UF student selected as Schwarzman Scholar

December 1, 2016
Ashley Grabowski

Out of nearly 3,000 applicants from 119 countries, University of Florida student body president Susan Webster has been chosen as a Schwarzman Scholar, receiving a full scholarship to pursue a one-year master’s degree at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Webster, a master’s student in management in UF’s Hough Graduate School of Business, was one of 125 scholars selected.

The program, which prepares emerging leaders for the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century, identifies scholars based on their academic excellence and leadership potential.  In her time at the University of Florida, Webster established herself as a leader in student government and the Gainesville community. She viewed the Schwarzman Scholar Program as a unique opportunity to combine her experience in public policy with her passion about the Chinese-American relationship.

Webster became interested in the Chinese-American relationship after enrolling in a Chinese language course as an undergraduate. She studied abroad in Chengdu the summer after her freshman year and gained further appreciation of Chinese culture, which she carried into mentoring Chinese exchange students in Gainesville.

“I was able to help acclimate them to the university, whether that was through helping them run for office in student government or showing them what a Gator game day was like. Likewise, when I went to China, they truly took me in as family as well — it showed me the true meaning of what the Gator Nation is,” Webster said.

Webster is excited to continue her education as a Schwarzman Scholar in Beijing, where she will spend a year immersed in an international community of intellectual and cultural engagement.

“I am looking forward to meeting the other scholars that are from many different countries and experiences,” she said. “I’m also excited to learn more about public policy and I am very thankful for this experience.”

Campus Life

UF Board of Trustees endorses 'Top Ten' plan

December 2, 2016
Janine Sikes

With a raise of hands and then a standing ovation, University of Florida’s Board of Trustees unanimously affirmed Friday its commitment to the goal of elevating the stature of the university to be among the nation’s very best public research institutions and endorsed the administration’s plan for achieving these goals.

“We are really off and running toward top-10 stature—we know what it takes to get there—and the Board is ready and able to do its part to secure the resources needed and to support President Fuchs, his administration and the entire University community in our efforts to advance,” Vice Chairman Mori Hosseini said at the close of the quarterly meeting.

A series of initiatives targeting specific areas for investment and improvement, both on campus and in the Gainesville community, were discussed at strategic sessions on Thursday and Friday.

UF Provost Joe Glover focused on university performance, providing a detailed assessment of where UF is already ranked in the top 10 nationally, where UF needs to focus (on faculty, research and students), and how UF measures in comparison to its peers and the related national ranking systems.

He also shared some data and graphics that will enable the Board and administration to easily track progress on various metrics that impact UF’s national standing and state performance measures.

UF’s legislative agenda reflects its goals to rise in the national rankings. UF is asking for additional funding from the Legislature to recruit 200 new faculty members in an effort to reduce the faculty-student ratio, bolster the research capability in five key areas and bridge the salary gap between UF and peer universities.

“We are dedicated to supporting President Kent Fuchs and the senior administration to achieve these priorities,” Hosseini said.

UF Senior Vice President and Chief Operations Officer Charlie Lane presented the university’s Strategic Development Plan, called “One Gainesville.” Developed over the past 10 months from intensive research led by a national consulting firm and one-on-one interviews with stakeholders, the plan will prepare the university and the community for the future and create an exceptional college town experience. 

“This plan will help UF and the surrounding community identify the optimal initiatives related to growth, intensity/density, economic viability and livability—which are needed to build the relationships, talent, and environment to support preeminence,” Hosseini said.

Campus Life

The disturbing connection between bullying and sexual harassment

December 5, 2016
Dorothy Espelage

UF professor of psychology Dorothy Espelage explains why bullying prevention programs fail to recognize that sexual harassment could be related to bullying.

Over the past two decades, the national media has given considerable attention to disturbing stories of youth suicides that have resulted in part from bullying.

Bullying suicide.

