Does billionaire-funded lawsuit against Gawker create playbook for punishing press?

June 1, 2016
Clay Calvert

Clay Calvert, UF’s Brechner Eminent Scholar in Mass Communication, reflects upon the revelation that PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel financed Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker and the questions it raises in the battle between privacy and the press.

Word last week that Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel bankrolled wrestler Hulk Hogan’s invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against Gawker added a wrinkle to a case already featuring colorful characters and a US$140 million jury verdict.

At a sensational and personal level, the story highlights the animus between PayPal co-founder Thiel and Gawker founder Nick Denton stemming from a 2007 gossip item that publicly outed Thiel as gay. Thiel sees Denton as “a singularly terrible bully” who invades privacy for profit. In turn, Denton sympathetically portrays Gawker, in an open letter to Thiel, as “a small New York media company” being bullied by a man with “a net worth of more than $2 billion.”

But regardless of whether it’s framed as a personal battle between Thiel and Denton or a larger one between protecting privacy and a free press, the revelation raises important questions about third-party financed litigation targeting U.S. news media outlets that are safeguarded under the First Amendment.

Most importantly, should third-party-funded litigation against news organizations be banned by lawmakers? This is the kind of issue I explore at the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, which I’ve directed for the past six years, and in my book about privacy and articles about various threats to a free press.

Threats to a free press

The fear from First Amendment advocates in the press advocates is palpable. They see Thiel as creating a playbook for other billionaires and millionaires to take on and silence members of the news media. As Vox correspondent Timothy B. Lee writes:

“The threat to freedom of the press is obvious. Any news organization doing its job is going to make some enemies. If a wealthy third party is willing to bankroll lawsuits by anyone with a grudge, and defending each case costs millions of dollars, the organization could get driven out of business even if it wins every single lawsuit.”

Others agree that Thiel has “created a model where any thin-skinned billionaire can ruin a media company without even telling anyone.”

In other words, billionaires who feel they have been libeled or had their privacy invaded by a news organization can score legal victories against the press via third-party funding of lawsuits in one of two different ways.

First, the sheer fear of such lawsuits may result in self-censorship by news organizations who choose not to criticize a wealthy individual rather than risk fighting a potentially expensive and protracted legal battle.

Second, even if such a chilling effect does not occur and a critical story actually is published, the costs of defending a lawsuit arising from it can be enormous.

Leveling the playing field

Indeed, Thiel has been villainized in some media quarters for his “cloak-and-dagger tactics” and satirized in others since it was discovered he funded Hogan’s lawsuit.

Denton blasts Thiel as someone who, “despite all the success and public recognition that a person could dream of, seethes over criticism and plots behind the scenes to tie up his opponents in litigation he can afford better than they.”

But has Thiel broken any laws? Apparently not. Professor Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University, for example, emphasizes that what Thiel did “is well within the parameters of third-party involvement in lawsuits.”

In fact, some scholars contend that third-party financing of plaintiff lawsuits actually represents “another step in leveling the playing field between plaintiffs and defendants.”

Why might that be true in a libel or privacy case against the news media? Because most plaintiffs' attorneys in such cases work on a contingency fee basis. That puts plaintiffs at a disadvantage because it means their lawyers collect money down the road only if they win – aside from, perhaps, a modest retainer upfront to cover the initial costs of getting the case going.

Rather than billing clients by the hour, as media defense attorneys do, plaintiffs' attorneys in libel and privacy cases thus take a large financial risk that they may not collect any money if they lose. This, in turn, may make them less likely to take such a case in the first place.

Nobility of purpose?

The practice of champerty, in which a person or company steps in to help fund a case in return for a cut of the potential payoff, thus allows some lawsuits to go forward that otherwise might not because an attorney doesn’t want to take on the cost or the risk of not recovering anything.

Thiel’s lawsuit distorts this concept because he does not seek money but rather has a personal motive. Thus, at least one major litigation funding firm, Burford Capital, has distanced itself from the current fracas. As CEO Chris Bogart notes in a blog posting:

“What Burford and other commercial litigation financiers do is part of a large and pretty boring business around commercial litigation – businesses suing each other… That world is miles away from professional wrestling, sex tapes and “revenge litigation.” We don’t have anything to do with that other, more salacious world.”

Third-party litigation funding by the likes of Burford Capital is far from rare today and, in fact, “is prevalent in litigation and arbitration both domestically and internationally.”

Had, however, Thiel been funding a lawsuit for a more noble cause – one not for revenge against an entity that is part of the media – we might see it differently. As First Amendment defense attorney Marc Randazza observes:

“When the ACLU represents a party in an important civil rights case, isn’t that a third party funding a case to promote an agenda? What about the NRA? It happens all the time.”

Northwestern’s Kontorovich concurs, noting that “anyone who donates to the ACLU or a Legal Aid fund is basically underwriting third-party litigation.”

For Thiel’s part, he emphasizes that his motives are “less about revenge and more about specific deterrence.”

“I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest… I thought it was worth fighting back.”

The real danger

In any case, is the sky now suddenly going to fall on the mainstream news media? Are the odds in favor of Thiel or others like him striking a future $140 million jackpot against a media defendant?

It is highly doubtful. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern points out, Thiel essentially:

“ … lucked out with Hogan’s judge and jury — it’s hard to imagine a court more sympathetic to Hogan’s claims — but there’s no reason to think future plaintiffs will be so wildly fortunate. Yes, deep-pocketed donors could theoretically finance frivolous yet costly nuisance lawsuits and pester publications into oblivion. But most such suits would be dismissed early on, and an attorney who brings overtly frivolous claims risks court sanction. In short, it is exceedingly rare for the stars to align as neatly as they did for Hogan.”

Yet, even if a media defendant ultimately prevails in court against a third-party financed lawsuit, it still has rung up potentially massive bills to pay its attorneys and other costs in fighting that battle. That is the real danger here.

Ultimately, however, the First Amendment protects the press against government censorship, not private third-party funding of lawsuits that target it. If change is to occur, then, because of the fear of another billionaire running the Thiel playbook against a media organization, it will take legislation.

A first baby step, as it were, for such legislation might concentrate on transparency. It would require attorneys who accept third-party funding for cases to file documents in public court files related to those cases to acknowledge and identify all sources of funding beyond those coming directly from clients.

Completely banning the practice of third-party litigation seems impractical, however, given both how well instantiated it now is in the U.S. and that it can support legitimate plaintiffs who might not otherwise possess the fiscal resources to do battle in court. But openness, regarding who funds whom, will make the public aware about the individuals or businesses that hold a vested monetary stake or, in Thiel’s case, a non-pecuniary one, in the outcome.

Indeed, it seems to be the secretiveness of Thiel’s funding that has so many taken aback.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on May 29, 2016.

Society & Culture

Restoring the Everglades will benefit both humans and nature

June 3, 2016
Peter Frederick

UF research professor Peter Frederick explains why rehydrating the Florida Everglades, the largest ecological restoration project in the world, is worth its multi-billion dollar cost.

Everglades National Park (ENP) is our only national wetland park, and one of the largest aquascapes in the world. Perhaps more than any other U.S. national park, ENP’s treasures are hard to defend. Lying at the southern end of an immense watershed the size of New Jersey, ENP is caught between the largest man-made water project in the world upstream and a rapidly rising ocean downstream.

The park and the wider Everglades ecosystem have suffered immense ecological damage from years of overdrainage to prevent flooding and promote development. In 2000 Congress approved the largest ecological restoration project in the world – the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which is expected to take more than 35 years to complete and cost at least US$10.5 billion. In addition to repairing some of the damage to this unique ecosystem, the restoration is designed to ensure reliable clean drinking water supplies for South Florida cities and protect developed areas from flooding.

The plan is making progress – but the closer it gets to its goal, the more the details matter, and some of those details have become roadblocks. As I complete my 30th year as an ecologist studying and trying to restore this great place, it is increasingly clear that restoration can work and will benefit both wild spaces and people. However, that view rests heavily on the assumption that we will commit to fixing a central problem – water storage.

Managing water flow

The Everglades drainage area stretches over 200 miles, starting near Orlando and reaching south to the Gulf of Mexico. At least 100 miles of it is made up of the wide-open grasslands called the Everglades. Nearly 83 percent of the Everglades lies outside of the national park, mostly on agricultural or state-protected lands.
The Everglades landscape is flatter than a billiard table, and water tends to pool on it. Florida has huge swings in annual rainfall, which can vary by as much as 82 percent from average levels year to year, and water evaporates very rapidly during dry seasons.

Before the 20th century, the Everglades managed these flows naturally. They were a network of vast marshes that expanded and contracted from wet to dry seasons, populated by plants and animals that evolved strategies for dealing with unpredictable depths. Alligators created ponds to live in and crayfish burrowed into sediments during dry seasons. Sawgrass, which grows throughout the Everglades, can withstand drought, floods and fires and thrives in soils that contain pathetically few nutrients.

As development spread across Florida, farmers, ranchers and urban dwellers sought to control floods and manage water supplies during droughts. In 1948 Congress authorized the Central & Southern Florida Project, which would become the largest water works project in the world, with more than 2,000 miles of canals and dikes, 71 pump stations, over 600 water control structures and 625 culverts. This infrastructure, which spans 16 counties, is operated today by the South Florida Water Management District.

Engineers rerouted a huge portion of the water that flowed south into the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee, diverting it to Florida’s east and west coasts. This enabled agricultural development and a huge western expansion of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

It also destroyed the St. Lucie and Fort Meyers estuaries by flooding them with unnatural pulses of fresh, and often polluted, water. In the Everglades it caused a 90 percent decline in populations of wading birds and repeated seagrass die-offs in Florida Bay and Charlotte Harbor, which in turn led to algae blooms and fish kills.

Rehydrating the Everglades

The restoration plan seeks to restore some of the Everglades' natural water flow. Models increasingly confirm that it is possible to effectively rehydrate all of the Everglades, including the National Park.

But water coming out of Lake Okeechobee is polluted with phosphorus from fertilizer used on farms upstream. Plants in South Florida evolved in soils that were naturally low in phosphorus, so the Everglades is hypersensitive to it. Under natural conditions water flowing into the Everglades would contain 8-10 parts per billion (ppb) of phosphorus. Current levels range between 100 and 300 ppb.

Adding so much phosphorus to the system can cause massive shifts from sawgrass plains to dense, oxygen-poor cattail monocultures, which outcompete sawgrass under higher nutrient conditions. Florida is now under federal court orders not to release water to the Everglades until phosphorus levels have been reduced close to natural concentrations.

Removing a 300-year supply of phosphorus from Lake Okeechobee waters will require many acres of land to store and treat water by filtering it through beds of aquatic plants and algal mats. This system is partially constructed, but water cannot be released to the Everglades until it is finished, which may not happen for years or even decades, largely because of the cost. Restoration thus is effectively at a standstill.

Meanwhile, the Everglades ecosystem south of Lake Okeechobee is rapidly deteriorating. Fish and bird populations are not recovering, alligators are getting skinnier, invasive pythons are ranging unchecked and algal blooms repeatedly devastate Florida Bay.

In ecologists' worst-case scenario, the Everglades could reach a condition called an alternative stable state, in which the ecosystem has been altered so drastically that it cannot be restored to its original condition. Seagrass beds and mangrove forests along the coasts are already collapsing, partly due to reduced freshwater flow.

Facing these conditions, scientists and managers are privately and off-record debating the formerly unthinkable option of letting water that contains some intermediate level of phosphorus flow into the Everglades. Even mildly relaxing phosphorus standards could make hydrological restoration much more achievable. And the nonprofit Everglades Foundation, which advocates for restoration, is offering a $10 million prize to researchers who can develop a cost-effective technology for removing phosphorus from natural water bodies.

