of having a lot of these small systems kind of scattered and trying to go it alone, you bring as many of them together in critical mass, you do that either by serving them off an existing bigger customer base. And we’ve done a lot of that, here in our San Jose system, where we folded small systems in and you know, acquired them, purchased them or negotiated with the system owners to become part of our system. And, you know, we’re able to sort of spread those costs over a much bigger user base. And so the idea is that not every part of the system needs infrastructure renewal every year. But if you do it right, and you have a good asset management plan, you can, you can do that with sort of this collective buying power of the bigger system. And, you know, obviously, it makes it much easier for us, you know, we have an internal engineering department, we do a lot of work ourselves, which lowers the cost. And that’s something that’s just not available to a small water system. You know, if you’re a two or three hundred customer system, there’s probably one paid employee in the system, it’s usually the the owner and you know, they pull their family in to kind of help and get things done. But it’s pretty tough, you know, they generally lack the technical and financial capability to both plan infrastructure improvements to get them built, but also to sort of manage water quality and regulatory compliance, often treatment. If you look nationally at water quality violations, they’re overwhelmingly in small systems. And so this is something that there needs to be a national effort to address. And, you know, one of my other roles is I’m the chair of the National Association of water companies and that’s an industry association that represents the investor-owned utilities. And we’ve been doing a lot of work there with the state legislatures and the commissions to work on mechanisms that make it easier for us to consolidate these systems, to sort of remove barriers, to make it easier to get regulatory approval to do it, to solve economic issues around it. So if we can buy a system and get that folded in more efficiently, we can then begin making improvements and helping out those those customers sooner. And so that’s something we’re working on, I think that the municipal and special districts are as well, but they have a lot of constraints, because they’re sort of you know, they’re government entities. And they’re just by their nature, not quite as nimble and that’s not their fault. But I think it’s just tougher for those kinds of utilities to get in there and consolidate small systems. And so we see it as our role as a way to sort of grow customer base, but also really provide service to a lot of folks who just aren’t really getting good water service right now.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:47

That really sounds like a very much of a health equity role that you’re fulfilling and something that I find quite admirable. And I wonder, are the public utility, water utilities, are they are any of them small, or are they sort of, at larger scale?

Andy Gere  34:09

There’s lots of small ones. There are and, you know, sometimes that’s sort of a barrier, you know, a small public agency, I mean, there’s one near us, they’re a California special district, they serve, I think under 200 customers, but their locally elected board, their friends and neighbors, and they often sort of have pride in what they do and appropriately so. And are sometimes reluctant to sort of give up control to someone else. Sometimes they’re just small municipally owned systems, you know, a small village or town where they just serve a few hundred folks, and again, you know, the watermaster there may also be in charge of streets and storm drains and a lot of other things and it’s difficult for those folks to do it. And so with city-owned small systems often we provide us solution, you know, their their water guy is retiring and they, you know, they can’t find him, they can’t hire anybody who say, look, you know, we can buy that system from you and you can deploy that capital somewhere else in your municipality that provides some other benefit, and then sort of get you out of the water business, because we can, you know, sort of do a better job. We already have staff and infrastructure and equipment and trucks and all the things we need to serve. And so, you know, we’re always looking for those situations where it’s a win-win, right? You know, we’re not going to take over anybody’s system who’s not interested in that kind of help. But we do have to sort of make that value proposition and make it work. And so we’ve done a bunch of them, and I think we’re going to be doing more and more, and I think there was a time often when, you know, not that long ago, when some of these systems were, they were kind of right at the edge of being viable, the way they are operated. And as costs have gone up, or as the infrastructure is aged and not been kept up with, they’re having higher operating costs, because their investment was low. And they reach a point where they’re like, wow, you know, the investment is too high. Now, we how do we get out from under this and you know, we have some ability to, to attract capital and make that investment and earn a rate of return on so it’s beneficial to us, they get out of a situation where they, you know, it’s almost like a no win. And so those are sort of on a national scale opportunities we’re looking for, and, obviously, we have to make good on it, you know, you certainly, you just can’t operate a system that’s a troubled system, and they say, trouble, that doesn’t work. And so we have to have the commitment to that and sort of come into this with our eyes wide open and understand, like, we have to put resources on it and get folks up to the standard they need to be at for this to work. And I think, you know, my personal philosophy is I think if you sort of do it and show it rather than tell it, you have some success stories, like others will look and say, you know, wow, that really worked out well for that community. The municipality got something that they needed, the customers are getting better service, and the investor-run utility was able to grow as well. And that’s sort of a win all the way around. But you have to I think demonstrate it for folks to believe. I think there’s skepticism. I mean, look, I’ll be honest, you know, folks think, well, you you have shareholders, there’s a profit motive, you must be up to no good. And, you know, you can tell them you’re not or you can show them you’re not. I think if you show them, I think that’s the way to do it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:19

That’s for sure, yes. Actions speak a thousand words, there’s no question.

Andy Gere  37:24

They do.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:25

Yeah. And that gets me to I mean, what you’re describing to me is when you’re not at scale is harder to do everything, given the costs and the concerns and the potential stakeholders or whatever. But, you know, PFAs I know, you’ve talked a lot about this and in other venues. And I’d like you to explain what that means, and also what it means moving forward with all this climate change that’s happening and fires and how it’s impacting potentially, our water sources and what you’re doing about it. That’s a lot of questions.

Andy Gere  38:00

So climate change is something that, you know, is here and we see it, and I think particularly in California, where we, you know, we’re sort of a water-scarce region to begin with, when you see these bigger swings in sort of big rain, rainfall years, followed by drier years and longer periods and longer, you know, deeper droughts, I think we have to really make the right investments there. And those investments, you know, are already even bigger scale and at times bigger than just that the utility or they may be the state and the federal level. And sort of, you know, one of the biggest solutions is storage. And it’s not sort of an instant or an easy solution. But clearly we we need more storage. So when you have these these rain events, you have the ability to capture more of it and have it available. And you know, the other thing that’s changing in California relative to climate is more rain events and less snow events. So the snowpack in the Sierra is that the biggest reservoir statewide and that sort of slow melt-off of that snowpack sort of meters water slowly out where it gets, you know, captured in reservoirs and in intakes and in groundwater basins in a way that’s sort of controlled and usable and sort of, more efficient. When you have more rain events, you typically have more water running to the base and ocean, right where it’s much difficult to extract in a usable fashion. And so storage is really the key and one area where there’s a lot of growth is in managing basins and using groundwater aquifers to store water because you don’t have to construct something as big as a big reservoir. And also you have a sort of built in distribution system, right? If you have users that are above an aquifer, they can drill a well, where they need the water as opposed to you know, piping it from some distant place and generally having to pump it, move it. So that’s an area that’s certainly growing and there’s been some legislation in California recently requiring all basins in California to become balanced basins and in some cases that means extracting less. But I think a lot of basins, what we’re going to see over time is taking water that may not have been immediately available as drinking water and infiltrating those basins and storing it in them. And so that’s going to change the way that happens. But certainly physical reservoirs, storage facilities are, I think back on the agenda, and certainly I think are going to happen. Environmental concerns are certainly legitimate around reservoirs, particularly those where you are damming an existing river system and fish migration and fish passage is a real issue. I think offstream storage is really what’s going to be the growth area. And we’ve seen some of that already, you know, Contra Costa Water District, built the Los Vaqueros Reservoir, it’s been enlarged once and is in the planning process of being enlarged again. And that’s an offstream reservoir. So they take water that comes through the California Delta. And when the availability and good water quality is there, they bring it into that reservoir, and they store it there. And then they have the ability to use that at other times of the year or in other years, even when water supplies are not as good or are scarce. And I think that’s a pretty good model. And I think we’re gonna see more of that there’s some big ones that have been proposed, and that are kind of going through the environmental review periods in Northern California. And I think that’s an area where we’re gonna have to really get serious about water storage. Now, these are big investments, these are sort of, you know, generational investments. And it’s important for folks to know that, you know, reliable water supply, because we need to invest in storage, this is probably going to cost more so for us, you know, we’re not building a big reservoir. But to the extent that we get water from a wholesale agency that may benefit from that their rate will reflect that. And that gets passed on to our consumers. So there’s some costs with it. But I think the reliability equation is so critical. And if you think about potable water supply, and community water supplies as sort of the backbone of economic prosperity, right? We can’t have businesses and industry and schools and universities and all the things that a society is made of, without a reliable water supply. And, you know, if those water supplies are not reliable in California, I think we’ll see an exodus of businesses and, you know, the state suffers. And I think, you know, businesses like agriculture will suffer, and sort of our way of life suffers. And so I think these are generational investments that are worth making, and will be made, but they take time, and they take sort of a little bit of a mental fortitude to understand, like, you know, water’s is going to cost more over time, and climate change is going to drive some of that.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  42:45

In light of climate change, and the diminished rainfall and snow cap that we have here in California, we also are seeing more fires, and from what I understand, you know, the the PFAs are something that we’re going to have to be concerned about, in particular, in areas where there have been fires in terms of contaminating the water supply. And I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that, and how can we prevent this moving forward?

Andy Gere  43:14

Yeah, that’s a really good question, because our system is sort of right at the urban-wildland interface. So that area where you go from sort of dense population and sort of cities and towns up into forested areas, and there’s a lot of our water system, as well as our service area that’s up in those hillside areas in those wooded areas. And so this is something that we’ve dealt with, we had two pretty lengthy public safety power shutdowns in the past year, and we did a lot of planning around that. We certainly, through our earthquake resiliency, have over a long period of time geared up with standby power generators. And we’ve done that in a way that’s flexible, a lot of them are trailers so we can move them where we need to. We were lucky and fortunate that all of that planning paid off in a way we never imagined, which is these power shutdowns. I think the power shutdowns are going to continue to occur because I think it’s sort of the one way that the power companies can ensure that these ignition sources aren’t going to happen when they have these wind events. But it’s a huge disruption to the populace and to the extent that we keep the water on, we’ve been successful in doing that. Now, at the same time, we own and maintain a 6000-acre watershed and it’s you know, redwood and Douglas fir and hardwood forests. And the purpose of owning that watershed is, is sort of the first barrier of protection for those water supplies. So if you can control activities, on the drainage area to your water supply, you have to provide less treatment, right, you have less impurities getting in there. And so it’s an important function. But as forest fires become an issue, it’s also a potential risk. And so forest fires on our own land are something we’re very focused on and in fact, we are working right now. on a pretty large fuel management project. And so we are essentially working with firefighting agencies, we’ve done a lot of modeling on the watershed to understand how fire will behave. And you know, over the last 50 years, there’s been two large fires on it. And you know, it’s sort of overdue for a burn, if you will. And the idea is to install treatments like shaded fuel breaks, where you leave the trees, you leave the big trees, but you get rid of the brush, and you limb the trees up high. So if you have a fire it’s a ground fire, you create these corridors that are defensible. So the firefighting agencies like CalFire, can get in there and build a fire line and protect life safety, and then, you know, prevent the fires from getting as large as some of the ones that we’ve seen have now. I’s expensive work, it takes a lot of time. And so we’re sort of doing a two-tiered approach, and one is looking at the ability to use some ratepayer funded work. But the larger pieces, there’s pretty big statewide recognition that this is this is an issue and our watershed happens to be in one of the high-hazard areas, but there is grant money available. And so we are working really hard to develop an application in pursuit of some of that grant money and build some of these resilient firebreaks that will work in conjunction with others that already exists, you know, there’s nothing we can do that will completely eliminate the hazard from fire. I mean, you just can’t do it. But we believe that making investment and really sort of strategic efforts can reduce the risk, you know, measurably, and it’s something that’s worth doing. You know, we know that from previous fires just sort of the runoff with with ash and sort of the smokiness of it all, just from a taste and odor perspective, you know, our watershed was was out of commission for over a year when the Lexington Fire came through, and that was in 1984. That’s a lot of water supply that we don’t want to give up. It’s a lot of infrastructure there. That’s, you know, sort of in harm’s way. So we’re making investments. And we’re looking to leverage some of those investments with some public funding, and it has a secondary benefit of providing life safety for folks who live in and around our watershed sort of on the periphery. And so we think that that’s a win-win. And we’re working closely with the Santa Clara Fire Safe Council as this evolves, and they’re a nonprofit organization that ties communities and firefighting agencies and companies like ours and Pacific Gas and Electric and others together to kind of find community solutions. We think those are better and work more effectively than any sort of go-it-alone plan and so on. That’s the direction we’re heading in on that.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  47:31

It’s really striking to me how, how holistic your business is in so many ways, because you have to be thinking about all these different challenges, which is what you started to say in the beginning, public health. And I’d love you to share with me some wisdoms for people like my family that have a well, on our farm, near a big fire in Santa Rosa, and the concern about the quality of the water that might be coming out of that well, and how do you test it for those and what are PFA is that which everyone was saying everything that was under people’s sinks were what was the issue in these fires in terms of pollutants? And people were unhappy, and, you know, these suits to clean up the ash of these houses and apartments that were burnt in Santa Rosa. So love to have you give some wisdoms to to the farmers of the single-use well.

Andy Gere  48:32

Yeah, I’ll tell you, I think that it’s really wise to sort of be thinking about that. When an entire community burns, like Santa Rosa did, where it’s just so widespread, I think the amount of material that is consumed in that is staggering. And so a lot of it really depends on how the well is constructed. Is there is there good wellhead protection, you know, our wells that are built for drinking water wells have a pad and their sanitary seal. And there’s some construction elements that are designed to really prevent surface runoff from getting down there. But agricultural wells may not have that and sort of, you know, family, backyard wells may not have all of those features. So it probably makes sense to do some monitoring. And the guidance I always tell people is you know, you want to use a state-certified laboratory. And you can go to the California Department of Health Service’s laboratory accreditation program, you can go on their website and find a state certified laboratory and often the laboratory will offer services to come out and do the monitoring for you. And I always recommend that because a lot of the monitoring techniques are pretty tricky. It’s not just a matter of putting water in a jar and sending it in. For example, if you are testing for volatile organic chemicals, you have to make sure that they don’t volatize off in the sample collection procedure and you want to do a travel plug to make sure that there’s not sort of contamination from atmospheric sources and so forth. But an accredited laboratory can certainly guide you in that and you can also look at, you know, what are the constituents that are required for public water systems under Title 22 in California and look at that list, you know, there’s metals, there’s inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals, and get some advice from a water professional on what may be in there. I mean, in our system, we pretty much monitor for everything that’s regulated. And that’s sort of prudent. And it’s all-encompassing. And it’s sort of it’s a little bit expensive to do that. But if there’s public health at stake, we think it’s worth it. So a private well owner may be well advised to do that. Or if it’s a well that’s shared by a community, sort of pool funds from a group of neighbors to do that and see what’s going on. I think these big fires are sort of phenomena that no one was really kind of thinking about very much. And I think it’s a different environment. And it’s certainly one that has potential hazards. And I certainly wouldn’t want to frighten anybody say, look, if you live in an area where there’s a fire your well’s contaminated. That’s not proven to be the case. But because the potential is there, it’s probably smart to to do some looking and see what’s going on.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  50:59

That’s really helpful. I really appreciate it. That’s the best answer I’ve ever had from anyone about this question. Just moving a little bit away from drinking water, but just water in general, Dr. Jenny Jay here at UCLA has been following surfers and testing the flora in their nose and looking to see the percentage of methicillin-resistant bugs in their nose before and after rainstorms. And they found an increase after the rain. And I’m just wondering, in general, do you have you know, for water that you’re working with, do you test for not obviously, human subjects, but do you test for like antibiotics, or, I know, there’s also conversation around like antidepressants that are in the water, because people dump their drugs in the toilet in the Sacramento River and things like that? I didn’t know if that is something routinely tested.

Andy Gere  51:55

So this is an area that’s certainly known in the businesses, emerging contaminants. And what’s happening is, EPA is beginning to look at those contaminants and looking for where there is potential contaminants where there’s analytical technology that can detect them. And then they do a program that’s called the information collection run. And what’s what goes on is you’re essentially getting utilities to do some sampling out there to see what occurrence is. And then from that, if there’s occurrence, and potential health effects, they develop standards from that. And so the personal care products and pharmaceuticals are kind of it’s on the early stages, but I think we’re going there, certainly, to the extent that water reclamation is going on, and we’re moving as a state into indirect or direct potable reuse, that monitoring will continue. But what that part of the industry is doing is it’s sort of assuming that those things are there and developing treatment that will remove it. Because, you know, the the monitoring technology, while it’s developing, it said, you know, these, some of these things are at such low levels in the parts per trillion, it’s difficult to necessarily get really good qualitative and quantitative data on that. And also, the health effects are sort of unknown. And so I sort of, I think the default for now is, you know, you use very robust technologies, reverse osmosis, and, you know, ultraviolet light with oxidation and techniques like that, that will destroy these compounds that they know, are pretty effective at it. But I think, you know, it does, it does point to sort of this larger issue too, of do you know,your source water in California has been sort of very forward looking in that, and about a dozen years ago, put out a requirement for what’s called a source water assessment, where we had to look at every water source we had and identify any potential sources of contamination within the recharge zones of wells, or within the watershed, or areas that go to our treatment plants. And the idea was to sort of say, look, you know, are there activities, you know, sort of manmade activities, or naturally occurring ones that could represent a threat to water and then say, you know, it’s a monitoring mapping correctly with that is the treatment mapping correctly with that. And so that’s been going on going on for a long time, you know, here in San Jose Water, and I think our wholesale supplier as well, the reservoirs that are used to capture water, they go directly to our treatment plants or that are used for groundwater recharge, tend to be high up in the watershed, you know, above the developed areas. And that’s by design, you know, there’s a lot of folks out there saying, well, geez, why don’t we build some storage way down at the bottom right before it hits the bay? Well, that water has flowed through a lot of urban areas, and has had a lot of opportunity to pick up impurities along the way. And that’s not to suggest that those aren’t viable sources. You mentioned Sacramento River, and that’s a water source and that flows through a large part of the state. But I think the idea is to the extent that we can collect water at sort of the most pristine places we do. In areas where it’s less pristine, you have to have more treatment, you have to have more robust treatment because monitoring alone isn’t enough, you know, you can’t monitor everything continuously. I think if your monitoring detects contaminants there sometimes are at low levels, you have to assume there’s times when it may be higher, and you have to build treatment capability and sort of multi-barrier treatment capability to make sure that you’re effectively removing those things. But I think this is something that’s evolving, and it’s going to continue to change. And I think it’s going to drive to a more robust treatment technologies over time.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  55:30

It just goes to show you how multifactorial and how much you have to look at all these different angles to deliver what we don’t even think about as the water through our tap. I mean, it’s so complicated, and so many good ways because you’re really protecting the safety of the human population, and also our environment, given the fact that you are the stewards of the land where you’re deriving the water from. So it’s a really holistic approach, I think, and I’m wondering, based on what you’ve been talking about how much you’re thinking about all these different possibilities and also scenarios, what keeps you up at night?

Andy Gere  56:12

Well, a lot of things right now it’s coronavirus, and, you know, mostly in the sense that we need our workforce to be able to maintain their health and come to work and or work remotely, or do their work is probably what I should say. So we can continue to serve customers without interruption. That’s sort of the immediate, I think one of the things that sort of tied to that, though, is this long-term workforce development situation. So we’ve got a lot of folks who are professionals and have worked long careers in the water industry. And many of them are nearing retirement and are at retirement. And so one of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time on over the last five to ten years is developing workforce. And you have to do that in sort of a broad scale. So that it starts at the sort of elementary schools and high schools and getting folks interested in the water industry. Well, first, they have to know that there is a water industry, most folks don’t know that this is a career path and a place that you can have a really interesting career. You can do a lot of different things and really make a valuable contribution to society and do something worthwhile. You know, high tech is really sexy. And it’s interesting, and it’s exciting. But high tech doesn’t exist if we don’t exist, right. And so attracting people to the business, really promoting STEM education and getting young people interested in that. And from there into the water utility business. And that’s not just college education, it’s folks who want to have a career as a water treatment operator. And you can become a water treatment operator with you know, a high school diploma and some home study or community college, study and get your water license and work your way up. And we’ve built programs into our company where we sort of grow our own operators. You may come in as a laborer or somebody who works in construction. And with a little bit of education and some help from us, you can get the training and experience to be a water treatment operator, which is a profession that’s in critically short supply. And it pays well. And it’s exciting and dynamic and really important. But we need more folks that are interested in that and electricians, folks that are interested in technology, but in water technology, so it may be SCADA systems, which are the computer systems that control water systems. There’s things like advanced metering infrastructure that’s rising, where we have smart meters and folks that can can program and collect data from those and put that data to beneficial use. So really keeping our workforce growing and expanding and, you know, water quality professionals, you know, there’s scientists and environmental engineers and folks like that. So that’s something I think a lot of that when, when I should be sleeping, I guess. But it’s something that I think we’re making inroads into that and doing it sort of as an industry and in sort of in a grassroots way. We’re working with community colleges and high schools and workforce development boards. In the Bay Area, we’ve started our own sort of collective called Bay Work. And it’s where instead of what sort of used to be the practice, where one utility would poach the good talent from another we’re working together to develop talent and, you know, share internship programs and provide training opportunities and develop curriculums for community colleges and study-at-home programs and find a way where pooled resources, we can help bring people into the industry and train them and develop them instead of sort of passing the same people around and getting into bidding wars with them. And that’s been really successful. It’s also helped us grow the talent we have and provide educational opportunities and enrichment and growth for folks who so they can take on more difficult and challenging jobs and advance their standard of living and things within utility that they already work for.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  59:46

That makes me think it’d be great if you could give us a set of skills that would be useful for people to learn at a college level and then also a high school level that we could share with our student body, but also we work in partner very much with different high schools in LA Unified School District and beyond. So it’d be really something that we could provide that kind of guidance, especially in this day and age, when a lot of people are hearing jobs are being, you know, becoming obsolete. This is the opposite.

Andy Gere  1:00:17

It’s just the opposite. It’s a growth area. Well, it all starts with math, right. And, you know, I’m a good civil engineer. And so, you know, it begins with math, but math and science, for sure, but also sort of mechanical aptitude. I mean, you know, somebody who’s interested in auto shop, and tinkering with cars is probably a pretty good plant mechanic or meter mechanic. Right. So, those sort of a hands on skills, I think, are equally important. And I think there’s, the combination of them is probably the most powerful thing. So folks who have sort of good physical and mechanical aptitude, have the ability to read a blueprint, or an electrical line diagram, all those kinds of things. But it’s starting off math, science, you need to be able to communicate, so I can’t emphasize communication skills enough. A lot of it is, maybe you don’t have to be a great writer, but you have to be a pretty good speaker, and you have to sort of organize thoughts and ideas. And I think anything that sort of helps that makes folks dynamic, an area that’s really grown tremendously for us is GIS, and we use GIS technology to really share information across our company and make so many different departments’ jobs easier and more efficient. And so folks that are interested in mapping and GIS technology, I think that’s an area that once folks get exposed to it, it’s really pretty fascinating. And it’s really powerful, you can store so much information graphically in a digital map, and do so much with it. I think if folks have some basic exposure to that, and a high school class, you know, I think the sky’s the limit in what they can do in a utility setting. So, those are just some areas, but I think also just at the real base level, you know, elementary school kids, get them thinking about their natural environment, you know, how does the sort of natural water cycle work? How does what we do in one part of our lives, whether it’s what pesticides we may put on our lawn and garden, affect other parts where our water comes from? And how can we be sort of better stewards of the environment? I think what I see with a lot of young people, my own daughter included is they’re keyed into that, and they’re kind of hungry for it. And they know that the planet’s in jeopardy right to sort of put in a real dramatic sense. I think what they need to know is that there’s places that they can get involved in and make meaningful change. And I think the water utility industry is one of those, and they just need to make that connection and understand I mean, just giving kids a tour of a water plant or a facility or bring them to an open house where they can meet with people I think is really powerful. Because they’re like, wow, I didn’t know that was a job, right? And then they can start thinking about what part of it they want to do. You know, one of the things we did with Bay Work that was really interesting, and I think is super powerful. And it’s on their website, baywork.org is a series of videos where folks throughout the business spoke for a few minutes about what they do. And you know, there’s some fantastic sort of information out there that’s easy to digest, it’s a two or three minute video, folks get a little look in on what someone does. And they’ll talk a little bit about what got them interested or how that why they’re passionate about it, and from utilities all over the Bay Area. And I think that’s a great resource to share with students to sort of say, here’s a, you know, I know I have a couple of teenage kids who spent a lot of time on YouTube, take a little bit of your YouTube time, and see what people are doing in this business and see if there’s some appeal there. And I think the enthusiasm that will come out of that will be pretty startling. A lot of people think that you know, California water is in dire straits. And you know, we’re going to run out. And I think what I’d like folks to know is that there’s water professionals throughout the industry, both the municipal and the investor-owned, that are working really hard every day to make sure that that doesn’t happen. We need our customers’ help. You know, conservation is a way of life here in California. And that’s going to continue to be and we’ve seen just through the last drought, great contributions from our customers, but we’re going to need that to continue and we’re going to want them to be engaged and work with us. And so that’s, that’s my ask is, get to know your water situation and your water company and work with them for for a great solution.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:04:19

Thank you so much, Andy. This was an amazing interview. And I’m so looking forward to presenting to our Food Studies Graduate Student Colloquium today about food and water and its intersection with health. Thanks so much. Bye-bye. Thank you for tuning into Live Well today. Today’s podcast was brought to you by UCLA Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. For more information on Andy’s work and to listen to our other episodes, please visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast.

