Research News

The College of Arts and Sciences is defined by inquiry and discovery. Faculty in the College pursue fundamental questions into the cultural, social, and natural worlds. This scope and intellectual freedom reflect both the historical characteristic of arts and sciences and speak to the underlying unity of a university’s breadth. As the core of a research university, A&S faculty conduct research and advance knowledge in these basic areas of inquiry and use this research to provide a robust and engaged education to undergraduate and graduates students.

Research News

  • Proving What Can’t Be Seen - April 12, 2018

    Proving What Can’t Be Seen

    An astrophysicist at the University of Miami is unlocking the secrets to dark matter.


    University of Miami astrophysicist Nico Cappelluti studies the sky. An assistant professor in the Physics Department, Cappelluti is intrigued by the cosmic phenomena of super massive black holes, the nature of dark matter, and active galactic nuclei, which is the very bright light source found at the center of many galaxies.

    dark matter surrounding the Milky Way
    An image of dark matter surrounding the Milky Way.

    Recently, Cappelluti published findings that could give insight on a subject scientists and astrophysicists have been investigating for decades: What is dark matter and where does it come from?

    According to Esra Bulbul, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and co-author in Cappelluti’s study, about 95 percent of the mass in the universe is made up of material that is unknown and invisible to scientists, that is dark matter.

    Cappelluti’s study, published in The Astrophysical Journal and entitled, “Searching for the 3.5 keV line in the deep fields with Chandra: the 10 MS observations,” examines an interesting light source that was captured by four different telescopes each pointing in a different direction in the sky. The source of light is unfamiliar and unrecognizable to scientists and has caused quite a stir in the world of astrophysics. Bulbul also found the emission line while studying clusters of galaxies in 2014.

    “We use special telescopes to catch X-ray light in the sky, and while looking at these X-rays, the telescopes noticed an unexpected feature and captured a spectrum of light, which is not produced by any known atomic emission,” said Cappelluti. “This emission line is now called the 3.5 kiloelectron volt (keV). One interpretation of this emission line is that it’s produced by the decay of dark matter.”

    The four telescopes that captured the 3.5 keV emission were NASA’s NuSTAR telescope, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) XMM-Newton telescope, the Chandra telescope, and the Suzaku telescope from Japan.

    nasas-nustar-telescope
    NASA's NuSTAR telescope (photo: NASA)“

    This 3.5 keV emission line is unidentified. We truly don’t know what it is,” said Bulbul. “But one theory is that it could be a sterile neutrino, which is also known as decaying dark matter. What is truly interesting about Dr. Cappelluti’s study is that he found this 3.5 keV line within our own galaxy.”“If confirmed, this will tell us what dark matter is and could be one of the major discoveries in physics,” said Cappelluti. “We know that the Milky Way is surrounded by dark matter. Think of it as if we are living in a bubble of dark matter. But we also want to have the statistical certainty of our detection, so now we are putting together a Sterile Neutrino Task Force.”

    This fall, several scientists from around the world, including Harvard’s Bulbul, plan to gather at the University of Miami to organize a massive data-mining project to investigate and research this 3.5 keV emission line.

    “The goal now is to continue to look at the sky until we obtain more powerful operating telescopes with better resolution, which won’t be ready until 2021, and share and analyze data from other scientists who are trying to uncover the secrets of dark matter,” said Bulbul. 

    In addition to Cappelluti and Bulbul, other coauthors on the paper include Francesca Civano and Randall K. Smith, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Adam Foster, Eric Miller, and Mark W. Bautz from the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics & Space Research at MIT; and Priyamvada Natarajan and Megan C. Urry, both from Yale University.  April 12, 2018

  • Clearing the Forest, with Consequences - February 15, 2018

    Clearing the Forest, with Consequences

    University of Miami professors study the relationship between human welfare and environmental stressors on Brazil’s Amazon


    Years of research on the Brazilian Amazonia’s rich biodiversity and ecological functions has documented the region’s importance to humanity and the planet. Yet, Brazil’s rainforest is under stress from many of the very initiatives, including agriculture like soybean farms and the expansion of infrastructure, such as roads and dams, thought to be essential for the well-being of its population.

    But in a new study, University of Miami Professor José Maria Cardoso da Silva, in the Department of Geography and Regional Studies, found that many of the theories about how societies living in tropical forest regions can improve their living standards, which include deforestation, migration, public investment, and agriculture, do more harm than good because they fail to conserve the region’s natural wealth—the forest.

    “Essentially, regions covered by forests, which are so important on a global scale because of climate change, must follow a different developmental pattern because these regions are fundamentally different,” Silva said. “The only way to improve human welfare is by protecting the forest while building up modern and sustainable infrastructure in the region’s cities.”

    For his study, Silva and co-author Shivangi Prasad, a UM lecturer, evaluated whether reducing the forest to make way for development, migrating from small cities to larger cities, investing in government pensions, subsidies, and social welfare programs, and increasing agriculture and other jobs, improved human welfare in the Brazilian Amazonia by looking at how the Human Development Index (HDI) of 499 municipalities in the region changed from 2005 to 2012, when the government implemented strategies to control deforestation and promote more sustainable development.

    “We used HDI as a proxy for human well-being because it measures the overall income, health, and education of a population and gives a ranking between zero and one, zero being very bad and one very good,” said Silva. “What we found in our study is that increases in urbanization, agriculture, and public investment projects, during a time of reduced deforestation, does not translate into high human development growth, unless they are done correctly and take into account the importance of the forest itself.”  

    These theories, the study found, all proved unsuccessful due to improper planning and capacity of the local municipal governments in the Brazilian Amazonia to develop and implement sound, long-term sustainable development plans. According to the study, deforestation creates a kind of “boom-and-bust” pattern where there are short-term economic gains but long-term losses; fast urbanization means people move from impoverished rural areas to big cities where resources are also lacking; public investment is mismanaged by the government and limits entrepreneurship; and agriculture is negatively correlated with human development because  a lack of clarity about land ownership creates social conflicts with, for example, indigenous people. All of these factors actually reduce HDI growth, the researchers found.

    Prasad, Silva’s co-author who lectures in the Department of Geography and Regional Studies, says the research can be applied to other countries where tropical rainforests and people intermingle, such as Indonesia and countries in the Congo Basin—global areas with very large tropical rainforest regions. Prasad said deforestation within the tropical areas of Indonesia is giving way to single-crop farming while countries in the Congo Basin, which have the second largest tropical rainforest in the world and very low HDI, deforestation is happening because of poor governance and, consequently, well-thought, long-term development plans that consider the rights and wishes of the local populations. 

    “If you look at our research, this is exactly what is happening in the Amazon where deforestation is being replaced by soybeans, while in Indonesia it’s palm oil plantations,” said Prasad. “The problem when growing just one crop is that it reduces biodiversity. Also, the way the land is cleared is also a problem because mass deforestation of large swaths of land are cleared by fire.”

    Prasad says she was somewhat surprised by their findings on urbanization. “One would think that urbanization would increase human welfare due to better access to healthcare, education and quality government services in urban areas,” she said. “Yet, in our study, we did not find a positive connection between urbanization and HDI growth, especially in the context of the Amazon, where the population of the urban centers are growing so fast that the region’s cities do not have time to build up the infrastructure and services to accommodate them.”  

    In conclusion, Silva said, “I am a strong believer that without the outright conservation of the natural ecosystems, no country in the world can be considered as developed if it does not find ways to conciliate economic prosperity with a healthy environment.”  

    The study entitled, “The impact of deforestation, urbanization, public investments, and agriculture on human welfare in the Brazilian Amazonia,” is published in the journal Land Use Policy.

  • Peering into the Cosmos - January 25, 2018

    Peering into the Cosmos

    UM astrophysicist leads NASA mission to study X-ray emissions from the Milky Way and outer space


    In the midst of an Alaskan winter, scientists from NASA and academic institutions around the world gathered together to launch four rockets into outer space with hopes to better understand the secrets of the cosmos.

    Officially named the 2018 Poker Flat Sounding Rocket Campaign, the endeavor consists of two separate missions: One lead by the University of Miami explores X-ray emissions coming from outer space and our galaxy; the other studies how microscopic ice particles found 53 miles above the Earth, called Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMCs), are formed.  

    Massimiliano Galeazzi, associate chair and professor of physics at the University of Miami, is the principal investigator for the DXL (Diffuse X-rays from the Local Galaxy) mission. Galeazzi says the DXL mission is designed to study X-rays coming from two different sources in space.

    “The first source,” he said, “is located outside our solar system and is generated by remnants of multiple supernovae explosions forming what is now called the Local Hot Bubble region of our galaxy. The second source is within the solar system and is generated by the solar wind interacting with neutral gas in the solar system and Earth’s atmosphere.”

    The DXL mission seeks to gain a better understanding of the nature and characteristics of these sources, specifically the X-rays produced when the solar wind, which is composed when heavily charged ions are emitted by the sun and interact with the Earth’s neutral gasses—hydrogen and helium—found in our atmosphere. “This phenomenon is called solar wind charge exchange,” he adds, “and we are studying it, primarily, so we can remove its contribution from astrophysical observations, but also to better understand the physics of the phenomenon.”

    According to Galeazzi, when observing an object outside the solar system the solar wind charge exchange interferes with how it is observed from Earth. To properly understand the properties of these objects, scientists must be able to understand the contribution from solar wind charge exchange and remove it from the observation or they could get erroneous results. 

    “For example, if you take a photograph of a distant object, but you have a light source close to you, the distant object may be hard to see because of that light source, so to be able to get a nice picture, you must first remove the contribution of that source,” said Galeazzi.

    The DXL mission was successfully launched at 3:17 a.m. local time on January 19, 2018.  Along with Galeazzi’s DXL mission, three other rockets (all waiting for good conditions to be propelled into space) will determine how large quantities of water could affect the upper atmosphere and form Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMCs). This mission, named Super Soaker, will measure the impact of short-term changes on PMCs, which are often used to quantify changes in Earth’s upper atmosphere over many decades.

    The DXL mission launched from the Poker Flat Research range in Alaska, which is near the Earth’s magnetic poles and allows researchers to take X-ray measurements closer to the region where the solar magnetic field interacts with Earth’s magnetic field.

    In addition to the University of Miami, the DXL collaboration includes scientists from different institutions, including NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, LATMOS in France, the University of Wisconsin, John Hopkins University, and Boston University. It is financially supported by the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and logistically by NASA’s sounding rocket division at Wallops Flight Facility. 

    UM Professor Galeazzi inspects the rocket before launch in Alaska
    UM Professor Galeazzi inspects the rocket before launch in Alaska. 
    (photo credit: NASA)

     

    Scientists prep for launch of the DXL mission
    Scientists prep for launch of the DXL mission. (photo credit: NASA)

     

    The DXL mission rocket is propelling into space
    The DXL mission rocket is propelling into space at 3:17 a.m. 
    (photo credit: Merrick Peirce, Fairbanks, AK)

     

    January 25, 2018

  • Advocating for the Humanities - October 18, 2017

    Advocating for the Humanities

    A significant grant from the Mellon Foundation will help researchers discern how the public regards the humanities.

     online-news-warHow are the humanities perceived in society today and how does the news media portray these perceptions? 

    Defending, preserving and advocating for the humanities is the prime mission for a group of researchers here at the University of Miami, the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), and California State University, Northridge. Funded by a $1.1 million grant, they hope to collect massive amounts of data from digital magazines, newspapers, blogs, TV and radio news to dig deep into the current conversation about how the public views the humanities.

    “Our hypothesis is that computational methods can help us learn new things about how news media sources portray the humanities,” said Lindsay Thomas, assistant professor in the English Department at the UM College of Arts and Sciences, who specializes in the digital humanities, media and cultural studies, and contemporary American literature.

    Professor Lindsay Thomas Lindsay Thomas, English Department

    ‌Thomas is also co-director of the UCSB-based project WhatEvery1Says (WE1S), a multi-institutional digital humanities project that uses digital humanities methods to study current public discourse about the humanities. The project is an extension of 4Humanities, an advocacy initiative Alan Liu, an English professor at UCSB, started in 2010 in response to what some call the “humanities crisis”—the perception that the humanities are of little value in higher education.

    In 2013, Liu also started WE1S to source digital media as a way to learn what pundits, politicians, scholars, students and others think about the humanities. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently awarded WE1S the $1.1 million grant to continue studying the representation of the humanities in public discourse.

    “With this grant, we hope to accomplish a few things,” said Thomas. “One wing of the project is more scholarly, which includes writing articles, conference papers and creating materials for other scholars about our technical methods and findings. The other wing focuses on public-facing output, such as growing our website and producing research-based materials like brochures, flyers, posters, and infographics that communicate our findings. These materials can be used by academics, journalists, administrators and government officials when making arguments about why we need to support the humanities.”

    Thomas says the grant will support graduate research assistants at UM and UCSB, two post-doc scholars at UCSB and undergraduate summer researchers at California State University, Northridge. Focused data collection using computer algorithms will search a wide variety of archived media that incorporate the word “humanities” in the texts.    

    “Unfortunately, we are going to miss some things,” said Thomas. “For example, if an article uses the word ‘history’ instead of ‘humanities,’ we won’t be able to capture it for our data collection, but our hypothesis is that articles that use the word ‘humanities’ are the best and first place to look for any discourse about the humanities."

    Other aspects of the project include searching how the humanities are mentioned within Spanish-language sources and creating customizable tools for other digital humanists to use when engaging in research and data collection on larger scales. According to its mission statement, the Foundation endeavors to strengthen, promote, and, where necessary, defend the contributions of the humanities and the arts to the flourishing of humankind and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies. For more information about WE1S, its mission and who is involved, visit http://we1s.ucsb.edu/.

     # # #

    October 18, 2017

  • Combating Mental Illness with Religious Intervention

    A pilot study will examine whether integrating religious interventions into an existing mental illness treatment—and offering the therapy at a religious institution—will help keep participants engaged and on the road to wellness

    mental illness and religion
    Can depression, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses be combatted using both established psychotherapeutic treatments and religious interventions? A new pilot study led by Amy Weisman de Mamani, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami, will test that hypothesis with help from a three-year, $25,000 John Templeton Foundation grant.

    Weisman de Mamani’s expertise focuses on family, religious, and other socio-cultural factors that influence the course and outcome of mental illness. Her pilot study is entitled “A culturally informed, religiously based, cognitive behavioral, mental health treatment offered in religious institutions and other community settings.”  

    Her proposal suggests taking two different groups—one for individuals with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and another for individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, and other normative issues—and conducting the treatment sessions at UM and at Coral Gables United Church of Christ.

    According to the proposal, participants will be free to choose the most suitable site for their personal needs. Those meeting at the church will also interact with the senior pastor, who will sit in on some treatment sessions and provide feedback to Weisman de Mamani and her team on ways to enhance the sessions.

    “Overall, we want to see if offering psychotherapies in religious institutions will help retain religious individuals in treatment longer,” said Weisman de Mamani. “Though we found the intervention being tested to be highly effective in reducing psychiatric symptoms in our earlier research, we also observed that more religious individuals were more likely to drop out of therapy prematurely. Thus, by better integrating religion into the treatment and offering one arm at a church, our hope is that we will better engage religious clients in therapy and retain them longer, which should ultimately be linked to a better outcome.”

    amy-weisman-de-mamani
    Amy Weisman de Mamani, Dept. of Psychology

    Weisman de Mamani says the treatment itself is completely non-denominational and participants actually draw on their own religious beliefs and practices, such as thinking about religious scriptures, to help them through the sessions and to cope with a particular mental issue.

    “As a pilot program offered in a Christian church, we expect that the majority of participants will be Christian. But in the future, we hope to continue the study in other religious institutions, such as a mosque or a synagogue,” said Weisman de Mamani. “For those who are religious, we are really just tapping into clients’ religious values, beliefs, and behaviors to make the treatment more relevant and to help keep them engaged with society and with meaningful, healthy behaviors.”

    In her proposal, Weisman de Mamani states that “collaborating with mental health practitioners, religious leaders, and educators will allow researchers to develop a model that could easily be implemented in a range of religious and community mental health centers around the country and integrate spirituality into mainstream psychotherapy practices.”

    The pilot study will not exclude participants from any religion nor dictate which beliefs and practices participants choose to draw from in therapy. During the therapy sessions, participants will pose their own religious solutions and discuss these with the therapists, religious leaders, and other group participants.

    Weisman de Mamani is the author of many previous studies that focus on religion and mental illness. Her current project is an extension of an earlier study entitled “Does religiosity predict attrition from a culturally-informed family treatment for schizophrenia that targets religious coping?” It was recently published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.  

    October 12, 2017

  • The Psychological Impacts of Natural Disasters on Youth - October 2, 2017

    The Psychological Impacts of Natural Disasters on Youth

    Children’s mental state plays an important factor in their developmental growth. After recent storms devastated parts of the U.S. – Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Irma in Florida and the Caribbean and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico – all contributing to massive evacuations of children and families, which children need more attention or support services in the aftermath of these storms and the related stressors that come with surviving and witnessing the destructive power of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane?

    Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Pediatrics at the University of Miami, Annette M. La Greca, is fully aware of children’s reaction to trauma. Her research focuses on the impact of disasters on youth since Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992. 

    La Greca, in collaboration with her UM graduate student, BreAnne Danzi, has been evaluating how best to define post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children. This line of research will help to quickly identify the children who need support services post-disaster. La Greca’s research has also identified key aspects of the post-disaster environment that facilitate children’s recovery.

    “The good news is that most children are resilient, even after a very devastating storm," said La Greca. “However, children have different ways of expressing distress than adults.”

    In a paper entitled, “Optimizing clinical thresholds for PTSD: Extending the DSM-5 preschool criteria to school-age children,” recently published in the International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, La Greca and Danzi examined how well the “preschool” definition of PTSD identifies school-aged children with significant distress after a major hurricane.

    According to the study, 327 children (ages 7-11) from six elementary schools in Galveston, Texas, which were directly in the path of Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 storm that made landfall in September 2008, participated. They found that the preschool definition of PTSD identifies more distressed children than the typical “adult-based” definition.

    Thus, the preschool definition may be useful when screening elementary school-age children (ages 7-11) for PTSD-risk.Additional research by La Greca and colleagues also found that two-thirds of children who are initially distressed after a disaster recover naturally over the course of the school year. Children who recover report having more social support from friends and family, fewer life stressors in the disaster’s aftermath and more positive coping skills than those who remain chronically distressed. 

    “We now know from research that some children who endured a stressful evacuation or experienced scary or life-threatening events during the storm are at risk for a poor recovery over time,” she said. “Children who need extra support include those who report feeling anxious or depressed, as well as stressed, and who lack social support from friends and family. They also have multiple stressors to deal with after the storm. All of those factors contribute to poor recovery and less resilience.”

    Based on these findings, La Greca and colleagues developed a workbook, After the Storm, for parents to help their children cope after a hurricane (available for a free download at http://www.7-dippity.com/other/op_storm.html). The guide has been widely used after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike.

    The workbook addresses ways to help most children recover, such as having a normal routine, staying connected to friends and family, eating healthy, exercising, resuming leisure activities, proper sleep and avoiding media or online coverage of aftermath damage and distress. La Greca added that helping others in need and identifying things to be grateful for can also help to maintain a positive perspective.

    “There is no doubt that hurricanes and other extreme weather events can be stressful for children and for adults,” said La Greca. “But as with many stressful experiences, a little extra support can go a long way.”

    October 02, 2017

  • Lost City of Arabia Revealed - August 18, 2017

    Lost City of Arabia Revealed

    Archeological research by University of Miami professor featured in popular TV series Unearthed

    This summer University of Miami Professor David Graf directed an experienced international team of researchers in excavating the agricultural mysteries of a site near Petra, Jordan known as Ba’aja.

    Ba’aja is located about six miles north of Petra, which is the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom. Nabataea was a Roman client-kingdom in Arabia located on the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire.

    At Ba’aja, Graf and his team uncovered several small ancient Nabataean settlements, agricultural storage areas, Aramaic inscriptions, cultic shrines, and approximately 24 wine presses, which led the team to believe that the villagers living outside of Petra were, surprisingly, vineyard farmers during the early Roman era.

    “Together, we are changing the rural landscape of the Nabataeans, who for far too long have been depicted as milk-drinking nomads in the Roman era, but we hope in the future will be recognized as wine-drinking farmers,” said Graf.

    Graf and his team were not the only occupants interested in the site. While on location, a television production crew representing the Science Channel’s popular television show, “Unearthed,” filmed and interviewed Graf and his team for two days and featured the excavation and the city of Petra for the episode, “Lost City of the Desert,” which aired on August 15, 2017.

    "The recently released episode of the TV program 'Unearthed' on the majesty and mysteries of Petra, Jordan covered much of the intriguing history of this fabled ancient desert sandstone city and featured extensive interviews with archaeologists working there," said La Sierra University's Center for Near Eastern Archaeology Director Doug Clark. "I found all my Jordanian archaeology colleagues and their comments the best part of the program: articulate, informative, measured, clear, pertinent, and professional."

    Each hour-long episode of “Unearthed” combines scientific investigation with detailed computer-generated imagery to interpret mysteries of ancient civilizations and structures revealing how these sites were used and constructed.

    “Professor Graf’s appearance on ‘Unearthed’ highlights his international reputation as one of the preeminent scholars of Petra and the Nabataeans,” said David Kling, professor and chair of the Religious Studies Department.

    Since 1978,Graf has engaged in a number of archeological projects and excavations to uncover an understanding of the Nabataean kingdom, including its languages, army, trade, ethnicity, and relations with Rome.

    University of Miami Professor David Graf excavated in Petra, Jordan and was featured in the TV show "Unearthed" on the Science Channel. Dr. Graf (center) with international excavation team in Petra, Jordan

    August 18, 2017

  • Predicting Future Outcomes in the Natural World - June 22, 2017

    Predicting Future Outcomes in the Natural World

    A study reveals how computer-based modeling can help researchers predict the optimal outcome to save natural habitats from invasive plants

    When pesticides and intentional fires fail to eradicate an invasive plant species, declaring biological war may be the best option.

    A weevil which was released into Florida's wetland to reduce the spread of the invasive tree species the melaleuca tree. The melaleuca weevil is only 6 to 9 mm in length.

    Melaleuca, an invasive, woody tree native to Australia, was introduced into Florida’s wetlands in the late 19th century and has caused havoc ever since by invading and displacing native vegetation and harming the biodiversity of the state’s freshwater ecosystems.

    In 1997, to combat the intruder, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released melaleuca’s natural enemy—a small beetle known as the weevil—into areas where the tree thrived. The weevil, also a native of Australia, feeds on melaleuca, essentially disrupting its natural growing process and killing it slowly over time.

    According to University of Miami graduate student Bo Zhang, who earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, over the past 20 years, the weevil has helped reduce melaleuca reproduction by 49 percent and its growth by 83 percent.

    That would indicate the weevil is succeeding in its mission to reduce the spread and growth of melaleuca, but is 20 years worth of data enough to predict whether the weevil will vanquish the intruder entirely?

    In their study, "Modeling the long-term effects of introduced herbivores on the spread of an invasive tree," published in the journal Landscape Ecology, Zhang said she and her collaborators used an individual-based modeling platform, known in scientific circles as JABOWA-II, to come up with a hopeful answer.

    Simulating various outcomes of the weevil’s impact on two types of South Florida habitats under attack by melaleuca—cypress swamps and bay swamps—the researchers found that the wetland’s dominant native species may recover in about 50 years from when the weevil was first introduced in 1997, further suppressing melaleuca through competition.

    Melaleuca tress in the Florida wetlands

    Melaleuca trees in South Florida
    Maleleuca trees in South Florida.

    In essence, Zhang said, the model proves that introducing herbivores to an invasive species can save the native species, a finding that can be applied to other studies seeking similar outcomes in the natural world.

    “This individual-based model is used for a lot of ecological research but this is the first time it was used to model the long-term effects of an invasive species,” said Zhang. “Basically, it can simulate each individual tree inside a plot of land and this provides more detailed information about biocontrol outcomes and, ultimately, what is the best outcome for the future.”

    She adds that the model also provides researchers or government officials who are monitoring the small beetle’s effect on the melaleuca’s growth important long-term information—what areas need more insects, which need less, or which could disappear in a number of years.  

    Zhang’s collaborators on the study are Donald L. DeAngelis from the Wetlands and Aquatic Research Center at the U.S. Geological Survey; Min Rayamajhi from the USDA-ARS Aquatic Weed Research Laboratory; and Daniel Botkin from the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The study was funded by U.S. Geological Survey Priority Ecosystem Science for the Greater Everglades.

    June 22, 2017

  • Can Trusting Your Doctor Help Reduce Pain? - May 4, 2017

    Can Trusting Your Doctor Help Reduce Pain?

    A new study indicates how perceptions of clinician-patient similarity and trust can reduce pain at the doctor’s office

    Getting a shot at your doctor’s office can be a stressful experience. But what if you knew your doctor was from your hometown, liked the same food as you, or shared your religious beliefs? Now that you feel more culturally connected to your doctor, will the shot hurt less?

    It’s a scenario posed in a new study by Dr. Elizabeth Losin, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences; Steven Anderson, a University of Miami graduate student in the Department of Psychology; and Tor Wager, Ph.D., Professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. The study is entitled, “Feelings of clinician-patient similarity and trust influence pain: Evidence from simulated clinical interactions,” and it is published in the Journal of Pain, the official journal of the American Pain Society.

    Dr. Elizabeth Losin's research focuses on patient-physician connections related to pain. In Losin’s lab, she simulates clinician-patient interactions to uncover the social and cultural factors that influence the pain that patients experience during medical care. Her goal is to try and find ways to help people feel less pain when seeing the doctor and help reduce phobias about doctor visits and check-ups.

    Losin says her study was inspired by clinical research literature that reveals how patients with racially or ethnically concordant doctors report higher levels of satisfaction. She notes that those studies often don’t include outcome variables with a physiological component, such as pain. So, it’s not clear how far the effects of feeling culturally similar to your doctor can go.

    “Pain also has a psychological component as well, and it’s the interaction between the psychological and physiological aspects of pain that we’re really interested in,” she said.

    Losin says that physician-patient interactions are typically fast and superficial so people often don’t actually get the time to figure out whether they have anything in common with their doctor.

    “You go to the doctor’s office and you have to get a procedure that is painful and scary,” said Losin. “We want to know how the doctor-patient dynamic, in this case how the doctor and patient perceive one another, might affect how much pain the patient feels from that painful medical procedure. If the patient feels they have something in common with their doctor, is that enough to actually change how much pain they feel?”

    For her study, Losin used a modified version of a “minimal group paradigm,” which is normally used in social psychology experiments to create artificial groups in the lab based on something completely arbitrary and superficial. This approach allows researchers to figure out the minimal conditions required for real-world intergroup behavior, like discrimination, to occur.

    In Losin’s study the groups weren’t quite so arbitrary. “We created the groups based on participants’ core personal beliefs and values, the same things that we think doctors and patients infer based on race and ethnicity in the context of medical care,” said Losin. “We gave participants a questionnaire that asked about their political ideology, religious and gender role beliefs and practices. When they came into the lab, we separated the participants into two groups and told them they were assigned to these groups based on their questionnaire answers but not giving specifics to which question put them there.”

    Losin says that the goal was to make people from the same group think they had something in common, which might then manifest itself as more positive feelings, like trust, towards participants playing the role of the doctor or the patient from their own group.

    The participants who played the patients interacted with one doctor from their own group and one doctor from the other group, both of their own gender. During the simulated clinical interaction, the doctors performed a pain-induction procedure on the patients by applying heat to their inner forearm, meant to simulate a painful medical procedure like a shot.

    “After the interaction, we asked both the doctor and the patient how similar they felt to each other and how much they trusted each other,” said Losin. “We predicted that patients would report being in less pain when they had a doctor from their own group than a doctor from the other group. We also expected less pain if the patients trusted their doctor more and felt more similar to them.”

    According to the study, the more patients reported trusting their doctor and feeling similar to them, the less pain they reported feeling from the heat on their arm. The study also suggests that participants who experience higher levels of anxiety on a day-to-day basis experienced greater reductions in pain from feeling close to their doctor.

    “Overall, we are interpreting our findings as suggesting that the doctor is essentially acting as a social placebo, playing the same role that a sugar pill would play if we were doing a study on placebo pain relief,” said Losin. “When someone believes that something is going to help relieve their pain, their brain naturally releases pain-relieving chemicals. Our hypothesis, based on what we are seeing, is that trusting and feeling similar to the doctor who is performing the painful procedure is creating that same kind of placebo pain relief.”

    Ultimately, Losin would like to use the results of her studies to design and test new methods clinicians can use during the doctor-patient interaction to build trust and help decrease pain for their patients

    May 04, 2017

  • Social Signals in Infants - April 13, 2017

    Social Signals in Infants

    UM psychologist will study the social behavior of infants with NSF grant support

    It may seem as a rude gesture, but University of Miami researchers in the Department of Psychology’s Child Division regularly stick their tongues out at newborn babies—all in the name of science.

    Dr. Elizabeth Simpson sticks her tongue out at a newborn baby all in the name of science. Dr. Simpson studies infants' social behavior in her lab.

    This approach to studying the development of social behavior in infants, known as neonatal imitation, is one taken by Assistant Professor Elizabeth Simpson in her Social Cognition Lab in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

    Specifically, her research focuses on the development of social cognition and how infants begin to understand their social world. She studies their early foundational social skills, including face perception and imitation, from birth to the first year of life.

    Her study aims to enhance the understanding of healthy sociality in infants, while ultimately helping to identify infants at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders.

    “We don’t have a lot of information about the early social behaviors of infants, yet, we know that there are dramatic changes that happen in that first year of life,” said Simpson. “Babies grow into these very social creatures in the first months of life, and we are interested in looking at individual differences, such as why some babies are social and outgoing while others are shy and withdrawn.”

    Simpson will be able to continue her research in this field with the help from a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation, a prestigious award supporting junior faculty who excel in their role as academics in research and education. Dr. Elizabeth Simpson shares facial expressions with a newborn baby who mimics her actions.

    The award provides Simpson with $675,000 for the next five years, funding for two graduate students, and the opportunity to develop a mentoring summer research program for undergraduate students who are underrepresented in the field of science, such as first-generation college students, women, and minorities.
    ‌‌
    Simpson’s study in human infants is based on a previous study she conducted on monkey infants, which resulted in the finding that if the monkey infant was better at imitating during that first week of life, it went on to become more social, engaged in more play behavior, and initiated more social interactions.

    “In essence, we are trying to translate that animal research to humans and see if we can replicate it,” said Simpson. 

    Research and knowledge about the nature of early imitation in infants will give Simpson, and other researchers, insight into the individual differences of children as they develop to understand and identify when a child begins to deviate from the path of healthy development. Simpson and her team will measure the visual attention and neonatal imitation capabilities, as well as saliva samples, of 100 babies in the South Florida community.

