Going for the gold

September 1, 2016
UF News

Thanks to an algorithm created by Matthew Bellman when he was an engineering doctoral student at UF, para-athlete Kevin Gnehm, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a 2013 motorcycle accident, is getting back in the race. Using the UF student-developed technology, Gnehm will compete in the Cybathlon Championship for Athletes with Disabilities, scheduled to be held in October in Zurich.


Science & Wellness

Greetings from Gainesville

September 12, 2016
Alisson Clark

The UF Social Street Team offered students a chance to send postcards to people they missed – and discovered that the Gator Nation truly is everywhere.

Campus Life

Harn Museum explores conflict's consequences

September 9, 2016
Alisson Clark

Jennifer Karady, Former Lance Corporal West Chase, U.S. Marine Corps, Combat Service Support Company 113, I Marine Expeditionary Force, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, with fiancée, Emily Peden; Ann Arbor, MI, May 2014

As ceremonies across the country look back on the Sept. 11 attacks 15 years ago, the University of Florida’s Harn Museum of Art is using art to reflect on violent conflict’s consequences in the United States and abroad.

Curator of Photography Carol McCusker spent two years working with veterans’ groups, UF faculty and students and the Gainesville community to create the exhibition “Aftermath: The Fallout of War —America and the Middle East,” which features the work of 12 leading photographers from around the world. 

“We wanted to step back from war and show its impact,” McCusker said.

McCusker’s gallery talk on Sept. 11 is one of a dozen programs – including a veterans’ panel on the challenges of homecoming and visits by contributing photographers – designed to spark conversation and reflection.

“There was a lot of discussion about striking a balance between showing consequences of war both at home and abroad,” she said.

Jennifer Karady’s series portrays scenes that American soldiers can’t forget, recreated in the midst of their lives back home. For former Marine Lance Corporal West Chase – depicted in Karady’s photo above – crowds of people bring back the stress of tense moments during the Fallujah elections. Karady will speak at the Harn on Oct. 23 at 2 p.m. with Lebanese-American photographer Rania Matar, whose work is also part of “Aftermath.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario – the subject of a forthcoming Steven Spielberg movie starring Jennifer Lawrence – has seven pieces in the exhibition, including a photograph of a Syrian refugee family so hauntingly beautiful that at first glance it’s easily mistaken for a Madonna and child painting.

Lynsey Addario, Killis Camp, Turkish/Syrian Border in Turkey, October 22, 2013

Lynsey Addario, Killis Camp, Turkish/Syrian Border in Turkey, October 22, 2013

In another series, images from Queen Victoria’s photographer in Afghanistan are juxtaposed with modern equivalents by British photographer Simon Norfolk.  

Simon Norfolk, Afghan Police being trained by U.S. Marines, Camp Leatherneck., 2010–2011, archival pigment print, from the series Burke + Norfolk, loan and images courtesy of Simon Norfolk and Gallery Luisotti, Santa Monica, CA

  Simon Norfolk, Afghan Police being trained by U.S. Marines, Camp Leatherneck., 2010–2011, from the series Burke + Norfolk, loan and images courtesy of Simon Norfolk and Gallery Luisotti, Santa Monica, CA

The exhibition also includes video installations and an interactive touch panel with quizzes, maps, news clips and TED talks.

“Aftermath” is supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts with support from the University of Florida, Harn endowments and private donations.

Society & Culture

A perfect career fit

September 15, 2016
UF News

The Dean of Students Office and Student Government believe nothing should stand between a student and his or her dream job. That’s why they created Gator Career Closet, a free lending service through which UF students can borrow professional clothing. Their goal is to provide a valuable resource for students who may not be able to afford to purchase their own attire for a professional event.


Campus Life

A reptilian anachronism: American alligator older than we thought

September 16, 2016
Stephenie Livingston

New study also shows it shared ancient Florida with giant crocodiles

From climate to the peninsula’s very shape, not much in Florida has stayed the same over the last 8 million years.

Except, it turns out, alligators.

While many of today’s top predators are more recent products of evolution, the modern American alligator is a reptile quite literally from another time. New University of Florida research shows these prehistoric-looking creatures have remained virtually untouched by major evolutionary change for at least 8 million years, and may be up to 6 million years older than previously thought. Besides some sharks and a handful of others, very few living vertebrate species have such a long duration in the fossil record with so little change.

Evan Whiting with Alligator

“If we could step back in time 8 million years, you’d basically see the same animal crawling around then as you would see today in the Southeast. Even 30 million years ago, they didn’t look much different,” said Evan Whiting, a former UF undergraduate and the lead author of two studies published during summer 2016 in the Journal of Herpetology and Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology that document the alligator’s evolution – or lack thereof. "We were surprised to find fossil alligators from this deep in time that actually belong to the living species, rather than an extinct one."

Whiting, now a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, describes the alligator as a survivor, withstanding sea-level fluctuations and extreme changes in climate that would have caused some less-adaptive animals to rapidly change or go extinct. Whiting also discovered that early American alligators likely shared the Florida coastline with a 25-foot now-extinct giant crocodile.

In modern times, however, he said alligators face a threat that could hinder the scaly reptiles’ ability to thrive like nothing in their past — humans.

Despite their resilience and adaptability, alligators were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 20th century. The Endangered Species Act has significantly improved the number of alligators in the wild, but there are still ongoing encounters between humans and alligators that are not desirable for either species and, in many places, alligator habitats are being destroyed or humans are moving into them, Whiting said.

“The same traits that allowed alligators to remain virtually the same through numerous environmental changes over millions of years can become a bit of a problem when they try to adapt to humans,” Whiting said. “Their adaptive nature is why we have alligators in swimming pools or crawling around golf courses.”

Whiting hopes his research findings serve to inform the public that the alligator was here first, and we should act accordingly by preserving the animal’s wild populations and its environment. By providing a more complete evolutionary history of the alligator, his research provides the groundwork for conserving habitats where alligators have dominated for millions of years.

“If we know from the fossil record that alligators have thrived in certain types of habitats since deep in time, we know which habitats to focus conservation and management efforts on today,” Whiting said.

Study authors began re-thinking the alligator’s evolutionary history after Whiting examined an ancient alligator skull, originally thought to be an extinct species, unearthed in Marion County, Florida, and found it to be virtually identical to the iconic modern species. He compared the ancient skull with dozens of other fossils and modern skeletons to look at the whole genus and trace major changes, or the lack thereof, in alligator morphology.