Global climate change raises other uncertainties. The Everglades is very close to sea level, and is already being affected by sea level rise. Peat soils in coastal forests are collapsing due to salt water intrusion. And a recent study estimates that hydrological restoration could be stymied if climate change reduces Florida’s annual rainfall by as little as 10 percent.

An interim goal: water storage

Still, progress is possible. In a 2015 report, the University of Florida’s Water Institute concluded that nearly all uncertainties and problems associated with Everglades restoration could be markedly improved by building more ponds and impoundments to store water.

One million acre-feet (an acre one foot deep) of storage, distributed across several locations both south and north of Lake Okeechobee, could substantially reduce water surpluses and shortages for farmers, tribes, city residents and the Everglades. Building more water storage facilities would also drastically improve our ability to remove phosphorus from the water.

But storing water is difficult and expensive in such a flat, porous landscape. Making dikes out of Florida’s porous rock is like trying to contain water with walls of Swiss cheese: they have to be very thick, and water cannot be stacked deeply for fear of rupturing those walls. As a result, it takes a lot of land to store water.

We have already made huge investments in water distribution and management to buffer ourselves from floods and drought, and to restore the ecology of the Everglades. Water storage is key to the future of cities, agriculture and Everglades restoration - the same structures buffer everyone. If we do not make these investments, all of South Florida’s past drought and flooding challenges will intensify as our weather becomes less predictable.

Completing an integrated natural and human water system for south Florida will have a payoff comparable to a moon shot. But unlike a space mission, we have already mostly paid for this venture. Going the final miles will be cheap compared to the alternative, and future generations will thank us for it.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on May 29, 2016.

Global Impact

Children who spend an extra week in the womb have higher school test scores, risk disability

June 6, 2016
Morgan Sherburne

Researchers have found that spending a week longer in the womb may give babies a tiny leg up on cognitive ability. The trade-off, however, seems to be a slight increase in the chance of having a physical disability.

A group including University of Florida Health researcher Jeffrey Roth, Ph.D., found that babies born at late term — 41 weeks’ gestation — are slightly more likely to be classified as gifted and have higher standardized test scores than babies born at full term, or at 40 weeks’ gestation. However, babies born at 41 weeks also showed a slightly higher chance of having a physical disability than babies born at 40 weeks. The group’s findings are published online today (June 6) in JAMA Pediatrics.

“What our findings suggest is that while 40 weeks remains the safest time for most babies to be delivered, in uncomplicated pregnancies, going another week seems to have beneficial effects on later performance in school,” said Roth, a research professor in department of pediatrics’ division of neonatology, within the UF College of Medicine.

Children born at the 41st week were found to score somewhat better on tests given at third through eighth grade — enough to move some of them to a higher level on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Late-term infants were 2.8 percent more likely to be classified as gifted and 3.1 percent less likely to have poor cognitive outcomes compared with full-term infants. This shift in cognitive outcomes is approximately the equivalent of 10 extra points on each section of the SAT, said David Figlio, Ph.D., director of the Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research and lead author of the study. Late-term infants were also 2.1 percent more likely to be classified as having a physical disability that requires special classroom accommodation. These physical disabilities most commonly include speech pathologies as well as sensory disorders and orthopedic conditions, and can include children being homebound or hospitalized.

“These results are modest, but still meaningful,” Figlio said. “While late-term gestation is associated with somewhat higher rates for physical problems, it’s also associated with better cognitive outcomes.”

The children of women with low education levels — defined as not having completed high school — demonstrated the largest advantage of spending another week in the womb. Compared with children born full term, children born to low-education mothers at 41 weeks are 7.6 percent more likely to be gifted and 4.2 percent less likely to have poor cognitive outcomes. The differences in physical disability rates — 5.1 percent higher than children born at 40 weeks — are also larger for the low-education group.

These children, Roth said, may have benefited from the extra week of uninterrupted brain maturation.

The researchers drew their results from 1.5 million Florida birth records between 1994 and 2002. They linked birth certificate information to public school records from 1998 to 2013. The linking was able to locate 80 percent of infants born in Florida hospitals to students in Florida schools.

“Florida is an appropriate state to conduct this kind of research,” Roth said. “Both the Florida Departments of Education and Health have been strong supporters of long-term follow-up of early life events.”

Roth said that though many events that occur between birth and entrance into school affect children’s cognitive performance, the study sample was large enough to illustrate the clear connection between weeks of gestation and school test scores and assignment to exceptional student education classes.

“Did parents separate? Did the kids move around a lot? Did a relative win the lottery?” Roth said. “There’s so much that goes on unobserved that could be contributing to these trends — but because this data set is so large, positive and negative events that affect these outcomes basically cancel each other out.”

The researchers say the study is not intended to be used for medical decision-making, but simply to provide additional information to physicians and families who are considering whether to induce delivery at full term or wait another week until late term.

Science & Wellness

What is chronic pain and why is it hard to treat?

June 8, 2016
Robert Caudle

Robert Caudle, a professor in UF’s Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, discusses the elusive nature of unrelieved pain, which contributes more to human suffering than any disease.

A recent study by the National Institutes of Health found that more than one in three people in the United States have experienced pain of some sort in the previous three months. Of these, approximately 50 million suffer from chronic or severe pain.

To put these numbers in perspective, 21 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes, 14 million have cancer (this is all types of cancer combined) and 28 million have been diagnosed with heart disease in the U.S. In this light, the number of pain sufferers is stunning and indicates that it is a major epidemic.

But unlike treatments for diabetes, cancer and heart disease, therapies for pain have not really improved for hundreds of years. Our main therapies are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or aspirin, which are just modern versions of chewing on willow bark; and opioids, which are derivatives of opium.

In 2012 259 million prescriptions for opioids were filled in the United States. It is not clear how many of these prescriptions were for chronic pain. And indeed, new CDC guidelines on the use of opioids to treat noncancer chronic pain caution physicians to consider the risks and benefits of using opioids when prescribing them to patients.

The fact is, however, that opioids are used to treat chronic pain not because they are the ideal treatment, but because for some patients, despite their drawbacks, they are the most effective treatment available at the moment.

The problem, as I see it, is this: we are not investing enough in researching and teaching what causes pain and how to treat it.

Pain can have a purpose

I study the processes that trigger and maintain chronic pain. One of the first things I teach my students is that pain is a biological process that is critical for life. Pain protects our bodies from injury and by reminding us that tissue is damaged and needs to be protected it also aids in repairing the injuries we do acquire.

This is graphically illustrated by individuals who are congenitally incapable of feeling pain. People with these conditions typically succumb to infections or organ failure at a young age due to multiple injuries that go unattended. Because they cannot feel pain, they never learn to avoid hazards, or how to protect still-healing injuries.

For the most part, physicians and scientists are not particularly concerned with pain from everyday bumps, bruises and cuts. This type of acute pain typically does not require treatment or can be treated with over-the-counter medication. It will resolve itself when the tissue heals.

What concerns those of us who treat and study pain, however, is chronic pain. This type of pain – that can last for weeks, months or even years – serves no useful purpose for survival and is actually detrimental to our health.

There isn’t one type of chronic pain.

In many cases chronic pain persists after an injury has healed. This happens relatively often with wounded veterans, car accident victims and others who have suffered violent trauma.

Chronic pain from arthritis is telling the person about the damage in their body. In this respect it is similar to acute pain and, presumably, if the body healed the pain would subside. But, at the moment, there is no treatment or intervention to induce that healing so the pain becomes the most troubling aspect of the disease.

Chronic pain can also arise from conditions, like fibromyalgia, which have an unknown cause. These conditions are often misdiagnosed and the pain they produce may be dismissed by health care professionals as psychological or as drug-seeking behavior.

How do we experience pain?

The human pain experience can be divided into three dimensions: what pain researchers call the sensory-discriminative, the affective-motivational and the cognitive-evaluative. In acute pain there is a balance between each of these dimensions that allows us to accurately evaluate the pain and the threat it may pose to our survival. In chronic pain these dimensions are disrupted.

The sensory-discriminative dimension refers to the actual detection, location and intensity of the pain. This dimension is the result of a direct nerve pathway from the body to the spinal cord and up into the brain’s cortex. This is how we are aware of the location on our bodies of a potential injury and how much damage may be associated with the injury.

Knowing where it hurts is only part of experiencing pain. Is your injury life-threatening? Do you need to run away or fight back? This is where the affective-emotional dimension comes in. It arises from the pain circuitry interacting with the limbic system (the emotional centers of the brain). This adds an emotional flavor to the incoming pain signal and is part of the fight-or-flight response. This pathway evokes the anger or fear associated with the possibility of physical harm. It also provokes learning so that in the future we avoid the circumstances leading to the injury.

The third dimension, the cognitive-evaluative, is the conscious interpretation of the pain signal, combined with other sensory information. This dimension draws on the different aspects of pain processing allowing us to determine the location and potential severity of an injury and to come up with survival strategies based on all available information.

When it always hurts

The pain sensory system is designed for survival. If a pain signal persists, the default programming is that the threat to survival remains an urgent concern. Thus, the goal of the pain system is to get you out of harm’s way by ramping up the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain signal.

To increase the urgency of the pain signal, the sensory-discriminative dimension of pain becomes less distinct, leading to a more diffuse, less localized, pain. This pathway also amplifies the pain signal by rewiring spinal cord circuits that carry the signal to the brain, making the pain feel more intense.

If there is a threat to survival, the increasing intensity and unpleasantness of pain serves a purpose. But if the pain signal persists from, let’s say, arthritis or an old injury, the increased intensity and unpleasantness is unwarranted. This is what we define as chronic pain.

In chronic pain, as compared to acute pain, the affective-motivational dimension becomes dominant, leading to psychological consequences. Thus suffering and depression are much worse for chronic pain patients than it would be for an individual with an equivalent acute injury.

The multifaceted nature of pain is why opioids are often the most effective agents for both moderate to severe acute and chronic pain.

Opioids act at all levels of the pain neural circuitry. They suppress incoming pain signals from the peripheral nerves in the body, but importantly for chronic pain patients, they also inhibit the amplification of the signals in the spinal cord and improve the emotional state of the patient.

Unfortunately, patients rapidly develop tolerance to opioids, which significantly reduces their effectiveness for chronic therapy. Because of this as well as their addictive nature, potential for abuse and overdose, and side effects such as constipation, opioids are less than ideal agents for treating chronic pain. It is critical that we find alternatives. But that’s easier said than done.

Funding for pain research lags

In 2015 the National Institutes of Health spent US$854 million on pain research, compared to more than $6 billion for cancer. It is no wonder that pain patients muddle through with what amounts to centuries-old therapies.

The competition for funding for pain researchers is intense. In fact, many of my friends and colleagues, all highly experienced midcareer scientists, are leaving research because they cannot sustain the funding necessary to make any significant progress in finding treatments for pain. I, myself, spend up to 30 hours per week preparing and writing research proposals for funding agencies. Yet, less than one in 10 of these proposals are funded. The dearth of funding is also discouraging young scientists from doing pain research. With tenure at major universities becoming more and more difficult to attain, they can little afford to spend all of their time writing research proposals that do not get funded.

In addition, many medical and dental programs in the United States devote as little as one hour in their curriculum to teaching pain mechanisms and pain management. Thus, most of our health professionals are poorly prepared to diagnose and treat chronic pain, which contributes to both the under treatment of pain and the abuse of opioids.

Unrelieved pain contributes more to human suffering than any other disease. It is time to invest in research to find safe effective therapies and on training health care providers to appropriately diagnose and treat pain.

This article first appeared in The Conversation on June 2, 2016.

Science & Wellness

Relationship advice from a gender-changing fish that mates for life

June 8, 2016
By Stephenie Livingston
Florida Museum of Natural History

A 3-inch, monogamous hermaphrodite proves the saying “there’s plenty more fish in the sea” isn’t always the case.

For the tiny fish found in the coral reefs off Panama, a lifelong relationship with its partner doesn’t come without some give and take. In fact, the faithful pair owe their evolutionary success to trading male and female roles: According to an April 2016 University of Florida study in the journal of Behavioral Ecology, the fish switch genders at least 20 times each day.