#35: Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic with Dr. Peter Katona


Dr.  Wendy Slusser, Dr. Peter Katona

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:03

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we all gained a heightened awareness of the role of public health. Terminology like incubation period and comorbidities became more commonplace, and people across the world were made more aware of the importance of public health and ensuring the delivery of equitable healthcare and protection from diseases. Dr. Peter Katona joins us today to talk about lessons learned from our country’s response to the pandemic. He is a clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine, adjunct professor at the Fielding School of Public Health, and chair of the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Task Force Infection Control Working Group. Keep listening to learn about what our greatest public health challenges will be moving forward, and how the COVID-19 pandemic fits in with the larger historical narrative of public health.  Thank you, Dr. Peter Katona for coming today. It’s such a pleasure to have you on so many levels. Firstly, it was a real honor to be on the COVID Response and Recovery Task Force where I first heard you talk about your impressions and your feedback and updates regularly. So you were so precise, and gave such a great picture to me and everyone on the state of COVID here in Los Angeles, but also across the country and in the world. And that was a really, I thought, very helpful for all of us to get a understanding of what is not just happening with us here in Los Angeles, but everywhere else. Also, you’ve been able to leave us with some questions at the end of our closing or winding down of this task force that I feel are really valuable and I’d love to talk about those with you as we move forward in this podcast. But before we get to that, which will be at the end, I’d like to ask you something about what you’ve shared with many of us about public health as being an art and a science. And I’d really like to understand what you mean by that.

Dr. Peter Katona  02:12

First, thank you for having me. I feel it’s very important to distinguish art from science. And that goes back to my work as a physician, because much of what we do as physicians has to do with the art of medicine, as well as the science of medicine. Science is what we learn from studies and looking into our textbooks. But the art of medicine has to do with how we deal with people, how we incorporate the science into the well-being of the person, how we deal with a reluctant patient and how we deal with a patient we don’t particularly like. We have to deal with all patients. And sometimes the art of it is something that we don’t really get trained in, like we do training in the science of medicine.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:00

And so if you were to apply that to public health, what does that mean?

Dr. Peter Katona  03:05

Well, I think it means exactly the same thing. You know, public health is a science, but there’s a tremendous amount of art to it. Studies in public health are done. A very small subset of those are good studies that we really can rely on consistently. But a lot of things are difficult to consistently bring out in a way that pleases everybody. There are things that change our knowledge, changes our political engagement, and what we’re doing changes. The economics of what we can do and get away with or not get away with enters into it. So it becomes more and more problematic to convince people that public health knows what it’s doing, rather than constantly changing its mind, being wishy-washy about masks or distancing or value of vaccines. And so that, to me, is how I look at both medicine and public health in terms of art and science.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:07

It’s very interesting, because when you think about it, it’s even more challenging, the art side for public health, compared to when you talk about an individual because there’s such diversity within a community and with public health, you’re working with populations and communities and not just on an individual basis. So it’s probably even more challenging as an artist or through the lens of art to effect change or to improve a situation.

Dr. Peter Katona  04:38

That’s very true. I look at medicine, dealing one-on-one with a patient and their medical concerns and public health deals with the masses. What do you do to vaccinate 10,000 people, or what do you do to clean up water supplies or sanitation deals with masses of people. And so the individual sometimes gets lost in that and sometimes you do something for the masses at the expense of an individual. And how do you rectify that? So it becomes rather complicated.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:11

It actually reminds me of something that I read recently from a neuroscientist who looked at the art of storytelling and its impact on people’s behaviors, not just individuals, but also they can actually impact social movements and actually engage people in being empathetic for others, through storytelling versus being told what to do.

Dr. Peter Katona  05:37

I would strongly agree with that. And when I speak, I like to do things in terms of storytelling as much as I can, because I think it has a greater impact than reciting a series of studies or looking at guidelines from public health committees. So I think that’s very true and people underutilized storytelling to make a point.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:00

Well, actually, that’s one of the things that struck me when you presented to the task force on a regular basis, you engaged people with a story or a concept that really drew you into something. You definitely utilize it in an effective way. Thank you, yeah. So getting to what we’re sort of probably all wondering about is, from a public health perspective, what will be our greatest challenges as we rebuild and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr. Peter Katona  06:32

Again, very complicated and many, many factors here. You can’t discount the economics. Public health has been a very, very impoverished entity compared to healthcare. You know, we spend 18, 19% of our GDP on healthcare. We spend a pittance of that on public health. We have thousands of public health departments around the country, many of them are starving for funding. So the economics is I think the first thing that I would talk about. And an outbreak generally gets worse and worse and worse there, then it starts to kind of get better and better. And that’s what’s happening here now, at least to some degree, but at the same time, it’s not affecting every population the same, you know. The impoverished lower end of the spectrum have not done particularly well. But the people at other ends have done very well. And so the economics is the first thing that I would think is a great challenge to public health. Political discord has been immensely important. It’s hard to get things done when you don’t have uniformity of opinion by political entities in our country, and really hard for them to get to a point of agreeing on something. So I think that’s a huge challenge. I’ve given a number of talks on propagation of misinformation. This can be done intentionally, it can be done unintentionally, it can be done inadvertently. But we have a whole large amount of information that is just wrong. That gets disseminated and there’s always a buyer for information, whether it’s right or wrong. And that, to me is a huge, huge problem that I don’t see a solution to coming anytime soon. Social media is partly to blame, because the business model of social media basically says, let’s drive people to look at us, but we have to give them an extreme view for them to keep coming back. So we kind of take a moderate view, and we make it more and more extreme on both directions because of the business model and the algorithms that are generated by entities like Facebook and Twitter. So that to me is a huge issue. I think it’s sometimes lost in the shuffle when you talk about acting quickly. To understand how to fight an outbreak, you have to act quickly because if you don’t act quickly, cases get ahead of you. You know, in LA County, for example, there was a time we had maybe 17,000 new cases a day, you cannot get a handle on 17,000 new cases a day in a population of 10 million people. So that’s a problem. We’ve come down to about 150 at its lowest point recently. That you can handle, you can do contact tracing, you can handle it. And as long as you can keep things in a way that you get to them quickly, you can beat it. But if you let it get out of hand, then you’re back to square one and then you got to start all over again and hope the thing kind of works its way out on its own because you haven’t done what you need to do to get rid of it. And we’ve done that over and over again. Our testing capability for COVID was way too late in getting started for all kinds of reasons, which merits an entire discussion on itself. We were way behind looking at viral loads amongst testing, we were way behind at sequencing of testing.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:06

And just to sort of understand the importance of sequencing, Dr. Carrie Byington, I heard her speak and she said those unvaccinated who are getting COVID, even if they aren’t symptomatic, are a factory for variance. Their bodies can be a factory.

Dr. Peter Katona  10:22


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:23

And that’s why it’s important to do the sequencing, right? Because you might pick up something.

Dr. Peter Katona  10:27

The sequencing tells you where you are and where you’re headed, so you can fight it off before it gets there. So it’s very important to do testing, it’s very important to do sequencing. The sequencing will tell you, where you stand. Do we have a lot of the Delta variant, or do we not have a lot of Delta variant in our particular geographic area? That’s why sequencing is rather important. When they reformulate the vaccines in a year to kind of fight off all the variants better, you want to know what you’re dealing with. And so that’s why it’s very important to sequence.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:05

So you’ve already listed some lessons learned that were from this pandemic, which as I understand, one of them is really, this being on top and ready to identify an outbreak and work towards containing it. That’s a big epidemiologic approach in general, right? It’s to maintain or reduce outbreaks.

Dr. Peter Katona  11:32

Yeah, that’s correct. I mean, we’ve reached the point where there have been so many surprises with this outbreak, that for us to assume things often gets us into more trouble than actually learning anything. So it’s important in terms of lessons learned to understand that don’t assume anything. You know, the old Donald Rumsfeld quote, which is way, way too often quoted, “There are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.” And it’s those unknowns, those unknown unknowns that are most important to getting ahead of.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:09

So that’s the second lesson, don’t assume it.

Dr. Peter Katona  12:12

That’s correct. You know, don’t assume anything. We’ve talked about acting quickly. It’s, you know, the analogy might be a fire where the embers kind of go away. And if you can get ahold of those embers before they start another fire, you can do some good, but if you don’t, then you’re way behind now in terms of a big fire instead of just controlling an ember.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:35

That’s another real public health problem in our state, that’s for sure, are fires. And that’s a good analogy, because a lot of people have experienced that across our state now, across the country, very much so. That leads me to wanting to sort of pick your brain about, there’s an article in Lancet that was published many years ago now that liked to describe public health and its interrelationship with how they’ve improved the health of populations over time historically. And the first way of being this classic public health interventions of clean water, sewers, drainage. And then the second way being responding and learning about how to combat infectious disease through antibiotics and vaccines. All the way through to the lifestyle-related issues that have caused illness that doctors work on one-on-one, and then more population-based, which is the social determinants of health. And then finally, a fifth wave of a culture of health. So I feel like right now, we’re almost having to get back to the basics of public health, which is combating this pandemic through vaccination. That was really the turning point to controlling it across the globe, certainly here in the United States. And I’d like to hear your perspective.

Dr. Peter Katona  14:01

Yeah, vaccination is certainly extremely important if there’s a vaccine available in a timely way. But one shouldn’t discount the other things that we need to do to kind of cut down the ability of an infected person to transmit it to an uninfected person. And that includes masking which has gotten a lot of publicity, both positive and negative over the last year. Keeping your distance from people, keeping yourself away from crowds. Less so the disinfection and the hand washing and the surface transmission. But all of those things have to be added on. You know, they’ve reevaluated some of these things from the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak. And they actually did find that some of those things really helped. We did not have vaccination a hundred years ago for the flu, and they found that those places that did it well had a lot less cases and a lot less deaths, for example, than those that didn’t. Philadelphia, for example, probably did everything wrong at that time, and they had a very high fatality rate, infection rate. So yeah, vaccine is what we want to strive for, but takes time to develop a vaccine. It’s no guarantee that it’ll work. You know, it’s never going to work 100%. So you have to make do with what you can, but you also have to do these, what we call these NPIs, these non-pharmaceutical interventions, as well as vaccine.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:36

You know, one of the things that you mentioned, which is something that’s top-of-mind for so many of us is that we can’t not forget these non-pharmaceutical interventions like mask-wearing. And I’d love to hear your opinion about how maybe you as just an individual are going to go forward related to mask-wearing and if you were to give advice to, I don’t know, your sister or your child, what would you say in terms of mask-wearing?

Dr. Peter Katona  16:08

Mask-wearing is very complicated. We started off with fit-tested, domestically produced N95 masks, which physicians wore in contaminated rooms, which do better than anything else. But then you kind of go to surgical masks, KN95 masks, cloth masks, scarves, turtlenecks, pulling your T-shirt up over your nose and your mouth. You know, and all of these things to some degree give you some protection. The problem is to quantify what that protection is very difficult. Even doing cloth masks and whether they have two layers or three layers and what those layers are, is there an electrostatic layer? All those things make it very complicated to understand how much good you’re doing by putting that particular kind of mask on that you happen to have in your pocket. So I don’t really know where we’re going to go with this, I think it’s going to generate more research in terms of what we do with it. And just the fact that aerosol transmission is so complex. I mean, we have droplet transmission as well as aerosol transmission. The droplet transmission is more large particles, masks a lot better for those. The aerosol transmission of the small particles, masks aren’t quite as good. And there’s some debate about how those two things enter in and how much of a percent one gives an infection and how much of a percent the other gives an infection. So the final rule on masking is not been written yet. We know that it probably cut down on flu transmission this past fall, although flu is so erratic and so unpredictable, it’s hard to justify that and know that that really, really did happen. You know, people in Asian countries wear masks a lot more than we do. But they do it for other reasons, not pandemic, transmission, prevention reasons, they do it because of smog and pollution, and having a cold and not wanting to give it to somebody else. So it’s going to depend also on how much disease is out there.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:16


Dr. Peter Katona  18:16

If there’s not a whole lot of disease out there in your particular setting, locale, that’s one thing. But if all of a sudden we’ve got 17,000 new cases a day in the county you’re in, you’re going be a lot more careful.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:29

And there’ll be probably a different recommendation from the public health department at that point. And I’m sure that also the equation is also related to vaccination rates as well.

Dr. Peter Katona  18:43

Vaccination rates are very important, but we’ve had a lot of trouble incorporating those into rules. You know, there’s a huge debate about vaccine certificates and whether or not they are allowable under our system of government and whether they can be mandated or not. Just mandating vaccination becomes an issue because it’s an emergency use authorization and not a full authorization. So it becomes more complicated.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:12

Once it is approved by the FDA, it could be potentially required for work sites and other places?

Dr. Peter Katona  19:21

It opens up a lot of opportunities but it also opens up the anti-vaxxer people to say, hey, you’re really infringing on our civil liberties, we’re going to take this to court. So iit’s a two-sided issue, but I think I would like to have it fully authorized. I have non-vaxxer people that I know that say, it’s not approved. And I correct them to say it’s got a conditional use authorization. But that doesn’t mean that it’s authorized. And then it’s a conversation that’s not winnable.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:57

Yeah. Well, one thing that It struck me in one of your early presentations was your definitive reflection on the fact that surfaces, they cause 3% transmission.

Dr. Peter Katona  20:10

I would say even much less than 3%. I’d say it’s more than one in 10,000 cases category, if I could give you a number off the top of my head.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:21

And so when you were talking about aerosol versus non, is that just because when the droplets go on something, they’re not going to necessarily transmit?

Dr. Peter Katona  20:33

Well, think about it this way. You have somebody who’s infected. They’re infected in certain parts of their body and not in other parts of their body. Their hands may be infected, they may not be infected. They have to touch a surface. Okay, time goes by the virus decays over time. Somebody else touches that surface. That somebody else has to touch part of their body that would be susceptible to the virus, their face, their nose, whatever like that. So you have a whole lot of steps here, for it to actually be transmissible by surface contact. I just think if you look at it that way, plus the studies that have been done, you can see that there are fragments of virus, we think, that still remain on surface, because you can do PCR testing on surfaces and find whether or not there’s virus there and how long it lasts on steel and brass and paper and whatever. That’s all been looked at. But the problem is that what does that mean, we don’t have consistent technology to tell us live virus from dead fragment of virus, although there are new technologies coming out that will be able to tell us that but right now it’s not available. And also how much virus is important, it takes a certain amount of virus to infect you. I can give you a little bit of virus, it won’t do you any harm, and I give you more and more and more and I get to a critical point where I will make you sick, or at least infect you, if you’re not symptomatic. It takes a certain amount of effort to do that. And we haven’t really measured how much virus there is on these surfaces. That’s called a cycle threshold where you have to figure out how many cycles it took for the PCR test to actually give you a positive result. PCR test keeps amplifying and amplifying and amplifying cycle after cycle to get to the point of detection. And we haven’t done that with surfaces, we don’t have CT values, viral load values for how much actually contaminates the surface. Let alone sequencing, which we certainly haven’t done for surfaces.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:33

That’s really helpful to understand the rationale behind that number of less than 3%. That makes a lot of sense to me. And it reminds me a lot of, and I know you’ve done a lot of research on HIV and how so many people are so concerned about HIV transmission in all sorts of different ways. And that was one of them, a surface?

Dr. Peter Katona  22:52

That’s right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:53

Yeah, you’ve just suggested one step that’s happening where people are actually innovating and researching more and more about this virus in terms of its potential transmissibility on surfaces. For the general audience listening, what would you say are your top priorities that we should be moving forward, in terms of dealing with the current recovery part of this pandemic, but also, preparing for what we probably will have, will be others?

Dr. Peter Katona  23:24

Well, I started off making that list for UCLA. But it does have application to public health in general and the country in general. And there are a number of things that I think are very important here. One is that we need to have an assessment of what we’re doing, what we did, when we did it, and what was going on around us at that particular time with COVID. As well as the reaction to whatever was done or not done medically, economically, politically, at that specific time. So I mentioned for example, that we were way behind in PCR testing, we were way behind in viral load measurements, we were way behind in sequencing, how that played out over time and what the ramifications of that were, to do kind of a retrospective assessment timeline of what we did right and what we did wrong. I think it’s important for every institution to do. My suggestion was for UCLA, but every health department needs to do that. Government at all levels needs to do that. So I think that that’s the first thing that I would say. In emergency preparedness, some call that a hot wash. Next, there are stockpiles. Now there’s a national stockpile called the National Strategic Stockpile that has been used and maintained over the years. The problem was that COVID completely stripped it and it was way inadequate for COVID. And there was very little effort made to restock it in a timely way when things got out of hand last year, so we need to stockpile PPE, ventilator. We also need to stockpile people, we need to have trained people to do the things that need to be done. Equipment requires reagents, it has to be money allocated to be able to do that. The Strategic National Stockpile, for example, add 50% of its expenses for anthrax vaccine, which was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous, by a company that eventually got into trouble with COVID afterwards because of its production facilities. So we have to think out of the box in terms of what are we going to need in the future that we really didn’t do now? You know, we completely messed up testing technology from the very start. Maybe we can do something to kind of get that ready to go faster when it’s needed in the future.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:38

One of the things too in this, which is what you were talking about, in terms of retrospective, is also thinking about how people receive the information, or how they accepted the guidance or information in terms of how we should prepare our population in the future. What do you think about it?

Dr. Peter Katona  25:56

Well, there’s different components to that. You know, obviously, different sectors of the economy are going to be dealt with differently. To get information to that rural communities, urban communities are different. Different socioeconomic classes of people are different. A clever way of using technology will help. You know, everybody pretty much has a cell phone. I did a project in Vietnam many years ago, and virtually everybody in Vietnam had a cell phone. My surveillance system there used people’s cell phones to be able to get disease surveillance information. So people have cell phones. You know, for example, there was a Google-Apple initiative to kind of contact trace people. You registered with it, and then if you were positive, you could register that and then anybody who was within six feet of you would all of a sudden get dinged if they registered. And those kinds of ideas are good, but there was such a backlash about that with privacy issues. We have to get beyond that and understand that sometimes you got to give up a little bit of privacy, to be able to get safety. It’s not a blanket, I’m not giving up any of my privacy, forget it, no way. As opposed to maybe giving up a little tiny bit of it, carefully controlled, to be able to get a huge amount of information to act quickly on an outbreak.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:17

Well, every time we buy something, our information is being shared usually online.

Dr. Peter Katona  27:21

That doesn’t count.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:22

Exactly. I know some people have toyed or suggested that there should be some sort of public health education in the K-12. What do you think of that?

Dr. Peter Katona  27:34

Well, I would start with public health education in medical school. There isn’t a whole lot of public health education in medical school to begin with, and so that’s where I would start. You can’t overteach public health. So if you start in the K-12, that’s great. How much of it will sink through I don’t know. But my concern has been medical school, that we don’t teach public health in medical school.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:56

That is low hanging fruit, that’s for sure.

Dr. Peter Katona  27:59

And you know, you look at who goes into public health and who goes into medicine. There’s a lot more money to be made as a doctor than public health official. And as Michael Lewis shows, in his book, if you’re a public health official in a county like Santa Barbara, you’re going to be hated. Because you have all this authority to do things that nobody likes. Shutting down a clinic, you know, or making a decision about moving people, that doesn’t end up being of value, but you had to make a decision. So you know, I think of Singapore, because Singapore made a decision many years ago that their officials were going to get paid as well as the people in private industry. So they were able to attract a lot of big-time people that wouldn’t have done it if they were going to get the low salaries that those people normally get. And Singapore, by all accounts has done pretty well, without having a whole lot of natural resources.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  28:50

That’s right.

Dr. Peter Katona  28:51

Now they do have more of a dogmatic regime, but I’ll discount that for a minute. So public health is underpaid. I mean, people don’t get paid very much in public health. You know, it’s much more attractive for them to do other things.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:05


Dr. Peter Katona  29:06

So I’d like to at least change that to some degree and make it more attractive.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:10

Yeah, that definitely would. I think you’re right about that. Any other recommendations?

Dr. Peter Katona  29:16

Well, we haven’t talked about surveillance systems, you know, to be able to get a early handle on an outbreak, you need to have a good surveillance system in place that tells you something is amiss and that you should do something about it. You may not know what it is that’s amiss, you may not know what to do about it, but it gets you thinking. You’re not going to go to a shelf and pick out the plan for this in this volume. You’re going to start thinking that, you know, maybe I need to mobilize certain resources, maybe I need to call my old professor who I trust that maybe might be able to help me. You know, you start to kind of think about things. So it’s important to have early detection surveillance systems in place, and it’s also important to amalgamate different surveillance systems. There’s an agricultural surveillance system, there’s a veterinary surveillance system, there’s a human surveillance system, there’s a satellite surveillance system. You know, it’s important to coordinate those, have them all talk to each other. Sounds really simple. I’ve been interested in this since the 1990s and it just doesn’t happen very easily. It’s complicated to integrate surveillance systems. It requires a lot of programming skills, and it requires a lot of money to be able to do the things for these systems that they need to have done. So it’s expensive, it’s technologically very cumbersome. So I think that’s important and I’ve actually interested the National Academy of Sciences, which I’m a member of, one of their committees in doing that, that this is something that really needs to be done. And we haven’t really approached it worldwide. And they’re interested, which I’m very happy about.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:48

That’s terrific to hear that. Because when you think that the potential origin of this particular pandemic would have maybe been detected in the veterinarian surveillance system, but not necessarily the human surveillance system, am I correct?

Dr. Peter Katona  31:06

Well, that gets us to the beginnings of COVID. And there’s a lot of unknowns there.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:10


Dr. Peter Katona  31:10

You know, so we do know that December 31, first case was actually recognized internationally. The Chinese were aware of cases prior to that. What the Chinese did right or wrong to contain it early on is critical. And we don’t know what that is because they’re not giving us their information about what they did or what they didn’t. And I’m talking about those months in October, November, December 2019. Yeah, not in 2020 when all of a sudden all hell broke loose. Because by that time, the cat was out of the bag.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:43

Right, right. All across the globe, pretty much. I have so many more questions, but we’re running out of time so I thought, I’d like to ask you one of my standard questions, which is what keeps you up at night?

Dr. Peter Katona  31:55

That’s a question I’ve been asked before. And my first answer is the thousand-year pandemic. This was the hundred-year pandemic.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:05

What’s the difference?

Dr. Peter Katona  32:07

More intense, more deadly, more rapidly transmissible, more ill-preparedness. I mean, look at smallpox, it killed 15, 20, 30% of the population at a time. Look at plague in the Middle Ages, killed 50% of the population. We haven’t gone anywhere near approaching those numbers yet with COVID. So we haven’t even come near approaching the number for Spanish Flu. Spanish Flu had 675,000 Americans killed in a population about a third of what our current population is. We’re about at that number, but with three times as many people.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:46

Well, I think what you’re saying too, is I recently read that someone in an article said how lucky we were because it wasn’t transmitted by vectors. Like a mosquito, for instance.

Dr. Peter Katona  32:59

Well, that can work both ways. Because if you can identify the vector, you have another possible methodology that might help you. You know, if it’s a mosquito, maybe you can put in some kind of mosquito eradication program or have them breed with sterile partners or some such thing to be able to contain it. So having a vector doesn’t necessarily cause you to be more concerned, it may actually help you.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:22

Actually, speaking of which, I don’t know if you could comment, but I heard that the mRNA vaccine might actually help people who might get malaria or prevent them from getting malaria. Do you know much about that, or?

Dr. Peter Katona  33:36

Yes, I mean, malaria has been talked about, a malaria vaccine. The beauty of mRNA vaccines is once you have the genetic code of whatever you’re trying to attack, you stick that code into a supercomputer and it will come out with a vaccine candidate. And it may be a cancer vaccine, it may be a malaria vaccine, and it may be a coronavirus vaccine. This technology, which I have to put a plug in was initially worked on by a Hungarian, is a phenomenal technology. I mean that the downside of it is so minimal. And it can be targeted to do exactly what you want to do, exactly what you want to attack. I mean, look at the fact that these mRNA vaccines have withstood variant, alpha, beta, gamma, delta. They still work, you know. So it’s a marvelous tool that has huge broad implications and is probably at the forefront of all the technological advances that are a great byproduct of this outbreak.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  34:40

That’s for sure. What else would you say, is a positive outcome that you could say?

Dr. Peter Katona  34:45

Well, we’re going to reconfigure a number of things. We’re going to, for example, reconfigure our economy, we’re going to do things in the economy. We’re going to take office space and we’re going to do different things with it. People are going to work at home more than they have ever worked at home in a very productive way. Think of all the meetings you can do on Zoom, as opposed to actually physically going from one to the other. So those things are important. You know, we have this huge information revolution, we have all this information, all this data. And we’re still trying to figure out how to handle it properly, how to use it properly, as opposed to the misinformation universe that I mentioned before. So I think all of those things are going to happen. And I just hope that we get to a point where we prepare faster and more efficiently, apolitically for the next one in a much better way than we did for this one.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:37

Peter, to wrap up, is there anything we haven’t covered that you would be wanting us to know? Any words of wisdom?