Whiting also studied the carbon and oxygen compositions of the teeth of both ancient alligators and the 20- to 25-foot extinct crocodile Gavialosuchus americanus that once dominated the Florida coastline and died out about 5 million years ago for unknown reasons. The presence of alligator and Gavialosuchus fossils at several localities in north Florida suggest the two species may have coexisted in places near the coast, he said.

Analysis of the teeth suggests, however, that the giant croc was a marine reptile, which sought its prey in ocean waters, while alligators tended to hunt in freshwater and on land. That doesn’t mean alligators weren’t occasionally eaten by the monster crocs, though.

“Evan’s research shows alligators didn’t evolve in a vacuum with no other crocodilians around,” said co-author David Steadman, ornithology curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida. “The gators we see today do not really compete with anything, but millions of years ago it was not only competing with another type of crocodilian, it was competing with a much larger one.”

Steadman said the presence of the ancient crocodile in Florida may have helped keep the alligators in freshwater habitats, though it appears alligators have always been most comfortable in freshwater.

While modern alligators do look prehistoric as they bake on sandbars along the Suwannee River or stroll down sidewalks on the UF campus, study authors said they are not somehow immune to evolution. On the contrary, they are the result of an incredibly ancient evolutionary line. The group they belong to, Crocodylia, has been around for at least 84 million years and has diverse ancestors dating as far back as the Triassic, more than 200 million years ago.

Other study co-authors were John Krigbaum with UF’s anthropology department and Kent Vliet with UF’s biology department.

Science & Wellness

In memory of 9-year-old Leo, free tracking devices available to people with autism spectrum disorder

September 16, 2016
Michelle Koidin Jaffee

As the mom of a young child with autism spectrum disorder, Jovon Howard is hesitant to step away even for a few minutes to take a shower or wash the dishes. Her daughter, 6-year-old Jaliyah, is as curious as any child and has figured out how to unlock doors. And because she is primarily nonverbal, Jaliyah won’t respond to being called.

“We’ve had a couple of major scares,” her mom said.

Now, a new state program aims to help families like Jaliyah’s, providing free, wristwatch-style GPS tracking devices to people who have autism spectrum disorder and are at risk for wandering. The state-funded pilot program, being launched by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of Florida and two other centers, will cover the cost of the devices for participants as well as receivers for local sheriff’s offices.

In addition to the UF center, centers at Florida Atlantic University and the University of South Florida will provide devices to participants in the Palm Beach and Tampa areas.

The devices are being made available through state grants — $100,000 to each of the three centers — as a result of Senate Bill 230, which the Legislature passed this year. The law is aimed at improving personal safety for people with autism spectrum disorder by providing tracking devices that aid in search-and-rescue efforts.

Known as Project Leo, the law was passed following the 2014 death of 9-year-old Leo Walker, a boy with autism spectrum disorder who wandered from his North Florida home and drowned in a nearby pond.

Under the program, 80 personal transmitters — which can be attached to clothing or worn around the wrist or ankle — will be available at the UF center and distributed to those who meet certain criteria, including risk of wandering and a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

“It can save lives,” said Ann-Marie Orlando, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at UF’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. “We want children and families to be protected.”

The program is geared toward helping families who cannot afford such devices, which are available for purchase online and can be connected to receivers already in use by many sheriff’s offices, including the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.

“Some families can afford them, but others can’t,” Orlando said. “The purpose is to help those who can’t do this on their own.”

Greg Valcante, Ph.D., director of UF’s center, wants to get the word out to parents who might be interested in participating in the pilot program. In the Gainesville region, residents of Alachua, Columbia, Suwannee, Hamilton and Baker counties may apply; those interested should contact Ana Vilfort Garces at the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at 352-273-0581 or ana501@ufl.edu.

UF’s center is obtaining its transmitters from Project Lifesaver International, a Port St. Lucie-based nonprofit that sells electronics intended for people with cognitive disorders. According to Project Lifesaver, most people who wander are found within a few miles of home, and the use of tracking devices has cut search times from hours or days to minutes.

The three Florida centers will report back on the results of the pilot project by December 2017 and make recommendations to the governor and Legislature.

For Jovon Howard of Gainesville, word of the new program is great news. Her family had briefly used a tracking device with Jaliyah — a device that provided status updates to their smartphones — but it became too costly.

“Her wanting to get out is her natural curiosity as a child,” Howard said. “The problem is she doesn’t have a sense of danger. She’s just doing what kids naturally want to do.”

Science & Wellness

UF veterinarian named a hero

September 16, 2016
Ashley Grabowski and Margot Winick

University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine faculty member Natalie Isaza has been named the 2016 American Humane Hero Veterinarian.

The American Humane Association, the country’s first national humane organization, bestowed the honor at the sixth annual American Humane Hero Dog Awards on Sept. 11 at a ceremony in Beverly Hills, California. The ceremony will be broadcast nationally on Hallmark Channel on Oct. 28.

Zoetis, a leading animal health company, presented the award, which featured hundreds of nominees and tens of thousands of votes from the American public. 

“I was very humbled to be chosen as a finalist by a panel of veterinary professionals and animal advocates selected by American Humane Association,” said Isaza, a 1994 graduate of the UF College of Veterinary Medicine who was hired in 2003 to start UF’s shelter medicine program.

“When they notified me I had been selected as the overall winner, I was completely floored,” said Isaza, who admits to letting her family – including two dogs, three cats and a boa constrictor – in on the secret.

The American Humane Hero Veterinarian Award was born out of the idea that behind almost every hero pet, and millions more animals, is a hero veterinarian.

This idea is exemplified by Isaza, the Grevior Shelter Medicine Community Outreach Clinical Associate Professor who leads the UF Veterinary Community Outreach Program.

The program has helped countless animals that may have been otherwise euthanized at rural shelters in north Florida, as well as pets from low-income owners. It works with local animal rescue groups and shelters, providing spay/neuter surgical services, heartworm treatments, general wellness care, and more specialized veterinary care for animals in need.

In addition to her work with homeless animals, Isaza has helped many animals stay in their homes. She is a co-founder of St. Francis Pet Care, a free veterinary clinic for pets of low-income members in Alachua County.

Through the clinic, experienced local veterinarians and UF faculty are assisted by junior and senior veterinary students who are taking the elective veterinary community outreach rotation at UF. The program provides exams, consultations, vaccinations and treatment for ailments and injury to the pets of nearly 400 local residents. Many UF veterinary medical students are so motivated by their work at the free clinic that they return as volunteers when their rotations are over.

Isaza’s dedication has inspired many veterinarians she has trained to become public servants and strong advocates for animal welfare. She frequently travels with her students to animal shelters in rural counties surrounding Gainesville, providing veterinary care and transferring animals from these shelters to rescue groups so they can be adopted.

