Cancer from an Evolutionary Perspective

Humans have a relatively high risk of developing cancer in their lifetimes. But cancer is not unique to humans. Across the tree of life, we can trace cancer vulnerabilities back to the origins of multicellularity. Cancer is observed in almost all multicellular phyla, including lineages leading to plants, fungi, and animals.

However, species vary remarkably in their susceptibility to cancer. And some organisms are much better at killing problem cells. Amy Boddy discusses how this variation is characterized by life history trade-offs, especially longevity. Interestingly, different species have evolved different ways to fight cell mutations that cause cancer. This may lead to a better understanding of cancer susceptibility across human populations.

Amy Boddy is an Assistant Professor in the Integrated Anthropological Sciences Unit and a Research Associate in the Broom Center for Demography at UC Santa Barbara. Boddy completed her PhD in molecular biology and genetics at the Wayne State University – School of Medicine in 2013. Her work uses applications from evolution and ecology to understand human health and disease. She uses a combination of genomics, computational biology and evolutionary theory to understand life history trade-offs between survival and reproduction across different levels of biological organization. One component of her research program examines how environmental cues, such as high extrinsic mortality, may guide resource allocations to cancer defenses and reproduction. Current cancer research topics include comparative oncology, intragenomic conflict, cellular life history trade-offs, and early life adversity and cancer outcomes later in life. In addition to her cancer research, she studies maternal/fetal conflict theory and the consequences of fetal microchimeric cells in maternal health and disease.

Watch Cancer Across the Tree of Life: New Insights into an Ancient Disease

Talking with Machines – Artificial Intelligence

With the vast amount of data available in digital form, the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is evolving rapidly.

If you’ve even been caught on a phone tree with a computer that doesn’t understand what you are saying, you’ll appreciate that scientists are trying to figure out how to teach machines to understand, to communicate and even be empathetic.

William Wang, Director of the Natural Language Processing Group at UCSB, summarizes the stunning achievements of Artificial Intelligence for the past decade and talks about the intersection of AI and language. He’s trying to build an empathetic conversational agent that can understand and generate human sentences with rich emotions.

Wang also looks at the challenges facing AI in the future and the work ahead of these researchers as they strive to keep improving AI and making it better for everyone.

William Wang is the Director of UCSB’s Natural Language Processing Group, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science at UCSB. He received his PhD from School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University. He has broad interests in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Natural Language Processing. He is the recipient of a DARPA Young Faculty Award, an IBM Faculty Award, a Facebook Research Award, and an Adobe Research Award. He is an alumnus of Columbia University, and he also worked at Yahoo! Labs, Microsoft Research Redmond, and University of Southern California. His work and opinions appear at major tech media outlets such as Wired, VICE, Fast Company, The Next Web, and Mental Floss.

Watch Artificial Intelligence: What’s Next?

New Ventures from UCSB Students

After eight months of activities and curriculum the UCSB New Venture Competition culminated with six teams presenting a pitch and a question-and-answer session for a panel of expert judges and an enthusiastic audience of peers, faculty and mentors.

The finalist teams, pared down from an initial pool of 32, represented diverse technologies and industries. The top six teams were: MoreSolar, utilizing wind power as a novel method for cleaning solar panels to increase efficiency; Adomi, addressing California’s housing shortage with a scalable solution that is also profitable to homeowners; Okra Systems, software for engineers that streamlines the process of selecting and qualifying microcontrollers; Snip, a social media platform for podcast lovers that allows users to curate and share podcasts; Soilight utilizing the microbes in soil to provide energy for low-powered applications; and Veneta, a web- and mobile-based software service that streamlines inventory management research labs.

Meet these young tech entrepreneurs and see who landed in the top spot.

Watch 2018 New Venture Competition Finals

Gwyneth Paltrow at UCSB

If anyone could be said to have been “born into show business,” it’s Gwyneth Paltrow. Her parents were film & television producer-director Bruce Paltrow and actress Blythe Danner, whom Gwyneth cites as her main inspiration to pursue acting. Her brother, Jake, is a director and screenwriter; her uncle Harry Danner is an opera singer; her aunt Dorothy Danner is an opera director; and her godfather is Steven Spielberg. With that pedigree, a career on stage and/or screen must have seemed pre-ordained.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Paltrow initially pursed a theatrical career before being drawn into film work. After a number of small roles, including Brad Pitts’ wife in the cult favorite “Seven,” she rose to prominence with an Academy Award-winning performance in the surprise hit “Shakespeare in Love.” This led to notable turns in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Proof,” “Sylvia” as doomed poet Sylvia Plath (the role of which Paltrow is proudest), the television series “Glee,” and as Margot Tenenbaum in Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson’s third feature film and the one that firmly established his now-familiar distinctive style. Following a brief hiatus from her hectic schedule, prompted by marriage and motherhood, Paltrow enjoyed a career rejuvenation thanks to her on-going participation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In this episode of Script to Screen, Paltrow discusses her process of preparing for her various roles, stressing the importance of finding a connection to the material and of placing complete trust in the director – which often requires a high degree of adaptability to accommodate divergent directorial styles and personalities. In the case of “Tenenbaums,” for example, she notes that Wes Anderson had the entire film fixed in his head down to the smallest detail, including set design, props, make-up, and wardrobe; all the cast had to do was “execute it properly.” (Apparently co-star Gene Hackman didn’t have that level of trust in Anderson; in Paltrow’s words, Hackman “just didn’t get it.”) By contrast, her scenes in “Iron Man” with Robert Downey, Jr. were largely improvised by Paltrow and Downey working with director Jon Favreau. Paltrow also touches briefly on her parallel careers as a singer, author, and e-commerce entrepreneur with her web-based lifestyle company Goop.

When asked by host Matt Ryan to give advice to students seeking a foothold in showbusiness, and particularly women, Paltrow notes that “this is a great time” for women emerging in the industry. Studios are finally acknowledging the chronic gender and racial biases plaguing the industry, as well as the pay inequities, and have undertaken a number of corrective initiatives. Above all, Paltrow urges the students to be confident, to be themselves, and to continue to break down doors.

Watch Royal Tenenbaums with Gwyneth Paltrow – Script to Screen

Comic-Con 2018

San Diego Comic-Con International is the world’s largest convention devoted to popular culture. Emphasis is traditionally placed on the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, but over the decades the convention has expanded its scope to encompass a range of genres and topics in a variety of forms, be it motion pictures, television, print, or digital media.

During the 2018 edition of Comic-Com, “Script to Screen” host Matt Ryan conducted over a dozen interviews with creative talent from television shows such as “The Man in the High Castle,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Mr. Mercedes,” and “Dear White People” – to name but a sampling – and the acclaimed feature film, “A Quiet Place.” Participants run the gamut from actors, producers, and directors to sound editors and composers. (The two latter professions are often underrepresented in industry profiles, so their presence here is particularly welcome.) Though of course familiarity with the programs is helpful, it’s not essential. The interviews focus less on plot details than on initial reactions to scripts and on preparations for the work at hand, be it acting, directing, or scoring. Put another way, the stress is on the individual artist’s contribution to the craft of collaborative storytelling. In this regard, all of the interviewees acknowledge the quality of the writing as the most critical component of a show’s potential success.

Though the shows and personalities highlighted in this program are necessarily just a small fraction of those on display at Comic-Con, they offer a sense of the depth of talent and narrative diversity currently available to the discerning consumer of popular media.

Watch Comic-Con: 2018