Dr. Peter Katona  35:44

Well, I think I’ve covered the main issues of what I think is important. The allocation of appropriate resources in public health, and I mean, not only to the public health places around the world, but the surveillance systems, the stockpiling, all these things that public health control. The vaccines, public health doesn’t make the vaccines but they do control the distribution. And I think that’s very important to have that done in an efficient way. We saw that it was not particularly well done at the beginning of the distribution process of the vaccine, but then it kind of picked up steam and was able to do it in a much more efficient way. And that’s important, just because you have the vaccine, if you can’t get it out to the right people in the right amount of short time, you haven’t really done a whole lot of good. So I think one of the things I’m very happy about is that the actual mass production of vaccines was going on at the same time they were being evaluated. Most of the time in the past if a vaccine you go through all the steps and once you’ve reached that final step, phase three studies are done, you can go and start mass producing it. They mass produced at the same time as they were actually studying the vaccine. Downside being at the vaccine was a dud, they wasted a lot of money. But in the case, like in a pandemic, that’s well worth the risk. And so that was a step taken that I think was very smart. And the overall federal budget of things. It wasn’t that huge amount of money, although it was well into the billions. But you know, Gates Foundation contributed to that, it wasn’t just a government entity. So I think that was that was something that I think was well done in a world of things that were not so well done with this outbreak.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:24

Well, it’s to your point that there was a sense of urgency and expediency to take on this demmick through that one step that they did with the vaccines. At least that was timely.

Dr. Peter Katona  37:38

Yes, I would agree with that.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:39

Yeah. Well, Peter, it’s just been incredible. You’re such a valuable member of our UCLA community, and we’re grateful that you have given us so much of your knowledge and guidance. Thank you.

Dr. Peter Katona  37:53

Thank you for having me.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:59

Thank you again for joining us. For more information about today’s episode, visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast. Today’s podcast was brought to you by the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA. To stay up to date with our episodes, subscribe to UCLA Live Well on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Leave us a rating to tell us how we’re doing. And if you think you know the perfect person for us to interview next, please tweet your idea to us @healthyucla. Have a wonderful rest of your day and we hope you join us for our next episode as we explore new perspectives on health and well-being.

#34: Climate Change and Food with Dr. Hilary Godwin

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:03

Many of us ask this question to ourselves and others: is eating organic better for you? Well, today we’re going to unpack this question, and many more with Dr. Hilary Godwin as she discusses the importance of distinguishing between scientific evidence and personal value judgments. Hilary is trained in chemistry biophysics. She’s a leader at the intersection of environmental science and public health, and she’s supervised research programs in mechanistic toxicology and environmental health for more than 20 years. In addition to researching lead poisoning, her interests includes the impacts of climate change on public health, the efficacy of conservation programs and policies on indigenous populations, and community-based approaches to address health problems. At Northwestern University, she helped develop a program to help students, particularly those at risk who are interested in the sciences, transition from high school to college. And in 2006, Hilary joined the UCLA faculty and taught in the Environmental Health Sciences Department. And she’s now the Dean of University of Washington School of Public Health. Join us today, as we talked to Hilary about pesticides in food, climate change, and ways to become a more effective communicator. Welcome, Hilary.  Hilary, I just want to say how I’m so grateful you’re here today. I know you came down from Washington for a dissertation for one of your last PhD students here at UCLA. Yeah. You know, I just wanted to say that remembering the first time I met you, which was when you were presenting to our pediatric residents around pesticides, and pesticides’ use on foods and how it might impact the health of those eating those foods, I was struck incredibly by the ability that you have to communicate a complex subject to a group of people who might not have a strong background in that area. Even though of course, pediatricians and pediatricians in training have had a lot of science, but maybe not as much chemistry and environmental science. I wanted to know where did you learn those skills?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  02:29

How did I hone those skills? So it’s something that has interested me for a long time, I remember as far back as when I was doing my dissertation, which was on fairly esoteric chemistry, about how different elements bond with each other, and create chemical bonds. And even then I remember really struggling with how do I communicate that to various different audiences in ways that would make sense to them. And I remember, my dad, who says scientists coming to my thesis defense, and afterward going to visit his parents, who are not scientists, and saying to my grandfather, you know, I don’t think I ever even realized that she works on chemical bonds. And my grandfather said, chemical bonds?! Which then he realized it was like one of those moments of, even a term that seemed as inherent and like, you know, so basic that like, if you’ve taken freshman chemistry, that you learn probably the first couple of weeks about chemical bonding, that for someone who’s not coming from a science background, that word doesn’t make any sense, right. And so the language that we use when we explain what we’re doing, the significance of it needs to be adapted, depending upon who we’re talking to. So for me, I always use my grandparents as the reference point. My parents are scientists, so they have a fairly technical background, but we say make sure you can explain it to your grandparents. So that’s one. Another part of where I think I learned that skill was in teaching freshman chemistry. So before I came to public health, I was a chemistry professor for 10 years and taught freshman chemistry for a long time. And it really taught me to listen to the kinds of questions that people ask and piece apart where they’re not understanding terminology or concepts. And in the particular case that you’re talking about, made me much more mindful about in talking to people, even people with really strong science backgrounds like the pediatric residents, it’s been a while since they’ve taken something like freshman chemistry and so some of those really basic concepts may not be super fresh. So ways to sort of remind them about the things that they learned in the past and contextualize problems that they’re interested in, referring back to some of that earlier learning. So, yeah, it’s one of those things where, you know, I always say no work is lost in terms of even if you shift into a new direction, you’re picking up skills all the time that that can help you in other fields.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:20

Your focus has been on toxicology and chemistry. And then now you’ve done, you did a pivot to environmental health and so how did that come about? Where did you get that epiphany where you wanted to do both?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  05:36

Yeah, so after working on very fundamental chemical concepts for my PhD, I realized that I wanted to do something that was a little bit more practical. And so I did some continuing work as a postdoctoral fellow in a medical school and started to shift more towards biochemistry. And that was sort of the initial shift. And when I started as a faculty member, I thought about, you know, given my background in very basic chemistry, and then this transition to the more biophysics and biochemistry, what were, how can I bring sort of that unique combination of skills to bear on a problem that was of importance, and talk to folks who were at the medical school where I was working as a postdoc about what were unsolved problems that they wish people were working on? And one that came up repeatedly was lead poisoning in children. And so that was sort of, my sort of first entree, I think, into public health, was really saying, how can I take the skills that I have coming from a more physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry background? How can I use those to help inform, trying to understand why lead is poisonous? So that was the research program that I started as an assistant professor and focused on for the first 10 years of my career, but then slowly started realizing that even if we knew a lot about why lead was poisonous, that we weren’t going to be able to prevent children from being lead poisoned. And so I started doing work with local community-based organizations in Chicago, where I was at the time, that were working on lead poisoning prevention, and helped to develop a program for students that were entering college, to introduce them to research but also this sort of community focus and prevention focus, and really just fell in love with public health and the idea of trying to prevent illness before it happens, and then have the opportunity to move to UCLA, and shifted into the School of Public Health at that time. And I’ve been super happy with that transition. I really feel like I have found my home in public health in terms of, it’s a great match both for my values, but I feel like I bring a fairly unique set of skills and perspective to the discipline, and able to contribute to it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:01

It sounds like you’ve really let your passion be your vocation and be the guiding light almost for your choices. Now you’re Dean of University of Washington School of Public Health. I mean, it’s pretty tremendous, that kind of trajectory. Would you have ever thought you would be in this role when you first started?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  08:20

No, I don’t think so. Yeah, I mean, that’s something where I had a fair number of sort of personal struggles as a young adult in my late 20s and early 30s. I had a younger brother, who was sick for a long time and then passed away from cancer, had cancer myself. And that really caused me to become very centered in terms of saying what are the things that I care about? And recognizing that life is short, and it’s worth focusing on things that bring you joy. Yeah, so I’ve been fortunate in that way in terms of those experiences which were obviously not good experiences, but have informed a sort of more connectedness in terms of me following my passions and doing things that I feel like I’m contributing back in a way that’s meaningful.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  09:12

And how do you find yourself contributing back? What do you consider contributing back?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  09:18

Probably the way that I, the thing that I value the most in terms of contributing back is training and mentoring young people. So after moving to UCLA and joining the faculty of the Fielding School of Public Health, I really shifted towards a model where I worked with doctoral students who had passions of their own that they really wanted to pursue. Things that where they saw insights, where they knew they could change the world, and shifted my focus from sort of this doctoral student as apprentice to me model to me as an advisor, being a facilitator of them achieving the things that they want to achieve. And so as a result, that introduced a whole bunch of different types of work across a broad range of environmental health, but also really I’ve felt like, it’s been a great opportunity to just see these young people blossom that I know are going to continue and go on and do amazing things for the rest of their careers. So I would say, in terms of impact, that’s probably the thing that I value the most, in terms of my own work. Certainly the early work that I did on on lead poisoning, I’m very proud of also.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:38

Can you elaborate on that a little? As long as you’re proud of it.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  10:42

So the early work that I did was looking at what happens when lead interacts with proteins that normally have zinc or calcium in them and how that impacts developmental processes. But really getting down to the molecular level of why is lead different from zinc or calcium? What is it doing to the structure and activity of proteins, which was not a level at which people had looked at lead poisoning before? So it really was bringing to bear the very fundamental chemistry perspective on what’s an important pediatric developmental problem. So a very different perspective.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:44

And zinc is an important element in development, that’s for sure.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  11:03

Yes, that’s very important. So there are a number of zinc proteins that regulate developmental processes. And so what my students and I found was that when lead substitutes for zinc and those proteins, it distorts the structure and activity of those proteins, and so it basically messes up the developmental pathways,

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:47

In particular, neurologic?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  11:49

Yeah, so neurologic development, which we see as being a primary outcome of lead poisoning in children, is neurological developmental problems. So that was what I did for the first part of my career. After moving to UCLA, one of the drivers for that was that there is this great group of people here interested in looking at whether or not nanoparticles, so very small particles, whether or not they had different types of toxicity than either this element itself, or large chunks of things that were made up of the same element.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:29

Specifically lead or other elements?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  12:31

Not necessarily lead. So we ended up getting funding from the NSF and the EPA to look at this problem.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:38

NSF is National Science Foundation.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  12:41

And the Environmental Protection Agency, for a center to look more broadly at the environmental implications of nanoparticles. And one of the great things about that center was it really was this holistic view of bringing together public health people, chemists, medical folks, people from environmental biology, people from engineering, all wanting to understand on a systems level, how do nanoparticles interact with different living systems? How does that impact ecosystems? And really answer this big question of like, do we need to worry about them as a special thing? Or are they just, is it just because of the things that they’re made up? So is it just for instance, that they’re made out of lead or copper? Or is it that there’s something inherently bad about things that are that size?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:31

Related to our health?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  13:33

Related to our health, yes. Our health, so people’s health, but also more broadly, animals and organisms out in the environment. So the Environmental Protection Agency looks not just at like impacts on people, but also how do, when we put things that are toxic out into the environment, how does that affect ecosystems, which in turn, of course, impacts people’s health as well, but also just inherently we care about ecosystems as well.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:01

And planet health?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  14:02

Yes, and planet health. That center was focused on looking at this big picture question of Is there something specific about nano-sized particles that makes them more toxic, than the elements themselves or larger materials. But we really approached it from a perspective of as we learn about what makes things toxic, how might we design alternatives that are less toxic? And so to me, that was a really just beautiful culmination of work on trying to understand toxicity, but to the point of making things that are better, that are safer, right? So not just understanding for understanding’s sake, but to have an outcome that benefits humanity.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:53

Would you distinguish that for why public health has that kind of lure for you? Is that it has that opportunity?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  15:01

Yes. So one of the big appeals to me in terms of coming to the School of Public Health at UCLA in particular, was that we had so many amazing faculty who are not just studying the basic science related to the environment and human health, but also doing what I call closing the policy loop of communicating that back out to people who are making decisions so that that evidence base could inform policy. So to me that was this really critical component that I wanted to be able to learn from those people on how to do that of how do we make sure as scientists that we’re not just doing great science, but that we’re also getting the results of that science out to people who can make decisions that improve everyone’s lives as a result?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:56

And was it, do you feel that in your division of environmental health, that many of your colleagues have the communication skills that you have? Because for me, I’ve been struck by your colleagues in environmental health and School of Public Health, as real advocates, and really interested in policy and what implications their work have on health policy.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  16:20

Yes, so that was, for me, one of the primary draws in terms of coming to UCLA. So specifically, colleagues like John Froines, who for years has been just not only a great scientist, but really powerful communicator to make sure that that science is informing policy decisions. Arthur Winer, another person in the area of air quality, who did just great work. Great example from Arthur’s work is he looked at the impacts of diesel exhaust from buses on kids, and then also worked with policymakers in the state of California to make sure that new schools are situated farther away from freeways. So really like long-term, big impacts of that science, making sure that society was benefiting from them. And then another person in the department who joined after I did, but has just been an incredible mentor for me is Dick Jackson, who’s been super involved in healthy campus as well. But Dick has been certainly someone who I’ve had many conversations with about how do you communicate to different audiences? He has been very kind and gentle in saying at different points, well, I don’t think I would have communicated what you just said exactly that way. And he and I co-taught together for a long time, and I learned a lot from co-teaching with him. But he is an amazing communicator and has dedicated a huge portion of his career to making sure that the decisions that are made in the public sphere are based on sound science.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:20

Yeah, in fact, I had to give a talk for the first time about health and climate two weeks ago, and I emailed him and I said, could you give me some of your one-liners, please? And he sent me an entire page of one-liners. He’s incredible.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  18:15

Yeah, in fact, he was someone who, before I went to go speak to the pediatric residents, actually, I had a conversation with him about the difference in terms of how basic scientists communicate with each other, versus how doctors communicate with each other. And he described very succinctly for me, like the structure of a standard sort of basic science seminar, and how that differed from the way that grand rounds are given within the medical discipline in terms of storytelling. That really has absolutely transformed the way that I communicate with professionals in my field since then, that I realized, yeah, there’s a lot of things about the way that we structure our talks in the basic sciences for other scientists, that actually isn’t a great way of structuring talks for anybody. So I even changed the way I sort of communicate to basic scientists as well. So yeah, but very intentional conversations about how we communicate ideas to each other.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:22

That’s a perfect transition point, because I was loving your talk that you’ve given now, I think for four or five years, to the pediatric residents. And so how did you arrange or plan the conversation you had with them around pesticides in food and their health impact? Like how did you figure that out?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  19:44

Yeah. So before I give a presentation to a particular audience, even if it’s on a topic that I’ve lectured on previously, I try and spend some time just thinking about what are the most important points that I want that audience to remember at the end of the conversation or the lecture, and then think about what are the critical pieces of information that will help to reinforce that message. So with the pediatric residents, rightly or wrongly, I came from that perspective of that they probably are getting questions from parents and trying to think about what were the kinds of questions that they were likely to get from parents. And thinking about if I only have an hour with them on this topic, what some critical information that I can give to them, so that they feel that they can respond to those questions from an evidence base, and also helping part of that, for me, with the discussion about pesticides in food or organic foods, the value of organic foods, is helping them to differentiate between what parts of the answer to that question really has to do with science and an evidence base, and which portions of the response to that are of value judgment. And being very intentional about separating those two, both in terms of my communicating to the residents, but also then thinking about how they might communicate that to the parents. So in the case of pesticides in foods, there’s a really strong body of literature supporting that the use of pesticides, has adverse health outcomes for farmworkers who apply the pesticides to the foods, and also a very strong evidence base supporting that putting those pesticides out into the environment is not good for our planet, not good for ecosystems as a whole.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:02

Because they kill, they sort of kill different valuable organisms in the ecosystem?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  22:09

Correct. And the evidence base about the impacts on the consumer is less strong. So making sure that they were aware about if you’re making a decision about whether or not to buy organic, about trying to avoid foods that were grown with pesticides.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:31

Now does organic mean that they’re not grown with pesticides or?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  22:35

So for the most part, yes. So there are some types of pesticides that can be used on organic foods, but only under limited, in limited categories and limited circumstances. But for the most part, the pesticides that we’re most concerned about in terms of the health of people amnd ecosystems, would not be used on organic foods. But the evidence base behind saying, this is important to me to buy organic, is one that should be based upon concerns about farmworkers and the environment, more than protecting, for instance, their children from pesticide residue. So if someone’s making a decision that they know that that’s the evidence base, and then whether or not they’re making a decision of the should I buy organic becomes them reflecting on their own values, in terms of how they value the people who are preparing their food, their value of the environment as a whole. As opposed to them feeling that somehow they’re hurting the health of their children, and reminding the pediatrician something that they know, which is that we really want both kids and adults to be eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. If you have a low-income family that’s worried about pesticides, and decides not to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables because they can’t afford organic, that would actually be a disservice to the kids in that family that they’re trying to serve. So to try and make sure that the families realize the important thing is that the kids are eating fresh fruits and vegetables. And then if they have the resources and they value the health and safety of the farmworkers and the environment, then it is a lovely thing to do to buy organic, but that it’s not critical to the health and well-being of their children per se. So that was part of that conversation. And then another part of it was also making sure that they realize that there are plenty of local farm producers who don’t necessarily go to the expense of getting the certification of organic but who sell, for instance, our local farmer’s markets, who use those same approaches and methodologies, but just don’t want to pay for the certification becoming organic. So to encourage them, again, to take advantage of those local resources of our local farmer’s markets, and our local food producers, that that’s a great source of fresh fruits and vegetables, and one that’s very economic.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:21

I can now understand how you always got the highest rankings among the pediatric residents among who was presenting, because it clearly, you very effectively delivered that message, because I felt that every pediatrician afterwards really understood the kinds of the balancing act that you have to have around talking about organic versus non-organic. And I remember, you also said though, you mentioned some foods, like if you had to buy organic, like, if you wanted to prioritize, what were you, can you remind me of them?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  25:55

So that’s where it comes down to the, to me sort of this, not necessarily so far in the evidence base, but on my personal value judgment. So some of it is evidence-based, which is the question of, if there are foods where it’s very difficult to wash off pesticide residue. Those would be ones that I would prioritize buying as organic or buying from the farmer’s market. So that would be things like your leafy vegetables, so your salad greens, berries, also, which are a little harder, they’re pretty fragile, a little harder to wash off. As opposed to say, like an orange, where you’re going to peel it or a banana where you’re going to peel it. So those are ones where I’d say like, if it’s difficult to wash or you’re unlikely to wash it, then that might be one where you would prioritize buying organic, if you’re trying to make a decision about where your money is best spent. The one that you’re probably remembering me saying that I personally, and this is a value judgment, always buy organic is the berries, and that was, I say that’s a value judgment, because I personally was opposed to the chemical that was being used to, for non-organic strawberries as a fumigant for non-organic strawberries. Not because I was worried about my personal health or my family’s health because it evaporates and so it’s gone by the time it comes to you as a consumer, but because I was so concerned about the impacts on the health of the farmworkers that are growing those berries. So that was one where for me it was that one specific chemical, I was personally opposed to being a party to having farmworkers being exposed to it. But again, that, to me, that again, sort of falls into this value judgment.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:40

Yeah, really thinking about your food more consciously from the way it’s grown, to how it’s produced, and delivered to you. I think a lot of people are thinking more thoroughly about that. And then where does it go at the end of your, even after your plate?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  27:58

Yes. And that’s what what I love about, for instance, the movement for farmer’s markets throughout the Los Angeles area, and in Washington, and also the Seattle area as well. So that’s a really lovely way to help people connect with sort of seeing where their food is coming from and talking to the people that are producing that food. And as you know, because you’ve worked in this area, another one is growing food yourself. The initiatives of having kids in schools growing food, in terms of kids really sort of connecting with where the food is coming from, and being more open to trying different types of vegetables in particular. Those are to me, those are really great movements in terms of us being more connected with where our food is coming from, that have all sorts of auxilary benefits to us.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  28:50

You know, you said you had this value judgment about this fumigant that they’re using for strawberries. Is there a resource that we could look at to be able to identify those products that really are using higher toxic fumigants or other pesticides that would be impacting the health of the farmworker?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  29:13

Yeah. So that particular example came from a report from the Sustainable Technology and Policy Program from UCLA, where they actually did an in-depth study of that particular chemical and its impact on people, particularly farmworkers. But more broadly, that’s a great question that I don’t have something off the tip of my tongue, but…

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:37

What are your students’ projects?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  29:41

It’s not that I don’t think that it’s out there, it’s just I’m trying to think of what’s a great example, maybe. So one resource we have in the state of California that’s really amazing is the pesticide registry that we have for the state of California. And so I’m guessing that there’s some good resources on on that website. Why I say it’s such a great resource is that by law, California mandates that growers have to record use of pesticides, so what pesticides they use, when and where. And that’s all in this big registry for the whole state. And so that has enabled really important research looking at, for instance, impacts of pesticides on people who live close to farming areas, and showing that there are long term health effects on on those populations. And that never would have been possible without having access to that kind of registry.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:38

Well, so that’s sort of the next question, related to pesticides in my mind is that, yes, the food itself doesn’t sound like at least there’s not a direct correlation between our health if you eat the food that’s been exposed to pesticides. And fortunately, I know, at least some of the larger retailers now are offering organics at lower prices and the volume is high. So the price point even for organics is on the lower end, which is great for everybody, the Earth, and probably ultimately the human, but we don’t have the data yet.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  31:16

Right. Yeah, I want to come back to that. So yeah, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s no benefit to eating organic food for the person who’s consuming it. So there have been studies showing that people when they consume organic produce, that the amount of pesticide metabolite, so that what your body does to the pesticides, once it gets into your body, that they’re lower in people once they shift to an organic diet. So we know that’s the case, we just don’t know whether the difference is enough to be significant. So it’s not that I think there’s no chance that it’s better for the individual to eat organic. Again, I would say the jury’s still out on that one.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:56

Right.  Yeah. And that would make sense to everybody, I would suppose, which is just more to study, I suppose. Which is always the case for scientists. One question’s answered, ten more have cropped up kind of thing. But I’m thinking the impact on the environment, you know, the planet and then also, of course, the workers and the people that live around these farms, really brings us to a broader question, which you mentioned, and talked about a lot. You did a terrific webinar a couple of years ago on it, this whole thing about climate and health, and the environment and health. And, you know, the challenge that you had identified in this talk that you gave two years ago was the fact that so few people, what is it, less than 50% of the population of the United States view that climate change has anything, that it’s not going to impact their own personal health, per se. And I’d love for you to talk to me about first of all, why do you call it climate change and not global warming? Yes, exactly why why do you call it climate change? And then I’d also really like to know a little bit about what you think the solution is to trying to engage people to really believe that there is a link between their health and the planet health.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  31:56

Yes. So let me start with your question of why do we call it climate change as opposed to global warming. That was a very intentional shift within the scientific community working on this topic, when we realize that the changes weren’t just that the planet is getting warmer on average, but also that we’re seeing more extreme weather events, things like flooding, droughts, hurricanes, that those are happening more frequently and with greater intensity. And so that’s why we refer to it as climate change now, as opposed to saying global warming. And I think that same expansion of that concept, also relates to your other question of the, you know, what might make people realize that it’s impacting them. I think there’s been a lot of change, even just in the last couple of years in terms of public perception about that, as we’ve had much higher frequency of really severe storms. In the United States, the kind of storms that we used to call 100-year storms that we see them happening with much greater frequency. And as people experience those, they realize, even though we might not be able to say this specific storm is due to climate change, that the pattern of having more of those storms more frequently, having them be more severe, that we definitively can say results from climate change. So I think as people in the United States are starting to see that in their communities and in their neighborhoods, that we’re starting to see a shift of people recognizing that climate change impacts them. What we’re still seeing a lack in the United States is people appreciating that the causes of climate change are human activity. So what can we, then coming back to your question of what can we do about that? I think two things. So one is to really emphasize to people that regardless of what the source is, that the ways that they can make themselves and their communities more resilient are the same. So it’s worth investing in improving the personal resiliency, and also the resiliency of their communities, regardless of whether or not they think that people caused climate change. But I do think we do need to continue to work on doing a better job of communicating to people about the scientific basis for why we know that climate change is caused by human activity. And that’s just challenging I think it’s challenging, not just because science is complicated. It’s also challenging, because it sounds funny as the scientist to say this, but not everyone believes in science, right? That’s true worldwide, and also in our own country as well, is that people have different belief systems. And so starting from the idea of I can show you from a scientific perspective, the connectivity between human activity and these outcomes. Underlying that communication strategy is the assumption that people’s framework for understanding the world is based upon a scientific framework. And that’s not necessarily the case. So I actually don’t know how we get to addressing that, for people who have that different framework. That’s where us, people who are in the sciences, collaborating with people who are working in the field of psychology, and the fields of communication is going to be really, really critical, because clearly the approach of just saying the same thing over and over again, is not successful.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:22