Campus Life

UF president appointed to National Science Board

September 19, 2016
Steve Orlando

NOTE: Fuchs' appointment to the National Science Board was made official on Oct. 31.

Photo of swearing in

President Barack Obama on Friday announced his intention to appoint University of Florida President Kent Fuchs to the National Science Board, the body that oversees the National Science Foundation.

Fuchs is the only NSB member from Florida.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to play a role in our nation’s support of science and engineering research and education,” Fuchs said. “When members of the UF community are able to serve in this way, it increases our university’s visibility and influence.”

The NSB comprises 25 members appointed by the president. The NSF director is an ex officio member. Members serve six-year terms. With the exception of the NSF director, one-third of the board is appointed every two years. NSB members are drawn from industry and universities, and represent a variety of science and engineering disciplines and geographic areas. 

The National Science Board has two roles. First, it establishes NSF policies within the framework of applicable national policies set forth by the president and the Congress.

Second, it serves as an independent body of advisers to both the president and the Congress on policy matters related to science and engineering and education in science and engineering. In addition to major reports, the NSB also publishes occasional policy papers or statements on issues of importance to U.S. science and engineering.

“These fine public servants bring a depth of experience and tremendous dedication to their important roles. I look forward to working with them,” Obama said in the White House news release.

Fuchs, who has been UF’s president since January 2015, is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Association for Computing Machinery. He holds a B.S.E. from Duke University, a M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois.

Campus Life

UF African American studies professor longlisted for National Book Award

September 19, 2016
Steve Orlando

Honor marks the second time in as many years a UF faculty member has been recognized

For the second time in as many years, a book authored by a University of Florida faculty member has been longlisted for the National Book Foundation’s National Book Award.

"Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” by Ibram X. Kendi, an assistant professor of African American history at UF, has been longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

In his book, Kendi examines the words and actions of American powerhouses such as Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, Angela Davis, Zora Neale Hurston and Barack Obama to illustrate how deeply ingrained and complex racist thought is in the United States.

“So many prominent Americans, many of whom we celebrate for their progressive ideas and activism, many of whom had very good intentions, subscribed to assimilationist thinking that has also served up racist beliefs about Black inferiority,” writes Kendi.

Kendi teaches classes on African American history, the history of race and racism, black intellectual history, the 1960s, African American studies, Afro-Caribbean history, and hip hop.

Last year, “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History,” by Cynthia Barnett was longlisted in the nonfiction category. As its title suggests, “Rain” is the first book to tell the story of rain, starting with the torrents that filled the oceans and leading up to the storms fueled by climate change.

Barnett, who teaches environmental journalism and nature and adventure writing at UF’s College of Journalism and Communications, has been selected as one of five judges in the nonfiction category for this year’s National Book Awards. Finalists will be announced Oct. 13, and winners will be announced at a ceremony in New York on Nov. 16.

Society & Culture

UF researchers find long-term heavy alcohol use, older adults don’t mix

September 26, 2016
Morgan Sherburne

It might not be surprising news that a night of heavy drinking impacts a person’s short-term memory, but University of Florida researchers have found that older adults’ mental abilities are more affected by heavy drinking than younger adults, and that heavy drinking in youth can have long-lasting effects on memory and learning in old age.

Researchers investigated the effects of current heavy alcohol consumption as well as a past history of heavy alcohol use on adults. They found the older a person is, the more significantly heavy drinking affects thinking and memory. They also found a lifetime of past heavy drinking has the same negative impact, even after someone stops drinking. The researchers published their findings online Thursday (Sept. 22) in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

“As people get older, their decline of memory is one of their greatest complaints. We found that in those who drink heavily, as they age, they have a greater decline in thinking and memory than their non-drinking or moderate-drinking counterparts,” said Adam Woods, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of aging and geriatric research who led the study.

“The real story is less of an age story and more of one of the consequences of heavy drinking in your past. You may think, ‘Well, I’m young, I’ll be fine, my body can take it.’ The reality is our data suggest this may not be the case. If you are drinking heavily, you may experience long-term cognitive consequences throughout life.”

Some of these consequences can be difficulty learning new technology, remembering steps to a recipe, taking a medication on a prescribed schedule, and even driving.

For the study, researchers recruited 66 participants — 35 women and 31 men between the ages of 35 and 70. The participants met the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s criteria for heavy drinking, which means both men and women drank five or more drinks on the same occasion on five or more days in the past 30 days. The participants, recruited from the Lifespan/Tufts/Brown University Center for AIDs Research, underwent a comprehensive battery of testing to investigate their mental abilities and memory recall. The participants were also compared with non-drinkers and moderate drinkers.

The researchers found that heavy drinking in older adults was associated with poorer global cognitive function, learning, memory and motor function. A history of heavy past drinking was associated with poorer function in those same areas as well as in attention.

“Learning and memory is so central not only to our ability to function in an everyday environment, but it’s also a subcomponent in almost every element of human cognition,” said Woods, who is also the assistant director of the Center for Cognitive Aging and Memory Clinical Translational Research Program in the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Florida.

Science & Wellness

Zika virus: only a few small outbreaks likely to occur in continental U.S.

September 26, 2016
UF College of Public Health and Health Professions

Natalie Exner Dean, postdoctoral associate in biostatistics, and Ira Longini, professor and co-director of UF’s Center for Statistics and Quantitative Infectious Diseases, collaborate with researchers from Northeastern University and the University of Washington on a computer model that indicates new cases of Zika in the U.S. probably will not be widespread.

It is estimated that about 80 percent of Zika infections are asymptomatic or have symptoms so mild that the disease is not detected. This means the number of cases reported by disease surveillance systems in the U.S. and across the world might be only a small fraction of the actual number of infections. In fact, it’s likely we are are underestimating imported cases in the U.S. and even likely some locally spread cases.

In this situation, mathematical and computational models that account for mosquito populations, human mobility, infrastructure and other factors that influence the spread of Zika are valuable because they can generate estimates of the full extent of the epidemic.

This is what our research group, made up of physicists, biostatisticians and computer scientists, has done for Zika. The Global Epidemic and Mobility Model (GLEAM) can model the spread of Zika through countries and geographical regions.

Our model suggests that while more cases of Zika can be expected in the continental U.S., outbreaks will probably be small and are not projected to spread. By contrast, some countries, like Brazil, have already seen widespread outbreaks.

How does the model work?

Zika is primarily transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes. For a mosquito to transmit Zika to a human, it must first have bitten a human infected with the virus. If enough people infected with Zika travel to a new area with these mosquitoes, the virus could spread in a new geographic region.

