#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

#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.

#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.

#28: Asian Americans in Pop Culture with Dr. Oliver Wang


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:05

Culture writer, DJ, sociology professor and co-host of the album appreciation podcast Heat Rocks, Dr. Oliver Wang joins us to share his research on the ways in which Asian-Americans participate in different forms of popular culture. Oliver has made his mission and work to share the stories that have yet to be told, like the story of the Filipino-American mobile DJs in the Bay Area, or the story behind the travel patterns of the Kogi food trucks in Los Angeles. Keep listening to hear some of these untold stories. Oliver, thank you so much for joining this podcast today. We’re doubly excited, because usually, you’re the one doing the interviewing. And so, I don’t know, I feel a little self-conscious, I suppose, but.

Dr. Oliver Wang  01:00

It’s nice being on the other side of things for change.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  01:02

Is that right? Oh, good. And I know most of what you do in terms of interviewing is around music. Is that right?

Dr. Oliver Wang  01:09

Yeah, I have a long history of music journalism going back about this point almost, or not even almost, but over 25 years. And in more recent times, I get to hone that or keep it honed by hosting a music podcast called Heat Rocks, where myself and my co-host, Morgan Rhodes, invite guests on to talk about their favorite albums. And so we usually record that weekly. So I get to have an intelligent conversation about music at least once a week. And that is incredibly pleasurable.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  01:38

Now you as an admirer of musicians, are you also a creator of music yourself?

Dr. Oliver Wang  01:44

I DJ. So to that extent, I “play music,” but I have not played an instrument since I was in middle school marching band, and I played the flute, and never continued with music lessons after the eighth grade. So I do not consider myself to be terribly musically proficient, even though I am certainly a deep lover and scholar and writer about music.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  02:07

Aha. Now this sort of brings us to how I know your DJ experience led you to, I think, the scholarly work that you have done. You shared this in your food studies presentation in our food studies colloquium at UCLA for our graduate students. And I’d love you to share that with the listeners of your DJ, how that informs you to move into where you are now.

Dr. Oliver Wang  02:33

Right. So I wrote a book that came out in 2015 on Duke University Press called Legions of Boom, Filipino-American mobile DJ crews of the San Francisco Bay Area. And this was based on my dissertation research when I was a graduate student in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. And the way that I got an interested in this particular community of DJs is that when I first went up to the Bay Area in 1990, to attend college to attend Berkeley as an undergraduate student, it became very quickly clear to me that the Bay Area and specifically Filipino-American DJs in the Bay Area were amongst the best in the world. And right in the early 90s is when DJs such as Qbert, Mix Master Mike, Apollo, these are all Bay Area Filipino-American DJs, they began winning these world international competitions and really distinguished themselves as being some of the finest DJs in the world. So as someone who was living in the Bay Area, was interested in hip-hop as a listener and as a very, very young scholar, and that is an undergraduate I guess. And as someone who is also happens to be Asian-American, I was certainly very familiar with this phenomenon of these world-class Bay Arean DJs, who were all happened to be a Filipino descent. And like many people, was curious to understand. So what is it about the Bay Area, and specifically the Bay Area’s Filipino community that produces all of these world-class disc jockeys? And by the mid 90s, I had the opportunity to begin my career in music journalism, and began interviewing a lot of the DJs from this community, and quickly learned that one commonality that they all had was prior to the 1990s. So the 90s is when they really became much more visible on the national and global stage. But when they were younger, as just high school teenagers. all of these DJs had been heavily involved in a mobile disc jockey scene of basically high school and local community DJ groups that would throw parties, such as school dances, they would DJ weddings, they would DJs quinceaneras, church parties, etc. And that they all were competing for business and competing for reputation with each other as these young high school teenage crews and it was a fascinating phenomenon that I realized very, very few people had written about and as both a music journalist and then later as a graduate student, when you come upon a really fascinating story that you don’t see other people talking about, that light bulb went up over my head that, oh, there’s something here. And that’s how it became first of all, my dissertation topic, and then later became the subject of my book.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:10

Well I think it just shows how being observant and also blending your interests and passion with a scholarly pursuit can be so productive and also, so eye-opening to others. I love the fact that you took that perspective on something that none of us, I would never have known about, which is kind of like what you’ve done with food trucks.

Dr. Oliver Wang  05:34

At the time in which I first started to study the movement of new, kind of, fusion taco trucks, it was at a pretty early stage where I didn’t see a lot of other existing work on it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:46

So driving your research was this kind of premise, like, let’s look into something that others haven’t really explored or evaluated.

Dr. Oliver Wang  05:55

Right. And I think this is a case where having both a background in academia as well as journalism helps because, as a journalist, you’re always chasing after the story somebody else hasn’t already done. And I don’t necessarily feel like academia always runs along the same principle. Because especially as a social scientist, of course, there’s a very long methodological tradition in replicating studies to confirm, you know, previous results. And of course, from the scientific process point of view, that totally makes sense. But I think for me, when it comes to the things that I’m interested in studying, if I feel like someone else has already covered that territory, then I figure, well, I don’t need to reinvent the wheel, my efforts are probably spent in places where there hasn’t been as much research. And given that I’m primarily interested, not exclusively, but I’m heavily interested in Asian-American popular culture formations and forms of participation. That’s just a general area where there is not a lot of existing scholarship on, no matter what. So given that that’s my general field of interest, it’s not that common that I’m likely to overlap with other people. Since I’m interested in aspects of pop culture, which historically speaking within the academy, Asian-American pop culture has not been a real hot topic for a lot of folks. And so it does make it easier for me to find things that haven’t been done, simply given the nature of, you know, the history of racial exclusion in a variety of fields, including within the academy.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:24

Well, that, you know, it’s really interesting that you’ve made that observation, not just about the Asian population, but about how to find areas that haven’t been well-described or observed and, and share it with others. Because, you know, when I first went to UCLA, and I went to a wonderful professor who’s since passed away prematurely. But he told me, I said, how can I make a difference in my field, you know, I’m medical, pediatrics, whatever. He said, Wendy, find something that’s really common sense that no one ever studied and study it and publish it. And the policymakers will run with it.

Dr. Oliver Wang  08:01


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:02

I mean, our academic folks want to have these multiple hundred studies, two hundred, whatever. But look, you know, it’s sort of a similar kind of approach to research. There are ways of doing research that can really capture people’s imaginations and also make difference in, you know, potentially their lives, right? So I think like your research in food trucks, I think is particularly fascinating, because it brings to light the complexity of food trucks, and I’d love us to focus on this today. Tell me how you’re interested in Asian-American culture and food trucks. How did that blend itself together?

Dr. Oliver Wang  08:39

So the the project that you’re talking about is a small research project that I undertook, God, now it would have been about 12 years ago, so this would have been starting around, I think, 2008 or 2009. But it happened at the time in which the Kogi BBQ truck which in Los Angeles really helped to ignite this wave of what I describe as nuevo catering trucks, nuevo taco trucks popped off around again 12 years ago, marking this difference between the older traditional taco trucks and lunch trucks that have been around and have been part of the food landscape of Los Angeles since at least the 1970s. But what began happening about, you know, 10, 12 years ago is that this wave of younger entrepreneurs came to the realization that the catering truck model allowed them to be able to get put a foot into the door of opening up a restaurant, but with lower overhead, lower initial investment, and that by, in the case of Kogi, by creating this fusion food creation. In their case, that creation was these Korean-inspired short rib tacos that combine both the city’s Korean and Mexican culinary heritages in a single dish, that it was a way of introducing new forms of food that didn’t have the same perhaps financial risk involved as trying to open up a brick-and-mortar. And the other thing that Kogi did that was so pioneering at the time, because again, you got to remember when we’re talking about here is, rather than being a stationary truck with an address that that you could find day-in, day-out, they would move locations throughout the day, and then update their location using Twitter. And this was at a time in which Twitter had been around for a couple of years, but it certainly wasn’t to the degree in which it’s become such a vital part, for better or for worse, of our contemporary communications systems, that them using Twitter was really considered the time very innovative, as a way of leveraging the power of social media as a marketing tool for their new business. And so Kogi, for a lot of reasons, became this, kind of, avatar of the perception of these new food movements that were happening amongst a younger generation of entrepreneurs. And so the way I got interested in this, because partly I am a journalist is I’m always looking to see what are other people writing about. And especially when it comes to issues of food and identity and community, I’m always curious when I hear people purporting either how it’s being described by others, or their own self description, where they’re talking about the ways in which food or business represents a neighborhood or a city or a community. Because I mean, those are bold claims. And I think part of me is always curious to see to well, to what degree do things live up to the ideal that they purport to exemplify based on, as in terms of their mission or identity. And with Kogi, there was so much intense press, I mean, really, within just a matter of months after they opened, they were not just getting local coverage from the likes of Jonathan Gold, the late Jonathan Gold, who at the time, was still writing at the LA Weekly. They got big write-ups in the LA Times, but outlets like Newsweek, and I think it might have been Time Magazine, or maybe was the New York Times, but they were sending reporters out to do stories on this very local Los Angeles food truck serving these Korean short rib tacos. And a lot of the language in which they would write about it was very, you know, very idealistic, very much, you know, and you got to remember that this is right after Obama gets elected, and so the kind of sense of power of multiculturalism is perhaps at its peak, at this moment in American society. And so Kogi is seen as as tapping into all of these different things. And sorry, I feel like I’m rambling here. But the way in which I turned this into a research project is given their very conceit of we’re going to move locations throughout the Southland, and we’re going to tweet where we’re going to be, I realized that Twitter feed was a source of geotagged data. So for every address that they’d say, okay, we’re going to be at this address at this time, I could basically copy that down, put it into a database, and then map it using Google Maps, and then create a map of where does the truck go. And part of what I was looking for was not only is what areas of Los Angeles, and Orange County, is the truck going to, but also by extension, where’s it not going to? And then you get this kind of social geography of this particular company that I think might be reflective of other similar, newer nuevo trucks that were really becoming a part of this massive trend that began to pop off in the late 20-odds, I guess.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:40

Hmm, where did it not go?

Dr. Oliver Wang  13:42

It did not go into a very large part of Los Angeles, which historically tends to be ignored by a lot of people who write about food. In other words, if you were to compare the map of where Kogi went with a map of what restaurants, you know, Los Angeles magazine reviews, or if you were to, you know, map, the Zagat’s Guide to Los Angeles, the areas that are missing all happened to overlap with one another. And it tends to be the neighborhoods that are south of the 10 freeway, and east of the 405. And again, for your listeners who are not from Los Angeles, this may be utterly meaningless. But if anything, if people know anything about Los Angeles, it’s that the freeway system does mark a lot of our geography, in this case that, so what I’m describing are the neighborhoods that fill South Los Angeles, Southeast Los Angeles, and also parts of East Los Angeles were the areas that I found that the truck didn’t go to. And these are, I think, not coincidentally, the most brown and black parts of Los Angeles and they also happen to be the most working-class parts of Los Angeles. And these are neighborhoods in which taco trucks, the old fashioned traditional taco trucks, are not hard to find. They cover the area, yet it seemed like a lot of the nuevo trucks were avoiding them. And my guess is, it’s a combination of class dynamics on one hand. I’ve heard the argument that it’s a palatte concern, which I don’t know if I put as much validity into the idea that somehow immigrant, you know, Latino populations, or African-American populations are not interested in fusion food concepts. I don’t see enough evidence around that to sort of buy that as a reason. I think a lot of it is because these nuevo trucks were charging a higher price point than a lot of the traditional taco trucks and maybe made the assumption that by going to these poor neighborhoods, they’re less likely to be able to turn a profit. Again, and that’s just an educated guess. But what’s interesting, I’d love to hear your sociologist perspective, what is it that the mobile truck, what’s that role and what is it bringing to the food truck culture? Like being mobile, what is that? Is that just because it’s novel? Or is there something else about it that you think is contributing to people’s interest in that kind of habit of a truck? Yeah, I think it’s a great question. I think there’s a few things going on. You know, one thing that others who are much I think, more studied in just the catering truck phenomenon than I am, have pointed out, the one thing that trucks do, just given the nature of their mobility is that they, the phrase that often gets used, that they activate public space. And so if you’re setting up a food truck in a, let’s say, a warehouse district that otherwise doesn’t have a lot of residential properties, then you don’t have people who typically live there. And maybe they’re doing it after hours. So it’s not like you’re getting people on lunch break. And yet, if you’re able to bring people out there, it temporarily, at least in a very ephemeral way, it activates this public space that otherwise would be deserted or unused. And so I do think there’s a way in which that the taco truck phenomenon, not just in Los Angeles, but a lot of cities is a way of creating a new version of street food, that historically, at least in Los Angeles, certainly there’s kind of have long been sidewalk street food stands. But I think that the catering truck phenomenon really grew a kind of street food culture that perhaps didn’t exist as robustly in a city like LA, compared to, let’s say, New York City, where you’ve had, you know, hotdog stands and knish stands and pretzel stands and everything, you know, when I think Halal food carts, right. I mean, every corner of Manhattan feels like there’s a food stand, and LA is is nowhere near that. But I think having the addition of newer food trucks, in addition to the more traditional food trucks, was a way of creating more of a public street sense of food. And I think that quality is appealing to people that falls in line with the ways in which there has been renewed interest in the urban landscape. You know, now that cities are hip to live in and again, and people aren’t afraid of moving into central cities anymore. the food culture of it has gone hand-in-hand with the, and you can’t really see me, I’m putting scare quotes around the word “rehabilitation” here. But around the rehabilitation of urban space, I think food and culinary foodways have played a pretty key role in that rehabilitation of image. And I think the other thing, too, is going back to what I was saying earlier, it’s because if you are trying to launch a new food concept, it’s probably easier from a financial point of view, or at least a little bit less risky to do that by investing in a food truck than it would be paying rent or leasing a physical brick-and-mortar space. Which means that if you are an adventurous food eater, and you’re seeking novelty, you’re more likely to find examples of that novelty in the food truck as opposed to going to a more traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant. I do think that phenomenon is beginning to change a little bit because one of the big newer trends that we’ve seen in Los Angeles over the last few years have been so-called food halls, which to me are just food courts with different PR, but they’re effectively the same thing. You just have a bunch of food stands inside of the same shared space. But you’re now seeing a lot of these newer concepts appearing in food halls, maybe either in addition to a truck or in place of a truck, because I think what we’ve seen over time, and I don’t have the numbers on this, but I think you’ve seen fewer trucks now than there might have been 10 years ago, as the truck economy has kind of worked out its kinks and maybe wasn’t able to support as many trucks on the road as we originally thought it might.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:35

Yeah. And also like, at farmer’s markets, I see a lot of pop-up experimental foods being sold.

Dr. Oliver Wang  19:41

Right, that’s another place that, again it requires a low relative initial investment to get interested in that. So yeah, I think if you’re a food eater, then you’re looking to these trucks seeking that novelty, looking for dishes that you haven’t experienced before. And I think that’s also contributed to their popularity.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:58

Now if you had somebody come to you and ask for advice on starting up their own food truck, what would you give? What kind of advice would you give?

Dr. Oliver Wang  20:10

Oh god, I’m sure I would just be helping a lot of people go out of business much sooner. I’ll say this much, and this is a very small but I think significant thing for any truck that is contemplating operating any kind of thing that involves the taco. And this is one thing that I think Kogi got really right, which is that if you’re going to serve a proper truck taco, you have to griddle it with a little bit of fat or oil. I remember and I’m not going to name the truck, because I don’t want to be mean about this, but remember, in the post-Kogi era, there was a another fusion truck concept, basically serving non-Mexican, non-Latino food inside of a taco, a soft taco wrap. And they just serve the the tortilla without any heat and without any fat. It’s like they just took it out of a bag, slapped some ingredients in it, and then served it. And it’s basically like eating through, you know, a thin piece of cardboard, like without the fat, the corn tortilla itself, there’s no unctousness to it, and it just creates this terrible mouthfeel.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:18

Mmm, I agree.

Dr. Oliver Wang  21:20

And I just came away thinking like, have you never had a taco before? Like, why wouldn’t you throw this on? Like, apply some heat, put some fat into it and make it more pliable and just make it more delicious. So that would be the only simple piece of advice is make sure that there’s a little bit of heat, and hopefully fat getting into that corn tortilla.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:40

You’re making me hungry, actually. Maybe I’ll move into something that’s not talking about food, or tangentially, about your research and writings. You’ve talked a lot about the growing role and presence of Asian-Americans’ Los Angeles cultural foodie scene, can you talk a little bit about this, or a little bit more about this?