    For more information on participating, families can contact the lab by phone 305-284-8431, email (SCL@miami.edu) or can sign up online at http://is.gd/redcap_umiami_childscientist.

    April 13, 2017

  • Finding a Solution Against Violence - March 20, 2017

    Finding a Solution Against Violence

    UM professor wins ACLS grant to continue his studies on violence and the human condition.

    Dr. Louis Herns Marcelin, associate professor of anthropology at the University Miami College of Arts and Sciences, has focused most of his research on understanding violence as essential to social life.

    As he notes, most scholars see forms of violence in society as discrete phenomena with clear determinants, while others shed light on their (im)morality and their destructive power. “While these approaches are important in helping us make sense of identifiable acts of violence, their randomness and epidemiology,” Marcelin says his work “takes a holistic perspective on the topic, a view that goes beyond thinking of violence as belonging to the realm of the absurd. 

    Violence, he says, is not an anonomy or outside of what make us humans.

    Louis Herns Marcelin, UM College of Arts and Sciences, University of Miami, Department of Anthropology, Haiti, violence in Haiti, recovery in Haiti
    Louis Herns Marcelin, associate professor of anthropology

    “Instead, violence is foundational of social life and quintessential to power relations among humans. Violence is constitutive of the human condition.”

    Starting this summer, Marcelin will take a full academic year of research leave to further explore this theme as a recipient of an American Council of Learned Studies (ACLS) fellowship for his proposal, Democratization Process, Violence, and Peacebuilding in Contemporary Haiti.

    As an ACLS fellow, he will work on a book that focuses on violence and human insecurity in post-dictatorship and post-disaster Haiti. The book builds on a series of transdisciplinary, multistage, ethnographic and sociological studies he has conducted in Haiti, where he was born, over the course of 25 years.

    His research interrogates the standard categorization and analysis of and community responses to violence. It highlights the unique value of ethnography as a distinctive means to investigate the principles at work in the production and reproduction of violence in sociocultural contexts like Haiti.

    Marcelin is aware that this award was not simply for his own work, but the result of thought-provoking collaborations and reflections with UM colleagues and students, as well as other scholars from other parts of the world, including Haiti, South Africa, Brazil, France, and Canada.

    “When I found out about this, I was humbled by it,” he said. “What it means is that it pays off to think in collaborative terms. It’s a product of what other people have helped me become. I am saying this because there is more reward in academia when we work collaboratively.”

    For this fellowship, Marcelin will work through the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development (INURED), a Haiti-based institute he co-founded to better integrate various disciplinary tools and perspectives in an effort to assist the people of Haiti.

    Marcelin has continued to conduct research in Haiti over the past three decades, more recently expanding the scope of his work to explore how natural disasters, such as the 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, affect communities as these are prolonged moments of crises, when violence in all forms is most prevalent.

    Despite his focus on the darkest dimensions of the human condition, Marcelin remains an optimist. He says he is able to stomach years of research on violence because of his obligation to understand it and communicate his findings to others through his research.

    “Sometimes you cannot sanitize it, ” he said. “It is the ugliness of abject human suffering that I cannot stomach; however, it forces me to look at what people living in these circumstances have in terms of resources and how these resources can be channeled in order to reverse their condition.”

    Marcelin’s research goes beyond focusing on victims and/or offenders by exploring unjust structures that enable violence to erupt in the first place. 

    In addition to his ACLS fellowship, Marcelin also has been awarded the Residency Program at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) in South Africa, a four-month program in South Africa, where he will write several chapters of his book based on a comparative account of the nexus between violence and democracy in two shantytowns, one in Haiti and the other in South Africa.

    These two fellowships will allow Marcelin the opportunity to examine sociocultural variations between democratization processes and violence.

    “Everything humans do, humans can undo,” he said. “That’s where the philosophy of hope comes into play, the possibility of you overcoming the ugliest phases and conditions in life.”

     By Betty Chinea

     

    March 20, 2017

  • Sub-second System Seizures - March 8, 2017

    Sub-second System Seizures

    UM physicist studies the unexpected consequences of sub-second delays on fast-moving data systems

    Professor Neil Johnson, a physicist at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, is interested in complex networks. He studies how fast-moving packets of information spread and interact in large networks like stock markets and the human brain, and what makes the overall system then behave in ways that are unexpected.

    He compares his research to understanding traffic. He wonders: How do traffic jams appear and why does this happen in the first place?

    “It’s got to be more than just bad luck,” he said.

    Johnson’s job involves using high-resolution data to analyze how extreme system behaviors sometimes surface that are not just freak accidents—like a sudden movement in the stock market or a seizure in the brain.

    In a study published in the esteemed academic journal Science, Johnson used electronic stock exchange data to explore what happens when delays are added to parts of fast-moving networks that operate quicker than the blink of an eye.

    Neil Johnson UM College of Arts and Sciences
    Neil Johnson, physicist at UM College of Arts and Sciences

    The question is important, he says, because U.S. financial regulators recently decided to allow an exchange network to intentionally introduce a delay to their market in an effort to make the market fairer for participants.

    Johnson said the idea is similar to adding a speed bump on a highway so that all cars –from the Ferraris to the Priuses – have the same delays. Except in the case of the stock market, the delay is 350 microseconds.

    With one million microseconds in one second, you’d think that’s no big deal, right?


    Johnson says that the data and analysis published in his paper prove otherwise.

    “The fact is, there is still no scientific understanding of what the system-wide impact of such sub-second delays will be,” he said.  

    Returning to his traffic analogy, Johnson said the problem is that this lack of scientific understanding forces regulators to consider the impact, like speed bumps on a road.

    Except, in that case, Johnson says, we are able to monitor traffic on the road and figure out whether the speed bumps work. Maybe we determine they need to be spaced out more, or that they make no change whatsoever. Point is, there is a way to stop and assess their impact.

    But that is not the case with systems like the stock market that are moving a million times faster than the one second or so it typically takes a human to react.

     “When things are moving that fast in a network system which is that complicated, there is no human intuition for how you should regulate the system,” said Johnson.  

    To illustrate this point, Johnson studied raw data from the major electronic exchanges in the New York City area, a global financial hub. What he found was interesting: Even without delays added by humans, there already exist natural sub-second delays in these systems that can become correlated in such a way that they cause unexpected and extreme system behaviors from time to time.

    “If delays already happen and we add more delays, are we sure we know what will happen?” he asked. The answer, he said, is unclear.

    What is clear is that if something were to go wrong, the system would be operating so fast that humans wouldn’t be able to pull the plug. This could be potentially disastrous and result in an avalanche effect that could crash a market, cause a drone to misfire, or even cause a driverless car to suddenly veer off course.

    At the same time, there is a lot to be gained from an improved understanding of how such microscopic delays impact behaviors at the system level. For example, it may help shed light on understanding neurological disorders, given that the onset of consciousness occurs on the scale of thousands of microseconds. Indeed, recent studies have shown that children with autism are slower to integrate stimuli from different senses.

    “You wouldn’t think 350 microseconds is a big deal, but it can be,” Johnson said.  

    Johnson’s study, “To slow or not? Challenges in subsecond networks,” appears in the February 24, 2017, edition of Science. The study is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.


    By Andrew Boryga

    March 08, 2017

  • Hitting the Right Notes - January 26, 2017

    Hitting the Right Notes

    A UM biologist studied how songbirds in remote areas of Costa Rica learn new duets when paired with a new mate

    Karla Rivera-Cáceres, a University of Miami biology graduate student, plays a harmonious duet of singing wrens from a recording she captured out in the field during a recent trip to Costa Rica.

    "The song sounds like one bird but if you listen closely, it’s a male and female wren singing a duet in perfect unison,” said Rivera-Cáceres.

    Along with songbirds, many animal species perform duets, an uncommon vocal interaction that can occur between mated or unmated species, such as frogs and crickets. But the coupled wrens Rivera-Cáceres recorded in Costa Rica sing alternating phrases, or parts, of the song so smoothly and with such complexity and fast tempo that the untrained ear may hear just a single bird.  

    For years, Rivera-Cáceres studied the “duet codes” (non-random association of song types) of paired wrens and wondered if the ability to perform their complex and seamless music was a skill the birds were born with or learned during juvenile or adult stages of life. Now, after two months of intense listening in Costa Rica, she knows that they can learn new songs with new partners, even as adults. She says the newly learned songs are akin to prenuptial agreements.

    “It’s like the birds think: If you’re willing to invest the time and energy to learn a new duet code, then I am sure you are not going to leave me because if you do, you would lose a big investment and would need to learn a whole new duet code with another partner,” she said.

    According to Rivera-Cáceres, a male wren has his set of songs and a female wren her own set. When paired, the birds link their song types in a non-random way; for example, if the male sings his type “A” song the female may respond with her type “C” song and if the duet fits, the wrens will perfect their duet code until it becomes seamlessly unified.‌

    male-wren“I selected this particular species for my research because their duets are very complex,” said Rivera-Cáceres. “The birds need to be in sync, so when one bird sings the other remains silent, and they do this in a very fast tempo while avoiding any overlap.”

    Past studies on duetting wrens focused on the function and evolution of the songs, not necessarily the birds’ development to perform them.

    “Understanding the development process of duetting and whether the wrens invest the time and energy to duet with their partners is key to determine if these duet rules are difficult to acquire and thus demonstrate the birds’ ability and skill to learn a new song when paired with a new mate,” said Rivera-Cáceres.

    Her research, “Neotropical wrens learn new duet rules as adults,” illustrates the complex behavior of duetting wrens by explaining the process of how the birds acquire the ability to duet throughout their lives. It was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

    “Paired wrens that are together for a long time keep the same rules across years but each pair in the population will have its own rules. In other words, pairs from the same population do not duet the same,” said Rivera-Cáceres. “It didn’t make sense to me that wrens don’t continue to learn new duet codes during adulthood because if they did have fixed rules, which they learn during the juvenile stages, when the birds got older they would be unable to pair with another bird singing a different set of song rules.”

    To prove that wrens learn new duet rules instead of repeating a learned rule from their juvenile stages, Rivera-Cáceres performed a “removal experiment” in Costa Rica, moving either a male or female wren from one territory to another to test if their duet codes changed when they found new partners. To relocate the wrens, she played a recording of another wren’s song in a pair’s territory. When one of them flew to the speaker to investigate the “intruder,” she captured it in a thin net and released it elsewhere in the forest.

    “At first, the new pairs struggled in their coordination and duet code adherence but they caught on over time,” said Rivera-Cáceres. “What I did find interesting was that the male wrens changed their duetting rules more than females. The females normally kept the responses they had with their old mates, while male duet codes appear to be more flexible. It did take the new pairs months to perfect their new duet codes but over time, they did get better and better.”

    Her collaborators include William A. Searcy of the Department of Biology at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences; Esmeralda Quirós-Guerrero of the School of Biology at the University of St. Andrews, UK; Marcelo Araya-Salas of the School of Biology at the University of Costa Rica and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University.

    [Audio File 1: This duet code from mated wrens is less coordinated than the duet code in Audio File 2 because it was sung soon after the pair formed.]

    [Audio File 2: A complex and seamless duet code sung by mated wrens in the wild.]

    January 26, 2017

  • Mapping the Mind of Worms - January 9, 2017

    Mapping the Mind of Worms

    Biologists identify signals that drive distinct behavior in microscopic nematode worms—and hold lessons for human brains

    Dr. Kevin Collins carefully places a petri dish with what looks like a blotch of yellowish slime under a microscope. Magnified, the slime comes alive as hundreds of translucent worms, known as Caenorhabditis elegans, slither to and fro.

    Growing to just one millimeter in length, these simple creatures have only 302 neurons, or nerve cells, in their bodies, a tiny fraction of the 80 billion or so neurons in the human brain. Yet, as Collins, a biologist at the University of Miami’s College of Arts and Sciences who studies the mechanics of neural circuits, notes, “Even the simplest animal with the simplest neural circuits have so much going on.’’

     collins-w_student
    A student in Dr. Collins' lab views the translucent worms under a microscope.

    And these simple animals, Collins and fellow biologists from Yale University found in a recent study about nematode behavior, have a lot to tell us about our brains because, despite their simplicity, they share many commonalities with humans.

    “Trying to figure out how 80 billion neurons in the human brain talk to each other and how that communication leads to changes in our behavior is very complicated,” Collins said. “But the nervous system in both nematode worms and humans is organized into small functional units called neural circuits, where neurons communicate with each other to control a simple outcome, such as behavior.”

    For their study published in eLIFE, Collins and his collaborators focused on the nematode worm’s simplest neural circuit, the egg-laying behavior circuit, which is regulated by serotonin, a chemical neurotransmitter also found in humans and responsible for managing mood.

    The researchers observed the worms’ behaviors through stages of maturity by recording the activity patterns of each cell in the circuit. They also manipulated the activity of cells and their ability to signal to each other to understand how the cells enable the worms to lay eggs. They found the circuit has “command neurons” that release serotonin to increase movement in the worms.

    “Inside the worms, we believe serotonin is acting in a similar way in the human brain,” said Collins. “When the serotonin neuron is turned on, the worm is active and wants to do a specific behavior, such as locomotion or lays its eggs. In essence, we captured how the neuron in the worm gets turned on and off.”

    As Collins noted, the signals that turn circuits on and off are general features of many neural circuits.

    “It seems the serotonin helps respond to the rhythmic movement of the worm in different ways, similar to how serotonin is thought to drive arousal in the human brain,” said Collins. “For example, when a person is motivated or feels positive, that means neural circuits are communicating in a particular way. When that same person becomes depressed, it could be that those neural circuits are not communicating in the same way.”

    Using what is called “calcium reporters,” researchers were able to see the neurons firing up inside the worm and record the changes in cellular activity during the egg-laying behavior. Researchers were also excited to learn that the same egg-laying circuit also mediates mating behavior.

    “We now have an interesting question:  What tells the female worm to lay its eggs or mate?” said Collins. 

    He hopes the study, “Activity of the C. elegans egg-laying behavior circuit is controlled by competing activation and feedback inhibition,” will lead to more insights on the mechanics of neural circuits.

    His collaborators include Robert Fernandez, Jessica Tanis, Jacob Brewer, and Michael Koelle of Yale University’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry; Matthew Creamer of Yale University’s Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program; and Addys Bode of the University of Miami’s Department of Biology.

     

    January 09, 2017

  • Managing Stress Together in Cancer Patients and Family Caregivers - December 5, 2016

    Managing Stress Together in Cancer Patients and Family Caregivers

    UM research examines biological and psychological health mechanisms in cancer patients and their caregivers

    Cancer not only affects individuals suffering from the disease but also their family members.

    An understanding of the connection between cancer patients and their caregiver’s health in relation to mutual stress regulatory patterns is what University of Miami researchers hope to gain with the assistance of a 5-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

    “The research will study and find answers to why cancer patients and their family members’ health deteriorates both psychologically and biologically,” said Youngmee Kim, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Psychology Department and lead researcher of the study. “Currently, research is fragmented focusing on how the patient handles stress and how it affects their recovery. Yet, cancer caregivers also report high levels of anxiety and depression sometimes at higher levels than the cancer patient, and their health is compromised by their elevated stress.”

    UM researchers will study the stress regulation patterns between cancer patients and their caregivers, including coregulation (regulating the stress to mutually calm each other’s stress reactions and reduce negative affect and physiological arousal) and coagitation (mutual regulation increasing such reactions).

     youngmee-kim-pschology
    Dr. Youngmee Kim, associate professor, Psychology
    The coregulation and coagitation will be quantified by evaluating cardiovascular (heart rate variability), neuroendocrine (saliva), and self-reported affective reactivity and regulation in response to a stress situation that is relevant both to health and to close relationships; testing also includes how daily health, such as sleep and mood, as well as longer-term health, such as depression and cardiovascular health of both the cancer patient and caregiver, are affected.

    “Findings of this project will help develop novel interventions pertaining to effective and mutual management of stress in daily life and dyadic influences on health promotion,” adds Kim.

    Over a three-year period, UM researchers plan to gather data from 172 colorectal cancer patients (86 female, 86 male) and their caregivers. Kim hopes to recruit patients living in South Florida.

    “Colorectal cancer affects both genders, so we hope to investigate the role of gender in mutual stress regulatory patterns and their health outcomes by studying colorectal cancer patients and their heterosexual partners,” said Kim.   

    With the results, researchers hope to develop interventions to help cancer patients and caregivers find ways to curb adverse effects of stress and promote better health by using positive coregulation mechanisms. The interdisciplinary study will bring together Charles Carver and Barry Hurwitz, professors from the Psychology Department; Armando Mendez and Laurence Sands, from the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine; and David Spiegel and Jamie Zeitzer, from Stanford University School of Medicine.

     

    December 05, 2016

  • Brain Pattern Flexibility and Behavior - November 21, 2016

    Brain Pattern Flexibility and Behavior

    Researchers analyzed how brain regions are connected to each other in a way that facilitates high-level cognitive processing.

     brain-pattern
    Your brain is never really at rest. Neither is it in chaos. Even when not engaged in some task, the brain naturally cycles through identifiable patterns of neural connections—sort of like always practicing your favorite songs when learning to play the guitar.

    Constantly cycling through brain region connections may make it easier to call to those networks when you need them for high-level cognitive processing, such as memory and attention. The network connections are not all equal, either. Some are more flexible and adaptable than others.

    This is what Lucina Uddin and Jason Nomi, cognitive neuroscientists at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, found when collaborating with researchers at the University of New Mexico on a study that researchers hope will lay the groundwork for helping children with autism adapt to change more easily. The scientists analyzed an extensive data set of brain region connectivity from the NIH-funded Human Connectome Project (HCP), which is mapping neural connections in the brain and makes its data publically available.  

    To better understand the human brain connectome, the HCP collected data from hundreds of people who underwent 56 minutes of resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). A revolutionary tool in brain-mapping research, fMRIs measure brain activity by detecting changes in cerebral blood flow that are associated with brain activity and neural activation. The HCP also collected a number of other measurements, including the subjects’ ages, IQs, and results on various mental tasks.

    Nomi, Uddin, and their fellow researchers analyzed the HCP’s resting-state fMRI data and, from potentially hundreds of configurations, teased apart five general brain patterns. They discovered that, most of the time, neural connections in the typical adult population are agile—alert yet fluid and flexible enough to take on whatever challenges or mental tasks are presented.

    Less frequently, the brain cycles through more rigid connections where the regions are linked in a very specific, less flexible way, says Uddin, assistant professor of psychology and principal investigator in the Brain Connectivity and Cognition Laboratory (BCCL).

    assistant-professor-lucina-uddin-and-postdoctoral-fellow-jason-nomi
    Assistant Professor Lucina Uddin and Postdoctoral Fellow Jason Nomi

    The researchers then correlated the frequency of these five brain patterns with performance on executive-function tasks—completed outside of the fMRI brain scanner—that tap high-level cognition, such as sorting a deck of cards by the printed image’s color and then by its shape. What they found was higher performers tend to have a natural propensity to be in the more flexible and fluid brain states.

    “People who do better on these tasks tend to have more of the relaxed, flexible brain configuration states and less of the more rigid configuration states,” says Nomi, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology and the BCCL.

    With this better understanding of brain activity in a typical population, the researchers are now moving to the next step of their research: testing children with autism to see whether their brains have a natural propensity to spend more time in the more rigid network configurations, making it harder for them to adapt to change as they experience life.

    “The final step is determining what can we do to help them do better,” Uddin says. “Is there a way to induce a brain state that helps children with autism more flexibly adapt? Are there training programs or behavioral therapies that help them become more flexible? And if there are, do they also help their brains become more flexible?”

    Uddin, Nomi, and their fellow researchers who study the connection between neuroscience and behavior are excited about the direction neuroimaging has taken their field.

    “In the field of neuroimaging, before, we would have a snapshot of the brain. Now, we have a movie,” says Uddin.

    Neuroscientists are also making more data publically available, and building interdisciplinary collaborations to analyze big data. Uddin, Nomi, and their collaborators were able to analyze more than 80 gigabytes of data for the connectome study in weeks, rather than months, by using the supercomputing resources at UM’s Center for Computational Science (CCS).

    For the follow up study on children with autism, Uddin and Nomi have been working closely with UM’s Michael Alessandri, clinical professor of psychology and executive director of the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD); Melissa Hale, clinical assistant professor of psychology and UM-NSU-CARD’s associate director; and Meaghan Parlade, a licensed psychologist at the Autism Spectrum Assessment Clinic (ASAC) in the Department of Psychology as well as the coordinator of research and training for UM-NSU CARD.

    The team’s UMiami Brain Development Lab is looking for children ages 7 to 12, who are typically developing or who have autism, to help them understand more about how the brain functions in both populations. Parents can learn more by viewing this video.

    For their research study, “Chronnectomic Patterns and Neural Flexibility Underlie Executive Function,” Nomi and Uddin worked with Shruti Gopal Vij, a biomedical engineer and postdoctoral researcher in the Brain Connectivity and Cognition Lab and The Mind Research Network in Albuquerque; Dina Dajani, a graduate student in psychology at UM’s College of Arts and Sciences; Rosa Steimke, a visiting postdoctoral researcher in psychology in the Brain Connectivity and Cognition Lab; Eswar Damaraju and Srinivas Rachakonda, of The Mind Research Network; and Vince Calhoun, of The Mind Research Network and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of New Mexico. 

    Their study is published online in NeuroImage.

    By Jessica Castillo, UM News

    November 21, 2016

  • Study Identifies Post-Disaster Risks for Increased Substance Abuse - October 28, 2016

    Study Identifies Post-Disaster Risks for Increased Substance Abuse

    By using a mixed-methods approach, a recent study found that natural disasters can cause lasting damage to a population in another way—through increased risk of substance use.

    After the winds die, the flood waters recede, and the debris is removed, coping with the loss of a home, loved ones, friends, or employment can be wearisome for survivors of a natural disaster.

    health-geographer
    Health Geographer Dr. Imelda Moise

    Researchers have shown that psychological disorders and substance abuse increases in the aftermath of an earthquake, flood, or major storm. This presents challenges to health officials and government response teams who need to identify at-risk groups in affected communities to provide tailored interventions and services in a timely manner.

    A recent study, led by University of Miami health geographer Dr. Imelda K. Moise, examines substance abuse and hospitalization data from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals to see if there was a change in the rate of hospitalizations for substance abuse disorders in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and to identify areas at greatest risk for hospitalizations.

    According to the findings published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, the researchers  found that the rate of hospitalizations for substance abuse increased from 7 people for every 1,000 people to 9 people for every 1,000 people in an area of New Orleans.

    “This result is not surprising given that a large segment of the local population experienced trauma, which had the potential to increase hospitalization rates at the same time that the city’s population was reduced,” said Moise, an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Geography and Regional Studies. “These two factors accounted for the high hospitalization rates in areas that lost population. At the same time, this displacement resulted in local population shifts and was a major contributing factor to this finding and underscores the effect of population shifts on statistical calculations after disasters.”

    The study also indicated that those most affected included men (78 percent in 2004 to 63 percent in 2008), those between 20 and 49 years of age, non-whites, and residents living in neighborhoods where cleanup was delayed. 

    “What we saw was that geographic patterns of hospitalization for substance abuse disorders shifted in post-Katrina from flood-exposed areas to less exposed areas located in the center of the city, areas used for evacuees displaced by the hurricane,” said Moise.

    The researchers used spatial cluster analysis methods and geographical information system (GIS) techniques to detect areas where there were elevated cases of substance abuse disorder hospitalizations and associated neighborhood connections.  

    “This made it possible to identify at-risk areas and populations in need, and generated information that can be used by public health officials to deploy targeted interventions and treatment for substance use disorders to those affected individuals and neighborhoods in a timely manner,” added Moise. 

    Moise says disasters can have silent negative effects on individuals and communities, as such it’s important to reach out to those affected in the aftermath of disasters. The techniques used in her study can be applied anywhere, for any public health outcomes, and particularly in post-disaster settings. 

    “For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, local city governments can use geospatial techniques and tools to pinpoint areas of greatest need and then work closely with disaster response personnel and volunteers to direct the right resources to those places at the right time,” said Moise. “As geographers, we can contribute to research on substance use and in disaster response efforts by utilizing geographical tools and methodologies to identify at-risk groups in affected communities, with information used to provide timely tailored interventions and services to improve outcomes and lower costs.”

    Moise collaborated on this study with Dr. Marilyn O. Ruiz from the Department of Pathobiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

     

    October 28, 2016

  • Understanding a Child's Social World - October 17, 2016

    Understanding a Child's Social World

    Psychology researchers will team up with physicists to monitor children’s real-time, movement-based interactions in preschool classrooms.

    Remember your earliest friends from preschool? Researchers from the University of Miami want to know how those friendships form, and they plan to do just that through a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a nifty device that will track the movements of children at two UM centers in real time for four years. 

     children-social-networks“We know that early social experiences in the classroom impact later development and learning,” said Dr. Daniel Messinger, a psychology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Yet, we really don’t know how those social networks form. The whole point of this project is to learn what kids are doing moment-to-moment, hour-to-hour, month-to-month, and year-to-year in the classroom.”

    While child psychologists have observed classroom behavior in the past, research was always limited by the frequency and accuracy of the observations. Now, explains Messinger, researchers can harness technology to detect and record children’s movements throughout the day. Worn like a wristwatch, the data-tracking device gathers large amounts of data that UM researchers will analyze to ask how children’s social networks in early childhood change moment-to-moment and over several years.

    The collection and analysis of this big data is possible through an interdisciplinary collaboration between the departments of psychology and physics in the College of Arts and Sciences.

    “This is another exciting example of what the college has made possible through its support of complex systems science,” said physicist Neil Johnson. “I do not know of any other interdisciplinary project that involves psychology and physics working so closely together.”

    The movement-tracking devices will be worn by children from the Debbie School at the UM Mailman Center for Child Development, which offers education services for children who are deaf and hard of hearing from birth through the second or third grade, and the Linda Ray Intervention Center, a Department of Psychology program that serves newborn to 3-year-old children who are developmentally delayed as a result of abuse, neglect, or prenatal exposure to drugs.

    Dr. Lynne Katz, research associate professor and director of the Linda Ray Intervention Center, says the research will not only assist psychologists who study children’s behaviors, but help teachers understand the inner workings of how children play, who they play with, where they play, and where maximum learning and maximum language output occurs. “At Linda Ray, we are going to see how we can best put this study into place,” adds Katz. “The children are very young and we need to get them comfortable with wearing the data-tracking devices.” 

    Kathleen Vergara, director of the Debbie School, said she is excited about the study and its focus on children with hearing loss at the school, which will “lead to the development of important interventions for this population.”

    The study is expected to take four years to complete and will follow children from toddler to pre-kindergarten age.

    October 17, 2016

  • GIS Mapping Aims to Improve Health Care Access for Older Adults - August 5, 2016

    GIS Mapping Aims to Improve Health Care Access for Older Adults

    With a growing aging population in South Florida, a University of Miami geographer who specializes in public health teamed up with geriatricians and other geographers to conduct the first age-adjusted analysis of socially and medically vulnerable older adults in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.

    Using census data and geographic information systems (GIS) mapping techniques, Dr. Justin Stoler, an assistant professor at the UM College of Arts and Sciences, and his fellow researchers mapped and analyzed areas of socially and medically vulnerable older adults in the tri-county area who were not being identified by traditional population-wide health care analyses.

    “We used a rich data set to help identify pockets of vulnerable older adults who may be slipping through the cracks in neighborhoods that were not previously considered vulnerable,” said Stoler, who also holds a courtesy appointment in the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences.

    The concepts of medical and social vulnerability—which incorporate sociodemographic factors such as age, sex, race, and ethnicity—are becoming well established in the field, Stoler says. Accurately defining these vulnerabilities and indicators geographically, particularly in diverse populations, is still a challenge but becoming increasingly important in the rapidly changing medical landscape.
    gis-mapping
    In an attempt to overcome the challenges, Stoler and his team applied principal components analysis (PCA) to previously identified indicators of social and medical vulnerability at the census tract level. Using GIS, the researchers created and mapped age-stratified vulnerability scores and then used spatial analysis techniques to identify patterns and interactions between social and medical vulnerability throughout the study area.

    The study, Stoler says, grew from observations by mobile health clinicians affiliated with Nova Southeastern University in Broward County. They found that a surprising number of older adults were in need of medical assistance but had inadequate access to health services.

    Stoler, whose research has focused on the geographic patterns of urban health disparities and environmental influences on social and behavioral epidemiology, is excited about the potential for follow-up research to ultimately improve access to care for older adults. He and his fellow researchers hope to better determine sub-populations of medically and socially vulnerable older adults, whose age was defined for the study as 65 and older, and elderly adults, defined as over 85.

    As their study noted, with an age-stratified analysis, policymakers can develop more targeted and low-cost methods to serve the health care needs of often-overlooked populations who are in higher need of medical and social assistance.

    “Local and regional government agencies, such as Area Agencies on Aging, are increasingly connecting people to information and resources, and would benefit greatly from more detailed data about the population served,” the study says. “In this rapidly evolving paradigm, data that explain the driving factors of older adult social and medical vulnerability remain essential to medical practice.”

    Stoler collaborated with Elizabeth Hames, Sweta Tewary, and Naushira Pandya of Nova Southeastern University’s Department of Geriatrics and the Florida Coastal Geriatric Resources, Education and Training Center, and with Christopher T. Emrich of the University of South Carolina’s Department of Geography and Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute. Their study, “A GIS approach to identifying socially and medically vulnerable older adult populations in South Florida,” was published August 5, 2016 in The Gerontologist.

    August 05, 2016

  • Contagion in Popular Places: From Zika to Political Extremism - August 3, 2016

    Contagion in Popular Places: From Zika to Political Extremism

    UM researchers show how human movement through popular places shapes outbreaks

    The alert is out and South Floridians are taking heed. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issuing a warning for visitors and locals to avoid a neighborhood in Miami after more than a dozen individuals contracted Zika, a team of University of Miami researchers have presented a new study that shows how the flow of visitors through a popular place, such as the affected Wynwood area of Miami, determines the eventual severity and duration of such an outbreak.

    The study entitled, “Anomalous contagion and renormalization in networks with nodal mobility,” was published in the journal Europhysics Letters on August 1 while a related paper by the same team will appear shortly in Physical Review E.

    Neil Johnson, a physicist at UM’s College of Arts and Sciences, says the research proposes “a new contribution to introduce, model, and understand the interplay between the flow of people through, and the occupancy of, popular places such as airports, hospitals, and schools.” Though the immediate interest is in the current Zika outbreak in Miami, Johnson adds that their results apply equally to popular online areas on social media, which triggered outbreaks of on-street protests.