This reproductive strategy allows individuals to fertilize about as many eggs as they produce, giving the neon-blue fish a reproductive edge. Its mating habits may, at first, seem complex and unusual, but University of Florida scientist Mary Hart said the loyal chalk bass offers humans in relationships this simple wisdom: You get what you give.

Mary Hart off the coast of Panama, where she observed the mating habits of chalk bass."Our study indicates that animals in long-term partnerships are paying attention to whether their partner is contributing to the relationship fairly — something many humans may identify with from their own long-term relationships,” said Hart, lead author and an adjunct professor in UF’s biology department.

In fact, the duo motivate one another to contribute eggs to the relationship because if one partner lacks eggs, the other will simply match whatever it produces. The only way for a partner to convince its mate to produce more eggs, is to pick up the slack and generate more itself, Hart said.

Florida Museum ornithologist Andrew Kratter turned his attention to fish when he joined his wife, Mary Hart, in Panama for a 6-month study of hermaphrodite fish. Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace.Hart worked with her husband of 10 years, co-author Andrew Kratter, an ornithologist with the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, to study the ocean-dwelling partners. For six months, the scientists observed the short-lived chalk bass, Serranus tortugarum, while scuba diving off the coast of Panama.

To the scientists’ surprise, all of the original chalk bass couples marked for the study remained together throughout the duration, until one or both of them disappeared from the study site. With only 3 to 5 percent of animals known to live monogamously, this is a rare find — one of the first for a fish living in a high-density social group, Kratter said.

“I found it fascinating that fish with a rather unconventional reproductive strategy would end up being the ones who have these long-lasting relationships,” he said. “They live in large social groups with plenty of opportunities to change partners, so you wouldn’t necessarily expect this level of partner fidelity.”

The new research lays the groundwork for integrative studies that investigate the behavioral and neurological mechanisms that govern partnerships in the wild.

Scientists have long studied cooperative behavior in animals, like primates that groom each other or vampire bats that regurgitate food for relatives in need of a blood meal. But it has remained a point of debate among scientists whether or not these animals are paying attention to the amount of resources being exchanged. For the chalk bass, matching reproductive chores helps partners succeed, even when there are opportunities to mate with other fish, Hart said.

“We initially expected individuals with partners that were producing less eggs would be more likely to switch partners over time—trading up, so to speak,” she said. “Instead we found that partners matched egg production and remained in primary partnerships for the long term.”

For their entire adult lives, the fish mating partners come together for two hours each day before dusk in their refuge area, or spawning territory. They chase away other fish and begin with a half-hour foreplay ritual of nipping and hovering around each other, an activity Kratter says helps strengthen the partners’ bond. Eventually it becomes apparent which fish is going to take on the female role for the first of many spawning rounds.

Finding a new mate every evening is time-consuming and risky for a fish that only lives for about a year. Having a safe partner may help ensure that individuals get to fertilize a similar number of eggs as they produce, rather than risk ending up with a partner with fewer eggs, Hart said.

The chalk bass, however, is not opposed to the occasional fling.

If one partner has more eggs than the other, it may share the extra with other couples. Hart said this infrequent option, which happened only 20 percent of the time in the study group, may add stability to the system of simultaneous hermaphroditism paired with monogamy.

But the fish always returns to its mate at the end of the day.

Beavers, otters and wolves are a few species that travel life in pairs. If a wolf is widowed, though, its instincts kick in and the wolf will quickly replace its former mate. Life for a chalk bass after losing its partner may be more difficult. Since adults are all paired, it seems likely that finding a new mate would be difficult for a lone fish. Hart said further investigation is needed to say for sure.

Scientists are only beginning to understand how mutually beneficial relationships among animals are maintained, much as humans in general still strive to determine what makes long-term relationships last.

Hart and Kratter said delving into what drives the bond between monogamous animals has had an impact on their marriage.

“I think the ‘get what you give’ in egg resources exchanged within pairs result, along with the potential for both positive and negative feedback within partnerships were very insightful to both of us,” Hart said. “Not even one of the original pairs that I observed switched mates while its partner was still alive. That strong matching between partners and the investment into the partnership was surprising.”

Science & Wellness

International piano faculty, students come to UF for annual festival

June 9, 2016
UF News

Once again, the UF School of Music is welcoming international faculty and students to the International Piano Festival.

This year’s event, scheduled for June 11-18, will gather 25 outstanding pre-college and college pianists from around the world for daily master classes with guest artists from North America and China. As in past years, evening recitals will be part of the festival.

Come enjoy student performances featuring the masterworks of Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Liszt, Mozart and others. Here is a schedule of this year’s public events, which take place in the Music Building, Room 101, unless otherwise noted:

Saturday, June 11:

3:30-5:30 p.m.: Masterclass with Rok Palčič
7:30 p.m.: Participant Recital

Sunday, June 12:
3:30-5:30 p.m.: Masterclass with Daniel Shapiro
7:30 p.m.: Participant Recital

Monday, June 13:
12 p.m.: Participant Recital at UF Health Shands Hospital, South Tower
3:30-5:30 p.m.: Masterclass with Kevin Robert Orr
7:30 p.m.: Participant Recital

Wednesday, June 15:
3:30-5:30 p.m.: Masterclass with Logan Skelton
7:30 p.m.: Participant Recital

Thursday, June 16:
3:30-5:30 p.m.: Masterclass with Zhou Ying
7:30 p.m.: Participant Recital

Friday, June 17:
12 p.m.: Participant Recital at UF Health Shands Hospital, North Tower
7:30 p.m.: Participant Recital

Saturday, June 18:
10 a.m.: Pre-College Solo Competition
1:30 p.m.: Final Participant Recitals

Campus Life

UF trustees approve new names for iconic campus venues

June 9, 2016
UF News

Steve Spurrier-Florida Field, Exactech Arena join the campus landscape

The University of Florida's two highest-profile athletic venues now have new names: Gator football will now be played at Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, while the arena portion of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, home of several Florida Gators athletic teams and numerous community events, will be known as Exactech Arena, the latter the result of a $5.9 million sponsorship by local orthopaedic device company Exactech.

UF's Board of Trustees approved both namings today.

“These two new names demonstrate how fortunate the university is to have both a tremendous legacy to honor with Steve Spurrier and a wonderful and long relationship with a locally based company like Exactech,” UF President Kent Fuchs said. “We’re proud to have such strong associations with two names that resonate so well in the community and throughout the Gator Nation.”

UF Director of Athletics Jeremy Foley called the football field naming “an appropriate way to commemorate one the most legendary figures in Gator athletics history. Coach Spurrier did more than win a Heisman Trophy, a national championship and a bunch of games. Coach Spurrier changed the culture of Florida athletics. We were an institution that always had a mantra of wait until next year and wouldn’t it be great to just win one championship. Coach changed all of that. The Gators won, won big and won with swagger.”

Foley was also excited about Exactech’s sponsorship.

“We are also thrilled to partner with Exactech because they are first-class in everything they do,” he said. “They are a local company and they have significant ties to the University of Florida.”

head shot of Steve Spurrier

Spurrier said he was extremely grateful for the recognition.

“I am humbled, honored, thankful and very appreciative that my alma mater, the University of Florida, believes that I am worthy and deserving to have my name placed on Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, also known as ‘The Swamp,’” he said. “The Swamp is a special place. Us coaches and players thoroughly enjoyed playing in front of our fans. We won a bunch of them there and only lost five and they were close ones.  I also met my wife, Jerri Starr, at the University of Florida. She has been a tremendous influence on everything I’ve done since. Again, I say thanks to all of those who made this honor possible and I consider this to be the biggest, most special honor I have ever received.”

Spurrier’s accomplishments as a player and coach are well documented and include:

  • First Heisman Trophy winner in school history (1966)
  • Led the Gators to their first National Championship in 1996
  • Won six SEC titles and had the league’s best record seven times
  • Compiled a 122-27-1 record from 1990-2001, the most wins for a Gator coach in school history and a winning percentage (.817) that ranked among the top three in school history
  • Prior to 1990, only eight UF teams had finished with nine wins or more –Spurrier won at least nine games in all 12 of his seasons at Florida
  • No Florida team had won more than nine games in a season prior to his arrival – Spurrier won 10 or more games in nine of his 12 years
  • Coached in back-to-back National Championship games (1995 and 1996 seasons)

UF will honor Spurrier at the season opener versus Massachusetts in a ceremony that will include the unveiling of his namesake on the stadium.

Fox Sports represented UF to help broker the Exactech Arena agreement. Exactech’s sponsorship of the O’Connell Center arena gives the company a premier presence at the venue, use of UF athletic facilities, curriculum integration through FOX Sports University, and media exposure on Fox Sports Sun and Fox Sports Florida.  Exactech plans to channel the visibility toward health-related education.

“Exactech Arena adds yet another dimension to our deeply rooted partnership with UF,” Exactech CEO David Petty said. “Exactech employees are already passionate about helping people maintain their activity and independence through our joint replacement systems. This sponsorship gives us new channels to promote healthy lifestyles, encourage mobility and expand our support of the Arthritis Foundation. And what better place to symbolize this than amidst the energy and passion of this arena?”

Said Cindy O’Connell, wife of the late UF President Stephen O’Connell and director of the Florida Prepaid College Foundation: “The community, the state, the alumni, donors, the students and faculty should be thrilled at the expansion and supportive of the naming of the arena. It is still the O’Connell Center – a building for all reasons. There is a new name on the arena, which is customary for today’s facilities. I’m thrilled to endorse this and the legacy of Stephen C. O’Connell will continue.”

UF and Exactech have a 30-year history of collaboration on education, innovation and health care.

Exactech was founded in 1985 by orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Bill Petty, his wife Betty, and biomedical engineer Gary Miller. While faculty and research colleagues at the UF College of Medicine’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Petty and Miller collaborated with several orthopaedic device companies and thought they saw some things the industry could do differently, and better. They wanted to focus their vision on creating products and services that would make a difference in the quality of care provided to patients suffering from joint diseases like arthritis.

With global headquarters in Gainesville, Exactech now has more than 700 employees who design, develop, manufacture and distribute innovative orthopaedic implants and surgical instrumentation for patients undergoing shoulder, knee, hip and spine surgery. The company’s products are distributed in more than 35 countries.

Collaborations between Exactech and UF include:

  • UF surgeons and faculty partner with Exactech to develop the latest advancements in total joint replacement surgery and to conduct clinical research.
  • Orthopaedic surgeons from around the world observe UF surgeons and gain hands-on experience with Exactech products in UF’s surgical skills labs.
  • Exactech sponsors seminars for UF College of Medicine orthopaedic surgery residents and fellows.
  • The Gary Miller, PhD, Biomechanics Laboratory, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
  • The Bill Petty, MD, Endowment in Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, College of Medicine.
  • Exactech internships, tours, course support and class projects for UF students.
  •  Tuition reimbursement to help Exactech employees earn degrees from UF
  • Careers for a substantial number of UF graduates 
Campus Life

In defense of the world’s ugliest color

June 10, 2016
Alisson Clark
color theory

Our color-theory expert helps you see the beauty in Pantone 448 C

The brownish-olive color known as Pantone 448 C has taken a beating since Australian experts named it the world’s ugliest, recommending it for cigarette packaging to make tobacco products less appealing. But Margaret Portillo, chair of the University of Florida’s interior-design department and interim associate dean of the College of Design, Construction and Planning, thinks the color deserves another look.

“I would take issue with this being the ugliest color in the world. It’s all about context,” Portillo said.

In the context of something you’d ingest, you have good reason to avoid it.

“We’re hard-wired to avoid things that might hurt or even prove fatal to us. If you see a strawberry tinged with this color, it might suggest the growth of decay and mold,” she said. “You wouldn’t want to put it in your mouth.”