Dr. Oliver Wang  22:00

One of the things that I feel like has been explained is the amount of Asian Americans who you can really see being heavily involved at the forefront of where American food culture is going. And so I’m thinking of people like, certainly David Chang, who has now created a mini media empire based around his exploits in the world of food. If we’re talking about Kogi, as we have been, certainly Roy Choi has been one of the very visible people there. And I’m just naming two very obvious people, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Asian Americans out there writing cookbooks, opening restaurants, writing food blogs, etc, who’ve really taken to throwing themselves in full-force into pushing where American food culture is going. And I think a big reason why is that, given the history of racial exclusion that Asian Americans have faced going back, you know, well into the 19th century. You know, the common thing that that people in our community face is that were seen as these perpetual foreigners. So it doesn’t matter how many generations or families have been here, it’s simply because we look the way that we look, people just assume that we’re not really American. And so I think because of that, in a lot of other areas of American pop culture, whether you’re talking about pop music, or professional sports, or what have you, the presence of Asian Americans within it is always met with at least some degree of initial skepticism in a way that may not exist if you are white or Black, because those are seen as being kind of racially authentic. Being Asian within those spaces as being seen as racially inauthentic. And so as I was saying, there’s this initial perception of skepticism that confronts them. But that doesn’t to me exist in the realm of food, because thanks to there being about 170 years of Chinese food in the United States, to say nothing about Japanese and Korean and Thai food that have come about in more recent decades, Americans in general are well-prepared to see an Asian face in a restaurant or in a kitchen and it doesn’t faze them. At no point do you think, oh, this is unusual, I don’t know how to make sense of this, in comparison to seeing someone like Jeremy Lin, as a professional NBA player on a basketball court. That sometimes there’s a cognitive dissonance that people have around that, or seeing an Asian-American rock musician or hip-hop artist, there’s that cognitive dissonance. You see an Asian-American running a restaurant, there is no cognitive dissonance there. People just understand like, sure, that makes sense to us. And so whether or not Asian-Americans realize this or not, I do think that on some level, because food is a lane, culturally speaking, that we’re allowed to run in, if you will, that it partly helps to explain why all of this energy is going into Asian-Americans exploring all of the different options out there in terms of the different kinds of food ways they want to get involved in. I mean, certainly the backdrop of all of this has just been the explosion of interest in food culture as becoming this formative part of American popular culture. So the ways in which, I’m certainly not the first person to make this comparison, you know, chefs being the new rock stars, for example. So to the degree that food culture now is connected with forms of cultural capital in ways that perhaps didn’t exist one or two generations ago, I think Asian-Americans have really taken advantage of those changes because again, food is an area that we are allowed to exist in without that kind of cognitive dissonance, skepticism. And we are trying to thrive as best as we can within that field.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:39

And what is your next research? Is there something that’s going to be cropping out of this observation that you just described?

Dr. Oliver Wang  25:45

Probably somewhere. Just to use a food metaphor, it’s certainly somewhere on the backburner. Though the actual project that I’m in the midst of right now, and it’s going to be taking over my life for the next couple of years. is actually looking at Japanese-Americans involved in Southern California car culture, so not about food, but about automobiles, and the ways in which Japanese-Americans who are the, at least in the LA area, the oldest/largest community. Chinese-Americans would have predated them, but they had the most significant population in Southern California for many decades. And they have been really central in different aspects of car culture going back a hundred years. So whether that’s racing hot rods up in the desert lake beds back in the 1930s or 40s, whether it’s customizing classic cars of the 40s and 50s, whether it was becoming part of the whole street racing scene that popped off the, well, kind of existed for many decades but there was a very robust street racing scene in the 70s and 80s, before the LAPD cracked down on it. But Japanese-Americans were thoroughly involved with that. And in more recent years and decades they helped to launch what is now thought of as the import car scene that was partially inspired things like the Fast and Furious film franchise, for example. And so my research is basically looking at all of the different generations of Japanese-Americans involved in aspects of car culture here in the LA area. And hopefully, this will be a museum exhibit in 2022, which is what I’m currently in discussion with folks about to make happen.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:22

So I guess from food trucks to cars. So how did you get, how did that interest you? How did you find that idea?

Dr. Oliver Wang  27:35

It actually stems from a very long-time chip on my shoulder as someone who’s certainly considers himself as a scholar, I certainly consider myself to be an Asian-Americanist, which is to say that, you know, a lot of my initial training was in Asian-American Studies. I see my work as being very much part of this tradition of Asian-American Studies, that is, in many ways, celebrating its 50th anniversary right around now. But one blind spot that I felt like has always existed within discipline has been around number one, around popular culture in general. We have dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of people studying Asian American literature. We have, in comparison, very few people, I think, really committed to studying forms of Asian-American popular culture. And in particular, it always struck me as bizarre that no one has ever written a book about Asian Americans in cars, even though if we’re talking about just stereotypical things that people associate with Asian American communities, car culture, I think is one of those things. And yet, for whatever reason, within our community of of Asian-American scholars, it has not been an area of much research outside of some important journal and anthology articles that came out about 15, 20 years ago. But it’s just, there’s been such a dearth, and I always find it to be such a strange phenomenon that we have a gazillion books about Asian-American literature, and no one’s bothered to write a book about Asian Americans and cars. And a good friend of mine, who noted that I had been basically making this observation, by what she meant, you’ve been complaining about this for 20 years, and you’re a sociology professor, you could just fill in that void by doing the research yourself. And I thought about that for a moment, I’m like, okay, that’s actually a fair point. I mean, partly, I’m not really a car guy. And so I got interested partly in DJ culture, because I was and am a DJ. My interest in food is partly because I’m a big lover of both cooking and eating food. With cars, you know, I enjoy their aesthetics, and I enjoy driving them, but I’m not someone who memorizes different car models or can tell you about the provenance about a particular vehicle. So it never really occurred to me to make it part of my own research until my friend said, look, rather than complain about this for the 21st year, why don’t you go out and at least see what’s out there? And, you know, my wife, who is a fourth generation Japanese-American said, well, you should interview my dad. In other words, my father in law, because he and his friends started a car club when they were high school students in the San Fernando Valley. And so I interviewed him, and very quickly realized that there were a series of, I think, really compelling stories there. And so that really got the ball rolling in terms of, so I spoke to him, then I spoke to a couple other folks. And then they recommended me to other people to talk. Then I published something about what I discovered about car clubs from the 1950s and 60s, in the newsletter for the Japanese-American National Museum, which is based here in Los Angeles. And then someone who was part of a racing club, a Japanese-American racing club from the 1980s saw that article, got in touch with me, and then I began interviewing him in his community and generation of folks. And that’s basically how things kind of snowballed from there. And again, I think what connects all of my different interests as a scholar, and as a writer of culture is, I’m interested in the ways in which Asian-Americans participate in different forms of popular culture. And so to that degree, whether it’s DJing, whether it’s taco trucks, or whether it’s cars, those are all just examples of, again, examples of participation in pop culture, which is ultimately what interests me, regardless of my own individual level of interest in any of those areas of activity.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:32

So, I mean, you’re such an extraordinary storyteller, since it’s a journey just to listen to you describe how you get into a different subject matter. And I’d love to know, what’s your bucket list of pop-culture phenomenon that you want to research with the American Asian population?

Dr. Oliver Wang  31:51

That’s a really good question. I think one thing that I joke about with my wife is that, you know, I wrote a book about Filipino-Americans. I’m currently in the midst of doing this research around Japanese-Americans, and my own personal background is I’m Chinese-American, but I’ve never really made it a point to study a Chinese-American phenomenon. I’ve written about specific Chinese American personalities, but not in terms of a scene that I would associate with people from my own ethnic community. And so I feel like at some point, maybe just to, you know, honor my roots, I should figure out something along those lines. But I think partly because the Filipino-American DJ scene was something that I was aware of, but I didn’t grow up in. In the same way that I did not grow up within the Japanese-American car scene, I think that partly what is interesting to me, because there’s something that is novel that draws my initial curiosity. Whereas with Chinese-Americans, it may simply be on a subconscious level, my presumed familiarity with my community makes it actually less interesting or less compelling, simply because it’s too familiar to me.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:02

That makes sense.

Dr. Oliver Wang  33:03

Right, maybe there’s something out there down the road. But I mean, what’s what’s interesting is I’m raising a, at this point, a 15-year-old, you know, half-Japanese-American, half-Chinese-American. Basically, she’s fifth-generation Asian-American, and at least on her mom’s side. And so I’m very curious to see the kinds of things that she and people of her generation, so I guess, the Asian-American Gen Z, get interested in. And it may be that whatever my next next research project ends up being, it’s going to be something that my daughter turned me onto, because it’s something that’s going to be if not fully unique, it’s going to be something that that that generation is driving.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:42

Truly fusion.

Dr. Oliver Wang  33:43

Yeah, to some extent, right. You know, whether that’s in the realm of food, or in music, or in some, you know, some other form of pop culture, I don’t know, I think in general, because you were asking what my bucket list is, and I’m the type of personality where, if I have an interest in something, I usually try to, instead of keeping it on the list, I just jump in to whatever degree I can. So something on a bucket list would suggest there’s something that I’m interested in that I haven’t actually looked at, and right now, I don’t know if there’s anything that I’m interested in that I’m not also actively looking at. So it really would have to be something that I haven’t discovered or come across yet. That would be the bucket list item and maybe I just need to spend a little bit more time out there to see what’s on the the incoming wave of new cultural formations that’s something up my alley.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  34:31

Oh, that actually is a perfect lead-in to the one of my last and final questions, which is, since you are such a good researcher, I’d love to know what your go-to food truck spot is.

Dr. Oliver Wang  34:41

Well, number one, I tell people go to Kogi. I mean, anything else I have to say, but they make an extraordinarily good short rib taco. And I do think that, to the extent that that one dish does capture some aspect of different LA food cultures within its tangible form, I think that’s actually true to a large extent. And I think that if you’re an out-of-towner, and you’ve never tried one, you should take the time out to get on Twitter, figure out where their truck is going to be, and then find a way to get there and to try it. I think it’s certainly worthwhile. In terms of my other favorite food trucks, the two that come to mind is there’s a place called Tacos Leo, which is actually throughout, they have a couple locations throughout Mid City. But the one that that I know best and is their most popular spot is located at the corner of Venice Boulevard and La Brea. And they’re best known for their al pastor tacos, and I think, on the weekends, at least weekends only from my recollection, is they serve it straight off of the trompo, which is the spit. And the people who work that spit clearly have mastered the art of the efficiency of the cut. And it’s almost like a little bit of performance when they put the tacos together. But those are really, really, really delicious. And then the other one would be, this is kind of a Jonathan Gold classic, because he was one of the first people to really help put it on the map outside of the East LA Latino community, which is the Mariscos Jalisco truck. They serve, they’re a seafood, a Mexican seafood truck, and one of their specialties is a hardshell shrimp taco, which is filled with this, kind of this, I know  it’s not gonna sound inherently appetizing, but I think it’s a mash of mashed potatoes with shrimp in it. So it kind of has this creaminess to it with the chewiness of the shrimp, and then it’s inside of a deep fried hard shell. And so you get these layers of texture, it’s seasoned very well. But it’s really just this experience of the crunchiness of the exterior with the creaminess and the chewiness of the interior, you get all this wonderful contrast. I took a friend there for the first time and she actually said it was reminiscent of East Coast Chinese egg rolls, which are very distinctive to cities like New York and Boston, because they’re much bigger than what you usually find out here. And they also have that kind of crunchy exterior, creamy interior. And I never thought about that comparison, except after she mentioned it every time I’ve been back to Mariscos Jalisco, that reference really does come to mind as I’m biting through it. But those things are so, they’re so infectious, I usually joke that you’re going to order two, you’re going to want to go back and order another two, but really, you only want one more because four is too much. But your body is going to crave and want to have as many of those as possible, because once you start to bite into it, they are addictive.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:43

Oh my gosh, well, I don’t know, I guess that’s a good way to end because I’m starving now. I gotta go grab a bite to eat. But before we end, is there anything else that you want to share with our listeners?

Dr. Oliver Wang  37:56

No, I really appreciate the time to be able to chat with you and share some of the stuff that I’ve been working on. And thank you so much for having me on.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  38:02

It’s just been a pleasure. And also, thank you so much for being such an inspiration to all our students at UCLA. You’ve really picked their curiosity and imagination.

Dr. Oliver Wang  38:12

Well, thank you. I really appreciate hearing that.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  38:14

Fantastic, thank you. Thank you, Oliver. 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.

#21: The Circuitry Behind our Social World


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:03

Today we’re excited to share the second part of an episode recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic with UCLA social well-being expert, Dr. Ted Robles. In last week’s episode, Ted defined and discussed the importance of social well-being as a social determinant of health. Join us, as Ted and I continue our conversation, where we will be exploring how social well-being affects the biological processes behind stress, how social media can hijack our reward systems, and much more. In your research, in your lab, you talk about two sets of biological processes. And I’d love you to describe what you mean by allostatic processes and restorative.

Dr. Ted Robles  00:50

Yeah, well allostatic is a term that – I believe he was a physiologist by trade – Peter Sterling coined. I want to say in the late 1980s, and then one of the big researchers in our field who study stress, Bruce McEwen, really took that up and coined the term allostatic load. Now, what allostasis basically is – is when we are faced with challenges in life, we have to change; and we have to change physiologically in order to deal with those changes. And so this – the sort of classic thing would be any kind of physiological changes that occur because you’re being chased by a scary person or animal; or because you’re facing an impending – you have to give a lecture to your class, and you’re sort of nervous to talk in front of people. So these are all kind of changes in our environment. We have to adapt to them in some way, whether through increasing the amount of energy that our brain and our body needs to manage those challenges to prepare for threats like getting wounded, to increase the amount of blood oxygenation, because I need to use blood oxygen in order to fight or flee. So all of those changes that we go through when we face some change in the environment, those are what others and myself term allostatic processes: maintaining survival through change. But of course, usually those things end. So you know, it’s not that I’m running from a lion that’s chasing me forever. At some point, the lion goes away. And so now I’m left back to recover and restore stored energy, or start to store energy again – I should say – repair any wounds that I’ve encumbered as a result of fighting off the lion. And so restorative processes have to do with the things that are involved in repairing and bringing our systems back to before we faced whatever challenge it was. A lot of repair-related things from the level of wound healing to DNA repair would be included; mechanisms involved in energy storage, so instead of breaking down glycogen to make glucose, storing it back up again, and storing back up the, you know, energy in the form of lipids. Those are all restorative processes. And so sometimes you’re going to need to engage in allostatic processes to cope with change, and then there’s going to be a lot of other times where you’re just going to need to prepare and restore back. And that’s what the restorative processes are.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:19

So how will your body respond to a constant threat? Can you actually –

Dr. Ted Robles  03:27

That is a great question.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:28

– deal and actually trigger restorative processes if you recognize this and can like through meditation…? I don’t know what it would be, but –

Dr. Ted Robles  03:37

Yeah. And that sort of – so I think about something like noise pollution, for example. If you live in an area where, you know, you’re constantly being exposed to pretty high levels of noise, all the time, and it never remits, right? Can one truly ever have a period where, you know, your systems are at a point where you could start to reengage those processes again? And probably the answer is, to some degree, no. So when I think about how factors could disrupt these restorative processes, I usually like to think of like a home remodeling analogy and how home remodeling can go wrong. So one is that –

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:13

Doesn’t it always go wrong? That’s why I’ve never done that.

Dr. Ted Robles  04:17

Right, right. So one possibility is that the materials that you use, they just don’t work as well, right? So, like you get some drywall that’s defective for some reason, or maybe some screws wear too much, or something like that. And so likewise, some of the materials that we might be using to, or the processes that we use to repair ourselves, might not go as well as we would like. So DNA repair mechanisms, for example. So you can imagine that under conditions of constant exposure to, you know, you name the problematic thing, that while we have mechanisms to repair DNA, they may not work as well, all the time. And so you may not get repair as reliable as you would like, and then you have cells running around that have some slight, you know, slight mutations in the code that they use when they’re doing their regular activities. And then, you know –

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:11

And what happens then?