That means models for Zika transmission need to take factors like mosquito population, human mobility and temperature, among others, into account.

So we begin by dividing the population of the Americas into geographical cells of similar size, and grouping these cells into subpopulations centered around major transportation hubs. 7 Our model also incorporates data on the density of the mosquitoes that transmit Zika, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, within those subpopulations. Mosquitoes need warm weather to thrive, so we include a daily estimated temperature for each subpopulation. That allows us to factor seasonal temperature changes into our simulations.

To breed, mosquitoes need standing water, and to spread Zika, they need people to feed on. Areas with standing water, fewer window screens and less air conditioning, which are often lower-income areas, are at greater risk. The model uses detailed data about socioeconomics for each subpopulation, as well as data on the relationship between socioeconomic status and risk of exposure to mosquito-borne disease.

Once all of these factors are incorporated into the model, we simulate a Zika outbreak. These simulations are meant to project what will happen next with Zika, so they need to include information about what has already happened. The simulations were calibrated to match data from countries that experienced the epidemic first, like Brazil and Colombia.

We started by “introducing” Zika into one of 12 major transportation hubs in Brazil. Each calibration starts with a different time and place where Zika was first introduced into the country, and simulates about 500,000 possible epidemics. From those we select a few thousand that match surveillance data to project the epidemic forward. Randomness is also incorporated into the simulations so that the resulting “epidemics” can reflect the natural variability in how diseases spread.

Zika’s spread in the U.S. will be limited

Based on current data, our model projects only small outbreaks from mosquito transmission in the continental U.S. that are likely to die out before spreading to new areas.

Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas are at risk of these small outbreaks. This is because it is warm enough in these states through the summer and fall to sustain mosquito transmission.

But the median number of daily cases from local mosquito transmission in these states is projected to be zero. This means that in general we do not expect an outbreak to happen, though small outbreaks are possible. Any outbreaks in these states are expected to end by November or December 2016, consistent with declining temperatures and the end of mosquito season.

Florida, on the other hand, may observe sustained transmission between September and November 2016. After calibrating the model with available surveillance data through mid-August, on average, less than 100 symptomatic Zika cases are projected by the second half of September. As many as eight pregnant women could be locally infected in the first trimester, though these women would not give birth until October 2017. In comparison, over 671 pregnant women infected during travel have already been identified in the U.S. as of September 1, 2016. And, as in other states, when mosquito season ends in December, so will Zika transmission from local mosquitoes.

Keep in mind, we are just talking about people getting infected with Zika from local mosquitoes. In the U.S. the number of local cases is expected to be small relative to the number of travel-related infections and to affect comparatively few pregnant women.

The number of travel-related and local cases that are detected by the Zika surveillance system in the continental U.S. is likely much smaller than the total number of infections. Our model estimates that only 2 percent to 5 percent of travel-related infections are detected by surveillance. And local infections may not be detected for individuals without symptoms. But even taking frequent travel-related infections and low detection rates into account, our models project few local cases in the continental U.S.

It’s a different picture for other parts of the Americas. Our models suggest that larger outbreaks occurred or will occur in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. All have tropical or subtropical climates, have higher densities of the mosquito vectors, and may be at greater risk due to socioeconomic factors.

This is a projection, not a prediction

Remember, these are projections for what might happen, not predictions of what will happen. No model can perfectly replicate reality.

For instance, this model doesn’t account for sexual transmission. We still don’t know how common it is for a person infected with Zika to transmit it during sex. Sexual transmission may proportionally have a larger effect in domestic outbreaks than we realize.

This type of detailed modeling is complex, and that makes it difficult to examine what is happening within states, or even within single counties. It will take more time and data to analyze simulations at such local levels.

Finally, the model does not include any interventions, such as increased mosquito control. Unless other modes of transmission, such as sexual transmission, turn out to be significant factors, our projection might be considered a worst-case scenario.

Model projections like this should be always scrutinized using information about what is happening on the ground. And they need to be recalibrated and refined as new information becomes available.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on Sept. 12, 2016.

Science & Wellness

What exactly does ‘instantaneous’ mean?

September 27, 2016
Kevin Knudson

UF mathematics professor Kevin Knudson reflects on the notion that an instant means different things for a person, a redwood or a gnat, and that what’s infinitely small for one individual might be an entire lifetime for another, influencing his or her outlook on life.

How short is an “instant”? Is it a second? A tenth of a second? A microsecond? You might think all of these qualify. What about 100 years? That certainly doesn’t seem like an instant, and to a human being, it isn’t, since we’d be lucky to have a lifespan that long. But to a giant sequoia, say, 100 years is no big deal. And in geological terms it’s practically nothing.

How should we make sense of the idea of an instant? Does it cloud our judgment when we make decisions, both as individuals and as a society? Are we moving too slowly on solving big problems because we don’t see them happening “instantly”?

What does math say?

When Newton and Leibniz developed the calculus, they were forced to confront the infinitely small. The goal was to understand the idea of the “instantaneous velocity” of an object – that’s the speed at which something is moving at a particular instant in time (think of your car’s speedometer reading). They took the following approach.

We know how to compute average speed over some time interval: Simply take the total distance traveled and divide by the total time. For example, if the object travels 1 meter in 1 second then the average speed is 1 m/s. But what if you have a better measuring device? Say instead you can discover that the object really traveled 20 cm in the first 10th of a second. Then the average speed over that interval is 2 m/s and you’d probably agree that is a better approximation to what we mean by the instantaneous velocity of the object at that point.

But it’s still just an approximation. To get the real value, you would need to take smaller and smaller time intervals and have increasingly accurate measuring equipment. In the 17th century, the way mathematicians got around this was to talk about infinitesimals, quantities that were not zero yet were smaller than any positive number you can think of, including really tiny fractions like 1/1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Some scientists of the day, as well as various institutions (the Jesuits, for example), rejected this idea as nonsense. Indeed, the idea that one could divide things forever flew counter to the Platonic ideal of indivisibles (also called atoms) and therefore did not sit well with the Renaissance embrace of ancient Greek philosophy. There’s a great book about this called “Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World”; I recommend it heartily. Still, this is how calculus was done until Cauchy introduced the formalism of limits, thereby pushing infinitesimals out of the picture. Roughly speaking, a function f has limit L as x approaches a if the values of f(x) can be made arbitrarily close to L by taking x sufficiently close to a. The precise mathematical definition of this idea obviates the need for the old-fashioned use of infinitesimals.