    Pedro Manrique, a postdoctoral associate in the physics department and first author of the study, explains: “Our research shows that the length of time that visitors linger in a popular place can have a highly counterintuitive effect on the number of people eventually infected. Being present in the popular place is what makes people susceptible to the infection, and under certain circumstances, we find that the best solution is to increase the flow of people in and out of the popular place – not to reduce it as one might expect.”

    zikaManrique goes on to explain that the contagion process that the team studied covers a spectrum of phenomena, from viruses like Zika to extreme political ideas discussed in online chat rooms that then lead to outbreaks of violent civil disorder.

    Johnson points to the current Zika outbreak in the Wynwood Arts District, which is undergoing a public health alarm with 14 cases likely caused by local mosquitos. The model presented in the study focuses on two potential mechanisms for infection. One mechanism is person-to-person infection, which is when an uninfected mosquito bites an infected person and then carries and spreads the disease to other people. Broadcast, the second mechanism, refers to infection from infected mosquitos in an actual place.

    “One would think the best strategy would be to reduce the flow of people through the Wynwood neighborhood so it is effectively under quarantine,” said Johnson. “But obviously, this is completely impractical. The question then shifts to: How should we control the flow of people through the popular place so that we keep relatively high occupancy, and yet the risk of spread is minimal?”

    According to the study, to maintain high occupancy of a popular place, such as Wynwood, it comes down to the rate at which people flow through the area (the mobility) compared to the rate of infection, or the rate at which the disease is transmitted from an infected person to an uninfected person.

    The study presents two distinct strategies that can be applied to such a scenario in order to reduce the outbreak severity. The first corresponds to decreasing the mobility through the popular place, meaning that visitors would spend far longer in the popular place and hence would be closer to recovery before moving on. The second corresponds to increasing the mobility through the popular place, meaning that visitors have less chance to become infected during their visit. It is the second scenario that the team believes corresponds to the Wynwood case for Zika, and they are now trying to pin down the numbers for this specific case.

    “Since the results depend on precisely what disease you are trying to control, our work shows that any answer related to these scenarios cannot be guessed. Instead, our study gives a precise recipe for what is best according to what officials wish to achieve in terms of trying to reduce both the duration and severity of the outbreak,” said Johnson.

    Manrique and Johnson collaborated with Hong Qi and Minzhang Zheng, both with the UM physics department, as well as Chen Xu and Pak Ming Hui at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Physics Department.  

    August 03, 2016

  • Failed Satellite Mission Reveals Vital Data on Galaxy Cluster - July 13, 2016

    Failed Satellite Mission Reveals Vital Data on Galaxy Cluster

    UM physicist a member of collaborative X-ray satellite mission with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and NASA

    Dr. Massimiliano Galeazzi, associate chair and professor of physics at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, expressed profound excitement and eagerness when he spoke about his participation in the collaborative X-ray satellite mission with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA earlier this year.

    Known as the Hitomi mission, the satellite featured a next-generation X-ray instrument developed and built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center by scientists from the U.S., Japan, and the Netherlands. As a member of the scientific collaborative team, Galeazzi was responsible for developing the systematic goals and strategies for the mission.

    hitomi-satellite
    A rendering of the Hitomi satellite.

    Designed to capture X-ray data from galaxy clusters and the warping of space and time around black holes, the Hitomi satellite, which translates to “pupil of the eye” in Japanese, suffered damage while in orbit less than one month after its launch in February 2016. A malfunction put Hitomi in an uncontrollable spin causing it to break up and lose its satellite function, a disappointing turn of events for Galeazzi and the team of the scientists.  

    Before the satellite sputtered out, it successfully captured X-ray gasses emitting from the Perseus cluster of galaxies, a collection of galaxies joined by gravity and located 240 million light years from Earth. The cluster radiates hot gasses, averaging 90 million degrees, which before were unmeasurable by astrophysicists.

    Scientists studied the data captured by Hitomi and found that the hot gasses between galaxies within the cluster are moving at a slower speed and in a less turbulent manner than expected – studying the movement and turbulence of gas is a vital tool for understanding the growth and parameters of the universe and how galaxies form and evolve. 

    “The level of details obtained by the investigation is breathtaking, showing the incredible power of the X-ray instrument aboard the Hitomi satellite,” said Galeazzi. “Although the satellite has been lost prematurely, the instrument has revolutionized the field of X-ray astrophysics and paved the way for the next generation of X-ray telescopes.”

    The X-ray instrument abroad the Hitomi satellite measured an array of emissions from the cluster such as iron, nickel, chromium, and manganese – elements apparent in the stars located in the cluster’s galaxies. The satellite’s data also showed that the gasses’ turbulent motion is practically nonexistent, which leaves scientists to wonder what is keeping the cluster’s gasses so hot? 

    Professor Andrew Fabian at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, says, “This result from Hitomi is telling us that in terms of how cluster cores work, we have to think very carefully about what is going on.”

    The X-ray data observed by Hitomi is an indication of the advances satellites can detect in the far reaches of space. The European Space Agency plans to send out a next-generation satellite in the 2020s, named ATHENA, the which will feature 100 times more pixels than Hitomi and be able to explore galaxy clusters and the relationship they play with massive black holes.

    The findings from Hitomi’s data collection of the Perseus cluster was recently published in the journal Nature on July 7, and entitled “The quiescent intracluster medium in the core of the Perseus cluster.”

    Perseus cluster with gas velocity data captured by the Hitomi satellite
    Photo of Perseus cluster with gas velocity data captured by the Hitomi satellite.

    July 13, 2016

  • Women’s Connections in Extreme Networks - June 29, 2016

    Women’s Connections in Extreme Networks

    A study reveals that although women remain under the radar in terrorist organizations, they hold the networks together

    A team of researchers at the University of Miami who examined the role of women in extreme networks or organizations, such as terrorist groups, dispelled the common assumption that women are lured into these dangerous environments solely to offer support while men are recruited and tend to be the key players. Instead, the researchers found, women are better connected within the network, essentially becoming the glue holding the system together, fueling its vitality and survival. 

    Womens Connections in Extreme Networks
    Neil Johnson, professor of physics, University of Miami‌

    “The research examines the assumption that, as any kind of real-world situation becomes more dangerous and aggressive, men will dominate—and hence in any network operating under extreme conditions, it is the men that will hold things together,” said Neil Johnson, a physicist in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We had a feeling that the issue of women’s roles—and more generally the role of any numerical minority in human groups or populations that are under stress—is one of prime interest that has not been looked at in sufficient depth.”

    For the study, titled “Women’s Connectivity in Extreme Networks,” researchers analyzed detailed data from two separate and extreme terrorist organizations: the Provisional Irish Republican Army, or PIRA, which operated entirely offline from 1970 to 1998, and the Islamic State, or ISIS, which is functioning in the current digital age.

    “The PIRA network dataset isn't only a network of 'who knows who,' but it gives the connections between individuals regarding participation in attacks, which require innovation and planning,” Johnson said. “At the same time, we started collecting information online about pro-ISIS supporters. Taking these two datasets together enabled us to do the study.”

    For the study, which was published in the journal Science Advances, Johnson and his team monitored individuals on Vkontakte, a social media network based in Russia with more than 350 million users. Pro-ISIS groups normally last longer on Vkontakte than Facebook, which shuts down these groups. The researchers pinned down pro-ISIS followers by using specific social media hashtags displayed in open source information on the internet, and then tracking the groups they belonged to using a software system. On Vkontakte, the researchers uncovered 41,880 individuals in a two-month period, 24,883 of whom were men, and 16,931 women (66 declared no gender). 

    For the offline portion of the study, the team used a detailed PIRA database, which was easier to assess as the data was previously collected and built as a manual social network listing members, their actions, and demographic information. Of the 1,382 total number of registered PIRA members listed, 1,312 were men and 70 women.

    Based on their online and offline research of PIRA and pro-ISIS groups, the researchers demonstrated that although men dominated these groups numerically, women had the most effective connections within the network, acting as a far stronger glue than men in regard to holding the network together, which the study identifies as high “betweenness centrality” (BC).

    tablet
    Pedro Manrique, a postdoctoral associate in the physics department and first author of the study, explains: "A crucial measure in covert networks is related to the capacity of a node (e.g. actor) to serve as a bridge for communications, a flow of resources or ideas, and brokerage. This quantity is called betweenness centrality. An actor with high betweenness centrality is critical to keep the channels of communication active and efficient, and its removal could cause a higher cost and potential risk, to the extent of the disruption of the network.”

    The study proposes women in the pro-ISIS groups have a high BC and hence play a central role by passing on vital information, from recruitment messages to files, or video and audio ISIS propaganda. Women in the PIRA network, the study suggests, were inclined to act as team players who spread this team ethic to other members.

    One practical finding from the research, Johnson says, is that it suggests authorities investigating extreme networks should engage female members, even if they are the minority and not deemed key figures. 

    “Our work also feeds into current discussions about the role of women combatants in conflict and terrorism, and how this can differ from stereotypes in which women adopt a minor role,” Johnson said. “I think all this could be of interest in a more general setting as well, beyond physical conflict and terrorism, since our findings suggest a need to reexamine how we judge the importance of any minority group in a network.”

    In addition to Johnson and Manrique, other coauthors of the study are UM’s Stefan Wuchty, of the Department of Computer Science; Zhenfeng Cao, Andrew Gabriel, Hong Qi, and Chaoming Song, from the Physics Department; Elvira Restrepo, of the Department of Geography and Global Studies; John Horgan, from Georgia State University’s Global Studies Institute & Department of Psychology; Paul Gill, of the Department of Security and Crime Science, University College London; and Daniela Johnson, of the Department of Government at Harvard University.

    June 29, 2016

  • Doing the Math on Zika and Sex - June 28, 2016

    Doing the Math on Zika and Sex

    Study Examines the Role Sex Plays in Zika's Spread

    A University of Miami math professor has developed a scientific model to address the various ways the Zika virus proliferates. The study, published June 17th in Scientific Reports, reveals that mosquito control should remain the most important mitigation method to control the virus. However, the study points to the fact that Zika is a complicated virus and sexual transmission increases the risk of infection and prolongs the outbreak.

    Before British long jumper Greg Rutherford departs for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer, he’ll leave an important part of himself behind: a sample of his frozen sperm.  ‌Rutherford, whose wife has expressed the desire to have more children, is preserving his sperm as a precautionary measure against Zika, which has swept across more than 30 Latin American and Caribbean countries, with Brazil being hardest hit. Transmitted primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the virus can also be spread from an infected man to a woman during sex and can cause the severe birth defect known as microcephaly in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and damaged brains.

    zikaFew would question Rutherford's action, but what remains unclear is how much of a role sexual transmission plays in the spread and control of Zika. Now, in a first-of-its-kind study, a University of Miami researcher and others have created a mathematical model in an attempt to answer that very question.

    By itself, Shigui Ruan’s model is not intended to measure the rates of Zika transmission but to delineate the virus’s possible pathways and to help determine which of those transmission routes—either mosquito-borne or sexual transmission—is most important in investigating the spread and control of the virus.

    “Zika is a complicated virus,” said Ruan, a professor of mathematics in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s not as simple as passing a cold back and forth.”

    To build his model, he and his team combined the two modes of transmission into a set of equations, and then calibrated their model to Zika epidemic rates—obtained through the Pan American Health Organization—in Brazil, Colombia, and El Salvador. Using factors such as the biting and mortality rates of the Aedes aegypti and how partners protect themselves during a sexual encounter, the researchers then produced what is called a “basic reproduction number,” essentially the number of infections resulting from one initial infection in a population.

    The team found that the average number of new infections that can be traced directly back to a single case of Zika comes out to 2, and that sexual transmission accounts for only 3 percent of new cases.

     shigui-ruan
    Shigui Ruan, professor of mathematics, University of Miami

    “Our analyses indicate that the basic reproduction number of Zika is most sensitive to the biting rate and mortality rate of mosquitoes,” said Ruan, “while sexual transmission increases the risk of infection and epidemic size and prolongs the outbreak.”

    Their results are published in the journal Scientific Reports. The model can give epidemiologists and others a good idea of where they should target management efforts, and in this case, mosquito-control measures should remain the most important mitigation strategy to control the virus, said Ruan.

    Not that safe sex isn’t important. “It’s a reason to be concerned because on top of mosquito transmission, we now have sexual transmission of the virus,” he explained, noting cases of sexually transmitted Zika in Argentina, Chile, France, Peru, the United States, and other countries.

    Zika can stay in semen longer than in blood, though it is not known for how long, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports on its website.

    “You could conceivably have somebody who was infected, and didn’t even necessarily know they were infected, carrying the disease around for a while, have some sexual encounter, and infect somebody else,” said Chris Cosner, a University of Miami mathematics professor who has collaborated with Ruan on other studies. “I don’t think it’s been documented. But possibly, in theory, that could result in a source for an outbreak that seems to come from nowhere. So for this particular disease, because of the complexity of the transmission routes and the fact that some people can stay in the infected phase for a long time, it’s more complicated than your average disease.”

     

    June 28, 2016

  • The Future of 4D Printing - May 11, 2016

    The Future of 4D Printing

    University of Miami researchers build 4D printer with goal to construct a cell’s surface

    The Future of 4D printing
    Adam Braunschweig, assistant professor of chemistry at the College of Arts and Sciences, and Xiaoming Liu,an A&S graduate student, with the 4D printer. 

     

    In today’s technological age, 3D printing has become a common mechanism for creating new materials for multiple uses and functions. Yet, new generations of 3D printing machines are now moving into the realm of the fourth dimension, creating structures composed of multiple materials that either evolve in response to environmental stimuli or comprised of multiple components.

    Dr. Adam Braunschweig, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, and his research team have built a 4D printer able to create microscopic materials made up of different chemical compositions and in different positions along the glass surface of the printer, all while achieving feature dimensions on a nanoscale – 1/100000 the width of a human hair.

    “3D printers exist today, but their dimensions are very large, and they print using only one color,” said Braunschweig. “We created a machine where we can make patterns and add features made of different chemicals and include a tool that can put these different objects right next to each other.”

    Braunschweig, whose long-term goal is to build structures like a cell, molecule by moledcule, says the key to the chemical changes come from light bouncing to the tip arrays, or very small pyramids, that create the patterns. 

    “The longer we shine a light on the surface, the larger things grow,” he adds. “The microfluidic chamber in the printer allows us to add new chemicals in and out of the printer, which creates new patterns composed of multiple and different materials.” 

    The printer, which took about five years to complete and is a combination of chemistry and new instrumentation concepts, creates a final product only viewable with a microscope. 

    “We are printing things on a scale of just a few atoms,” adds Braunschweig, whose study published in Polymer Chemistry proves the validity of his 4D printer. “We proved this technology works and is out there. What you can create with this is only limited by the imagination of the user, but it’s a tool for doing chemistry and building structures the way nature does.”  

    The study titled “Optimization of 4D polymer printing within a massively parallel flow-through photochemical microreactor” is published in the journal Polymer ChemistryMay 11, 2016

  • UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities Joins Launch of SPARK, Nation’s Largest Autism Research Study - April 21, 2016

    UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities Joins Launch of SPARK, Nation’s Largest Autism Research Study

    Groundbreaking initiative combines web-based registry with DNA analysis to accelerate autism research and speed discovery of treatments, support

    Researchers from the University of Miami – Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD) within the University of Miami (UM) Department of Psychology in Coral Gables, FL, today helped launch SPARK, an online research initiative designed to become the largest autism study ever undertaken in the United States.

    Sponsored by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), SPARK will collect information and DNA for genetic analysis from 50,000 individuals with autism — and their families — to advance our understanding of the causes of this condition and to hasten the discovery of supports and treatments.

    UM-NSU CARD is one of a select group of 21 leading national research institutions chosen by SFARI to assist with recruitment. Dr. Melissa Hale, clinical assistant professor and her colleagues at the UM College of Arts & Sciences, Dr. Anibal Gutierrez, and Executive Director of UM-NSU CARD Dr. Michael Alessandri, are leading the SPARK effort locally.

    Housed in the UM College of Arts & Sciences Department of Psychology, UM-NSU CARD is a state-funded resource and support program dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with autism and related disabilities including deaf-blindness and pervasive developmental disorders. 

    “SPARK empowers researchers to make new discoveries that will ultimately lead to the development of new supports and treatments to improve lives, which makes it one of the most insightful research endeavors to date, in addition to being the largest genetic research initiative in the U.S.,” says Dr. Hale.

    Autism is known to have a strong genetic component. To date, approximately 50 genes have been identified that almost certainly play a role in autism, and scientists estimate that an additional 300 or more are involved. By studying these genes, associated biological mechanisms and how genetics interact with environmental factors, researchers can better understand the condition’s causes, and link them to the spectrum of symptoms, skills and challenges of those affected.

    SPARK aims to speed up autism research by inviting participation from this large, diverse autism community, with the goal of including individuals with a professional diagnosis of autism of both sexes and all ages, backgrounds, races, geographic locations and socioeconomic situations.

    SPARK will connect participants to researchers, offering them the unique opportunity to impact the future of autism research by joining any of the multiple studies offered through SPARK. The initiative will catalyze research by creating large-scale access to study participants whose DNA may be selectively analyzed for a specific scientific question of interest.

    SPARK will also elicit feedback from individuals and parents of children with autism to develop a robust research agenda that is meaningful for them. For more information about SPARK, visit SPARKforAutism.org/card.

     

    April 21, 2016

  • Understanding Genes Linked to Autism-Relevant Behavior in High-Risk Siblings - April 6, 2016

    Understanding Genes Linked to Autism-Relevant Behavior in High-Risk Siblings

    UM College of Arts & Sciences psychology researchers find that dopamine genes could shine a light on early communication

    University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences psychology researchers are searching for early markers of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Previously, UM researchers published a study predicting ASD symptoms from children’s behavior in the first year of life. Infants who demonstrated less initiating joint attention, using eye contact to share an experience with another person, tended to have higher levels of autism symptoms at age three.  

    Recently, UM researchers published another study in the journal Autism Research examining associations between specific dopamine genes and initiating joint attention in high-risk siblings, children who have an older brother or sister with autism spectrum disorder.

    drawing of someone drawing the brainDevon Gangi, who received her Ph.D. working with UM College of Arts & Sciences Psychology Professor Dr. Daniel Messinger, is a co-author of the study and now a postdoctoral fellow at the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis. She explains, “Joint attention is especially relevant for the development of children with autism and high-risk siblings.”

    The researchers studied two groups of children – high-risk and low-risk – from infancy until they turned three years old.  Joint attention behavior was observed during interactions with an examiner in the first year of life, and genotypes were collected for two dopamine genes, DRD4 and DRD2. Gangi explains, “Early levels of initiating joint attention have been linked to later levels of ASD symptoms in high-risk siblings. So we examined whether these dopamine genes might help explain differences in early levels of initiating joint attention.”

    Researchers studied these particular genes because they are linked to attention. “We are interested in dopamine because we know it is associated with attention in all kids, and attention is especially important for kids with autism. Attention to others is about connecting with another person, and that can be difficult for kids with autism spectrum disorder,” said Dr. Messinger.

    The findings show that in high-risk siblings, children with more genotypes linked to less efficient functioning of the dopamine system displayed lower levels of initiating joint attention.

    “Finding links between genotypes and behaviors that are especially important for the development of children at risk for autism, such as initiating joint attention, may help us to understand identify high-risk children who are at the greatest risk for difficulties in particular behavioral domains even before they show delays or difficulties,” said Gangi.

    The study is entitled, “Dopaminergic Variants in Siblings at High Risk for Autism: Associations with Initiating Joint Attention.”

    April 06, 2016

  • Big City, Big Challenges - March 29, 2016

    Big City, Big Challenges

    University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences researchers are finding solutions to urban challenges both locally and abroad

     big-city-big-challenge
    ‌Increasingly, cities have become bigger and more complex all over the world. According to the United Nations, in 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population will reside in urban areas, adding almost 2.5 billion people to the world’s fastest growing urban populations in Asia and Africa. As a city’s population expands, so do the amounts of natural resources used and the services needed to meet increased demands; in turn, inequalities become more evident.

    How do we sustain rapid urban development? How do we serve larger populations? How do we predict crises and pressure points within cities?  These are some of the big questions and problems that many cities, including Miami, are facing today.

    From studying patterns of crime in a metropolis to the geographic mapping of urban areas, several researchers at the College are tackling these issues in their variety and complexity, and finding solutions to today’s urban challenges.

    “People in the margins of society, those who use illegal drugs, or live in substandard housing, often escape the attention of participants in the larger society, especially if they live in the nooks and crannies of the big city. In the bubble of indifference or aversion that surrounds them, marginalized people may engage in behaviors that affect the larger society, or they may be suspected of having an effect. As a medical anthropologist who focuses on marginalized people, I attempt to sort out the facts from the myths about marginalized people in the big city.”
    - J. Bryan Page, Ph.D., Director, International Studies, Professor, Anthropology

    "To the surprise of many, Miami has become a global city, attracting financial flows, tourists, and migrants, not only from the Americas but the world over. The subject of my current research is two-fold: First, to understand how this happened. That is, how a minority-majority city managed to displace others as the focus of economic and social flows between Europe, the U.S., and the Americas; second, to assess how the growing diversity of Greater Miami's population and its relentlessly increasing economic inequality will bear on its future.” 
    - Alejandro Portes, Ph.D., Research Professor, Sociology

    “Geography students receive training in how to map changes in the urban environment. In my remote sensing course, students learn how to transform the satellite images into digital land cover maps that display green space, built-up areas (roads, buildings, construction sites), and water bodies. Using repetitive imagery from high-resolution satellites, such as those in Google Earth, the students can measure the extent of major campus transformations associated with capital projects such as the BankUnited Center (completed in 2002), and the Donna E. Shalala Student Center (2013).” 
    - Douglas O. Fuller, Ph.D., Professor, Geography and Regional Studies

    “My research examines the complexity of cities and networks in Accra, Ghana. I study e-waste dumping concentrated in slums that specialize in dismantling, reusing and repurposing, and extracting valuable fractions from waste, e.g. copper. Valuable fractions, in turn, get exported to China and India for reincorporation into new manufacturing processes.”
    - Richard Grant, Ph.D., Director, Urban Studies, Professor, Regional Studies

    “My research and teaching interests center on the history of urban planning and design, as well as their implications for present-day practice. My current projects include MAP: Miami Affordability Project, an online mapping tool to visualize the affordable housing landscape in Miami, as well as community development and historic preservation projects in Overtown, Allapattah, and Liberty City.”
    - Robin Bachin, Ph.D., Associate Professor, History

    “I completed a study of Miami’s Jewish community in 2015 for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. One of the interesting findings was that the Jewish population of downtown Miami (from Brickell to Midtown) had tripled in the past decade. The increase is comprised mostly of young singles and young couples with preschool age children.” 
    - Ira Sheskin, Ph.D., Chair, Geography and Regional Studies

    “Professor Elvira Maria Restrepo in Geography and I are collaborating on looking at patterns of crime in cities; she is the lead researcher. We look at where events occur, the territory of the gangs, and most importantly their composition and impact on other city life. We are interested in Miami (Professor Restrepo is a member of the Miami Task Force on gangs with local police), and also comparing the behavior to the huge sprawling cities in Latin America, e.g. Bogota in Colombia.” 
    - Neil Johnson, Ph.D., Professor, Physics

    “In our Science Made Sensible (SMS) Program, 12 advanced undergraduates majoring in science serve as 'resident scientists' in Miami middle and high school classrooms. Each undergraduate develops hands-on activities with a teacher partner. SMS is a multi-generational model with six graduate students earning Ph.D.’s in the sciences, who in turn, mentor two undergraduates.” 
    - Michael Gaines, Ph.D., Professor, Biology

    “My focus is on the ecological infrastructures that megacities need to improve their resilience to climate change. Usually, decision-makers think that technological solutions will fix everything, but that is not correct. Recent water scarcity in several megacities demonstrates that megacities need well-managed natural areas providing the essential ecosystem services (e.g., freshwater, protection against natural hazards, etc.).” 
    - José Maria Cardoso da Silva, Ph.D., Professor, Geography and Regional Studies

    Other Notable A&S Professors Conducting Research in Urban Development:
    Jafari S. Allen, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Anthropology
    Donette Francis, Ph.D., Associate Professor, English
    Tarell Alvin McCraney, Professor, Theatre Arts
    Jonathan West, Ph.D., Professor, Director, Political Sciences
    Dilip Sarkar, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Computer Science
    Donald Spivey, Ph.D., Professor, History

    March 29, 2016

  • Relationships in Distress Find Support in Web-based Program, OurRelationship.com - March 16, 2016

    Relationships in Distress Find Support in Web-based Program, OurRelationship.com

    Nationwide study by University of Miami psychologists show unhappy couples significantly improved relationship satisfaction, reduced depression and anxiety

    Relationships in distress are linked to mental and physical health problems in partners and their children. Within the U.S., one-third of married couples are distressed, and almost half of first marriages (and more than half of unmarried, cohabiting relationships) end in a divorce or separation.

    “We know that high-quality marriage counseling can help couples solve problems and prevent divorce. The problem is that in-person counseling is expensive and time-consuming,” said Dr. Brian Doss, a psychology professor at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences, and co-developer of the online program OurRelationship.com.

    marriage-divorce

    Although couple therapy is effective in reducing relationship distress, it is utilized by less than one-third of divorcing couples, and racial and ethnic minority and lower-income couples receive services at even lower rates. 

    In a recent study entitled, “A Randomized Controlled Trial of the Web-Based OurRelationship Program: Effects on Relationship and Individual Functioning,” Doss and his UM colleagues tested the efficiency of the 8-hour web-based program. Couples completed online activities, such as selecting a problem to work on and watching videos on how to solve that problem, and had four 15-minute calls with project staff.

    With funding from the National Institute of Health, the researchers conducted a nationwide study where 300 couples were randomly assigned to either begin the program or selected for a two-month waitlist control group. “We assessed couples’ relationships before, during, and after the program,” said Doss.

    According to the findings, the program improved relationship satisfaction, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and 97 percent of the couples said they would recommend the program to a friend.

    “We’re excited about the results because they show that couples can get almost all of the benefit they would get from in-person marriage counseling by completing this brief program,” said Doss. “The results also showed that, by improving their relationship, it made people significantly less depressed and anxious.”

    In July, an updated version of the program, sponsored through a federal grant from the Administration for Children and Families, will be available. This version can be completed on a smartphone and will include coaches to help couples through the program. It will be available to married couples, couples living together, and same-sex couples. As part of a research study, couples will be paid up to $200 for completing research assessments.

    “I think the most rewarding thing to me about this program is that we’re able to help couples who otherwise wouldn’t get any assistance for their relationship problems,” said Doss. “This program seems especially important for couples who don’t have the time or the money to go to face-to-face counseling. At the end of the day, it’s rewarding to be able to help so many couples and make a real difference in their lives and the lives of their children.”

    The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

     

    March 16, 2016

  • Dynamic Connections in the Brain - March 9, 2016

    Dynamic Connections in the Brain

    In a departure from traditional cognitive neurosciences, UM researchers have applied a new approach, known as human connectomics, to explain how functional connections in the brain change over time

    brainFunctional connections in the brain change over time in ways that are only now beginning to be appreciated. In the field of neuroscience, there is a new approach to studying the brain known as human connectomics. This dynamic model of studying the brain and its moment-to-moment variations is what researchers at the University of Miami (UM) College of Arts & Sciences Department of Psychology present in a new study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping. 

    Dr. Lucina Uddin, an assistant professor of psychology in the UM College of Arts & Sciences, explains: “Human connectomics tries to understand how connections between brain regions give rise to sophisticated behaviors. The reason this is interesting is because it’s a departure from traditional cognitive neuroscience, where the goals were to map cognitive functions to individual brain structures, and infer what process each brain region was responsible for.”  

    As researchers move towards models of studying the brain as a complex network, Uddin says questions about the brain continue to linger. “Even within the framework of connectomics, we still have questions that are hard to grapple with, such as, how can some brain regions be involved in so many different cognitive processes?” she adds.

    The part of the brain Uddin and postdoctoral fellow Dr. Jason Nomi focus on in the study is the insular cortex (or insula), a region engaged when people are performing a variety of cognitive tasks such as paying attention, experiencing emotion, and feeling pain. Uddin and Nomi are looking at the dynamic connections in the brain and how these connections within the insula change from second to second.

    The approach they use to study these moment-to-moment variations of the insula and its subdivisions is a method called, “dynamic functional network connectivity” (d-FNC). Whereas “static functional network connectivity” (s-FNC) provides researchers with an overall, average look at brain function throughout an fMRI scan, d-FNC allows for the identification of how connections between brain areas change over time.

    According to Nomi, previously researchers were only interested in average connections across the brain. “Essentially,” he says, “it was thought that deviations from that average profile were just noise; yet, only recently have researchers come to understand that all of these slight variations are important. What we found was that the average functional connections of the insula suggest that its subdivisions acted independently, but changes from that average functional profile showed that its subdivisions sometimes worked together. This may help to explain why the insula is so flexible in terms of its involvement in many different mental processes.”

    The other researchers who participated in the study entitled, “Dynamic Functional Network Connectivity Reveals Unique and Overlapping Profiles of Insula Subdivisions,” include Kristafor Farrant at the University of Miami, and electrical engineers with the University of New Mexico and The Mind Research Network – Eswar Damaraju, Srinivas Rachakonda, and Vince D. Calhoun, who created the d-FNC method.

    “We could not have done it without their collaborative efforts,” said Uddin.

    “The main reason for doing this study is that we want to identify how the insula is working in the normal population and then using the research as a framework so we can see how clinical populations differ in the function of this brain area,” adds Nomi.

    At the College of Arts & Sciences, Uddin’s research focuses on brain connectivity and cognition in typical and atypical development, which includes children with autism.

    “One of the theories we are testing is that the insula is less flexible in autism, which means you won’t see as many dynamic changes, and this might be related to the inflexible behaviors observed in children with the disorder. Often kids with autism are very rigid and want to stick to the same routine. We think this might have to do with reduced dynamics of the insula, which typically works to enable those flexible behaviors,” she said.

    Currently, Uddin is collecting neuroimaging data from children with autism between the ages of 7 and 12 years to test this hypothesis. This project is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

    March 09, 2016

  • The Impact of Prehistoric Humans In The Everglades - January 26, 2016

    The Impact of Prehistoric Humans In The Everglades

    Research by University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences archaeologist emphasizes how humans play a vital role in tree island formations

    Dotting the landscape of Everglades National Park are teardrop-shaped elevations of hardwood trees (or hammocks) named, "tree islands." The significance of tree islands as the only dry ground has long been acknowledged, but their significance also lies beneath the earth, as archeological findings from a dig in 2010 present data that prehistoric humans played a significant role in the formation of tree islands, and in turn, the archeological discoveries should be considered in current Everglades restoration models.

    “Tree islands are the nucleus of the Everglades,” said Dr. Traci Ardren, chair and anthropology professor at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences. “They are rich habitats for plants, birds, and other animals and provide higher ground and stability for the Everglades drainage system.”

    ardren-evergladesDr. Ardren says Everglades restoration models used by scientists and government entities do not take human factors into account, specifically prehistoric human occupation. 