Dr. Ted Robles  05:13

And then later on – and then maybe at worst, you have cells that accumulate enough mutations where they develop into, say, cancer cells or something like that. That’s kind of, you know, the accumulation of multiple mutations. But certainly, all of that kind of starts with faulty DNA repair.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:29

And that’s what you hear a lot more people say, “Oh, this person was in a lot of stress, and they developed cancer.”

Dr. Ted Robles  05:36

Right, right. It’s got to be one – it has to be one, among many things that go wrong.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:40


Dr. Ted Robles  05:40

But certainly, it could be one things that go wrong. Another possibility is that the repair just takes – now this is a very common, you know, kind of home remodeling complaint, which is that the repair just takes longer than I would have wanted to. So I think that’s where a lot of the delayed wound healing becomes really – it is relevant. So in wound healing, if your innate immune system is busy cleaning up all the bacteria that have invaded your wound, and they’re not cleaning it up in a timely manner, that wound is gonna take longer to heal. And so, again, this is where this repair process is supposed to happen. Ideally, we’d like it to happen within a certain timeframe, but it takes longer. And so if you’re exposed to chronic conditions, you could imagine things being prolonged. And then the third thing is that sort of normal processes that you would use to kind of do things, like store energy, that they go awry. So my favorite example of this is disruptions to sleep and what they do to insulin resistance. So you could imagine that we evolved a mechanism where, sure, after a short night of sleep in our ancestral environment, it was really important for us to maintain high circulating levels of glucose, because maybe that was adaptive. You know, the reason I wasn’t sleeping was because, you know, some kind of problem was happening in my environment. Maybe there was an invading tribe, or something like that, and we had to move quickly to get to another place to safety. And because I’m not sure I’m safe yet, it would be helpful for me to have high levels of circulating blood glucose. Well nowadays, why don’t we get enough sleep? It’s because I stayed up late looking at my phone, and you know, doing some other things; it wasn’t because I was really concerned about my well-being, but my body doesn’t – you know, like about my survival – but my body doesn’t know that. And so my body still reacts to sleep deprivation with insulin resistance. And if you accrue that over time, it’s a normal thing, to some degree, and it has a purpose. But then you end up running into problems later. And then there’s other interesting things related to how sleep deprivation might impact your appetite. And so again, if I am in an environment where I’m sleep deprived, perhaps it’s because I’m in an uncertain environment, so I need to have energy. But in the current environment, where food is readily available, my increased appetite might actually work against me. And so those are some examples of how, again, the chronic exposure to stressful experiences can short-circuit, or maybe kind of hijack, some of these restorative processes that ultimately hurts our health.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:20

So in a circumstance, for instance, of somebody who is living in a world where there – there’s bias against them, how does that play into it?

Dr. Ted Robles  08:29

Well again, so just like feeling unsafe, you could imagine the same kind of thing where if I – so this is another important piece about social relationships and health and related to the smoking thing. You know, the reason why smoking is pernicious and problematic is because it happens every day. And so, you can imagine the same thing happening if I’m in an environment where I feel bias, both explicitly, but also where I – some of this may be internalized, where I don’t view myself favorably, because of what society has taught me. You could imagine those same experiences on a day-to-day basis where I feel under threat. I’m worried that I’m going to do something that then shows people that “yep, you know, people like me are not smart, or they are not capable,” that kind of thing. And every day of living in that manner activates my sympathetic nervous system, which then activates, you know, my immune system to be more vigilant, and that’s my daily experience, and then that might have long-term cardiometabolic costs.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  09:41

So if we dissect your definition of social well-being, and I want to make sure I don’t forget some of the important aspects that you shared, which I thought were so very insightful for me is the high quality relationships that allows you to be able to feel like you can depend on someone; that you can turn to them for help; that you can get advice from them; and then also that you can do the same back. Maybe not to the same person, but maybe to another person. And I always sort of equate this to, if I was on a deserted island, who would I want to end up with?

Dr. Ted Robles  10:25

Right, right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:26

And I’m just wondering, there’s also the definition that you have common interests or you have – so is there any data out there that talks about how to promote or reduce bias?

Dr. Ted Robles  10:42

Sure. Right, right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:43

And how – would that be sort of just relying on what you’ve just described as the definition is building those kinds – so what is it?

Dr. Ted Robles  10:52

I’d like to, again, if you think about – I’m using the lens of our kind of the study of social relationships and this idea of being understood, for example, and valued –

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:06

Yeah. Understood. That’s so important, right?

Dr. Ted Robles  11:08

Yeah. And when you imagine that you are working together towards a common goal, you know, that brings with it some –

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:15

Well common values, right?

Dr. Ted Robles  11:16

Yeah, yeah. Right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:17

If you’re working on the same thing.

Dr. Ted Robles  11:18

Exactly. So I know that this person who’s with me knows that I think “x” is important, that I think social justice is important, or the environment, or that I think education is really important; and I know that person knows that. And because we work together on these common things, I know that person values my contribution, for example. And maybe, there are times when, in the process of working on these things together, that I need help from this person from time to time, and I know that that person can be there for me when I need it. And so I think there’s definitely something to be said, for working together on common goals and objectives, and cooperating around those things. That is sort of critical to fostering connection and critical to fostering feeling like you’re, you know, included, and combating, you know, many of the sort of bias problems that we’ve been talking about. And again, if you think about it, small, we evolved in small groups of people, and where we were doing nothing, but trying to solve common problems together, like, what are we going to eat? Are we going to stay safe? You know, what is our shelter gonna look like? What How can we keep everybody is sort of, you know, alive as possible. And so we were, you know, that I’m not the one who’s made this argument, there’s been plenty of others to really talk about this. But, you know, the idea that we evolved as social species to solve problems together, I think that’s something that in our kind of attempt to be self reliant, ends up being lost, in some ways. Right, and also our attempt to include others. Again, it’s not enough to have everybody around the table, we all have to like work on something together around this table.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:10

Yeah. Well, the cultural part about being self reliant, I mean, it’s not completely adopted by everyone in the United States. I mean, we’ve got right many cultures that are much more collective.

Dr. Ted Robles  13:21

Yeah, absolutely. Right. Right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:23

Yeah. So what are you seeing the difference – what’s the differences between a collective versus individualistic?

Dr. Ted Robles  13:31

So some of it has to do with how you see yourself relative to other people. And so there are certainly some cultures where I’m not defined by standing apart from how I’m different from everybody, but I’m also defined by who I’m with, essentially, so that I am part and parcel of, you know, a bigger, other group of people. And how I function in that group – well, it’s really not about how I function in that group; it’s how we sort of function together. That’s a lot of how I think about that, is how – and that’s work from people like Hazel Marcus, for example. And so yeah, you’re right. And that idea that people are separate from others, so independent – you see that in some groups, but there are other groups, for instance – and I know she’s done work to this effect – where more blue collar, sort of lower income, people in society who are lower income, for example, they do tend to see themselves as sort of interwoven with another.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:28

I didn’t realize there was a socio-ecoomic aspect.

Dr. Ted Robles  14:29

Yeah, there’s an interesting socio-economic aspect.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:33

My observation, having taken care of predominantly Mexican-American families, is in Mexican culture a collective culture is much more dominant and very much family-focused, and not necessarily just the nuclear family either.

Dr. Ted Robles  14:53

Right. And that’s totally, absolutely true. Yeah, exactly. And then what I know less of and will be interesting to think about is, if you looked at that across the entire spectrum within that culture, in terms of socio-economic status, for example.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:05

Yes. I don’t know that, yeah.

Dr. Ted Robles  15:06

But at least – I know she’s studied, at least in the States, you do see -and again, some of this is also because who tends to be more lower income in the United States because of history, and discrimination, and prejudice? That tends to be underrepresented minority groups, who also tend to have much more collectivistic beliefs, as well.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:28

From the cultural aspect. That’s more room for research, right? Every time you have a conversation with a researcher, you always come up with more questions, right? That’s the great thing about research, though – lots of questions, lots of answers. And so, you know, speaking of sort of the new, sort of where we’re heading. You know, the smartphone, or some people call the dumb phones. Gosh, I don’t use that word. But, you know, the not-so-smartphone. But what is it – you know, where does this land in terms of social well-being?

Dr. Ted Robles  16:02

Right, right. I mean, certainly technology – it’s certainly a tool – and just like any other technology or tool, it can be used in both the right and wrong ways. And I think one of the challenges we face – I’m thinking a lot about some writing that some of my colleagues have done. So, one of my co-authors on the American Psychologist paper where we were looking at social connections and health, he has a really nice piece coming out soon on smartphones, and technology, and relationships. And the way they describe it is kind of like – I guess a good analogy would be something like sugar. So sugar – processed, refined sugar – is a technology; it’s a tool that we use to make food. It’s certainly something that would not have developed, were it not for, you know, the industrial process, right? And it’s something that, for better or for worse, we can easily misuse. And the way we misuse it is, we hijack our existing circuitry – our neural circuitry, our physiology. Sugar hijacks that, right? It’s highly palatable, we like it, we have systems evolved to really want it, because we didn’t get it very much when we were evolving.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:15

And also masks the flavor of salt?

Dr. Ted Robles  17:17

Yeah, right. Exactly. So it has all these things that it does, that we want. And we have created a world where we are – we’re sort of hijacking and taking advantage of that in some ways. You can say that a food company, for instance, is taking advantage of that and making a high density, you know, processed food and testing out what flavors work, etc. So the reason I say sugar is because, if we think about, you know – I alluded earlier to social relationships and social well-being as involving circuitry that includes pain, and hunger, and reward. And we have circuitry that is sort of built for social rewards. I mean, there’s something highly rewarding about having a wonderful connection with somebody, and being able to have a good conversation, feel understood, valued, and cared for, etc. And what the smartphone has done is it is, kind of like sugar, it’s hijacking that circuitry in some ways. On one hand, you can hijack that circuitry for good. So if you’ve got someone who – so using sugar as analogy – like if I’ve got a child who’s really having trouble with gaining weight, and in order to be healthy, like, I can give them and ensure something, you know, that has a lot of sugar to help them get the nutrients they need. Likewise, you know, if I have someone who’s really socially isolated, like the smartphone is a really great way to kind of get them connected in some ways. But I think what people are finding is that the hijacking has much more cost right now, particularly when there’s cost to our sort of offline relationships. And if a smartphone can help us connect better with the people that we’re with, together, like offline, that’s good; but when it disrupts those offline relationships, that’s where it’s a problem. And it’s really good at doing that, because it pushes all our buttons related to social connection, right? It makes it really easy for me to see what’s happening with my friend in Pittsburgh that I haven’t seen in a long time. “And boy, look at those pictures, they’re really interesting.” Or let me watch this video of my friend jumping into a pool. And that, unfortunately, can then take me out of my offline relationship – the person I’m sitting with right now – and can make me less responsive to them. And their whole argument is that technology is a problem when you become less responsive to the people that you’re actually with physically, and that that’s the problem that we have to reckon with. It’s still good in terms of – it can be good in terms of deepening those relationships, but you have a kind of unbalance. There may be more of a problem right now than the benefits in terms of deepening. And then if you have wholesale replacement of offline relationships, that’s even worse. Right? So now my only social connections are online, and that’s problematic.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:08

And that’s what people are concerned about for college students; which it’s nice they’re keeping up with their high school friends, but they then don’t get engaged with their immediate surroundings.

Dr. Ted Robles  20:18

Right, right. And in terms of developing skills and developing new in-person relationships – that’s what our brains evolved for. And that’s, to some degree, what we probably want ultimately, as a species.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:33

Although it can be uncomfortable, to create new friendships.

Dr. Ted Robles  20:36

Exactly. Yeah. But again, we struggle through that, right, and then we benefit through that struggle.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:43

And why do we benefit through that struggle? Why do we –

Dr. Ted Robles  20:46

You learn how to become more adaptable to other people in your environment. You know, you learn how to – you can attune to people better, in some ways.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:55

Which means you learn cues?

Dr. Ted Robles  20:56

Exactly. You learn cues. You learn what works, what doesn’t work, you know, those kinds of things. But when, you know, likewise, I suppose – I’m trying to think of a good food analogy that involves sugar. But, you know, sugar can, to some degree, be a little bit of a shortcut to flavor, so to speak. I guess maybe one way to think about it would be like you’re trying to – maybe you decide not to try making the really awesome-tasting mole because it’s just too complicated, and instead, you just, you know, eat the candy bar; when maybe, over the long-term, it might be more beneficial to learn how to make the mole or something like that.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:31

Like I used to make carrot cake, and then I decided I just like the frosting – I just made the frosting.

Dr. Ted Robles  21:39

Yeah, yeah. So they argue that this – they use this term called technoference – that the big problem is when the phone takes us out of our ability to be responsive to others.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:53

Where it concerns me, and I know it’s a transitional period, but I feel that that’s what’s going on with the medical record – the electronic medical record.

Dr. Ted Robles  22:02

Yeah, well, that’s interesting.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:04

As I practice with the electronic medical record, I see how people and physicians are not able to connect. And there is data out there, now that’s reporting that physician burnout since the electronic medical record has come around. There’s a huge burnout, and I think that’s probably because physicians, I mean, the hypothesis is that they’re missing that social connection.

Dr. Ted Robles  22:33

Right, right. Exactly.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:34

Yeah. I’m sure the patients are feeling the same way, but from a physician’s point of view it’s really tough.

Dr. Ted Robles  22:40

And being a developing physician, you know, someone who’s learning – so like a first or second year resident – you’re not developing the cues to things to attend to, the skills.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:49

That’s a tough one, especially in my field, pediatrics. Because it’s very much – you always had to tell the residents, when I was training them, to trust your instincts. You walk in, and some kid with an 104 fever is going to ride through, because it’s a virus; and the next one could be at death’s door.

Dr. Ted Robles  23:10

Right, right. But your got to –

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  23:11

I know it, and you know it, because you get good at it.

Dr. Ted Robles  23:14

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Well, and the sort of depressing news about that is that, in terms of the technology piece, is that – there haven’t been as many studies of this yet, but from what I was reading, and I mean, it sort of jives with my experience, too, is – when we’re on our phones, we’re not really, or when we’re typing on the electronic medical record, we’re not really aware of how not responsive we’re being, right? Because, you know, I’m doing something really important, right? I don’t realize that I’m not being as responsive as I should be. And you see that in surveys. So, I think it’s something like a pretty low percentage of individuals describe that they are not attending to people when they’re on their phones. You know, it’s kind of the same thing – I’m trying to think of an analogy where, you know, we often don’t think we’re doing something when, in fact, you know, that’s harmful, when in fact we are. I feel like driving, or something like that would be good example.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:10

Very good example. Because people think they can text at stop signs, or things like that.

Dr. Ted Robles  24:18

Right, right. Yeah, yeah.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:22

My daughter taught me way back before electronic medical records that I couldn’t be on my computer and doctor at the same time. And she still catches me sometimes when I’m on the phone with her, and she goes, “What are you doing? Are you doing something else?” She can totally pick it up. So I’m busted and I – thankfully, she’s very acutely aware of the circumstances. You know, I’d love to read that paper you just described to me. Yeah, I think this information’s cool. We’ll have to have it – we’ll have it online, too, so people can read it.

Dr. Ted Robles  24:58

Yeah, it’s freely available, too, through this service, or this site called PsyArXiv, so preprint – it’s a preprint.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:06

Fantastic. And getting to papers, you’re – one of your recent papers, you talk about the relationship between between culture and social support across different communication contacts – face-to-face and text messaging. Can you talk about that?

Dr. Ted Robles  25:22

Yeah, sure. So this is a project by a developmental psychology student who – so she had a long-standing interest in culture and communication, and what forms of communication might be more beneficial to others. So one of the really interesting findings in work on culture and social support is, you know, the idea of asking for help, depending on what culture you’re in, can be very threatening – it’s just like something you don’t do. So if you tend to be in an interdependent culture, so Asian cultures tend to be kind of the prototype here, you know, asking for help is incredibly threatening. And some really interesting work actually done by a former colleague here at UCLA, Shelly Taylor, finding that if you were – so participants who were randomly assigned to either write a letter asking for help, versus just describe the people in your social network, versus don’t do anything at all. Those folks did that – so they either wrote a letter asking for help, they either wrote a letter describing their social network, or they didn’t do anything at all. They were then asked to give a speech and do some mental arithmetic, a typical laboratory stressor.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:29

Really? Arithmetic? That relaxes me.