The subject of bullying has also been a plot line in movies such as “Bully” and some popular TV shows.

As a result of the greater awareness, scientists have gained a better understanding of what constitutes bullying, why some youth bully and why others are victimized. There is also a better understanding of the short- and long-term effects of bullying.

However, in spite of all these efforts, intervention programs to reduce bullying have had limited success.

Why that should be so is what interests me as a prevention scientist and psychologist. Two headline results are these: Bullying prevention programs fail to take into account a number of factors, including the fact that youth who bully in middle school tend to be popular and powerful. And it turns out, sexual harassment among adolescents is directly related to bullying.

How bullying is linked to sexual harassment

I conducted a five-year study where I was the lead researcher who followed youth from middle to high school in Illinois to examine risk factors of bullying and sexual harassment.

My research shows that fifth and sixth graders in the U.S. who bully students often use homophobic name-calling such as “gay” or “fag,” especially when boys do not act masculine and girls do not act feminine. We found that such homophobic language is used to assert power over other students.

What is worse, my research shows that homophobic name-calling sets the stage for the development of sexual harassment. For example, when youth are called “gay” or “fag,” they start to sexually harass members of the opposite sex to demonstrate that they are not gay.

The nature of bullying incidents

This five-year study of over 1,300 youth was complemented by interviews with students and teachers about sexual harassment among middle school youth. Middle school youth responded to questions about the most upsetting incident they experienced and identified characteristics of perpetrators. Teachers shared their perceptions about sexual harassment among youth.

Young people in schools are a target of many troubling bullying behaviors. Boy image via www.shutterstock.com

Not surprisingly, verbal victimization, such as unwanted sexual commentary and homophobic name-calling, was more frequent. However, our study also found that youth in school were a target of many troubling behaviors and even sexual assaults. What was most concerning was that the young people we spoke with failed to recognize the seriousness of some of those behaviors – a result, in part, of the failure of schools to address them.

Our study found that youth in schools reported a range of harassment experiences. These included being a target of homophobic language. One person said, “People call me gay but I am not.” Another told us, “People tell me I a gay because my mom is,” or “spread rumor I am gay.” One student said they “call me gay every five seconds.”

But bullying behaviors were not limited to verbal harassment: 25 percent of youth in the above also reported being forced to kiss someone and even being sexually assaulted.

Girls reported boys as perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault, whereas boys reported their perpetrators as other boys and close friends.

Bullying behaviors not recognized

However, what surprised us was how dismissive these youth were of such victimization experiences, even though they related them as very upsetting incidents. Youth would describe having their private parts touched and then immediately say things like “but he was just kidding.”

This dismissiveness might stem from the fact that adults in schools failed to attend to and to stop sexual harassment when they saw it. For example, we found in our study that teachers, school officials and staff members did not even acknowledge that sexual harassment was happening in middle school.

One teacher explained that “Most of the sexual harassment training was viewed as a ‘human resource’ responsibility, aimed at adults in the workplace and not as a problem that students experience.”

We also found that in the absence of professional development on both bullying and sexual harassment, these adults in the school did not understand how sexual harassment was going on between students.

Teachers were unaware of school, district or federal policies to protect students from harmful experiences and did not recognize their own role in preventing them. Many teachers did not see the link between bullying and sexual harassment.

So, what can be done?

This raises a larger question of how can schools stop bullying and sexual harassment among early adolescents.

What can schools do to check bullying? Governor Tom Wolf, CC BY

As bullying in middle school – largely driven by the use of homophobic slurs – has been found to be an antecedent to sexual harassment in high school, bullying prevention programs need to address homophobic language and sexual harassment directly.

We have also found that social-emotional learning (SEL) programs can help reduce bullying, homophobic name-calling and sexual harassment in schools. These programs use activities and the teaching of skills like empathy, anger management, problem-solving, communication skills, impulse control, etc.