    “This research provides an example of how humans were involved in the way tree islands were formed, so if we want to have the best models we can for Everglades restoration, we need first to understand the original formation of tree islands,” she said.  

    Dr. Ardren’s research entitled, “Prehistoric human impact on tree island lifecycles in the Florida Everglades,” was published in the journal The Holocene and illustrates the archeological discoveries from a tree island known as the Booth site. There are currently hundreds of archeological sites in the Everglades, and almost every tree island has evidence of prehistoric human occupation; unfortunately, most tree islands have not been archeologically investigated. 

    In 1998, a team visited the Booth site and uncovered archeological artifacts of pre-Columbian human occupation, but according to Dr. Ardren, research was minimal. When Dr. Ardren and her team visited the site in 2010, there was extensive digging and richer analysis of the findings. “The activities on the site were not that different from the 1998 visit, but it was more about the conclusions we drew from the data collected,” she added.  

    Overall, archeological research in the Everglades is very minimal due to the belief that the terrain is very challenging; these perceptions may contribute to the lack of archeological research and excavation. Dr. Ardren explains, “We do not think of the Everglades as a place where there were people living for thousands of years.

    “Tree islands in the Everglades certainly present a nutrient anomaly in the otherwise oligotrophic wetland. Currently, there are three major hypotheses explaining this nutrient enrichment: nutrient enrichment via plant transpiration; bird guano as birds nest in the islands; and pre-Columbian human occupation,” said Cooper Fellow and Biology Professor Leonel Sternberg. “Indeed, there is evidence for all three factors and Dr. Ardren's research points out that these hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, and they all could be part of the explanation why tree islands are nutrient sinks.”

    ardren-evergladesDr. Ardren says the main point of her research is to contribute quantifiable data on the human influence in tree island formation, which is a major factor ignored in most Everglades restoration research and models. She hopes her research will generate discussion among scientists today who are working on Everglades restoration in many disciplines with the outcome to collaborate and take into account the human impact on the landscape, not just in the 21st-century but thousands of years into the past.

    January 26, 2016

  • The Importance of Children at Play - January 19, 2016

    The Importance of Children at Play

    Research highlights positive strengths in developmental learning for Latino children in low-income households based on their interactive play skills

    In the early stages of life, peer play is an important factor in the developmental growth of a child. It is during play and children’s interactions with peers when many essential and vital skills are learned, from social connections to emotional, language, and cognitive abilities.

    Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Miami (UM) College of Arts & Sciences Dr. Rebecca J. Bulotsky-Shearer is fully aware of how interactive play is necessary for a child’s growth; her research centers on social and emotional development in children – especially children living in poverty or adverse life circumstances.

    Within the Miami-Dade community, as in many urban areas, there is a large population of families that are living in low-income households from Hispanic or Latino backgrounds, explains Dr. Bulotsky-Shearer, and there is a concern, on a national policy level, that children from low-income households are not ready for kindergarten.
    the-importance-of-children-at-play
    To shift away from negative perceptions aimed at Latino children living in poverty and the disparities in school readiness at kindergarten entry, Dr. Bulotsky-Shearer and her colleagues focused on the strengths that the Latino children were displaying in preschool.  

    “National research suggests that there is an achievement gap at kindergarten entry, especially for ethnic minority children living in poverty, and many folks view this from a deficit-perspective,” said Dr. Bulotsky-Shearer. “There are a couple of studies that we have been working on that show peer social competence is a strength of young children. We wanted to demonstrate this strength in the Latino children we work with in the Head Start Programs here in Florida. One of the measures we’ve been collecting is on children’s play in the classroom, which is very important for learning during preschool.”   

    The importance of how children learn in preschool is through interaction with their peers: How do they share? How do they negotiate while playing? Do the children build together or engage in pretend play? All of these interactive play scenarios support learning in the classroom especially during early childhood.

    To validate the importance of peer play for Latino children within the Head Start Programs, the researchers used The Penn Interactive Peer Play Scale (PIPPS), a behavioral rating measure used for understanding peer play behaviors. There are three different dimensions to the PIPPS used to study peer play behavior in children: Play Interaction (sharing, collaborative play, encouragement); Play Disruption (aggressive, antisocial behaviors); and Play Disconnection (withdrawn behavior during play).

    Using the PIPPS measure to observe how Latino children in low-income households interact during peer play, researchers found that the children displayed a high level of interactive peer play in positive learning environments; the children were engaged, motivated and social.

    “We also looked at how those three scales on the PIPPS relate to two other sets of measures that are important for children, in terms of kindergarten readiness skills,” said Dr. Bulotsky-Shearer. The first is approaches to learning, learning-related behaviors for teachers to observe that show how children are eager and motivated to learn, and the second is a direct assessment of the children’s language, literacy and math skills – both measures can help teachers assess the children in their classroom and provide feedback to parents.

    Dr. Bulosky-Shearer, along with colleagues Dr. Lisa Lopez at the University of South Florida and Dr. Julia L. Mendez at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, presented the findings in a study published in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly entitled, “The validity of interactive peer play competencies for Latino preschool from low-income households.”

    January 19, 2016

  • Finding The Perfect Grouping - January 12, 2016

    Finding The Perfect Grouping

    University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences researcher applies mathematical formulas to understand how disparate parts come together

    Neil Johnson, professor of physics at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences, has deepened his pivotal work on studying complex systems by using mathematical formulas to describe and predict group dynamics. His work can be applied to understanding groups of all sizes, from the tiniest of particles to large conventional armies.

    Dr. Johnson’s latest research, conducted with physics Ph.D. student Pedro Manrique and published in Physical Review, demonstrates, mathematically, how individual character can be applied to otherwise identical particles and the resulting group formation, interaction, and fragmentation can be studied, analyzed, and predicted.

    johnson-finding-the-perfect-groupingPrevious work on group dynamics in physics has tended to focus on studying the collective behavior of identical bodies. Dr. Johnson’s latest research highlights the importance of unique “personalities” or traits for understanding how disparate parts come together to be one complementary whole, for example, a soccer team.

    “The last thing you want to have is 11 Lionel Messi [players] on your soccer team because that’s not going to be a good soccer team, even though he’s the best soccer player in the world,” Dr. Johnson said.

    In some situations, he said, it’s better to have teams and other times the preference is for objects to be homogenous.

    “Knowing how to describe that mathematically, well, that hadn’t been done before. That’s one of the main contributions of our paper,” he noted.

    The physics professor emphasized the importance of heterogeneity in groups and the roles that dissimilar objects play in group formation.

    “We found that the way in which groups form is different when you begin to add in that objects are different,” said Dr. Johnson, recently named an Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Distinguished Lecturer for the 2015-2016 academic year.

    It’s not enough to simply increase the size of the population. What is key is increasing the diversity within the population. When groups reach identifiable critical points of heterogeneity, particles spontaneously form into team-like structures with each serving a particular function in the group. Dr. Johnson’s latest publication posits that the less diversity there is in a population, the easier it is for similar individuals to form a group and the harder it is for dissimilar individuals to form a group.

    Modifying the old saying “opposites attract,” the research on group formation and dynamics underscores “opposites-enough attract.” There can be some common traits between one or more entities, but these bodies may never form a group until some critical point is reached. Like a tragic poem, sometimes an individual may never know that it would be better off in another group. That individual may never reach that critical point and thus, never form that better-off group.

    Dr. Johnson’s research has had some real-world comparisons outside the minute world of particle physics. His findings can be applied to a host of complex systems ranging from terrorist organizations and insurgent groups to stock traders and even historical gangs.

    The work can also be applied to more positive group dynamics. Dr. Johnson is teaming up with fellow College of Arts & Sciences psychology professor Daniel Messinger on an emergence of autism project. The work aims to incorporate Dr. Johnson’s research into studying how children form social groups. In particular, the project hopes to gain insight into how children with various social disorders, namely, autism spectrum disorder, come together and form bonds.

    For his future research, Dr. Johnson hopes to apply his work on group dynamics to better understand how the immune system and its components interact, particularly how it tackles shocks to its usual functioning.

    January 12, 2016

  • The Human Brain - A Great Frontier in Science Research - December 10, 2015

    The Human Brain - A Great Frontier in Science Research

    The state-of-the-art laboratories in the College of Arts & Sciences’ Neuroscience building are home to some of UM’s top researchers and scientists

    the-human-brain poster‌‌

    Imagine you are in your doctor’s office and about to get the flu shot. If you trust your doctor, and you feel more culturally connected to your doctor, will the shot hurt less? And if so, why? It’s a scenario posed by Dr. Elizabeth Losin, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences. It is also a situation she explores in her Social & Cultural Neuroscience Laboratory at the Neuroscience building where interdisciplinary and collaborative neuroscience brain research happens on a day-to-day basis.

    One of the most important features of the Neuroscience building, located in the College of Arts & Sciences at the Coral Gables campus, is its functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research laboratory where UM scientists and researchers focus on specific neurobiology and neuropsychology areas of study, from anxiety disorders to language development and attention disorders.

    The state-of-the-art laboratories in the Neuroscience building are home to some of UM’s top neuroscience researchers and scientists, like Dr. Lucina Uddin, who studies how large-scale networks in the brain are interconnected and, particularly, how they relate to autism; Dr. Jennifer Britton, the director of the Coral Gables MRI facility, who studies fear and anxiety disorders in children; Dr. Aaron Heller, who investigates the brain’s reward system in healthy individuals and individuals who have mood disorders such as depression; Dr. John Lu, who uses zebrafish to study the biological mechanisms in relation to hearing loss; Dr. Amishi Jha, who studies the brain systems of attention and working memory, and how mindfulness training can help correct and strengthen those systems; Dr. Roger McIntosh, who studies HIV infection and how it produces cognitive impairments; and Dr. Kevin Collins, who stimulates brain circuits using light.

    “When the Neuroscience building was completed, it was a ‘transformational’ occurrence because it brought together neuroscientists from the Coral Gables campus and The Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine,” says Dr. Philip McCabe, professor and chair of psychology at the College of Arts & Sciences. “The University has always had neuroscientists, but they were always in different departments and not connecting.”

    The academic outlook on neuroscience shifted in 1992 when the University created the university-wide Neuroscience Ph.D. Program; in 2001, the undergraduate neuroscience major was established as an interdisciplinary program in the College of Arts & Sciences (A&S).

    “The undergraduate program is very collaborative and not just in the College,” said Dr. McCabe. “When the undergraduate neuroscience program was created, one of the stipulations was that faculty from the medical school had to be involved.”
    the-human-brain
    Dr. Helen Bramlett, director of the undergraduate neuroscience program at A&S and professor of neurological surgery at the Miller School of Medicine, says one of the major features of the program is helping place students in faculty labs to conduct research. “The type of research they are exposed to is very wide,” she said. “It runs from cells all the way up to clinical research, and depends on what the students want to do so we leave that up to them because we want them to go to a lab that they are happy with.”

    In Dr. Losin’s lab, she simulates clinician-patient interactions in order to uncover the social and cultural factors that influence the pain that patients experience during medical care.  During these simulations, researchers act as clinicians and induce pain in willing and healthy participants both in and out of the MRI scanner. “We can monitor many things, such as brain activity, facial expressions, and physiological signs like palm sweating. This gives us the ability to look under the hood and see what’s going in the body and brain in addition to what somebody is telling us about the pain they are feeling,” said Dr. Losin.  

    Her research on culture, the brain, and pain is driven by three overarching questions: How does culture shape the brain? How does cultural information get into the brain? How does culture influence health?

    Dr. Losin explains: “What we now know about pain is that there are not only messages being transmitted out from the body and into the brain but in the other direction as well, from the brain to the body. A lot of factors such as what we expect about pain, how we react to pain, and other previous negative experiences can send messages down to the body that either turn up or turn down the volume on pain, and many of those factors are social and cultural.”

    “There is a lot we don’t know about how the brain works. For example, there are many cultural and socioeconomic factors that can influence brain function, so by doing brain imaging here [at UM] within this very diverse community, we can start to understand new things about brain mechanisms associated with feeling pain and the social and cultural factors that influence them.  This knowledge is especially important since pain is a big public health problem and a contributor to racial and ethnic health disparities,” said Dr. Losin.

    “Neuroscience is an area of strength at the University,” said Dr. McCabe. “And with our recent hires in the College of Arts & Sciences, we have expanded the range of translational research into this very important field of science.”

    December 10, 2015

  • Stress Management Techniques Shown To Improve Long-Term Survival And Lengthen Time To Recurrence In Women Diagnosed With Breast Cancer - December 2, 2015

    Stress Management Techniques Shown To Improve Long-Term Survival And Lengthen Time To Recurrence In Women Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

    Newly published research from a National Cancer Institute-funded randomized trial shows that women who were provided with skills to manage stress early in their breast cancer treatment show greater length of survival and longer time till disease recurrence over eight to 15 years after their original diagnosis.

    Michael Antoni, Ph.D., Survivorship Theme Leader of the Cancer Control research program at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and his research team previously found that cognitive-behavioral stress management (CBSM)—an intervention approach created by Antoni at UM—improves psychological adaptation and lowers distress and inflammatory signaling in circulating cells during breast cancer treatment and long-term follow-ups. Women receiving CBSM learned techniques like muscle relaxation and deep breathing as well as skills to change negative thoughts and improve coping strategies in 10 weekly group sessions.Stress Management Techniques Shown To Improve Long-Term Survival And Lengthen Time To Recurrence In Women Diagnosed With Breast CancerThis secondary analysis, published online and in the November 2015 issue of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, examined whether breast cancer patients who received CBSM in the weeks after surgery had improved survival and a greater “disease-free interval” until recurrence.

    "Our ongoing work is examining whether the effects of stress management on depressive symptoms and inflammatory biomarkers during the first year of treatment are linked to longer-term disease recurrence and survival,” Antoni said.

    Antoni, who is also Professor of Psychology at UM’s College of Arts & Sciences, and researchers in the Department of Psychology noted that prior research has showed that distress, negative mood and heightened inflammation during treatment may all facilitate disease progression and poorer health outcomes, thus “we wanted to test whether participating in a program like CBSM could decrease the risk of disease progression and mortality over the long term.”

    The study is titled “A randomized controlled trial of cognitive-behavioral stress management in breast cancer: survival and recurrence at 11-year follow-up.”

    Lead author Dr. Jamie Stagl, who was a Ph.D. student in Psychology at UM during the research period, is currently a post-doctoral fellow in Psychiatric Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston. Additional authors of the study include Suzanne C. Lechner, Charles S. Carver, Laura C. Bouchard, Lisa M. Gudenkauf, Devika R. Jutagir, Alain Diaz, Qilu Yu, Bonne Blomberg, Gail Ironson, Stefan Gluck, and Antoni, who also serves as Director of UM’s Center for Psycho-Oncology Research.

    The researchers are now testing whether changes in inflammatory gene expression during and after the stress management intervention predict disease outcomes up to 15 years later, and are also developing and testing even shorter versions of the stress management program to see if five-week versions of programs specifically targeting either relaxation training or cognitive behavioral coping skills training are equivalent to the 10-week CBSM program.

    Additional versions of stress management interventions that are adapted to meet the needs of specific vulnerable cancer populations – African American women, Latinas, or older women of all races and ethnicities, for example – are also being tested.

    “Our work is unique in that more than one-third of the participants were of an ethnic minority, compared to mostly non-Hispanic White women studied in prior research, which means that the findings may be generalizable to the larger population of breast cancer patients.” Antoni said. “Our overarching goal is to improve survivorship and health outcomes by reaching patients early in the cancer treatment process and providing them the tools they need to manage current and future challenges on their journey.”

    The latest publication is published by Springer and can be accessed online at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10549-015-3626-

    December 02, 2015

  • Connecting the Dots and Finding the Patterns in Big Data - November 24, 2015

    Connecting the Dots and Finding the Patterns in Big Data

    University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences’ interdisciplinary initiative to elevate complexity science research unifies professors from diverse disciplines

     big-dataImagine you travel in a hot air balloon above the University of Miami Coral Gables campus. You float above Lake Osceola, the Donna E. Shalala Student Center, the Foote Green, the Richter Library, the Rock, the Lowe Art Museum, the Newman Alumni Center, the residential halls, and the Bill Cosford Cinema. What kind of activity would you see from above? What type of data can you collect about how the University works from just watching people move around the campus on any given day? Is there a pattern in the data, and how can that “big data” help you understand the everyday life of the University?

    College of Arts & Sciences Physics Professor Dr. Neil Johnson explains: “If you only decide to collect the average number of people who were at the University on a given day, you could certainly get ‘big data’ by collecting it every day for 20 years. But the trouble is, you would be nowhere nearer to understanding what really makes life at UM tick.”

    “However,” he continues, “if you start to have information on the individual movement of objects, for example, and you notice 30 people suddenly aggregating around one classroom – they go in and come out – you begin to build a picture of what is going on inside that system, and that higher resolution information can lead to all sorts of new understandings.”

    The term “big data” refers to enormously large amounts of data that can be collected and analyzed to reveal potential patterns or trends in social, biological, medical, chemical, and even psychological systems. “If you collect information about individual proteins or cells in our bodies, you are going to get a big batch of data. This data is big in volume and also big in resolution. The key is not the collection of data on an average scale, but gathering data in real-time – looking at cell function, the brain, or even individual investment behavior in real-time rather than averaged over a month,” said Dr. Johnson.

    To build and expand the big data collection and complexity science research already occurring at the College by Dr. Neil Johnson and his colleagues, computer science professor Dr. Mitsunori Ogihara and biology professor Akira Chiba, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences Leonidas Bachas initiated a cluster hire to recruit scholars from different specialties to work together in the field of complexity science research.

    Connecting the Dots and Finding the Patterns in Big DataAs a result of the cluster hire, the College welcomed new faculty members Dr. Chaoming Song in the Department of Physics, Dr. Stefan Wuchty in the Department of Computer Science, and Dr. J. David Van Dyken in the Department of Biology, along with Dr. Elvira Maria Restrepo who joined the Department of Geography and Regional Studies and studies complexity science as it relates to conflicts. 

    “I’m a biologist, so I understand the parts that go into biological systems and some of the conceptual frameworks that help us understand these biological systems, but in order to do something with all of the data, it’s nice to have someone from computer science to interact with because they can write computer programs to analyze the data, and the physicists can help us with mathematical models to help us make predictions about what goes on in these systems,” said Dr. Van Dyken. “The idea is that we all have similar goals, and each of us has different expertise and different tools, and by interacting we can get a better picture of what is going on.”  

    As planned, the cluster hire allowed the team to collaborate with various departments and schools at the University on diverse research projects – from Dr. Van Dyken’s lab using yeast to study the genetic, cellular, and evolutionary causes of disease to the Psychology and Physics departments collecting data of the movements of children in free play, and then gathering additional neurological data about them using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.

    “In the age of big data collection and complexity science, it is important that the College of Arts & Sciences is at the forefront of collaborative research that bridges several departments connecting scholars from diverse backgrounds,” said Dean Bachas. “Our team of researchers is recognized among the best complexity scientists in the United States, and their expertise sets an example to our students that interdisciplinary work creates strong connections across many fields.”

    Other interesting and notable research projects include finding complex patterns related to sudden cardiac arrest and the growth of cancer tumors, and the collection of conflict data on wars and insurgencies to find how these incidents happened on a day-by-day, event-by-event scale. Currently, Dr. Ogihara and Dr. Wuchty are working together on a project looking for the “birth of creative integration ” in research papers. They are using a form of computational analysis, known as topic modeling, to study the content of the research papers and locate identifying hidden combinations of words to find single or multiple topics. By using this technique, based on their study, one can predict if a research paper will be influential and popular, or if used in other domains for example, says Dr. Ogihara, could predict if a song will be a big hit.  

    “The idea of complexity [research] is all about understanding the underlying patterns so that you can create a model that would allow you to create predictions,” said Dr. Wuchty. “It’s a framework on how to think about a problem outside the box, and always expecting the unexpected.”

     research team
    Photo caption: The scientists and researchers that make up the complexity science interdisciplinary initative at the College of Arts & Sciences. From left to right: Dr. J. David Van Dyken in the Department of Biology; Dr. Chaoming Song in the Department of Physics; Computer Science Professor Dr. Mitsunori Ogihara;Physics Professor Dr. Neil Johnson; Dr. Elvira Maria Restrepo in the Department of Geography and Regional Studies; Dr. Stefan Wuchty in the Department of Computer Science. 
    (Not photographed: Biology Professor Akira Chiba)

    November 24, 2015

  • Relying on Faith, Culture, and Family Cohesiveness To Reduce The Stress of Caring for a Person with Mental Illness - November 3, 2015

    Relying on Faith, Culture, and Family Cohesiveness To Reduce The Stress of Caring for a Person with Mental Illness

    A culturally informed family therapy is proven helpful to caregivers of loved ones with schizophrenia

    Relying on Faith Culture and Family Cohesiveness To Reduce The Stress of Caring for a Person with Mental IllnessSchizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and disabling psychiatric disorder that affects about one percent of the population in the United States. Approximately 60 percent of those suffering from this condition live with a relative. Despite the fact that that family interventions have shown to significantly improve outcomes for individuals with schizophrenia, only about seven percent of patients with this illness receive any family therapy.

    ‌A novel culturally informed treatment focused on caregivers of people with schizophrenia offers needed support. The treatment developed by researchers at the University of Miami (UM) College of Arts and Sciences utilize the cultural beliefs, values, and behaviors of caregivers to help them cope with the stress of caring for a loved one with schizophrenia.

    “We wanted to develop a treatment intervention that taps into cultural beliefs and values that we hypothesized would make the treatment more engaging and relatable to many ethnic minorities that do not necessarily embrace the current mental health care system,” said Amy Weisman de Mamani, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in the UM College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator of the study. “We hoped to develop a treatment that was not only aimed at benefiting patients, but explicitly focused on reducing caregiver distress as well.”

    ‌The findings published in the journal Psychotherapy of the American Psychological Association show that the new treatment markedly reduces caregiver burden, shame, and guilt, implying an improvement in the quality of life for caregivers and patients alike.‌

    ‌“Caring for a patient with severe mental illness can have adverse consequences for the caregiver and ultimately for the patient,” said co-author of the study Giulia Suro, Ph.D., a doctoral student in the UM Department of Psychology when the study was conducted. She is now a practicing clinical psychologist. “These include reduced opportunities to earn an income, socialize, and take care of one’s own personal needs.”

    Since the degree of perceived burden and emotions that we experience are tied to one’s cultural view of the world, the project examined whether adding culturally based segments to an already established family focused treatment for schizophrenia would reduce patients’ psychiatric symptoms and caregiver distress beyond what a psychoeducation-only family intervention would.

    The results show that CIT-S and the psychoeducation-only family intervention were equally and highly effective in reducing shame, although CIT-S markedly outperformed family psychoeducation in reducing caregivers’ burden and guilt.

    For the study, participants undertook a 15-week family-focused, culturally informed treatment for schizophrenia (CIT-S). The researchers incorporated modules on spirituality, or religion and family collectivism to already established psychoeducational and communication modules.

    Sixty percent of the participants were Hispanic, 28 percent Caucasian, eight percent African American and nearly four percent identified as “Other.” The researchers believe that the treatment is not specific to particular group, but rather may be helpful to all ethnic, racial, and cultural groups.

    In the spirituality module, the study aimed at helping families’ access beliefs and practices that could help cope with the illness, such as prayer, meditation, volunteerism, and attending religious services. Family members that did not subscribe to any particular religious practice or belief participated in parallel exercises that didn’t specifically reference “God” or “religion.” ‌

    giulia-suro
    Photo caption: Amy Weisman de Mamani, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in the UM College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator of the study.

    In the family collectivism module, the study assessed and encouraged the ability of family members to develop the perspective that they are part of a unified team working towards common goals. The study, titled “The effect of a culturally informed therapy on self-conscious emotions and burden in caregivers of patients with schizophrenia: A randomized clinical trial,” is a follow-up of a December 2014 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology. In that study,the authors shared the first findings about the effect of the CIT-S on patient’s psychiatric symptoms, showing that CIT-S is better at reducing patients’ psychiatric symptoms than the psychoeducation-only intervention.

    In future research, the researchers would like to test whether CIT-S can outperform a matched length control treatment that includes all of the components of CIT-S, except those that directly tap into participants’ cultural beliefs, values, and behaviors to verify that the use of adaptive cultural practices and belief systems are what account for the efficacy of CIT-S. ‌‌‌

     

    November 03, 2015

  • UM College of Arts & Sciences Welcomed Artists, Philosophers, and Researchers to Discuss the Sensation of Color - October 7, 2015

    UM College of Arts & Sciences Welcomed Artists, Philosophers, and Researchers to Discuss the Sensation of Color

    College hosted the 11th Annual Conference of the American Synesthesia Association at the Coral Gables campus, Oct. 2 – 4

    ‌The seemingly super-human mental phenomenon known as synesthesia was the topic of discussion this past weekend when scientists, artists, and philosophers of the American Synesthesia Association convened at the University of Miami (UM) to discuss the color of language, the architecture of music, and how the brain puts it all together. The Association’s 11th annual conference was organized by UM’s College of Arts & Sciences Professor of Philosophy Berit Brogaard – an eminent researcher in the field.

    Synesthesia is a psychological condition involving the intertwining of normally separate sensory and cognitive pathways. Synesthetes – or people who have synesthesia – may experience the sensation of color when they smell various odors, visualize numerical algorithms as complex shapes or see a rainbow of colors while listening to a concerto. ‌These unique experiences make the phenomenon a valuable topic of research for brain scientists and philosophers, as well as a boon to artists. In some cases, synesthesia contributes to a person’s extraordinary talents. For example, presenter Greg Jarvis, a musician and leader of the orchestral rock group The Flowers of Hell, is a timbre-to-shape synesthete. 

    “I see the architecture of music,” said Jarvis. It is an ability that he says contributed to his love of grand, sweeping productions, such as Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” and Shoegaze music. “What is my ability useful for? The greatest asset of my synesthesia is in music production. I’m working with 140 tracks all at once, and since I can see all the tracks, I can work with more tracks than people who can only hear the tracks,” Jarvis added.  ‌

    sensation-of-colorHow some brains produce synesthesia and how synesthetic brains differ from those of non-synesthetic brains were questions addressed by keynote speaker Anina Rich, professor and Co-Director of the Perception in Action Research Centre at Macquarie University, Australia, and Dr. Laura Speed, researcher at the Center for Language Studies at Radboud University, Netherlands.

    Dr. Rich’s talk, Integrating information and the human brain: insights from synaesthesia, presented findings from cognitive science, which tied synesthesia to attention and semantic processing.

    “Attention is a big player in mental integration. Is it necessary for synesthetic binding?” she asked. Her research indicated that the answer is yes, and “this tells us important things about what level synesthesia occurs at,” Rich added. Further study implicated semantic processing in the production of grapheme-color synesthesia. For example, synesthetes who experience the letter “a” as red will not have a synesthetic experience until after the letter has been recognized as an “a.”

    Dr. Speed’s talk, Olfactory language and cognition in odour-colour synaesthesia, focused on the experiences and capabilities of synesthetes who associate colors with certain smells.

    “Synesthesia involving smell is interesting because, in the West, smell tends to be neglected compared to the other senses. We don’t talk about smells very often. We are bad at naming and remembering smells,” she said. However, this relative neglect of smell experience is not universal. For example, Thai culture places a greater emphasis on smell than Western cultures and consequently most Thais perform well on smell recognition tests.

    As it turns out, people with odor synesthesia also do better than average on smell recognition tests because synesthetes experience an associated color when they smell an odor and they have additional information to use in odor recognition tasks. Dr. Speed also recalled some oddities experienced by odor-color synesthetes: One woman felt that her brain was scrambled by the smell of scented washing powder, and another synesthete told of how a woman’s strong perfume left her face looking red all day.

    The seemingly impossible nature of synesthesia, coupled with its inherently subjective character, contributed to the historical skepticism synesthetes faced when they gave voice to their ability.

    “For years everyone thought synesthetes were making it up,” said artist and researcher Caitlin Gianniny. “At another time I might have been murdered for being a witch.”

    Gianniny argued that the experiences of the synesthetic community could be a basis for social solidarity. Synesthetes and minorities share common ground when it comes to the skepticism they face – skepticism synesthetes face when they report their synthetic experiences and skepticism minorities face when they report the racism they are subjected to. “I feel strongly that my experience of synesthesia provides me empathy for groups that have been marginalized in other ways,” Gianniny added.

    Synesthesia has long been an underappreciated and misunderstood phenomenon, although public awareness of synesthesia is on the rise due to references made in today’s popular media, such as HBO’s hit television series True Detective and the satirical website The Onion. For more information about the American Synesthesia Association, visit http://www.synesthesia.info/.

    October 07, 2015

  • SIGNIFICANT FINDINGS FROM LANCET STUDY ON WOMEN AND HEALTH PRESENTED TODAY BY DR. ANA LANGER AND DR. FELICIA KNAUL - October 2, 2015

    SIGNIFICANT FINDINGS FROM LANCET STUDY ON WOMEN AND HEALTH PRESENTED TODAY BY DR. ANA LANGER AND DR. FELICIA KNAUL

    Presentation, hosted by University of Miami Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences Leonidas Bachas, included a panel discussion by esteemed UM faculty and opening remarks by President Julio Frenk

    The results of a major Commission report on women and health took center stage at the Donna E. Shalala Student Center today, October 2, as Felicia Knaul, Ph.D., Director of the Miami Institute for the Americas (MIA) at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences, presented a discussion of a Lancet study that found women are contributing around $3 trillion to global health care, but nearly half of this labor is unpaid, unrecognized and unaccounted for.  

    Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences Leonidas Bachas was the host for today’s special presentation on the study, which was published in The Lancet in June. Dr. Knaul, a co-author of the study while Director of the Harvard Global Equity Initiative, spoke about the findings with the Chair of the Lancet Commission Report on Women and Health, Ana Langer, M.D., professor of the practice of public health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

    The study, a comprehensive and evidence-based analysis of the complex relationships between women and health, presented findings that women’s contribution to society is under-recognized across a wide spectrum: economically, socially, politically and culturally.

    dr-ana-langer“The paper was the result of the work of 15 dedicated Commissioners that included academics, policymakers, program implementers and advocates – all of them related to this broad, comprehensive construct of women’s health from different perspectives,” said Dr. Langer. The purpose of the report, according to Dr. Langer, is to hopefully influence policy agenda on issues related to women and health.

    Dr. Langer discussed how women’s health is sometimes undertaken in a fragmented way instead of a comprehensive way. “That is what we address in the report when we talk about women’s health in a lifecycle. There is evidence to show that women’s health at each stage of our lives is influenced by the previous stages, and whatever was done right to protect our health in the earlier stages will definitely put us in a better position to be healthy in later stages.” 