Dr. Ted Robles  26:33

Yeah. “So take that number 1792 and subtract 13.” So in this study, there was a group that was either Asian or Asian American, and there were also European Americans, as well. And again, they were randomly assigned to one of these three groups. And the really interesting thing was, for the Asian/Asian American group, writing a letter asking someone for help, those individuals showed physiological responses to the stressor that looked just the same as people who didn’t have to write anything at all; but the European Americans, they showed less of a physiological response to the stressor. And then for the European Americans, asking for help was related to sort of lower physiological responses; and I don’t remember what happened to the European Americans who were just thinking about their social group. So all of this, and there’s some other data to suggest that, again, for certain groups, asking for help, it’s sort of culturally inappropriate and so potentially more stressful. So what about instant messaging? Because it’s not quite the same. So part of this might be just the face-to-face thing – meaning making a request for help.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:38

Even a letter is considered face-to-face?

Dr. Ted Robles  27:40

So, I guess the letter was less face-to-face, certainly; but I think probably the letter was less superficial than the instant messaging. So that’s where the instant messaging becomes interesting, because: 1) you’re not face-to-face; and then 2), I mean, I think there’s something about kind of the act of writing the letter –  It writes more formal – exactly. That was problematic. So what she was really interested in testing was whether face-to-face versus instant messaging versus no support at all, before you do this speech and math stressor, which of these would sort of buffer psychological, and biological, or physiological responses to the stressor? And would you see more benefits for one group versus another? Now what we ended up – I think because of our recruitment – what we looked at was actually, instead, independent versus interdependent self construals, which is exactly what we’re talking about earlier with collectivism versus individualism. So if you see yourself as apart from others – versus to-the-what degree you see yourself as connected with others – and the interesting thing there was that we saw that face-to-face and instant messaging, you saw sort of similar benefits in terms of reducing anxiety, so that was sort of good to know. And then we also saw that for people who were more independent, actually – like who sort of valued seeing themselves as apart from others – that’s where the, I believe, I want to say the face-to-face support was kind of most beneficial in buffering their stress responses. And we didn’t see anything for being more interdependent, but some of that might have been related to the sample that we had. And I’m trying to remember what happened for the Asian/Asian American group, I think their face-to-face and instant messaging ended up looking somewhat similar. So all of this suggesting that, again, for some groups, some types of support might be and requesting support – some modalities may be more helpful than others, and maybe taking some of the psychological distance might be more helpful on the instant messaging sites. So there’s an example of where this tool could potentially have benefits depending on what social group that you’re in.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:59

More formal. And so moving to other forms of communication, like social media, what do you think might –

Dr. Ted Robles  29:56

Yeah, so the challenge with that – I think that’s a little bit different than sort of an instant messaging platform, right? Because now, you know, that’s more bi-directional.  Whereas social media, I think the challenge is that you have more of this – I guess what I’ll call the sugar effect – which is like, you can always come back to it, it’s something that’s persistent, and so it can kind of take you out of your immediate experience. Whereas instant messaging, like it’s still a kind of a very intentional experience.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:28

Right, kind of conversation.

Dr. Ted Robles  30:30

Yeah. And so that’s kind of one of the, I guess, for lack of a better term, kind of dependent or addictive aspects of social media. So Peter, he developed a measure of digital support. And one of the things that is different from social media compared to all other forms of support, is what we’re terming response support – so that’s “likes,” basically. And so I say, you know, I write something, I post something, and I get a bunch of likes. And I think the issue there also is that hijacks, to some degree, our kind of circuits that evolved for processing reward and social reward. There’s some data from one of our colleagues in developmental psychology showing that in areas of the brain that sort of respond to things like pictures of food, and money, and that kind of thing; you see greater responses, when you see a picture that’s got more likes on it, compared to ones that don’t. And so clearly, that phenomenon of likes – what we’re calling response support – takes advantage of the circuitry of valuing things that are highly rewarding, kind of like sugar might, for better or for worse.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:43

And so, explain about social media – how does that become addicting?

Dr. Ted Robles  31:48

I think because we – it’s so easily accessible; it’s easy to get a quick hit, so to speak, of social reward, right?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:59

And what’s the social reward?

Dr. Ted Robles  32:00

So I got a bunch of likes on a picture I just posted, for instance, of something I ate, or of me doing something. And so then we kind of keep coming back to that. And again, they’re sort of empty calories, in a sense. Like, I feel like people like or validate me to some degree, but it’s not the same as a one-on-one or, you know, an experience with a group of actual, physical people.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:24

Right. You might not want to have them all on your desert island.

Dr. Ted Robles  32:27

Right. Exactly.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:29

Or that great New Yorker cartoon that had the one person in the pews of a person’s funeral, and they they said, “Oh, he had 2,000 Facebook friends.”

Dr. Ted Robles  32:38

Yeah. Right, right, right. Exactly.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:40

But only one person shows up at your funeral.

Dr. Ted Robles  32:42

Yeah, exactly. And again, I think sort of viewing – you know, it’s not like they’re empty calories all the time. But when someone’s just posting things, just to get likes – I mean, I’ve seen examples of this in the movies, you know, these sort of extreme examples – you can see where it becomes empty-calorie-like, right?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:59

Yeah, I get it. Well, it’s been an incredible conversation, so I’d like to just wrap it up with something that I’m sure everyone would love to hear from you, which is – what would you consider to be the most important steps that people can take to improve their own social relationships?

Dr. Ted Robles  33:18

Yeah. Well, I’ll go back to what I sort of started with, which I think is always good advice, which is – and I’m sort of stealing this a little bit from some of my colleagues in psychology, because they kind of came up with this first – it’s Tom Bradbury, and Ben Carney. They study couples, and they would hold workshops for couples, people who are interested in relationships. And what I like about this advice is that it’s consistent with what we study in relationship science, and it’s very simple; which is just to find ways to communicate every day to the people that are around you, that you understand, and that you value, and that you care about them, and that you communicate that in ways that they can see. As opposed to – I mean, it’s great to help people out, kind of in ways they don’t notice; but if you kind of make yourself seen and let them know that you get them, that you care about what they do, or that they’re in the world, and that you value them as a person, that’s something that – you know, if we think about not smoking every day is important – this would be something if you can do that every day would help really foster these kinds of high quality connection.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  34:21

And you receive something from that by giving.

Dr. Ted Robles  34:26

Exactly. Right, right, right.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  34:28

There was a really great article that – is it Steve Lopez from LA Times? He was interviewing this woman in her 90s, and she has on her business card: “too blessed to be stressed.” And having that attitude – her nickname was Happy.

Dr. Ted Robles  34:47

Yeah. Right, right. Well if you think about resilience, right? You know, part of why she can’t be stressed is because she is too blessed. She has built up this resource of people and that kind of thing, and it can help you withstand the sort of slings and arrows of everyday life.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:04

That’s right. And apparently, up until recently, she was driving other people to church because they couldn’t make it with her – they couldn’t drive anywhere but she was there pooling away at 90 years old. Yeah, anyway – you know, Ted, it’s just remarkable the work you’re doing. And I just find, each time I talk to you, more pearls of wisdom and also things I can just apply to my own daily life so really appreciate –

Dr. Ted Robles  35:34

Well, the feeling is mutual, as well. I always learn more from, and I sort of get more inspiration from interacting with you, as well, so appreciate it.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:42

Oh, thank you, Ted. Thanks for everything you do here at UCLA.

Dr. Ted Robles  35:45

Well, thank you for everything you do.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:50

Thank you for tuning into LiveWell, today. Today’s podcast was brought to you by UCLA’s Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. To learn more about Ted’s research, please visit our website @healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast. To stay up to date with our latest podcasts, make sure to follow our Twitter and Instagram @livewell_ucla.

#6: Managing Stress and Anxiety


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:03

Today I’ll be chatting with UCLA’s Chief of Medical Psychology, Dr. Bob Builder, and Executive Director of UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services, Dr. Nicole Green, about how to take care of our emotional health during these uncertain times. As the co- leaders of the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative MindWell Pod, Nicole and Bob will also share actionable steps and available resources for all of us to help manage stress and anxiety during COVID-19. Nicole Green – Dr. Nicole Green and Dr. Bob Builder, welcome to our podcast today. We’re so grateful you’re here taking time out of your busy days, dealing with COVID-19 and the repercussions on emotional well-being. I’d really like to know, first of all, from your professional viewpoints and standpoints – what are you seeing?

Dr. Bob Bilder  00:57

First, thanks for having us here, Wendy. It’s really great to be able to talk to you today. I can speak about what’s happening down campus at the health system a bit, where we have quite a lot going on throughout the Ronald Reagan University Medical Center in the emergency department, and then, of course, in our Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital – we’re coping with a lot of very serious challenges, including patients coming on with COVID-19 infections, our staff having to deal with whether or not patients have COVID-19 infections and also trying to navigate the rest of their lives at the same time. So that’s really challenging, and our health care providers, many in psychiatry and psychology, are not all used to coping with these kinds of medical illnesses, and very few people are. So it’s created a lot of unique challenges for the clinical environment and for the training environments that we all work in, and it’s been really remarkable how people have risen to the occasion and have been unbelievably dedicated and innovative in coming up with solutions to dealing with these challenges.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  02:09

So what would you say, Bob, that you’ve seen has been the most successful approaches to managing the stresses that these individuals might be undergoing?

Dr. Bob Bilder  02:19

Yeah, I think one of the key things that has been helpful is for people to try to find a sense of community, despite all the isolation that they’re experiencing, because many of our workforce are trying to do what they can from home – they’re doing telehealth – but these workers, like many other people, many of our students, staff, faculty are all also working from home. And so coming up with ways to try to bridge and build in social interactions in the midst of all this disconnected workplace activity is one of the challenges. So you know, try to leverage our technologies, the same way we are for our teleconferencing; and to have zoom dinners and other gatherings is not exactly the same as the high bandwidth person-to-person communication, but we think that it’s particularly important at times like this.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:12

And, Nicole, what are you finding helpful?

Dr. Nicole Green  03:14

Yes. Again, thank you, Wendy, for having me. And we’re predominantly working with the students, obviously. And two interesting things – I don’t know that we’re fully seeing the impact quite yet – but I’ll say last week was finals week of winter quarter, and we saw a significant amount of students not being able to come in or pursue treatment. But this week, which is spring break, our numbers are not that different than last year’s spring breaks, so what it’s telling me is that a number of students who are engaged in treatment, or trying to continue care, are needing care, are initiating care even with all the transition. So I think it’s really a sign of things to come. And I’m aware, just from campus meetings, how intricate and vast and depthful these changes are going to be. In terms of student housing, I know a number of students are trying to get out of leases, because they’re trying to go home; I know that many students are canceling housing contracts, are trying to determine whether or not they’re going to enroll in the fall; I know that they’re still trying to think about ways to honor the different communities around commencement; I know that they’re still trying to have student government elections. So so much of the campus is in so much flux, and given what we’re seeing in terms of students trying to initiate treatment this week, I think it’s only the beginning of sort of the distress that’s probably going to come once people settle down and have more of a routine.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:43

Thank you, Nicole, and thank you, Bob and Nicole, for all that you’re doing to help support people during these transitions. I’m hearing two pieces of advice that you both so well communicated in our Bruin Post – one is social distancing does not mean social isolation; and that was where I think Dr. Builder really worked on describing how you can communicate and build community, even if it means virtual. And what I’m hearing Nicole say is, not only are people willing to reach out to others and also to their therapists, but also that a sense of normalcy in the sense of getting some routines in place for this next quarter for our student bodies, in particular, will be critical for people to have a sense of community, as well. What else would you add to that, Bob or Nicole?

Dr. Nicole Green  05:38

I think I’ll just add – I think there is a balance between, because the students will be online quite a bit because of the classes and then studying online, I will say there is a tension between trying to do as much as we can virtually, but also recognizing the need – there are also so much other data about screentime and not moving, and how important it is to take breaks, to move, to get exercise where you can, and obviously being very safe about it – but that it’s really important to also take breaks and move your body and drink water and take care of all those things; because I think right now, everybody’s trying so hard to get everything moving on a virtual platform. We just want to be mindful of everything in moderation.

Dr. Bob Bilder  06:25

Yeah. And I think that just to add to what Nicole was saying, especially talking about being mindful, I think that building in some of the tools that are available, for example, through the Mindful Awareness Research Center. They’ve been having a virtual retreat over the last few days, and I think that there are a lot of tools now available online that are well-worth seeking out. And so, I know we’re all being deluged with messages, but we’re gonna try to compile some information and put that up on the HCI website. That’ll include some links to different kinds of tools you might be able to seek out and find a way to practice mindfulness on a daily basis, in addition to the other, you know, aspects of making sure you stay physically active and eating well, etc, all the aspects of living well.

Dr. Nicole Green  07:10

And I know that we are thinking with HCI, you know, recipes that you can do. I know RISE will be offering virtual and livestream yoga and meditation and mindfulness, as well, for students and staff and faculty.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:23

Speaking of what you can do – and I know in times of, you know, emergencies, and this is one of them, you want to make sure you’re safe, and your family’s safe, and your loved ones are safe, and then you can be able to help others; and when you get to that stage, I’ve been talking to a lot of people who are feeling almost guilty that there’s nothing they can do to help. And, you know, Dr. Ted Robles talked about, obviously, one great thing to do to help is to stay six feet apart, you know? But what else would you – what kind of advice would you give people who are starting to feel that? Where they feel like they’re not contributing to the solution.

Dr. Bob Bilder  08:02

Well, one thing, I think, you know – I think you said it very well, Wendy, that if you start with yourself, and then think about how you can bridge out to others who are in your peer group, who are in your family, who are in your broader, socially connected community – I think this is a really great time to think about, exactly, who are you connected to, both in terms of your personal social connections and also in terms of your other academic and occupational social connections. But I think that reaching out to those people in a systematic way is particularly important right now. Some people are sick, almost everybody is stressed out. So being very determined about and even making plans – “who am I going to reach out to today? And try to bring a ray of light to them.” And there’s this one other thing I wanted to mention is: the importance of managing the information flow. There was a great article that was circulated by Chris Dunkel Schetter, recently, one of the co-leads of the EngageWell Pod; and one of her colleagues down at University of California, Irvine, Roxie Silver, has worked on trauma and what happens in the public communications of that. And managing the media exposure at this time is really critical, because we can become so overwhelmed with the experiencing of the trauma and immersion in the trauma, that is particularly important to manage that, find a few trusted and credible resources, and really just check them once or twice a day. More frequent checking is not going to help. And I think as the UCLA academic community, we can help our colleagues, our peers, and others to do the same kind of management of information overload.

Dr. Nicole Green  09:41

I would agree. And I think even when reading the social media, it is also important to use some of these mindfulness and techniques of grounding yourself. That, although this is all happening, that you are at home, if you are safe, if you are healthy, or you know people that are – to remind yourself that there’s also other parts of the picture, as well, so that people don’t completely get overwhelmed and really increase their stress and anxiety reaction. I think another thing that people can do, and I’ve started to see people do, is think about ways that they can do GoFundMe pages for food for folks who are in need, or participate in some of the other charities that are popping up around this, and to be thoughtful about where they’re engaging in social media so that they’re able to be productive, as opposed to focused on fear and anxiety all the time.

Dr. Bob Bilder  10:33

There’s another neat resource that was recently disseminated by our Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. And, you know, they’ve caught some ideas of how to help, particularly, folks who are in underserved communities. I mean, you can imagine the stresses we’re going through. Imagine the additional stresses for those who have extended homelessness, people who are now increasingly facing challenges to their livelihoods, unemployment, the financial stressors are only building, so I think now’s a good time to set up channels to give back.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:04

Yeah, so I think that there’s no question: there’s ways to give. And, you know, giving through those channels are really practical. So what I’m hearing is, not only can we give financially through GoFundMe pages, we can also be reaching out to those that we love and care about, or maybe even haven’t been in touch with that for, maybe even for a long time. The other piece I’m hearing is that with the amount of information, overload could be a really big stressor on all of us; and so we really need to maintain sort of the diet that we’ve had in the past, but now a little bit more carefully, because we’re always around a computer. I hear twice – you know, look at things twice a day, but how else could you limit your exposure, besides sort of having good self control?