They help youth become self-aware, manage their emotions, build social skills (empathy, perspective-taking, respect for diversity), develop friendship skills and learn positive coping and problem-solving skills. My research shows that when teachers implement this classroom curriculum, it leads to significant reductions in sexual harassment in 36 schools with over 3,600 students.

Such programs in middle school can minimize the escalation of gender-based violence (e.g., sexual harassment, teen dating violence). When bullying involves unwanted sexual commentary, rumor-spreading or touching, this should be considered sexual harassment and should be addressed immediately.

As the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights says,

“The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.”

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Society & Culture

Witty, tidy and upscale: What millennials like in store design

December 6, 2016
Emily Buchanan
millennials, shopping

With the holiday season in full swing, retailers are trying to find new ways to appeal to the largest, most influential segment of today’s consumer population: the millennial generation.

A study in this month’s Journal of Interior Design by University of Florida doctoral student Elizabeth “Lissy” Calienes revealed elements of a store’s physical design that catch the attention of millennial shoppers, who represent $200 billion in annual consumer spending.

After conducting an in-depth content analysis of retail images and descriptions submitted by millennial participants, Calienes’ results uncovered seven themes:

  • Mess and emptiness: Millennial shoppers reacted negatively to retail environments that appeared unorganized, dirty, and even objected to having employees restocking the shelves when they were trying to shop.
  • Order and neatness: Millennial shoppers appreciated clearly organized merchandise (e.g., color blocking) that facilitated the shopping experience.
  • Humor and fun: Millennial shoppers enjoyed tongue-in-cheek humor during their shopping experience whether that stemmed from novel mannequin displays, playful imagery or witty signage. 
  • Quality and upscale: Millennial shoppers liked the fact that bargain stores invested in higher-end displays that seemed to enhance the quality of the products.
  • Ease and comfort: Millennial shoppers preferred retail environments with well-defined spaces that encouraged easy navigation to find what they were looking for without question.
  • Personalization: Millennial shoppers appreciated having an “at-home experience” or residential feeling in retail spaces.
  • Aesthetic attributes: Millennial shoppers exhibited certain design preferences for retail spaces. Some shoppers identified the color white as aesthetically pleasing and representative of “upscale,” “clean” and “modern” interiors. Another hue that drew the millennials’ interest was the color red since it signaled sales merchandise. 

Her research — guided by College of Design, Construction and Planning faculty advisers Candy Carmel-Gilfilen and Margaret Portillo in the department of interior design — gathered data from students affiliated with the David F. Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research at the UF Warrington College of Business. The participating students went on mobile missions, doing in-store visits and then completing follow-up surveys and focus groups.

From big box stores to single-brand apparel stores, the participants were asked to evaluate designated retail stores within a 5-mile radius from the UF campus. Calienes instructed the participants to “take a picture of anything that captures your attention, send it to me in an email and then tell me why.”

Calienes was surprised by the sheer volume of responses that millennial shoppers sent her. She received over 500 pictures of specific images, accompanied by detailed annotations averaging about 30 words, showing what captured the attention of the millennial shoppers either in a positive or negative way. 

“Millennials really wanted to tell me what they liked,” she said.

illustration of a store that appeals to millennials

Millennial shoppers reported what they liked and disliked in a store’s physical design. 1) Order: Millennials reacted negatively to disorganized shelves, untidy aisles or even employees restocking while they shopped. 2) Humor: Stores with witty slogans or displays got high marks. 3) Upscale feel: Shoppers liked displays that seemed high-end. 4) Ease: Having items such as furniture completely set up in the store made it easy to visualize what they wanted to purchase. 5) Red and white: White represented an upscale, modern environment, while red signified sale prices. Illustration by Michael McAleer/UF Communications.

Although millennials can sometimes seem paradoxical, Calienes doesn’t believe this generation is as difficult to understand as some would think.

“They’re highly educated in general and I do think they’re wanting to connect, and we’re still trying to figure out how,” she said. “But we’re getting to know them a little better.”