Still, it’s a shame that infinitesimals fell out of favor, because they’re really useful for thinking about relative scale. An example I always give my students when talking about the reverse problem of dealing with the infinitely large is to talk about money. If you are a billionaire, meaning you have roughly 10⁹ dollars, you sure don’t care about 100 (or 10²) dollars. That’s a difference of seven orders of magnitude, and from your billionaire point of view it’s pointless to get upset over 100 dollars (indeed, you have 10 million hundred-dollar bills at your disposal).

In a similar way, infinitesimals help us deal with the infinitely small – a microsecond (1 millionth of a second) is a short amount of time, but it’s huge relative to a picosecond (10⁻¹² of a second). In mathematical terms, if dx denotes a small amount (like a microsecond) then its square (dx)² (a picosecond) is negligible. So when you’re working on time scales in the seconds you don’t really care about microseconds, and when you’re working on microsecond scales you don’t really care about picoseconds.

(By the way, our words for time are based on these relative notions of smallness. A minute is so named because it was considered small relative to an hour. Seconds were once called “second minutes” to indicate their relative insignificance.)

What’s your point of view?

I bring this up because a pair of articles I read recently made me wonder if our human-influenced idea of “instantaneous” is leading us to unfortunate decisions.

Question: Has the planet entered a new geological epoch, the so-called “Anthropocene”? Homo sapiens has undoubtedly influenced the Earth’s environment, and some geologists are arguing for a change to the International Chronostratigraphic Chart, the official timeline of periods, eons and other geological timescales. (We currently live in the Holocene epoch, already distinguished by the appearance of human beings on the scene.)

I’m not a geologist, so I cannot comment on whether or not this is something we should do, but the obvious first problem to be solved would be settling on a start date for this proposed epoch. Should it be the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century? What about the beginning of mining in ancient Egypt around 2500 BC? Or how about the mid 20th century, as others have argued?

The Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old. Even if we decided this new epoch began 3,000 years ago, that is still effectively now in geological terms. There have been a million and a half 3,000-year periods in the planet’s life. When things move on such timescales, perhaps we’re just splitting hairs when thinking about when to declare something like this has begun.

Climate change presents another example. Sea levels are rising, but the change is not immediately noticeable. Still, by the end of the 21st century, even the most conservative estimates suggest a three- or four-foot rise, with some scientists predicting it will be double that amount.

Why all the denialism and resistance to action, then? Aside from the obvious political disagreements, there is a more basic cause for the inertia: We don’t see it happening in real time. Sure, we notice there’s not as much snow in the winter as there was when we were kids or that the streets flood in Miami Beach on sunny days at high tide nowadays, but that could just be a fluke, right? Don’t we need more data?

In human terms, these changes are not instantaneous, but in the Earth’s climate cycle they effectively are. We are waiting for some catastrophic event to clearly tell us the climate has officially changed, but it simply takes longer than that. We’re looking for a sign on our human timescale, which is just infinitesimal from a geological viewpoint. But once a few more billion years have passed, some future entity will be able to spot the turning point – though not down to the year or century (a geological instant).

Fast or slow, it comes down to scale

In the absence of catastrophic planetary events, such as a large meteor collision, significant change to the Earth takes time. But it’s important to keep in mind that our relatively short lifespans distort our perception of “instantaneous” events.

As far as the planet is concerned, with its phases measured in the tens or hundreds of millions of years, things are moving pretty quickly. A 1℃ increase in global temperature in 100 years is very fast. If we use this to approximate the future, we quickly see that the planet would be virtually uninhabitable within a few hundred years. The real dynamics are complicated, of course, but perhaps we should keep this simple calculus in mind as we attempt to craft sustainable solutions. Scale is everything and our idea of small doesn’t necessarily align with reality.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on Sept. 14, 2016.

Science & Wellness

In the field with Instagram's @biodiversiLary

September 28, 2016
Alisson Clark
Instagram, biodiversity, Florida Museum, photography

Entomology doctoral student Lary Reeves hopes his photos inspire you to give nature's less-beloved creatures another look.

Science & Wellness

The rise of a conspiracy candidate

September 29, 2016
Lauren Griffin

UF sociologist Lauren Griffin theorizes that the same forces that drive belief in conspiracy theories have driven the rise of Donald Trump.

The political and social climate in the United States has become increasingly fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Leading the charge is Donald Trump, a candidate who has promoted a laundry list of factually questionable theories, ranging from the idea that Antonin Scalia’s death may have been the result of foul play to his bizarre relationship with the birther movement, which questions President Obama’s birthplace.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, of course. From 12th-century anti-Semitic conspiracies to modern moon landing hoaxers, the rumor that people are being misled by groups of elites with ulterior motives has been swirling for centuries.

To be fair, people on all sides of the political spectrum can fall prey to these alluring theories. One study, in fact, suggests that the type of thinking that is often associated with political extremism – a desire for simple solutions to complex problems – is also associated with a belief in conspiracy theories.

The problem is that conspiracy theories are dangerous.

Research suggests that exposure to these unorthodox ideas can influence how we see the world. For instance, in one experiment, participants who were shown a video that suggested that climate change is a hoax later expressed less confidence in the scientific consensus that climate change is real. Conspiracy theories can erode what we think we know about the world by promoting arguments based on poor evidence, evidence that’s been debunked or no evidence whatsoever. They can even be used to vilify entire groups of people and justify their mistreatment.

Social scientists have long been interested in conspiracy theories. Their research can help explain Trump’s rise – and why he seems so eager to embrace just about every conspiracy theory he’s ever heard.

Living in a world that can’t be explained

One school of thought argues that the rise of conspiracy theories is an inevitable result of our increasingly complex and globalized society.

The famous sociologist Max Weber argued that modern society was characterized by rationalization, with systems like the global economy humming along seemingly on their own, driven by the rules of commerce. These systems are complicated and opaque, and even experts struggle to fully explain them. They’re also dehumanized; there is no real answer to the question, “Who’s in charge of the global economy?” The result is a state of anxiety where people feel as though their lives are being pulled along by forces beyond their control – stock markets, globalization and political parties that seem unresponsive to their needs.

One of the core facets of enlightened thought is that science can help us better understand how the world works. But not even science can save us from this anxiety about an increasingly complicated world. Increasingly specialized and technical, primary research is difficult for nonscientists to work through. Although Americans generally hold science in high regard, perceived doubt and disagreement between scientists can encourage people to become uncertain about issues that experts agree on.

Now, in fairness, science is a process of contention and continual revision. But modern media take these lab-room discussions and pump them out more than ever before. Things that are generally “settled” among scientists no longer seem like they are. Think again about how climate change is covered in the media, with a climate scientist on one side of the screen and a denier on the other. As these conflicts play out in full public view, the public becomes less certain about the truth.