Not so in other settings, Portillo says – in fact, you can probably find the color all around you, looking good on its own or working in the background to make other hues pop.

Not so bad, is it? “If you had this color in velvet on an art moderne club chair, it would convey panache, elegance, sophistication. As the background wall color for an art collection, it can be a rich neutral that makes saturated hues sing.”

And if the color proves effective at making cigarette packaging unappealing, Portillo can imagine taking it even further. Instead of making cigarettes white, with its connotations of youth and freshness, why not make them olive drab, too?

“If the cigarettes themselves had a green, muddy tint to them, they might be a lot less appealing.” 

Society & Culture

The diabetes epidemic: controlling, curing and preventing

June 15, 2016
Leonora LaPeter Anton

I asked Dr. Mark Atkinson if I could spend the day with him. I figured if anyone could help me understand how the world of diabetes research worked, it was someone who has spent 30 years trying to figure out what causes Type 1 diabetes.

Atkinson explained that he doesn’t spend his days looking through microscopes, meeting with patients, or checking on mice in a lab. He’s more like the guy in charge of determining what research should be pursued, bringing the right people together, and writing up what has been discovered. His days and nights are spent in meetings, on the phone, working on his computer, answering emails, traveling around the globe.
The night before I got to Atkinson’s office, he had flown in from a trip to Guyana, Trinidad, and the Cayman Islands. He and his wife of 32 years, Carol, whom he met in high school, operate an international nonprofit organization called Insulin for Life USA that started in Australia and now has seven affiliates throughout the world. They collect unused diabetes supplies—including syringes, test strips, and insulin—in the United States and distribute them free of charge to clinics and doctors in struggling countries such as Haiti, Rwanda, Nigeria and Congo.
He was operating on little sleep. Though strung tight by deadlines and conferences and phone calls and mishaps like having his phone stolen at the airport in Miami, he seemed, oddly, relaxed.
He was trying to describe his lab at the University of Florida to a job candidate, Amanda, who was in a final round of interviewing for a position to help input and manage the data collected at the lab.
Atkinson’s own road to UF started in Michigan. His mother, one of 17 children, dropped out of school in the seventh grade. His dad, a child from a family of coal miners, dropped out in the ninth grade. As a child, Atkinson liked taking things apart and putting them back together again, figuring out how they worked. He got his first tool set when he was 5.
Given their background, education was not a priority for his family. His father died when he was ten. In high school, Atkinson got into a bad accident and had to wear a body cast for five months. He missed a lot of school but still went on to the University of Michigan–Dearborn, where he studied microbiology. He was a graduate student in pathology at the University of Florida when he started a rotation with a diabetes researcher, Dr. Noel Maclaren, who recommended he spend a week at a diabetes camp for kids.
“I remember just being amazed at how the kids lived with the disease, from the foods they had to eat and what they could not eat, and the amount of concern they had to have when they had activities relative to when meals occur,” he recalled. “There were a whole lot of blood glucose tests and insulin injections, and that was back when things were more rudimentary than they are today.”
This was how his career in diabetes began. For the next two decades, he pursued Type 1 diabetes research. He explored ways to cure the disease, developed tests to identify those at risk for diabetes, attempted to understand the role of the environment in Type 1 diabetes, and much more.
Read more of the story and download the complete text.

The stories chronicled in GATORBYTES span all colleges and units across the UF campus. They detail the far-reaching impact of UF’s research, technologies, and innovations—and the UF faculty members dedicated to them. Gatorbytes describe how UF is continuing to build on its strengths and extend the reach of its efforts so that it can help even more people in even more places.
Gatorbytes are available from University Press of Florida and can be found wherever books and e-books are sold.

Science & Wellness

Terrorism and tourism: what cities should do to prepare for an atttack

June 15, 2016
Lori Pennington-Gray

UF professor Lori Pennington-Gray, director of the university’s Tourism Crisis Management Initiative, observes that while cities and other tourist destinations are becoming more resilient to terrorist attacks, there is more they can do to ensure that potential visitors feel safe.

Citizens of the U.S. and the world were deeply shocked and saddened when a gunman shot and killed about 50 patrons at an Orlando nightclub this past weekend.

While the shooter’s primary targets were the people enjoying an evening out, a secondary object of such incidents is typically tourism, with the aim of terrorizing a population so much that people don’t travel there, thereby harming the economy.

Thus it was no surprise that the United Nations World Tourism Organization was among the many groups to swiftly condemn the attack and express its condolences to the victims' families and “full solidarity” with Americans.

But is sending messages of solidarity and support enough?

At the Tourism Crisis Management Initiative at the University of Florida, which I oversee, we conduct research on a host of issues to help inform management, marketing and policy decisions in the industry.

In recent years, we’ve looked into how cities and other destinations react to shootings and other situations that negatively affect tourism to uncover best practices to mitigate the impact. We’ve learned several important lessons about what cities can do to assure tourists they can maintain their safety.

Importance of tourism

Orlando relies on tourism as a major contributor to its economy. In fact, the city that is home to Disney World, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and SeaWorld received more than 60 million visitors in 2015, ranking it among the top destinations in the U.S. Tourism is responsible for an economic impact to surrounding Orange County of more than US$60 billion annually.

While research confirms that crime and terror have a negative impact on the cities where they take place, the tourism industry has actually become more resilient in recent years.

For example, the time it takes to fully recover has declined significantly. Back in 2001, it took hotels in New York 34 months to return to preattack occupancy levels, while other U.S. cities averaged 45 months following 9/11. Four years later, London hotels were back to normal occupancy just nine months after a series of suicide bombers on Underground trains killed 52 people. Perhaps this is because of London’s greater experience with terrorism attacks.

And more recently, the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 had only a limited impact on hotel occupancy rates – with some reporting that tourism actually surged.

Signaling safety

That’s in part because destinations have gotten better about being proactive in their tourism crisis management. However, many destinations still do not engage sufficiently in preparedness and thus are at risk of losing visitors to other destinations.

Shootings like the one in Orlando tend not to depress overall demand. Tourists like to travel and feel the need for travel and take a vacation. Therefore, tourists tend to alter their travel plans rather than cancel.

This is good news for tourism destinations. But since tourism is a zero sum gain, some destinations win while others will lose. Research suggests that tourists tend to flock to cities and other destinations where they feel safe and the risk is minimal.

As such, Orlando’s tourism industry will need to implement a tourism crisis management plan immediately if it hopes to prevent would-be visitors from going elsewhere and minimize the shooting’s impact on its economy.

Managing the perceived safety of visitors is above all about having a strong communication plan – that provides timely, accurate and informative messages – as well as a strong safety management program – putting more boots on the ground so there are visibly more police in tourist-dominated areas. One cannot effectively exist without the other.

Visit Orlando, the local destination management organization, for example, quickly posted the following statement from its president after the nightclub shooting:

“Our deepest sympathies go toward those impacted and affected by this tragedy. We are appalled and saddened by this act of violence. We continue to work with our community partners on the evolving nature of this incident and have total trust in the dedication of our public officials' leadership during this difficult time.”

While offering condolences is important in the communication process, it is not very informative to someone who is vacationing in the area or has booked a flight to Orlando next week and is wondering whether it’s safe to visit. Rather, it is critical for an organization like Visit Orlando to inform visitors already there what they are doing to keep them safe and assure those with plans why they maintain keep them.

More than ever, tourists require true, informative, directive and honest information. The greater the destination can do this, the greater feelings of trust that are held for the destination management organization leads to greater feelings of trust and thus less economic loss to the destination.

Lessons learned

The Tourism Crisis Management Initiative has worked with destinations all over the world over the past five years to increase preparedness.

Specifically, we’ve studied how they responded to a variety of crises, such as a crime wave, terrorism, hurricanes and viruses such as Zika and Ebola, to learn what works and what doesn’t. Here are some of those findings that are relevant for Orlando.

First, our research has revealed that due to the rise in citizen journalism and access to digital media, tourists turn to social media for information more frequently than ever before. Realizing this, Facebook developed a program in 2014 that turns on in a crisis and allows users to easily notify friends that they are safe. The Orlando attack prompted Facebook to activate it in the U.S. for the first time.

We recommend groups like Visit Orlando help publicize Facebook’s Safety Check and similar apps so visitors know how to share their location and status with loved ones.

Our research also suggests that tourists need more specific safety information than locals do. Since visitors are usually unfamiliar with the geography and other aspects of their destination, it can be difficult to find information that’s relevant to them and that they can make sense of. An example is when authorities are asking people to stay away from certain areas, and a tourist has no context for the directive.

Thus tourist organizations need to fill in these gaps and help visitors understand these messages using landmark-filled maps and other methods. This will go a long way toward making a tourist feel safe, less likely to leave and more likely to stick to a planned trip.

In the same vein, Visit Orlando and other sites should make themselves the trusted source for one-stop shopping for all pertinent information on safety and security, with relevant links and regularly updated details. It’s also a good idea to set up visitor safety stations and 1-800 hotlines, both of which demonstrate a commitment to safety and security.

Destinations that take a greater leadership role and provide accurate, relevant and timely information to their visitors are more likely to win in this zero sum game. Those that are unorganized or silent are more likely to lose.

Ultimately, tourists vote with their pocketbooks, and a destination’s relative safety may determine where they take their next trip.

This article originally appeared in "The Conversation" on June 14, 2016

Society & Culture

Gravitational waves detected from second pair of colliding black holes

June 15, 2016
Steve Orlando

Four months after stunning the world with the announcement that they had detected gravitational waves from a collision of two black holes and confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity, scientists say they’ve done it again.

The second event, detected Dec. 25 by both of the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, sheds new light on black holes and how common they are.
“This second detection confirms our expectations that binary black holes are abundant in the universe and LIGO will see many more in the future” said Sergey Klimenko, a University of Florida scientist who is analyzing the data from LIGO, the same detectors used in the first detection.  
Gravitational waves carry information about their origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained, and physicists have concluded that these gravitational waves were produced during the final moments of the merger of two black holes 14 and 8 times the mass of the sun to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole that is 21 times the mass of the sun.
During the merger, which occurred approximately 1.4 billion years ago, a quantity of energy roughly equivalent to the mass of the sun was converted into gravitational waves. The detected signal comes from the last 55 orbits of the black holes before their merger. Based on the arrival time of the signals with the Livingston detector measuring the waves 1.1 milliseconds before the Hanford detector the position of the source in the sky can be roughly determined.
The first detection of gravitational waves, which occurred Sept. 14 and was announced Feb. 11 F, was a milestone in physics and astronomy and marked the beginning of the new field of gravitational-wave astronomy.
“The contributions of the University of Florida LIGO group are everywhere in LIGO.” says Caltech's David H. Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory and Professor of Physics at the University of Florida. ”We led the design and construction of the Input Optics, and played important intellectual roles in many of the other subsystems.  The UFLIGO group also leads one of the main data analysis pipelines searching for the most general sources of gravitational waves, those coming from astrophysical sources that defy theoretical prediction.”
Before moving to Caltech in 2011, David Reitze managed the development of the Advanced LIGO Input Optics at UF, the optical system with the largest number of optical components. “When he left, we not only lost a good friend but also a great scientist with exceptional organizational skills in our department; but the IO was in such a good shape and the entire IO team at UF was so strong that finishing the five million dollar project turned out to be fairly straight forward”, said Prof. Guido Mueller who, together with Prof. David Tanner, has lead the UF Input Optics group since 2011.
The LIGO Observatories are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and were conceived, built, and are operated by Caltech and MIT. The discovery, accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters, was made by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (which includes the GEO Collaboration and the Australian Consortium for Interferometric Gravitational Astronomy) and the Virgo Collaboration using data from the two LIGO detectors.
LIGO research is carried out by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), a group of more than 1,000 scientists from universities around the United States and in 14 other countries. More than 90 universities and research institutes in the LSC develop detector technology and analyze data; approximately 250 students are strong contributing members of the collaboration. The LSC detector network includes the LIGO interferometers and the GEO600 detector.