Yeah, I think what you’re, well, I have so many questions now, based on what you just said. So just to reflect back on what you just said about values, you know, really, it’s about values, it’s back to values. It’s not science and values don’t necessarily blend, they can, but they don’t necessarily. And there was a very important article that came out, I think, in 2014, from Lancet that talked about the fifth wave of public health, which was about culture of health. And, you know, in a sense, that’s like building a value of health that you value health. Now how you define health might be different, but the culture of health is one that we’re working on here at UCLA through the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. And now it’s spread to all 10 campuses with the Healthy Campus Network. And the article really was describing all the different waves of public health, right. The first one was clean water, you know, during cholera in England. And then the next was vaccines and antibiotics. And the third wave was doctors identifying illnesses that they could prevent in their clinical setting. And the fourth was determinants of health, right, that we know that where you’re born, and what kind of family you’re born into can really determine long-term health. And so the fifth wave being culture of health is an area that I think a lot of people are working on. And we’re, I think that the using a university as a anchor institution, in a community to propagate this kind of value, really creating culture to be considered in everything you do, whether it’s, you know, you’re the fireman, the police officer, or the professor, that culture of health or health is at that higher level of thought is not an afterthought. And so I’m wondering if that’s something that you’ve thought about in terms of this sort of trying to blend values with climate, understanding climate change.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  39:26

Yeah, yeah. I hadn’t thought about it that way. But you’re right. I mean, one of the things that’s so fabulous about the Healthy Campus Initiative at UCLA, is that you are reaching everybody. So you’re right. It’s not just the people who want to go on to be doctors that are engaged in the Healthy Campus Initiative. It’s the really sort of re-baselining for the whole campus community. I think another thing that’s really, to me, fabulous about the Healthy Campus Initiative is the approach that you have taken of engaging the students in developing solutions. That experiential reflective learning, and having them have ownership for the way that it progresses and developing solutions is a really powerful approach. And you’re right, there probably are great lessons to be learned there in terms of both how we reach the broader community with similarly with culture of health, but also how we think about climate change but I hadn’t thought about it that way before. So it’s a nice little kernel of thought for me to take back with me. So thank you.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  40:50

Yeah, you’re welcome. I didn’t think, I am glad to contribute. I’m learning so much, right, in this last hour. Getting back to your comments about how though you feel that people who build resilience really will also be contributing to mitigating climate change, what do you mean by that? Like, how does building resilience, what do you mean by that and how would that mitigate climate change?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  41:17

Yeah. So normally, we classify building resilience activities under adaptation, which is the how do we, knowing that climate change is coming, how do we try and minimize the impacts of it as much as possible. But you’re absolutely right that some of those things that we can do to minimize the impacts of climate change on ourselves and our communities are also the same things that we know would help to contribute to minimize climate change in the long term. So let me give you some concrete examples of that. So in terms of the building resilience, one of the, to me, one of the things that’s most helpful about building resilience is the idea, kind of like what we were just talking about, with the Healthy Campus Initiative, of empowering people in terms of having, feeling that they have control over their future and their destiny. I think that one of the things that we see in modern society is that, that people feel like they have a loss of control over what’s going to happen to them. And that’s one of the reasons that climate change is so scary, is this idea that it’s this, you know, huge Earth-encompassing change that as an individual that I might be powerless to prevent. And that can cause people to sort of shut down, right?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  42:50


Dr. Hilary Godwin  42:50

And so the the building resiliency, part of it is saying, knowing that that’s happening, there are actually things that you can do to make you and your family more resilient. So that could include becoming more connected with your neighbors, right? So if you know that there’s a greater frequency of wildfires in the area that you live in, making sure that you’ve reached out to your elderly neighbors, so that if there’s a wildfire that they know you’re gonna swing by their house and pick them up as you evacuate. Just those kinds of things build an interconnectedness in the community. That gives you a personal sense of empowerment, but also does genuinely make your own community more resilient to the impacts of climate change. They’re also some of the some of the activities that you can engage in that build resiliency for yourself or your family that also have good long term impacts. So an example might be putting in solar power in your house, right? So one thing that we know is happening is, as we have warming, that our electrical grid is becoming more unstable, and so we’re more prone to having blackouts, right, rolling blackouts. And so you having a generator, having electrical power if you have a battery backup system as well, photovoltaics, that that gives you resiliency in terms of if there’s a blackout, that you’re better able to cope with it. But also putting in those photovoltaics means that you’re feeding renewable energy back into the grid, and decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels which contribute to climate change. So it’s one of those where it gives you a personal sense of, I have a backup plan, but also allows you to know that you’re contributing to a solution through your actions.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  44:56

Those are very good concrete examples and from an individual point of view, for instance, if we were to talk to students here or to even, you know, our faculty and staff, which we focus on all of them, for the Healthy Campus Initiative and Network, like if they wanted to be intentional in terms of reducing climate change trajectory upwards, like, at least mitigating it, and then also helping their own personal health. Are there any examples that you could give? Like food, for instance, I understand, like, you know, the ruminant animals, if you reduce even a bit of that consumption, you could potentially really reduce significantly some of the climate change.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  45:43

Yeah, that’s a great example. So switching to people say Meatless Mondays, or switching to a more plant-based diet definitely overall reduces that sort of environmental footprint that you have. And it certainly is super, very healthy for you, as long as you’re using fresh fruits and vegetables, I mean, a good combination of protein sources. That’s a, in general, a good personal health move as well. So that’s a great example. Other possibilities, so the one that I frequently come to, which doesn’t really help in terms of preventing climate change, but does a lot in terms of personal empowerment, is the making sure that you have an emergency preparedness kit for yourself. So having a backpack that has the things that you would need. An example I often give to people working here that I got from a former student who used to work on disaster preparedness is if you commute to campus, making sure that you have a comfortable pair of shoes in your backpack or your car. Because if we have some kind of catastrophic earthquake event for instance, being able to walk home is going to be really critical. Sometimes when there are catastrophic events, you aren’t necessarily going to be able to take your car. So that’s when we’re, just the like knowing that you are ready in the face of adversity. I think the one that probably comes up most frequently here is wildfire preparedness, but that same emergency preparedness kit would prepare you for if there wa a major earthquake as well. In addition to the example that you brought up about switching to a more plant-based diet, another change that people can make on an individual level that is great, both in terms of mitigating climate change, and also great for them, in terms of their personal health is using more active transportation, so biking to campus instead of driving to campus. Great in terms of decreasing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that we have, but also really fabulous in terms of your personal health.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  47:51

Yeah, I mean, that actually was an interesting observation that Renee Fortier, our Head of Transportation had, which was that the health message has been much more effective for her in terms of reducing the people driving their cars on their own here. And she gave me a data point: this past year 33% of students, staff and faculty, commute now in a single-user car compared to the average of 75% in LA.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  48:21

Which is amazing. Yeah, UCLA has done a great job in terms of promoting both active transportation and also shared transportation as well, both of which are great in terms of reducing our environmental footprint.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  48:36

So in that case, Renee’s observation is that she’s used the health message as the way to effect change that then, of course, the added benefit is that it’s a climate health improvement as well. What would you say would be the kind of messaging that you have seen or consider would be useful for this shift in terms of choosing Meatless Mondays?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  49:01

Well, so coming back to your example, from transportation, there was another study at UCLA that Magali Delma and the Institute of Environment and Sustainability that where she looked at what motivated people to be more energy efficient in university housing, and she found that messaging around health was more effective than messaging around money savings. So that’s another example to sort of support that the messaging around health is something that people really listen to.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  49:33

And how did that help energy efficiency in the dorms?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  49:37

So they tried different, sending different messages. It was actually in, I think, in the graduate student housing, so in apartments. And they tried sending different messages to the people who were participating, letting them know how energy conservation impacted greenhouse gas emissions, and also production of pollutants and how that impacted children’s health outcomes in the Los Angeles Basin. That was a much more effective messaging strategy in terms of seeing them then reduce their energy consumption than saying, you’re going to save X number of cents by turning off this light.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  50:16

So it’s actually not even necessarily their own child that it was the children’s.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  50:21

Correct, it was a children’s health message in general. So, yeah, but coming back to your question of how might we use a similar health message for trying to get people to switch to a more plant-based diet? I almost wonder if the issue there, and I know you guys have started to look at this as well, is not necessarily that people don’t, I think people know that it’s healthier to eat a plant-based diet, I’m thinking that there’s more sort of cultural, social factors that are preventing them from adopting a more plant-based diet. So that’s where it might be helpful to actually work with some psychologists in terms of doing some studies to look at what’s keeping people from making that shift. And I know, that’s just my sort of intuitive guess and that could be wrong.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  51:12

I do. There’s actually psychologists, Amy Rowat and Janet Tomiyama, they’re both looking at the meat that’s being well, fake meat, I guess, that’s being grown in petri dishes. And they’re going to start looking to see the acceptability of that, because it actually tastes like meat, but it’s not meat. So we’ll see. But that’s just in the new first phases. Because you’re right. I mean, I think it has a lot, it’s so cultural, and food is so cultural, culturally driven. And the engagement around health seems to be a really value-driven engagement to so that gets back to trying to elevate health into the everyday fabric of our lives, of everyone’s lives. And allowing people to define health the way they want to define it, but just having health be part of a priority, not just for individuals, but ultimately, what you were describing earlier with your ability to translate science, translating the science to make it a priority for policymakers.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  52:16

Right, right. Yes. And also thinking about how to create policies that make the healthier options easier.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  52:25

Exactly. That’s one of the mechanisms. And then of course, the other mechanism being make the less, least healthy options less available.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  52:34

Right. Yeah, right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  52:35

Both of those, sort of the contrary, the two, back and forth. You know, I mean, I think that your interest, your ability to communicate, your interest in what has evolved been a focus on mentoring and educating the next generation of leaders in science really are all have a common thread or theme of amplification. And it, from what I gather, and your observations over time have brought you to that step where now you’re the leader of one of the premier public health schools in the country, in the world, really. And I’d like to know, in your experience, in your short experience in Seattle, if you have found that Los Angeles and Seattle have similar challenges that you can apply your lessons learned here to there, or are there diverse or differences that you might want to highlight right now?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  53:32

Sure. So first of all, just to say, I still don’t view myself as the leader of the School of Public Health at UW, but more the facilitator of the great faculty, staff and students who are there. So the supporter.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  53:47

That’s why you’re such a great leader already, that’s the secret sauce.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  53:53

Yeah. In terms of, yes, I’ve only been there for a couple months. So what are the things that have sort of struck me as being similar and things that are different? So there are some things that are remarkably similar between the issues faced in Los Angeles and the issues faced in Seattle. One that’s very striking is the homelessness situation. So both cities, and this is true, I think, across the west,  you know, the West Coast, is that we’re seeing people really struggling with being able to afford housing, and stay in affordable housing. And that’s true in Los Angeles. And it’s true in Seattle as well. I don’t think to me, it’s surprising that that’s true in both places. They are two cities where there is a big concentration of wealth, but there’s, which contributes to high housing costs, but also both cities have a lot of income inequality. And that of course then exacerbates the need to have low-income housing and affordable housing. So that’s one that certainly is common to both places. And like Los Angeles, we’re seeing in Seattle that national issues related to the opioid epidemic and mental health care are contributing to people’s difficulty in terms of staying sheltered and meeting their basic needs. So those are things that are in common. We’re seeing the wildfire prevalence in the Pacific Northwest increasing dramatically, just as it has been down here, and that’s having really bad impacts on air quality, just as it as down here. It’s probably the most visible impact of climate change in the Pacific Northwest. And I think it probably is down here right now.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  55:48

Most certainly now, yeah.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  55:49

Yeah. So those are things that are common to both places, and really point to the need for better social supports, addressing those upstream determinants of health that you mentioned earlier, like poverty and income inequality, and creating social supports for the people who are in greatest need and underserved communities. So those are common to both places. Something that surprised me in terms of, so as I’ve been going around and meeting with different stakeholders since I moved to Washington, I’ve been asking them, you know, what do you think are the most important problems that are faced by our surrounding communities, in terms of public health, where we could be making a greater difference? And one that I didn’t hear very often down here in Los Angeles that I hear very consistently up in Washington is rural health. So Washington has a very substantial portion of the population living in rural communities. That’s actually true in California as well. It’s just not perhaps as visible to us here in Los Angeles, right, because we’re in such a dense urban area, but it’s really very present on people’s minds up in Washington, particularly access to care. So we have really isolated rural communities that don’t have enough primary care providers. And so thinking about how do we work across the health disciplines, to partner public health, and nursing, and dentistry, and pharmacy, and medicine to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of those rural populations, and addressing basic health equity issues for those populations is a really high priority in Washington. And like I said, I don’t think it’s different from California. It’s just perhaps more frequently articulated even by the people who are living in the cities that I heard it articulated in the super urban areas down here.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  56:46

So if you were to have a two-minute ad on national television, and then I’m going to ask you about LA television, and then Seattle television. So if you had a two-minute ad on televisions, and that was going to be televised nationally, what would you want to say or do on that? Two minutes?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  58:12

Yeah, I think for me, the core issue when I go farthest upstream, in terms of that’s impacting the health of people in our communities, in our country worldwide that I would love to address and I don’t know if you could do it in a two-minute ad, but I guess I’d try, is the need for us to see the humanity in each other, and to look beyond political differences or differences in origin, and see each other as human beings and have empathy for each other. And you probably could do a two-minute advertisement that really emphasized that, again, sort of leveraging the impacts of health and inequity in our country. I mean, I guess I would probably choose something focused on children who have basic needs and security, because they think it’s easiest for people to realize that the children aren’t at fault when they are homeless or hungry. But we see so frequently, what I think is an unproductive narrative in our country, of people looking at adults who are suffering from basic needs insecurity and somehow imagining that they did something wrong. And I think the reality is we have a lot of evidence to support that there’s a lot of inequity in our country and our world, and people don’t all have the same opportunities. And there are a lot of circumstances beyond people’s control that lead to unfortunate outcomes for people and so it’s easy to see that when it’s our sister or niece or cousin, that somehow getting us to move beyond identifying differences and in other people and moving towards the common humanity and seeing people as human beings. I don’t know how you do that in two minutes. But if I had two minutes of primetime national TV, I think I’d probably focus in on that.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:00:18

So that, what I’m hearing you say is that you feel that building empathy will reduce inequity.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:00:27

Yes, yeah.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:00:29

That’s a, I think, very profound way of thinking through mechanisms of why we’re where we are today.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:00:37


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:00:38

And would you use that same message in your LA or your Seattle two-minute ad?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:00:44

Yeah, I, you know, regardless of where we are, for those of us who come from a place of relative privilege, it’s really easy to shut out the images that conflict with everything being okay. And because they’re hard, right? And so I do feel like it’s part of it is that empathy, but it’s also the reinforcing to people that it’s important to see the problems that surround us, and to recognize that they are hard problems to solve, and that it’s going to take a lot of time and continued effort to solve them, but it’s still worth trying.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:01:31

It’s almost like getting people to vote and thinking their vote counts.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:01:36

Yes, yeah.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:01:38

And I think they’ve done, I think people are moving towards feeling that way, actually. And I’m not sure, it’s beyond my scope of knowledge, but I’m feeling that if we were to leave our listeners with maybe four things we could do that not only would make us more resilient in the subjects that we just covered in terms of climate change and health, but also, is there something that we could do to even help mitigate, continue to mitigate the climate change march upward? What would you leave people with?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:02:11

It’s funny, because I almost always return to really basic recommendations, like, take really good care of yourself, right? So the things like sleeping well, eating well, getting exercise, so that you have the energy and emotional bandwidth to take on these challenging problems, and be personally resilient so that you’re able to contribute to solutions. That, to me, is sort of like one of the super basic ones, particularly for our students, and for all the people who are working in the health professions and any service field, right?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:02:51

Yes, you really, you have to take care of yourself before you can take others.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:02:55

Yeah. So that’s one. And I think a second one is this, recognizing that sometimes people aren’t engaged in solutions, because they’re overwhelmed. And so, looking for opportunities to help people feel empowered towards developing resiliency and developing their own solutions, like you’ve done with Healthy Campus. Those are really great things in terms of not just the short term, but the long term of building healthier, more resilient communities. I know you’re probably looking for more like, more immediate ones, like ride your bike.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:03:40

Well, the things that are tangible like people can do. I mean, I know a lot of people can’t ride their bike, but they can walk.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:03:47

Walking is great. I have to say. So one of the most wonderful things for me personally in terms of moving up to Seattle is I traded in my 30 to 40 minute commute each way to a half hour commute that involves walking to the train station, taking the light rail one stop and then walking from there to to my office. And it’s so much more pleasant. I’m so happy and I feel very blessed to, like, be able to live someplace where that’s an option. Yeah. So, yes, trying to find the opportunities for where we can make those sort of differences in our daily routine that make each day better.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:04:35

Yeah. Something else that Renee told me about active transport, which of course yours is now, is that people just naturally shed 10 pounds in a year just based on that change in their life, not changing anything about how they eat.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:04:52

Yeah, you know, I always, I heard that statistic many times and I always thought that it was as a result of the, like, the walking more, but having made that transition, the decrease in stress is also just enormous.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:05:10

Makes so much sense.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:05:11

Yeah, it’s so nice not to begin and end your day with…

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:05:17

Fighting traffic.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:05:17

Fighting traffic. Yeah. And they’re decisions that actually, you know, I look at it, it’s like, well, my gut reaction was like, well, it’s just not possible in Los Angeles. But in fact, they sort of looked, and my husband and I could have made the decision to like, leave our house in the suburbs and move to a smaller place that was closer to work and walk to work. And we chose not to. And it was helpful to have, you know, move to another city to have, to sort of say, I’m going to prioritize that. But in retrospect, I sort of think, oh, I should have prioritized that sooner.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:05:55

So that’s a little tip there.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:05:57

Yes, yeah.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:05:58

If you can try to live close to where you work.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:06:02

Yeah, it’s not always possible. But if you can, it certainly can improve your quality of life. Well, I guess depends where you work, but.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:06:10

Well, I think that what you’re just describing as the interconnectivity of emotional well-being, physical well-being, and social well-being, all wrapped up in active transport.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:06:22

Yes, yes.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:06:25

So Hilary, I want to thank you so much for your ongoing leadership or mentorship, I suppose.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:06:31

Aww, thank you. Thanks for having me.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:06:32

And your ability to continue to do your incredibly great work and communicate science. And I don’t know if there’s anything else you want to leave us with before we end this podcast.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:06:44

I always like to end on a like, optimistic, hopeful note, which is, we talked about a lot of things that are, you know, challenges and big problems like climate change. And I think that, you know, people often ask me, like, how do you, working on those things, do you stay positive and happy? And I think at heart, it’s because I really believe in like, human potential for resiliency and doing things well and like when we set up systems to allow people to be healthy and succeed, the wonderful things can happen. So kudos to you guys for the Healthy Campus Initiative. I’ve seen how what an amazing transformation it’s brought to campus and glad to hear that it’s spreading to other places as well.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:07:33

Right on. Well, we’ll have to do something up where you are.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:07:37

Yeah, absolutely.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:07:38

So I’d like to hear about, you had represented a case in Australia that actually did shift the priority of the community around climate change. Can you explain that to me?

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:07:50

Yeah. So the example came from Sydney, Australia, where Sydney actually had a concerted effort, I don’t remember what the name of the program was, or the initiative was, but were they set out to change the perspectives of the people in the surrounding community about climate change and building resiliency to climate change. That by working on that sort of people’s perception of the issue problem, and tackling it from that side, that they were able to gain the political momentum that they needed in order to make systemic changes that weren’t tractable when the community wasn’t supportive. And so as a result, they’ve done some really amazing things on a city level in Sydney that have been hard to do other places. So it’s just an important reminder that reaching out to people, the people who live in that community, and making sure that they understand that there are potential solutions, and they can be part of that solution is really important.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:08:58

Thank you so much Hilary.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:08:59

Yeah, yeah, of course. Thank you.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:09:01

This is incredible, and you’re incredible. And I can’t wait, and I’m looking forward to potentially exploring maybe as we move forward with the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative and Network, that we’ll be able to engage with you in a meeting we might have in August, actually.

Dr. Hilary Godwin  1:09:18

Oh, that would be great. Yeah, that’d be great.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:09:20

Yeah. Thank you again for joining us. For more information about today’s episode, visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast. Today’s podcast was brought to you by the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA. To stay up to date with our episodes, subscribe to UCLA Live Well on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Leave us a rating to tell us how we’re doing. And if you think you know the perfect person for us to interview next, please tweet your idea to us @healthyucla. Have a wonderful rest of your day, and we hope you join us for our next episode as we explore new perspectives on health and well-being.

Episode #2: Stress-eating and Weight Stigma with Dr. Janet Tomiyama

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:00

Hello, my name is Dr. Wendy Slusser. And here at Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA, we strive to be trailblazers in building a culture of health and well-being. Starting in our own backyard, Semel HCI transforms ideas into reality to create a campus-wide culture of health by promoting physical, emotional, and social well-being. Welcome to our center’s podcast, LiveWell. Join us as we interview leading experts and discover new perspectives on health and well-being. Each episode, we will bring to you scientists and world class operators who will share with you cutting-edge research, and practices, and never-before-broadcasted tips to live a more healthful life for yourself, community, and our planet. We live in a society that’s obsessed with weight loss and dieting. Weight stigma and fat-shaming pervade our everyday lives, turning eating into something that is no longer an enjoyable act, but one of scrutiny and stress. Driven by a love for food and a true foodie at heart, UCLA Associate Professor in Psychology Dr. Janet Tomiyama believes that there are ways to get healthy without ever mentioning weight. Janet runs the Dieting, Stress and Health or DiSH Lab at UCLA that focuses on two main drivers of why we eat, or don’t: stress and weight stigma. Fueled by dedication, drive, and a well-balanced lifestyle, Janet was awarded the prestigious Association for Psychological Science, the Janet Taylor Spence Award for transformative early career contributions in 2017. So why do we crave brownies instead of fruit when we’re stressed? Why are mashed potatoes and mac and cheese comfort foods instead of roasted veggies and refreshing salads? Today, Janet will answer these questions, as well as unpack stress and weight stigma. She will even share tips to creating long-lasting habits for a healthy lifestyle. Please, let’s welcome Janet Tomiyama.  You know, the thing about you, Janet, that I was struck by when I first met you, was how enthusiastic you are about your subject, to the point that you were junior, junior faculty  joining a, really, a startup initiative. Granted, it was a Chancellor’s Initiative, Semel, well then, Healthy Campus Initiative, now HCI or Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA. But you were willing to take the time to come to our EatWell pod in spite of the fact that you were obviously, publish or perish.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  03:03

Right, finding my way toward tenure.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:05

Exactly. So, I’d love to know, you know what drove you to even, like how did you even find out about the EatWell pod? And like what drove you to come?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  03:17

Yeah, I was thinking about this on my way over here. How did I even learn about HCI? I can’t remember that, unfortunately. But I do know when I looked into it more, what I really loved was that the stakeholders at the table and the EatWell pod were people I was not used to seeing in terms of my academic work. So you know, people from Dining and I got to know Dolores really well, who’s a Registered Dietitian. And so it was a really new way I think about tackling sort of issues that are important in terms of health and eating that I hadn’t really seen before. So it was really exciting to me.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:56

You know, I remember you and then there was Eve who also was a dietician.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  03:59