Calienes was recognized with the Journal of Interior Design’s Outstanding Research Award. Portillo, the college’s interim associate dean of research, applauded the study’s methodology.

“By employing a unique multimethod process, Lissy was able to get into the minds of millennials to explore how this generational cohort thinks about retail environments in a way that is quite useful to designers and retailers,” Portillo said.

Society & Culture

UF awarded $10 million in grants to personalize virtual learning

December 7, 2016
Larry Lansford
Education, virtual learning, grants

The University of Florida is assembling researchers from multiple fields to seek solutions in two areas of 21st century education – personalizing online math instruction and adapting educational technology for students with visual impairments.

The studies are funded by two grants, worth more than $10 million combined, from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Nearly $9 million of the grant money supports a new project called Precision Education: Virtual Learning Lab, which brings together top experts in informatics, math education and professional development for teachers. Their charge is to advance a new approach for exploring massive sets of archived student data to update and personalize virtual instruction for future math students.

“With the increased use of computers in education, the large-scale mining of existing education data represents a big new opportunity for computers to help teachers adapt their practice for today’s digltal world and help their students to improve their virtual learning,” said UF education technology professor Carole R. Beal, the principal investigator of both studies (pictured above).

The new Virtual Learning Lab team comprises faculty researchers at UF and the University of Notre Dame, and experts from Study Edge, a Gainesville-based online tutoring company.

Over the next five years, the researchers will conduct studies in the emerging discipline of precision education, which uses large-scale education data from prior students — such as standardized test scores, administrative records from schools and universities, and teaching methods used — to personalize the learning experience for future individual students.

No more one-size-fits-all lesson plans geared to some “statistically average” student profile.

The researchers will focus on online or virtual learners in math using the new technology of “big data” learning analysis. The precision education approach has researchers using powerful supercomputers to rapidly scrutinize the massive education data, plus figures from students’ use of interactive or group learning tools.

“Our grand challenge is to improve the achievement of struggling online students,” said Beal, who was recruited to UF’s College of Education from the University of Arizona in 2014 to head the new UF Online Learning Institute. “We will design new teacher development programs on the use of learning analytics and personalizing instruction, and how to track student progress when every student is doing something unique.”

Researchers at the Virtual Learning Lab will develop and test their prototype personalized model of precision education on a popular online tutoring tool called Algebra Nation, which the UF Lastinger Center for Learning launched in 2013 in tandem with Study Edge. Algebra Nation has since been used by more than 3,000 teachers and 200,000 math students from all 67 Florida school districts—mostly ninth graders gearing up for the mandatory end-of-course exam in Algebra 1.

Near the end of the study, researchers will compare test results of students using the updated and personalized version of Algebra Nation with the scores of students using the regular version.

Beal said the Virtual Learning Lab also will serve as a national hub for researchers—forming a network for sharing findings and collaborating on new efforts to advance the fledgling field of precision education and personalized virtual learning.

The project’s co-principal investigator is Walter Leite, UF professor of research and evaluation methodology (REM) with expertise in big-data mining and learning analysis.

Other College of Education faculty researchers involved are: Corinne Huggins-Manley (REM), and Don Pemberton and Philip Poekert from the college’s Lastinger Center for Learning.

Two other participating UF faculty scholars are: George Michailidis, director of the UF Informatics Institute; and Juan Gilbert, chairman of computer and information sciences and engineering, and a pioneer in the field of human-centered computing.

Other key team members are psychology and computer science professor Sidney D’Mello of the University of Notre Dame and online tutoring specialist Ethan Fieldman of Study Edge.

Adapting education technology for math students with visual impairment

The theme of personalized online learning carries over to Beal’s second federal grant, a three-year, $1.4 million project to help solve the unique challenges that visually impaired students must overcome in learning online.