Dr. Bob Bilder  11:57

One key thing is to really focus just on certain, selected information sources and just look only at those. So, I think that one thing you could do is on your, “i-things,” is turn off news alerts, so you’re not constantly being barraged and tweeted at by all kinds of news alerts that may come up. And then to, you know, if you feel you must, check out the World Health Organization site, the Centers for Disease Control site, and then UCLA Health has a pretty nicely put together website that covers the local situation, and is of immediate relevance to those in our University community. And so I think they’ve been doing a great job of managing, what are the messages, what’s real, what’s not real, and that avoids us going down rabbit holes, that can be exceptionally anxiety-provoking. I mean, I was happy to see today on a news feed that the wild and totally unsupported suspicions that the COVID-19 was created as a rogue virus – this is just insane, but this is the kind of information that’s out there. So, thank God, somebody actually put out a nice document showing, yes, this is a natural virus – not that that makes it much better for us – but I mean, to try to overcome the kind of anxiety and suspiciousness that can occur right now. I think it’s important.

Dr. Nicole Green  13:23

And I think, because, you know, especially for younger folks who are more digital natives, where if you’re not on the computer in one way, you’re on the computer in another – like, you know, Instagram or what-have-you, or looking at general social media. I think one of the other things is to really elicit some support, whether you need to do some blocking, or have a friend put a code in; because I do think that the natural inclination, you’re sitting on your computer, you’re in class, it’s passive, to turn on onto another website or open another browser is so easy. And so I really do think it’s important to think about, what can you do? Can you delay it? Can you set another homepage that’s not just social media, so that’s not where you go first, when you’re just kind of there to kind of zone out? And I do know that the tendencies to want to zone out are going to be high. So where do people turn on? It’s not really their bank page. It’s their social media, you know? So what can you do to set reasonable expectations with yourself about not always going to social media as your automatic response, and I think that that’s where a lot of younger folks really struggle.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:31

Some of these suggestions also lead you to – well, the GoFundMe page, by the way, there is one that’s now for helping to support restaurants to feed our health care workers, and UCLA is part of that. And they’ve just opened up a day and a half ago, and it has a very inspiring story of a group of mothers who put it together. And I think it would be something that we can definitely direct people to, who are listening to this podcast, that they could go and give $10 that will feed one health worker a meal that’s up in the front lines of COVID-19. The other thing that I’m hearing both of you say, too, is how we can rely on others to help us support us in our good habits. And how about some of the do’s that we can do? And I know one of these I’ll hand over to Bob Builder, who had a long time explaining this on one of our other podcasts about music. Tell me what music can do to make us feel better.

Dr. Bob Bilder  15:30

Music has a great capability of transporting us in a way that other kinds of communications do not have. And I’ve seen some incredible innovation among our students and staff and faculty in creating special Coronavirus playlists. So, we have not compiled them yet for the Healthy Campus Initiative, to my knowledge, but it might not be a bad idea; because I think that does help to give us a little bit of a break, and a little bit of perspective, and also some insight into some incredible senses of humor as we face, you know, what’s otherwise a very anxiety-provoking time. But I think that, yeah, finding music, finding other arts, can also be of value. I know a number of major museums around the country have begun to put their content online, so that you can actually enjoy art for free, from some of the leading museums around the world. And a number of music venues are also putting out material that you can get for free. So now’s a good time to be immersed in arts.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:33

That’s right. And I know I’ve quoted this before, but Oliver Sacks writes, “Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.” And I think it could be a necessity for all of us in this time of pandemic, this COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Bob Bilder  17:04

Yes, beautiful expression. And in building in time for various things – building in some time for music is a great idea. And you know, Dalida Arakelian, of our Mindful Music Program, has continued to put some concerts online, even though some of the artists had to be sequestered, operating independently. Still, I think it’s great for us to be able to come together as a community, and listen to music together, and share that experience.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:32

I know, Nicole, your heart is in really giving people a sense of control, and self-efficacy around their own well-being, and creating resilience, and I’d love to hear what your thoughts are about what one can do near that.

Dr. Nicole Green  17:46

I think this is, you know, from a bigger perspective – I think we’re all kind of on a little bit of a timeout, in a way, to be self-reflective and getting back in touch with who you are and what you love. If you want to think about where there can be silver linings here, where there are very, many fewer distractions there otherwise would be. You know, obviously we’re dealing with a lot of folks who are in a lot of transition and really worried about things. But there are – I think it’s important to take moments to think about what you love. I was thinking about the community garden, and that, you know, many students found a lot of joy in the garden, but are there ways they can, you know, cultivate a small garden where they are? Even if it’s three plants on your desk, you know? Or things like if people did love music or art – where are you making space in your new space to have a space for art, to have a space for drawing, for journaling, for reflecting on who you are and who you want to be in this process and how you want to be helpful and purposeful in this time of, really, global transition. Where can you find your purpose and meaning? And where are you your most self? I think those are really important things to ask as we’re trying to find our new normal.

Dr. Bob Bilder  19:04

Just to jump onto that I just wanted to add that – for those of us who are sequestered with our family members, this actually creates an amazingly great opportunity to really be in touch with those family values and family connections that sometimes are not as attended to as we’re rushing around each doing our own thing. So I think that it’s a component of that finding purpose and meaning. Most of us, often, will affirm the most important thing to us is family and friends, among all of our relationships, and now’s the time that really brings that to the fore.

Dr. Nicole Green  19:36

I think it’s also a time, you know, there’s so much struggle right now. If you have the opportunity to take a moment for gratitude of where you are; but also just to kind of hold for yourself the people that really are in a lot of transition, and a lot of pain, and a lot of grief, and not dismissing it, but taking the opportunity to walk in that life with them, too, so that they’re not alone in it. You know, if you know people who are struggling, I think the tendency is to kind of back away, especially when we’re all in such a time of transition ourselves. But who can you support? Who can you let vent? Who can you validate? Who can you reach out to to say, “I see you?” Even your favorite restaurant place – can you leave a note, you know? And just say, I appreciate you, and I’m thinking of you, so that we are demonstrating that we see each other.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:25

That’s really lovely. Those are really actionable, lovely thoughts. And I’ve heard Governor Cuomo in New York say thank the grocery person, thank the postman, thank the policeman, thank the doctor, thank the nurse, thank the aid – all of these people are putting theirselves out there, keeping the engine running for us. So, I do appreciate also both of your recognition that there are people out there that are in a lot of pain. And basic needs, I know, is one area that really needs all those basic needs need to be met. And I know that some people who were struggling before this are even going to be struggling more, and then there’ll be new members of that struggle, as well. And so what can we do as a community – UCLA community – how can we help support our close and larger community in helping them address some basic needs?

Dr. Nicole Green  21:26

Well, I know on the Student Affairs side, there’s so much that we’re trying to do to make sure that there are basic needs, at least, for the students. I’m worried about staff and faculty – honestly staff probably most. And I know that there are so many students in so much turmoil, and I do think one of the first things is to get the word out; that they should reach out, that they don’t have to struggle with this alone, that the university is working not only amongst the UC system, but also with local government, and federal government, and state government to try to understand what we can do to support students. And, you know, Student Legal Services is waiving fees, CAPS is extending session limits, we’re trying to find appropriate housing for folks who need it. So if students – one thing I would just say to the students listening is to reach out and share what you need. And then beyond that, I do think that, really, the Healthy Campus Initiative can really start to think about “how can we be a resource for students and staff around all of the different needs that are coming down, as a result of the financial crisis around this?”

Dr. Bob Bilder  22:27

Yeah, these are going to be, you know, huge issues as we start the spring quarter, almost immediately, next week. At the same time, I’m really, acutely concerned about our healthcare workforce, as we see, over the next few weeks, probably a major surge, for which, you know, no one can be fully prepared. And, you know, we can all pray that Los Angeles will be doing a great job in mitigating the curve; but at the same time, I think we have to know – I already see our healthcare workforce really being pushed to the limits. And I was inspired to see in Barcelona how everyone got together at 10pm each night, went out on their balconies, and applauded for the healthcare workers who are really at the frontlines of taking care of people. And so I hope that we can carve out special time and effort to recognize and reinforce our healthcare workers at this time.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  23:24

Yeah, those are all really good comments and insight into what we’re doing currently. And as I said, there is a GoFundMe page now for the health workers, actually for all of Los Angeles – World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit that was started by that famous chef in D.C. is the home for that nonprofit that’s supporting these foods efforts. But also, our leadership is also providing free meals right now, for each shift in both hospitals, Santa Monica and Ronald Reagan. That’s a big step that started on Monday. And I think that there can be other forms and ways that we can support the frontline workers with gestures just like the thank you’s. So great advice. For the faculty who are coming back and going to be teaching, what kind of advice would you give them in terms of, you know, supporting the student bodies and also their own graduate student researchers, or other people, and their own staff.

Dr. Bob Bilder  24:25

So this is going to be a huge issue. I know we were focused a lot on the challenges that students are facing as they return for the spring quarter, but many of our faculty are not as familiar with the technology that they’re going to have to be deploying. They’re for the first time putting all the material online, so it’s compounding the many challenges they have. The one piece of advice that I would give right now is it’s probably most important to just pay attention to the students, and don’t worry about the technology as much. Just reach out to the students and forge that uniquely human, that personal touch – that may be the most important thing. And then, in addition, I think that, you know, working with Nicole, Gabriel Laredo made up a fantastic tip sheet. That’s like a one-pager that we’re going to aim to get out to all the faculty next week that highlights how to help students who are trying to cope with this. What is it that faculty can do? And we’ve heard in the past, that, you know, faculty feel challenged: A) because they don’t know exactly how to recognize the signs of distress among students very well – they’re not trained in it really; and B) if you do recognize those signs, then what do you do about it? So anyhow, Gabriel, Nicole, and the CAPS team, and Student Affairs have put together an amazing tip sheet that digests this information into a single page that faculty can refer to, and I think that will help at this time.

Dr. Nicole Green  25:46

Agreed. And I think, in addition to that, one thing that in this time of students getting bombarded with messages coming from who-knows-where, with no faces to any names; some of the departments could think about town halls where they virtually share information about how their department is thinking about learning, you know, at this time. I think faculty should spend some time in the beginning of their class just going over and explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing, so students can kind of hang on to a rationale and feel some humanity around it. I think that, you know, faculty should make themselves open to suggestions and be clear about what the expectations are. Sometimes transparency goes a long way, and really helping students to understand why you’ve thought about it this way or that way is also very, very helpful. But also, I think, really, what’s probably most meaningful is for people to feel like there’s a human behind this, because we’re just so far apart, yet, you know, with zoom and with having to do this virtually. But I think it’s very important for faculty to be maybe more transparent than they otherwise would be, and more accessible to questions and office hours and things like that, so that we’re all getting a hang of this.

Dr. Bob Bilder  27:06

There’s one other thing just I’ve heard faculty being anxious about what’s going to happen to their tenure decisions or advancement, and they should know that academic personnel is well aware of this. And so it’s going to be possible for people to, you know, put a pause on their tenure clocks, etc. And everyone understands what everyone is going through at this time, and it’s going to be considered seriously. And people, I think, the last thing they should need to worry about is whether or not they’re going to make that next advancement at this time.

Dr. Nicole Green  27:37

And I wanted to say one other thing. I mean, faculty are in this, too. They’re trying to teach classes, and their kids are home, and they’re trying to turn on a dime their curriculum, and trying to figure out: where can I do this? And how can I do this? And so I also want to just inspire some grace around the whole process for everybody; that this is a new normal, it’s not going to be 110%, but everybody’s working hard. And I think it’s important for as much as faculty, staff, and students can be okay with sharing, like, “hey, these are some of the challenges that I’m up against,” it might help everybody feel less that it’s something about “you didn’t see me” – like it’s more that they’re all in their own transition.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  28:19

This is amazing advice. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground between faculty, staff, students. We’re going to be sure to link resources at the end of this podcast, so you can all get more details about what Dr. Builder and Dr. Green have been talking about. And I’d like to finish this incredibly informative conversation with a question to both of you: what keeps you up at night?

Dr. Bob Bilder  28:44

My dog, barking.

Dr. Nicole Green  28:47

You know, this is just so unprecedented; it’s so surreal. And to be very honest with you, I think just the jarring nature of the complete transition of all of our lives is a lot to process. And it’s taking my brain a lot of time to process this new normal. So if anything, it’s really just thinking about, not just myself, but the whole, really the world, is in a lot of transition, for better or for worse.

Dr. Bob Bilder  29:15

I think that’s a huge challenge is, you know, given that we’re in helping professions, as psychologists, we’re now in a time of crisis, where our biggest responsibility is saying “what can we do that is going to be of the greatest value?” And so, ‘what keeps me up at night?’ is thinking, “Well, what is the thing I should be doing tomorrow?” That is really the most important thing right now. There are just so many opportunities to do things. Prioritizing what’s going to be of the greatest value, to the greatest number of people is really hard.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:43

So what have you been prioritizing?

Dr. Bob Bilder  29:45

Well, for me, it’s – we have a community of neuropsychologists around the country and trying to figure out how to do teleneuropsychology. And for people not familiar with neuropsychological assessment, it’s – you know, it’s designed to be a face-to-face kind of a profession. But it’s a real challenge. How do we help all the people who are getting neuropsychological exams? There’s about 500,000 neuro-psych exams done around the country every year. And so right now we’re working with some inter-organizational work groups to try to put together recommendations that will help neuropsychologists around the country. And then we’ve got our, you know, a couple hundred psychology, you know, faculty, staff and trainees down campus; and we’re trying to figure out how to work with them, how to help the students, how to help the patients, and how to help them help others using telehealth. The entire psychiatry department has gone basically from, you know, 0 to 60 in 1.5 seconds doing telehealth – moved 90 to 95% of visits to tele-psychiatry, tele-psychology, tele-neuropsychology within a two week period.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:53

Congratulations. That’s huge!

Dr. Bob Bilder  30:54

So that’s been time consuming and – but we hope is helpful.

Dr. Nicole Green  30:59

I’ll add to that – the same is true on the CAPS side and the Student Health Services, as well. And I think that’s where my priority is – my staff, we’ve gone completely to telehealth in two weeks. And, you know, now they’re back-to-back in telehealth meetings on Zoom. Hearing the story, after story, of all these transitions and all of the related distress – and you know, we’re thinking about the healthcare workers who are doing the kind of physical health, in-person work, and I’m so grateful to them. But I’m also aware of the mental health workers out there who are holding all these people, and all of this anxiety, and depression, and distress. So those are probably my priority right now – are the mental health clinicians on the ground trying to figure out a way to still support and to continue to support the students here on campus.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:53

Wow. You guys are doing just amazing work out there, keeping your own staff together, but also helping others, students, staff, faculty health professionals. Thank you so much, both of you, because without you two, I think that we wouldn’t have this kind of focus of, not just treatment, but promoting health and well-being in its broadest sense and thinking about some of these upstream solutions that are benefiting all of our campus constituents and beyond. So before we end this podcast, is there anything else that you want to add before we sign off?

Dr. Bob Bilder  32:33

Thanks to you, Wendy, for organizing and leading us in the Healthy Campus Initiative. I think it’s really a model program and is the kind of thing that really is making a difference, so that people are seen, and are heard, and are thought about at times like this; it’s particularly valuable. Thank you, Wendy.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:54

Thank you for tuning in to “6 feet apart,” a special series of the LiveWell 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 emotional, physical, and social well-being during COVID-19, please visit our website@healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast. Thank you, and stay remote.

#38: Finding the Path Back to Meaning & Joy


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:02

For the past year and a half, we’ve all been challenged to rethink the way we work. We have taken on different roles on our teams, transitioned to different styles of work, and adapted to a rapidly changing environment. Currently, we’re experiencing another transition with many people returning to the physical office. Dr. Brenda Bursch joins us for a three part series about how to optimize your well-being during this workplace transition. She’s an expert in resilience training, and a professor of clinical psychiatry and pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Over the course of three episodes, Dr. Bursch will cover three themes: remember, recover, and renew. Tune in to learn about actionable and practical tips for how you can prepare for your work transition and optimize your well-being. Hello there, Dr. Brenda Bursch. So great to have you back at the UCLA Live Well podcast to talk about how we can return to the workplace while actually improving our well-being. You’ve identified three themes with our return to workplace: remember, recover and renew. And we started off this series with an episode diving into the first theme, remember, and then discussed the second theme: recover. Today, we’ll be discussing the third and final theme: renew. So getting right into it. What do you mean by renew?