Virgo research is carried out by the Virgo Collaboration, consisting of more than 250 physicists and engineers belonging to 19 different European research groups: six from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France; eight from the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) in Italy; two
in The Netherlands with Nikhef; the Wigner RCP in Hungary; the POLGRAW group in Poland and the European Gravitational Observatory (EGO), the laboratory hosting the Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy.

The NSF leads in financial support for Advanced LIGO. Funding organizations in Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council, STFC) and Australia (Australian Research Council) also have made significant commitments to the project.
Several of the key technologies that made Advanced LIGO so much more sensitive have been developed and tested by the German UK GEO collaboration. Significant computer resources have been contributed by the AEI Hannover Atlas Cluster, the LIGO Laboratory, Syracuse University, the ARCCA cluster at Cardiff University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the Open Science Grid. Several universities designed, built, and tested key components and techniques for Advanced LIGO: The Australian National University, the University of Adelaide, the University of Western Australia, the University of Florida, Stanford University, Columbia University in the City of New York, and Louisiana State University. The GEO team includes scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute, AEI), Leibniz Universität Hannover, along with partners at the University of Glasgow, Cardiff University, the University of Birmingham, other universities in the United Kingdom and Germany, and the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain.

Science & Wellness

UF alum shows $10 million worth of appreciation

June 16, 2016
UF News

Joseph Hernandez's investment creates an endowment to support the chemistry department

A son of Cuban immigrants who has three University of Florida degrees has invested $10 million in his alma mater to enhance UF’s chemistry department so future chemists and other alumni will be better positioned to explore solutions to society’s greatest challenges.

New York entrepreneur Joseph Hernandez’s gift creates an endowment that will forever provide funds for classroom, research and student support. Hernandez, 43, is the youngest donor in UF’s history to make a gift this large. A new campus chemistry building is under construction and will be named Joseph Hernandez Hall in recognition of his generosity. The 110,000-square-foot building is expected to open within a year.

“The University of Florida changed my life. I’m grateful for the knowledge I obtained there and for the great memories that have shaped my life,” Hernandez said. “I’m forever indebted to this great institution and hope my minor gesture helps future students and the faculty who will change those students’ lives.”

UF’s chemistry department is one of the nation’s leaders in granting doctoral and bachelor’s degrees. The new chemistry building, along with Hernandez’s gift, will further enable the university to provide students with a world-class educational experience so they are better prepared for careers in health, the sciences and other fields.

“Joe’s investment in UF’s chemistry department will touch the lives of thousands of students each year,” UF President Kent Fuchs said. “It will also enable faculty to be more effective educators while achieving even greater excellence in research.”

David Richardson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which is home to UF’s chemistry department, said Hernandez’s gift is transformational.

“Joe's gift will seed innovation and accelerate the entrepreneurial spirit within the department of chemistry,” Richardson said. “Joe is a model for the application of broad scientific knowledge in business, and he is the kind of UF graduate students can emulate as they look to their futures. This endowment will vastly increase the department’s momentum as it seeks to build national leadership in research and teaching. Joe’s generous support will be pivotal in helping UF achieve its aspiration and its goals.”

Hernandez earned a UF bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in 1996 and a pair of master’s degrees two years later, one in business administration and the other in medical sciences. He is a serial biotech entrepreneur whose life’s work is improving medical care. His expertise is in diagnostic and therapeutic industries, and he is founder of numerous health-related companies, among them Microlin Bio and Sydys Corp. to treat cancer, Ember Therapeutics for regenerative medicines and Prolias Technologies for genetic cytology.

Science & Wellness

The numbers are in: UF is good for Florida

June 21, 2016
Janine Sikes

Private companies licensing technology from the University of Florida infused nearly $2.3 billion into the state of Florida economy last year and accounted for the employment of more than 10,600 people, according to a newly released study of UF’s statewide economic impact.

Visitors to campus attending student orientations, football games and graduations, among other events, spent more than $253 million, the study shows. And UF researchers hired under the State Preeminence Initiative pulled in grants worth $55.3 million, an amount equal to more than three times their salaries and benefits. That represents a large return on investment to the state.

Overall, UF’s economic impact on the state in fiscal year 2014-15 was $12.56 billion in industry output or sales revenues, $7.83 billion in contribution to State Gross Domestic Product, and 135,576 full-time and part-time jobs, according to a new report recently released by the university. This puts UF’s impact on par with the state’s trucking industry, its grocery store sector – that includes Publix and Winn-Dixie – or the total of all home construction activities in Florida.

During 2014-15, UF and its component units received total revenues of $5.01 billion from all sources, of which 66.7 percent were from sources outside of the state. Some units, such as those in the health sciences fields, are largely funded from non-state sources including grants, contracts, private giving, insurance coverage and revenue-generating activities.

“These numbers demonstrate that UF is a major economic presence of its own in Florida,” said Alan Hodges, an economist with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and study’s the lead author. “UF’s activities are very diverse, going beyond its education, research and service missions to encompass tourism, economic development and job creation to benefit the state.”

Adjusted for inflation and other factors, UF’s overall economic output impacts to the state increased 11.9 percent since 2009-10, the last time the university conducted a similar study. That is important considering the challenges faced by the state and nation during the recession and the fact that direct employment and student enrollment at UF have remained relatively unchanged.

For comparison, UF’s direct employment total of 41,013 jobs in 2014-15 was 300 fewer than in 2009-10. Student enrollment, while dipping between 2009 and 2015, remains at just over 50,000.

During the past six years, UF has sought to improve its standing among public universities in the U.S. Since 1985, UF has been the only institution in Florida that is a member of the Association of American Universities, the benchmark for success among research-intensive universities. In 2014, the Florida Legislature made available special funding for its two preeminent universities: UF and Florida State University. UF has used that funding to hire new faculty to help build its expertise in more than two dozen strategic areas of emphasis. Those areas span health, agriculture, computing and education, and are shining a light on world challenges such as biodiversity, drug discovery and development, food security and data analytics.

At the time the study was conducted, UF had hired 92 faculty members in preeminent areas. That number has now risen to more than 100. To determine the return on the state’s investment, Hodges’ team compared the amount UF paid for salaries and benefits to hire the faculty with the research awards they have received since. The overall return on investment for preeminence faculty hires was $3.14 for every dollar the state spent.

“Each of these hires is exceptional in his or her field,” said Joe Glover, UF provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “Their combined talent has furthered the collective mission and vision of the University of Florida. Attracting more top-notch educators and researchers helps students and all Floridians who benefit from the breakthroughs that come out of the University of Florida.”

At the same time, the university draws a great number of people to the Gainesville campus each year. In 2014-15, 3.85 million people attended UF educational, cultural and health care venues. Visitor spending during job fairs, athletic competitions, commencements and other such UF-sponsored events are a tremendous boon for local businesses and the state.

What’s happening on campus is only part of the story when talking about the UF’s overall economic impacts on the state.

UF boasts an active program for licensing patented technologies developed through university research to private companies. In 2015, UF had active license agreements with 101 companies in Florida. UF’s total royalties and fees from all companies, including Gatorade, was $26 million. The largest industry sectors for technology licensing were biological product manufacturing, pharmaceutical preparation manufacturing, and pesticide and other agrichemical manufacturing. Total annual sales revenues for all companies were estimated at $909 million, with an overall economic impact on Florida more than double this amount.

For more detailed information on the University of Florida’s economic impact on the state, please visit http://fred.ifas.ufl.edu/news/UF-Economic-Contributions/.

Campus Life

A second chance for Cisco

June 22, 2016
Alisson Clark
Whitney Lab, sea turtles

Human impacts have made life tough for Florida's sea turtles. UF is trying to turn the tide.

When the green sea turtle named Cisco Kid washed up on Hammock Beach in Palm Coast, it seemed his luck had run out.

He was anemic, underweight, fighting a blood infection, stunned by the January cold, too weak to swim or eat. Tumors beneath his back flippers sapped his energy, robbing his blood supply and hindering his movement.

One thing was in Cisco’s favor, though: He had come ashore just a few miles from the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory Sea Turtle Hospital in St. Augustine, where researchers are working to understand and treat the fibropapilloma virus spreading through sea turtle populations, causing tumors that can hamper their ability to breed, feed, even see.

The hospital's major benefectors, the Condron family, had just donated a $40,000 carbon-dioxide laser to remove tumors like Cisco’s. The surgery could save Cisco’s life, but he was too sick to survive it.

The hospital staff was determined to change that.

Cisco beneath the surface of the water at the Sea Turtle Hospital


Seven turtles, all with fibropapilloma tumors, paddled around four 1,100-gallon tanks as Burkhalter and her team brought Cisco into the hospital and placed him in a shallow padded pool.

“When they're that weak, they're not able to surface,” she said. “If you put them in deeper water, they'll drown.” 

The staff didn’t know if the turtle was male or female, and they never would – juvenile green sea turtles have no outward indication of gender. But when donor Gary Condron chose the name Cisco Kid after a beloved family dog, they came to think of Cisco as a he.

Cisco didn’t fight Burkhalter as she gave him antibiotics and fed him through a tube the team had MacGyvered from a rubber dog toy. His lab tests revealed a red blood cell count less than half of normal. On the 1-5 scale used to rank a turtle’s body condition, Cisco was a 1, the worst possible score.

His condition could have been due to the virus, which is related to herpes. Or the virus could have taken hold because his immune system was already challenged. Scientists don’t know how the disease spreads, but they do know it’s spreading, says David Duffy, a Whitney Lab researcher studying potential treatments. The virus occurs naturally in the ocean, but it didn’t seem to impact many turtles until the 1970s. Now the disease has been spotted in turtles all over the world, particularly in the southern United States. Studies have linked its spread to human impact: A study in Hawaii compared the water near a pristine, uninhabited island to the water surrounding a populated island. The virus was present in both places, but only the turtles near the populated area had tumors.

“It’s not a classical viral spread where it goes from one population to another,” Duffy said. “There’s a clear link back to people. Something we're doing to the aquatic environment is activating the virus and promoting tumor growth.”

Cisco's tumors before surgery.Green turtles – one of the five species found in Florida – are particularly vulnerable. The tumors start in their adolescence, when they venture back from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to forage along coastal waterways. When they’re healthy, green turtles can live more than 100 years. To have a shot at that kind of lifespan, Cisco needed help.

‌A CT scan donated by a human clinic delivered some much-needed good news: Cisco’s tumors hadn’t spread to his internal organs. But as the days went by, Cisco refused even the most tempting treats – herring, mackerel, shrimp. Seven days a week, the staff fed him formula made of powdered fish and seaweed. Then, three weeks into his treatment, he began to resist coming out of the water for his treatments.

Turtles, like cats and dogs, have distinct personalities, Burkhalter says: Some, like their young patient Squidlips, are curious and friendly, sticking their heads out of their tanks to greet their caretakers. Others are standoffish. Cisco was beginning to show some spunk.

“When I saw that he didn’t want to be handled, that was a good sign,” she said. “It was the first time I felt like I knew he was going to survive.” 

Vets remove Cisco the sea turtle from his tank

Even for outgoing turtles, the hospital staff tries to limit interactions that could habituate turtles to people. They devised a system of PVC pipes to hold cucumbers and peppers at the bottom of the tanks to mimic feeding off of grasses on the sea floor, and they toss fish and squid into the water instead of feeding the turtles by hand.

“We don’t want turtles associating people with food,” Burkhalter said.

The staff devises enrichments to keep the turtles busy and keep stress at bay. They freeze food inside ice cubes to make dinner more of a hunt than a handout. They build obstacle courses for the turtles to swim through and back scratchers for them to rub their shells on.

“We’re doing a lot of research on how to reduce their stress, because stress works against you when you’re trying to heal,” Burkhalter said.