Think about it: How can students who can’t see the images on their computer screen solve algebra or geometry problems filled with line, bar and circle graphs, figures, geometric shapes and maps?

“In my investigations, I have found that students who appear disengaged in the traditional classroom are often among the most active learners in the online learning setting,” Beal said.

For this study, Beal has assembled a research team with colleagues from Arizona and Florida to explore how technology can make online learning more accessible to students with special needs. Nicholas Gage from UF’s special education program is co-principal investigator.

The researchers will develop and test an iPad-based instructional system to train students with visual impairments to locate and decipher targeted information in math graphics problems. The system includes audio, print and braille cues in accompanying books to point users to targeted graphics and word problems.

They plan to recruit up to 150 middle and high school students with visual impairments for the project from regular schools and specialized residential programs in Florida, Arizona and other states.


Global Impact

‘Hyper-starburst’ galaxy churns out stars, clues to universe’s evolution

December 8, 2016
Chandra X-ray Center Press Office
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, astronomy

A recently discovered galaxy is undergoing an extraordinary boom of stellar construction, revealed by a group of astronomers led by University of Florida graduate student Jingzhe Ma using NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

The galaxy known as SPT 0346‐52 is 12.7 billion light years from Earth, seen at a critical stage in the evolution of galaxies about a billion years after the Big Bang.

Astronomers first discovered SPT 0346‐52 with the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Telescope, then observed it with space and ground-based telescopes. Data from the NSF/ESO Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile revealed extremely bright infrared emission, suggesting that the galaxy is undergoing a tremendous burst of star birth.

However, an alternative explanation remained: Was much of the infrared emission instead caused by a rapidly growing supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s center? Gas falling towards the black hole would become much hotter and brighter, causing surrounding dust and gas to glow in infrared light. To explore this possibility, researchers used NASA’s Chandra X‐ray Observatory and CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array, a radio telescope.

No X‐rays or radio waves were detected, so astronomers were able to rule out a black hole being responsible for most of the bright infrared light.

“We now know that this galaxy doesn’t have a gorging black hole, but instead is shining brightly with the light from newborn stars,” Ma said. “This gives us information about how galaxies and the stars within them evolve during some of the earliest times in the universe.”

Stars are forming at a rate of about 4,500 times the mass of the Sun every year in SPT0346-52, one of the highest rates seen in a galaxy. This is in contrast to a galaxy like the Milky Way that only forms about one solar mass of new stars per year.

“Astronomers call galaxies with lots of star formation ‘starburst’ galaxies,” said UF astronomy professor Anthony Gonzalez, who co-authored the study. “That term doesn’t seem to do this galaxy justice, so we are calling it a ‘hyper-starburst’ galaxy.”

The high rate of star formation implies that a large reservoir of cool gas in the galaxy is being converted into stars with unusually high efficiency.

Astronomers hope that by studying more galaxies like SPT0346‐52 they will learn more about the formation and growth of massive galaxies and the supermassive black holes at their centers.

“For decades, astronomers have known that supermassive black holes and the stars in their host galaxies grow together,” said co-author Joaquin Vieira of the University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign. “Exactly why they do this is still a mystery. SPT0346-52 is interesting because we have observed an incredible burst of stars forming, and yet found no evidence for a growing supermassive black hole. We would really like to study this galaxy in greater detail and understand what triggered the star formation and how that affects the growth of the black hole.”

SPT0346‐52 is part of a population of strong gravitationally-lensed galaxies discovered with the SPT. It appears about six times brighter than it would without gravitational lensing, which enables astronomers to see more details than would otherwise be possible.

A paper describing the results appears in a recent issue of The Astrophysical Journal and is available online. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.