Eve Lahijani.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:02

Yeah, and Dolores, who were always also emphasizing in the EatWell pod, which is really the focus area of making the healthy choice, the easy choice right on our campus for all the students, staff and faculty, not to emphasize weight, but to emphasize healthy eating.  Yes, my mantra.  Yes. Yeah, and so how did that mantra come about? In your life? Yeah, well, you know, my very earliest research was looking at dieting and by dieting, I mean cutting calories, so not eating healthy, but instead, you know, trying to eat less and whether or not that worked. And in study after study after study, I was seeing that dieting just doesn’t work in terms of long-term weight loss. And in my dissertation work, which I completed here at UCLA, actually my PhD, in 2009. I did a study looking at whether or not dieting was stressful, so I randomly assigned people to diet or not. And then I measured their stress hormones. And it turns out that dieting increases your levels of stress hormones. And one thing we know that stress hormones do is they increase your body’s deposition of energy as fat, especially in the belly region. And it also makes food tastes really delicious. And it makes you reach for food when you’re stressed, which I’m sure we’ll talk more about later. And so through that work, I was realizing, oh, my goodness, this thing that everybody does, and that physicians often recommend, which is cutting your calories, that could actually backfire and lead to maybe long-term weight gain, which was what we were seeing in the studies. To me, it became really clear that dieting not only isn’t the way out of this obesity so-called epidemic that we’re living in. It’s stressful and having potentially negative repercussions in terms of our metabolic health. And so I’ve been really sort of anti-dieting for a long time. And I think that was one of my reasons for wanting to join EatWell pod, which is to make sure that the messages we’re giving our students especially aren’t pro-dieting, and UCLA’s done a great job in this going back as far as I can remember, they participated in International No Dieting Day. So the message has been really positive. Another sort of stealth reason for joining the EatWell pod, which I don’t think I’ve actually ever told you, is stress eating, which is one of my research topics, is really midway between EatWell and MindWell. You know, so the MindWell pod is the stress component, EatWell pod is the eating component. So I was hoping to really draw connections between the pods. And hopefully that’s something that we can emphasize even more in the future. Yeah, I think that the mind-body connection is going to definitely be one of our big focuses as we move forward. Because I think that that connection in so many areas is going to make such a difference in terms of people’s well-being overall. Yeah, because well-being isn’t any one thing. It has to be all of it together.  That’s right. So I want to parse out what you’ve been talking just about diet and stress. And first of all, I want to, can you define what you mean by diet? Sure, yeah, this is difficult, because some people are doing low-carb, or keto diet is really popular right now. And so in my research, at least when I talk about dieting, I’m defining it as cutting your calories in order to lose weight. And that’s a really big difference from trying to eat healthier, you know, or trying to eat more fruits and veggies. It’s all about restricting and you know, not letting yourself have something which is calories. And so that I understand, you know, your interest is biological and behavioral, bio-behavioral, right? Yes. And social. Biopsychosocial model is what we use as a theoretical framework. And so by focusing on the motivation of how to eat healthier, and then also what you eat. Those are the different ways of your research has gone in different directions in that area. Yeah, I think it’s really interesting to do research on the borders of disciplines. And so, you know, nutritional scientists really look at the components of what’s inside food, and how does that affect our health. But as people like to say, food isn’t nutritious until it’s eaten. And so I’ve been really curious about, well, what makes people put the food in their mouth. And for that, we really have to turn to understanding psychology. And also, the reason why I think the social world is so important is that the people around us really strongly determine what it is we’re eating. You can just tell, you go to a restaurant with people you don’t know all that well and everyone’s like, what are you going to eat? What are you going to, are you getting an appetizer? Should we do dessert? And so you know, incorporating the world around us, I think is really the way to lead to deeper answers. And so just like I’ve been wanting to link up EatWell pod and MindWell pod, my research to I think imbues that sort of priority, which is let’s look at the psychology and the biology and the social world. And maybe that’s how we can get to some better answers. Yeah, so that adds what we just added a year ago, the EngageWell for social well-being. Yeah. Yeah, so important. As important as smoking in terms of its effects. Fifteen cigarettes a day. Poor social well-being is equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, I mean, that’s like-

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  09:41

That’s outrageous.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  09:42

Yeah. So before we get to the social well-being, which I think you were just alluding to in terms of who you eat with, and I know one of your graduate students that studied with you did a really interesting article that was published about that.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  09:57

Yes, Jenna.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  09:58

Yeah, in terms of eating and I’ll ask you that question, but stress. Can you define what you mean by stress? Especially I’m interested in what you said earlier about stress how stress makes food more delicious, all food?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  10:13


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:14

All food? Especially sweet and fatty food, that we know of.  Right, but any food?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  10:20

Any food, yeah.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:21


Dr. Janet Tomiyama  10:22

So okay, so the definition of stress, this is a toughie because I don’t even think the field has really landed on one single definition. Some people define stress as any stressful event that might happen to you. So divorce or losing a job and things like that. But the psychological part that I think is interesting is some people define stress as whether or not you feel stressed. So they don’t even care what the event is that happened, they care about your sort of psychological response to it. So I like to talk about the example of a flat tire. So if somebody is working two jobs, and they’re, you know, really relying on their job for income, and they get a flat tire, it’s catastrophic, and could be very stressful to them. And contrast that with someone who’s wealthy who might have another car to take, you know, or has money to take a Lyft or an Uber, or the very highest echelon is a chauffeur, who will just chauffeur you to work. And so I think from that perspective, it makes a lot of sense to define stress as if you feel stressed, that’s stress. And so that’s really the psychological definition of stress that I’ve been using in my research. There’s also another way to define stress, which is how much cortisol do you have, cortisol being that stress hormone. But, you know, it’s interesting. If somebody feels stressed, it doesn’t necessarily perfectly match up with how much cortisol they secrete. If somebody feels stress, it doesn’t perfectly match up with how much epinephrine they’re creating, or how fast their heart starts beating. So you know, the biology and the psychology aren’t often in lockstep with one another, which I think is why it’s really important to look at both the lived-in experience as well as the the hormones and all that stuff.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:09

Well, especially with some of your research that’s shown the stigma around being obese and the stress that it brings. And then that sort of vicious cycle of how stress then relates to eating.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  12:24

Yeah, that’s perfectly summarized.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:27

Yeah. Wow. So explain to me though, where do you think it all began? I know, that’s the million dollar question, but.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  12:35

Where stigma began, or?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:37


Dr. Janet Tomiyama  12:38

So this could be a whole podcast in itself. I think the idea of weight stigma and this negative attitude and bias against heavier bodies that we have in society.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:48

And is it an American phenomenon?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  12:50

You know, there are studies that have looked at levels of anti-fat bias across the world. And it’s rising everywhere, even in cultures that have traditionally prized heavier bodies. So some Pacific Islands, you still see rising levels of anti-fat bias throughout the world. And people have linked it to sort of Western culture disseminating throughout the globe, and this sort of Western ideal of a thin body. And so what you were alluding to is that this experience of weight stigma in itself can be stressful. And as we know, we just talked about, stress causes weight gain, and stress causes you to eat more, so it’s experiencing weight stigma can then lead you to gain weight. So it’s this vicious cycle that you said, so more weight stigma, more weight gain, which puts you at ever more risk for increased weight stigma. So I think that is a really important segment of societal stigma that we’re starting to pay attention to, I think there’s more and more sort of societal attention to fat shaming, and body acceptance, but we still have a long way to go. And there are some numbers that show that weight stigma in many sectors of society is more widespread than things like racism and sexism, and even stigma against sexual minorities. And so I think it’s a problem that we really need to pay attention to. And one thing that weight stigma leads to I found in my research is eating. And so I think that it ties back in where you experience weight stigma, you experience stress, and then you engage in stress eating. And so it’s one way that fuels this vicious cycle.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:07

And so in this day and age where we have so many people in our country that are suffering from obesity, and stigma, who’s doing the stigmatization in a way? I mean, it feels stigmatized, like it feels like there’s like almost, at least adult-wise, the majority of people are either overweight or obese. So the minority are in the different weight category. So what’s happening? Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense.  Yes. And in fact, this is one reason why the National Science Foundation has funded my work because of these weird theoretical quirks of weight stigma. Normally, people in the minority are being stigmatized. And yet in the United States, the majority has a BMI that is either overweight or obese. And so what’s going on there? It’s a really interesting social psychological theory question. One explanation, I think, is that there are very high levels of internalization of anti-fat bias. And so people really believe and make part of their value system that fat is bad, and thin is good. And so this is also really, to me, an interesting aspect of weight stigma. So, if I go somewhere, someone is mean to me, because I am a woman, I reject that and I will, you know, sort of fight back against that. People who have heavier, larger bodies tend to actually internalize that stigma. And they might say, yeah, they’re right, I don’t have any willpower. Or, you know, yeah, I really do think my body looks gross. And I think going back to the social aspects of it, I think there is a lot of acceptance of negative comments about one’s body, like, you might eat a heavy, really indulgent dessert and say, oh my God, I feel so fat right now. You hear that every restaurant. Those kinds of comments are really seen as normal, and not something strange. Whereas if I were to say, oh my god, Asians, because I’m Asian, if I were to say, I hate Asians, they’re so gross, that would be really strange. So it’s like an interesting weirdness about weight stigma that makes it important to study. Another really unique aspect of weight stigma is that the people who are closest to you tend to be the most stigmatizing. And this is a total flip from other forms of stigma, like racial and gender stigma, so if someone threw racist slurs at me for being Asian, I could go to my mom or my dad and say, oh my gosh, can you believe someone said this? And they would support me. But you don’t see that in the case of weight. Often, the family members are the ones who are the most stigmatizing. And so they lose this social support. And they’re experiencing stigma from those closest to them. So it’s a really potent form of stigma. And so from what I’m understanding is that also people who might be stigmatized, also have this implicit bias against others with this similar condition. Yeah. And they feel it towards themselves and others. So it doesn’t matter what your body looks like.  You might also have that because you believe it about yourself as well.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  17:49


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:50

So what is the solution to this? Like, how do we overcome it? I know. I think that there is one movement, which is this fat is beautiful movement. I’m all for it. I love all body positivity sort of messages. But I still think saying fat is beautiful, is putting beauty as the standard that we’re trying to reach. Whereas there’s another sort of growing movement, I think, which is looking at weight stigma as a social sort of justice movement, of a human rights movement where, what does it mean that we’re treating parts of our society as less than just because of the way they look? That’s not okay. And so I think looking at it from a human rights perspective, we’ll get us there in a way that doesn’t sort of pervert the issue and make it all about beauty. At the same time, it’s gonna be hard. I mean, if just think about how these two sentences feel in your gut. So if I were to say, oh my gosh, that Black guy is so lazy, that would be like, *gasp* right, we all feel this sickness in our gut. But you hear things like, oh my gosh, look at that fat guy, he’s so lazy all the time. And if that feels a little less icky to you, I think that really signifies how much more accepted weight stigma is in our society than these other forms of stigma. Well, I certainly see in my business in the health professional businesses, that there’s a lot of stigma and the work I do, I’ve seen children avoid going to the doctor because of their weight, and what they perceive as that they’re doing something wrong, and they don’t want to go to the doctor anymore. So I could certainly see that as a place also to work towards improving the biases of physicians themselves and other health professionals.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  19:50

Yeah, I have a study looking at implicit and explicit levels of bias. So implicit bias is bias that you’re not necessarily conscious of but it can still affect the way you interact with other people. And explicit bias is how much do you believe heavier people are bad, have less worth and things like that. So we went to a conference that was attended by people who are obesity-related clinicians and obesity-related researchers. And we measured their implicit and explicit bias. And we were thinking, okay, of all the people in our society, these are the people who we really don’t want to be biased for the exact reasons you mentioned. And yet, even in people specializing in obesity, we saw proof in anti-fat bias both at the implicit and explicit level. And so I think that is a definite sort of lever that we could use, is to engage with our patients in a way that doesn’t leave them stigmatized

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:54

Well, I think that some of the genesis of that is the fact that health has been related, or poor health has been related to weight, or overweight. And I know there’s a lot of studies right that are coming out that are shifting that view, especially in the aging population that other factors, like social well-being, engagement, and other things make more of a difference. But there is still an association with poor health. So I guess that’s the tricky part. It is really tricky, I agree. I think there’s a way to get patients to health that doesn’t mention weight a single time, because what we really want, I don’t think we necessarily care about how big somebody’s size, or their belly is. I think what we care about is, are they eating well? Are they moving around? To that I love to add are they stressed out? We should get them less stressed out. And are they sleeping well?  Do they have friends?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  21:57

And do they have friends? Yeah. And I think you can encourage a patient to live in a healthier way without a single time mentioning what their BMI is or what their weight is. Because I think as soon as you go and say the W word for weight, all the societal pressures and baggage and, you know, negative messages sort of tumble into the door of that, you know, that room. And so I think that one way to help is for clinicians to really talk about these behaviors that are changeable, and focus less on BMI. We know that BMI is not a great measure of health, you know, so professional athletes can still be categorized with a BMI.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:46

That’s right, I think body mass is heavier than fat.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  22:48

Yeah, exactly. And I could go on for a full hour about how just because weight is correlated with health, that doesn’t necessarily mean that weight is causing bad health. I mean, all of your listeners will know correlation is not causation.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  23:06


Dr. Janet Tomiyama  23:07

And so something you mentioned, health care avoidance. So that could be what’s actually making it seem like weight is bad for you, because people who are heavier will avoid the doctor and get less preventive care and have poorer health outcomes. And somebody just looking at that is going to say, oh, it’s because they’re heavy. That’s why their health is bad. When really, it’s because they’re avoiding the doctor because of the size of their body. So there are lots of reasons to believe that BMI isn’t the full story, and that there’s lots of gains to be had by focusing on these behaviors.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  23:45

Yeah, well it sort of gets back to your definition of dieting and focusing on a diet, which was basically denying yourself something, versus positivity like focusing on something positive. I’ve, in my practice, I’ve done that. I emphasize, you know, this focus on behaviors, and the side effect will be that your weight will potentially become healthier.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  24:08


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:09

But yeah, so that’s, so that sort of gets to that research project. Jenna, your graduate student, who I found to be very interesting a research project around, I guess, socializing around the sinful food. Yeah, can you give a little bit of information about that study? I think is quite interesting. I have a question too about it.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  24:35

Okay, great.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:35

Like a follow up study.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  24:37

Perfect, yeah. So this is a study with my former grad student, Dr. Jenna Cummings, who is now at University of Michigan. And she was really interested in how eating and the social world intersect. We know that the people around you can affect your eating. So you know, whatever anyone else is eating around you, you’ll eat. If everyone on around us eating a lot, then you’ll eat a lot. If everyone around you is just eating like birds, then you’ll, you know, really restrict your eating.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:07

So you mirror.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  25:08

You mirror, yes. And so we know that. That’s interesting. But Jenna’s insight that I think is even more interesting is that maybe the way that you eat can actually change your social world. And let me illustrate that with an anecdote. So think back to the last time you are out with a friend, and maybe you are both even on diets and trying to watch your weight. And then the server comes by and says, can I interest you in some dessert? And you sort of look at each other and say, should we? No, we shouldn’t. Oh my gosh, let’s do it. And then you eat that huge brownie sundae, and you feel sort of like, you’ve done something a little bit risky, and thereby increased your social bonding. And so that was her hypothesis that maybe eating makes people bond. And maybe that’s why it’s so hard for people to eat healthier, because it’s such a great way to feel close to somebody.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:05

So when you take risks with a friend, you bond more?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  26:08

Yeah. So you know, you should go, I don’t know, skydiving, I guess? With someone you want to get closer to.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:16

Oh my gosh, no. My risky behaviors are so benign, we bond with it.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  26:24

Yeah, so she looked at this in a really clever study where she had groups or pairs come in, people who are already friends, and she randomly assigned them to either eat something really decadent and delicious, or something that was low calorie. And the clever part of her study is that the the milkshake that we gave the participants was the exact same milkshake, we just changed the way that we described it. So we’re like, okay, you guys are going to taste test a indulgent, delicious, decadent milkshake. And the other group, we said, here’s the low-calorie, sensible milkshake. And that way with the exact same milkshake, just the psychological experience of engaging in risky eating behavior, that’s the only thing that was different. And so the people who gave the quote unquote, indulgent milkshake reported higher levels of bonding than the people who eat the sensible shake. So that makes us think that indulging in these risky eating behaviors does serve a social bonding purpose. And it’s something we need to be aware of. I’ll mention in that study, this is especially true for people who are dieters, chronic dieters, and so for them, this behavior is really really risky, right, eating a brownie and violating their diet. And so, ironically, is for the people who are trying the hardest to restrict their eating that this bonding mechanism is the strongest. And so it’s a really powerful for us.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:58

And so, like, that was interesting. I read the study, but I didn’t realize the shakes were the same. That’s really cool. So that takes away, really, the reward of the fatty, salty, you know, foods that we think of as why people are so appealing.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  28:18

Yeah. Was that your follow-up question?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  28:20

No, actually, I was wondering, you know, it’s becoming cool, and not necessarily risky, but it’s becoming cool to eat, like, as a vegan or as some other form of eating that is not necessarily unhealthy for you. Would you think that this could hold true for, I mean, would that be an interest, or has there been a study with people that find it cool, and necessarily, risky but trendy, or, you know, what would you think would happen?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  28:53

Yeah, the psychology of vegetarianism, the psychology of veganism, these are really understudied, uncharted areas, and some of my research is moving in this direction. I think it’s so interesting, I think it’s spot on. Something that you said is really true and important, which is that we are declaring something about ourselves by the way that we eat. So by saying I am a vegan, you know, that’s, that’s saying something about your values, that you may be care about the ethical treatment of animals. Maybe you care about the environmental consequences of eating meat. Maybe you’re doing it for health reasons, but that the way we eat is actually a social identity and one that many people wear proudly. And so I do think that there is some some social capital people gain by declaring themselves as vegan or vegetarian. At the same time, there’s research that shows tiny bit of research that shows that vegans and vegetarians can be stigmatized by the larger society that we know this, for example, from analysis of dating sites, people who say that they’re vegetarian are less likely to match with people.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:15


Dr. Janet Tomiyama  30:16


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:18

All those self-selected crowds, too, on dating sites.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  30:22

Yeah. But you know, things like that, make it clear to me that it’s not a simple picture. I think so much of it is the culture that you live in. So speaking of a culture of health, you know, if you’re in Los Angeles, where practically everybody is vegetarian, or at least very veg-focused, and many are vegan. Then I think, if it’s trendy, then it’s trendy, if that makes any sense.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:49


Dr. Janet Tomiyama  30:50

Yeah, if it is, if it is trendy within your own sort of microculture, then then you can gain some social benefits from engaging in this health behavior. That said, estimates put 95 to 97 percent of Americans as meat eaters, so you know, here from where we sit in Los Angeles on a college campus, it might seem like it’s a really common behavior, vegetarianism and veganism. You know, we have Veggie Grill in Ackerman. So it might seem very normative. But if you look at the entire nation, it’s a tiny, tiny percentage of people who are actually engaging in vegetarianism and veganism. And there’s research that shows that many vegetarians, more than half actually eat meat from time to time. And so you know, just because you call yourself something doesn’t mean it’s perfectly linking up to actually what you’re eating. And I think that’s really interesting, too, that there’s a difference between what you eat and the label you give yourself for what you say you will eat.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:53

It feels like we’re talking a lot about image, aren’t we, like the image of your self as a vegetarian, your image of yourself as your body.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  32:02

Heavy or thin.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:03


Dr. Janet Tomiyama  32:04

And yeah, and that’s something I should note about my weight stigma research, which is that a lot of people who think that they’re heavy actually are not from objective body mass index standards. And we know this from surveys where we give people questions like, how, how would you describe your body from very thin to very heavy, and then we put them on the scale, we measure their height to get their objective BMI, and we see that it’s often not linking up. And so people can perceive themselves as heavy, even if they are in a thin range, or the normal weight range of body mass.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:41

And that’s very common, huh?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  32:43

Super common, and just show us how subjective and psychological these processes are.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:50

Right, well I’ll never forget, you know, with my daughter when she was in high school, and you always find something wrong with yourself. I don’t know why. But yeah, and I would tell her well, don’t worry, you know, I, every time I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw my big thighs. And then she looked at my pictures of when I was in high school and said, you didn’t big thighs. I said, I know! That’s my point, is that you always find something wrong. Like there’s always something that, just you can’t see anything else.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  33:21

Yeah, you can’t be objective about it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:23

Yeah, you can’t. You know, getting back to this stress piece that you’ve talked in other interviews about the interrelationship with eating and its effects on stress, and the soothing effect.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  33:38


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:39

And I’d like to explore that more with you because I’d love to understand. In general, we know food is soothing. Now, what kind of food? Is that as important as what we associate that food to be? What would suit us?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  33:57

Yeah, so I got into this, because I started reading some non-human animal research on comfort eating. And in a series of really extraordinary studies, Mary Dallman at UCSF and her group showed that if you give rodents, rats in this case, access to comfort food, and so in their case, it was crystal mixed with sugar, I believe.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  34:24

I’m glad I’m not a rat.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  34:26

Some studies use Oreo cookies, so maybe.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  34:29

Well, no I wouldn’t like that. Those are not my soothing foods.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  34:33

Okay. Well, that’s how we’re defining comfort food and rodents. So in those studies, you stress those rodents out, you give them access to comfort foods, and what you see is over time, their actual physiological stress response is dampened. And this is true at the level of the brain, at the level of hormones, at the level of signaling between the brain and the body and so it’s remarkable it’s the comfort eating that they’re doing is actually working to comfort them. And it seems like perhaps some species of primates might also do comfort eating. And so my thought was, huh, this might be why humans do comfort eating, because it’s actually functioning and serving a purpose to help us down-regulate our stress.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:25

And that’s not so bad, is it?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  35:26

And that’s not so bad. Yeah, I agree. So, you know, currently, we tend to sort of shake our fingers that, that stress eating and say, you need to stop that. But my point is, hey, if it’s serving a function, then maybe we need to not, you know, try and obliterate this behavior, but understand it better. And then maybe sort of mind-hack it a little bit to get us to healthier eating. And we’re doing a little bit of research on that, if you want to hear about it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:58

Sure, yeah.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  35:58

Okay, so well, first of all, I’m getting ahead of myself here. So the first question for me was, okay, so rodents to comfort eating, and it works for them. Is this the case in humans? We don’t know. And so I’ve done a little bit of work in human showing that people who do more comfort eating tend to report less stress when they experience stressful events. People who do more comfort eating are showing less of a stress response to laboratory stressors, so lower cortisol secretion than people who don’t do comfort eating. And so it really seems like even in humans, it might be that comfort eating is working to soothe us. And so, from that, you know, when I talk about research like that people are like, okay, but we still don’t want people to eat Snickers bars, every time they’re stressed, that’s gonna harm their metabolic health. And so what we’ve been doing in our lab in current work that’s not published yet, is trying to a) see if fruits and veggies can also work to comfort. So this goes back to your very, very earlier question about what is comfort food. So we’ve been assuming that comfort food has to be sugary or fatty, or else it won’t work. But that’s not been tested, even in rodents, you know, they’re getting Oreo cookies. And so, the first thing we’re doing is comparing traditional comfort foods like ice cream and cookies, versus fruits and veggies to see if fruits and veggies might also comfort us because wouldn’t that be great? But I’m a skeptical scientist. So I don’t know if a carrot stick will do the same thing as a plate of mashed potatoes and gravy, you know, to comfort us. And so we’re moving on now to do a study, trying to hack our minds a little bit to see if we can force fruits and veggies to be comforting to us. So in these studies, we’re basically doing classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning like with Pavlov’s dogs. So, in his study, he brought in a bunch of dogs, and he would squirt meat powder into their mouths. And of course, anytime dogs, tastes meat, they’re gonna salivate. And so what he decided to do was, every time he scored the meat powder, he would ring a bell at the same time, and he did this over and over and over again, meat powder, bell, meat powder, bell, meat powder, bell. And then soon what he discovered is that you take away the meat powder, and you just ring the bell and the dogs would salivate. So this cue, which is the bell ring has nothing at all to do with salivation, nothing at all to do with food, can still elicit this response. In humans where we’re over and over again, pairing stress reduction with some sort of fruit. So let’s pretend it’s a strawberry. So there’s a five minute progressive muscle relaxation activity that we have people engage in it, and it really brings about a full body relaxation. We know this from heart rate data that we’ve collected, and at the very end.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  39:14

And that is that exercise for?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  39:17

It’s basically tensing and relaxing different parts of your body progressively. There’s a clip of it on my website if anyone wants to engage in it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  39:26

Which is a great name. What’s your website’s name?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  39:28

My website is the DiSH Lab, the Diet and Stress Health Lab, dishlab.org. Thanks for the plug.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  39:34


Dr. Janet Tomiyama  39:35

So by pairing relaxation with strawberries over and over and over again, just like with Pavlov’s dogs, who started salivating just from hearing the bell, just eating a strawberry should bring about this relaxation response. And so we’re trying to force fruit or veggies, doesn’t matter, whatever, it can be whatever, to bring about relaxation so kind of making a specific fruit be your sort of calming pill, I suppose.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  40:04

So you’d have them do this relaxation exercise, and then you would have them eat the fruit. And then eventually you would start the relaxation exercise and have them eat the fruit.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  40:17

We’ve done a pilot study, and we’ve shown that after doing that seven times, so not even that many times after pairing relaxation and fruit seven times, you give them the fruit and then their negative emotions go down. And so it seems to really be working in terms of sort of the psychological stress responses.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  40:37

Well what’s interesting to me is that just like the milkshake study, it’s not actually the food, it’s the event around the food or your perception of what you might feel like with the food in a way. Because you had this perception that this milkshake was so naughty, that so many ice cream, I don’t know what you were telling them. I can imagine like, you know, chocolate syrup, and I know ice cream and you know, really thick. And you drink it with a straw and so that’s sort of a Pavlovian response as well, right?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  41:13

Yeah, it is a Pavlovian response and thinking back to, you know, growing up, and you had a bad day at school. And so your caregiver, you know, bakes a plate of cookies for you. So you’re, you know, that is what we’re trying to do here. It’s Pavlovian conditioning of a food with a soothing event. And so, you know, that’s what we’re really trying to capitalize on. What I was gonna say was a total tangent, which is, did you know that the thickness of a milkshake is not about how much ice cream you use, but the temperature of your ice cream? So yeah, you want to create, because we made a lot of milkshake recipes for this study.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  41:53

So what makes it thicker, colder?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  41:54

Colder. You want your ice cream to be really, really cold.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  41:57

That would make sense. Oh, that’s great. So you can have less ice cream and have a thick milkshake, potentially.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  42:03


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  42:04

That’s a good little trick. Well, you know, I think that what you’re driving at, which is really interesting to me is the way for instance, a lot of my patients used to go to fast food restaurants as a vacation from cooking, and therefore became a treat. And so that that then is a treat as you grow up. And you think of when you’re then later in life wanting to treat yourself.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  42:31