For many people, then, science seems like it can no longer explain what’s going on in the world.

How conspiracies lead to scapegoating

Conspiracy theories are our attempt to make sense of these complex world systems. They fill the gaps where personal experience and science have failed us. Capitalizing on feelings of alienation and anxiety, they – and the politicians who promote them – create what historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style” of politics. This style of politicking encourages people to believe that corrupt, shady elites and dark forces are conspiring to disenfranchise the masses.

The paranoid style and the proliferation of conspiracy theories are problematic because they make thoughtful deliberation over public issues impossible: Political opponents are not even talking about the same set of facts. But they become decidedly dangerous when combined with a process described by literary critic and philosopher Kenneth Burke as scapegoating.

Burke argues that scapegoating begins when people stop identifying with established social structures – like governments or political parties – leading to a sense of disorder within society. This disorder causes people anxiety and the sense they can no longer control their own lives. They feel guilty about their loss of place in the world and search for a way to alleviate that guilt.

The scapegoat provides that relief.

Politicians who scapegoat will identify political or social groups within society – racial or religious minorities, for instance – and spin a new story that places the blame for society’s ills on these minorities.

Unfortunately, this can have the effect of making those in the majority feel empowered.

A conspiracy candidate is born

Communications scholar Jaclyn Howell argues that the birther movement, which originated in articles on conservative websites in 2008 and was publicly promoted by Donald Trump in 2011, is a prime example of the scapegoating process in action.

Birthers, Howell argues, faced a loss of economic status during the 2008 financial crash, which created a sense of fear and guilt. This discomfort led them “to explain all of the nation’s sins [and thus the social disorder of the times] by making the ‘foreign-born’ president the scapegoat.”

During the current campaign, we see scapegoating playing out again as Trump calls immigrants criminals, says first-generation Americans can’t serve as unbiased judges, says “there’s no way to tell” whether Syrian refugees are potential terrorists and says Black Lives Matter activists are encouraging violence against law enforcement officers. Fingering these groups not only gives disenfranchised Americans someone to blame, it also empowers them by promising to punish these “others.”

In a sense, then, the success of candidates like Trump is the logical extension of the paranoid style and scapegoating. Scholarship suggests that people who feel close to their communities and feel that these communities are threatened are more likely to buy into conspiracy theories. Likewise, people with extreme political views are more susceptible to conspiratorial beliefs.

Trump not only embraces many conspiracy theories – from the idea that Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen is keeping interest rates low at Obama’s request to claims that Hillary Clinton is planning on rigging the election – but he also presents his own radically simplified and anti-factual worldview to his supporters. He clarifies problems and promises to only tell the truth (“I will present the facts plainly and honestly,” he said in his acceptance speech), while at the same time exposing the liars and thieves and punishing them (hence the calls to imprison Hillary Clinton).

Claiming he is an arbiter of truth gives him permission to spread misinformation, whether it’s telling Americans that the Obama administration is covering up the “real” unemployment rate or assuring voters that Muslims cheered on September 11.

The fact that his claims are seldom truthful (PolitiFact ranked a whopping 54 percent of his statements as “False” or “Pants on Fire”) is beside the point.

Meanwhile, his campaign surrogates actively encourage people to accept their feelings as facts (Newt Gingrich famously said in an interview that “The average American does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer,” despite myriad statistics showing crime rates are down). He continues to hint that something very concerning is going on with Hillary Clinton’s health.

In an environment where people are mistrustful of expertise and knowledge, Donald Trump can easily thrive. Many feel insecure due to economic and social changes in society; many are seeking a narrative that makes sense of the world.

And they are particularly fond of narratives that not only validate their sense of powerlessness, but promise to correct it.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on Sept. 19, 2016.

Society & Culture

University of Florida to host 2nd annual climate communications summit

September 29, 2016
UF News

An upcoming event on the University of Florida campus will bring together scientists and communicators to discuss the latest challenges of communicating climate science to a diverse and sometimes politically polarized audience.

The October 12th summit, “Higher Ground: Science, Storytelling and the Climb Toward Better Understanding of Climate Change,” will feature talks by Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication; Neela Banerjee, a seasoned reporter on energy and the environment whose work for InsideClimate News on Exxon’s early climate research was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Jenny Staletovich, environmental reporter for The Miami Herald. The journalists will share stories about their work, and Leiserowitz will present his latest research on climate science and public perceptions, with an interactive panel discussion with the audience to follow.

Leiserowitz’s research investigates the psychological, cultural, political and geographic factors that drive public environmental perception and behavior. He recently conducted the first empirical assessment of worldwide public values, attitudes, and behaviors regarding global sustainability, including environmental protection, economic growth, and human development.

A senior correspondent for InsideClimate News, Banerjee wrote on environmental topics for The Los Angeles Times’ Washington, D.C. bureau. She has covered global energy, the Iraq War and other issues for The New York Times, and served as a Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

A recipient of several state and national awards including the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment, Staletovich was named among the 2015 “Women Greening Journalism” for her work as environmental reporter for The Miami Herald. She previously wrote for The Palm Beach Post.

Understanding the public’s concern for climate science and policy and its appetite for science news and engagement in this election season will help frame the discussion at the second annual summit, which is sponsored by the UF College of Journalism and Communications and the Florida Climate Institute, with support from the Malone Distinguished Lecture Series, IFAS, the Office of the Provost and Sustainable UF. The event is free and open to the public, and will be held from 3- 5:30 p.m. in Emerson Alumni Hall, 1938 W. University Avenue on the UF campus. It will be streamed live and archived at:


For more information, visit www.jou.ufl.edu/science-storytelling-climate-change or contact: Carolyn Cox, Florida Climate Institute, crcox@ufl.edu or Cynthia Barnett, Environmental Journalist in Residence, UF College of Journalism and Communications, clbarnett@jou.ufl.edu.

Campus Life

Game-changer for student businesses

September 29, 2016
Ashley Grabowski

Two student-run companies have acquired high-traffic retail space in the Reitz Student Union for a full academic year.

The companies, Atheris Games and Raw Moment Studios, were selected through an innovative business planning competition hosted by a coalition of the J. Wayne Reitz Union, the Warrington College of Business Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center and the Miller Retail Center.

The annual competition requires participants to develop and present a large-scale business plan to a panel of investors, retail experts, faculty mentors from the College of Business and Reitz Union representatives. Winning student entrepreneurs receive a lease for a 2,048-square-foot space in the highly trafficked Reitz Union, furnishings and fixtures for the leased space, utilities such as IT support and housekeeping, advising from retail and entrepreneurial experts, and access to Reitz Union strategic partners.