Dr. Brenda Bursch  01:29

Thank you so much for having me back. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about these topics with everybody. So renew, right, the third of our Rs, is really, in my mind, focused on developing an action plan. We’ve reflected on everything you’ve gone through. The different areas that we know really contribute to well-being and give you the best opportunity to flourish. And so now it’s really time to start the planning. It’s really thinking about, “Okay, how am I going to make my way back to the workplace?” And it includes both thinking about not just skills that you’re going to, you know, use as you’re doing that, but others things that you need to plan for. And so I think that, you know, when you think about renew, you can think about it at different levels. So you can think about it at your own personal level. You can think about it at your family system level. You can think about it at your workgroup level, and then you can think about it at the organizational level. And there’s other levels above that, but you probably don’t have much control over things like politics at large levels. So we’ll keep them at those levels. And so really thinking about each of those levels, and what you need to do to prepare yourself and what you can do to put yourself in the right headspace so that you are in a position to experience as much well-being as possible is really the goal of this particular session and this podcast. So to start off, I just want to quickly spend a tiny bit of time talking about self care more broadly. I think that a lot of people have maybe heard other podcasts or talks or read things over the last year and a half. So some of this might be a little bit of a review. But just to put it back on your radar. We all know the importance of healthy routines. When you think of routines, the reason that having routines is helpful is because it trains our body. If we did the same thing the same way each time, we actually alert our body that where we’re going, you know, they know what, our body knows what’s next. So for example, if we have a nighttime routine before we go to sleep, and we follow the same routine every night, then our body starts to relax sooner when it knows we’re starting that routine, because it’s been conditioned to do that. If you’re really haphazard, all over the place, and it’s different every single day, then your body never knows when you’re going to bed. And they can’t start that ramp down process. The other thing about routines is that they help us stay on track. And we do the same thing, you know, every day. When it comes to health, we’re less likely to forget to do it. So that’s another reason. We all know about the importance of having routines related to exercise, our diet, sleep. Many people incorporate mindfulness practices or spiritual practices, gratitude exercises, those types of things, to have opportunity to really reflect and appreciate on some of the good things in our lives, so that we can balance out some of the more challenging moments with being aware of the things that bring us joy and meaning. And then we also know the importance of sharing our stories. And processing through difficult times with others so that we can increase our own awareness and get important feedback from those people and better integrate our emotions with our memories by engaging in those practices or by keeping a journal. We know that having rules for ourselves or personal policies for ourselves that we implement in terms of boundaries and schedules and things like that can be really good for our well-being too. And those are really difficult, especially if you’re among people who have different boundaries or different schedules that requires you to really think about how am I going to communicate to others what my boundaries are, what my personal policies are. And we’ll talk about that more in a minute. And then coping skills. Everybody’s heard of the term coping skills, and there’s all sorts of coping skills that we know have been very well researched, that we know help people be more resilient. We know that setting inspirational goals can help us through difficult times, because there’s meaning attached to what we’re doing, and what we’re doing is helping us reach our goals. We know there’s a variety of ways that we can regulate our emotions so that we’re not just reactive to the things that happen. But we can be thoughtful about how to react when our emotions are triggered. And some of those have to do with what we pay attention to and what we tell ourselves cognitively. There’s all sorts of different techniques that can be used there. Deep breathing, just to regulate our bodies sometimes can help with our emotional control. Sometimes distraction, taking a break, so that we have an opportunity to calm down before we address the problem can be helpful. We know communication skills are enormously helpful. And we all interact with each other. And especially when we’re interacting with somebody who’s distressed, we feel distressed. And so knowing how to best help in that situation without absorbing all of that yourself is a very important skill for resilience. And then connecting to positive others and making sure that we have people that we can go to when we need support. You know, these are all things that we know. When you think about it, in terms of preparing to work, there are things you can think about for yourself, and things you can think about for those that you might report to you. And this applies if you’re a student, and you’re coming back to school, if you’re a faculty, if you’re staff. Doesn’t really matter; all of the same things can be applied to your domain. And so the first one is just thinking about, “What have you really appreciated? And have you been doing over the last year and a half that has been good for your health? Are there things that you’re doing now that you weren’t doing before you started to work remotely that you can continue to do, that you want to keep doing because you found that they are helpful for you? Can you make them a priority? Can you figure out how to fit them into your schedule?” You know, speaking of schedules, the next thing that many of us have to figure out is how to do the schedule changes that are needed now that you’re going to have to be commuting, maybe, or taking public transportation, or doing childcare. So many different things that could impact your schedule. I know that for me personally, because I’ve spent so much of my time now remote, that I’ve packed more into my schedule, because I haven’t been having to commute. So if I’m having to drive around, I have about four different locations that I regularly work at, I have to start cutting things out of my schedule so that I can be live. And have time for transportation, have time between meetings, those types of things. Some people might have to go back to a previous sleep schedule that you’ve had. We all know how hard that is. Just when we have one hour sleep difference for time change. If you are more off of your sleep schedule than that, then you might want to start transitioning now, so it’s easier later. My favorite thought about going back to work is “What would make me excited? Is the workspace I have, is my study space that I have, are the spaces that I’m going to be spending my time in: do I like them? Is there anything that I have control over that I can do to make them more pleasurable, or to change them?” There’s a little bit of research, for example, that shows having plants in the office can decrease your stress level and increase productivity. Not all of us can put plants where we work. But if you can, that’s something to think about as an example. I like the idea of upgrading my wardrobe, you know. I haven’t worn certain things for a year and a half, and I don’t even want to wear them again. If you feel that way, then you might get excited about the idea of doing a little upgrade, or if you gained or lost weight, you know, you might need to do that. You know that might be pleasurable for you. And if so, then any little thing that gets you a little excited about coming back, you want to really try to take advantage of. You know, many people might be fearful. And that’s a legitimate way to feel, you know. There’s a lot of effort being placed into ensuring that everybody will be safe. But everybody has different levels of risk tolerance, and everybody has different practices they engage in, related to what they do to keep safe. And if you’re around somebody that doesn’t have those same strategies you do or same level of comfort that you do, then, you know there’s going to be differences there. And that can be hard to negotiate. And so it’s helpful to think about that ahead of time. You know, what safety protocols will help you feel safe? How are you going to communicate those to other people? Do you need to like put a sign up in your work area? Do you need to practice explaining to others what your boundaries are? You know, those are all things that you can do now that will help you when you transition back. Just like in the beginning of the pandemic, you’re going to want to think about where am I going to get my information from. It could be COVID information. It could be work related information. If you have kids, information related to school. It could be all sorts of different types. If you are somebody who’s kind of ambivalent about coming back, or not very excited about coming back, it might be harder for you. You might have to think, really dredge up like, “What are the advantages? What do you miss? Is there anything you miss? Is there anything that you can interject into the setting that would help you be more excited? Are there things that you’re grateful for? Some people lost their jobs. Are you grateful that you have a job? Some people don’t have the opportunity to go back to school? Are you grateful that you can go back to school?” See if you can figure out what those things are that you’re grateful for. You know, some things will be better. Some things might not be as good as you remembered them. And allowing for that, just kind of being open to that. Change is really stressful and difficult. And, you know, when we had to all go on lockdown before, it all happened very quickly and all at one time. And we were in it together, and we had a common purpose. And now it’s going to be all staggered. And so it’s going to be less united. And that’s going to be a little bit of a challenge. So when you have those moments where you just feel anxious or stressed, just taking some deep breaths, and letting those waves pass can be the most effective thing to do. And if you find that those are coming too much, and they’re just really interfering with your ability to feel well-being, to concentrate into your work, to be functional, then reach out and tell somebody. You are not alone. Many people have been struggling. Many people have been. And so reach out. Tell somebody, and, you know, find out what kind of assistance is available to you. If you’re somebody, who is a supervisor, and you’re thinking about people who are looking up to you, or maybe you’re not even a supervisor, but maybe you’re, you know, a team captain or a club captain or in any leadership role of any type. And you’re thinking about trying to help those in your group transition back, the thing you really want to think about for those folks is how to communicate as much as possible. And really understand what people are going through, realizing that people are going to be very stressed. They’re going to see things differently. You’re going to have to have a lot of diplomacy in your toolbox. And you’re really going to want to look for opportunities to get positive reinforcement, positive feedback, highlight milestones, highlight the good things that are going on, the meaningful things that are going on, the moments of joy, what you appreciate about each other, to make sure you’re a lot more verbal about those. And to try to stay out of the kind of complaining loop that we can sometimes get in. I think the other thing for those who are leaders, that can be more important than all of the other things I’ve said is to be honest and vulnerable. Share, you know, that it’s not been easy for you either, if that’s the truth. And share what’s helped you. Share when you don’t know the answers. That communicates to other people that they’re not alone. And that you will be likely to understand and have empathy if they share their struggles with you. You’ll be more approachable as a leader if you can also be vulnerable and share your emotional experience. So I think that that’s the biggest take-home for people, who are in leadership positions. And if you think about the people in your groups, from a leadership perspective, making sure they also understand what resources are available to them. You know, there’s a lot of resources on our campus. UCLA has really focused on at every level of trying to be responsive and trying to think about what the needs that people in all sorts of jobs and our students have and addressing them. And if we’re not doing it, you know, there’s a great deal of interest in hearing about it, to see if there are things that can be done. And then the last thing I really want to highlight if you’re a leader: you also want to be monitoring those people in your group to see, you know, if they seem like themselves. And if you’re finding that suddenly someone’s quieter than usual or more irritable than usual or not showing up to meetings on time when they normally would or, you know, other behaviors that you’re just not used to seeing out of them, that you don’t just keep it to yourself, but you check in with them. “You don’t see yourself. How are you feeling? I’ve got a few minutes. Do you want to chat about it. Is it okay if I check in with you, again?” Those are all really appreciated. You know, even if someone doesn’t want to chat with you, even if, you know, it’s something that they want to manage on their own, usually, most people appreciate the fact that someone checked in on them. And sometimes people don’t even realize that they’re stressed out until somebody else says something. So you can raise their awareness by saying something like that. So I think that, that is kind of a big long checklist of a lot of things that you can do. But the idea behind it is if you review all of these and develop a toolkit for yourself, a wellness plan for yourself and for those that you might be a leader of, then you have opportunity, not only to transition back to the setting, to UCLA settings, in a, you know, healthy manner with a sense of well-being, but maybe you might be in a, you know, maybe you’ll really thrive. Maybe you’ll find a sense of purpose and joy that you didn’t have before. Maybe you’ll be more appreciative after everything we’ve been through so that the little things will spark greater joy and glee than they even did before. And maybe we will be a kinder and more appreciative set of individuals, because we’ve taken this time to really make such plans. That’s, you know, that’s a lofty goal. But that’s really, you know, what positive psychology is about, right? It’s really going for that, because if you don’t go with that plan, then we’re not going to make it. Doesn’t mean there’s not going to be problems. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have setbacks. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have feelings of grief, or sorrow, or trauma, or any of those things. But it really is setting us up so that when those do happen, we’re in a position to be more resilient. And we’re in a better position to really derive meaning from them and to be able to use those difficult times to propel ourselves to the next level of what we find meaningful in our life.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:58

Well, what you’ve just covered has been a tremendous roadmap for many of us. And I’m just feeling, this was under the theme of renew, which really, we could all start practicing now in whatever workplace we’re working, whether we’re on site as we speak, or on our way, or do flex work, or even are the group that ends up staying at home, because so much of that is just so basic in terms of self care, like a routine. I know when I try to teach routines for parents, it takes them weeks and months to really capture the ability to really manage that for their children. So sometimes that’s hard, even for ourselves to have our own routines, right? What kind of practical tips would you give people to start with when building routines? You talked about their sleep routine, but just in general, what would you recommend?

Dr. Brenda Bursch  17:59

You know, a couple things that pop into my mind when I think about routines, you know, sometimes we need reminders. So if you are trying to establish routines, and you get sidetracked into other activities, you might need to set reminders on your phone, so that you stop. You might need to put things in your schedule, so that you have, you know, a stop to remind you to do other things. The other thing about routines and other routine hacks, so to speak, is pairing right. So, you know, we’re often talking with our patients about medication adherence. And so, you know, taking your medication right when you do something else. And putting the pills right near something that you already have as a routine, so you just start adding to a routine that already exists, is often effective. The other thing is trying to get your whole family on the same routine, right? Much more difficult when you’re the only one in the family trying to change your routines. But if you can get buy-in from everybody. And then reward yourselves when you make progress and realize you might not be able to achieve everything you want to do, you know. Going for an hour and a half walk every day might be too lofty of a goal. Some people could do something like that, and others can’t. If the whole family goes, it increases your chances. If it’s a half an hour walk, then maybe that increases your chances. But trying to kind of be flexible enough so that you can really settle on something that you can make into a reliable routine. You know, because I think sometimes we give up if we have early frustrations. You mentioned that sometimes it takes months. I’m not that familiar with the research. But there’s some research that’s something like if you do the same thing, 30 days in a row, that there’s an increased chance that you’ll keep doing it. So you know, the more you do something, the more likely you are to do it. And that we know is true. So I think those are some routine hacks that you can consider.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:51

That’s great. That’s good to set a goal. So 30 days could be a really good goal for many people too.

Dr. Brenda Bursch  19:57

Right and then that helps. It’s less overwhelming, right?

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:01


Dr. Brenda Bursch  20:01

Like, okay, I’ll walk for half an hour a day for 30 days, then I’ll reevaluate.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:06

Exactly. The other things that you highlighted that I thought were really strong wisdoms to practice not just at workplace, but at home are things like communication, like your ability to share your feelings. Like as a supervisor, it can help people feel more comfortable about how they might be feeling. Can you elaborate on that in terms of what instances or stories can you tell us about where you’ve seen that work well?

Dr. Brenda Bursch  20:34

You know, it’s interesting. That’s something that I’ve really personally worked on over the course of this pandemic. Because I think, you know, as a health provider, I have always been trained, especially as a mental health provider, to not really talk about myself very much, right, to be very focused on our patients. And then I’m also a professor, so I’m very focused on my students. And, you know, what happens is that by doing that, we accidentally contribute to this inaccurate view that we are in all our accomplishments really impervious to stress and that we don’t struggle. And that makes us impossibly difficult to relate to, you know, and really contributes to our students and our patients and others, to feel like, “Oh, they have such a long way to go to be as perfect as we are.” And so to transition into being more open about myself felt like I was being unprofessional. It felt like I was off task, that I was being indulgent, that I was being, you know, kind of self-centered. So it’s been difficult for me to share, you know, when I had a friend who died of COVID. And I was so grateful; I had recently seen him. He lived out of state, but he’d recovered. And then two months later died. And so I thought that he’d recovered. Like, it was so unexpected, and, you know, so I had emotions about that. And it’s not something necessarily I would normally share with my students. But we were all in it together. And I knew it was going to be helpful. And we started having check-ins, which we didn’t do in the same way before the pandemic. And it gave the space and the time to talk about these things that we don’t normally talk about, because we’re always going so fast. And we’re always so focused on work. And so I was able to share that and then that meant that my trainees felt more comfortable talking to me about what was going on in their families, and who they were worried about and their friends. And then that leads to the next conversation about, you know, differences in the families, about safety practices. And all sorts, you know, one thing leads to another. And not only did that help us feel better connected, but because it’s specific, it really allowed for much stronger support. And, you know, if I think back on the trainees that I had, that were on my service, that first rotation in the first four months of our pandemic, you know, I’ll forever be so connected to them because of that. And so it’s this long lasting benefit to me, as well as to the people that I supervise, who felt a lot more comfortable sharing with me once I shared. One of the topics that I’ve been talking about recently is imposter syndrome. You know, we all remember being a student or transitioning to our jobs and having imposter syndrome. But a lot of our students and a lot of our younger faculty and staff don’t realize is that does not go away. There’s always new topics to have imposter syndrome about, right? And that we all have to ask for help. We all reach out, you know. You and I have reached out to each other when, you know, we’ve had a question or a dilemma or a challenge. And we knew that each other would be helpful in that regard. You know, we all have networks that we rely upon for those types of things. And so recognizing that, communicating across workgroups into those you supervise to your supervisors, across every which direction can only bring us closer together. And improve the work we do, because we’re being clearer about what’s happening, how we’re feeling, what we want, what our limits are, all of those things.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:29

I mean, what you just said about your students and how you have a bond, just from that experience early on, is going to be so valuable for them as they move forward too, because they’ve just been modeled by their professor. And it’s going to have that ripple effect. That’s one of the fortunate aspects of being a professor at UCLA. We have generations of students out there that really are products of how they’re being taught currently. So

Dr. Brenda Bursch  24:58


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:59

How they were taught in the past, rather.