Yeah. And so I think what you’re saying is we’re using high fat, high sugar, high sodium, high carbohydrate foods as a reward, right? It’s something that makes us feel really good.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  42:47

And often, it’s because of the convenience of it.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  42:50

Oh, yeah.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  42:51

There’s a time factor, and the price.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  42:54

And the price. But also, let’s not forget, these foods are engineered within an inch of their lives to really light up the reward areas of our brains. And so it’s not a coincidence that people tend to gravitate toward this. And it’s really tough. I mean, ideally, what you would want to do is replace food rewards with other kinds of rewards. And so maybe a social reward. Instead of going to McDonald’s to have your night off of cooking, maybe do like a cooking trade-off with another family. So you cook three nights this week, they cook four nights the other, that weekend. You know, a trade off, right? So then you don’t have to cook and then you’re getting this additional social reward. I think that would be, could be a really powerful way. Maybe I should test this.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  43:44

Yeah, that would be great. That’s a great one. Yeah, I mean, my my observation not in science, but just in practice is that if you’re used to eating those high fat, high sugar, high salt foods, it’s very hard to feel rewarded by other kinds of foods. Whereas if you eliminate those from your diet, you become much more, other things have much more flavor and you savor those foods, even the foods that you know, might have high sugar that are more, you know, the fruit with high sugar like a delicious strawberry would be more savory than if you were used to all these sort of more sugary, or, you know, sugar sweetened beverages even.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  44:32

Yeah, it is true. I mean, in our evolutionary past. we’re wired to love sugary things because they denote more calories and fatty things, same. So we are working a little bit against evolution and what will just naturally taste good to us. So how can we counteract that? Well, there is a really substantial body of research showing that the more you eat something, the more you like it. So I think one way to counteract that is, you know, because if you say don’t eat that, we’re triggering these stressful processes on this feeling of restraint or deprivation, I guess.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  45:12

That then creates the stress.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  45:14

That creates the stress and then further weight gain. And so if you can just get people to eat more strawberries over and over and over again, there is a, that’s one way to get them to, like get more. But I agree, it’s really tough. As a mother of a two-year old, I’m trying to delay as long as possible exposure to sugary foods. And people say, well, you know, a cupcake here o- there isn’t gonna affect his long term health. And I agree with that. But what I’m worried about is sort of setting his sweetness expectation thresholds so that the fewer sweets he’s exposed to, the more he’ll be satisfied with the strawberry, Even a banana currently seems to be like, really intense for him in terms of sweetness. He loves cucumber and watermelon. And so. So contrast that to a child who maybe has been eating these processed foods, their whole lives, of course, it’s gonna be so so, so difficult for that brain that has been trained to expect and be rewarded by these very engineered foods, it’s going to be really, really difficult.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  46:27

I mean, it also really speaks to, you know, purchasing foods that are fresh or frozen, that have maintained the flavors that they have when they’re grown.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  46:39


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  46:40

And that’s sort of the whole sort of whole thing about the whole food chain, right? If you can purchase fresh or frozen, that, you know, has been frozen very quickly after being picked and maintaining the flavors, I think that’s the biggest challenge.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  46:57

Oh, yeah, I mean, citrus now, you know, if you buy a bag of Cuties now, it tastes really good.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  47:02

That’s for sure.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  47:03

In January.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  47:04

In California.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  47:05

In California, but the watermelon that my son loves so much, I’m like, this is gross, like we should be eating this in the summertime. But I think we need to be really cognizant of the challenges that face us when we talk about. Well, we need the produce to be fresh.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  47:24

Or frozen.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  47:26

Yeah, and frozen, I guess, you know, there, there’s criticisms of this slow food, whole food movement, that it’s elitist and insensitive to those who are lower socioeconomic status and don’t have the money to necessarily, you know, buy produce. They don’t have the time to cook produce and so I think this is one of the challenges that is a really tricky one.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  47:51

That’s right. We’re confronted with it. But I think that one of the things that I have found that has been a misconception or a myth is that frozen fruits and vegetables aren’t as healthy as fresh.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  48:04

They’re flash-frozen.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  48:05

Yeah, they’re usually flash-frozen. So it’s actually not, you know, so I think that there’s ways that we could get around and they’re also cheaper, usually.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  48:14

Yeah, I was really remarking this past weekend, we were eating some frozen blueberries. I was like, these are so sweet. These are so yeah, delicious.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  48:22

Yeah. In fact, they’re often even healthy to have more vitamins. Yeah, because of the, you know, they have been exposed to the light or the heat and so forth, in the travel. Yeah. You know, we’ve been talking a lot about your’s and your team’s groundbreaking work in your DiSH lab. And your focus on eating really is the focus. And I wanted to know, like, how did you find yourself doing this type of research? Like, what attracted you to this field?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  48:54

Yeah, well, I was a foodie before that term even existed.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  49:00

You were too young.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  49:04

Don’t be fooled. Yeah. I am Japanese by heritage and Japanese culture really pays attention to and cares about and expends a lot of effort on food and its deliciousness. And so, you know, growing up eating was my favorite thing to do.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  49:31

What was your favorite food?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  49:34

My favorite food would probably be my grandmother’s miso eggplant dish that she made.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  49:42

You have to give me that recipe.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  49:43

Yeah, my mom has that recipe. Maybe we can put on the website?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  49:47

Yes, definitely. And does that give you comfort?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  49:52

It does. Yeah, over a hot bowl of rice.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  49:54

And does it decrease your stress?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  49:55

Probably. So I initially got interested in eating research because I was interested in anorexia nervosa, which completely baffled me. So, you know, food was such an important component of my life. And I just couldn’t understand why people would not eat to the point where they were starving themselves and putting them at risk of death.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  50:20

10% of people die from it.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  50:23

Yeah, it’s a really high-mortality psychological disorder. And so I did a summer internship on an inpatient eating disorders unit. And I was fully preparing myself to go to graduate school and clinical psychology to understand anorexia, treat anorexia and really make a program of research, understanding anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. And so in fact, I was at my dream school, which was Yale to work with Kelly Brownell, who you may know, now at UNC, or Duke or someplace like that. But I was also accepted to UCLA’s program to work with Traci Mann who’s now at University of Minnesota, to look at eating. Not eating disorders, but just eating in general, dieting, and there was a real fork-in-the-road moment where I was thinking, Okay, the prevalence of anorexia nervosa in the population is very small, less than 1%. Whereas in terms of who, in terms of dieting, in terms of weight, these are issues that really affect most of Americans, most of the world. And so if I want my research to really make a difference, where should I be researching? And so that really was a conscious step away from the eating disorder and psychopathology kind of research into more generally, how do you eat? How do we eat? Why do we not eat, which is dieting? And trying to understand eating behavior in general.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  51:59

I mean, you’re so right. I mean, dieting has been pervasive. I don’t know, historically, when it started, but I mean, I remember in the 60s, when I was growing up, my mom was always on a diet. And my friend and I made a club called the Cool Club. And I was, of course, Vice President, she was president.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  52:16

You weren’t president?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  52:19

And it was all around food, though. It’s like we only could eat iceberg lettuce and drink fresca. And those were the rules of the Cool Club. But, you know, when did dieting become such a craze, after World War Two, or?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  52:35

No, before. Well, okay, I guess I don’t know that. That would be a good question for a food historian. I have some old magazines that I have up in my office sort of ironically, that have covers like how to reduce for the holidays.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  52:52

They were just like leftover in your office?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  52:54

No, I scoured used book stores to find these, yeah, vintage stores.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  53:02

And when was that?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  53:04

Those are from, I think the 30s or 40s, so it’s a long time. Now we’re wading into sociology territory, maybe even anthropology territory. But traditionally, whatever the upper class is pursuing or interested in, that becomes the fad of the time. So back when food was scarce, and the upper echelon of society had a lot of food, then having a heavier body was more prized. Now that it’s sort of flipped, where the people at the top rungs of society’s ladder tend to have thinner bodies. Now that is what society is placing value and worth on.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  53:45

Yeah, that’s kind of been lasting longer than the, at least in the recent past.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  53:50

Yes. In our time of food abundance.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  53:52

Yes. Yeah. It’s kind of goes along hand in hand, it appears.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  53:56

Yeah, absolutely.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  53:57

You’ve talked a lot about stress-eating and eating. I mean, there are people that do lose weight too when they’re stressed. So it’s like, what’s the cut-off between the two?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  54:09

Yeah, those people are called men. No, so Okay, we don’t have great data on who eats more, after they’re stressed, who eats less after they’re stressed, and who doesn’t change their eating. We do know that stress eaters tend to be female more often than male. There’s a very old, not very well done study that showed that 40% of people increase their eating when they’re stressed, 40% decrease, and 10% stay the same. This is the figure that all the studies cite. I think it’s time for some updated data on that. So we’re about to launch a nationally representative sample of Americans asking these questions so we can get better numbers. I think the number of stress eaters is much higher than 40% just based on my clinical observations, with people I know, not necessarily data. Across the animal kingdom, organisms tend to eat more after they’re stressed. So I do think that it’s a base, human tendency is to eat more when they’re stressed because of that hormone cortisol.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  55:22

And so, it’s not the cueing is not necessarily a hunger cue, it’s more a cue of memory of comfort, that they’re, do you think, people are striving for?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  55:33

In humans, but that wouldn’t explain why rats would be. There has to be something physiological here. I do think that it makes evolutionary sense if there’s a time of strife, then you are going to need energy to deal with it. And so it makes sense that that would be the behavior that organisms engage in. But I think in humans, it’s so many things, it’s, you’ve had a lifetime of associating these foods with comfort, you have the cortisol making you eat more, you have environment that is only too happy to provide these sugary, high fat foods, so that they’re immediately accessible anytime you feel stressed. And so that, you know, only serves to reinforce that behavior even more. And so it’s sort of a perfect storm of so many different things.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  56:25

So what I’m hearing, which is really, I think, quite helpful for people, since there probably are a lot more people that are eating when they’re stressed, is that you could train yourself to eat healthful foods while you’re stressed, which is something that’s probably going to benefit you in terms of your well-being, and that you can work your way into feeling comforted.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  56:51

That’s the hope, you know, I, as a scientist, I want to see more data. So the initial data out of our lab is promising, but I’ve just written a grant application to test this more widely and more rigorously. And then I think after that would be the step where we make it go live to whoever wants to join and and try it out. And hopefully, this can be one way to help people manage.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  57:22


Dr. Janet Tomiyama  57:22

One aspect of stress eating that we haven’t talked about is it relates back to internalized weight bias, which is people feel really guilty after they eat. So they might derive temporary feelings of comfort and then say, oh my gosh, what have I done? Why did I eat that whole carton of ice cream? And so we think that healthy stress eating of fruits and vegetables could be even better than eating a brownie because it cuts off that sort of guilty feeling as well.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  57:53

It’s more long lasting terms of its comfort.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  57:56

Yeah, and you feel virtuous.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  58:00

I guess we wouldn’t want to stop that feeling. I mean, from a practical and probably harmless way form to would be to think about it as an adult, you can think about back on what foods you grew up with that were comforting that are theoretically more helpful for you.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  58:23

Yeah. Or some people say engineer healthier versions of those foods.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  58:28

And that too, right. That’s right, you could do that too.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  58:31

Sweet potato mash instead of mashed potatoes. But, you know, I think you can only engineer it out so much.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  58:41


Dr. Janet Tomiyama  58:41

After a while, I mean, I don’t even think sweet potatoes would do it for somebody who their comfort food with mashed potatoes. So I think, yes, maybe food technology can help us a little bit, but it won’t, I don’t think it’ll be the perfect solution.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  58:58

So we’ve talked a lot about eating. So what about drinking, and another restricting alcohol is that, like, for instance, having a beer when I’m stressed? Is that bad for me?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  59:07

So this is another Jenna Cummings line of research. So she came out of an undergraduate lab where they studied drinking. And in her graduate school interview, she said, you know, Janet, people don’t just eat when they’re stressed, they also drink. And so that sort of kicked off this whole line of research in eating, drinking. Are they similar? Are they different? How are they similar or different? The question we went into this research with was, are some people gluttons and some people are lushes. And there are two fundamentally different kinds of people. Or is it that people who drink or when people drink then they’re less likely to eat because they’re focused on drinking, or are they more likely to eat? And so what’s the connection between these two things? And so Jenna’s research is finding that least at low levels of eating and drinking, the two things seem to potentiate each other, or the two things seem to synergize where you eat, and that makes you drink more. So think about when you have a burger, it’s nice to have a beer with it. But when you get to high levels of drinking, high levels of eating, that’s when the two behaviors seem to have negative synergy or opposite synergy.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:00:27

They diverged.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:00:28

They diverged. So people who suffer from alcoholism actually tend to have lower body mass index than people who don’t, and people who are heavier tend to drink less than thinner people. So it’s really interesting, I think that it sort of flips midway through. And so I think drinking and eating, you know, in terms of the research, they’ve grown up in completely different silos. You know, alcohol, researchers never talked to eating researchers, nobody studies both eating and drinking. So here’s another one of these disciplinary boundaries that we’re trying to really break down.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:01:02

So because I know that some people will mention, like, they talk about drinking as the fast stress relief as you get home, like you have to drink. Like, that’s the classic like, you know, you get home, you have a drink. Exactly, exactly.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:01:20

Yeah, I think you know, and here, I’m an eating researcher, so I’m not as well-versed, and I’m trying to learn more about the alcohol literature. But I do think that people who drink to regulate their negative emotions tend to be at higher risk for addictive or reward-based drinking. And so I do think if you find yourself in a pattern of how you regulate your emotions is through drinking, then maybe explore other options, maybe talk to a friend who makes you laugh, or, you know, go to the gym, and kickbox out those negative feelings, that might be a safer way to go about it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:02:05

Yeah, that sounds like it would be.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:02:07

There’s this very interesting area of research, looking at food addiction, and can food be an addictive substance? And some people say, no, food can’t be addictive. You know, people, people eat food every day and you know, they don’t face negative consequences. So how could that be? Whereas other researchers have said, actually, food can be addictive, especially certain kinds of foods. So these high-sugar, processed, high-fat, high-calorie foods, where you see things like withdrawl, where you feel badly when you don’t eat these foods. They also see another hallmark sign of dependence, which is tolerance, so you need more of the same food to get the same amount of satisfaction. And so using those kinds of parallels with the addiction literature, it seems like at least certain foods could be considered addictive or addictive-like. And so, you know, there’s good neuroscience research as well, that shows that similar areas of the brain are engaged.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:03:16

Part of the limbic system, the flight?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:03:19

Fight-flight, but the reward circuitry really lights up to similar extent with foods as with other substances of addiction, Bart Hoebel, who recently passed away, has this landmark series of studies showing that you can get rats more addicted to sugar than to cocaine, which was sort of the quintessential addictive substance.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:03:44

And nicotine is the worst right? People, the rats will prefer nicotine.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:03:50

Nicotine is highly addictive. So you know, I think if you start to think about food as an addictive substance, in terms of talking about a culture of health, then a lot of dominoes fall. So then what does that mean that we are marketing an addictive substance to children in commercials? You know, so there are really important policy sort of things that unfold when you start to look at food in terms of this addiction lens. I think it’s really interesting. And then, of course, there are people who are very, very addicted to food at clinical pathological levels. But there is a whole continuum of how sort of reward-based your eating is. And so my team has come up with a questionaire that you can find on dishlab.org. It’s just nine questions that can tell you sort of how far gone are you in this cycle toward addictive-like or reward-based eating?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:04:54

If you find yourself far along, what should you do?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:04:57

I think, you know, it’s-

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:04:59

Talk to your doctor, talk to your psychologist, talk to yourself? I think the science is not well-developed in terms of treatment of food addiction at all. But I do think that it’s important information that you could have about yourself so that you can start evaluating, how do I feel every time I eat these sugary processed foods? Or am I using this really to heal some emotional wounds? Or is my day-to-day activity sort of hindered because of the way I’m eating? And you know that these are questions you could potentially ask yourself. Well, so to wrap up, what do you think is an important first step for us to create a culture of health that makes the healthy choice, the easy choice, in terms of relationship with food and eating?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:05:50

I think that denying yourself something automatically starts triggering the stress processes. And so I think, in terms of a cultural message, it should be always adding. So eating more fruits and veggies, moving around more, you know, that’s a much more positive cultural message, than get off the couch, get off your butt. And I really think it doesn’t immediately sound like it connects to eating. But reducing stress is important, because it’ll knock out these stress eating processes. And then also decrease your cortisol, which will help decrease your eating and fat deposition. And then sleep I think sleep is so important. So people who don’t sleep well also find it really difficult to eat well, a) because they’re tired, and their bodies are so creating hormones that are driving them toward higher calorie sugary fatty foods, and also because sleep deprivation really interferes with the parts of your brain that you need to make healthy choices.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:06:59

So you make bad choices, or not so great choices?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:07:02

Not so great choices. It also makes you tired, so it makes you exercise less. And so you know, I think sleep is this hidden thing that we need to get a handle on. That’s gonna benefit all the aspects that the pod, the pods are studying. So EatWell, MindWell, also EngageWell. I’m not fun to be around when I’m sleep deprived.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:07:23

That’s for sure, none of us are. You mentioned that one of the things that you learned over the years as you were becoming a tenured professor here at UCLA, was how to manage your time and write every day. Yes. And that was, through interview that you had, because you received one of these big awards from your organization, the psychology organization.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:07:51

Association for Psychological Science.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:07:53

Yeah. And so I want to know, what are your what were the tips that you picked up on that have really helped you? And in fact, I think everyone should have take-home advice from you. If you were able to sleep eight hours a day, and become tenured in record time, what are all the tips that created this setup, where you had a healthier lifestyle?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:08:17

Well, I can’t take too much of the credit. like I’m some sort of guru, everything I learned was from the National Center for Faculty, Diversity and Development. They run something that they call a faculty boot camp, I think it’s actually called the Faculty Success Program. And in it, over the course of a quarter, they teach you how to do all the work that is important, versus the work that is urgent. So that’s the number one lesson I learned from them, which is there are so many things that are sort of screaming in our faces that are urgent, that have a lot of accountability built into them. So for example, committee meeting that I might have. If I don’t show up, people are gonna notice, but the things that get you tenure are research and writing. And those are things that sort of sit quietly in the corner and never sort of bug you because it’s on you to do those things. And that’s what’s important in terms of driving your research forward and getting tenure. And so a lot of it was me, trying to differentiate what is urgent versus what is important and trying over and over again, to prioritize the important things over the urgent things. I have a daily writing session at my most freshest moments. So the first thing in the morning when I wake up is I write or do research for an hour.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:09:40

And you write your manuscripts?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:09:42

Write manuscripts, write grants, things like that. The second hour of my day is exercise. And that is a non-negotiable, has to happen. And then I get my toddler up and off to daycare and sort of have my day And so it’s amazing what 30 to 60 minutes of working on the important things, research and writing, every day how much that adds up to in terms of productivity. I think often we have this myth in our head that, oh, I need a uninterrupted block of eight hours to get this project done. And that eight hours never shows up. Or it only shows up over Thanksgiving when you want to be spending time with your family and friends. Or you’ve been running yourself ragged throughout the quarter. And so you get sick over breaks. This happens, I think, to a lot of people. And so that that uninterrupted block of time is suddenly gone. And so where are you now? So it’s really the combination of sleeping eight hours a night, which is another non-negotiable, the daily writing habit, and then the daily exercise, that I think those three elements and you’re pretty much unstoppable.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:11:00

You also mentioned you don’t work in the evenings or on the weekends.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:11:03

I don’t work in the evenings or the weekends. I’m so glad I got into that habit before I had a child because now it’d just be impossible.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:11:11

Yeah, absolutely.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:11:13

Yeah. So I think you know, that sounds like a revolutionary, impossible thing. But you really, if you focus, and you are very diligent in your daily writing, and research, it is possible. And it feeds into all these other things. So I’m not staying up late doing work, which means my sleep is protected. I’m not distracted and working. So I can really nurture my relationships with my friends, and my husband, and my family, which is doubly important now that I have a child. And so you’d think that it would lead to less productivity, but it actually leads to more in this ironic, weird, cool way. And also, it means that when I’m working, I’m really working. And I’m into it. And I’m excited. And I’m super focused, because I know that I will get a break at the end of the day.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:12:07

It’s really about routines, isn’t it?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:12:09

Yeah and maintaining them.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:12:11

Yeah and protecting them and prioritizing. Oh, Janet, that’s incredible. We’ve gone through a lot of information. Summing it up, I mean, I’d love you to sort of summarize, we’ve gone through stress, stress eating, stigma, friendship, eating. How would you like to sum up what we’ve just?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:12:34

Yeah, I think the main theme that goes through my research, quite unintentionally, and this is just how the data shaking out is that this sort of punitive perspective is not productive.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:12:49

Punitive perspective on weight.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:12:51

Punitive perspective on weight, on size, in terms of stress eating, in terms of hanging out with your friends.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:13:01

So judging?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:13:02

Judging, yeah. Don’t do that.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:13:05

Don’t judge. And that’s pure empathy, isn’t it?

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:13:09

I guess I haven’t thought about it that way.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:13:11

Yeah, I’ve learned recently the difference between empathy and compassion. And empathy is acceptance of others. And compassion is the act of giving to others. Interesting. So once the act but so you can be empathetic and do nothing.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:13:29

Interesting. Yeah, I think so much, so many of the messages we receive from society is don’t do that. So don’t eat a lot. Don’t have a big body. You know, don’t celebrate with your friends with birthday cake. And I think that people who endorse those kinds of opinions are just not understanding fundamental human nature. You know, it’s such a joy and a pleasure to eat.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:13:56

And culture. It’s just the nature, right. It’s what our culture’s are built upon.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:14:02

Absolutely, conflicting messages of indulge this chocolate, but you better not eat chocolate.  Yeah.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:14:11

Well, I think you’re coming, you’re touching on something that food, you know, we’ve just written a paper about food literacy. And the one thing if you look in the literature around food literacy that’s left out is enjoyment of food. There’s always nutrients, or it’s the environment or it’s the cultural aspect. You know, but there’s not as much around the whole part of what really is so fabulous about food, which is the enjoyable part. Yeah, that’s what you’re emphasizing.

Dr. Janet Tomiyama  1:14:45

I am emphasizing that. Yeah. It goes back to really the start of it all that I talked about, which is I love food, and I love eating. So these messages that try and take that away from people just don’t make sense to me.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  1:14:59

It doesn’t and actually from social media, the Instagram, what the number one thing that’s photographed right is food. I don’t think we have to speak any more than that. Yeah, thank you again, Janet. Really appreciate it, yeah.  Thank you for tuning into LiveWell. Today’s podcast was brought to you by UCLA Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Cente. For Janet’s family’s miso eggplant recipe, and more information about her DiSH lab and research, please visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast. To stay up to date with our latest podcasts, make sure to follow our Twitter and Instagram @livewell_ucla. Thank you and have a great day.

