What do you do with wild commercial success? If you're Ava DuVernay, you pass it on.
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UCLA Optimists

In 2010, director Ava DuVernay was not the Golden Globe-nominated success that she is today.

In fact, she had just finished her first narrative film, called "I Will Follow."

DuVernay on the red carpet at the 2017 Oscars. Photo via Tyler Golden/Disney | ABC Television Group/Flickr.


Inspired by DuVernay's own life experiences, the film tells the story of a young artist who moves in with her eccentric, ailing aunt and is then forced to contend with her death.

It was a labor of love for a filmmaker who had, until then, only worked in journalism or on documentary projects. After studying English and African American studies at UCLA, DuVernay made the film in between working in public relations in the film industry. Made on limited time and a limited budget — just $50,000 and 15 days — it was spectacular.

The only problem: DuVernay couldn’t find anyone to release it.

A still from the trailer for "I Will Follow."

She spent months pitching her film to production studios, meeting with distribution companies, and contacting representation. But no one believed the film could be commercially successful.

Like many women of color, she finally decided that if no one would give her the opportunity she needed, she would create that opportunity herself.

Since she couldn't get anyone to market her movie, she founded a distribution collective of her own: the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, or AFFRM.

With a team of just three people, DuVernay took on the project of distributing her film herself. She created marketing materials, launched a social media campaign, recruited volunteer photographers and videographers, and formed partnerships with theaters and small film collectives willing to give "I Will Follow" a screening.

A movie poster for a screening of "I Will Follow" in New York City.

Finally, in 2011, "I Will Follow" was released, and was met with rave reviews from audiences and critics alike.

Roger Ebert called it a "wonderful independent film." Though it never received a massive audience, it resonated with the people who saw it, and ultimately, it launched DuVernay’s career.

Just three years later, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director on the 2014 film "Selma."

DuVernay with stars Colman Domingo (left) and David Oyelowo at a screening of "Selma" in Berlin. Photo via U.S. Embassy/Flickr.

Now, DuVernay no longer needs a grassroots effort to bring attention to her projects.

But rather than walking away from the collection she founded, she's repurposed it to help other budding filmmakers like herself find their first steps toward success.

DuVernay accepts a Peabody Award for her film "13th." Photo by Stephanie Moreno/Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications for Peabody Awards/Flickr.

"Ava really felt that there was a wider need for filmmakers of multiple ethnicities that didn’t have distribution options available for their works to be seen by larger audiences," says Mercedes Cooper, director of marketing for the film collective.

It's DuVernay's philosophy that she should use her success to bring others into the industry.  She calls it "lifting while she climbs" — in other words, using every possible opportunity to pass her success onto others.

"Ava often says that she doesn’t want to be alone in the room," Cooper says. "She doesn’t want to be the only person of color in the room. She doesn’t want to be the only woman in the room."

That's why DuVernay expanded the focus of her company, now called Array, to seek out talent and invite them into the room with her.  

"If you’re a person in the room that has an opportunity to let someone else in," Cooper says, "then it’s kind of important to do so."

Array works to identify independent films made by women and filmmakers of color, then acquires them and uses its resources to find places for those films to be seen.

An audience awaits a screening of Ousmane Sembène's "Black Girl," an independent film distributed by Array. Photo via Array/Twitter.

Today, Array has launched dozens of films, and, along with them, the careers of dozens of filmmakers who may never have gotten started without DuVernay's help. And it is always adding more films to its roster.

By distributing films, Array shines a light not just on the work, but on the directors and their lives.

Consider, for example, Array's recent release by up-and-coming filmmaker Heidi Saman.

"In March we released a film called 'Namour' from an Egyptian-American filmmaker. We don't get to see Egyptian-American families portrayed very much on U.S. screens," Cooper says.

A still from "Namour," a film about a Los Angeles valet caught between the pressures of his job and of his Arab-American immigrant family. Photo via Array.

The film follows a Los Angeles postgrad struggling with common problems — motivation, his career, his relationships, and his future — but also showcases the added dynamic of what it's like to come from an Arab-American immigrant family.

"Everybody wants to see someone that looks like them, that has the same experiences," Cooper says. "To have that reflected on screen just makes you feel even more a part of this world."

And now, more people have the opportunity to see themselves on-screen: "Namour," along with a handful of other films distributed by Array, are now available on Netflix.

Photo via Array.

Ultimately, Array's goal is to expand people's perspectives by exposing them to works by people who are different from them.

"Take a chance," she says. "Hit that 'play' button on something small that you've never heard about, that may not have people in it that look like you."

Either way, you'll learn something new about someone who's different from you. But there's also a chance that you'll discover the first title from the next Ava DuVernay.

via KTLA 5 / YouTube

A little after 7:30 on Tuesday night, Los Angeles County Sheriffs received multiple reports about a herd of cows running through the streets of Pico Rivera, a city 11 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

This Twitter video does a perfect job of encapsulating the surprise residents felt when they saw 40 cows running through their quiet suburban neighborhood.

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via KTLA 5 / YouTube

A little after 7:30 on Tuesday night, Los Angeles County Sheriffs received multiple reports about a herd of cows running through the streets of Pico Rivera, a city 11 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

This Twitter video does a perfect job of encapsulating the surprise residents felt when they saw 40 cows running through their quiet suburban neighborhood.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."