It’s just one type of research going on at Whitney Lab, which opened in 1974.

aerial of whitney lab in st. augustine

Here, scientists look to marine organisms for clues to how the senses function, how regeneration works and how these discoveries could someday apply to humans. The hospital followed in 2015 and has treated more than 60 injured or ill turtles since opening. Supported by private donations, the university and the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s Florida Sea Turtle Grants Program, the hospital works in conjunction with UF's Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, which was recently named as part of a Disney initiative to protect these endangered animals.

Along with rehabilitating sick and injured turtles and researching fibropapilloma, the hospital raises public awareness about the importance of sea turtles and the issues they face.

“Helping Cisco as an individual isn’t going to save the species,” Burkhalter said. "What it does is give people something to see and bond to. They learn the story and realize the bigger picture – the impact of marine debris, pollution, climate changes. All of these things aren’t just hurting turtles, they’re hurting the world. If we lose turtles, it upsets the balance of the entire ocean.”


On April 11, Cisco lay on his back, flippers splayed, under anesthesia. Burkhalter stood over him, ready to use the laser on a patient for the first time.

She had prepared for this moment in continuing-education sessions, practicing on oranges and chicken breasts. Unlike traditional surgery, which can cause too much blood loss, the laser cauterizes as it cuts away the tumors, resulting in less pain, less bleeding and faster healing.

A less-invasive treatment could be on the horizon: Duffy, the fibropapilloma researcher, is genetically profiling tumors like Cisco's to identify medicines that could fight them. Just as in humans, determining the genes involved in creating the tumors can lead to treatments that target those genes. That could lead to a drug that could prevent the tumors from recurring after surgery, or point to the environmental factors switching on the cancer genes in the first place. 

“I beg him every day to hurry up,” Burkhalter said.

Burkhalter uses a laser to remove Cisco's tumors.As a camera crew from Discovery Channel Canada looked on, Burkhalter began removing Cisco’s tumors. Then her heart sank. Although the procedure was going perfectly, she saw that the tumors had grown deep under the skin, almost down to the knee joints. She continued removing them, hoping Cisco was strong enough to recover from the more-extensive surgery. 

With a waterproof bandage wound around both back flippers, Cisco slept off his anesthesia resting on foam noodles in a plastic kiddie pool.

The next day, he ate.

A few days later, he was swimming in his regular tank with his roommate, Mudpie.

Cisco swimming in his tank after surgery to remove his tumors

‌“His recovery was picture perfect,” Burkhalter said.


On a Monday morning in June, more than 200 people lined up on the beach to cheer Cisco home.

Burkhalter's daughter waved a hand-lettered "Goodbye Cisco" poster signed by the kids in the Whitney Lab’s marine-biology summer camp. A hospital volunteer live-streamed the festivities to a second-grade class in England. Inside a 27-gallon storage bin, Cisco rested on towels after being lifted from his tank, loaded into a Jeep and driven across the street to River to Sea Preserve. 

Cisco in a plastic storage bin on the beach

After his surgery and recovery, when she determined that Cisco’s tumors weren’t growing back, Burkhalter contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which chose the date and place for his release. Weekdays are best, she explained, because there are fewer people and boats in the water that could disorient or endanger a newly released turtle. But the crowd that turned out for Cisco’s release gave the staff another opportunity to convey that our actions – collectively and individually – have an impact on sea turtles.

Duffy listed a few simple steps: preventing boat strikes by respecting no-wake zones. Safely disposing of fishing line to keep turtles from getting tangled. Reducing plastic garbage and runoff that degrades their habitat.   

“We need to be more aware of impact people are having on the marine environment,” he said. 

walking Cisco to the ocean

Burkhalter lifted Cisco and carried him toward the crashing surf, his flippers flapping faster and faster as he neared the water. She waded in until she was waist deep. A wave crashed over her, but she held on to Cisco. She wanted to get him out just a little deeper, beyond the worst of the waves and into calmer waters. After months of nursing him back to health, it was one last gift she could give him, a tiny head start in the vast ocean.

She lowered him into the water and let go.

Cisco is released into the ocean

Cisco darted north, raising his head and taking three deep breaths before diving beneath the waves.

“They don’t tend to turn around and say thank you. There's no little wave goodbye," Burkhalter said. "But the faster they leave, the stronger they are, and that makes us happy.”

After the crowd dispersed, the team regrouped in the hospital’s surgical suite. Burkhalter and veterinary care manager Rachel Thomas scrolled through comments on the hospital’s Facebook page, where people as far away as Hungary wished Cisco well. Thomas erased Cisco’s name from a whiteboard diagram of the hospital’s four tanks, leaving a blank space next to Mudpie.

At 11:03, less than an hour after Cisco’s release, the phone rang. It was the Volusia Marine Science Center an hour south in Ponce Inlet, asking if the hospital had an opening for another green sea turtle with fibropapilloma tumors. 

The team began rallying volunteers to transfer the turtle to the hospital. In a few hours, they would start again.

Video by Brenton Richardson/UF Office of Development and Alumni Affairs. Additional photos courtesy of Jessica Long and Brooke Burkhalter/Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience.

Global Impact

To fight antibiotic resistance, we need to fight bad prescribing habits

June 22, 2016
John Gums

Doctors know that inappropriate prescribing can lead to antibiotic resistance. UF associate dean for clinical affairs and professor of pharmacy and medicine John Gums asks: Why do they keep doing it?

May’s announcement that a strain of bacteria with genes conferring resistance to colistin, our antibiotic of last resort, was identified in the United States, is just the latest report highlighting the growing threat of antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic resistance is driven by many factors, the most significant of which is inappropriate prescribing. This is when patients get a prescription for an antibiotic that they don’t really need, or get a prescription for the wrong antibiotic, the wrong dose or the wrong duration. And doctors know that inappropriate prescribing feeds the problem. So why do they keep doing it?

As a clinical pharmacist who has studied antimicrobial resistance and developed intervention programs to reverse the trend, I know firsthand how challenging this problem is to solve.

I believe there are two reasons inappropriate prescribing is so hard to curb. First, there is a philosophical disconnect between the data about antibiotic resistance and what drives prescriber behavior. The second is that physicians may bend to patient demand for antibiotics, even if the physician knows it won’t help or isn’t really needed.

Physicians: Does your hospital have a resistance problem?

Typically, antibiotic resistance data is captured at the population level. Reports about resistance look at what is going on in countries, states or regions. But antibiotics are prescribed by individual physicians to individual patients. So looking at population-level data makes it easy to deny that it’s a problem in your clinic or hospital, and that your behavior is contributing to it.

That means one of the solutions to curbing antibiotic resistance is to personalize the problem for doctors to get them to change their prescribing habits. And, at least in hospitals, this approach has been shown to work.

In the 1990s, I led a group at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy that established the Antimicrobial Resistance Management (ARM) Program. ARM worked with over 400 hospitals nationwide and in Puerto Rico. We sent customized reports to hospitals that included their antibiotic use over at least the past three years, which was compared to resistance levels for several types of bacteria that commonly cause infections. That meant we could determine if there was any statistically significant relationship between antibiotic prescribing habits and resistance at the hospital level.

Because the data was institution-specific, providers couldn’t deny that their hospital had a resistance program, and that they may be contributing to it.

What does that mean in practice? ARM examined the relationship between imipenem, a broad spectrum antibiotic, and Pseudomonas, a bacteria that often causes healthcare-acquired infections, at a particular medical center. The program found that if the medical center did not change their prescriber behavior for this antibiotic, resistance would rise one percent for every 30 average daily doses in adults.

This tells prescribers much more about the chance that a key antibiotic will become less effective against a common infection than general population-level data would. Knowing this, hospital staff and individual providers might think carefully about when to prescribe antibiotics, and to prescribe the right dose, the right frequency of dose and the right duration if and when they do.

Those behavior changes have a big effect. For example, at the same medical center, these reports helped to change prescribing habits for ciprofloxacin, a widely used antibiotic that you may know as Cipro, to the point that it became 26-76 percent more effective at treating infections caused by certain organisms, especially those associated with hospital-acquired infections.

Patients play a role

So there’s a way to get physicians in hospitals to think about how they prescribe antibiotics. But most antibiotics are prescribed in outpatient clinics.

In fact, a recent sample of outpatient visits in the United States revealed that there were about 506 antibiotic prescriptions per 1,000 people in the U.S. Of these, about 69.7 were deemed appropriate. The rest weren’t, and were often prescribed for diseases include bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infections and sore throats, which will often go away on their own. And many of these diseases are often caused by viruses, which won’t respond to antibiotics.

So to really combat inappropriate prescribing, we also need to reach physicians in outpatient clinics. Targeted data could help here. But the problem is that the systems that monitor antibiotic resistance and prescribing rates do not collect quality data on outpatient clinics. Even if they did, there is no standardized mechanism to deliver that information back to the community-based provider.

Beyond that, we also need to reach their patients. Part of the reason physicians prescribe antibiotics is that they bend to the expectations of their patients.

If a patient with a chest cold decides to see his provider, the patient most likely took off work, spent time in a waiting room, then more time waiting in the exam room until the provider finally came in to spend a few minutes of face-to-face time with him. The last thing the patient wants to hear is that he should get some rest, drink plenty of fluids and take Tylenol. He feels as if he made an investment, and for his investment, he wants a return. Hence a prescription, often for an antibiotic. Providers know this and realize that patients will leave sooner and happier if the provider gives patients what they want.

The challenge for patients is complicated by the fact that numerous pharmacies will now provide them free antibiotics with a proper prescription. This not only increases the demand from patients for an antibiotic from their provider but it also increases the demand for select antibiotics since not all antibiotics are offered free of charge.

The increased demand for a select group of antibiotics speeds up the development of resistance against those drugs and cuts down on the time before they become useless.

While physicians should avoid prescribing antibiotics to patients unless they are truly necessary, patients must also accept the fact that not all infections require an antibiotic.

Patients have to take responsibility for the retention of antibiotic efficacy for future generations. They should share with their provider that they want to partner with him or her toward a more responsible level of infectious disease care.

There are solutions, but to realize them, we need to stop discussing antibiotic resistance as an abstract, population-level problem and drive the solutions down to where the problem started, the patient-provider relationship.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on June 21, 2016.

Science & Wellness

UF receives nearly $97 million performance funding

June 23, 2016
Janine Sikes

The University of Florida will receive $96.9 million in performance funds from the state for the 2016-2017 year, an award that will help the university recruit and retain top-flight faculty in its quest to become one of the best public research universities in the nation.

This latest award for excellence, which includes $17.1 million in new money, demonstrates UF’s ability to achieve high marks on a series of performance metrics put forward in 2014 by the Board of Governors, which oversees the public university system in Florida. These metrics were codified into law in 2016 and directed $500 million toward the model, including a $225 million state investment that universities matched with $275 million.

“Each year, our universities are demonstrating remarkable improvements, raising the bar on their commitments to student success and the success of our graduates,” said Board of Governors’ Chair Tom Kuntz, who was key in developing the metrics. “Thanks to the support from the governor and Legislature, the service to our students, our employers and our state is unprecedented.”

UF’s high scores, combined with the size of its base budget, means its performance funding award is larger than last year’s and more than any other university in the State University System. The funds are being used to reward faculty and staff as well as manage some critical infrastructure needs. UF received a high institution-specific research score as well as high scores in all other categories.

“Already with the most research funding of all universities in Florida, UF set its research awards goals even greater to the level of top-ranked national institutions,” UF President Kent Fuchs said. “That UF continues to set new annual research award records is a testament to our outstanding research faculty.”

Across the system, the money will go toward university initiatives that improve performance on the 10 metrics in the Board of Governors’ Performance Funding Model, which include graduation and retention rates and post-graduation success. The model has yielded huge successes for the State University System, including a 30 percent increase in the number of students pursuing STEM degrees and a graduation rate that is top in the country among the 10 largest states.