#15: Mindfulness and Meditation with Dr. Dawn Upchurch


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:03

In today’s podcast, I chat with Professor Dr. Dawn Upchurch from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, about the health benefits of mindfulness and meditation, and how we can incorporate this into our lives now. We recorded this podcast a while back before the tragedy of the killing of George Floyd and the remarkable swell of the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the country. As our fight for justice and peace continues, we hope to continue supporting you with the knowledge and resources to take care of your health and well-being so that you can continue onwards and upwards. Mindfulness meditation can be a powerful way to stay grounded and take care of your mental and spiritual health. As Dr. Upchurch explains, in this podcast, it’s necessary to take care of oneself to be able to go out and do the work that needs to be done. Hi, Dr. Dawn Upchurch. Now it’s such a great pleasure to interview you today on “Six Feet Apart.” The work that you do around meditation, the research you do around meditation, the practice of meditation, and you’re now in the last, I guess, 10 years or so you got trained and licensed in being an acupuncturist. I mean, that’s a very unusual combination for a academic researcher.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  01:25

Yes, very unusual.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  01:26

In public health, yeah. So I think what I thought we’d start with, and we could sort of delve into some of those other subjects, but the meditation has been a huge, there’s been a huge groundswell over the last decade, but in particular, during this sheltering-in-place. And I’d love to understand why we’re looking towards meditation as a solution to many of our issues today and frankly, in the last decade or more. And what drew you to this field?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  01:58

Well, again, thank you for having me here. And I want to welcome everyone as well. And thanks for the opportunity. And I also want to just acknowledge and send gratitude out to the essential workers, just to really thank them all for the hard work and the sacrifice they’re making. So I think before I talk about meditation in the context of the pandemic, maybe just some definitions, so people are clear about what we mean when we talk about meditation. There’s many types of meditation, there’s a chanting meditation, there’s Zen meditation, even certain types of prayers are meditative, contemplative prayer, and so on. Even certain aspects of yoga have a meditation component. And so meditation is really a formal practice that involves stillness. And it allows the person to train their attention and awareness, and become more mentally clear and calm. And so when we talk about mindfulness meditation, that’s one type of meditation. And I think mindfulness is what has really sort of taken off in the last, certainly in the last decade. We know the rates of people who report meditating have increased dramatically, even in the last five years.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:17

And those are national rates or?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  03:18

Those are national rates, yes, US national rates. Yeah, and I think part of that interest is because of the growing scientific evidence base for meditation, and in particular, for mindfulness, we’ve just seen an exponential increase in scientific research around the health benefits of meditation, both physical and mental, as well as the actual changes in brain structure and functioning. And I think the popular press has really picked up on that and I think that’s why there’s a growing interest.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:54

So the growing interest had nothing to do with necessarily was going out in the world of pandemics or tragedies. It was more around the fact that people were starting to see the science that was emerging that supported this as an effective method?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  04:09

Well, I think the interest is started before the current situation. I can only imagine that the interest has gone up even more since the pandemic, yeah.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:22

Since the pandemic, yeah. I noticed in your research articles that you found that a lot of people did, though, gravitate when they might have been diagnosed or had a chronic illness, that they look to it as a solution to something that they might find useful.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  04:39

So if we talk specifically about mindfulness meditation, the earliest studies on mindfulness meditation was from a program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction that was done in the 70s, I think at Harvard by a well-known expert in meditation, Jon Kabat-Zinn. And the expressed purpose for these MBSR programs was to help people who had chronic pain. And it was an eight-week program meeting one hour a week, and then the recommendation of meditating a minimum of 20 minutes a day. And what these early studies found is that people’s relationship to their pain fundamentally changed, and changed in such a way that people had better strategies for managing their pain, that their actual level of pain, self reported level of pain went down, and just their overall well-being improved. So those were the early days of mindfulness meditation research. And then there was a little bit of, you know, not a whole lot going on. And then about, like I said, about 10 years ago, a lot of neuroscientists also became interested in looking at meditation, and then a number of other studies, that clinical trials and so on, looking at the utility of of mindfulness meditation for a variety of health outcomes.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:05

Yeah, it’s really struck me with the neurologists how they found, I guess, they’ve been analyzing the brain of the Dalai Lama and other people who meditate a lot.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  06:14

Right, right, right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:15

More I do that for sure.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  06:16

Oh gosh, more than me too.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:17

And his scans look pretty, like, youthful compared to his chronological age.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  06:23


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:24

Yeah. And what from what I understand from our neurologic, our neuroscientists friends at UCLA is that even within an hour after you’ve meditated, your brain looks better then. So it’s not like you have to be like the Dalai Lama and spend your life you know.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  06:41

The science is showing that a fairly small dose of meditation can make a difference in brain structure and functioning, that it increases the neural pathways in the brain, and also actually makes the prefrontal cortex, makes it larger, which is something you want, because that’s sort of your executive functioning part of your brain. And at any age, they’ve done studies with seniors, who are the oldest old, and even in starting meditation at an older age can have profound benefits.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:13

And so, I guess, there’s two questions that that statement leads me to one is, what is a small dose?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  07:23

Well, let me just say this, I always tell people, something is better than nothing. So even if you only have a few minutes, that’s better than not doing anything at all. Also, sometimes people have a hard time sitting still, and really engaging in a formal meditation practice, but there are other things you can do during the day, like mindfulness awareness, so that even if you can’t in your daily activities, just be here now, be in the present moment, or focus just on a few breaths. That oftentimes in the mindfulness meditation world, we use the breath as an anchor, that can make a difference. But a clinically small dose is about 20 minutes a day, daily, for six to eight weeks. That’s generally when there’s differences seen, although there are some studies that show even 10 minutes for just a week or two can have a difference. So it kind of depends on what kind of outcome you’re interested in. If you’re having a lot of anxiety, people are having a lot of anxiety, for example, during all of this, like I think many of us have experienced or to stress and coping, any amount can make an immediate difference. Just even a few minutes. Like for example, if you have a Fitbit or some other type of device, many of them also have a function where you can do like a relaxation breath for two to five minutes, something like that can really help people in the short term with kind of this, their acute symptoms that they’re experiencing. And if you do it over time, if we’re talking about stress or anxiety, what happens then is we become less reactive to situations and by doing so, it reduces the stress and anxiety.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  09:17

So one of the suggestions is, you know, using a guided meditation, which is what you’re describing. And 20 minutes a day, is it like exercise where you could do to 10 minutes spurts?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  09:28

You can, you can do that. I think if you’re new to meditation, I think it’s important to start out slowly and be very gentle on yourself. No one practices meditation perfectly, not even the Dalai Lama, or all these people who have been meditating for decades. And just start very slowly with a small amount, even two minutes, for if you’ve not had much experience with meditation, two minutes can seem like forever. Also, if you’re new to meditation, use a guided meditation where someone is actually talking you through. That seems to help people stay focused and rather than sort of going on the train of all of our thoughts and emotions kind of taking us off somewhere.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:09

That’s been very useful for me, following the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA has really given me some help with the guided meditations. At the end of this podcast, we’ll put a variety of different resources that are free to people that can be utilized, either in-person guided meditations, and also recorded ones.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  10:30

Right. And MARC in the last year, put together an app that is free, and you can download it so that you can have it on your phone and just use it as you need to. And it starts very small, two-minute meditation. So maybe I should take a minute and say what you actually do when you meditate, what do you think?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:53

I’d like to know, I know what I do, but maybe it’s not exactly what everyone else does.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  10:58

I know. Well, there’s, like I said, there’s a lot of different ways to meditate. But if we’re talking about mindfulness, what we tend to do is take a few moments to get grounded in our body, to turn our focus inward, that can be a challenge for some people. So oftentimes, I encourage people to shut their eyes and then getting grounded in your body, taking a few deep breaths to relax, we know that when you exhale, it engages your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the relaxation part of the nervous system. So having a breath that somewhat longer going out and coming in can be very helpful just to get started. And then just get centered in your body. And if that doesn’t make sense to you, just feel your body, if centering doesn’t make sense, just feel your body. And then just go back to your normal breath. You don’t need to do anything in terms of changing your breath, or modifying your breath, just breathe naturally. And what we tend to do then is focus on a certain area where we feel the breath coming in. For people who are new, usually, it’s right under the nose, because you can feel the actual breath coming in and going out. Others focus more around the neck and throat area, chest area, or even down into the abdomen. But for that particular practice, just focus on that one area, and focus on your breathing, just feel the breath coming in, feel the breath going out. But what’s going to happen, and it will happen to everyone, it happens to me all the time, is you may get one breath, and all of a sudden, here come the thoughts. And what we do is just let that thought be and just return very gently to our breath. We try very hard not to be worried about our thinking, we just let that thinking go and come back to the breath. Sometimes I like to think of it when I’m meditating that these thoughts come and go, but they’re kind of background noise for me. So that the focus, the foreground noise, if you will, is the focus on the breath. Because the thoughts are going to be there, the thoughts come and go, the emotions come and go. But we just keep returning to the breath. And what that does is it brings us to present moment awareness. So that’s a little mini meditation course.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:13

I love that. I was doing it while you were explaining it to me.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  13:18

Well, I’ve had quite a bit of training at MARC, I did a year-long training in mindfulness facilitation, and I’m a certified mindfulness facilitator. And then I also did a year-long Intensive Personal Practice program through MARC. So I have some training. My meditation has been a little bit fits and starts lately. And that happens to people, we all have moments where we’re doing really well with our practice and other moments where it’s more of a challenge. And so I do find that if I have a regular daily practice, I can cope a lot better in more positive ways.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:57

And so what have you built yourself up to in general, like what does your practice entail?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  14:01

So usually what I do, I have a morning practice. Depending on how much time I have in the morning, I try to set aside 15 to 20 minutes. And then during the day, if I have a few moments, I will do like a progressive relaxation meditation, which is, I often do it guided so that I kind of relax during the day. This may sound like a lot but I just do it for a couple minutes. And then at night, as I’m in bed I do another progressive muscle relaxation to help me get to sleep. Not very long, a couple minutes.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:36


Dr. Dawn Upchurch  14:37

Yeah, not every day, I do my best. I mean, that’s the thing we have to just do our best.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:42

Right. That’s a really good mantra. You know, all you can expect is your best. You know, your personal best. And I feel that what you just said is like being forgiving of yourself. And I think that’s something that all of us need to be thinking about. You know, when we’re wanting to help our family and ourselves and then others in this sheltering-at-home. And now, you know, our recovery and resurgence, we also have to take care of ourselves, right? Or if you’re not healthy, it’s hard to do anything.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  15:12

Well, that’s exactly right. And, you know, I understand, I completely understand that for some people, it can be really difficult to set aside some time at home, especially those who have children and other family commitments or household commitments. And so what I would suggest, then, is to do those mindful moments, anything, you know, if you’re hugging your child, really engage in hugging that child. If you’re cooking dinner, really focus in on the carrots you’re chopping. Or if you’re working on something, really focus in on that. Those mindful moments can make a big difference, too.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:51

That’s interesting. You say that, because I know with the washing of your hands, the two happy birthdays, it takes a long time. So I’ve used that as a moment to sort of just slow down.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  16:02

And that’s a great idea Yeah, that’s an absolutely great idea, being in the moment where you’re just washing your hands.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:09


Dr. Dawn Upchurch  16:10


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:11

The other thing I’ve learned to do is, you know, because I know you’ve taught me this and others about gratitude, which is part of, I think, all of the mindfulness meditation work, right?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  16:21

Right. A big part of what we do with mindfulness, too. So part of what mindfulness helps you to do, mindfulness meditation, and it helps sort of quiet the negative thoughts, and kind of the noise that we constantly have. We sometimes talk about our thoughts being like a hamster wheel, helps to kind of calm that. But then this practice of gratitude, or sometimes it’s called loving-kindness, is really a nice way to instill and grow positive emotions and positive thoughts. And I think it’s important, especially now for all of us to take a few moments and think about it. It could be the smallest thing, you could have gratitude that you had a delicious piece of toast with homemade jam on it, or whatever it might be. But just the smallest of things that you had a good night’s sleep, that you were able to go for a walk, those kinds of things can can really over time, make a big difference. And I know a lot of people also start the day with a gratitude list. Or they’ll just write down five things or two things that they’re they’re grateful for. And that sort of sets the stage for your day. So you’re able to sort of start it with a positive outlook. And I think in times like these, we could use some of that. And even if it’s just the smallest things.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:40

Yeah, I have found that as a really go-to place to help my day, rather than, before I get up, I’ve often think, oh, I got to do this, and that and this and that. Why don’t I start the day differently? Take a breath and let me think about who I’m grateful for, what I’m grateful for. And so now I’ve incorporated it into my happy birthdays as well.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  18:02

Oh that’s good, that’s great.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:06

I started doing it first to myself, singing happy birthday to myself, and then I’ve evolved to add other people into the song.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  18:16

Well, I think that’s great. And I think it, sometimes it can be challenging for us to have gratitude towards ourselves. But I think that’s a really important thing to at least work on, to lighten up on ourselves. And we can all be particularly hard on ourselves. So oftentimes, we say, we’re our own worst enemies, right? And so if you can just loosen up just a little bit and have just a tad of gratitude.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:49

What I think is really remarkable about you, Dawn, and I really, you’re a researcher and a practitioner, which I think can enhance both sides of your practice. Your research can be informed by your practice, and your practice can be informed by your research, which I’ve seen with you. And also it, I think, allows you to be a really innovative researcher who’s published innovative articles on this subject that you know how to practice or you’ve learned to practice and teach. And I’d like to sort of pivot and talk about some of your research because you’re grounded in practice and research. And one of your research articles showed that one in five adults in the United States practice some type of meditation in 2017. And I know you define meditation broadly. And that includes also religious practice, correct?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  19:41

Right, certain types of religious practice. So things like contemplative prayer, are measured, are considered types of meditation. Not all types of prayer, but it can be incorporated into a religious or other type of spiritual practice, yeah.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:00

What is contemplative prayer?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  20:03

It is a quieting of the mind. It’s basically, it’s essentially a Christian form of meditation. It’s sitting quietly and focusing on a thought, focusing on a breath. But again, being still so that you increase your awareness, you become more mentally clear and calm.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:24

And that would include, I would imagine almost every religious practice has a form of that.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  20:29

Yeah. Yeah, I would imagine, yeah. I’m not an expert on that. But I would think so, yeah.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:34

Yeah. So in this data set that you’ve used to analyze practices with meditation, do they include participating in some religious faith or not?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  20:45

So they do. And in the past, the way the studies looked at religious participation in the context of things like meditation, or complementary and alternative medicine, a lot of times what the way they measure it were do you engage in prayer for health, or prayer circles for a person’s health. That was considered a form of alternative practice. But recently, the data don’t really look at that. It’s more just the specific type of contemplative prayer that’s included as a form of meditation. It all has to do with how you’re going to, what we call in the scientific, operationalize what meditation is. There’s no one definition for it. And there’s no one practice, really.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:03

What’s interesting in your studies, in a number of your articles, have been the differences in different gender and age groups. And I’d love you to comment on what you think stood out to you in your research.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  21:47

Yeah, so just like the people who use other types of, what we call complementary and alternative practices at a population level in the United States, the people who meditate, were more likely to meditate tend to be middle-aged, more affluent, they tend to be white, they also tend to engage in more healthy behaviors, but also report a greater number of health conditions. So you have this kind of yin and yang going on. And one of my earlier studies, because I got very interested in that, how can you be practicing healthier behaviors and have poor health conditions and you’re practicing meditation. And what we found was, or other types of alternative practices, is that there’s two distinct groups of people who engage in these practices, there are people who are doing it primarily as part of a healthy lifestyle and for wellness. That’s where you have the health-behavior association. And then there’s other people who are using it to cope with their health conditions. So using it more as treatment or to help alleviate symptoms. So the interest there is, so we can see that there’s a bias with respect to who’s engaging in what could potentially be very helpful and low-cost self care and self practice. And so we have a pilot study through the Eisner Foundation working with Dr. Teresa Seeman who’s down in geriatrics and this is also with Dr. Mike Prelip, where we started a pilot project bringing mindfulness meditation to a group of seniors who volunteered in some lower-performing grade schools in LAUSD. And we created an eight-week program that incorporated a lot of what MARC does and what they call their MAPS class, Mindfulness Awareness Practices class. But also some additional training to help the volunteers learn how to bring mindfulness into the classroom. So what we were hoping to do is to help, when you work with grade school, this is grade school kids like second- and third-graders. And we know that if kids can get up to their reading level at second and third grade, they’re much less likely to drop out of high school. So and this ongoing program has had profound success and also significantly improved the health of these seniors in terms of a variety of different measures into including reduced functional limitations, weight loss, reduction in inflammation markers and a variety of things. And so we’re just in the process now of analyzing some of our data and assessing the sort of, you know, lessons learned from doing this kind of pilot study. And so, part of my vision, part of what I really would like to do with the next several years with mindfulness is bringing mindfulness to under-resourced communities, and because those communities are the ones least likely to have access. And I believe mindfulness should be free for all. I don’t think you should have to pay thousands of dollars and go to a retreat center to have a day or two or three or a week with mindfulness. I think I think it’s something that we really need to share with everyone. And that it can be part of a healthy lifestyle. And everyone can do it a little bit in a way that’s going to work best for them.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:13

So as we shelter-in-place, has that program, has it continued virtually?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  25:18

So we literally just met like two days ago to talk about it. And we’ve got a great trainer, she’s very enthusiastic, she’s had very good luck with zoom calls with doing mindfulness training. And so we’re going to offer weekly workshops for any of these volunteers. And they’re pretty tech-savvy. So they’ve been doing Zoom and so on, or some kind of remote, which is great. They’re very tech-savvy retired women. And so we’re going to offer that for them weekly, once or twice a week for the month of June and July, at least. We should have funding to cover at least that. So I’m very excited about that.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:05

Well, that actually sounds like such a win-win for everybody.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  26:09

Yeah. And they can pop in and pop out. I mean, if they want to just stay for 20 minutes, they can stay for 20 minutes, or come in late or whatever it might be.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:18

So in regards to the current situation and sheltering-in-place, how could meditation help all of us in this current situation? What is your opinion?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  26:30

Well, I think one of the ways it can be very helpful little bit of what we talked about earlier, helping people to cope with all of these stressful times and challenges that we’re all going through. And to take a few moments and quiet the mind and be at peace for a moment, I think it can really help with stress and anxiety, in many ways. And the more you can engage in a bit of meditation every day, it can really help you get through the days, because I know we all have challenges. I mean the first two weeks, we were, you know, with the shelter-in-place, and everything, I probably had two or three panic attacks a day, it was very anxiety-producing for me, and I could not sit still and do a quiet meditation at that time. I had to do a guided progressive muscle relaxation exercise to calm down and I know I’m not the only one who has gone through that. And so I think it’s important for people to have these skills, I kind of, when I talk to students, I talk about having a toolkit of self care. And sometimes you want to feed yourself with nourishing food but sometimes you need a cookie, you know. And just like sometimes a run, it really makes a big difference. And sometimes sitting still in meditation can be helpful. So the more, sort of, tools and the more skills you have, the more you’re going to be able to help yourself manage in a positive way, all the things that are happening.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  28:06

I’m hoping to have a little time to do my 10-minute, start my 10-minute meditation every day.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  28:11

I already did mine before that, thank you very much.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  28:11

So to wrap up, what good do you think will come out of this pandemic? And in other words, what do you see has been good for you and your work?

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  28:23

Well, I think as a nation, it’s caused for a time of reflection for how we as a country want to move forward. I think the pandemic has once again laid bare the long-enduring disparities and I hope we see this as an opportunity to improve everyone’s future and everyone’s health. For me personally, it’s been a very important time from my own personal reflection, and really coming to terms with what is important to me and how I want to live my life. It’s been an important time. I’ve spent some time journaling and meditating. And also transitioning to the Third Age. And so figuring out how I want to spend those later years is very important to me.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:12

Yeah, I agree totally with your reflections about the laying bare the disparities that are in our country and how we need to be working even harder to minimize those and on so many levels. Basic needs, health and well-being, they’re all important and should be considered part of the core of a society.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  29:33

Yeah. And that, you know, we’re both in public health and we both know that we have a lot of work ahead of us. We all have a lot of work ahead of us, not just those of us in public health. But it’s also made me realize in terms of my own research that I want to do a lot more practice research as opposed to analyzing data sets. I mean, I’m a demographer, I do that for a living, but I think really doing projects and programs that can help improve people’s lives is important. And I think it’s important for all, this is a call to action. If we didn’t think we had one before, we absolutely have it now. And I think it’s a responsibility for all of us to do everything we can. But there’s a little quip that also says, you know, put your own life mask on first, right? So it really is a matter of taking care of oneself, to be able to go out and do the work that needs to be done.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:28

That’s right. And I think your point about translating research to practice is critical because we have science behind us to really support the evidence of how having a healthy society will bring wealth. And this pandemic, I think, lays bare that, you know, the threat to people’s health has now really threatened people’s wealth, or even their livelihoods. And so we need to be cognizant of, you know, building resilience during this time of recovery and resurgence in order for us to address these inequities, and also to be better prepared for the future, not just individually, but our community and our planet health, all three together.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  31:11

Yeah, I would agree. I mean, we see that there’s increasing kind of pandemic fatigue, where people want their lives back, which is completely understandable. So I think, as public health people, too, it’s going to be important to deliver new and creative messages for the importance of sheltering-in-place, six feet apart, wearing your masks, as I said before, when we were doing our other webinar, something not happening, a non-event is a success in public health. But it’s really hard for us to get our heads around what that really means. And so I think coming up with new and creative messaging is going to be critical, especially as we go into the summer and more importantly, into the fall where it’s anticipated, there will be another surge of infection.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:05

Well what you just recited, three of the five core ingredients to protecting ourselves from during this pandemic. Sheltering-in-place will be, now, partially relaxed. So it’s six feet apart, or social distancing, right, masks, right, washing your hands frequently, at least five times a day. And every time you go in and out of a public domain, you need to be doing that. And self monitoring, if you’re not feeling well, even a runny nose, you need to be restricting your exposures to others. And then culture.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  32:41

That’s right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:42

Culture that supports people that do all five. And it’s like a recipe, if you don’t have baking soda, nothing will rise. If you don’t have the salt, the flavor won’t pop out. So you need all five to be successful. And Atul Gawande wrote about that, in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago, and shared how the natural experiment of Mass General, where 75,000 people work, very, very few got sick, even though they were exposed to many people with COVID-19. So the five principles followed together work, but if you leave one out, it will not work.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  33:20

That’s right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:21

And the culture, I think, is a key one.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  33:23

I think it is. I think we have to generate a new culture. I mean, and so how do we do that? With creative messaging, I think it will be important where people see that it’s also for their own good, and as well as the good of others.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:39

Well you’re appealing to their altruism, in a lot of ways. One of our social well-being experts shared that appealing to altruism can be through storytelling. And so we’re actually working on highlighting ordinary people doing extraordinary things during the pandemic, but also even before the pandemic. The Eudaimonia Award, kind of, or recognition of people who live a life of meaning and purpose, can also inspire others. It’s sort of like what my dad used to say, read the obituaries, Wendy, in the New York Times, and that will give you some ideas about how to live a life that might get you where that person got. Stories are really strong.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  34:18

Yeah, the other thing people, I think, can be helpful for us to really fully embrace is that altruism also makes you feel better. When you share and give to others, you feel better. You just do, because it’s part of who we are as humans, right? So that there is a selfish benefit too in many ways is that it really does help those who are giving, to feel like they’re making a difference.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  34:49

It’s so true. It’s, you know, well, it’s the feedback loop, right? You have to get that positive reinforcement to keep going at something in general over time, anyway. Well, Dawn, you’re just a treasure for our community at UCLA, but also LA community and national, our US community. I mean, you’ve contributed so much in so many different ways. And I look forward to working with you on moving our agenda forward in terms of really not letting this pandemic go to waste, but really bringing ourselves and our community to another level of health and well-being.

Dr. Dawn Upchurch  35:26

Right. Well, thank you so much for those kind words. I’m feeling very humble right now. So thank you, thank you. It was just a pleasure to be here. I hope this was helpful.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:37

Very much so. Thank you.  Thank you for tuning in to “Six Feet Apart,” a special series of the Live Well Podcast. Today’s episode was brought to you by UCLA’s Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. To stay up to date with the rest of the episodes in this special series, and to get more information on maintaining your mental, social, and physical well-being during COVID-19, please visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcasts. Thank you and stay remote.

#31: Science and Food with Dr. Amy Rowat


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:03

How do you make souffle with just chocolate and water? What makes souffle so light and fluffy? Today we are zooming in to the molecular level of food to answer these questions with Associate Professor of Integrative Biology and Physiology at UCLA.\, Dr. Amy Rowat. Amy is a pioneer in the realm of science and food. She uses food and cooking to open up the world of complex physics concepts to the non-scientists. As the co-leader of the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center’s Eat Well Pod, Amy advocates for change on campus to enhance food literacy, and increase accessibility to nutritious and sustainable food choices to all UCLA community members and beyond. Keep listening to learn more about Amy’s incredible journey through science and food and the secret to make a tender and delicious kale salad. Dr. Amy Rowat, thank you so much for being here. And I’m going to start with a memory I have of you when I first met you, and I’ll never forget, it was at one of your science and food lectures. And you had Billy Yosses, the White House pastry chef for Bush Jr. and Barack Obama. And he was presenting on how to create a chocolate mousse without cream by manipulating temperatures. And I have to say that, I mean, you’re a biophysicist trained at elite universities like Harvard, and you clearly communicated the complicated science of food through bringing it down to foods we all desire to eat, like chocolate mousse, and then of course, kale. And on top of all that you had famous chefs presenting recipes we all wanted to run home and try. So I’m going to start with this first question. Can we post your recipes on this podcast after we interview you?

Dr. Amy Rowat  01:57

Of course, of course. And some of those recipes, of course, are not mine. The chocolate mousse, for example, comes from Herve This, who’s a French scientist and molecular gastronomer, he calls himself but it’s a great recipe with just water and chocolate and like you say, manipulating temperature. The kale, I’ve sort of worked on a little bit as well. But I think the key technique of massaging it and cutting it finely is not unique, of course, to my recipe development. But absolutely, we can post the recipes.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  02:31

So Amy, you know, you’ve been the leader of the Eat Well Pod, member of the Eat Well Pod for six years, now leader. I’d love to hear your comments on that. What is the wild pod? And and what does it mean to you?

Dr. Amy Rowat  02:46

Well, we are a group of food-focused people from all over campus, including faculty, staff, students, that span many different disciplines, and as well as UCLA Dining. And the overall mission is to promote knowledge of food for everyone on campus, and in the UCLA community, and to make good food accessible for everyone as well. So a lot of our activities focus on improving food literacy, so improving and making knowledge of food accessible to everyone, and supporting projects that do that, that are carried out by students and faculty on campus, such as the development of new courses, or activities or events that engage people in thinking more deeply about food.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:35

And I know you’re very involved in the support of students with food insecurity. How are you doing that?