    Regarding women in the role of health care providers, Dr. Langer says women in almost every culture and part of the world are the general health care providers in a household. “That important role they play is not really recognized as it should, and it’s definitely not compensated in most places around the world; and women don’t get the training or the support they will benefit from in other levels of the health system,” she added. 

    Touching upon valuing women and how to make today’s health systems function better, Dr. Knaul explained: “I believe having efficient, responsive, fair and intelligent health systems is very much today the job of women because as it turns out, from the study, health systems are managed…by women, both paid and unpaid.” She also revealed that more than 50 percent of graduate students studying to be physicians today are women.

    Dr. Knaul addressed another important point from the study on data regarding global gender discrimination. “We know, globally, that women are not paid as much as men when we do the same jobs – sometimes it’s a little less, sometimes it’s a little more, but it’s a constant all around the world that we are fighting to change,” she said.

    In relation to how women and men, in Mexico specifically, invest their time every week juggling responsibilities in care giving, domestic work and work outside the home, Dr. Knaul presented a pie chart showing how women’s time is “eaten away with little left for rest and relaxation,” while for men, the pie chart illustrated that half of their time is set aside for relaxation.

    “We believe that you need healthy economies and healthy health sectors, and to produce those you need healthy women who can act in ways that allow us to be able to give all that we can give to our health sectors, our societies and our communities,” said Dr. Knaul.

    In her closing remarks, Dr. Langer presented four categories of recommendations from the study designed to find solutions to the health-related issues women face today: Value Women, Compensate Women, Count Women and Be Accountable to Women. The categories emphasize the need to implement health sector policies, recognize women for their paid and unpaid contributions as health-care providers, and ensure women are accounted for in data collection within the health-care workforce, among other vital points.

    The presentation also included opening remarks by UM President Julio Frenk, who was a Commission member on the Lancet study, as well as comments and a panel discussion with esteemed UM faculty members: Dean Nilda (Nena) Peragallo, School of Nursing & Health Studies; Dean Isaac Prilleltensky, School of Education & Human Development; and Professor Merike Blofield, Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program.

    significant-findings-from-lancet-study-on-women-and-health-group-shot.jpgUniversity of Miami President Julio Frenk (center) photographed here with - left to right - Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences Leonidas Bachas; Professor Merike Blofield, Director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program; Dr. Ana Langer, Chair of the Lancet Commission on Women and Health; Dr. Felicia Knaul, Director of the College's Miami Institute of the Americas; Dean Nilda (Nena) Peragallo, School of Nursing & Health Studies; and Dean Isaac Prilleltensky, School of Education & Human Development, at today's panel discussion on the Lancet Commission study.


     

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    October 02, 2015

  • Dr. Felicia Knaul Presents Study On Global Health and Breast Cancer At Women’s and Gender Studies Inaugural Colloquium Luncheon - September 29, 2015

    Dr. Felicia Knaul Presents Study On Global Health and Breast Cancer At Women’s and Gender Studies Inaugural Colloquium Luncheon

    Speaking openly about her personal and emotional battle with breast cancer, Dr. Knaul also shared research on health care reform in Mexico and the implementation of Seguro Popular

    While reflecting on her own experience with breast cancer, Dr. Felicia Knaul delivered a talk on global health and breast cancer in low and middle-income countries at the University of Miami (UM) College of Arts & Sciences’ Women’s and Gender Studies colloquium luncheon, held last week in the Donna E. Shalala Student Center. 

    Dr. Knaul presented her study taken from the co-authored Lancet Commission Report titled, Women and Health: The Key for Sustainable Development. In her speech, Dr. Knaul addressed how women in poorer countries without proper health care face a “double burden” dealing with communicable and non-communicable diseases. In one slide, Dr. Knaul presented current reasons why women die around the world. The chart noted a 35 percent decrease in maternal mortality rates in the last 30 years, yet it also illustrated serious health risks women in Latin America and the Caribbean face today, such as high mortality rates from breast cancer, cervical cancer and diabetes.  

    dr-felicia-knaul“Very few women should die at childbirth if they have access to even the most basic of health care technologies,” said Dr. Knaul. “The message here is that it doesn’t make any sense, either ethically or as an economist, to invest in saving a woman the day that she gives birth but then allowing her to die a few years later of a preventable cervical cancer, a treatable breast cancer or a manageable case of a disease like diabetes – it just isn’t right, but it’s also not the sensibly right thing to do.”

    Dr. Knaul also presented findings illustrating the inequality of survival rates in breast cancer and cervical cancer within Mexico’s rich and poor states. For example, in Mexico’s poorer states like Oaxaca and Puebla in the south, the mortality rates for women with cervical cancer and breast cancer were much higher than in Mexico’s richer states, such as Distrito Federal and Nuevo Leon, located in the country’s northern region.

    In response to Mexico’s insufficient health care system, UM President Julio Frenk worked on a new comprehensive national health insurance program for millions of Mexico’s poorest families, known as Seguro Popular. Nevertheless, according to Dr. Knaul, the system was far from flawless since many physicians were unprepared to even detect early forms of breast cancer. “We responded by training thousands of primary healthcare personnel, including community health workers, to be able to detect early signs of breast cancer. They had no information of breast cancer [detection] at this point simply because the system assumed poor women didn’t get breast cancer,” said Dr. Knaul.   

    Dr. Knaul also noted that many patients did not have access to common painkillers like morphine. To help combat this issue and to make sure “patients should not die in pain,” she created a global commission to address the inequitable distribution of morphine. The commission should release its findings next year; President Frenk is also a member of the commission. “It is a huge amount of work, one in which I will welcome any and all support that any of you feel you can give,” said Dr. Knaul to the audience of UM faculty and staff.  

    During an emotional moment, Dr. Knaul tearfully explained how her experience fighting breast cancer has changed her into an optimist “optimalist” – changing a perception from what is negative to something positive and good. Dr. Knaul and Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences Leonidas Bachas will present a panel discussion with Dr. Ana Langer, professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, about the Lancet Women and Health Commission Report on Oct. 2, 2015 at the Shalala Student Center from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. For more information and to RSVP, visit http://www.as.miami.edu/mia/events/.

    Photo caption: Dr. Felica Knaul answers questions after her emotional and informative speech at the Women’s and Gender Studies colloquium luncheon where she discussed her research on global health and breast cancer.

    September 29, 2015

  • Babies Time Their Smiles To Make Their Moms Smile In Return - September 23, 2015

    Babies Time Their Smiles To Make Their Moms Smile In Return

    But they do so while trying to smile as little as possible

    Why do babies smile at their parents? Are they trying to achieve something or is it a random act? In the September 23 issue of PLOS ONE, a team of computer scientists, roboticists, and developmental psychologists confirm what most parents already suspect: when babies smile, they do so with a purpose—to make the person they interact with smile in return.

    In addition, babies reach that goal by using sophisticated timing, much like comedians who time their jokes to maximize audience response. But there is a twist: babies seem to be doing this while smiling as little as possible.

    babies-time-their-smiles-to-make-their-moms-smile-in-return.jpgResearchers detail their findings in an innovative study that combines developmental psychology, computer science, and robotics—an approach that has never been tried before, to the best of the researchers’ knowledge.

    Study co-author Daniel Messinger, a professor of psychology in the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences, has moved this work forward by modeling babies’ responses to brief pauses in interaction to assess their resilience.

    “What makes our study unique is that previous approaches to studying infant-parent interaction essentially describe patterns, but we couldn’t say what the mother or infant is trying to obtain in the interaction,” Messinger said. “Here we find that infants have their own goals in the interaction, even before four months of age.”

    The study is part of an effort funded by the National Science Foundation to use robots to better understand human development. It gives developmental psychologists a tool for studying non-verbal children and adults, such as those with autism, researchers said.

    To verify their findings, researchers programmed a toddler-like robot to behave like the babies they studied and had the robot interact with undergraduate students. They obtained the same results: the robot elicited many smiles from the undergraduates, while smiling as little as possible.

    “If you’ve ever interacted with babies, you suspect that they’re up to something when they’re smiling. They’re not just smiling randomly,” said Javier Movellan, a research scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the study’s authors. “But proving this is difficult.”

    To find out what babies are really up to, researchers turned to optimal control theory, a tool often used in robotics. The method allows researchers to design and program robots to perform a specific behavior based on specific goals. In this study, the researchers used the method to reverse engineer what the babies’ goals were based on their behavior.

    Researchers used data from a previous study that observed the face-to-face interactions of 13 pairs of mothers and infants under the age of four months, including when and how often the mothers and babies smiled. After running the data through their reverse-control theory algorithms, researchers were actually surprised by the findings, said Paul Ruvolo, a professor at Olin College of Engineering and an alumnus of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. “We thought either the babies had no goal or it was about mutual smiling,” he said.

    Researchers are careful to point out that they can’t determine if the babies are conscious of what they’re doing. “We are not claiming that a particular cognitive mechanism, for instance conscious deliberation, is responsible for the observed behaviors. Our methods are agnostic to this question.” Ruvolo said.

    Even though the sample size was small, the findings were statistically strong, said Movellan. The control theory data analysis found that 11 of the 13 babies in the study showed clear signs of intentional smiling. Movellan and his team have been working for several years to program a realistic humanoid robot. “Our goal was to have human development inform the development of social robots,” Ruvolo said.

    So the researchers developed a program that mimicked the babies’ actions and transferred it onto Diego San, a toddler-like robot that Movellan’s team had used for similar studies in the past. Diego San interacted with 32 UC San Diego undergraduates individually during three-minute sessions where it displayed one of four different behaviors. For example, the robot was programmed to smile back every time the undergraduates smiled—a big favorite with the subjects. When Diego San behaved like the babies in the study, the undergraduate students behaved like the babies’ mothers: they smiled a lot even while the robot didn’t smile that much.

    September 23, 2015

  • A New Study Predicts A Quantum Goldilocks Effect - September 22, 2015

    A New Study Predicts A Quantum Goldilocks Effect

    Everything in moderation

    Just as in the well-known children’s story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, something good happens when things are done in moderation, rather than in extremes. Now a new study has translated “not too hot or too cold, just right” to the quantum world and the generation of quantum entanglement – the binding within and between matter and light –and suggests that the universe started “neither too fast nor too slow.”

    By studying a system that couples matter and light together, like the universe itself, researchers have now found that crossing a quantum phase transition at intermediate speeds generates the richest, most complex structure. Such structure resembles “defects” in an otherwise smooth and empty space. The findings are published in Physical Review, the American Physical Society’s main journal. 

     quantum-goldilocks-effect“Our findings suggest that the universe was ‘cooked’ at just the right speeds,” said Neil Johnson, professor of physics in the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences and one of the authors of the study. “Our paper provides a simple model that can be realized in a lab on a chip, to explore how such defect structure develops as the speed of cooking changes.”

    The big mystery concerning the origin of the universe is how the star clusters, planetary systems, galaxies, and other objects that we now see managed to evolve out of nothing. There is a widespread belief within the scientific community that the birth of structure in the universe lies in the crossing of a quantum phase transition and that the faster the transition is crossed, the more structure it generates. The current findings contradict that belief.

    The study sheds new light on how to generate, control, and manipulate quantum entanglement, since the defects contain clusters of quantum entanglement of all sizes. The findings hold the key to a new generation of futuristic technologies—in particular, ultrafast quantum computing, ultrasafe quantum cryptography, high-precision quantum metrology, and even the quantum teleportation of information.

    “Quantum entanglement is like the ‘bitcoin’ that funds the universe in terms of interactions and information,” Johnson said. “It is the magic sauce that connects together all objects in the universe, including light and matter.”

    In the everyday world, a substance can undergo a phase transition at different temperatures; for example, water will turn to ice or steam when sufficiently cold or hot. But in the quantum world, the system can undergo a phase transition at absolute zero temperature, simply by changing the amount of interaction between the light and matter. This phase transition generates quantum entanglement in the process.

    Johnson likes to compare the emergence of highly entangled light-matter structures, as the quantum phase transition is crossed, with the way lumps of porridge appear out of “nothing,” when you heat up milk and oats. “If you cross the transition at the right speed (cook at right speed), the structures (lumps) that appear are far more complex – more ‘tasty’ – than when crossing fast or slow,” said Johnson. “Since it is a quantum phase transition that is being crossed, the structures that appear contain clumps of quantum entanglement.”

    The results of the study, titled “Enhanced dynamic light-matter entanglement from driving neither too fast nor too slow,” are robust for a wide range of system sizes, and the effect is realizable using existing experimental setups under realistic conditions. O.L. Acevedo, from Universidad de los Andes, Colombia, is first author of the study. Other co-authors from Universidad de los Andes are L. Quiroga and F. J. Rodriguez.

    “Understanding quantum entanglement in light-matter systems is arguably the fundamental problem in physics,” Johnson said. The current paper opens up a novel line of investigation in this area. In addition, it provides a unique opportunity to design and build new nanostructure systems that harness and manipulate quantum entanglement effects. The researchers are now looking at specifying the precise conditions that experimentalists will need in order to see the enhanced quantum entanglement effect that they 


    Photo caption: The ‘just right’ structure that emerges when you drive a system containing light and matter (like the universe), neither too fast nor too slow across a quantum phase transition. It illustrates the findings of the study titled “Enhanced dynamic light-matter entanglement from driving neither too fast nor too slow,” published in the journal Physical Review. 

    September 22, 2015

  • Finding Iconicity in Spoken Languages - September 8, 2015

    Finding Iconicity in Spoken Languages

    Researchers from the University of Miami and the University of Wisconsin-Madison show that iconicity is spread across the vocabulary of spoken languages and suggest that iconicity plays a key role in word learning, similar to what is found in signed languages

    ‌Have you ever wondered why we call a dog a dog and not a cat? Is this an arbitrary decision, or is it based on iconicity—the resemblance between word structure and meaning? New research shows that for Indo-European languages, like English and Spanish, iconicity is more common than previously believed.

    The results are important for understanding the nature of human language, explains Lynn Perry, assistant professor of psychology in the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences and co-lead author of the study.

     finding-iconicity-in-spoken-languages“Many linguists are trained to believe that languages are arbitrary.” Perry said. “But sometimes what we as scientists accept as fact leads us to miss out the rich details of experiences,” she said. “We treat learning as this impossibly difficult process because we assume languages are completely arbitrary, but it turns out there’s a lot of structure and information in the language itself that could be making learning easier.”

    The study is the first to show that iconicity is prevalent across the vocabulary of a spoken language, explained Marcus Perlman, postdoctoral research associate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Psychology and co-lead author of the study.

    “It is the nail in the coffin for the theory that languages are essentially arbitrary,” Perlman said.

    Most people are familiar with onomatopoeia, words that imitate a sound; for example, boing—the sound of a bounce, and zip—the sound of moving at high speed. However, words can be imitative or iconic of many different kinds of meanings, not just sounds. For instance, the vowels in the word “tiny” sound small compared to the vowel in “huge,” which sounds big.

    “Scientists have known for a while that people are sensitive to iconicity,” Perry said. “If you show people a novel pointy object and a novel round object, and ask them ‘which of these is a ‘kiki’ and which is a ‘bouba,’’ they are more likely to say that a pointy object is called ‘kiki’ and the round one is called ‘bouba,’ because they sound more pointy and round, respectively.”

    Yet, many researchers believe that unlike signed languages, most spoken languages, especially English, are essentially arbitrary. But no one had actually tested this. The current study set out to test this assumption in a rigorous, comprehensive way. The findings show that in spoken languages, iconicity is not just present in some words and not in others. Instead, it appears in different levels throughout the vocabulary. The findings also show that words learned in childhood are the most iconic, suggesting that iconicity plays an important role in helping children to grasp the concept of a word. ‌

    “Young children face the very considerable challenge of figuring out that all these vocalizations that the people around them are making mean something, and further, that they mean very particular things,” Perlman said. “When words are iconic, the sound of the word instinctively primes its meaning, and this helps children to understand that the sound is a word with a particular meaning, and that words in general have meanings.”

    The study provides new information for professionals in the field of language pathology.

    “Once we better understand why there’s a relationship between a word’s iconicity and the age at which it’s acquired, our results could also have implications for interventions for children with language delays,” Perry said.

    For the study, the researchers developed three experiments in English and two in Spanish, where native speakers were asked to rate the iconicity of about 600 words in their respective language. The findings show that iconicity in English and Spanish varied with grammatical category. For instance, adjectives were rated as more iconic than nouns and functional words, in both languages.

    Interestingly, English verbs were relatively iconic compared to Spanish verbs. The researchers attribute the disparity to semantic differences between the two languages. Many English verbs contain manner information, which predisposes them to be more iconic than Spanish verbs, which do not. For example, in English you’d say “The bottle floated into the cave,” and the verb floated describes how something moved, but in Spanish you’d say “La botella entró a la cueva flotando” (or “The bottle entered [into] the cave floating”) and the verb “entró” doesn’t describe how.

    The study is titled “Iconicity in English and Spanish and its relation to lexical category and age of acquisition,” published online by the journal PLOS ONE. Gary Lupyan, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is also a co-author of the study.

    “There are roughly 7,000 languages spoken and signed around the world, and these languages have been evolving for at least tens of thousands of years, if not many more – and we are just taking a little snap shot of two of them,” Perlman said. “But this snap shot suggests that even modern spoken languages are iconic in important ways.”

    The findings have opened up new areas of inquiry. In the future, the researchers would like to understand why some words sound more like what they mean than others and how the iconicity of words evolves and changes over time, among other subjects.

    September 08, 2015

  • New Model of Cognitive Flexibility Gives Insight into Autism Spectrum Disorder - September 3, 2015

    New Model of Cognitive Flexibility Gives Insight into Autism Spectrum Disorder

    Being in the present means constantly changing: University of Miami researchers propose a model of cognitive flexibility that helps scientists understand autism spectrum disorder and other behavioral and neurological disorders

    ‌‌new-model-of-cognitive-flexibility-gives-insight-into-autism-spectrum-disorder.jpgCoral Gables, Fla. (September 3, 2015) – Cognitive flexibility is the ability to shift our thoughts and adapt our behavior to the changing environment. In other words, it’s one’s ability to disengage from a previous task and respond effectively to a new one. It’s a faculty that most of us take for granted, yet an essential skill to navigate life.

    In a new paper published in the journal Trends in Neurosciences, University of Miami (UM) College of Arts & Sciences researchers clarify many of the concepts surrounding cognitive flexibility and propose a model of its underlying neural mechanisms. The new model may be instrumental in understanding behavioral and neurological disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder.

    “By understanding how the brain attempts to implement cognitive flexibility in a neurodevelopmental disorder like autism, we can better understand the nature of the disorder,” said Dina R. Dajani, Ph.D. student of psychology in the UM College of Arts & Sciences and first author of the study. “The model will inform whether we should try to teach individuals with autism the strategies utilized by typically developing individuals, or instead improve upon already existing strategies of individuals with the disorder.”

    For instance, knowing if there is a simple increase or decrease in connectivity between brain regions compared to healthy individuals, or whether those with autism use entirely different brain regions to implement cognitive flexibility will enable researchers to better design interventions to improve cognitive flexibility skills.

    The more cognitive flexibility an individual has, the greater his or her chances of doing well in life. Previous studies have shown that greater cognitive flexibility relates to better reading abilities as a child, resilience as an adult, and quality of life in the advanced years.

    “Our goal was to summarize and provide directions for future research on a topic that is relevant for understanding several prevalent developmental disorders,” said Lucina Q. Uddin, assistant professor of psychology in the UM College of Arts & Sciences, principal investigator of this study and co-author of the paper. “We believe that a better understanding of the neural systems mediating this critical ability 
    will help clinicians design more effect treatments to help individuals who have difficulty with flexible behaviors in daily life, particularly those with autism.”

    In the paper, the researchers analyzed the existing literature and neuroimaging studies on cognitive flexibility and put forth a hypothesis regarding the fundamental neural mechanisms of this important faculty. The researchers suggests four components that work together to implement cognitive flexibility: salience detection/attention (both achieve similar goals to direct attention to behaviorally relevant events), working memory, inhibition and switching. If their model is validated, it will provide a strong foundation for researchers to use as a basis in determining what may be wrong in individuals with impaired cognitive flexibility.

    “Our concept is quite different from other conceptualizations of cognitive flexibility because we describe it as arising from four separate cognitive operations, whereas other researchers have described it as a manifestation of a single cognitive operation,” Dajani said. “This novel hypothesis may help our understanding of this complex ability.”

    The title of the study is Demystifying cognitive flexibility: Implications for clinical and developmental neuroscience.” The researchers are now using functional neuroimaging to test the “four components” cognitive flexibility hypothesis.

    September 03, 2015

  • Math Professor Shigui Ruan Included Among Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researchers - August 11, 2015

    Math Professor Shigui Ruan Included Among Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researchers

    UM College of Arts & Sciences Professor of Mathematics Shigui Ruan is one of the world’s leading scholars in the sciences, according to Thomson Reuters.

    shigui-ruan

    ‌Thomson Reuters is a major multinational media and information firm, operating in more than 100 countries. It included Ruan in its Highly Cited Researchers listing, which recognizes scholars whose work has been cited frequently by fellow researchers.

    “Essentially, your peers have identified your contributions as being among the most valuable and significant in the field of mathematics,” wrote Thomson Reuters Intellectual Property and Science President Basil Moftah.

    Ruan said, “I am very delighted to be featured in the Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researchers 2014 list. I am pleased that my published work has consistently been judged by my peers worldwide to be of significance.”

    Ruan’s research focuses on nonlinear dynamics of differential equations. He has published articles in mathematical journals including Journal of Differential Equations and Memoirs of the American Mathematical Society

    He also uses mathematical models to study biological, epidemiological and medical problems, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and immune response to HIV infections. 

    “UM is one of the leading research centers internationally for mathematical biology and has a very strong interdisciplinary research team that works together to successfully solve a variety of important ecological and epidemiological research challenges,” Ruan said.

    A. “Parsu” Parasuraman, professor and chair in the School of Business Administration Department of Marketing, was also included on the highly cited list, along with Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science Professor Brian Soden and Philip Harvey, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Director of the Division of Psychology, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

    Thomson Reuters compiled the list by analyzing data using its Web of Science platform to determine which researchers have produced work that is most frequently acknowledged by their peers. It includes about 3,200 individuals. To view the full listing, visit highlycited.com

    August 11, 2015

  • Researchers Identify A Novel Disease Gene Causing Neurodegenerative Disorders - July 13, 2015

    Researchers Identify A Novel Disease Gene Causing Neurodegenerative Disorders

    An international consortium led by University of Miami researchers finds a novel disease gene causing neurodegenerative conditions

    CORAL GABLES, Fla. (July 13, 2015) – Researchers at the University of Miami (UM) have discovered and characterized a previously unknown disease gene linked to the degeneration of optic and peripheral nerve fibers. The study titled “Mutations in SLC25A46, encoding a UGO1-like protein, cause an optic atrophy spectrum disorder” is published in the journal Nature Genetics.

    Patients with mutations in this gene present symptoms similar to optic atrophy and Charcot-Marie-Tooth Type 2 (CMT2), including vision loss and weakening of the lower leg and foot muscles beginning in the first decade of life.

    The novel variants occur in a gene called SLC25A46 that functions in mitochondria, organelles inside animal cells known as the “cellular engines.” They transform food into fuel that allow cells to carry out energy-demanding functions.

    “Mitochondria play a large role in human health,” said Alexander Abrams, Ph.D. student in Neuroscience at the UM Miller School of Medicine and first author of the study. “Although we study rare diseases such as CMT2 and optic atrophy, the implications encompass all forms of neurodegeneration including Lou Gehrig’s and Parkinson's Diseases.”

    Mitochondria constantly undergo fusion and fission to respond to cellular energy demands. By changing their size and connectivity through fusion and fission, mitochondria can travel to regions in cells where they are needed. researchers-identify-a-novel-disease-gene-causing-neurodegenerative-disorders-bio_presentation.jpg

    “Our study reveals that disrupting SLC25A46 causes mitochondria to become both more highly interconnected and improperly localized in cells,” said Julia E. Dallman, assistant professor of Biology in the UM College of Arts and Sciences and a senior author of the study. “These data support a critical role for SLC25A46 and mitochondrial dynamics in the establishment and maintenance of neuronal processes.”

    SLC25A46 encodes an atypical protein in the SLC25 family. SLC25 family members act like a channel, transporting molecules across the bilayer membranes inside mitochondria. But unlike the majority of human SLC25 family members (there are 53) that transport molecules across the inner mitochondrial membrane, SLC25A46 settles on the outer mitochondrial membrane where it regulates mitochondrial dynamics.

    Mutations in the genes associated with mitochondria dynamics OPA1 and MFN2 are linked to similar mitochondrial disorders. Homologous genes in baker’s yeast, work in combination with a gene called UGO1, which has ancestral similarities to SLC25A46. The new findings suggest that the SLC25A46 and Ugo1 proteins may play similar roles.

    Given the similarities between the diseases caused by mutations in OPA1, MFN2 and SLC25A46, these genes could be involved in common pathological mechanisms of neurodegeneration, the study says.

    “This finding builds on our discovery of MFN2 as a major disease gene in this area over 10 years ago,” said Dr. Stephan Züchner, professor and chair of the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Department of Human Genetics, at UM’s Miller School of Medicine, and a senior author of the study. “Only through the new genome sequencing methods and active global data exchange were we able to solve this puzzle.”

    The study is a collaborative effort with investigators from nine universities and research institutions in the United States, Italy and the U.K. Co-authors from the Dr. John T. Macdonald Department of Human Genetics and the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics at the UM Miller School of Medicine are Adriana Rebelo, Ph.D. and Alleene V. Strickland, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellows; Michael A. Gonzalez, Ph. D., graduate; Feifei Tao, Ph.D. student; Fiorella Speziani, former research project manager; Lisa Abreu, clinical research coordinator; Rebecca Schüle, M.D., Ph.D., visiting Marie-Curie Fellow. From the UM Miller School of Medicine co-authors are Antonio Barrientos, Ph.D. in the Department of Neurology; Flavia Fontanesi, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

    IMAGE WITH RELEASE (CREDIT Abrams et al 2015): 
    Left panels: High resolution microscope images showing the donut shaped outer mitochondrial membranes.  SLC25A46 unlike typical mitochondrial transporters localizes to the outer mitochondrial membrane.
    Middle panels: Visualization of the inter-connected mitochondrial network by photoactivation of mitochondria in a HeLa cell.
    Right: Electron micrographs showing a mitochondrial constriction site reminiscent of a mitochondrial fission event.

    July 13, 2015

  • A glimpse into Professor Wilson’s Study of Symbiosis - July 7, 2015

    A glimpse into Professor Wilson’s Study of Symbiosis

    A&S biology professor and students work together to research aphid amino acid transporters. Watch the 4 episodes here.

    (Day’s Edge Productions / NSF funded films)

    SYMBIOSIS - Episode 1: Symbiotic Super Powers from Day's Edge Productions.

    SYMBIOSIS - Episode 2: Aphids Are Weird! from Day's Edge Productions.

    SYMBIOSIS - Episode 3: Inside The Pea Aphid from Day's Edge Productions.

    SYMBIOSIS - Episode 4: From Pests to People from Day's Edge Productions.

    July 07, 2015

  • Predicting Happiness Of Couples Raising Children With Autism - July 6, 2015

    Predicting Happiness Of Couples Raising Children With Autism

    Psychology Researchers at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences find personality traits that predict relationship satisfaction among parents of children with autism spectrum disorder

    CORAL GABLES, Fla. (July 6, 2015) – Parenting can be stressful and parenting children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often means facing more challenges than those experienced by parents of typically developing children. The pressure can take its toll on the parents’ relationship. To understand what helps moms and dads of children with ASD strengthen their bond, psychology researchers at the University of Miami (UM) are examining the individual factors that predict relationship satisfaction for these couples.

    The researchers analyzed the impact that individual traits, such as optimism, social and spouse support, benefit finding and coping styles, have on the relationship satisfaction of parents who have children with ASD. The findings are shared in a study titled “The Power of Positivity: Predictors of Relationship Satisfaction for Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

    The study shows that each of these traits was positively associated with better relationship satisfaction. However, only seeking emotional support, spouse support and benefit finding—the ability to find the good during a bad situation—affected both mothers and fathers. This is the first time a study shows that the effects of positive traits, among parents of children with ASD, extend to parents’ romantic relationships.

    “In our day to day work with families of children with autism, we have been struck by the strength of the parents and the strength of the marital bonds of many families,” said Michael Alessandri, executive director of the UM Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, clinical professor and assistant chair in the UM College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology, and principal investigator of the study. “Instead of perpetuating the ‘doom and gloom’ model of autism's effect on the family, we sought to look at families through a more optimistic lens.”

    Interestingly, optimism—an individual’s expectation about the future—was associated with positive outcomes within the individual, but did not predict their partner’s satisfaction, the study says.

    For the study, 67 couples parenting a child with ASD answered questionnaires designed to measure the impact of five individual traits in relationship satisfaction. The researchers utilized a dyadic model to analyze the responses.

    “We see, in our direct contact with the families of children with ASD that many are coping well, siblings are adjusting, and marriages are thriving,” said Alessandri. “We want to highlight the reasons why those families do well,” he said. “After all, it is the positive outcomes that will truly inform our clinical work and help shape more impactful treatments for families.”predicting-happiness-of-couples-raising-children-with-autism.jpg

    Other important findings of the study include:

    • An individual’s own strength predicted their own increased levels of relationship satisfaction
    • Fathers and mothers did not differ in reported partner support, optimism, or relationship satisfaction
    • Mothers reported higher use of social and instrumental support coping than fathers
    • Mothers reported greater levels of benefit finding compared to fathers
    • More perceived partner support was highly related to partner satisfaction for mothers than fathers
    • Greater satisfaction of one partner was related to greater satisfaction of the other

    “The findings imply that there are factors that could potentially enhance family functioning, marital quality and parenting, and that strengthening these qualities should be the target of family focused interventions,” Alessandri said.

    Naomi V. Ekas, is the first author of the study. She was a post-doctoral student at UM’s Department of Psychology when she worked on the study, and is now an assistant professor at Texas Christian University (TCU). Other co-authors are Christine Ghilain, M.S., graduate student in the UM Department of Psychology and Lisa Timmons and Megan Pruitt, graduate students at TCU.

    The researchers are now focusing their investigation on Hispanic families and siblings. They also hope to expand this work into their intervention research, in an effort to enhance parent training programs and their impact on overall family functioning.

    July 06, 2015

  • New Study Shows Boys Will Be Boys— Sex Differences Aren’t Specific To Autism - June 8, 2015

    New Study Shows Boys Will Be Boys— Sex Differences Aren’t Specific To Autism

    University of Miami researcher leads an international team of scientists in a study showing that sex differences in children with autism are no different than those in other children

    new-study-shows-boys-will-be-boys-sex-differences-arent-specific-to-autism.jpgThere are more boys than girls diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Now, a study led by a University of Miami (UM) researcher shows that behaviors relevant to autism are more frequently observed in boys than in girls, whether they’re at risk of autism or not.