The space has been an undeniable asset to Atheris Games, a board game publishing company and retail store created and operated by UF students Andrew Birkett and Chuck Call. Birkett is an undergraduate marketing student and the CEO of the company; Call is a graduate candidate for entrepreneurship and the company’s CFO.

Atheris Games launched a Kickstarter campaign for its first self-produced game, Cul-De-Sac Conquest, in October 2015. The card game is themed around annoying neighbors and features original artwork and copy—it has also raised over $20,000 since its Kickstarter debut.

Birkett attributes much of the company’s success to strategic social media usage and other forms of free marketing, including the exposure and credibility that Atheris Games’ retail location in the Reitz Union provides. However, he also considers their success to be a result of their game’s relatable and quirky subject matter.

“It opens people up. Everyone’s known an annoying neighbor, so it gets even complete strangers to share their experiences and stories,” Birkett said.

Atheris Games’ highly accessible location in the Reitz Union has allowed them to partner with gaming clubs and organizations on campus to playtest original games, advertise, and effectively connect with and research their target markets.

The other side of the Reitz Union Incubator space is home to Raw Moment Studios, a full-service creative agency launched by Pablo Casilimas, executive producer and undergraduate advertising student.

Casilimas is a self-taught creative who discovered his passion for production and business while completing an engineering internship. Casilimas realized that he’d always been happiest when behind a camera, and decided to use some of the money from his internship to purchase a professional-grade camera. In his free time, he learned techniques and methods from YouTube videos.

“I’d come home from my internship every day and spend hours researching, practicing. Hundreds of hours … that’s what it takes to get to the professional level,” Casilimas said.

Raw Moment Studios began as a videography business but quickly expanded into a full-service creative agency; the studio is now experienced with website and logo design, promotional video creation, advertisement development and more.

Casilimas said the Reitz Union Incubator has made Raw Moment Studios more accessible to potential customers on and off-campus, as it’s a centralized location that serves as a stop on many Gainesville bus routes.

Though they operate wildly different businesses, Birkett and Casilimas exude the talent and zealous work ethic imperative for entrepreneurs; with their newfound acquisition of space in the Reitz Union, the potential for their businesses seems limitless.

Campus Life

Apply for student financial aid starting Oct. 1

September 30, 2016
Sharon Eyman

Students who plan to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to receive financial aid for college may do so beginning Saturday, Oct. 1, and those students need to know about two important changes to the FAFSA.

Starting with the 2017-18 financial aid application cycle, the following changes will take effect:

  • Students will be able to submit a FAFSA earlier. Students will be able to file a 2017-18 FAFSA as early as Oct. 1. The earlier submission date will be a permanent change.
  • Students will use earlier income information. Beginning with the 2017-18 FAFSA, students will be required to report income information from an earlier tax year. For example, on the 2017-18 FAFSA, students (and parents, as appropriate) will report their 2015 income information, rather than their 2016 income information.

To apply for financial aid, most students complete the FAFSA online at www.fafsa.gov. Filing an online FAFSA is the fastest and easiest way to apply for aid. The online FAFSA will guide you through the application; click on the “Start A New FAFSA” button on the home page, and follow the directions on the screen.

Students should pay very close attention to financial aid-related deadlines. Students should check their state and school deadlines so they don’t miss out on any aid. State deadlines are on www.fafsa.gov; school deadlines are on schools’ websites.

“As a university dedicated to helping all qualified students achieve their college dreams, we want to be sure that students who are eligible for need-based financial aid apply for and receive the maximum amount of aid possible,” said University of Florida President Kent Fuchs.  “With that goal in mind, we hope that students and their families pay close attention to the new rules and deadlines for submitting an aid application.”­

By filing a FAFSA close to Oct. 1, high school seniors should know earlier about their expected family contributions, which should be useful as they compare schools and evaluate costs. Although students must be accepted for enrollment before they are considered for financial aid, they should apply for financial aid before being admitted. Current and prospective college students who overlook the October FAFSA kickoff and procrastinate too long, risk losing out on aid.

“Financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis so students should apply as early as possible to be considered for the most, and best aid,” said Rick Wilder, UF’s director of student financial affairs. Many schools have what’s called a priority filing deadline. “UF’s ‘On-Time’ priority deadline to receive the results of the 2017-18 FAFSA from the federal processor is Dec. 15, 2016. Students should apply well before the priority deadline,” Wilder said.

The easiest way to complete your FAFSA with accurate tax information is by using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool on the online application. In a few simple steps, most students and parents who filed a 2015 tax return can view and transfer their tax return information directly into their FAFSA.

Students and families can get free assistance and answers to their FAFSA questions at www.fafsa.gov or 1-800-433-3243. FAFSA help sessions are also available at high schools and colleges throughout Florida.

Completing the FAFSA is the first step toward getting financial aid for college, career school, or graduate school. The FAFSA not only gives you access to the $150 billion in grants, loans, and work-study funds that the federal government has available, but many states, schools, and private scholarships require you to submit the FAFSA before they will consider you for any financial aid they offer. That’s why it’s important that every college-bound student complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after Oct. 1. You’ll never know what funds you can get unless you apply.

Campus Life

Florida consumer sentiment turns upward in September

September 30, 2016
Colleen Porter

Consumer sentiment among Floridians ticked up 2.8 points in September to 90.9, according to the latest University of Florida consumer survey.

Among the five components that make up the index, four increased and one remained unchanged. 

Perceptions of one’s personal financial situation now compared with a year ago climbed 3.2 points from 77.3 to 80.5. Opinions as to whether now is a good time to buy a big-ticket item like an appliance went up 4.2 points to 101.6. These two components together indicate that Floridians’ opinions of current economic conditions improved in September.

“The latter increase is mainly driven by the population aged 60 and over, but in general, Floridians expressed more positive views compared with last month’s index score,” 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 rose slightly by 1.6 points to 100.1.

Expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the next year remained unchanged at 85.1 points, while anticipated U.S. economic conditions over the next five years showed the greatest increase of any component, up 5.2 points from 82 to 87.2.

“Perceptions of present conditions and expectations about future conditions each explained about half of the change in this month’s consumer sentiment index,” Sandoval said.  “Furthermore, the overall positive change is independent of age, gender and income.”

The Florida economy continued adding jobs statewide in August, and Florida unemployment is at the lowest level since the last recession, unchanged at 4.7 percent for the last three months. Many experts think this means Florida has reached its “natural” rate of unemployment, which is the unemployment rate that the economy will tend to gravitate around in the long run, despite fluctuating during shorter-term booms and busts.

While Florida’s economy is growing, with more jobs added every month, questions are being raised about the quality of those jobs.