Dr. Amy Rowat  03:41

So making sure that food is accessible, good food is accessible to everyone on campus is definitely a big mission or important aspect of our mission. And so to achieve that goal, we have sort of a multi-pronged approach where some of the food literacy work we’re doing I think can really benefit knowledge of how to prepare and cook foods on a budget for example, and then right down to the hardware that’s required to, for example, store foods in refrigerators so that less of it goes to waste and it can be readily available for students and to pick up or eat in food closets for example.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:27

It’s very broad, but also really fantastic. So Amy, I’d like to take a pause and talk about kale a little bit more because you really motivated me to not cut corners, so to speak, and chop my kale very finely and I want to have you sort of share your wisdoms about kale and why you have to do that.

Dr. Amy Rowat  04:46

Kale is fantastic. But one of the issues in eating kale raw at least is that it can be very fibrous and hard to chew. And so by breaking down the fibers by massaging it with my fingers, for example. Or I do a combination of grabbing and forming clusters with the kale or by grabbing it and holding on to it and massaging it, while chopping it into very narrow strips. I find that that that gives a really good texture of kale that can be used raw in salads, for example.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:20

Something that struck me and that was where you described the plant itself, which is that the cell walls are so tightly aligned, right? This is what stuck with my, and correct me if I’m wrong, but they’re so tightly aligned, that that creates the bitterness. And that’s why you have to massage, is that kind of why you have to sort of break the cell wall? Because I do find with that thought process by breaking the walls down at least with the massaging and cutting finely, and then adding lemon to it, for instance. And you can hear the crunching of the walls, even when you’re massaging that the kale itself is less bitter after that. Because I don’t like raw kale, really. I mean, except once you explained to me, and that this also creates some advantage to the kale plant in the, you know, in the sort of agrarian world. And what would the kale plant benefit from with that kind of structure?

Dr. Amy Rowat  06:27

Well, definitely the cell walls are really important for the texture of plants and their ability to grow and shoot up to the sky to get enough sunlight, for example. So the plant texture is really balanced by these osmotic pressure inside of, or the pressure inside of the plant cells, which is determined by how much water there is inside of the vacuole, balanced by the structure of this of the cell wall and its ability to resist being stretched. So all of those fibers, molecules really, really help with that. So that’s why massaging or cutting finely can help break down those fibers so that it makes it more tender to eat. As for the bitterness, many of the taste molecules, presumably would be inside of the cells. So perhaps by cutting or macerating the cells, you’re releasing some of those bitter compounds, but I really don’t know.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:26

So are you saying that the fibers are really a series of small cells all together, and by cutting it, you’re breaking up the fibers by that?

Dr. Amy Rowat  07:37

The fibers formed sort of a interconnected network, at least that’s how many of them have been visualized in the world of plant cell wall imaging. So they might connect across or span many different cells. So by breaking those up, you’re essentially tenderizing the kale.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:01

It’s great, right, I think we’ll definitely have a few kale recipes posted. Now, one of the things that really has struck me is how you’ve been a true pioneer, breaking down the silos of science and food. And I’ve heard you talk about this concept of soft matter physicists, and I don’t really understand what that means.

Dr. Amy Rowat  08:22

So soft matter physics is a field of studying the physics of soft deformable materials, as opposed to hard matter like metals, for example. Soft matter refers to materials that are easily deformable, such as foams, gels, cells, biological materials, many of these things fall into into that category.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:46

And so as a soft matter, physicists, what does that mean for you and your research, but also in this whole arena that you’ve been developing around the science of food?

Dr. Amy Rowat  08:57

So in my research lab, we study the material properties of cells, which are materials that are easily deformable. And we try to understand what their texture is how easily they can deform through narrow gaps. And this is largely in the context of cancer cells. And then I also been using soft materials such as foams, emulsions, which are little droplets of liquid and another liquid, and gels to be able to communicate concepts of soft matter physics to undergraduate students and the general public.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  09:33

So, yeah, build on the emulsions inside fluids. Like what does that have to do with cooking and your whole evolution of developing a class or a course for students, college students around food and science.

Dr. Amy Rowat  09:48

So back when I was a postdoc at Harvard, I was working with colleagues there, Dave Weitz and Michael Brenner and Otger Campas, and started working with this chef, Ferran Adria from Spain, who was very interested in collaborating with us. And we thought an easy way to collaborate with this chef would be to develop a class and use concepts in cooking to teach some of these concepts in soft matter physics, which are not typically taught to undergraduates, especially freshmen. So we use these concepts such as emulsions, foams, and gels, to design a class that would teach students about science and the science of soft materials, but in the context of food and cooking.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:31

So me a full description about this course that you’ve developed at Harvard, as a postdoc, and now repurposed it here at UCLA.

Dr. Amy Rowat  10:43

Well, when I got to UCLA, I was tasked with creating a course for physiological sciences. With my background in biophysics, which I was trained in, I thought, I’ll pick out concepts in food that students need to know to understand biophysics. And so many of these concepts were similar to the concepts in this original soft matter physics course that we developed at Harvard, such as understanding what gels are, how they form, emulsions, foams, diffusion. I also integrated in a lesson on the physiology of taste and understanding how molecules bind to certain receptors like the taste receptors, proteins on our tongue. So the full structure of the class, Science and Food: The Physical and Molecular Origins of What We Eat, each week, there’s a biophysics topic and one of the classes of the week I teach the science. The other class is when a guest lecture comes in, and I have used lectures that somehow will introduce some other perspective on the science topic and how it relates to food and cooking. So that can range from nutritionists, farmers, food artisans that make for example, kimchi, or have developed a homemade yogurt business. Chefs, for example, including some of the chefs that Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants, like Ari Rosenson, who works the CUT, to Sherry Yard, who is a renowned pastry chef here. So altogether, this gets the students, I think, excited and interested to see how that science concept which may seem, you know, divorced from everyday life, but I try not to make it that way by giving lots of examples of how it relates to food and the plants and animals that we eat. But having that extra perspective, I think helps to highlight how the science concepts can be useful and relevant for everyday life. So that’s the main structure of the course. There’s homework assignments every week, and a midterm exam, and a final exam. And then this scientific Bake Off that we have that the students work on for the last few weeks of the class, where they’re developing their own experiments and gathering data and trying to study some aspect of pie

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:07

Bringing back to foam chocolate mousse again, I always want to bring it back to some of my favorite foods. You mentioned that that has to do with foam. So explain to me the recipe that Billy Yosses was presenting where he used water and chocolate and created chocolate mousse. How can you explain that in scientific terms?

Dr. Amy Rowat  13:28

So that recipe involves melting your chocolate and then whipping the chocolate while you incorporate water into it. And so you’re creating a foam because you have pockets of air that give that chocolate mousse it’s light, airy texture, and you’re using some of the molecules that are in the chocolate. Chocolate has lots of molecules that are amphiphilic that means that they like water and fat at the same time. So they like to be at interfaces and that interface in this chocolate mousse is the interface of the water and the air. So by using these molecules that are in the chocolate that are these natural amphiphiles, they naturally like to be this interface. They’ll help to stabilize that interface between the water and the air and it makes the chocolate stable. But then you also manipulate the temperature so you cool it down so then the fat molecules in the chocolate will freeze into a solid state so that makes the the foam this solid material that is the texture of chocolate mousse.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:33

And that takes the place of the cream that you normally would use that would have created that kind of foam.

Dr. Amy Rowat  14:40

That airy texture, that’s right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:42

Yeah. So the whipping always happens anyway even if you had cream but it’s the temperature, rapid temperature change.

Dr. Amy Rowat  14:50

Right and then some other chocolate mousse recipes might use gelatin for example or some jelling agent that would be, provide that stability. Once you cool it down, it would sort of freeze into its position and the gelatin in that case would stabilize this foam. But in this case, we’re using the chocolate itself to do that.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:12

So with your science and food class, you can explain that kind of ampilif – how do you pronounce it?

Dr. Amy Rowat  15:18


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:18

Amphiphilic properties, which always struck me as something super interesting, because it’s really just positive and negatives on the ends of these molecules, right? That then, and that’s what soap is too, right? They dissolve the fat and then dissolve into water. And that’s what creates it?

Dr. Amy Rowat  15:35

Yep, the key point that I wanted to emphasize in the course at UCLA is how these concepts also relate to the plants and animals that we eat. So for example, those tough fibers in kale. What are those molecules? How do they help the plant? And how do we manipulate those as we cook? Same with thinking about meat and the texture of meat, the molecules that a cow needs, for example, to support its body weight, when it moves around are structural proteins that are also involved in regulating the texture of meat. So how do we manipulate those as we cook, and how do chefs deal with that? For example, understanding how much collagen is in a particular cut of meat is really important when you’re figuring out how to cook it over what period of time, at what temperature. So those were some of the concepts that I tried to highlight throughout the course and kind of give the central theme to the Science and Food course, which is called the Physical and Molecular Origins of What We Eat.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:42

Yeah, I really liked that idea that you are bringing people not just to the food itself, but to what the ingredients that are building that meal. So I want to get back to when we first met and it was a UCLA public lecture on the science of food, and what made you decide to branch out from teaching college students to broader public?

Dr. Amy Rowat  17:07

So when we first offered this class, it was at Harvard, the first Science and Cooking class that there was so much enthusiasm and excitement for these chefs that were coming, learning about the science underlying food, but the class size was limited. So we thought, well, maybe we need to broaden this out somehow so that more people can come and participate. And that was really the birth of these public lectures. So when I got to UCLA, I felt like that was an important aspect to continue. Because broadening the understanding of science and broadening participation in science is really important, I feel. So having these public lectures where people would come and learn more about science, learn more about their food seemed like an important step.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:54

As I understand you have, first of all, a line around the block of chefs who want to be in your lectures, and agents are knocking on your door right and left. And then also, you have sold-out events. I mean, explain to me why you think this is? I mean, why do you think it’s so exciting to people?

Dr. Amy Rowat  18:14

Well, there’s a confluence of factors, I think, that are at play here. So we have, on the one hand, people are just very excited about food these days. And you can see in the social media world, and Instagram, and all of these methods, people have to communicate their excitement about food. People want to know more about their food, people want to know more about what they eat. And then there’s also that chefs have gained sort of a celebrity status these days. And there’s a lot of excitement to follow them to hear what they have to say. And there aren’t so many opportunities to do that in an interactive format. So I think all of these factors have played a role in why these events are so popular.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:01

Yeah, I mean, I find that the topics you cover, they range from the microbiome, to sustainability, to minimizing food waste, and I found them incredibly informative. And I just wonder how, how do you pick those topics? And and also, like, what are people telling you like, what do they say about these public lectures?

Dr. Amy Rowat  19:24

So the topics we pick based on what we think will be interesting, largely. Some of the topics recently, I mean, we had future food a couple years ago, and that’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, you know, how can science play a role in the future of food, and whether that be contributing knowledge of how we can generate more sustainable foods, how we can make food production more efficient. There’s also this interesting tension I think, between eating local and buying things at the farmer’s market versus some of these science-based approaches of genetically engineering, for example, proteins in a more efficient way that can be used in food production. So we brought on an ethicist to talk about that aspect along with the chef, Daniel Patterson, who spearheaded the restaurant Locol with Roy Choi here in LA, and Kent Kirshenbaum, who’s a scientist with a deep understanding of how we can, from molecules up, build foods of particular textures. So that created a really nice dialogue, I think, on that topic. Other topics have come about because a certain chef is excited to come to UCLA. So last year, for example, we had Massimo Bottura that was spearheaded by the LA Times Food Bowl Festival, that Jonathan Gold and Angus Dylan had really initiated. And he was in LA, and they wanted to do an event at UCLA. And he’s very passionate about sustainability and in food waste. So that formed the topic for that year. And I think in all of these elements, the really key thing here is just bringing in that scientific dialogue. People get scared about science, or they’re skeptical, and there’s a lot of misinformation floating about food issues. So I think that to me, is the core here, is bringing together people with different perspectives, including scientists that can talk in an educated way about some of these important food issues.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:30

Yeah, I mean, I think that you knit the different disciplines beautifully. And you’re a perfect example of it and given your incredible background in, training and as a physicist, engineer, postdoc, and faculty member, now tenured at UCLA, and then your ability to have conversations with the chefs in a meaningful and practical way. How can people who are listening know about your next event? I mean, I think that that’s something we’d all like to know about.

Dr. Amy Rowat  21:59

Well, we have a website, scienceandfood.org. And you can stay abreast with the new developments there. There’s also a link to be able to join our mailing list. And even if you’re not in Los Angeles, where the events are held, we do video them and we have a YouTube channel. And in addition, at the science and food site, you could read some of our blog postings as well. The undergraduates here are very active in maintaining a blog that I curate on topics related to science and food.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:31

And if have you ever influenced the chefs’ recipes?

Dr. Amy Rowat  22:33

It’s a good question. I was at this demo, at the cooking demo at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market, where someone was doing a demo on tahini. And she’d formed a company actually to produce tahini-based food products. So she demo’ed a few recipes, and then asked if there was any questions. And actually, I have to give full credit to my son who’s three, because he’s the one who asked the question, it was more of a statement of how he had whipped cream the night before. But that made this really interesting connection between foaming tahini, which I think and some of the iSi Whip container, which is used very widely in the chef world to make, what’s a whipped cream maker, basically. You have a little compressed nitrogen that you stick on to this pressurized container and then you can whip whatever you want. And again, because tahini is ground-up sesame seeds that has all of these fats that are naturally inside of it, why wouldn’t it whip? Anyway, she took that challenge, she’s gonna go and do some experiments. So apart from that, I mean, I’m sure there have been other influences in the past, I’ve had some, one of the things the students do in my class is to engineer a pie. The final pie project involves students having to identify some aspect of a pie that they’re going to study. So this causes them to formulate a scientific question, identify a hypothesis, actually do experiments, analyze the data, and present a poster that describes the whole scientific process, along with a pie that is served at this poster fair. We call it a Bake Off, a scientific Bake Off. So the pie is served up and judges come around and just for fun, we have a taste test of the pies. So the judges, I’ve invited some local chefs and even there have been times when we’ve had Billy Yosses or Christina Tosi.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  23:00

Who’s she?

Dr. Amy Rowat  23:43

Christina Tosi is a pastry chef and founder of the Milk Bar in New York and which is now expanding also here to LA. And so in this process of these chefs and bakers judging the pies Zoe Nathan from Huckleberry, for example, also came. She’s a famous pie baker, fantastic baked goods. And so they’ve been, I think, surprised and interested in some of the pies that the students have made. But I think generally while they’ve been interested, it seems that none of the actual innovations that the students have made, may have made it into their recipes. I remember one team used chia seeds as a way to to increase the viscosity of their apple pie filling. So to make it stick together, so it doesn’t, it’s not very runny and liquidy when you slice it and it flows onto your plate. And at that time, Jonathan Gold was one of the judges and he actually wrote about it following his experience as a judge, that one of the downsides of the chia seeds is that they tend to get stuck in your teeth. So while there may have been some development, I’m not familiar with any who have actually impacted the processes of any chefs.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:08

Their repertoire, yeah. So one of the things that struck me in some of your public lectures, and I’m wondering if you’ve incorporated that in the class is your whole area of focus around minimizing food waste. And I know Billy Yosses came and, you know, really presented a really valuable lesson on pistachio paste and what you could do with it, which is considered a food waste that you presented at the Eat Well Pod, the Healthy Campus Initiative Food Day that happens every October. How does that play into your work that you’re doing?

Dr. Amy Rowat  26:45

Well, definitely, there’s themes of head-to-tail cooking, or stem-to-leaf cooking, or root-to-leaf cooking, I guess. I can’t remember the title of that lecture, but addressing how we can use all different parts of plants and animals in cooking, and is something that comes up in my class. I’ve contemplated incorporating a section on more quantitative analyses and approaches to characterizing food waste. For example, using carbon footprint calculations, like Jenny Jay here at UCLA has so elegantly done, and others as well. But that hasn’t yet made it into the class. But I think it’s definitely something that could be integrated in but it’s a little bit further afield than the actual biophysics approach of relating the textures of food to plant and animal physiology.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:42

Yeah, so explain to me a little bit more about that carbon foodprint and how that would relate to the biophysics. What is carbon footprint? What is that? What do you mean by that?

Dr. Amy Rowat  27:52

So the carbon footprint calculations that, for example, Jenny Jay, has been working on sort of ascribe carbon dioxide emissions to all of the processes that go into the production of a food. So that could relate to, you know, the amount of gas that’s needed to power tractors that have to till the soil, to where the food is transported to be processed. If it’s an animal product, considering how much methane or the carbon emissions from a cow would be important as well. So yes, so I need to think more how that how that would be integrated in, but I’m sure there is a link somewhere.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  28:36

Yeah, and I know that her some of her calculations demonstrate that the carbon foodprint of a beef burrito versus a bean burrito is 10 times greater. So it’s got some interesting ,sort of, connection to the environment and then the food that you eat.

Dr. Amy Rowat  28:52


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  28:53

So you know, you’ve been a professor at UCLA since 2011. But even before that, you had a distinguished career in research as a postdoc at Harvard and a doctorate student in Copenhagen. I’d like to know, how did these previous roles prepare you for your role at UCLA, and as a current leader of the Healthy Campus Initiative Eat Well Pod, focusing on making UCLA the healthiest place to eat, as well as learn, live, and work, and a researcher in biophysics? Like how did all these previous roles and these other places brought you to this place?

Dr. Amy Rowat  29:28

Well, since the age of three or so, I was always in the kitchen cooking and doing projects. They were basically experiments.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:39

Since you were three, just like your son.

Dr. Amy Rowat  29:41

Right, yeah. And well, this is what, as I hear the story from my parents, you know, and but there’s photo documentation.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:50

Like what?

Dr. Amy Rowat  29:51

Oh, of photos of me in the sink, you know, spooning muffin batter into tins, and even some recipes that I started writing out when before I could really spell. And so, you know, I’ve always been interested in food and cooking, and I contemplated going to chef school. But then I realized that going to graduate school, I could still cook, but it would be harder to still keep doing science while going to chef school. So I ended up at graduate school and then it turned out that my PhD advisor was very excited about food and ended up writing books on scientific aspects of sushi and seaweed and various other topics. So already at that time, I was realizing, and seeing these connections between the research I was working on at that time on lipid membranes, which are very thin nanoscopic layers of fat that surround all the cells in our body, and understanding how the research I was doing related to food. So I think these ideas have been brewing for a very long time, so to speak, right. So then being here, I think, you know, clearly the course development I’ve done before I got to UCLA poised me enough to develop the curriculum further. But all these other past activities, you know, I’d done a lot of volunteering when I was an undergraduate. We used to put on a big banquet each year for, it was our Society of All Nations student organization. And so I was, for many years, was one of the head chefs for that. And we put together this menu and banquet for hundreds of people, I suppose. So yes, I’ve always been involved in food in some ways. So that really all comes in handy. I think when in my work with the Eat Well Pod integrating with, you know, UCLA Dining, and other student organizations. And I’d also in high school volunteered at a food bank for many years. And so all of these topics, you know, come up in our daily discussions and work in promoting knowledge of good food to eat and making that accessible for everyone at UCLA.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:14

I mean, that just speaks to the advice to people is, you know, let your passion be your vocation.

Dr. Amy Rowat  32:16


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:17

You found a way to really integrate food into your occupation in a big way, it’s pretty cool. Would you say that there were any major research breakthroughs that you’ve done that have been related to your love of food and your knowledge of foods?

Dr. Amy Rowat  32:33

I don’t know, breakthrough is maybe a bit of a strong word. But we had a project a little while ago, where we were trying to figure out why the nucleus inside of the cell changes shape. So this is very commonly used for cancer diagnosis. Pathologists look at the shape of the nucleus inside of cell and they’ll say, oh, that one’s cancerous. They can even do prognosis and say, okay, this one, this is a bad one, this one’s not as bad, based on the shape of the nucleus. So it was a fascinating question from a biophysics perspective. What is it that makes the nucleus round? Why does it change shape? So we had a model cell system we were working with in the lab, but I kept trying to think of something even simpler, we could use to model this kind of shape change. And sort of I was reading a paper one day and came across this example, someone had cited about how these shape changes happen in everyday life, for example, heating a pot of milk, and this skin forms. And you can see the wrinkles across it, especially if you blow on it or something.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:40

So the skin of the milk, when you boil it and you have that you don’t like?

Dr. Amy Rowat  33:45

You have that layer, like a bunch of denatured proteins. It’s always gross, right? You always want to remove it, you don’t want that to get into your coffee. So anyways, we set up a system in my lab, mostly undergraduates did all that work of characterizing these wrinkles that form in the skin of milk. And it turns out, it’s driven by this evaporation of the water across the film of the milk, coupled with the material properties of the milk film itself. And you can start to see these morphological changes. And we characterize those, I can’t say that it provides any deep insight into the cell nucleus per se, but it was a paper that we published. So that’s I think the best example so far of how food topic has sort of made it into the lab, but we’re constantly thinking about new ideas. So we’ll see where that goes in the future of how food, or least edible molecules will make it into the lab.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  34:45

I think that this kind of integration or this sort of cross-collaboration of chefs, scientists has translated to something that you just achieved, I think, a real accomplishment. You’re a co-principal investigator on one of the first National Science Foundation’s grants is looking at training doctorate students in water, energy and food. And I’d like to know, you know, give me a little bit more information about that, and what are your hopes for that grant?

Dr. Amy Rowat  35:17

Well, I think it’s definitely an exciting and much-needed support for training, given the challenges we face in energy and water. And you know, food is really central because to that, because food production really heavily relies on water, and so.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:32

And energy.

Dr. Amy Rowat  35:33

And energy, yes. So, yeah, I think that the educational opportunities it’s going to provide for students, including internships in companies and nonprofits nearby, where they’ll be able to gain firsthand experience in some of these issues, like, for example, potentially, some of these plant-based food companies that are developing novel ways of making food that’s more sustainable. And so that’s a possible new direction of work for my own lab as well. So I think there’s some exciting potential.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  36:06

So you’re saying in your own lab, you might be looking towards developing food products or food?

Dr. Amy Rowat  36:13

Yeah, and understanding more how I could develop plant-based scaffolds, for example, for cells to grow on for cell culture, and possibly for food production down the line, but my lab would focus on more not developing a food product, but more of the basic research angle of it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  36:33

What does that mean, when you say basic research aspect?

Dr. Amy Rowat  36:36

So not developing a product that will be in a supermarket that people could eat, but understanding more fundamentally, how cells might behave when they’re on a scaffold of some plant-based molecules versus some animal-based molecules like gelatin or something that could in the end, provide a more sustainable way for cells to be grown.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:00

So helping cells grow that might be ultimately food?

Dr. Amy Rowat  37:05

Right. But there’s not more I can say about that, right?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:07

Yeah. But it’s an idea that might go forward in the future. That’s pretty cool. So I’d love to, you know, understand from your point of view, what kind of advice would you give others how to become a scientist like you?

Dr. Amy Rowat  37:23

Well, I think following your passion is really key. Because whatever one does, but being in science, especially academics, I’d say, just requires a lot of hard work and perseverance. And so being passionate and excited about what you do is, I think, one of the really key points, like you had mentioned already.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:46

Yeah, like, let your passion be your vocation.

Dr. Amy Rowat  37:49


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:49

Yeah, and is there a particular researcher that you admire?

Dr. Amy Rowat  37:54

I would say, not one particular researcher, but in general researchers, such as you know, Linus Pauling, who did really great science research in many different disciplines, but also some activism. You know, Ursula Franklin is another great Canadian physicist, who as a woman in science, you know, I appreciate that she was someone I admired. Back when I was an undergraduate, who was doing, again, great research in physics, but also she wrote several books and also an activist herself. So I think I’ve always sort of gravitated to admiring researchers whose impact has spanned many disciplines, and which is perhaps natural. And translates their knowledge to the community as well. So that’s more of the theme of researchers who I admire.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  38:50

Well, like so maybe to sort of build on that, is there some kind of recipe that you particularly yearn for when you are feeling nostalgic that you’d like to share?

Dr. Amy Rowat  39:02

I mean, macaroni and cheese was always my very favorite dish that my mom made for all my birthday parties. So that’s always a great dish to eat, as well. Delicious, yeah, and I discovered a great new recipe recently from J. Kenji Alt, who wrote the Food Lab recently. And it’s a very easy one-pot meal that’s very simple to make. You can do it in like five minutes. So you might want to add that to your repertoire as well.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  39:34

Oh, definitely.

Dr. Amy Rowat  39:35

But otherwise, nostalgic. I mean, I always loved making pies. And that’s something also that I always enjoyed eating as a child as well. Those are probably the top two, carrot cake.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  39:47

So all those bring you back to something, a happy moment.

Dr. Amy Rowat  39:51


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  39:52

Well, thank you, Amy, so much. Incredible. You’re just such a treasure here at UCLA. Being a leader of the Healthy Campus Initiative Eat Well Pod has just been a true joy for all of us to have you participate in really creating the healthiest campus in the country. So thank you so much.

Dr. Amy Rowat  40:09

Thank you.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  40:13

Thank you for tuning into UCLA Live Well. For more information about today’s episode and the resources mentioned, visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast. Today’s podcast was brought to you by the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA. To stay up to date with our episodes, subscribe to UCLA Live Well on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Get to know us a little better and follow us @healthyucla. If you think you know the perfect person for us to interview next, tweet your idea to us, please. Have a wonderful rest of your day, and we hope you join us for our next episode as we explore new perspectives on health and well-being.