    “The results imply that there may be an overrepresentation of boys with autism, based on sex differences that affect all children,” said Daniel S. Messinger, professor of psychology in the UM College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator of the study. “In other words, the differences between boys and girls with autism are not specific to autism or even risk for autism.”

    The study followed a large sample of boys and girls at high-risk for the disorder and other children at low risk beginning before 18 months of age. One in four high-risk boys were identified with the disorder at three years, compared to one in 10 high-risk girls. The researchers asked how this difference in male-to-female risk of autism spectrum disorder emerged.

    They found that boys with ASD had higher levels of a particular autism symptom (stereotyped behaviors) than girls. The boys with ASD generally had less advanced cognitive and language functioning than the girls. However, the sex differences in stereotyped behaviors and cognitive functioning were also present in children without ASD.

    “We found that girls look a little better than boys in almost every area,” Messinger said. “Children with ASD show typical differences between boys and girls, even though – by virtue of having ASD – they clearly have higher symptoms and cognitive difficulties,” he said. “Our results are important because they show that naturally occurring sex differences characteristic of all children are behind the sex differences we see in autism.”

    The research cast doubt though on a theory called the female protective effect. Some scientists believe that girls are genetically protected from developing the condition. If girls are protected from the risk factors of autism, then it takes more risk factors for girls to develop this condition.

    Since the cause of ASD runs in families, the assumption is that girls are protected from the full impact of the risk factors, but their siblings would have higher levels of ASD recurrence and symptoms, than the siblings of boys with ASD. The current study finds no evidence that younger siblings of girls with ASD have a greater recurrence or symptoms than siblings of ASD boys. It doesn’t matter if the older sibling with autism is a boy or a girl.

    The study, titled “Early sex differences are not autism-specific: a Baby Sibling Research Consortium (BSRC) study,” is published in the journal Molecular Autism. The findings show that one in five of the 1,241 high risk siblings followed in the study developed autism spectrum disorder.

    “There is a lot of interest in sex differences in ASD,” Messinger said. “However, many studies only have access to kids who have an ASD, but that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of sex differences,” he said. “Here we are following low-risk and high-risk kids, who have an older brother or sister with ASD, prospectively, so we can see how sex differences emerge in kids with and without ASD.”

    The researchers are now examining potential sex differences more fine-grained social behaviors and cognition, to investigate the role of genetic variants in ASD in relationship to sex differences.

    June 08, 2015

  • Zebrafish Model Gives New Insight on Autism Spectrum Disorder - May 26, 2015

    Zebrafish Model Gives New Insight on Autism Spectrum Disorder

    University of Miami study of zebrafish reveals how dysfunction of SHANK3 or SYNGAP1 genes play a role in the development of Autism Spectrum Disorder

    Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological condition that affects approximately two percent of people around the world. Although several genes have been linked to multiple concurring conditions of ASD, the process that explains how specific genetic variants lead to behaviors characteristic of the disorder remains elusive.

    zebrafish-modelNow, researchers are utilizing animal models to understand how dysfunction of either of two genes associated with ASD, SYNGAP1and SHANK 3, contributes to risk in ASD. The new findings pinpoint the actual place and time where these genes exert influence in brain development and function. The findings are published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics.

    “The overall goal of our study was to generate and directly compare two zebrafish models of ASD, to gain an in vivo perspective on how ASD genetic variants impact neural circuit development in embryos,” said Julia E. Dallman, assistant professor of biology at the University of Miami (UM) College of Arts and Sciences and lead investigator of the study. “Our work begins to address a major gapin our current understanding of ASD.”

    The findings show that disrupting the expression or “knocking down” either SYNGAP1 or SHANK 3 genes affects early brain development in the mid and hindbrain regions and results in hyper-excitable behaviors.

    “It is well known that genetics plays a significant role in ASD risk and that many genes are involved, but the exact nature of their involvement is not well understood,” said Margaret A. Pericak-Vance, director of the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics, the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Professor of Human Genetics, at the UM Miller School of Medicine and co-author of the study. “The implications of the present study are important as it helps us understand how two ASD related genes, SHANK3 and SYNGAP1, contribute to the development of the disorder.”

    The study is titled “Two knockdown models of the autism genes SYNGAP1 and SHANK3 produce similar behavioral phonotypes associated with embryonic disruptions of brain morphogenesis.” In contrast to previous studies of ASD-linked genes in humans and mice, the current study is conducted in developing zebrafish, because zebrafish embryos are transparent organisms that develop outside the mother, thus allowing the researchers to observe early brain development in the fish.

    The researchers chose to analyze SYNGAP1 and SHANK3 orthologs—genes in different species that have a common ancestor and maintain the same function, since embryonic functions of these ASD-linked genes are unknown.

    The study utilized three groups of fish. In two of the groups, the expression of either SYNGAP 1 or SHANK 3genes was knocked down by injecting a molecule that specifically targets each gene. The third was also injected with a similar molecule, but with no match in the zebrafish genome, so it functioned as a control group. The behavior of larvae in all groups was analyzed by studying their escape responses in the presence of a stimulus.

    The experiments showed that while control larvae swam away from the stimulus, the knock-down larvae had unproductive escape responses, as well as significantly reduced swimming velocities. Moreover, a subset of the knock-down larvae exhibited spontaneous seizure-like behaviors, and there were significant changes in the brain structure of these larvae, indicative of delayed development.

    Together these findings support the emerging opinion that mutations of specific ASD-related genes disrupt early embryogenesis and that these early disruptions play a key role in the development of the disorder.

    The team is now working to determine exactly how early developmental deficits impact later behaviors. In the long-term,they hope to use SYNGAP1 and SHANK3 zebrafish models for drug screening, to identify environmental risk factors and test potential therapies for ASD.

    This work was generously supported by an NIH grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health to Julia Dallman and by funding from both the Seaver Foundation to Joseph Buxbaum and the John P. Hussman Foundation to Margaret Pericak-Vance.

    Robert A. Kozol, graduate research assistant in the UM Department of Biology is first author of the study. Other coauthors from the UM Department of Biology are: James D. Baker, research assistant professor and Bing Zou, graduate student. From the UM John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics: Eden R. Martin, professor of human genetics and public health sciences; Michael L. Cuccaro, professor of human genetics and psychology; John R. Gilbert, professor of human genetics; Holly N. Cukier, assistant scientist; Vera Mayo, research associate; Anthony J. Griswold, associate scientist and Patrice L. Whitehead, research laboratory director. From The Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment Department of Psychiatry, Friedman Brain Institute and Mindich Child Health and Development Institute, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai: Silvia De Rubeis, postdoctoral fellow; Guiqing Cai, clinical molecular genetics fellow; and Joseph D. Buxbaum, professor of psychiatry, neuroscience, genetic and genomic sciences; and from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Institute for Computational Biology, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine: Jonathan L. Haines, professor, chair of the department of epidemiology.

    May 26, 2015

  • Stress Management Techniques Improve Long-Term Mood and Quality of Life in Women Diagnosed with Breast Cancer - March 23, 2015

    Stress Management Techniques Improve Long-Term Mood and Quality of Life in Women Diagnosed with Breast Cancer

    A new study shows that providing women with skills to manage stress early in their breast cancer treatment can improve their mood and quality of life many years later. Published early online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, the findings suggest that women given the opportunity to learn stress management techniques during treatment may benefit well into survivorship.

    stress-management-techniques-improve-long-term-mood-and-quality-of-life-in-women-diagnosed-with-breast-cancer.jpgAt the turn of the century, 240 women with a recent breast cancer diagnosis participated in a randomized trial that tested the effects of a stress management intervention developed by Michael Antoni, Ph.D., professor of psychology in the University of Miami (UM) College of Arts & Sciences. Dr. Antoni and his team in the Department of Psychology found that, compared with patients who received a one-day seminar of education about breast cancer, patients who learned relaxation techniques and new coping skills in a supportive group over 10 weeks experienced improved quality of life and less depressive symptoms during the first year of treatment.

    In their latest report, the researchers found that the women who received the stress management intervention had persistently less depressive symptoms and better quality of life up to 15 years later.

    “Women with breast cancer who participated in the study initially used stress management techniques to cope with the challenges of primary treatment to lower distress. Because these stress management techniques also give women tools to cope with fears of recurrence and disease progression, the present results indicate that these skills can be used to reduce distress and depressed mood and optimize quality of life across the survivorship period as women get on with their lives,” said lead author Jamie Stagl, who is currently at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston.

    Stagl noted that breast cancer survivors in the stress management group reported levels of depression and quality of life at the 15-year follow-up that were similar to what is reported by women without breast cancer. Also, the intervention was helpful for women of various races and ethnic backgrounds. “This is key given the fact that ethnic minority women experience poorer quality of life and outcomes after breast cancer treatment,” said Stagl.

    As survival rates increase for breast cancer, the question of how to maintain psychosocial health becomes increasingly salient. The current findings highlight the possibility that psychologists and social workers may be able to “inoculate” women with stress management skills early in treatment to help them maintain long-term psychosocial health.

    “Because depressive symptoms have been associated with neuroendocrine and inflammatory processes that may influence cancer progression, our ongoing work is examining the effects of stress management on depression and inflammatory biomarkers on the one hand, and disease recurrence and survival on the other,” said Dr. Antoni, who also serves as Director of UM’s Center for Psycho-Oncology Research.

    The study is titled “Long term psychological benefits of cognitive-behavioral stress management for women with breast cancer: 11-year follow-up of a randomized controlled trial.”

    CANCER is a peer-reviewed publication of the American Cancer Society integrating scientific information from worldwide sources for all oncologic specialties. The publication is published by Wiley and can be accessed online at http://wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/cancer.

    March 23, 2015

  • Discovering Age-Specific Brain Changes in Autism - March 20, 2015

    Discovering Age-Specific Brain Changes in Autism

    Researchers at the University of Miami find that large-scale connectivity in autism changes with age

    The field of autism research has tried to find a central theory underlying brain changes associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Now, a new study shows that individuals with the disorder exhibit different patterns of brain connectivity, when compared to typically developing (TD) individuals and that these patterns adjust as the individual ages.

    “Our findings suggest that developmental stage must be taken into account to accurately build models that show how the brains of individuals with autism differ from neurotypical individuals,” said Lucina Uddin, assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Miami (UM) College of Arts & Sciences and corresponding author of the study. “We believe that taking a developmental approach to examining brain connectivity in autism is critical for predicting response to treatment in young children with ASD.”

    Our brain is composed of more than one trillion cells called neurons. They interact with one another to form complex signaling networks. Previous studies have identified patterns of both functional hypo- and hyper-connectivity of these signaling networks in individuals with ASD. The current study, titled “Developmental Changes in Large-Scale Network Connectivity in Autism,” attempts to explain these conflicting results, by indicating that the developmental stage of the individual plays a key role in the findings. The study is published in the journal NeuroImage Clinical.

    Key findings of the study include:

    • * Children (7 to 11) with ASD, exhibit hyper-connectivity within large-scale brain networks, as well as decreased between-network connectivity, when compared to TD children.
    • * Adolescents (age 11 to 18) with ASD do not differ in within network connectivity, but have a decrease in between network connectivity, from TD adolescents.
    • * Adults (older than 18) with ASD show neither within, or between-network differences in functional connectivity compared with typical adults.

    The findings suggest that alterations in the networks of the brain’s cortex may trigger the complex behavioral characteristics observed in individuals with ASD.

     “This study helps us understand the functional organization of brain networks and how they change across the lifespan in autism,” said Jason S. Nomi, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at UM and lead author of the study.

    The researchers are currently working to explicitly characterize an important developmental transition in individuals with autism: the onset of puberty.

    March 20, 2015

  • Traffic Fatalities Spike During Spring Break - March 18, 2015

    Traffic Fatalities Spike During Spring Break

    University of Miami study finds that at popular spring break destinations, there is a spike in traffic fatalities during the spring break season. The authors offer some simple and inexpensive policy suggestions for local governments to reduce the impact.

    CORAL GABLES, Fla. (March 18, 2015) — Come spring break, college students from all over the country travel to warmer climates for time off from school and to escape the cold weather. However, it’s not all fun in the sun. At popular spring break destinations, fatalities from car crashes are significantly higher during the spring break weeks compared to other times of the year, according to a recent study published in the journal Economic Inquiry.

    “We found that between the last week of February and the first week of April, a significantly greater number of traffic fatalities occurred in spring break hot spots compared to other locations in the same states and at other times of the year,” said Michael T French, professor of health economics in the Department of Sociology in the University of Miami (UM) College of Arts and Sciences, and one of the authors of the study. “The primary implication is that roadways are dangerous during the spring break period, not only for spring breakers, but also for the residents and other visitors of popular spring break destinations.”traffic-fatalities-spike-during-spring-break.jpg

    The study examined fatal passenger vehicle crashes for 14 popular spring break destinations located in seven states: Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. The title of the article is “Fast Times During Spring Breaks: Are Traffic Fatalities Another Consequence?

    Key findings include:

    • • The weekly death toll resulting from car crashes in the 14 spring break counties was 9.1 percent higher during the spring break season compared to other weeks of the year.
    • • This translates into 16 more traffic deaths per year in all 14 counties examined.
    • • There was a significantly higher incidence of traffic fatalities that involved out-of-state drivers than in-state drivers.
    • • Fatalities involving drivers younger than 25 years old were far more common than fatalities involving older drivers.
    • • There were no statistically significant differences between traffic fatalities involving drivers with alcohol impairment compared to those with no alcohol impairment.
    • • During the spring break season, there was no significant increase in traffic fatalities in non-spring break counties located in the same states as the spring break counties—supporting a true spring break effect.

    Although previous studies have shown an increase in alcohol consumption during spring break, the current analysis did not find a significantly greater number of traffic fatalities involving alcohol. So, while the results indicate an overall increase in traffic fatalities associated with spring break, it did not disentangle the possible mechanisms.

    The study notes that spring break is an economic boom for host communities, so local governments should consider direct incentives for spring breakers to avoid driving during their stay. For example, any tourist with a valid college I.D. would be eligible for travel vouchers that can be used with taxis, public transportation, and shared ride programs.

    “The out-of-state students could easily pick up these travel vouchers at the local chamber of commerce or visitor centers,” said Gulcin Gumus, assistant professor in the Department of Management Programs at Florida Atlantic University and co-author of the study. “Travel vouchers are far more inexpensive compared to the loss of life.”

    As an extension of the current study, French and Gumus are now analyzing data on pedestrian fatalities in spring break hotspots.

    March 18, 2015

  • The Hidden Burden of Dengue Fever in West Africa - March 2, 2015

    The Hidden Burden of Dengue Fever in West Africa

    University of Miami researcher leads a team of scientists in a study that finds dengue unrecognized and obscured by malaria in Ghana

    Misdiagnosis of febrile illnesses as malaria is a continuing problem in Africa. A new study shows that in Ghana, dengue fever is circulating in urban areas and going undiagnosed. The authors of the study hope to use the findings to launch a widespread initiative to better understand acute undifferentiated febrile illnesses in West Africa.

    “We believe dengue to be one of many diseases with classic fever and headache symptoms that are currently being misdiagnosed as malaria on a massive scale,” said Justin Stoler, assistant professor of Geography in the University of Miami (UM) College of Arts and Sciences, and lead investigator of the study.

    the-hidden-burden-of-dengue-fever-in-west-africa.jpg“The over-prescribing of anti-malarials puts evolutionary pressure on the malaria parasite that risks hastening its resistance to artemisinin-based combination therapy--the frontline drugs used to treat malaria in Africa,” Stoler said. “Such resistance is already spreading across Southeast Asia.” 

    Dengue is not contagious. The disease is transmitted from the bite of an infected mosquito. The study recently published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene is the first to demonstrate evidence of local transmission of dengue virus in Ghana, rather than exposure being limited to cases brought back from other countries.

    Due to limited resources, many healthcare facilities in Ghana use only a clinical examination to presumptively diagnose malaria. However, a definitive diagnosis requires a laboratory test. In 2013, around 45 percent of all child outpatients, and 40 percent of all outpatients, received a clinical diagnosis of malaria after seeking treatment for febrile illness at health care facilities in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. Yet, less than one third of all national malaria diagnoses were confirmed by blood tests.

    Interestingly, the researchers looked for possible exposure to dengue in archived blood samples from children ages 2-14 years old who had been diagnosed with laboratory-confirmed malaria. The samples were collected at local health facilities from 2011 to 2014 in three ecological zones of Ghana: Navrongo, Kintampo, and Accra.

    The findings show that of 218 children with laboratory-confirmed malaria, 21.6 percent tested positive for long-lasting dengue IgG antibodies, which imply any lifetime exposure to dengue virus, while 3.2 percent tested positive for short-term dengue IgM antibodies, which indicate recent exposure, generally in the previous 90 days.

     “If these children who were confirmed to be malaria-positive also tested positive for dengue exposure, imagine what the incidence of dengue could be in unconfirmed malaria cases,” Stoler said. “If these patterns hold in Ghana, then the misdiagnosis burden in other large urban areas in Africa could approach one-third of all outpatient visits, given the large volume of presumed malaria cases in health care facilities”

    The hope for better health outcomes in the region lies in getting the diagnosis right.

    “As the price and accuracy of rapid diagnostic tests and other diagnostic instruments improve, I think we have a chance to really make a difference in clinical settings facing huge burdens of acute undifferentiated febrile infections that I believe are being misdiagnosed,” said Stoler, who also holds a position in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the UM Miller School of Medicine. 

    The study is titled “Evidence of Recent Dengue Exposure among Malaria Parasite-Positive Children in Three Urban Centers in Ghana.” Co-authors are: Rupert K. Delimini, from the University of Ghana and the Kintampo Health Research Centre; Julius N. Fobil, J. H. Kofi Bonney, and Gordon A. Awandare, from the University of Ghana; Abraham R. Oduro, from Navrongo Health Research Centre in Ghana; and Seth Owusu-Agyei, from Kintampo Health Research Centre.

    March 02, 2015

  • Minds at Attention: Military and Mindfulness - February 12, 2015

    Minds at Attention: Military and Mindfulness

    A New Study Led by a University of Miami Neuroscientist Finds that Even Short-Form Mindfulness Meditation Training Can Help Active Duty Soldiers Perform Better and Improve Cognitive Resilience

    Rather than the calm before the storm, the period before soldiers are deployed to a conflict zone is a time of extremely high demand and intense stress. Soldiers receive intensive training for the mission, while psychologically preparing to leave loved ones to face a dangerous, high-stress, high-performance environment. Although the goal of the predeployment period is to ensure that soldiers are prepared for the mission, studies have shown the presence of impaired cognitive functioning and psychological health during this critical interval.

    Amidst continuing deployments of U.S. soldiers to the world’s hotspots to assist in missions related to fighting terrorism or the Ebola virus, a University of Miami (UM) study led by neuroscientist Amishi Jha, has made a significant discovery that expands increasing scientific evidence that one of the best ways to protect soldiers may be by training their own minds.

    minds-at-attention-military-and-mindfulness
    Amishi Jha (center), with Brigadier General Nixon and Colonel 
    Guthrie

    The success of military operations requires that a high volume of information, arriving at fast pace under potentially ambiguous circumstances, be used to make quick decisions and take decisive action. Yet, access to the best intelligence or equipment is of little use if a soldier’s mind is distracted. Errors resulting from soldier’s own attentional lapses may lead to life-long suffering due to physical, psychological, or moral injury.

    “Soldiers are experts at standing at attention,” said Jha, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the UM College of Arts and Sciences, and principal investigator of this project. “However, maintaining a mind at attention under the intense physical, emotional and cognitive demands they face, is a more difficult task.” 

    Attentional lapses and mind wandering (or off-task thinking) signal a distracted mind that is prone to errors. This study has demonstrated a positive link between mindfulness training (MT), and protection against attentional lapses and mind wandering. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware and attentive of the present moment without emotional reactivity or volatility. 

    Jha’s prior research found that military service members who received 24 hours of MT benefited in their mood and cognitive performance based on how much time they spent engaging in mindfulness practices daily. The current study went a step further, seeking to investigate which aspects of MT programs work best to curb attentional lapses and mind wandering when training is shortened to eight hours over eight weeks. 

    The results of the study, funded by the U.S. Department of the Army, are significant because during the stress-filled and high-demand predeployment period, soldiers do not have the time to devote to a lengthier MT regimen. However, this is a time period in which they may need it most.

    Likewise, the findings are important for civilians in high-stress, high-performance jobs, whose time is extremely limited. 

    “Moment-to-moment information from the environment is necessary to ensure quick, decisive action. In addition to soldiers, police officers, firefighters, trauma surgeons, day traders, pilots, and athletes may all benefit from short-form mindfulness training to curb attentional lapses and mind wandering,” added Jha.

    "With the continued deployment of our soldiers to face complex threats around the world, these results are a critical addition to our ever-evolving readiness and resiliency toolkit," said MG Walter Piatt, Deputy Commanding General of the U.S. Army in Europe. "Ensuring our men and women are both mentally and physically prepared is essential to mission success,” he said. “This study provides important information to help us do that."

    The researchers studied three groups of military service members, offering MT to two of the groups, comprising a total of 75 soldiers at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, eight to ten months before deployment to Afghanistan. The study measured attention and performance by looking at the impact of short-form MT on soldiers’ results on a Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART), a test designed to measure attentional lapses and mind wandering.

    One of the two groups receiving MT received a type of Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)® which emphasized engagement in MT exercises during each of the class meetings. The second group received a version of MMFT® primarily comprising didactic information and discussions focused on stress and resilience. The third group of 17 U.S. Marine reservists tested during their predeployment training interval received no training and served as a military control group. The study also included a civilian group who also received no training.

    While the SART scores in civilians remained stable over eight weeks of typical civilian life, scores significantly declined in the military control group, underscoring the deleterious effects of the demands of predeployment interval on attention. After the eight-week course, the MT group with training emphasis outperformed the group with the didactic emphasis as well as the no-training military control group.

    Soldiers in both groups who received MT, reported being more aware of their attention compared to the military control group at the end of the eight weeks.

    In sum, scientists found that training-focused MT promotes cognitive resilience by protecting against degradation of attention during high-stress periods.

    The study titled “Minds ‘at Attention’: Mindfulness Training Curbs Attentional Lapses in Military Cohorts” is published online ahead of print by PLOS ONE. Additional authors who contributed to the study are: Alexandra B. Morrison, Ph.D. Suzanne Parker and Nina Rostrup, of the University of Miami, Justin Dainer-Best, of the University of Texas at Austin, and Elizabeth A. Stanley, Ph.D. of the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of Government, Georgetown University. She is the creator of MMFT® and member of the Board of Directors of the Mind Fitness Training Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) established to support the delivery of MMFT®.

    February 12, 2015

  • Climate Affects The Development of Human Speech - January 26, 2015

    Climate Affects The Development of Human Speech

    Researchers from the University of Miami, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics discover a correlation between climate and the evolution of language

    climate-affects-the-development-of-human-speech.jpgAn interesting question, one that linguists have long debated, is whether climate and geography affect language. The challenge has been to untangle the factors that cause sounds to change.

    To find a relationship between the climate and the evolution of language, one needs to discover an association between the environment and vocal sounds that is consistent throughout the world and present in different languages. And that is precisely what a group of researchers has done.

    Many languages of the world use tone or pitch to give meaning to their words. University of Miami (UM) linguist Caleb Everett and his collaborators have uncovered that languages with complex tones --those that use three or more tones for sound contrast -- are much more likely to occur in humid regions of the world, while languages with simple tone occur more frequently in desiccated regions, whether frigid areas or dry deserts.

    “In my estimation, it changes a bit our understanding of how languages evolve,” said Everett, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the UM College of Arts and Sciences, and lead investigator of this project. “It does not imply that languages are completely determined by climate, but that climate can, over the long haul, be one of the factors that helps shape languages.”

    “More broadly, this suggests another non-conscious way in which humans have adapted to their very different and harsh environments,” Everett said.  “Also, there may be some health benefits to certain sound patterns in certain climates, but more research is needed to establish that in a satisfactory way.”

    One explanation, supported by extensive experimental data discussed in the study, is that inhaling dry air causes laryngeal dehydration and decreases vocal fold elasticity. It’s probably more difficult to achieve complex tones in arid climates—particularly very cold ones—when contrasted to warmer and more humid climates. The result is that deviations of sounds, including increased jitter and shimmer, are associated with very cold or desiccated climates, the study says.

    The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They provide extensive evidence that sound systems of human languages are adaptive and can be influenced by climate. The findings are supported by data relating to over half of the world’s languages and to previous extensive experimental research on the properties of the human larynx that affect tonality.

    The team examined more than 3,700 languages and found 629 languages with complex tones. Most were found in tropical regions, throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, but also in some humid regions of North America, Amazonia and New Guinea.

    The study is titled “Climate, vocal folds, and tonal languages: Connecting the physiological and geographic dots.” Co-authors are Damian E. Blasi and Sean Roberts, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.

    January 26, 2015

  • Nation’s Top Zebrafish Experts Gather at UM College of Arts & Sciences for Research Symposium - January 14, 2015

    Nation’s Top Zebrafish Experts Gather at UM College of Arts & Sciences for Research Symposium

    Zebrafish Help Scientists Answer Big Questions about Genetics and Diseases

    Zebrafish are only about one inch long – but these tiny fish are helping scientists answer big questions about genetics and how diseases emerge.

    Zebrafish embryos are clear, and they grow outside of the mother’s body, allowing researchers to observe their development from the moment an egg is fertilized. In just two days, cells differentiate into separate organs, and the fish are capable of many actions – all available to view in real time under a microscope.

    Some of the nation’s top zebrafish researchers gathered at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences this week for the Tales of Discovery Symposium: Answering Cutting-Edge Research Questions with Zebrafish. It was organized by Julia Dallman and Isaac Skromne, both assistant professors of biology in the College, and Marisa Hightower, senior program manager for SEEDS (a UM-wide program aimed at fostering diversity across all three campuses).

    nations-top-zebrafish-experts-gather-at-um-college-of-arts--sciences-for-research-symposium.jpgEight leading scientists presented their work with zebrafish during the event. Participants also had a chance to attend a poster session where undergraduate and graduate students working with these distinguished faculty members shared their work. Fourteen projects showed the promise of future research using zebrafish, such as identifying genes that cause hereditary deafness in humans.

    Dallman called zebrafish “the model organism,” sharing her studies to determine how mutated genes that cause diseases differ from normal genes. She described a study on Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which affects neurons with long axons – particularly the foot and lower leg muscles. It affects about 1 in 2,500 people in America. Watching the neurons develop in zebrafish is yielding some clues as to how this inherited neurological disorder progresses in humans.

    ‌Lisa Ganser is an assistant professor at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University. She worked with Dallman and Associate Professor John Lu while earning her Ph.D. at UM, and incorporates zebrafish in her studies on how chemicals affect the development of neural behaviors.

    “Zebrafish can respond to stimuli within 24 hours,” she explained, discussing her research on the effects of Adderall – a drug that helps children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder focus. Ganser and her colleagues have found that the drug “prevents zebrafish from responding to stimuli appropriately,” and they are looking to determine: “How does it disrupt communication within the brain?”

    Harvard Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Florian Engert presented one of the keynote addresses, describing his work mapping neural activity in zebrafish. He and two students devised a novel experiment, using a laser to expose five- to seven-day-old zebrafish embryos to an unpleasant (but not dangerous) amount of heat. The fish “learned” to flick their tails in a designated direction in order to turn off the heat. The whole time, Engert and the team monitored their brain, watching as the neurons fired and the tiny subjects figured out how to achieve their desired result.

    The second keynote speaker was Cecilia B. Moens, a professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, who spoke about neuron cell migration. Both she and Engert gave longer presentations at the Miller School of Medicine while on campus.

    Other presenters were Lu and Skromne, and Jeffrey Plunkett, associate professor at St. Thomas University.

    The event concluded with guided tours of UM’s state-of-the-art zebrafish facility.

    The symposium was sponsored by a SEEDS You Choose Award to Dallman and Skromne; the UM College of Arts & Sciences and its Department of Biology, and the Miller School of Medicine’s Neuroscience Program; the Society for Developmental Biology; and Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems, which sells equipment for planning and maintaining zebrafish colonies in labs.

    Attendees included researchers and faculty from local universities and Miami-Dade high schools.

     

    January 14, 2015

  • Research on Emergence of Autism Receives Funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) - August 9, 2013

    Research on Emergence of Autism Receives Funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)

    The National Institute of General Medical Sciences has funded new research lead by Daniel Messinger, Professor of Psychology, for the mathematical modeling of autism data with genetic markers. The project, titled “Modeling the Dynamics of Early Communication and Development,” will focus on early infant-parent relationships, which is central to understanding social development.

    research-on-emergence-of-autism-receives-funding-from-the-national-institute-of-general-medical-sciences-nigms.jpgThe modeling of communicative behavior and related genetic markers in infant and mother will increase understanding of pathways to healthy cognitive and socio-emotional development, and shed light on the potential for change in early intervention efforts.‌

    ‌“The focus is modeling the development of communication to better understand how autism and similar disorders emerge,” said Messinger. “We will do this by objectively measuring behavior with computer software, modeling the development of communication, and relating that communication to common genetic variants in both parent and child.” 

    Infant-mother interaction will be studied at 2, 4, 6, and 8 months using the Face-to-Face/Still-Face (FFSF) procedure, a method of identifying Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in early childhood which interprets a child’s response to their parent. Facial, head, and arm/hand modeling will be used to conduct objective measurements of the parents’ interactive behaviors, including facial expression, gaze direction, head movement, tickling, and vocalization. 
    The project, which involves researchers from the University of North Carolina, the University of Pittsburg as well as University of Miami researchers involve Neil Johnson, at the complexity center in Physics, and Eden Martin, in Human Genetics. This interdisciplinary team includes investigators from developmental and quantitative psychology, genetics, affective computing, computer vision, and physics who model dynamic interactive processes at a variety of time scales. Utilizing the expertise of University’s faculty, the creation of this genetically informed modeling of the infant-mother interaction will help describe the diversity of early developmental pathways and the potential deviations from those pathways. 

    The mission of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) is to support research that increases understanding of life processes and lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention. NIGMS-funded researchers seek to answer important scientific questions in fields such as cell biology, biophysics, genetics, developmental biology, pharmacology, physiology, biological chemistry, biomedical technology, bioinformatics, computational biology, selected aspects of the behavioral sciences and specific cross-cutting clinical areas that affect multiple organ systems. To assure the vitality and continued productivity of the research enterprise, NIGMS also provides leadership in training the next generation of scientists as well as in developing and increasing the diversity of the scientific workforce.