Florida’s state universities have implemented a variety of innovative new strategies to improve their services to students, including strengthening their career resource centers and investing in new tracking software that notifies an adviser when a student is stalling and needs help.

At the system level, five of the eight performance-based funding metrics that are common to all universities show improvement over last year’s data. The five metrics are: Median Wages of Bachelor’s Graduates Employed Full-time in Florida; Six-Year Graduation Rates; Academic Progress (Retention) Rates; Percentage of Bachelor’s Degrees Awarded within Programs of Strategic Emphasis; Percentage of Graduate Degrees Awarded within Programs of Strategic Emphasis.

Campus Life

Florida consumer sentiment trends downward for three months despite some good economic news

June 24, 2016
Colleen Porter

Consumer sentiment among Floridians dropped again in June to 89, one point down from May’s revised reading and tied with September 2015 for the lowest reading in the last 18 months, according to the latest University of Florida consumer survey.

Of the five components that make up the index, three decreased and two increased.

Perceptions of one’s personal financial situation now compared with a year ago showed the sharpest drop, falling 3.5 points from 85.5 to 82.0. This decline was shared by all Floridians except those with income above $50,000, whose reading rose 4.3 points. In contrast, those with annual incomes under $50,000 dropped 7.4 points from last month.

Opinions as to whether now is a good time to buy a big-ticket item such as an automobile went up slightly, from 94.2 to 95.4, but again the perceptions of those with income below $50,000 went down.

“The trend of these two components together over the past three months indicates that perceptions of current economic conditions have deteriorated among Floridians, but this pessimistic sentiment started a month earlier for those with annual incomes under $50,000,” said Hector H. Sandoval, director of the Economic Analysis Program at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Expectations of personal finances a year from now were also down slightly, from 102.5 to 101.7.

Views of the future national economy were mixed: Expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the next year rose half a point to 83.4, while expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the next five years decreased 2.3 points, from 84.9 to 82.6.

Florida consumer sentiment is suffering a three-month decline even as some economic indicators are positive. According to the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Florida’s state Gross Domestic Product ranked fifth in the nation for the fourth quarter of 2015.

Florida’s unemployment rate declined again in May, dropping one-tenth of a percentage point to 4.7 percent. The number of jobs added in May statewide was 253,900, a 3.2 percent increase compared with last year. Florida’s economy is growing, with more jobs added every month for 70 consecutive months.

“While the decline in the sentiment index was marginal, it’s worth noting that this is the third straight month of declines,” said Christopher McCarty, director of UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. “The national and international context may contribute to further declines over the next few months. As the campaigns for U.S. president get in full swing, it’s not unusual to see drops in sentiment as consumers hear negative economic opinions and anticipate what each candidate might do.”

McCarty also pointed to potential challenges in the months ahead.

“There are lingering problems with weak wage growth and lower-than-expected inflation, reflecting tepid demand,” McCarty said. “Internationally, many economies, such as Europe and Japan, are struggling with very low inflation and addressing it through negative interest rates. Britain’s very close vote to leave the European Union will have an enormous effect on U.S. and Floridian consumer sentiment in the coming months. The immediate effect will be through a sharp fall in the stock market as most investors did not truly believe this would happen, so the result has not been factored into current prices. This will only be the beginning of the consequences of this move. Other European countries may also decide to leave the EU which could lead to a wave of protectionism that will affect international trade markets for quite some time. Much like the last recession we are in uncharted territory.”

Conducted June 1-20, the UF study reflects the responses of 406 individuals who were reached on cellphones, representing a demographic cross-section of Florida.

The index used by UF researchers is benchmarked to 1966, which means a value of 100 represents the same level of confidence for that year. The lowest index possible is a 2, the highest is 150.

Details of this month’s survey can be found at http://www.bebr.ufl.edu/csi-data

Society & Culture

Explainer: how Panama Canal expansion will transform shipping once again

June 27, 2016
Frank Townsend

Frank Townsend, University of Florida professor emeritus of civil engineering, provides context on the expansion of the Panama Canal, which incorporates several engineering marvels that allow it to finally support the super-sized cargo vessels that dominate shipping.

World shipping changed forever when the Panama Canal opened on August 15, 1914. It was an engineering marvel of its day, cutting the distance required to get from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic by as much as 8,000 nautical miles.

The shipping industry is changing once again as 70 heads of state gathered in Panama City recently to celebrate the canal’s expansion to handle the super-sized ships that now dominate global trade. They were there to witness a Chinese container ship become the first commercial vessel to take advantage of the new, larger locks to pass pass from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

As a civil engineer and native of the Panama Canal Zone, I’ve long marveled at the feats of the original and am impressed by its expansion. So what prompted the Panama government to finally expand it after more than a century? What makes it innovative and what challenges remain?

Wonder of the modern world

The U.S. government built the original, 50-mile Panama Canal after a failed effort by the French in the late 19th century.

The American Society of Civil Engineers named it one of the seven wonders of the modern world in 1994.

When the canal first opened, it was the size of U.S. Navy ships that dictated the width of the locks: 110 feet across and 42 feet deep. Before it opened, ships had to journey all the way down to the Strait of Magellan near the tip of South America to cross from New York to San Francisco.

Ships enter the canal through a series of three chambers, which lift the vessels up to the higher level of Gatun lake through which they will glide, and subsequently lower them to sea level. In addition, tides on the Atlantic side are much lower than the Pacific.

The upgrade, which cost $5.25 billion and was built alongside the old locks, was designed to support the contemporary needs of global commerce from Asia. Modern so-called neo-Panamax ships can be more than 150 feet wide, extend three football fields in length and have a draft of 50 feet. (Draft is how deep into the water a ship goes below the surface.)

New locks' innovative engineering

When designing the new locks, engineers knew they needed constant access to plenty of water to flood the locks and ensure the ships don’t hit bottom.

Having enough water has been a problem with the current locks, such as during a recent drought when shippers had to lighten their loads to make it through. So with the new ones, they created water-saving basins, which capture and recycle water as ships step down from chamber to chamber. Consequently, even though the new locks are 3.3 times larger than the 1914 ones, they use 7 percent less water.

Another enhancement is the expansion locks' use of rolling gates to close each lock, a significant upgrade from the old ones. The rolling gates allow maintenance to be performed without having to temporarily close the lock, saving lots of time and money.

And whereas the 1914 locks used electric towing locomotives (known as mules) to guide ships through the locks, the expansion locks will rely on two positioning tugboats (fore and aft) to position vessels during transit, which is more efficient – though there are some concerns, as noted below.

East Coast ports prepare

The impending arrival of new Panamax ships with a required draft of 50 feet has sent East Coast ports and businesses in the U.S. scrambling to benefit from this increased cargo.

Currently, only Baltimore, Norfolk and Miami are ready to accommodate these larger ships and containers. Shipping channel deepening and widening dredging projects are underway in Savannah (which currently allows draft of up to 47 feet) and Charleston.

And in New York, the Bayonne Bridge, which spans the channel between Bayonne, New Jersey and Staten Island, currently restricts both states' biggest ports from accepting these super-sized vessels. The project to raise the bridge has been delayed until the end of 2017 because of engineering miscalculations and construction work slowed by inclement weather.

Expansion project challenges

Besides which U.S. ports are ready for the canal, the project has encountered other difficulties, as is typical with many projects of this magnitude.

Most notable of these been the cost and time overruns (two years longer than expected), leaks within the concrete lock walls and concerns about the use of tugboats instead of electric towing locomotives. The main worry on the tugboats is that they won’t have sufficient control of the vessel, particularly during the dry season when trade winds blow hard.

Mixed in with these challenges is the drop in demand for global trade and one of the worst shipping industry slumps ever thanks in part to the slowdown in China, which has diminished the expansion’s economic viability.

However, history reminds us that the construction of the original canal was also fraught with obstacles. The French company that started the project in the 1880s went bankrupt and severe landslides necessitated an additional excavation of 25 percent more soil than originally planned.

But these challenges were overcome, and the U.S. completed the canal in 1914, although just one year later, it was closed for seven months after another landslide.

So certainly there will be more “hiccups,” as there always are, but I expect they will also be surmounted, and we will be able to celebrate Panama’s marvelous engineering achievement.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on June 26, 2016.

Global Impact

July 1 marks 100-year anniversary of New Jersey’s ‘12 Days of Terror’

June 27, 2016
Elizabeth Brown

Before five shark attacks left four people dead and one wounded on the Jersey Shore in 1916, there was widespread doubt a shark would even bite a human.

But the attacks that occurred July 1-12, later dubbed “the 12 Days of Terror,” marked a major turning point in the relationship between sharks and humans that put the fish on the defensive and continues to threaten their existence a century later.

“It literally landed on the desk of the president,” said George Burgess, who directs the Florida Program for Shark Research and International Shark Attack File based at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus. “It was affecting everybody.”

The Jersey Shore was a vacation hotspot, and during a polio epidemic and sweltering heat wave in 1916, thousands flocked to the seaside paradise.

The first two attacks happened on the coast, and the last three in Matawan Creek. Some experts suspected a bull shark, because it's the only shark that regularly swims into brackish water.

But the attacks occurred during a nearly full moon high tide when the tributary had maximum salinity. The high tide, severity of the human injuries and the fact a great white shark was later caught with human remains in its stomach, led Burgess to believe it was a great white.

And it was a 25-foot great white that spiked viewers’ heart rates in the 1975 film “Jaws.”

“When the movie came out, there was a collective testosterone rush up and down the East Coast,” Burgess said. Fishermen wanted to prove their bravery, and catching 500-pound sharks was possible with a reasonable size rod and reel.

Fishing tournaments offered prizes for sharks, and in the 1980s, commercial swordfishing increased, which Burgess said resulted in more shark catches. When swordfishing collapsed, fishermen marketed sharks, and the shark-fin trade skyrocketed.

The drop in sharks presented a long-term problem, Burgess said. Sharks are slow-growing, reach sexual maturity at a late age and give birth only every two to three years--meaning declines could require decades to bounce back.

Sharks play a crucial role in ocean biodiversity and ecosystems because they feed on sick as well as healthy animals.

“The beginning of the end was ‘Jaws,’” Burgess said. “The end of the end was commercial fishing.”

Burgess said humans kill 30 million to 70 million sharks each year, with some estimates as high as 100 million.

Most sharks are highly migratory, which makes enacting laws to protect them difficult.

“Sharks don’t honor geopolitical borders,” Burgess said. “We’re talking about a worldwide problem.”

Though in decline worldwide, U.S. shark populations are slowly recovering due to state and federal laws.

Burgess is hopeful if people work together to change public perception, the popular view might stray from the “Jaws” image toward what he thinks when he hears “shark”: a threatened predator that needs our help to survive.

Science & Wellness

Concrete precast for concourse seating installed at UF’s O’Connell Center

June 29, 2016
UF News

Renovations continue at the University of Florida’s Stephen C. O’Connell Center, where workers have spent the past few weeks installing steel framing inside the main arena.

Workers are now securing concrete precast seating decks, which are poured offsite, to the steel framing. The decks will be the base of the fixed chair back seating being placed on the concourse level of the arena. 

Meanwhile, work continues in all areas of the venue with over 200 workers on site each day.

“We are working in every inch of the building,” said Josh Light, Brasfield & Gorrie senior superintendent and the general contractor for the project. “Some of the major activities underway include the installation of the precast stadia that will soon receive the new seating. We are currently installing the framing for the new speaker clusters and center video board. We are erecting steel in several locations including the main grand entry and former gates one and two. In addition to these activities we are putting on the full court press to renovate the service level that will house several of the new locker rooms and a court side club.“

The O’Connell Center is expected to re-open in December.

The Stephen C. O’Connell Center has been a community icon since it opened in December 1980. The arena is home to several University of Florida athletics teams including men’s and women’s basketball, gymnastics, volleyball and men’s and women’s swimming and diving. In addition, the arena is the proud home to University of Florida commencement and several community events like Dance Marathon, charity events and concerts.