Dr. Brenda Bursch  25:01

And I have, you know, I have no plans on reverting back to my old practices, right? I think this is the new normal. We check in on each other now, in a more frequent manner, at a deeper level, as well. And it’s not just checking in about work, it’s, you know, it’s checking in about us as human beings.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:20

Well, it really gets to your last podcast point about creating a workplace or a learning place that is respectful and has the capacity for people to feel heard, and also, potentially, ultimately experience joy so and meaning. Well, Dr. Bursch, once again, thank you so much, not only for sharing so much important information about how we can renew at this stage, but also how we can all be models for others in our ability to share some of the feelings that we might be experiencing as well. So thanks so much and for all you do for UCLA and also the world.

Dr. Brenda Bursch  26:05

Well, thank you for everything you do for UCLA and for the world. I am very appreciative of you and for you offering this platform to me to share with others some of the tidbits that I’ve been collecting over the last year and a half. As I’ve been on the COVID mental wellness taskforce for UCLA and giving these talks all over the place, the best part of that has been, I’ve had to repeat it over and over. So it’s a reminder to myself. And as a result of that I’ve gotten to hear all of these great ideas from others. And those have been incorporated into all of these talks. So it’s really been not just me, but a collective effort. And I appreciate the opportunity to share some of that.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:50

Thank you. Your response and recognition of others is just one of the many ways of your ability be so generous to us. So thank you. 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 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 @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 29: Translating COVID-19 Research



Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:04

Positivity rate, incubation period, herd immunity. Once only common in conversations among public health experts, these terms have become part of everyday jargon. While we may all be better versed in public health terminology and concepts, we probably still have a lot of questions and may still be wondering how to make sense of it all. Today, we’re excited to share with you a panel discussion with three UCLA public health experts on translating COVID-19 research to our everyday lives. In today’s conversation, dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and distinguished professor of biostatistics, Dr. Ron Brookmeyer, shares his insights into the data being reported on COVID-19. Public health communications expert and professor of community health sciences Dr. Deb Glik shares her advice for an effective national communication strategy. And UCLA Executive Master of Public Health student and registered nurse Jessica Arzola, shares her experience working on the front lines. We hope you enjoy it. Welcome, everybody to our panel. The panel is called “Translation of COVID-19 Research to the General Public”. And I’d like to introduce today our esteemed panelists, Dr. Ron Brookmeyer, who’s the dean of UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and distinguished professor of biostatistics, Jess Arzola, who is a nurse and also a Fielding School of Public Health candidate, and Dr. Deb Glik, who’s the professor of Department of Community Health Sciences at UCLA in the Fielding School of Public Health. Welcome everyone, to this panel. And so I’d like to start with Dr. Ron Brookmeyer with a question that is top of mind since it dictates what stores are open, what schools are open, and it has to do with statistics. We’ve been hearing a lot about different levels of prevalence of the disease, hospitalizations, deaths. I want to know how we interpret this data and which is the data point that we really should be looking at as we move forward, from your point of view, but also from the public’s point of view?

Dr. Ron Brookmeyer  02:20

Well, Wendy first, thanks very much for having me, it’s really a pleasure to be here. You know, with regard to data, I gotta tell you, it’s been a real roller coaster with the numbers. Let me start by telling you what’s on my mind right now, which is about vaccines, and looking at the percent coverage, percent of people who are getting vaccines. Nationally, right now we’re at about 8% of people who have received one dose, and about 2% who’ve received two doses, but we need to do better. And part of the reason is getting the vaccines into people’s arms, and when we look at how many doses have been delivered, the thing I look at is what fraction of those have actually gotten into people. And we’re at about 60% right now. So there’s still a lot of work to do on that. The second thing right now that I’m looking at, are these variants of the virus, you know, the UK variant, South African, which can be more transmissible and possibly give more serious disease. As far as the data on that, we have to do better, because we need much more systematic public health surveillance for the variants. If you don’t look for it, you’re not going to find it. So you know, at the end of the day, it’s a race with these variants. We have to get the vaccine out before we have more mutations. Now coming back to how we measure, you know, where are we with the pandemic, you know, you mentioned the test positivity rate. So what that is, it’s the percent of tests that come back positive. It takes into account the number of tests that’s in the denominator, and that’s good in terms of standardizing things. In LA county right now, the test positivity rate is about 12%. One of the issues with that number is, it depends upon who’s coming in to get a test. So, you know, early on in the pandemic, the people who were being tested were those who were symptomatic. So what that meant was you have a very high test positivity rate. So it can be skewed and it’s hard to interpret depending upon who’s coming in for a test. So I’ll tell you what I look at, I look at hospitalizations, and I look at deaths. I think they give us an accurate picture of where we are. The good news in LA county is that all three had been coming down since mid-January, the test positivity rate, the hospitalizations, the deaths, were at about 30-40% off the peak that we saw earlier in January. Nationally, we see that decline in cases, we’re not seeing yet in deaths but of course, deaths lag behind cases. The other thing I want to come back to is, sometimes with these numbers, you got to take a deeper dive. And, you know, when we look at the community level, we see real major disparities, you know, the rates can vary three or fourfold more in communities of color, by race, by ethnicity. When we look at poverty level, when we look at some of these numbers by census tract or zip code and stratify by poverty, we see some real disparity. So the bottom line here is that one number doesn’t tell the whole story.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:50

What I’m hearing is the 8% vaccine rate that is currently here is in United States, not worldwide. Is that correct?

Dr. Ron Brookmeyer  05:57

Yeah, that’s the national rates.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:00

And what I’m hearing you say, Ron, is that the hospitalization and death rates are much more sensitive to what we’re potentially seeing in the broader community in terms of the prevalence or the issues around COVID?

Dr. Ron Brookmeyer  06:14

Yeah, because that’s right Wendy, I think it’s because of the different patterns of how people come in for testing, it’s hard to get a relative measure of which way things are going. You just have to be careful in the interpretation, whereas the hospitalizations and deaths, I think, are less sensitive to being skewed by who’s coming in for testing and so forth.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:39

Right, exactly. That makes sense. So a lot of people are wondering that, you know, these variants, which is what you are concerned about, and I think many of us are, right, that we’re not really measuring them very accurately in the United States, compared to other countries like UK. Do you think that there was a variant that is one of the reasons why we had this uptick, besides, you know, the surge of post-Thanksgiving, post-Christmas?

Dr. Ron Brookmeyer  07:06

You know, I don’t think so, I don’t think we’ve seen that yet really, the full impact on variants. I think a lot of the uptick that we saw in January had to do with the holidays, and we know what spreads this, right? It’s travel, it’s, you know, and understandably, wanting to get together and celebrate, it’s been a long year. But that’s what really, that spreads it, being indoors, but we have to be alert for the variants and they are here. The UK variant is in, you know, well over 30 states right now. We need to be monitoring and it is more infectious is what the data is saying. So that’s something we got to be monitoring very, very closely.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:50

You mentioned something that struck me. Dr. Fauci has shared that the four most deadliest areas you could be are bars, indoor dining, gyms, and traveling. Those are the four, so it makes sense then how, you know, cities have had to close down indoor dining and bars and gyms. Well, so moving on to Jess, I would like to know what’s it been like working in a hospital during COVID.

Jessica Arzola  08:18

Thank you for having me here as well. I feel very intimidated to be with all these professionals as a student. I’m so happy to be here and share this space with you all. I was just talking to my coworkers about this, and it was the first time we reflected since March. We talked about how we’re feeling and we could not put a word to it. And even now, as I was preparing to speak with you all, I still cannot put a word to it. I think I’ve been quite scatterbrained since March. It’s a lot like a roller coaster ride as well here in the hospital. There are times where I walk into work with my upbeat music and I’m thinking to myself, I’m going to save a life, I’m going to do my job, I’m going to do great, and I’m going to go home and study afterwards. And then there are days where I’m in the hospital and they have a COVID positive patient and anxiety gets the best of me, fear gets the best of me and I can’t help but feel frustrated, you know, as positive as I want to be. It’s scary having these patients in the hospital and you know, while the surge was happening we did have quite a few more cases and now they’re kind of coming down a bit which is great. But during that first surge in the beginning of January I had my COVID positive patient that I had to take care of and I just remember gowning into the room and being so anxious and thinking to myself, “Did I cover my hair? Did I cover my shoes? Did I hide my phone? Did I silence my phone? Did I I get everything I need for me to be safe?” And then once I’m in the room, “Oh no, did I get everything I need for my patient? Do I need to gown back out? Do I need to get this? Am I treating her right? Am I catching this in time? Am I treating this disease right?” And then gowning out of them is a whole nother mental gymnastics again. “Did I gown out right? Did I touch anything? Did I touch my pen? This pen, is it contaminated? Am I breathing in too much? Did I talk too much in the room and prevent my mask seal from working effectively?” It’s quite the mental gymnastics game. And then leaving the hospital and logging onto Twitter, and seeing how politicized it’s all been, you know, seeing Twitter and seeing social media, seeing people traveling. And you know, it’s been interesting working in the hospital, it’s been challenging at times, it’s been positive at times, I feel great that I’m doing my part. At times, it just feels a little disheartening to see the external world. And whether it’s indifference, acceptance, or kind of challenging of the pandemic and social responsibilities you must take, it’s been an interesting roller coaster ride, and I still can’t even think, “How do I feel?” and “How is it in the hospital?” Aside from it’s been anxiety-ridden. It’s been truly a roller coaster ride. It’s a long winded answer for your question. I think I’m still trying to kind of figure it out myself. Like, what’s it like in the hospital? Because I don’t think we talk about it often, because we’re so busy, that there is really no time.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:54

Yeah, I mean, it seems like a long time for you to first reflect with your coworkers. And, you know, I know that talking to people often helps with coping, what have you been doing to help cope with this?

Jessica Arzola  11:08

I’m trying to figure out how to cope still. I have been trying to exercise and keep normality and keep routine outside of the hospital as much as I can. I’m in graduate school so I’ve also been trying to focus on my studies. Obviously, it’s a lot more difficult to kind of accept that moment and focus on studying when you’re so worried about your work. So I’ve been coping with journaling and watching my coworkers. Just watching the way they relentlessly go into these rooms, watching the way they also make similar sacrifices and knowing that I am not alone in my experiences and knowing that there is camaraderie and our teamwork approach. I think that’s the best way I’ve been coping right now. Just feeling like I’m a part of a team with my coworkers, and talking it out with them. Even if we’re not talking about the pandemic, just talking about, you know, “I couldn’t see family, this sucks.” And, you know, “My hands are bleeding again, from all the hand sanitizing I have to do, this sucks.” And it’s just sharing those moments, no matter how small they are. They’re really effective.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:12

That’s very wise information to tell a lot of people in the pandemic, even people who might not be frontline workers like you. I think people have this feeling of disconnect or suffering, even those that are sheltering at home and I think routine, and you know, journaling, all the, you know, being reflective, those are really great wisdoms. Thank you, that’s really helpful for all of us. I’d like to know now that you are an MPH candidate, how has that framed your view of this pandemic?

Jessica Arzola  12:43

So we always hear about how important communication is, right. Communication to yourself, communication in your interpersonal relationships, communication with school, everything. I didn’t realize how important communication is until this pandemic happened, because a lot of us on the frontlines are wondering, “Okay, so what PPE is required? Is it aerosolized or is not? Is it airborne, is it not?” We weren’t always getting that communication right away, and I think that’s just limited to what we don’t know. We don’t know what we don’t know, right. And research was still forming itself. But that communication was really necessary, not only for ourselves as providers, to take care of ourselves and take care of our patients, answer their questions and answer their family members’ questions, but also for the way the country and the world responded to this pandemic. I’ve had healthcare coworkers who would say, “Hey, why isn’t the CDC telling us this?” and “Why aren’t we being told this information? Why are our leadership in the hospital not telling us something that we want to know?” And a lot of it was just searching for answers. And then that search for answers, you try to find answers elsewhere. You’d tried to find answers from your neighbors, you’d try to find answers through social media, you’d try to find answers through the internet, and whatever way you can find it. Those answers are not always correct. And us as healthcare workers are searching for those answers. I can only imagine the general public as well. So I learned that communication is so important, not only for safety, but just for the functionality of the hospital, the functionality of the nation, and creating that unity to kind of get through this pandemic. Without that communication, it’s a very difficult slope. And I think I saw how necessary it was and I can only imagine for those not in a hospital how also just as necessary it was for them too.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:27

Well Jess, you just teed us up for questions with Deb Glik. So, Deb, you know, you’re an expert in communications. And I’d like to know, what have you found as a challenge here and now during this pandemic for communicating?

Dr. Deb Glik  14:43

You know, this is an excellent, large question, and I’m sure there’ll be books written about it for the decades to come. However, I mean, let me just say, you know, it gets right at the heart of what we call crisis and emergency risk communication, which is communicating to people in a disaster, and a pandemic is like a major disaster that goes on and on and on. Which means that you not only have to get up and running fast, you have to keep running in the risk communication sphere. And so I was thinking, a good way to maybe think about the challenges is really come up with so what are the benchmarks of good communication? And how did we do? And I’m gonna say right up front, we didn’t do so hot. Some people did very well, like Dr. Fauci and Governor Cuomo. Some people didn’t do so well, maybe they were somewhat disengaged or somewhat hesitant. And some people did terribly. We won’t mention those people. But let’s think about what makes a good risk communication? Well, first of all, it has to be consistent and clear. So if you have mixed messaging that gets people confused. Let’s go back and think about masks for a minute. You know, at first it was “We don’t know.” Well, they should have said, “We don’t know.” What they said is, “We don’t think they’re that important.” What they shouldn’t have said is that, they shouldn’t have said, “We don’t know. And when we do know, we’ll come back to you for guidance.” So that kind of thing is really important. And also speaking in a unified voice, and you’re absolutely right. We didn’t have a unified voice. And unfortunately, the people who typically are supposed to be charged with speaking, like CDC, was sort of sidelined. So that’s pulls into the next piece, which is credibility, that you need a certain degree of belief in what is being said, that it’s true. You know, when people question a practice, the risk communicator’s job is to give evidence. So for the vaccines now, the risk communication task is to convince people that they are safe, because that’s what people’s concern is, and that there was really 1000s and 1000s of people in clinical trials, and that’s the gold standard. And another issue in creating good risk communication is this issue of specificity. You know, it’s one thing to say wear a mask, but the real issue is, what’s an appropriate mask wearing behavior, like, you know, it has to be over your nose, or you should wear it, you know, in public, or you got to wash it occasionally. It’s those kinds of things that are more important, actually, for people to remember what they’re supposed to do. And the biggest issue, I think, for me is timeliness and relevance. So let’s think about what risk communication is. It’s part of risk management, it’s part of a bigger risk management issue. So look, you don’t turn the lights on the Christmas tree before you put the tree up, okay. So you have to be part of a plan. So with risk communication, it sort of first you have to have a plan about how you’re going to mitigate risk, what people need to do, what the organizations involved in the risk response are doing. Then the risk communication becomes relevant, because you can talk to people about what the agencies are doing, what they need to do, how it’s all going to work together. So think about lighting up the tree after you put the tree up and you put the lights on. You can practice beforehand, but it’s not ad hoc. It’s all planned out. It really is part of a whole cloth of how we work in the public domain. Finally, disseminated widely -pandemic and everybody’s at risk so everybody needs to hear it. Actually, we did okay, in that piece. You know, this is an amazing time where we had news, social media, everything, all you know, pandemic messages, co-opted everything. The problem was, of course, some of them are true, and some were not. But that is also the job of the risk communicator to come in and dispel rumors and create more of a, you know, validity, truthful, credible, consistent, and well thought-out risk communication plan. So overall, the grade, I’ll let you do that.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:24

Well, that was really well laid out and I think that transparency is really what you’re saying and sort of summing it up. And even saying you don’t know what you know, like what Jess was saying, you know what you know, or don’t know, right? So in terms of, you know, using your knowledge, what kind of message would you advise Jeff Zients and Vivek Murthy, who are now in charge of vaccine rollout? What would be the message you’d like them to say to the public if you were able to write it?