“Despite these positive trends in the labor market, labor force participation is decreasing, and there is evidence of an underlying change in the employment structure, with more Floridians in lower-paying jobs compared with pre-recession levels,” Sandoval said. “Adding more low-wage and low-skill jobs does not directly translate into a higher standard of living for Florida workers.”

Last week the Federal Reserve Board decided to leave interest rates unchanged. The Fed’s low-interest-rate policy holds savings rates low for those who put money in a bank and encourages investors to seek higher returns in other riskier investments. But it also keeps the cost of borrowing low for firms and households who need credit.

“This month’s spike in perceptions as to whether this is a good time to buy a big-ticket item could be due to the Fed’s announcement,” Sandoval said.

The current election season may also affect the opinions of Florida consumers.

“It’s not unusual to see politics creep into the consumer sentiment index during a presidential election, particularly in the expectations of U.S. economic conditions,” said bureau Director Chris McCarty. “The contrast between the candidates’ approach to the economy is as stark a contrast as any election in recent memory. While the polls show a tight race, this may ultimately bode well for Clinton in Florida.”

Conducted Sept. 1-25, the UF study reflects the responses of 431 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

Exercise releases hormone that helps shed, prevent fat

September 30, 2016
Doug Bennett

If a workout feels like more pain than gain, here’s some motivation: Exercise releases a hormone that helps the body shed fat and keeps it from forming.

A group led by a University of Florida Health researcher has learned more about how the hormone irisin helps convert calorie-storing white fat cells into brown fat cells that burn energy. Irisin, which surges when the heart and other muscles are exerted, also inhibits the formation of fatty tissue, according to the researchers.

The findings, published recently in the American Journal of Physiology — Endocrinology and Metabolism, show that irisin may be an attractive target for fighting obesity and diabetes, said Li-Jun Yang, M.D., a professor of hematopathology in the UF College of Medicine’s department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine. The study is believed to be the first of its kind to examine the mechanisms of irisin’s effect on human fat tissue and fat cells, researchers said.

Irisin appears to work by boosting the activity of genes and a protein that are crucial to turning white fat cells into brown cells, the researchers found. It also significantly increases the amount of energy used by those cells, indicating it has a role in burning fat.

Researchers collected fat cells donated by 28 patients who had breast reduction surgery. After exposing the samples to irisin, they found a nearly fivefold increase in cells that contain a protein known as UCP1 that is crucial to fat “burning.”

“We used human fat tissue cultures to prove that irisin has a positive effect by turning white fat into brown fat and that it increases the body’s fat-burning ability,” Yang said.

Likewise, Yang and her collaborators found that irisin suppresses fat-cell formation. Among the tested fat-tissue samples, irisin reduced the number of mature fat cells by 20 to 60 percent compared with those of a control group. That suggests irisin reduces fat storage in the body by hindering the process that turns undifferentiated stem cells into fat cells while also promoting the stem cells’ differentiation into bone-forming cells, the researchers said.

Knowing that the body produces small quantities of fat-fighting irisin underscores the importance of regular exercise, Yang said. More than two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, according to the National Institutes of Health. While it’s possible that the beneficial effects of irisin could be developed into a prescription medication, Yang said that is uncertain and remains a long time away.

“Instead of waiting for a miracle drug, you can help yourself by changing your lifestyle. Exercise produces more irisin, which has many beneficial effects including fat reduction, stronger bones and better cardiovascular health,” Yang said.

The present study builds on other findings about irisin’s beneficial effects. In 2015, Yang’s group found that the hormone helps improve heart function in several ways, including boosting calcium levels that are critical for heart contractions. In June, Yang and a group of scientists in China showed that irisin reduced arterial plaque buildup in mouse models by preventing inflammatory cells from accumulating, resulting in reducing reduction of atherosclerosis. Those findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

The findings about irisin’s role in regulating fat cells sheds more light on how working out helps people stay slender, Yang said.

“Irisin can do a lot of things. This is another piece of evidence about the mechanisms that prevent fat buildup and promote the development of strong bones when you exercise,” she said.

Science & Wellness

Why ‘managerial derailment’ affects women more than men

September 30, 2016
Milenko Martinovich

Gender bias can influence how supervisors view a manager’s long-term potential, a new study shows.

University of Florida management professor Joyce Bono examined a phenomenon called managerial derailment, where a seemingly up-and-coming manager gets fired, demoted, or doesn’t advance as expected. She found that supervisors can have subtle, even subconscious differences in expectations for the behavior of male and female managers, which can have costly consequences for women in the workplace, most notably the loss of mentorship.

While past studies have used performance reviews and other formal measures to identify gender bias, Bono and her co-authors, including UF doctoral students Yihao Liu and Elisabeth Gilbert, focused on informal evaluations of managers’ potential.

"If you're doing performance evaluations, there's a record in an HR file you could reference, and gender bias could be identified and dealt with," Bono said. "But perceptions of derailment potential exist in a supervisor’s head. They're never recorded. They're informal assessments that supervisors make, yet they have important implications for the opportunities that supervisors provide."

To examine gender bias in perceptions of derailment potential, the authors conducted four studies. Two studies analyzed data collected on nearly 50,000 managers enrolled in leadership development programs, and the other two were experimental studies where managers examined performance reviews of two fictitious employees whose only difference was their gender.

Bono and her colleagues found that when evaluating managers who exhibited equal levels of ineffective interpersonal behaviors, supervisors were more likely to predict derailment for women managers than for men. Because of these negative assessments, female managers receive less mentoring — a benefit Bono said is especially important to female advancement in the workplace.

“Sponsorship and mentoring are even more important for women than men because women are typically are less connected to those higher in the corporate hierarchy,” said Bono, “in part because there are more men than women at higher levels.”

Bono emphasizes that the negative assessments female managers receive from male supervisors are not purposeful or nefarious. 

“Don’t think of the bias exhibited here as behavior of bad people who don’t want women to get ahead,” Bono said. “Rather, we expect women to be nicer than men, because that’s what our society has told us to expect. These beliefs influence our behaviors, often without our awareness.”

Bono advises that top executives – not only HR folks – be especially attentive to the mentoring and sponsorship of female managers.

“This is a problem we can’t procedure our way out of because it happens in our brains, and this is the society we grew up in. We have to keep talking about it so we catch ourselves and our colleagues’ biases, and work together to reduce their negative effects on the mentorship and advancement of women.”

The article, “Dropped on the Way to the Top: Gender and Managerial Derailment,” appears in the journal Personnel Psychology. 

Society & Culture

Got a Story Idea? We're interested in hearing about it.

Tell Us