On June 9, UF’s Board of Trustees approved the naming rights of the main arena space to locally based Exactech, a medical orthopedic device company that has significant ties to the university and provided a $5.9 million sponsorship. For more information on Exactech, please visit their website at http://www.exac.com/.

To stay updated on the progress of the project, visit rising.oconnellcenter.ufl.edu and follow the O’Connell Center on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @OConnellCTR. The website will be updated regularly with the locations of all displaced events as well as progress on the building renovation.

Campus Life

UF study finds teens’ likelihood of trying marijuana peaks at ages 16, 18

June 29, 2016
Jill Pease

The likelihood adolescents will try marijuana rises steadily from age 11 to age 16, then decreases before hitting another peak at age 18, according to a new University of Florida study.

The study findings, which appear in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, may help experts develop new marijuana prevention strategies, says lead author Xinguang (Jim) Chen, M.D., Ph.D., a professor in the department of epidemiology in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and the UF College of Medicine, which are both part of UF Health.

“Many existing marijuana intervention programs target students age 15 and older,” Chen said. “Our findings demonstrate the need to start drug education much earlier, in the fourth or fifth grade. This gives us an opportunity to make a preemptive strike before they actually start using marijuana.”

As medical marijuana laws are passed in more states, there is concern among some experts that adolescents may view marijuana as a substance that can be used safely by anyone, regardless of whether it is part of a treatment plan under a physician’s supervision. Using marijuana at a young age could put adolescents at risk for cognitive problems, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Teens who use marijuana may have impaired brain development and lower IQ. They may receive lower grades and are more likely to drop out of high school.

The UF study was designed to learn when adolescents are most at risk for starting marijuana use. It is one of the first studies to examine the likelihood of marijuana initiation as a function of age and it used a study method called survival analysis that is more sensitive to fluctuations across age groups, Chen said. The team analyzed data from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationwide cross-sectional survey including approximately 27,000 respondents ages 12 to 21, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The researchers found the likelihood that adolescents would start using marijuana climbed steadily starting at age 11, reaching a first peak at age 16. But the researchers were surprised to discover that at age 17, there was a dip in the possibility that teens would start using marijuana. The team theorizes that many 17-year-olds are focused on improving grades and preparing for college entrance exams, which could pull their attention away from experimenting with drugs. This finding may represent an additional approach for developing interventions, Chen said.

“Increasing adolescents’ academic responsibilities and placing more emphasis on education could be one way to postpone drug use initiation, ultimately preventing drug use,” he said.

The likelihood of marijuana initiation rebounded at age 18 for a second peak. This corresponds to another major milestone in the lives of many young adults, said Bin Yu, M.D., M.P.H., one of the study’s co-authors, and a research assistant in the UF department of epidemiology.

“At 18, many adolescents leave their parents’ homes to start college or enter the workforce,” Yu said. “They may be more susceptible to influence from peers and they have less monitoring by their parents and the community.”

The researchers found that by age 21, 54 percent of young adults will have used marijuana.

The research team, which also included Sonam Lasopa, Ph.D., a recent graduate of the UF doctoral program in epidemiology, and Linda B. Cottler, Ph.D., M.P.H., a dean’s professor, chair of the UF department of epidemiology and PHHP’s associate dean for research, noted a second surprise finding when they analyzed the likelihood of marijuana use by race. Adolescents who self-identified as having a multiracial background were significantly more likely to use marijuana than any other racial or ethnic group.

More research is needed to understand the reasons why adolescents from multiracial backgrounds may be at increased risk for initiating marijuana use, Chen said. With that knowledge, experts can develop prevention programs that take into account racial and ethnic differences, as well as age.

“This study finding supports the idea of precision intervention,” he said. “Intervention programs should be developed for both parents and adolescents, and delivered to the right target population at the right time for the best prevention effect.”

Science & Wellness

Is there life after debt for Puerto Rico?

June 30, 2016
Brian Gendreau

UF’s Brian Gendreau, director of the Latin American Business Environment program, writes about the U.S. bailout of Puerto Rico, debating whether it will be enough to solve the island’s biggest challenge: returning to growth.

For years Puerto Rico borrowed to offset falling revenues as its economy and population declined. This was never sustainable, and now the moment of reckoning has arrived.

In early May, Puerto Rico missed most of a $422 million debt payment, providing the catalyst for the U.S. House of Representatives to enact a rescue plan in early June. The plan, which has been under negotiation with the White House for months, would provide a process for restructuring the island’s $72 billion in debt and put an oversight board in charge of Puerto Rico’s finances.

With Puerto Rico facing a $2 billion debt payment on July 1, the Senate passed the measure just in time and sent it to the president for his signature. The legislation is needed to avoid a messy default because neither Puerto Rico nor its municipalities are eligible for debt relief under U.S. bankruptcy laws.

While the rescue plan establishes the foundation for debt reduction and a smaller deficit, it is not enough to ensure an end to the crisis. Ultimately, that will take a revival of Puerto Rico’s economy, something that the House bill does little to accomplish.

As I’ve argued before, Puerto Rico already has many strengths that with further investment and some other changes could help jumpstart economic growth. Passage of a U.S. rescue is a good first start but will not be sufficient to put Puerto Rico on a path to sustainable growth.

Greece’s lessons for Puerto Rico

Greece’s debt crisis, which began in 2010, offers a cautionary tale of what happens when efforts at debt reduction aren’t accompanied by investment in GDP growth.

Despite two support packages totaling €240 billion, a deal that provided a 35 percent write off on Greece’s debt and harsh austerity measures, Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio continued to rise.

Greece’s GDP fell 18 percent from 2010 to 2015, while its unemployment rate rose to about 25 percent. Greece missed a $1.7 billion payment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in June 2015. And shortly afterward, the IMF declared Greece’s debt dynamics to be “unsustainable.” It stated that further haircuts on Greece’s debt and progress on economic reforms were needed.

And today, Greece’s economy remains extremely fragile. It hasn’t grown since 2007.

In Puerto Rico, economic activity has contracted in all but one year since 2006, when tax incentives that had attracted businesses to the island expired. Puerto Rico’s population, meanwhile, has declined by 9 percent in the past nine years as its citizens have left for better opportunities on the mainland. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can move to the 50 states and District of Columbia at will.

Reducing Puerto Rico’s debt – as Congress' plan would do – should eventually help revive growth to the extent it frees up resources that can be used for other purposes, provided they are invested productively. But even if Puerto Rico manages to reduce the amount it owes and balance its budget, its debt will not necessarily be sustainable. This is because if the interest rate it pays on its debt exceeds the growth rate of the economy, its debt-to-GDP ratio — the measure that really matters — will continue to rise.

Markets typically require governments to pay fairly high interest rates after a debt crisis, and private forecasters expect a continued decline in GDP growth through 2017. That means the U.S. bailout of the kind Congress just passed won’t necessarily be able to put its debt on a sustainable path.

Puerto Rico, like Greece, does not have the option of devaluing its currency to spur exports — a move the IMF believes was important in Iceland’s recovery from its 2008 debt crisis.

Play to your strengths

So what can Puerto Rico do?

The rescue plan before Congress lacks any specific measures to spur growth, other than, perhaps, a provision for a temporary drop in the minimum wage for employees under the age of 25. The bill’s advocates, pointing to the unusually high unemployment among Puerto Rican youths, argue that it would encourage job creation.

Critics, however, argue that reducing wages for young employees will simply accelerate migration to the mainland.

Puerto Rico’s experience using tax breaks – often at the center of policies intended to promote industry – suggests there’s no point going down that road again because they cannot be relied upon to propel future growth once they expire. For example, fixed investment in Puerto Rico fell 27 percent after federal tax breaks for investment expired, and there is little reason to expect future tax-based-investment would outlast the incentives that attracted them.

Rather than trying to compete with its neighbors in the Caribbean and Central America as a low-cost or low-tax producer of manufactured goods, Puerto Rico likely would do better to focus on its strengths in producing knowledge-based goods and services and in transportation and tourism.

Most economists agree that investments in human capital and infrastructure are necessary for growth. Here Puerto Rico has some strengths, such as relatively high level of education, 80 percent internet penetration and U.S. laws that provide strong protection for contracts and property rights.

Puerto Rico, as well, already has a fairly well developed transportation infrastructure. In 2014, the island’s ports handled over 1.3 million in twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) – a measure of the capacity of a container ship – accounting for about 10% of the traffic moving through Caribbean ports. This is more than Veracruz, Mexico’s second largest port and only 20 percent less than Jamaica, a major transshipment center for the East Coast. Puerto Rico’s latest development plan calls for an upgrade of its ports even as it recommends spending cuts elsewhere.

Tourism is also doing well in Puerto Rico. The island had more than five million visitors in 2015, up by over 20 percent since 2012, who spent $3.83 billion. Clearly, Puerto Rico’s climate and beaches are as attractive as ever.

Taken together, these factors seem to bode well for Puerto Rico’s future as a regional business hub concentrating on knowledge-based goods and services. Financial, professional and scientific services already account for about 11 percent of Puerto Rico’s GDP, while pharmaceuticals and medical supplies make up 88 percent of the island’s exports.

And while a recent Federal Reserve Bank of New York study warned that the pharmaceutical industry, which is shrinking, does not appear to be positioned to be a strong driver of growth, the report noted that the Commonwealth’s development agenda seeks to capitalize on the industry’s presence to support spinoff industries such as medical devices and biopharma.

Getting from here to there

Despite these strengths, Puerto Rico faces some formidable obstacles preventing it from building on them and getting onto a long-term growth path.

One of the main barriers is the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, known as the Jones Act, which requires cargo shipped between U.S. ports (including Puerto Rico) be carried on U.S-flagged vessels, which are high-cost carriers. The act prevents a container ship carrying cars from Korea stopping at Puerto Rico and continuing on to Miami.

This translates into higher prices in Puerto Rico for mainland-sourced goods and is a severe limitation on the island’s ability to develop as a transshipment center.

Another obstacle is the red tape involved in doing business. Puerto Rico generally fares better in the World Bank’s Doing Business survey than most countries in Latin America, but there is room for improvement. Overall, it ranked 51st of 189 countries in 2016 and has dropped in the rankings in many categories in recent years.

Finally, the Puerto Rican government’s five-year plan includes cuts to spending on public education and health care, including a major reduction in funding for the state university system. Bringing government expenses into alignment with revenues is needed to restore Puerto Rico to solvency, but cuts to spending on education and health care will delay some of the improvements in human capital that foster long-term growth. And in the medium term, they will reduce GDP.

It would be wrong to dismiss Puerto Rico’s potential for growth, but only a relentless optimist would think growth will resume soon – particularly without the kinds of policies that will actually encourage it.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on June 30, 2016.

Global Impact

Reitz Union recognized with sustainability award

June 30, 2016
Paul Bernard

The Urban Green Council in New York City recently honored the University of Florida’s J. Wayne Reitz Union with its EBie Award in the “Power to the People: Exceptional Energy Savings” category. 

The award recognizes the efforts and achievements of UF and Trane in the Energy Service Company, or ESCO, Performance Contract Project completed at the Reitz Union in December 2014. The ESCO project was an energy savings performance contract designed to modernize and upgrade the building infrastructure, add capacity to existing building mechanical systems and achieve positive energy conservation results. 

Each year, the EBie (named for the best work on Existing Buildings) Awards showcase the impactful and innovative work that’s being done across the country to create more sustainable buildings.

The award ceremony was held at the Hard Rock Theater in N.Y. on June 20. Representing the UF project team were Sheila Noel, maintenance specialist at the Reitz Union; Eddie Daniels, Reitz Union Executive Director; and Steve Corson, LEED AP, Trane Commercial Systems.

The Urban Green Council is New York City’s affiliate of the US Green Building Council.

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