Dr. Deb Glik  19:54

Yeah. Well, I mean, I think the the most important thing is understand your audience. What does your audience need to hear and want to hear? And the big issue with a vaccine is mainly vaccine safety. People are worried about whether it’s safe. So think about that as part of your objective, that you’re really trying to help people understand why the vaccine shouldn’t cause any major harm and actually, will push out a lot of good by having everybody not get COVID whose at risk. So how do you do that? You give stories, you give evidence, you talk about the evolution of the vaccine, you assure people that it didn’t just happen overnight, it was something that was in the works for years and years that is based on real, true, valid science. Now, look, you’re not going to convince everybody, there’s always the doubters. But really, the people they need to pay attention to are the vaccine-hesitant people. Those are the people in the middle. There’s the choir, who are rushing to get their vaccines, and there’s the anti-vaxxers who are protesting, you know, at Dodger Stadium in LA, but really your group that you want to and this is true with all health communication, you’re always going to convince that group in the middle that it’s okay, and they’re going to survive and their families are going to be okay. Not too much jargon, not science-heavy visuals if you can, but really, and finally, what are the characteristics of good risk communicators? They connect, they’re empathic, they’re passionate, they can sort of understand what the audience is going through, they don’t put people down, they don’t diminish the audience. They thank the audience for bringing them their concerns, and addressing them. I think the issue is always that good risk communicators have to really connect well with their audience, they have to understand what the audience’s concerns are not, you know, diss them, not diminish them, but sort of encourage them and help assure them that they’re going to get through this and it’s going to be okay. It is that healing process and we are in recovery now. We’re going into recovery and that’s what people have to be upbeat about.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:30

So, imagine a world where 70% of our population is vaccinated, twice if they need it, depending on the vaccine. How would you communicate to those that are vaccinated to continue some of these safety measures?

Dr. Deb Glik  22:48

I think what we’re going to have to do is continue the drumbeat for a while in terms of all these other things that people are doing. People may have to continue some social distancing, some mask wearing, some teleworking. You know, risk communication doesn’t end just because 70% of population is immunized, it basically has to continue. And I think reinforcement is really important, reinforcing people who are doing the right thing, who are taking this serious way, who are part of the solution. And that again, that’s part of this unified voice, this collective “we” that is part and parcel of good communication. Thanks, Deb. That was very useful. And I’ve already heard some people who have been fully vaccinated and other people saying, “Oh, you don’t have to wear a mask now.” So I know that’s not the message. So we need to continue that drumbeat, as you said. Turning to Ron, this is again, sort of imagining a world where we’re less restricted, so to speak. California has this four tier reopening plan, and LA county has a roadmap to recovery now outlining reopening protocols with criteria for loosening and tightening restrictions and activities. What is the science behind these reopening plans and tiered approaches?

Dr. Ron Brookmeyer  24:14

Thanks, Wendy. Well, we do know what works and the science is clear. And the science is clear about physical distancing. It’s clear about masks. It’s clear about avoiding large gatherings and doing things outside if possible. Now, how all of that comes together in these opening plans, is really risks versus benefits. It’s about reducing risks. It’s not about bringing it to zero because we can’t bring it to zero. And so the bottom line is the cocktail of these opening plans, you know, what’s open, what’s not. It’s not an exact science. The components, we know what the components are and what we need to do to reduce risks. But then it’s at what costs to the society? What about our economy? What about our children? What about our schools? And so, our goal is to reduce risk, can’t bring it to zero. And it’s a balancing act, we have to navigate this and put together the components that we know work in a proportion that as you mix this cocktail, that we have the best chance of reducing risks, but not at a great cost to all of us. Look, early on, you know, at the beginning of all this, we did really have an opportunity to control this. It was a missed opportunity, you know. The infectious period of COVID-19 is no more than a few weeks. So we could have broken the chain, if we had really, really strong control measures, and really good adherence. But we didn’t do that. And that came at great costs. And now we’re at the point a year into this, of having to balance all the other problems and parts of our society that come with closing down activities. So it’s a balancing act, and we have to keep reevaluating, looking at the data. And the word I keep saying is pivoting. We have to keep pivoting as the data comes in, and look at all aspects of our society. Now, what’s changed as we move into these different opening plans? Well, first, we do have an effective vaccine, we have two effective vaccines right now, at 95% vaccine efficacy. That’s amazing. I mean, that is really good. And the other thing that’s changed is everyone knows somebody who is affected by COVID. So the awareness is there now. And we’ve been into this for a year. So these opening plans as they are rolled out, it’s about monitoring, it’s about looking at the data. It’s about adherence, are people adhering to mask wearing? It’s about monitoring our vaccine coverage. It’s about looking at the variants and the economy and our kids in education, and pivot as the data comes in and see what we can do to lower risk but keep things going.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:20

Excellent answer. I was thinking, I kept hearing you say risk reduction. And there’s so many other aspects of public health that we use that strategy, in terms of preventing AIDs transmission, for instance, and other kinds of deadly infectious diseases. I’m wondering, you know, our LA Department of Public Health is very much I think, one of the best in the country. And I think they’ve done a really good job protecting a very large populace here in the county. What are your reflections in terms of, you know, what I’ve been hearing other departments of public health, who have not had as much of a robust infrastructure? And what would you like to see done in the future for our country to enhance the public health infrastructure?

Dr. Ron Brookmeyer  28:06

Well you know, one thing that I think has been overlooked is the stress on our public health workers. You know, I mean, I was reading recently, what’s going on in the New York State Department of Public Health, and a lot of stresses on the employees. And even in the LA County Department of Public Health, I know, the incredible stress that those who are working there are under as they feel pressures coming from all sides, and they feel the politics coming from all sides and the polarization and public health is as a field doing the best they can and our professionals are doing the best they can. And I think, you know, I think we need to pay more attention to all the stress that workers who are dealing with this are under. The other thing that I think we need to be looking at is coming to your question about the infrastructure. And you know, public health gets in the news, when we have an emergency, when we have a problem. And as soon as it goes away, you know, it fades and we can’t let it fade, you know, we have to be looking ahead. And public health infrastructure is what will make us prepared for the next pandemic. And I can guarantee you there will be another pandemic. And we need public health surveillance data to come in, to measure, to be prepared, to alert people, and when that data comes in to translate it, which is what we’re talking about today, and to communicate it to the public and saying what you know, and also saying what you don’t know.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:54

Well, as you said, this might not be the last pandemic. It will probably be one of many, maybe even in our lifetime given it potentially being one of the repercussions of climate change, and we have vectors to worry about as well, and all of those things are picked up by public health surveillance, as you pointed out very wisely. I’d like to know, how would you keep this urgency of public health as a critical member of our team for really the safety of our country? What would be one of the strategies, Ron, that you would think would be important to take at this stage? Given we’re still at the forefront of being up there in terms of getting the bully pulpit?

Dr. Ron Brookmeyer  30:38

Yeah, well, I think leadership, getting the message out is one thing. So public health leadership, communication, and education, education about public health. You know, words that we use, like herd immunity, which now we take for everyone seems to know what herd immunity is now. But about six months ago, most people had never even heard of what herd immunity is. So, you know, the words, you know, incubation period, these are basic words that are not actually part of undergraduate education. It’s not part of high school education, or traditionally has not generally been a part. It might be, you know, for certain majors and in your undergraduate experience, but it is basic education about how we respond to global health problems. And as we can see, it’s affected all of us. And I think education, starting young about these basic things about epidemics, about public health, about health inequities are really very, very critical.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:48

That’s a, I think, great lead into Jess, what made you decide to go and get your MPH as an RN?

Jessica Arzola  31:55

Right. Prior to the pandemic, I just had many questions in healthcare, why am I seeing a pattern with these patients? Why am I seeing these patients loss to follow-up? I’ve seen that with adult patients. I’ve seen that with the pediatric patients and I know health inequities existed. I experienced them myself, my father experienced them himself, too. You know, he had a brain aneurysm years prior, and he had like underlying hypertension that we never knew existed. And he was one of those loss to follow-up patients because of insurance issues before Obamacare. And that kind of motivated me to be a nurse and kind of understand the hospital system. And now that I understand the hospital system, I’ll understand the policy. I want to understand what effect and what change I can have. So that led me to the MPH degree, kind of I know what I know, I know what I’ve seen, I know what I’ve treated, but what can I do about it? And now with this pandemic, my interest in public health has only skyrocketed. How can this be improved? How do we nurses kind of get in there with the health policy changemakers? How do we get in there with the public health professionals? We represent the largest workforce in the country. Why can’t we be a part of that conversation? And why can’t we be influential? So this pandemic has only heightened my interest in public health and preventing these things from happening, preventing voices from being silenced and preventing these unfair patterns. And, you know, helping those patients that medicine traditionally neglects.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:21

Thank you. I hear from Ron and Jess both also it’s about social justice, it’s about health equity. It’s about being fair, and bringing everyone along in terms of health and health and well-being which I think is not a privilege, it’s a right. I mean, it’s something that we should all be raising everyone up to a healthier life. So Deb, what would you say would be how we would keep this sort of drum roll going in terms of the value of public health and like Ron said, prevention. When you prevent something, you don’t get the glory, right. It’s sort of like it’s your job.

Dr. Deb Glik  33:57

Right. I mean, number one, I totally concur with what Ron just said, you know, we need to push for much better public health literacy in this country, meaning, we need to have kids in grade school, and high school and college understand what it means to you know, have an epidemic or pandemic. I agree it’s going to come back or we’ll get another version of this and another time, and helping people understand also the importance of the infrastructure that we do have. I mean, you know, even though it’s been stressful and unclear and uncertain how this you know, is going to play out, you know, we’re blessed. We have infrastructure that supports us. We have energy infrastructure and transportation infrastructure and food systems, and schools and universities and Internet. etc. And public health is front and center of these things. I mean, I go back in my own history at my first epidemic in Africa in the 70s. And it was cholera. And we didn’t have any of that. That’s a very different ballgame. So if we understand what we have and how to use it in the most effective way, we have amazing communication systems. But how do you use it right? How do we sort of mobilize correctly, so that we didn’t go through again, what we went through in the first few months of this. We could have nipped this in the bud if people had understood what it meant to shelter in place and not go out and not have undergrad parties and all that stuff. So this has been a huge, amazing growth experience, I think, for us culturally and socially. Gotta be ready, though.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  35:57

Yeah, that’s a very good summary of really identifying all our strengths and leveraging and building them to a better good, because we do have a lot of strength, especially here in the states. And I’m going to ask each of you the same question. I’d love to hear whoever wants to answer it first, on a positive note, how are we going to flourish and thrive as we recover from this pandemic? And what would you recommend to help prevent this from happening again? I guess we addressed that last question. So maybe the flourishing part.

Dr. Ron Brookmeyer  36:29

Well, you know, I’ll just say there are some good things that come out of this. And hey, look, we’re all working remotely. You know, that’s something that we, you know, we didn’t know we could do, or we were skeptical, and we’re more efficient than we thought we could be. And I think that’s going to change how we are, how we work together. And I think that’s good. I think remote learning has been embraced. And sure it’s not perfect, but it’s one other option that we have that, you know, there are things we can do, that we didn’t think we could do. And so for me, I’ve learned flexibility and I’ve learned resiliency, that, you know, I could do things that I said, “Nah, I can’t do it.” Yeah, I can work remotely. Yeah, we can teach remotely, we can learn remotely. So I think those are some good things. And I think we’ve learned to cooperate more together. And I think one message is that we’re all in this together. You know, when I walk my dog in the neighborhood and look across and somebody is walking their dog, we’re all wearing masks. It’s an acknowledgment that we’re trying to deal with this, we’re all connected, we’re all interconnected. And you know, that’s a message that I think resonates. And I think it’s going to affect a whole generation of kids. So I think there is some good that will come out of this. Look, microbes are opportunistic. They’re always looking for a way to get in so there will be another pandemic. But I think from this, and if we keep this in our memories, we will be more prepared, and we will be able to respond. And we will have the confidence and resilience that we can rise to the challenge.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  38:30

That feels good to hear that. I agree. Jess or Deb?

Jessica Arzola  38:35

I’m still kind of thinking through the answer. I think it makes me look at this whole concept of risk differently. Health risk, right, your mental health risk, your social health risk, your physical health risk, I’ve never felt like I was a risk to anyone up until this pandemic. Now I can’t visit anyone because I know I’m a risk. I work with COVID patients. So I’m a risk, but that risk has always existed, you know. There’s always been heart disease, there’s always been infectious diseases, there’s always been the opportunity for some type of accidents to happen. Your risk of some kind of health trauma happening has always been there. But it’s how do you live in relationship to that risk? And how do you live fruitfully and happily in relationship to that risk? How do you respect that risk? How do you live with that risk? That risk will always exist. So it’s being aware of that and knowing how to manage that. And this is not just limited to the pandemic, but any type of risk, even a mental health risk. You know, if you feel like your stress levels are crazy high, what are you doing to help manage that? And then I think like with what Ron said, the social interaction component, I am looking forward to that post-COVID hug with my dad that I have not had since March. I’m looking forward to that moment. And never to this day have I missed just being in a classroom of people, interacting with people, shaking their hand, having lunch with someone, even just sitting next to a stranger on public transportation. You realize how much those social interactions meant and you realize how much they mean right now even if they’re nonverbal and just passing by someone on the street, and you’re both distancing from one another in a form of unity. And those interactions, I cherish them so much. And I will never take that for granted again. But I think those interactions are still alive and they’re still beating, they’re still well, they’re growing. And they will always be there. But maybe we just needed this pandemic to remind us how much that matters and how much we can never take it for granted again, while managing the risks that will always be there and may present themselves differently in the future. I hope they don’t. But pandemics are a real thing. And they happen and they happen again.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  40:32

That’s lovely.

Dr. Deb Glik  40:35

Yeah, I guess I want to, you know, echo a lot of what Ron andJessica just said, and just say, you know, first of all, it really makes me feel good that I’m in public health. You know, and the fact is that it’s not just about understanding the problem, but thinking about and implementing solutions. That’s our field, it’s a very interesting, applied field. And we’re, like, really important. So that makes me feel good. And I think I know, we learned some humility along the way, as a culture, as a social system. Now, just because we’re America doesn’t mean that we can’t also, you know, not be number one, on some level. We’ve had to really understand and think through who are we? What do we stand for? Do we really stand for what we say we believe in? And yes, we are inequitable, we need to work on that. We need to understand how important everybody is. We are connected. We have all these privileges and we don’t even appreciate sometimes that which we have. So I think appreciating who we are, what we have, the importance of everyone that again, goes back to we’re all in this together. Pandemics are not going away. They’re part of our history. They’re part of our future. Let’s hope people take this lesson to heart and really understand how important it is to minimize our risks for these things.

Dr.  Wendy Slusser  42:13


Semel HCI  42:16

Thank you for tuning in to this panel discussion on translating COVID-19 research. To wrap up today’s rich conversation, I’d like to share three of our main takeaways. Dean of the Fielding School of Public Health and distinguished professor of biostatistics, Dr. Ron Brookmeyer shared that hospitalization rates and deaths are two statistics he likes to look at for an accurate picture of where we are in the pandemic. Professor of community health sciences in the Fielding School of Public Health and communications expert Dr. Deb Glik shared that effective communication should be transparent, timely, consistent and address the audience’s concerns. And UCLA Executive Master of Public Health student and registered nurse Jessica Arzola shared from her personal experiences and decision to pursue a master’s in public health that public health perspective can be highly beneficial for the delivery of healthcare to individuals. Thank you again for joining us. For more information about today’s episode, visit our website  at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcasts. Today’s podcast was brought to you by the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA. To stay up to date with our episode, subscribe to UCLA LiveWell 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.