The distorted galaxy in the simulation results from a collision between two galaxies, followed by them merging. Astronomers think such a merger could be the reason why SPT0346-52 is having such a boom of stellar construction. Once the two galaxies collide, gas near the center of the merged galaxy (shown as the bright region in the center of the simulation) is compressed, producing a burst of new stars. The composite inset shows X-ray data from Chandra (blue), short wavelength infrared data from Hubble (green), infrared light from Spitzer (red) at longer wavelengths, and infrared data from ALMA (magenta) at even longer wavelengths. (The light from SPT0346-52 is distorted and magnified by the gravity of an intervening galaxy, producing three elongated images in the ALMA data located near the center of the image. SPT0346-52 is not visible in the Hubble or Spitzer data, but the intervening galaxy causing the gravitational lensing is detected.) There is no blue at the center of the image, showing that Chandra did not detect any X-rays that could have signaled the presence of a growing black hole. Image courtesy of CXC Press Office.

Science & Wellness

Digging a path to rehabilitation

December 8, 2016
Samantha Grenrock

Can doing time in the garden help a person heal? University of Florida horticulturalists and Master Gardeners say not only is it therapeutic, it’s the key to growing a new life after prison.

At Avon Park Correctional Institution, some inmates are learning the art of horticulture and opening doors to new careers, thanks to faculty and volunteers with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Highlands County.

The UF/IFAS Extension program prepares inmates for a career in Florida’s nursery and landscaping industries, said David Austin, horticulture agent and Master Gardener coordinator for UF/IFAS Extension Highlands County. For the past two years, Austin and master gardener volunteer Charlie Reynolds have helped inmates master the practical horticultural skills they’ll need to pass the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association’s certification exam.

The FNGLA certification is a widely respected credential for green industry professionals in Florida, and it is mandatory for anyone working in a Florida nursery, Reynolds explained. Last year, all 11 class members passed the test with a score of 90 percent or better. Two students from the group have since left prison and are now working in the nursery industry.

“This kind of training is different than the kind of apprenticeship other inmates get in a woodworking or welding class, for example,” Austin said. “Now they have proof of formal training that will mean a lot to those in the business.”

The certification program, known as “Therapy Through Plants,” got started when Tommy Sauls, an officer at Avon Park Correctional Institution, asked if Reynolds would help inmates who worked in the prison’s greenhouses become master gardeners. However, Austin, Sauls and Reynolds eventually determined that FNGLA certification training would have a bigger long-term impact. In addition to FNGLA certification, some inmates were trained and licensed in pesticide application.

Reynolds and Austin partnered with Merry Mott, director of certifications and career development with FNGLA, to provide students with copies of the certification training manual, which cut down on the program’s cost.

In addition to preparing for the exam, participants get hands-on experience propagating and caring for ornamental plants such as orchids and ferns. “It’s an opportunity for them to have ownership and be proud of something. They sell their plants at the prison’s twice-yearly plant sale, and the proceeds go toward the nursery and the certification exam fee,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds has been working with prison officials, FNGLA leadership and landscape architects to urge state lawmakers to pass a measure that would give employers more incentives to hire released inmates who are FNGLA certified. The proposal is now on the legislative agenda for the next congressional session in, Reynolds said.

“If we can prevent at least one person from coming back to prison because of the program, that’s a success,” Reynolds said.

Society & Culture

Leaf Miners: A note from the edge of conservation

December 12, 2016
UF News

Found one place on Earth and only about the size of a grain of rice, the unusually small leaf miner moths are the subject of a new documentary by University of Florida doctoral student Chris Johns, a National Geographic explorer. The caterpillars of these micromoths eat, or “mine,” their way into the leaves of plants that are as endangered as the moths themselves. Through expeditions into the mountain forests of Hawaii, Johns and his team are learning more about the various leaf miner species and aim to help scientists better understand how to conserve them. At the intersection of science and conservation, it’s a story about appreciating the small things and their right to exist, Johns says.

LEAF MINERS: a note from the edge of conservation from Chris A. Johns on Vimeo.