    August 09, 2013

  • Geography Professor Studies Sachet Water in Africa - June 28, 2013

    Geography Professor Studies Sachet Water in Africa

    Many of West Africa’s largest cities continue to lag in supplying piped water to residents. Filling the service gap are plastic water sachets, which have become an important source of drinking water for the region. This industry provides many jobs and improves access to clean drinking water. Yet unintended social and environmental consequences associated with the widespread use of sachet water continues to stir controversy.

    A new study by Justin Stoler, assistant professor of geography and regional studies at the University of Miami’s College of Arts and Sciences, examines the demographics of sachet water usage in Ghana’s capital, Accra, and analyzes the roles that poverty, environment, and social justice play in relation to urban water security. Stoler hopes to guide policymakers on one of the most pressing issues in West Africa—meeting universal drinking water needs.

    “My overarching goal is to provide an evidence-based framework for decision-making about the regulation of the sachet water industry and to make sure that any new policies create the greatest benefits for the people, without further marginalizing the city's most desperate citizens,” says Stoler.

    The new findings reveal how sachet consumption in Accra has transitioned from higher- to lower-income populations.

    “The biggest surprise from a collective body work is how the burden of sachet water dependency falls on the poorest of the poor in Accra’s slums,” says Stoler, who also holds an appointment in the Department of Public Health Sciences at UM’s Miller School of Medicine.

    The Accra Metropolitan Area is home to 2.4 million people, according to the 2010 census, and an estimated 75 percent of households lack 24-hour water access while 10 percent have no access at all. Unable to distribute water to all piped neighborhoods simultaneously, the government has instituted a water-rationing scheme in which some neighborhoods only receive piped water at certain times of specific days. “We study Accra as an example of what can happen to human health in a city experiencing intense urbanization and population growth with very little urban planning,” Stoler says.

    In Ghana there are many brands of sachet water. The bags are sealed, single, 500 ml plastic sleeves that are filled with water from the municipal system or private wells. But the development comes with its share of problems.

    “Sachet water manufacturers pump water from areas with the best water pressure and rationing rules, and by doing so, they are potentially creating water scarcity somewhere down the pipe network,” Stoler says.

    Once used, sachet wrappers are commonly thrown in city streets and gutters, creating an environmental sanitation problem. “In Accra the gutters and storm drains are often filled with trash and get particularly clogged from all the plastic sleeves of discarded sachets and other beverages. This increases the likelihood of flooding and exposure to untreated sewage in many communities,” Stoler says.

    Sachet water presents many tradeoffs, but it remains an under-studied topic. For the project, the researchers used a 2008-09 community-based population survey of 2,814 Accra women conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, the University of Ghana at Legon, and San Diego State University. The survey broadly inventoried a number of health and welfare characteristics, including water consumption habits and related risks.

    The findings are published in the June 19 issue of PLOS ONE in an article titled “Drinking Water in Transition: A Multilevel Cross-sectional Analysis of Sachet Water Consumption in Accra.” Co-authors of the study are John R. Weeks, distinguished professor of geography at San Diego State University, and Richard Appiah Otoo, geographic information systems office manager at Ghana Urban Water Ltd.

    Stoler and his collaborators are expanding their work to include Accra’s peripheral urban areas. They will explore the economic impact of water insecurity in the form of “opportunity cost,” that is, the educational and job opportunities people forego because of the time and energy they invest in finding clean water.

    June 28, 2013

  • Chemists shed light on biological processes with glowing molecules - April 10, 2013

    Chemists shed light on biological processes with glowing molecules

    University of Miami scientists have developed a way to switch fluorescent molecules on and off within aqueous environments, by strategically trapping the molecules inside water-soluble particles and controlling them with ultraviolet light. The new system can be used to develop better fluorescent probes for biomedical research.

    Previous studies have used water-soluble particles to bring organic molecules into water. What is novel about this system is the use of a photoswitching mechanism in combination with these particles.

    Francisco Raymo, professor of chemistry
    Francisco Raymo, professor of chemistry.

    The findings published online by Chemistry-A European Journal, describe the creation of a fluorescent photoswitchable system that is more efficient than current technologies, says Francisco Raymo, professor of chemistry at the UM College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator of this study.

    "Finding a way to switch fluorescence inside cells is one of the main challenges in the development of fluorescent probes for bioimaging applications," Raymo says. "Our fluorescent switches can be operated in water efficiently, offering the opportunity to image biological samples with resolution at the nanometer level."

    Fluorescent molecules are not water soluble; therefore Raymo and his team created their system by embedding fluorescent molecules in synthetic water-soluble nanoparticles called polymers that serve as transport vehicles into living cells. Once inside the cell, the fluorescence of the molecules trapped within the nanoparticles can be turned on and off under optical control.

    "The polymers can preserve the properties of the fluorescent molecules and at the same time assist the transfer of the molecules into water," Raymo says. "It's a bit like having a fish in a bowl, so the fish can carry on with its activities in the bowl and the whole bowl can be transferred into a different environment."

    The new system is faster and more stable than current methods. The fluorescent molecules glow when exposed simultaneously to ultraviolet and visible light and revert back to their original non-luminous state in less than 10 microseconds after the ultraviolet light is removed.

    Image of live cells incubated with the polymer nanoparticles.
    Live cells incubated with the polymer nanoparticles. The green color is the fluorescence coming from the molecules trapped within the nanoparticles.

    By using engineered synthetic molecules, the new system is able to overcome the natural wear down process that organic molecules are subject to when exposed to ultraviolet light.

    "The system can be switched back and forth between the fluorescent and non-fluorescent states for hundreds of cycles, without sign of degradation," Raymo says.

    The surface of the system can be customize to help it attach to specific molecules of interests, thus allowing researchers to visualize structures and activity within cells, in real time, with a resolution that would otherwise be impossible to achieve.

    Raymo and his team will continue improving the properties of the molecules for future biomedical applications. The study is titled "Fast Fluorescence Switching within Hydrophilic Supramolecular Assemblies" Co-authors are Janet Cusido, Mutlu Battal, Erhan Deniz and Ibrahim Yildiz,Ph.D., students in the Department of Chemistry at UM; and Salvatore Sortino, associate professor of chemistry in the Department of Drug Sciences, University of Catania, Italy. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

    The University of Miami's mission is to educate and nurture students, to create knowledge, and to provide service to our community and beyond. Committed to excellence and proud of the diversity of our University family, we strive to develop future leaders of our nation and the world. www.miami.edu.

    University of Miami Communications contributed this report.

    April 10, 2013

  • Mathematics of Life - April 4, 2013

    Mathematics of Life

    A three-day workshop held by the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Mathematics examined the role of dispersal in life and health sciences.

    The Department of Mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences held a three-day workshop to share research and examine how the movement and dispersal of organisms affect spatial ecology, environmental science, and epidemiology.

    The “Everything Disperses to Miami: The Role of Movement and Dispersal in Spatial Ecology, Epidemiology and Environmental Science” workshop (EDM), held December 14-16, united more than 125 scientists and mathematicians who research dispersal, including many who work to create credible mathematical models of how organisms move through the world. UM has become a global leader in using mathematics and modeling to understand the role of dispersal in ecological systems.

    “Your scholarship has broad implications for the future of our planet, helping all of us to anticipate, identify, and address emerging issues of sustainability, biodiversity, human development, and disease,” said Leonidas Bachas, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

    The workshop featured plenary talks on important current research as well as special sessions on six specific topic areas: epidemiology through the lens of ecology, the evolution of dispersal, non-local dispersal in ecology and epidemiology, the impact of global change in ecology and epidemiology, recent advances in nonlinear analysis and partial differential equations arising from models of biological dispersal, and recent synergies between state-of-the-art empirical and theoretical advances in the study of dispersal.

    Featured speakers included Don DeAngelis of UM and the United States Geological Survey; William Fagan of the University of Maryland and National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center; Suzanne Lenhart of the University of Tennessee and National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis; Yuan Lou of the Ohio State University and Mathematical Biosciences Institute; Wei-Ming Ni of the University of Minnesota, East China Normal University, and the Center for Partial Differential Equations at ECNU; and Jianhong Wu of York University and its Centre for Disease Modeling.

    “The meeting demonstrated just how broad the scope of inquiry regarding dispersal has become,” said Stephen Cantrell, professor in UM’s Department of Mathematics. “We had participants from both sides of the math-bio interface and all points in between and brought together many folks who otherwise might not have met. Our hope is that new research collaborations integrating mathematics and biology will arise as a result.”

    EDM was sponsored by the UM Institute for Theoretical and Mathematical Ecology, the Department of Mathematics, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the Mathematical Biosciences Institute at Ohio State University, and the National Science Foundation.

    April 04, 2013

  • Moms’ Sensitivity Helps Language Development in Children with Hearing Loss - April 4, 2013

    Moms’ Sensitivity Helps Language Development in Children with Hearing Loss

    March 26, 2013 — Coral Gables — Children with cochlear implants who receive positive and emotional support from their mothers develop language skills at a faster rate, almost "catching up" to children with normal hearing, according to a study by a University of Miami psychologist.

    “I was surprised that maternal sensitivity had such strong and consistent effects on oral language learning,” said Alexandra L. Quittner, lead investigator of the study and director of the Child Division in the Department of Psychology in UM's College of Arts and Sciences. The results of study, one of the largest and most representative on the effects of parenting on young deaf children who wear cochlear implants, are published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

    “The findings indicate that pediatric cochlear implant programs should offer parent training that facilitates a more positive parent-child relationship and fosters the child's development of autonomy and positive regard,” Quittner said.

    Her study investigated the role of parental behavior in language growth for deaf children. Maternal sensitivity was measured in videotaped interactions with the child and defined as the degree to which a mother expressed positive regard and emotional support of the child.

    The study included 188 children, ages five months to 5 years of age, with severe to profound haring loss. In addition to analyzing the effects of maternal sensitivity on language development, the study also looks at the impact of cognitive and language stimulation. Parent-child interactions observed and coded included free play, puzzle solving, and an art gallery task with five posters mounted at different heights on the walls of the playroom.

    The largest improvements in language development were observed in children whose parents displayed high sensitivity; Language stimulation was also an important predictor of language gains but was most effective when delivered in a sensitive manner. Deaf children with sensitive parents had only a 1 year delay in oral language compared to. 2.5 years among those with less sensitive parents.

    This cohort of deaf and hearing children has now been followed for approximately eight years post-implantation; The National Institutes of Health recently funded the competitive renewal, allowing the researchers to follow them for another five years into adolescence. It will focus on their cognitive and social development as well as their academic achievement.
    Contributors include the UM Cochlear Implant Team, including the director of the Barton G Kids Hear Now Program, Ivette Cejas, assistant professor, Department of Otolaryngology; David Barker, assistant professor at Brown University; John Niparko, chair of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Southern California (USC); Laurie Eisenberg, clinical professor at USC and House Ear Institute, and Emily Tobey, professor at the University of Texas in Dallas.

    April 04, 2013

  • Raising a Child with Autism - May 4, 2016

    Raising a Child with Autism

    Research sheds light on relationship between optimism, coping strategies, and depressive symptoms of Hispanic parents of children with autism

    Humans are resilient, even facing the toughest of life’s challenges. How individuals and families deal with demanding and emotionally charged circumstances plays a large role in how they view and face the world and the possible outcomes of a difficult situation. There’s no exception for the challenging Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and how families adjust and cope with the reported stress of raising a child with autism.

    In the first known study of its kind, University of Miami (UM) College of Arts and Sciences psychologists Dr. Michael Alessandri and Hoa Lam Schneider worked with Texas Christian University researchers to further the understanding of the relationship between optimism, coping strategies, and depressive symptoms among Hispanic mothers and fathers of children with autism.

    Most research on ASD tends to focus on the negative aspects of how parents handle having a child with the disorder, such as exhibiting depressive symptoms or maladaptive behaviors.

    “Parents are really resilient and we wanted to learn the positive aspects of how they adjust when raising a child with ASD, as well as the specific coping strategies they are using,” said Schneider, graduate student in the child clinical psychology program at UM’s College of Arts and Sciences.

    Focusing on the positive coping strategies and characteristics such as optimism is especially important for clinical psychologists in helping families adjust to raising a child with ASD.

    “Our hope is that by identifying these stress-buffering qualities we may be able to tailor clinical interventions for families in a way that affords them the opportunity to strengthen these personal characteristics and responses,” said Alessandri, clinical professor of psychology at UM and executive director of the UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD).

    raising-a-child-with-autism
    ‌The psychologists also studied the gender and ethnic similarities and differences between Hispanic parents and the larger general population of non-Hispanic families. Their reason for focusing on Hispanic families was two-fold – not only does South Florida provide a rich source of data on Hispanic parents but there is also a dearth of autism research that focuses on ethnicity.

    Though there are many similarities between ethnic groups, there are some differences, particularly involving the use of religious coping strategies. Hispanics tend to rely more on their religious faith as a coping strategy compared to non-Hispanic families.

    Hispanic families are in turn more likely to use religious coping styles positively and view the challenge of raising a child with ASD as a test of their faith and part of a divine plan. Whereas non-Hispanic families who use religious coping strategies tend to use these techniques more negatively, viewing their circumstances as divine punishment, and then often engaging in denial and substance abuse to avoid dealing with their circumstances.

    The researchers also discovered that there were little to no gender differences between Hispanic mothers and fathers in this study.

    The team hopes to further their research on autism by uncovering some of the nuances within ethnic and cultural differences, such as acculturation, ideas about mental health and its treatment, and country of ancestral origin. They also hope to gain insight into Hispanic families across the socioeconomic spectrum.

    “The coping experience, we imagine, is even more impacted by socioeconomic factors than race or ethnicity factors, but it continues to be challenging to recruit these diverse samples,” said Alessandri.

    Though they are “just hitting the tip of the iceberg in understanding cultural and ethnic differences,” said Schneider, the team is one of the few in the field diving deep to help answer some of these questions, with the ultimate goal of providing more targeted counseling and clinical support to families with children with ASD.

    The study was first published online in March 2016 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders and co-authored by Texas Christian University undergraduate student Kelcie Willis and assistant professor Naomi K. Ekas, a former UM postdoctoral researcher in psychology.

    May 04, 2016

  • UM Researchers Develop Blueprint to Thwart ISIS Online - June 16, 2016

    UM Researchers Develop Blueprint to Thwart ISIS Online

    ‌A team of University of Miami researchers has developed a model to identify behavioral patterns among serious online groups of ISIS supporters that could provide cyber police and other anti-terror watchdogs a roadmap to their activity and indicators when conditions are ripe for the onset of real-world attacks.

    ‌The researchers, who identified and analyzed second-by-second online records of 196 pro-ISIS groups operating during the first eight months of 2015, found that even though most of the 108,000-plus individual members of these self-organized groups probably never met, they had a striking ability to adapt and extend their online longevity, increase their size and number, reincarnate when shut down—and inspire “lone wolves” with no history of extremism to carry out horrific attacks like the nation’s deadliest mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando this week.

    um-researchers-develop-blueprint-to-thwart-isis-online-2.jpg
    Dr. Neil Johnson, physics professor at UM College of Arts and Sciences, 
    studied the connection and connectivity of pro-ISIS olnine groups.
    "It was like watching crystals forming. We were able to see how people were materializing around certain social groups; they were discussing and sharing information—all in real-time,” said Neil Johnson, a physicist in the College of Arts and Sciences who uses the laws of physics to study the collective behavior of not only particles but people. “The question is: Can there be a signal of how people are coming collectively together to do something without a proper system in place?” 

    The answer, according to the study, “New online ecology of adversarial aggregates: ISIS and beyond,” to be published in the journal Science on June 17, is yes. Generalizing a mathematical equation commonly used in physics and chemistry to the development and growth of ad hoc pro-ISIS groups, Johnson and his research team witnessed the daily interactions that drove online support for these groups, or “aggregates,” and how they coalesced and proliferated prior to the onset of real-world campaigns.

    The researchers suggest that by concentrating just on these relatively few groups of serious followers—those that discuss operational details like routes for financing and avoiding drone strikes—cyber police and other anti-terrorist watchdogs could monitor their buildup and transitions and thwart the potential onset of a burst of violence.

    “This removes the guess work. With that road map, law enforcement can better navigate what is going on, who is doing what, while state security agencies can better monitor what might be developing,” Johnson said. “So the message is: Find the aggregates—or at least a representative portion of them—and you have your hand on the pulse of the entire organization, in a way that you never could if you were to sift through the millions of Internet users and track specific individuals, or specific hashtags,” Johnson said.

    While the Johnson team concentrated on the ecology of collective behavior, not on single individuals, he said their roadmap could eventually help security officials track individuals like Omar Mateen, who claimed allegiance to ISIS and other extremist groups while killing 49 people and wounding 53 others at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub early Sunday. Authorities say the New York-born Florida man was a lone actor who was radicalized online.

    “Our research suggests that any online ‘lone wolf’ actor will only truly be alone for short periods of time,” Johnson said. “As a result of the coalescence process that we observe in the online activity, any such lone wolf was either recently in an aggregate or will soon be in another one. With time, we would be able to track the trajectories of individuals through this ecology of aggregates.”

    For the study, Johnson and his research team monitored pro-ISIS groups on VKontakte, the largest online social networking service in Europe, which is based in Russia and has more than 350 million users from multiple cultures who speak multiple languages. Unlike on Facebook, which very quickly shuts down these groups, they are able to survive longer on VKontakte
    um-researchers-develop-blueprint-to-thwart-isis-online-2.jpg
    Dr. Johnson and his team studied pro-ISIS groups on the European-based social media site, VKontakte.

    The researchers began their online search of pro-ISIS chatter manually, identifying specific social media hashtags, in multiple languages, which they used as “signals” to trace the more serious groups. Study co-author Stefan Wuchty, a computer science professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and member of the Center for Computational Science, compared the hashtag search to throwing a stone in a lake, watching the ripples, then following each one.


    The hashtags were tracked to the online groups, and the data was fed into a software system that mounted the search; the results were repeated until the chase lead back to groups previously traced in the system. The mathematical equation Johnson and his team borrowed from chemistry and illustrated the fluctuation of online groups and pointed to possible predictions.“The mathematics perfectly describes what we saw in real-time—how big and quickly these online groups grew and how quickly they were shut down by agencies or other monitoring groups,” Johnson said.As cyber police or other anti-terror entities got better at shutting down the groups, Johnson and his team watched the groups reincarnate by changing their names and identities, or shutting themselves down and going quiet, as if they were in stealth mode, only to reappear under a different identity later.

    “Much of the scientific community is focusing on different explanations as to why social media is so important, and I think we found research that presents a kind of crystallization method, looking at the dynamics of these groups and how they crystalize, appear, and morph into other groups.”

    Johnson and his team’s quest to distinguish serious pro-ISIS support from casual chatter began largely by coincidence in 2014, when he was working on a grant from the U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity to develop a model for predicting unrest or mass protest based on online activity. Just as that grant was concluding, ISIS emerged on the world stage, becoming a feared and familiar household name after the beheading of one then another U.S. journalist on camera. More would follow.

    The second journalist to lose his life in such a ghastly fashion, Miami native Steven Sotloff, has ties to the University of Miami. To honor their son’s work overseas, his parents established the 2Lives: Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial Foundation, which  awarded its first Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial Endowed Scholarship to a UM student in the School of Communication.

    In addition to Johnson and Wuchty, other coauthors of the Science study are UM’s Yulia Vorobyeva and Nicolas Velazquez, of the Department of International Studies; Minzhang Zheng, Andrew Gabriel, Hong Qi, Pedro Manrique, and Chaoming Song, all from the Department of Physics; Elvira Restrepo, of the Department of Geography and Regional Studies; and from Harvard University’s Department of Government, Daniela Johnson.

    Johnson credited the College of Arts and Sciences Complexity Initiative, under which several of the co-authors were hired as faculty, for enabling researchers from such diverse disciplines to tackle such a significant real-world problem.

    June 16, 2016

  • A Young Investigator of Physics - March 24, 2017

    A Young Investigator of Physics

    He Wang, an assistant professor of physics, joined the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences just last August but she is already making big waves.

    Late last year, Wang was notified that she won a grant from the prestigious 2017 Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFSOR) Young Investigator Research Program (YIP) to continue investigating the potential application of next-generation LEDs, solar cells, transistors, and lasers.

    He WangHe Wang, an assistant professor of physics

     

    YIP is a research grant award that is open to scientists and engineers at research institutions across the United States who received a Ph.D. or an equivalent degree in the last five years and who show exceptional ability and promise for conducting research.The objective of the grant is to foster creative research in science and engineering, enhance career development of talented young researchers, and increase their opportunities to recognize and tackle significant challenges in the fields of science and engineering.Wang’s winning proposal was titled “Structure-Photophysics-Function Relationship of Perovskite Materials.”Her research focuses on investigating device physics and photophysics of organic and organic-inorganic hybrid optoelectronic materials. In layman’s terms, optoelectronics is the study and application of electronic devices and systems that source, detect, and control light. An example would be solar cells or LED devices.Wang said she is excited about the award.“I have been studying these subjects for some time and I look forward to using the resources of this grant to gain even more insight,” she said.She tunes the structure of thin films comprised of these materials, uses laser spectroscopy to understand dynamics, and combines her knowledge of physics and engineering to think about the potential application of next-generation LEDs, solar cells, transistors, and lasers.In her proposal for YIP, she focused on studying a new classification of materials associated with this field: organic-inorganic hybrid perovskite materials. Perovskite is a specific type of crystal structure found in materials that can be used for solar cells and LED technology.Over the course of the next three years, she will use aspects of physics, chemistry, materials science, and engineering to study the fundamental behavior of these materials and what they could possibly be used for in the future.This will be a continuation of the research she began when she entered Princeton University as a graduate student in 2008. After receiving her Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Princeton in 2013, she was a postdoctoral fellow in physical chemistry at UC Berkeley for nearly three years before joining the College of Arts and Sciences’ physics department.There were over 230 proposals for the YIP last year and grants were awarded to just 58 scientists and engineers. In total, these young researchers received $20 million, or $360,000 per winner. The grant is spread out over the course of three years and can be used to support research, hire personnel, and acquire any necessary lab equipment.


    By Andrew Boryga  March 24, 2017

  • Truths and Answers about the Amazon - April 20, 2017

    Truths and Answers about the Amazon

    The Amazon rainforest in South America plays a vital role in regulating Earth’s climate and is home to thousands of species of wildlife. But much of what is currently known about the Amazon is based on about 1,000 plots of land each the size of a football field. That may sound like a lot, but not if you consider the Amazon covers over 2 million square miles or about two-thirds the size of the continental U.S.

    Dr. Kenneth Feeley looks up at a tree in the Amazon rain forest.
    Dr. Kenneth Feeley, Smathers Chair in Tropical Trees at the University 
    of Miami College of Arts and Sciences. (Photo credit: Gary Braasch)

    “You have the biggest rain forest in the world, and we’ve only studied 1,000 football fields of it,” said Dr. Kenneth Feeley, the Smathers Chair in Tropical Trees at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, who studies the ecology of tropical forests.  

    In a recent paper, “Ancient human disturbances may be skewing our understanding of Amazonian forests,” published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Feeley argues that not only have researchers just scratched the surface of analyzing the Amazon, but the plots of land that we do analyze may have biases that are not accounted for.

    Namely, almost all of the plots are in areas with relatively “easy” access (for example, close to waterways or population centers) and have likely been impacted by humans for centuries.  

    According to Feeley, native inhabitants of Amazonia actively transformed and modified the forests along the Amazon River and its tributaries before their populations collapsed around the arrival of Europeans in 1492 AD. Given the long lifespan of Amazonian trees, many of the forests that biologists are studying today may still be recovering from human disturbances, potentially skewing interpretations of their growth and our understanding of how the Amazon is responding to climate change.

    Meanwhile, Feeley said the scientific community at large has spent less time studying the more remote parts of the Amazon that are harder to get to and hence less likely to have been impacted by ancient human activities. That doesn’t mean scholars and scientists should throw away all the research that’s been done, he says, but they should take the potential impacts of ancient humans into consideration and be careful about drawing conclusions based on current datasets.

    For example, Feeley said, it is hypothesized that, with increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, tropical forests are able to grow faster and take up more of that CO2, thereby buffering the climate from our increasing carbon emissions. However, Feeley said, the research to support that claim is largely attributed to measuring a relatively small sample of trees that may have been disturbed by humans 500 years ago. 

    “How do we know those forests aren’t just recovering from that original disturbance?” he asked. “How do we know whether or not the rest of the Amazon is actually suffering under climate change and growing slower?  Until we are confident in the answers to these questions, we shouldn’t count on the Amazon to protect us against our increasing greenhouse gas emissions.”

    Despite the large uncertainties, scientists and policy makers are continuing to make big judgments about the entire Amazon based off a relatively small and potentially compromised sample. With the publication of his paper, Feeley hopes to get funding that would help him and his colleagues investigate more diverse samples of land throughout the Amazon.

    He isn’t under the illusion that researchers will ever be able to assess the entirety of the Amazon but believes that, with help, scientists like him can do a more accurate job and gain better insight into the workings of the Amazon.

    “If you think of a phone survey where people call you to ask questions, they’re taking a small but systematic sample from all over the country and extrapolating out to the population,” he said. “That’s analogous to what we need to do. A more systematic or targeted sampling approach just might help us discover truths and answers about the Amazon and the Earth that we might’ve missed so far.”

    Feeley’s research collaborators include Crystal McMichael from the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics at the University of Amsterdam, Frazer Matthews-Bird from the Department of Biological Sciences at Florida Institute of Technology, and William Farfan-Rios from the Department of Biology at Wake Forest University.


    By Andrew Boryga

    April 20, 2017

  • Building Mental Toughness Off the Field—It’s All About Practice - May 18, 2017

    Building Mental Toughness Off the Field—It’s All About Practice

    A new study reveals that mindfulness training, but not relaxation training, benefits college athletes' attention. Practice engagement and program adherence are key.

    It’s no secret that performance excellence in sports requires dedicated practice and physical training. Much less is known about mental training to deal with the psychological pressures of competitive athletics, the mental game.

    A recent University of Miami study conducted in the laboratory of neuroscientist Dr. Amishi Jha, asked if mental toughness and resilience can be trained in collegiate football players. Results suggest that just like physical training, practice is key for mental training. Jha’s team found that greater practice and program adherence in a mindfulness training program, but not a matched relaxation training program, led to more stable attention and fewer attentional lapses in football players. 

    football on the field with "U" logoMindfulness involves focusing attention on present-moment experiences and observing one's thoughts and feelings without emotional reactivity or judgment.

    Jha is an associate professor in the UM College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology. Her lab has partnered with mindfulness expert and University of Miami Law School professor, Director of the Mindfulness in Law Program, and co-author, Scott Rogers, to develop, deliver, and evaluate the impact of short-form mental training programs involving mindfulness and relaxation for professionals who have high-stress careers from all walks of life—from military personnel and firefighters, to teachers and accountants.

    Back in 2014, the University of Miami Hurricanes football program partnered with Jha’s lab for a first-of-its-kind research study, documented by the Miami Herald, to investigate how mindfulness vs. relaxation training can help student-athletes cope with the high demands of collegiate athletics. The study, “‘We Are Talking About Practice’”: the Influence of Mindfulness vs. Relaxation Training on Athletes’ Attention and Well-Being over High-Demand Intervals,” was recently published online in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement.

    The study’s first author, UM psychology Ph.D. candidate Joshua Rooks, knows first-hand how demanding the life of a football player can be. Rooks, a former college football player who practiced mindfulness during his time as a tight end for the Northwestern University Wildcats, joined Jha’s lab in 2012.

    In the current study, Rooks monitored the attention and emotional well-being of student-athletes on the UM football team over a 4-week interval, during which Rogers delivered two matched training programs to subgroups of players. 

    One group, consisting of 56 players, received mindfulness training (MT), while the other group, consisting of 44 players, received relaxation training (RT). The players in the MT group participated in breathing exercises, body scans, and mindful awareness sessions, while the RT group partook in muscle relaxation exercises, place-guided imagery, and listening to relaxing music. Players’ attention was measured using the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART), a test designed to promote mind wandering and measure attentional performance lapses. Their emotional well-being was measured by questionnaires accessing mood, anxiety, and depression levels.

    The 4-week interval of this project occurred while players faced intensive demands, both academically and physically, as part of their pre-season training. Prior research has found that high demand intervals, such as the academic semester and military pre-deployment training, degrade attention and emotional well-being in students and military service members. Here too, football players’ attention and emotional well-being degraded from the beginning to the end of the 4-week interval.  Yet high adherence to the MT program, but not the RT program, protected athletes’ sustained attention. The study also found that greater engagement in both MT and RT protected against a decline in well-being.  Thus, practice is paramount for program benefits.

    Football player holding a football with his eyes closed in contemplation.
    Professional sports teams have long used relaxation training with players. Recently, some teams have also introduced mindfulness training. High performance psychology coach, Dr. Michael Gervais, who serves as an advisor to Jha’s lab for their work with military cohorts, has offered mindfulness to pro-athletes, such as the Seattle Seahawks, with success. He says, “This is the type of research that moves the needle from theory to application. The hallmarks of elite performance within the most hostile environments are the ability to be tough minded, adjust to unpredictable demands, and to properly attend to the task at hand.”

    In addition to its potential to help athletes’ attention and well-being, mindfulness training has been examined in military service members during their high-demand predeployment training intervals. Prior studies have found that these intervals deplete attention and degrade emotional well-being.

    "Research like this is very important as the Army explores mindfulness training as a possible enabler to Soldier readiness," said Major General Walter E. Piatt, who is on the Advisory Committee for the Mindfulness Based Attention and Training (MBAT) Project in Jha’s lab, which is supported by Department of the Army Medical Research and Material Command.

    MG Piatt is uniquely aware of the importance of readiness for Soldiers as the Commanding General for the 10th Mountain Division, which has been nearly continuously deploying Soldiers since 2001.

    Thus, the results of this study suggest that more time spent engaging in mindfulness exercises may help build both cognitive and psychological resilience. At its conclusion, the findings of this Department of Defense funded study reveal that training the body and mind may be quite similar for “just as physical exercise must be performed with regularity to train the body for performance success, mental exercises must be practiced with regularity to benefit the athlete’s attention and well-being.”

    The study titled “‘We Are Talking About Practice’”: the Influence of Mindfulness vs. Relaxation Training on Athletes’ Attention and Well-Being over High-Demand Intervals,” is published online ahead of print by Journal of Cognitive Enhancement. Additional authors who contributed to the study are: Alexandra B. Morrison, Ph.D. and Merissa Goolsarran of the University of Miami.

    May 18, 2017

  • Brain Development and Aging - June 1, 2017

    Brain Development and Aging

    New study by UM psychologists reveals that brain signals in specific regions change over a lifespan in ways that might be important for maintaining flexibility.

    The brain is a complex organ—a network of nerve cells, or neurons, producing thought, memory, action, and feeling. How does this complex system change from childhood to adulthood to late life in order to maintain optimal behavioral responses?