Global Impact

How to choose a children’s book, for the holidays and beyond

December 12, 2016
Alisson Clark

If you want to give books to the kids on your holiday list but aren’t sure how to choose, University of Florida education professor Katie Caprino has tips for picking a winner.

Caprino teaches children’s literature to future educators, sharing her favorites, including her holiday gift picks, with parents and teachers on her blog, Katie Reviews Books

She offered these suggestions for pleasing all types of readers:

Look for interactivity

In books like “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” and “We are in a Book!,” Caldecott Award-winner Mo Willems brings the reader into the action. Caprino loves Willems’ latest, “Nanette’s Baguette,” as a read-aloud for adults and kids to share.

“There’s a relationship between the text and the reader, so it can be read aloud in a way that’s inviting and exciting,” she said.

An amazing behind-the-scenes video of Willems creating the giant folded-paper village he photographed to create the illustrations, gives kids a glimpse of how the book came to life. 

Try the Caprino Test

"My litmus test is if the illustrations are so beautiful that I want to rip the book apart and frame the pages on my wall, that’s a great book. Of course, I don’t actually rip books apart,” Caprino says. 

If the illustrations in a picture book move you, go with your gut. Can’t make it to a brick and mortar bookstore to flip through the pages? Gilbert Ford’s luminous blue and purple illustrations in Kathryn Gibbs Davis’ “Mr. Ferris and his Wheel” (pictured above) get Caprino’s seal of approval for early readers, as do Kenard Pak’s watercolors for Rita Gray’s “Flowers are Calling.” 

Lure reluctant readers with graphic novels

If you think graphic novels are all superhero boom-pow, take another look. Not only can they be pithy and provocative, they can build reading confidence. For middle grades, Caprino recommends Raina Telgemeier’s “Ghosts,” which tackles illness, moving to a new place and, yes, ghosts. 

Change it up with verse

Books in verse aren’t just for little kids, Caprino says, they’re great for middle grades and young adults, too.

“A big book can be less intimidating when it’s broken up into in chunks of verse,” she said.

She counts the freeform poetry of “Inside Out and Back Again,” Thanhha Lai’s semi-autobiographical tale of a 10-year-old girl settling in Alabama after fleeing Vietnam, as one of her all-time favorites. For older kids, Kwame Alexander’s “Booked” ventures into divorce, first love and bullies.



Don’t overlook nonfiction

True stories can be as fun as fiction. For younger readers, try the Golden Gate origin story “This Bridge Will Not Be Gray” by Dave Eggers, or author/illustrator Melissa Sweet’s “Balloons Over Broadway,” about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Sweet even manages to make the backstory of a reference book riveting, Caprino says, with the lavish illustrations for “The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus.”

inside pages of the right word book

Society & Culture

Burundi edges closer to the abyss in 2016

December 13, 2016
Rene Lemarchand

UF emeritus professor of political science Rene Lemarchand explains why the overpopulated and corrupt state of Burundi, which shares an ethnic map similar to Rwanda, appears on a collision course toward increased political instability.

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza was hardly a household name. That was before he turned his country into a hellhole following his unconstitutional decision in 2015 to run for a third term.

Burundi is an overpopulated and immensely corrupt state. It shares much the same ethnic map as Rwanda. But it hardly attracted a fraction of the attention claimed by its neighbour to the north during and after the 1994 genocide. If anything, its principal claim to fame was that it successfully managed its transition to multi-party democracy after a vicious 10-year civil war.

The key to this remarkable achievement was a power-sharing arrangement. The arrangement gave a share of executive and legislative power to the two principal, and once bitterly antagonistic, ethnic communities, the Hutu and Tutsi. The Tutsi account for approximately 30% – this is a guesstimate as no reliable recent census figures are available – of a population of some ten million.