    These questions were put to the test by a group of University of Miami psychologists who studied hundreds of fMRI brain scans, from two separate datasets, to see how the variability of brain signals changes or remains the same during a human lifespan.

    brain scan from a fMRI scanner
    The UM team analyzed hundreds of brain scans of participants, ranging in age from 6 to 86, who were all in a “resting state,” which means they were not engaged in any particular task while in the fMRI scanner. The publicly available data, which is freely available to neuroimaging researchers, was acquired from the Nathan-Kline institute.

    “Resting state is a misnomer because intrinsically your brain is always doing something. There is always something happening in the brain,” said postdoctoral fellow Jason Nomi. “The scans we are looking at represent the baseline variability of ongoing activity in the brain at any given time. No one has really characterized this baseline across the lifespan.”

    Lucina Uddin, an associate professor of psychology in the UM College of Arts and Sciences, explains that studying the brain when it’s in a resting state allows researchers to “basically look at the organization of the brain as it is without any extra stressors or stimuli. What we are looking at is the intrinsic organization of the brain and how it changes across the lifespan.”

    By analyzing the resting-state fMRI data, the researchers were able to see how regions of the brain change from moment to moment and how those changes show a pattern across age and participants. Their results demonstrated that, instead of an overall decrease in variability with aging, as earlier studies showed, the brain displayed regional differences, with some areas of the brain showing increases in variability across age while other areas showed a decrease. 

    “As certain areas of the brain become more variable, it seems to compensate in some ways for the other parts of the brain that are decreasing,” said Aaron Heller, an assistant professor in the Psychology Department and senior author of the paper.

    “These patterns of variability that we notice in the brain signals are what we think relates to the ability to respond to new challenges in the environment,” added Nomi.

    Heller says that the next step is to test whether these patterns of variability have an impact on behavior in ways that are important to understanding lifespan, aging, emotional regulation, and developmental disorders such as autism.

    The study, “Moment-to-moment BOLD Signal Variability Reflects Regional Changes in Neural Flexibility Across the Lifespan,” was published in The Journal of Neuroscience. The study, made possible with the help of a University of Miami Convergence Research Grant, is a collaborative effort of independent labs within the University of Miami Neuroimaging Facility within the Neuroscience Building on the Coral Gables campus.

    Additional authors of the study include Taylor S. Bolt and Chiemeka Ezie in the Department of Psychology.

    June 01, 2017

  • Stay Focused, If You Can - November 8, 2017

    Stay Focused, If You Can

    UM researchers study how individual differences in brain dynamics influence a person’s self-control when faced with temptation

    What makes some people better able to resist temptation than others? Lucina Uddin and Jason Nomi, cognitive neuroscientists at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences collaborated with Rosa Steimke, a visiting postdoctoral researcher in the Brain Connectivity and Cognition Laboratory at UM, to explore this question.

    Steimke conducted a study as part of her dissertation work at Charité University in Berlin, Germany, in which participants were asked to perform a simple task: focus on one side of a screen where a letter – either an “E” or “F” – would quickly appear then disappear, and press a button indicating which letter they saw.

    researchers study brain activity fMRI scans But before the letter appeared on the screen, an image would pop up to the right, and—this is where it gets interesting—the images were quite sensual and erotic. Not surprisingly, participants’ eyes definitely wandered to the right for a quick peek, which was captured by eye-tracking equipment.

    “Using this setup, we were able to challenge participants’ self-control in the face of temptation,” said Steimke.

    Adds Uddin, “This study is about individual differences in the ability to control impulses and behavior.” 

    According to previous research, the brain’s “cognitive control network” is typically involved in behavior that requires self-control. Here, the researchers explored another potential candidate brain system known as the “salience network.” The salience network is a collection of regions in the brain that selects which stimuli are deserving of our attention, such as a driver responding to a pedestrian running across the street or a large billboard along the highway.

    The cognitive control network is related to ‘’top-down’’ effortful control of attention while the salience network is related to ‘’bottom-up’’ automatic direction of attention.

    “We were interested in comparing the roles of these two networks in self-control behavior,” said Nomi. 

    Uddin and her team have taken a new approach to studying brain activity and its moment-to-moment variations using a method called “dynamic functional network connectivity.” Using this method, the team was able to examine whether the cognitive control or salience network was more closely linked to participants’ tendency to glance at the sensual pictures when they knew the goal was to focus on the letter.

    Surprisingly, they found no links between cognitive control network dynamics and individual differences in performance of the task. However, those individuals whose brains showed a specific pattern of salience network dynamics were better able to perform the task. Specifically, for some people their salience networks were not as well-connected with the visual networks in the brain. Individuals who showed this pattern were better able to resist tempting distractors and perform the task.

    “Researchers normally study connectivity using traditional approaches, but we used the dynamic approach, which gave us new insight that traditional connectivity analysis did not reveal,” said Uddin. “When we looked at the moment-to-moment, dynamic measures of connectivity we saw the relationship with individual differences in eye-gazing behavior emerge.”  

    The research team thanks the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, the Humboldt University Berlin, and the Collaborative Research Centre “Volition and Cognitive Control” (DFG grant SFB 940/1 2013), Technical University Dresden, for financially supporting the project. The study was also supported by an award from the National Institute of Mental Health to LQU.

    The study, “Salience network dynamics underlying successful resistance of temptation,” is published in the journal SCAN.

     

    November 08, 2017

  • Military Wellness - November 10, 2017

    Military Wellness

    Mindfulness training—training to be attentive and emotionally balanced—has been used to build soldiers’ resilience and improve their attention so they are combat-ready. Recently, Lieutenant General Edward C. Cardon, a 3-Star General at the Pentagon, met University of Miami President Julio Frenk and associate professor of psychology, Dr. Amishi Jha, at the College of Arts and Sciences Neuroscience Building to learn about Jha’s research and successes with mindfulness training for military service members and military spouses. 

    LTG Cardon is working directly with the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army to propose recommendations for General Officer wellness for military personnel. Jha, along with Scott Rogers in the UM School of Law, co-direct the UMindfulness Initiative, which brings mindfulness and compassion training, research opportunities, and public lectures to the University of Miami community.

    (Left to Right) Scott Rogers, LTG Edward Cardon, President Julio Frenk, Amishi Jha, and LTC Edward Pearce.
    Photo Caption: (Left to Right) Scott Rogers, LTG Edward Cardon, President Julio Frenk, Amishi Jha, and LTC Edward Pearce.

    November 10, 2017

  • Defending the Science of Infant Imitation - November 16, 2017

    Defending the Science of Infant Imitation

    UM psychologist who studies social behavior in infants finds flaws in 2016 study that claims newborn babies do not imitate.

    Since the 1970s, studies have suggested that infants can imitate facial gestures, finger movements, and other actions just hours after birth. University of Miami Assistant Professor Elizabeth Simpson studies this phenomenon, known as neonatal imitation, in babies from birth to one year of life in her Social Cognition Lab in the Department of Psychology’s Child Division.

    Recently, Simpson, whose research focuses on how infants begin to understand their social world, was awarded a $675,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue her research, specifically on neonatal imitation as a marker of healthy social development in human babies. Her studies on human infant imitation are based on her previous studies on monkeys, which showed that infant monkeys that were better imitators during their first week of life grew to be more social, engaged in more play behavior, and initiated more positive social interactions.

    defending-the-science-of-infant-imitation
    Research on baby imitation conducted in Simpson's lab. 
    (photo credit: My Nguyen)

    However, the authors of a 2016 study published in the journal Current Biology, concluded that human babies don’t actually imitate. Their study asserted that dozens of previous studies on the subject, including Simpson’s research, is erroneous. But in a counter-response recently published in the journal Developmental Science, Simpson and her co-authors argue that the Current Biology study failed to use appropriate methods, and is highly flawed. She argues that there is overwhelming evidence that infant imitation is real.

    “Our paper is a response to this misleading study that claimed to find no evidence of imitation in newborns,” Simpson says. “Unfortunately, there was a lot of media attention given to this poorly designed study, and our reply basically says that the study is flawed and our reanalysis of their data reveals positive evidence of neonatal imitation.”

    Reviewing the data from the Current Biology study, Simpson and her co-authors said they found that the researchers used a flawed methodology that was destined to reach an erroneous conclusion. Among the errors, she notes, is how researchers presented babies with actions they are incapable of imitating, such as clicking their tongues and making specific sounds.

    “Why would you expect a newborn baby to imitate a tongue click? In essence, they used a lot of different actions that are unfair because babies can’t yet do those things,” says Simpson.

    The researchers, Simpsons notes, also showed the babies 11 different consecutive actions, each one for 30 seconds, before moving to another action and then another. “Even older children, even adults, would be unable to imitate 11 different actions in a row,” says Simpson. “That’s a lot for a newborn baby to process and, with only 30 seconds per action, they didn’t give the babies very much time to imitate the action.”

    Simpson hopes her counter-response to the Current Biology study encourages other researchers who are interested in the field of developmental psychology and neonatal imitation to study the phenomenon.

    “I am very invested in this line of research,” says Simpson, “because previous monkey studies show that imitation predicts the development of healthy social interactions. We need to study whether the same may be true in humans. But these researchers say the phenomenon itself is not real, when, in fact, there is growing evidence that it is. I’m afraid people won’t study the phenomenon if they take this study as the last word.”

    Simpson’s reply, “Re-examination of Oostenbroek et al. (2016): evidence for neonatal imitation of tongue protrusion,” is published in the journal Developmental Science.

     

    November 16, 2017

  • University of Miami Associate Professor Receives Recognition from Peers for Research in Brain Connectivity and Cognition - December 18, 2017

    University of Miami Associate Professor Receives Recognition from Peers for Research in Brain Connectivity and Cognition

    Lucina Uddin, a cognitive neuroscientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, was recognized for her work in brain connectivity and cognition by two international science organizations this year.

    The most recent award was given to Uddin for her contributions to autism research in brain dynamics and cognition in the field of medical sciences by the Universal Scientific Education and Research Network (USERN), an international organization created in 2015 to support peace and humanitarian efforts in the name of science, education, and research around the globe.

    The USERN prize identifies young scientists—all under the age of 40—from around the world who have contributed to their field of research by developing and building significant science projects to better humanity; the organization’s slogan is “Science without Borders.” Uddin was one of five scientists honored at a ceremony in the Ukraine this fall.

    Uddin was also given the Wiley Young Investigator Award for her contributions to the field of human brain mapping by the Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM). According to the website, OHBM is an “international organization dedicated to advancing the understanding of the anatomical and functional organization of the human brain using neuroimaging.” Both recognitions included a $5,000 cash award. Uddin was recently interviewed about the OHBM award, her research and what it means to be recognized for her contributions to the field of brain mapping.  

    “The OHBM award is special to me because I was recognized for my work by my peers in the neuroimaging community,” said Uddin. “These are fellow scientists and researchers whom I’ve known for years, but the USERN award was actually a pleasant surprise!” 

    Uddin is first or senior author on numerous studies that focus on brain connectivity and cognition in typical and atypical development, as well as a recent book entitled “Salience network of the human brain.” She has also collaborated with fellow UM researchers and neuroscientists around the world on studies examining cognitive flexibility across the lifespan. Her research has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience, JAMA Psychiatry, Biological Psychiatry, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, and Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

    December 18, 2017

  • Crop Failure in the Andes - January 16, 2018

    Crop Failure in the Andes

    University of Miami researcher simulates how climate change can affect crop production in the rural Andes.

    Kenneth Feeley, the Smathers Chair of Tropical Tree Biology in the University of Miami’s Department of Biology, is an expert in studying the effects of climate change on tropical forests. From the mountains of Peru to the lowlands of the Amazon, Feeley examines the ramifications of climate change on the trees and other species that comprise the diverse forests of these regions. Yet, recently, Feeley shifted gears from studying tropical forests to examining the impacts of climate change in rural farming communities in Peru.

    As co-author of a study published in Global Change Biology, Feeley, along with fellow biologist, Richard Tito, a native Quechua Indian from the region and the study’s first author, discovered that tough times lie ahead for rural farmers growing the Andes’ staple crops—corn and potatoes.

    “The research was executed in a very remote part of Peru,” said Feeley. “We were trying to look at how the traditional agriculture practices of people in the high Andes Mountains will be impacted by climate change so we performed a set of experiments to simulate different scenarios under global warming.”

    In the first experiment, the researchers simulated what will happen if farmers continue cultivating the same areas amid rising temperatures. To do this, they grew corn farther down the mountain, where temperatures are slightly higher. “We carried in the soil from where the corn is normally grown because the soil at the top of the mountain is different in texture and nutrients than the soil at lower elevations,” said Feeley.

    The simulation revealed that, with just a small temperature increase of 1.3 degrees to 2.6 degrees, nearly all the corn plants were killed by invading birds and pest insects. Potatoe plants fared even worse. When potatoes were grown at lower elevations (but in their normal soil), most of the plants died and any potatoes that survived were of such low quality they had no market value.

    In a second set of experiments, the researchers simulated what will happen if farmers try to counteract rising temperatures by moving their corn farms to higher elevations. (Potato crops are already grown along mountain peaks, so moving those farms higher isn’t an option.) To accomplish this simulation, the researchers grew corn under normal temperatures but in soils carried in from higher elevations. When grown at a higher elevation, the corn plants survived but the quality and quantity of the harvest was greatly reduced.

    “We found big decreases in the yield, quality, and the market value of the corn and potatoes planted under these simulated future conditions,” said Feeley.  “Notably, much of the decline was due to increased damage by pests, something that is often not taken into account in greenhouse or lab studies. Given the extreme importance of these staple crops for Andean communities, our findings can have huge, and scary, implications.”

    The study measured the crops during a growing season within the remote Huamburque area of the Andean Amazon basin, where elevations range between 3,000 and 4,000 meters. Unfortunately, Feeley said, farmers in this rural area of Peru lack the means to purchase genetically modified varieties of corn or potato, as well as pesticides to remove the pests or commercial fertilizers.

    “Small communities in rural places don’t have the technology or market access to quickly adapt to climate change,” said Feeley. “Some farmers might be able to switch their crop to a variety that is tolerant to higher temperatures, but many lack the resources to save their crops by using irrigation pumps or fertilizers. These farmers are in jeopardy as are millions of people who depend on these crops throughout the Andes of Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia.”  

    The study, "Global Climate Change Increases Risk of Crop Yield Losses and Food Insecurity in the Tropical Andes" was published in the journal Global Change Biology.

    Crop Failure in the Andes
    One of the experimental corn plots.(Photo credit: Saul Tito)
    Crop Failure in the Andes
    Severe attacks of stem-borer caterpillars on potato plants 
    grown under warmer temperatures. 
    (Photo credit: Richard Tito)
    Crop Failure in the Andes
    Peruvian potato farmer. (Photo credit: Saul M. Tito)

  • A Window to the Past - February 9, 2018

    A Window to the Past

    Since the 1950s, archeologists have discovered ancient materials from the bottom of Little Salt Spring, a sinkhole located in southern Sarasota County along Florida’s west coast. These artifacts, from wood to textiles, date back to the Late Paleoindian and Early Archaic stages of Florida’s prehistory and reveal what life was like for humans more than 10,000 years ago. 

    “Little Salt Spring is a unique time capsule of perfectly preserved organic materials used by ancient people in their daily lives,” said Traci Ardren, professor in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We have an obligation to study and protect this amazing resource from the past and learn more about how humanity adapted to the dramatic climate changes that occurred at the end of the last Ice Age.”

    During early prehistoric times, Little Salt Spring was an oasis attracting seasonal hunters and gatherers. The Spring contains some of the oldest cultural remains found in the U.S. such as a sharpened wooden stake close to 12,000 years old that was found thrust through an extinct giant tortoise shell.

    This month, the University of Miami is hosting a full-day public symposium on the significance of Little Salt Spring. Entitled Ancient Explorers: Little Salt Spring and the Peopling of the Americas, the conference will include a keynote speaker, scholarly presentations, a discussion panel aimed to explore new research and findings from the Spring, and a pop-up artifact exhibit showcasing 25 years of archeological finds recovered at the Spring, from an antler calendar to lithic spear points and shell ornaments.

    “The wooden, bone, and antler tools and ornaments from Little Salt Spring tell an amazingly detailed story of what life was like for the very first humans who settled in Florida,” said Ardren. “They reveal an intimate knowledge of the landscape and resources native to our peninsula, and help us appreciate the ingenuity and creativity of these early inhabitants.” 

    In addition to the keynote speaker, Michael R. Waters, director of the Center for the Study of First Americans at Texas A & M University, who will speak on “Forging a New Understanding of the Late Pleistocene Peopling of the Americas,” the symposium will welcome Lee Newsom, professor of anthropology at Flagler College; Jason O’Donoughue, an archeologist with the Bureau of Archaeological Research, Division of Historical Resources; Jessi Halligan, professor of anthropology at Florida State University; and Andrew Hemmings with the Aucilla Research Institute. The afternoon panel discussion will feature speakers from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and the Department of Anthropology; the Florida Public Archaeology Network; the Seminole Tribe of Florida; and the Warm Mineral Springs/Little Salt Spring Archaeology Society.

    "As study into the unique archaeology and environental settings at Little Salt Spring is renewed, researchers will also find an eager community within North Port, and the greater Sarasota County area, who are ready to learn more about and take part in the continued discovery of all things Little Salt Spring," said Jeffrey T. Moates, director, West Central Regional Center of the Florida Public Archaeology Network.

    Ancient Explorers: Little Salt Spring and the Peopling of the Americas is open to the public and co-sponsored by the University of Miami, the Florida Public Archaeology Network, and HistoryMiami Museum. The full-day symposium will be held on February 24, 2018, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the University of Miami’s Storer Auditorium, 5250 University Drive, Coral Gables, FL 33146.

    For more information and to register for the event, visit Ancient Explorers. There is a $25 registration fee that includes lunch. The $25 fee is waived for University of Miami students.

     

    February 09, 2018

  • Yeast Cells at Work - March 8, 2018

    Yeast Cells at Work

    A new study by University of Miami researchers used yeast cells to study movement in artificial environments that could relate to human activity in the natural world


    In a lab within the Cox Science Building, postdoc fellow Bo Zhang, who earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Biology, is using a very large liquid-handling robot to disperse millions of yeast cells from one culture plate to another—with each plate holding approximately 96 wells that keep the yeast cells in place.

    “Imagine each well in the culture plate is an environment with its own population,” said J. David Van Dyken, assistant professor in the Department of Biology. “With the robot, Zhang is able to move the population along a landscape, which allows the population to reach a significantly larger size at a steady state."

    Aside from baking bread or brewing beer, yeast has been used in different scientific experiments since the early 1900s. In 2011, for example, NASA sent simple baking yeast into outer space for researchers to grow and analyze in the International Space Station. Here at UM, Zhang is using the yeast to understand how movement of the yeast cells from one well to another helps them multiply and grow in a diverse environment.

    “This experiment using millions of yeast cells is fundamental to our research because it relates to human activity and habitat fragmentation,” adds Van Dyken.

    For a study published in the journal Ecology Letters, entitled “Carrying capacity in a heterogeneous environment with habitat connectivity,” Zhang used the robot to move the yeast cells between the wells and simulate the distribution of artificial populations to prove that movement can increase the total population size in a diverse environment.

     yeast-cells-at-work
    Postdoc fellow Bo Zhang and Assistant Professor of Ecology J. David Van 
    Dyken stand in front of a high-tec liquid-handling robot in the Cox Building.

    In essence, the study proves that total population abundance will always be much lower in a diverse environment than an environment that is similar or uniform. It may be hard to grasp, but the yeast cells represent millions of artificial populations in a minute space that is quite vast for the yeast cells but, for comparison purposes, only about the size of a deck of cards to humans. Each well in the plate is like a different point in space that contains a diverse habitat.

    Zhang says that their findings on movement of an artificial population—in this case created by the yeast cells—can be applied to the real world, both on a microscopic and macroscopic level.

    “This movement of any species, whether it’s a plant species, bacteria, animals or a virus, can be hindered if and when we built a highway or a road,” said Zhang. “In essence, our work highlights the fact that for a distributed species this core ecological concept can become rather complicated.”

    Zhang notes that the team used mathematical equations as a model to better predict total population movement in mixt and identical environments. “The use of the mathematical model in the study can be applied to basically any type of population in the real world,” she said. “Overall, this was a unique experiment using simple baker’s yeast and a very high-tech robot right here in our lab at UM.”

     

    March 08, 2018

  • Following the Money - March 22, 2018

    Following the Money

    A University of Miami marine ecologist says just follow the money to understand how our financial systems have fueled coastal development


    Conservationists and natural resource managers have lost ground over the past 20 years as more and more natural land—especially on the coast—has given way to homes and businesses, threatening the natural ecosystem.

    University of Miami Associate Professor in Biology Kathleen Sullivan Sealey and her colleagues set out to find out why by investigating the ecology of finance and the financial innovations that have facilitated rapid housing development.

    In a study published in the journal Anthropocene entitled, “Financial credit drives urban land-use change in the United States,” Sealey and her team borrowed concepts from ecology, finance, urban studies, and complex systems to develop a hypothesis about the fundamental shifts in the flow of money throughout the entire development and construction process. 

    The paper lays the foundation for a new area of research in the coupled human-natural systems linking modern finance to climate and ecological change.

    “After three years of research that included a case study specific for South Florida, we found that the greatest attribute for the housing boom, from 1980 to 2008, was the key changes in banking regulations in the 1970s that allowed for increased availability of credit,” said Sealey.  “The key component was the ability to transfer investment risks for developers and lending institutions.” 

    Since the U.S. economy depends on a healthy housing market, and a cornerstone of personal wealth is home ownership, the researchers set out to document the changes in financial regulations and financing in general since 1980.

    The paper explores the widely accepted premise that nothing happens without funding. It also explains—to people unfamiliar with how the financial system works—the financial instruments and innovations that diversify the sources of loans and credit through globalization of mortgage-based securities (MBSs). This system, the researchers said, is now only one part of an enormous shadow banking industry, which trades diverse asset-backed securities with relatively little regulation.

    They note more people were able to buy more expensive houses through a combination of federal legislation to promote the availability of mortgages, and financial tools in the secondary market for Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS).

    The authors argue that a wider outreach effort is need to educate the public about the coupled processes of financial and natural systems. Recognizing the connections between environmental change, wrought by urban development, and financial credit is only the first step to understanding the challenges in building sustainability communities, they said.  

    Sealey conducted the research with help from a grant from the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences. As a marine ecologist, she believed many conservation efforts were reacting to development rather than following broader land conservations strategies. Understanding financial innovations, and the role of credit and risk, can enable ecologists to engage in the growing market for green bonds, weather derivatives and other financial innovations that link the built environment to ecosystem function and services.

    “The links between finance, insurance, and property risks from catastrophic natural events require a new, focused area for study by both universities and coastal cities,” Sealey said. “In other words, this study promotes the creation of ‘financial ecology,’ a field that will provide a better understanding of our financial systems as these systems interact with nature.” 

    Sealey collaborated with Philippe Binder from the University of Hawaii-Hilo and King Burch, an independent finance and real estate researcher based in Honolulu. The journal, published by Elsevier, focuses on the large-scale interactions between humans and nature.

     

    March 22, 2018

  • The Language of Facial Expressions - June 14, 2018

    The Language of Facial Expressions

    The eyes have it: eye wrinkles intensify expressions of happiness and sadness.


    University of Miami Psychology Professor Daniel Messinger collaborated with researchers at Western University in Canada to show that our brains are pre-wired to perceive wrinkles around the eyes as conveying more intense and sincere emotions. This eye wrinkle, called the Duchenne marker, occurs across multiple facial expressions, including smiles, expressions associated with pain, and­—as these researchers found—expressions of sadness.

    “Since Darwin, scientists have wondered if there is a language of facial expression, a key set of what we call facial actions which have simple, basic meanings. This research suggests one key to this language is constriction of the eyes, which appears to intensify both positive and negative expressions,” said Messinger.

    Using a method called visual rivalry, the researchers showed study participants computer-generated avatars, one with and one without the Duchenne marker, to study which expressions our brains perceive as more important. When different images are shown in each eye, the brain alternates between these two images and will bring the image that is perceived as more relevant into perceptual awareness more often.

    the-language-of-facial-expressions
    Avatar of Dr. Daniel Messinger used for the study.

    When you have social interactions, you need to perceive whether a person is sincere or not,” said the principal investigator on the study, Julio Martinez-Trujillo, a professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “My interest now is: what will be the results if we do this same test with people with autism spectrum disorder? They often have trouble reading out emotions from other people, so we wonder if that might have to do with their ability to read this marker for sincerity.”The investigators asked participants to rate the expressions on a scale for intensity and sincerity, and found that people systematically ranked the Duchenne smiles and Duchenne sad expressions as more sincere and intense than the non-Duchenne expressions.The authors point out that the results are a step toward understanding the more general questions of why facial expressions contain the specific facial actions they do, and how that contributes to our understanding of emotion.“We have been investigating this hypothesis for more than a decade and finding strong support that eye constriction intensifies positive and negative expression in infants, with others finding support for the intensification hypothesis in children,” adds Messinger. “This is the first study addressing this issue in adults since Darwin’s provocative observations.”The study, “Generalizing Duchenne to Sad Expressions with Binocular Rivalry and Perception Ratings,” was published in the journal Emotion.June 14, 2018

  • Perceptions on Zika - June 27, 2018

    Perceptions on Zika

    New research shows that key messaging tailored to gender and education can help prevent future Zika outbreaks in Miami-Dade County


    In a summer outbreak that posed significant risks to pregnant women and their fetuses, 29 people in Miami-Dade County were infected with the Zika virus between late June and early August of 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    To understand people’s perceptions, behaviors, and knowledge about the outbreak, and whether county media campaigns had an effect in helping educate the public about the virus, a research team led by University of Miami Assistant Professor of Geography and Regional Studies Imelda Moise surveyed 149 women and 113 men in approximately 262 county households.

    According to their findings, women with a bachelor’s degree and men who knew someone at high risk for the virus were more likely to have knowledge or concerns about it.

    Using the Health Belief Model, the survey included such straightforward questions as: Have you ever heard of the Zika virus? Approximately how many cases of Zika are in Miami-Dade? If a pregnant woman has Zika, what are the risks for her fetus/baby?How confident are you that you can protect yourself and your household members from getting Zika virus?

    “Men did care about Zika prevention, especially if they knew a female family member or acquaintance who was pregnant,” said Moise, who added that messages that cater to the different needs, attitudes, knowledge, and perceptions of the target audience are most effective.  “Targeted prevention and treatment interventions by gender, as well as education level, should definitely be considered by local governments, especially if there is another outbreak.”

    The study also found that a higher percentage of women (53.7 percent) than men (42.5 percent) viewed Zika as a severe disease and more women than men were afraid of contracting the virus. In addition, the survey indicated that more women than men felt confident they could protect the people in their households from contracting Zika by taking protective measures, such as checking for and draining standing water, and using repellents and window/door screens.

    When it came to mosquito control efforts, Moise said, there was a tendency to think that one size fits all. “For example,” she said, “there’s a perception that the risk is the same everywhere, particularly when mosquito control officials release aerial insecticide over large areas. The risk varies by neighborhood and even the characteristics of the people who live in those neighborhoods are factors. Our study implies that there must be more accurate evidence regarding the connection between individual and neighborhood level socio-demographics and practices executed by local governments to prevent another Zika outbreak.”

    The study, “Perceptions of Zika Virus Risk during 2016 outbreak, Miami-Dade County, Florida” is published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. Moise’s collaborators in the study are Ira Sheskin, Douglas Fuller, and Tricia Caroline S. G. Hutchings from the University of Miami, and Joseph Kangmennaang from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

    June 27, 2018

  • A Year in Words - July 19, 2018

    A Year in Words

    New research by UM psychologists underscores the importance of language development in low-income, high-risk children


    Language sets the stage for how children grow, develop, and learn. University of Miami Assistant Professor of Psychology Lynn Perry, whose research focuses on language and cognitive development in children, says a child’s early years of language development are critical for the fundamentals of school readiness, such as literacy skills and social and emotional growth.  

    In a recent study published in the journal PLOS One, Perry and a team of fellow researchers who examined child speech interactions over the course of a year at the UM Linda Ray Intervention Center found that vulnerable children benefit from conversations with their peers and their teachers.

    a-year-in-words“For two decades, the Linda Ray Intervention Center, a research program in the Department of Psychology, has focused on the developmental needs of vulnerable children ages 0 to 3 who are compromised by child maltreatment and maternal substance abuse,” said Director Lynne Katz, who is also a research associate professor at UM. “Critical to that research is understanding the communication experiences in the classroom between children and their teachers, as well as peer-to-peer interactions.”

    The study, which measured language experiences in a childcare setting specifically for low-income, high-risk children, examined how language use and development in 2- and 3-year-old children was influenced by what they heard from their teachers and their peers.

    “Previous research on language development looked mostly at the role of parent-child interaction within a home setting or a lab environment, which means we’re missing a big part of a child’s everyday life—the classroom,” said Perry. “We know that parent language is important for children’s development and their academic achievement, but we don’t have much research on what happens in the daycare or preschool setting.”

    Using a device called a Language ENvironment Analysis (LENA) recorder, Perry collected hundreds of hours of audio recordings at the center. Children wore the LENA recorder in a pocket on the front of their T-shirts once a week. LENA software then assessed whether the recorded audio was speech or not, and whether the speech came from the child wearing the recorder or from an adult or another child talking to them.

    “The use of cutting-edge LENA recording devices has broadened our data collection options and allowed us to work as a team to both examine language experiences and utilize data to provide feedback to teachers upon which to build their strategies for infants and toddlers with developmental delays,” said Katz.

    After studying hours of the audio data, Perry found that the speech children heard from other children was positively related to their own language use, meaning children who heard the most from their peers learn more new words and vocalized more during the course of the year. Additionally, there was a positive association between a teacher talking and children’s language use and development—but only when that teacher talked to the child in a back-and-forth conversation, rather than just talking to the child with no opportunity for the child to respond.

    “This is a groundbreaking study of how kids learn language and how children who are at risk for delays learn from their peers and from the back-and-forth dialogue with teachers in a way we just had no ideas about,” said UM Psychology Professor and co-author Daniel Messinger.

    “One important aspect of the study that stands out to me is how important it was to see those conversational turns with teachers, that back-and-forth conversation with the child is very beneficial. We talked to the teachers at Linda Ray about the results, and they are very excited about this finding and currently brainstorming additional opportunities to have conversations with children,” adds Perry.

    The study, “A year in words: The dynamics and consequences of language experiences in an intervention classroom” is published in the journal PLOS One. In addition to Katz, Perry’s collaborators on the study are Daniel Messinger, Emily B. Prince, Adriana M. Valtierra, Camila Rivero-Fernandez, and Mary Anne Ullery, from the University of Miami; and Brett Laursen from Florida Atlantic University.

     

    July 19, 2018