At first, the experiment seemed highly promising. It was formalised in the Arusha accords of 2000, and later enshrined in the 2005 constitution. It offered a striking counter-example to Rwanda’s tragic destinies. It all went well until the failed coup of May 13 2015. The coup was a desperate attempt by a group of dissident officers to seize power by force. The light was shone on the regime’s savagery. The precipitating factor was Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, in violation of the constitution.

The Burundi enigma

Burundi today seems dangerously close to a Rwanda-like scenario. The Tutsi minority was targeted once again as a potential victim of genocidal violence. On closer inspection, the events of 2016 reveal a more ambivalent state of affairs. A significant number of Tutsi elites, civil servants, army men, journalists and human rights activists have been killed by pro-regime elements. Scores of Tutsi women have been raped.

But the same could be said of the hundreds of Hutu victims. One can’t ignore the large number of extra-judicial killings committed by anti-Nkurunziza rebels. These are opponents of Nkurunziza and both Hutu or Tutsi are targets.

Since 2015, at least 1,000 people have been killed. Thousands of others have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured. An estimated 330,000 have fled their homeland to neighbouring states.

But we have to be cautious in speaking of a straight Hutu-Tutsi confrontation. The conflict is not strictly speaking ethnic. It’s political. It revolves around the pro- and anti-Nkurunziza’s third term option.

At the heart of the Burundi enigma lies a paradox. This is the power-sharing formula devised in the Arusha accords – the critical element behind the transition to democracy – and it still holds. Nonetheless, everything points to a diffuse yet distinctly anti-Tutsi political climate.

Hutu takeover

Today 60% of government positions and parliamentary seats are controlled by Hutu and 40% by Tutsi. The army, as prescribed by the constitution, is evenly split between Hutu and Tutsi, each accounting for 50% of the officer corps and troops. Left out of the accounting, however, is:

  • The growing number of Hutu hard-liners in positions of authority

  • The presence of parallel security organisations under tight Hutu control

  • The systematic clamping down on civil society organisations, and

  • The climate of pervasive fear created by the omnipresent Hutu-dominated youth militia known as imbonerakure.

Burundi is seen by many as alarmingly close to the edge of the abyss. Given the salience of such informal control mechanisms this is hardly surprising. Such is the consensus of most Burundi experts. Their views are corroborated by the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues report, the 2016 report of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, many Human Rights Watch reports and the international media.

A bleak future

But what adds to the sense of pessimism is such actions as the appointment of notorious hard-liners to key positions.

For example, General Evariste Ndayishimiye’s appointment as the secretary general of the Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie – the current ruling party in Burundi. This leaves few doubts about the intransigence of the regime. He is known to be a tough-minded general and viscerally anti-Tutsi.

Ethnicity is becoming more noticeable as a policy issue. A growing number of Tutsi elements have been excluded from key government positions. In February of 2016 some 700 Tutsi troops were forced into early retirement. The police force and the ruling party’s youth wing, now undergoing regular military training, have become virtually mono-ethnic, and so too the security units operating alongside the normal channels.

Perhaps even more ominous is the outrageous language used by the president of the Senate, Reverien Ndikuriyo. Some of his utterances have been reminiscent of the coded euphemisms employed during the Rwanda genocide as synonyms for killing Tutsi. He even made reference to “going to work”, a metaphor for killing.

It is easy to see why the thinly veiled anti-Tutsi posturings of the Nkurunziza regime should be seen by many as payback for the 1972 tragedy. Some 200,000 Hutu were killed at the hands of a predominantly Tutsi army. Hundreds if not thousands of Tutsi civilians were killed by Hutu insurgents.

The prospects for reconciliation are bleak. Formal gestures by the government to nudge the legitimate opposition parties to join an intra-Burundi dialogue have consistently failed. As for the weak and fragmented rebel forces in exile, nothing short of a miracle would enable them to capture power in the foreseeable future.

There have been repeated attempts by organisations like the African Union to impose sanctions aimed at stopping atrocities and prepare the ground for the presence of an international protection force. These efforts have not been successful. Internal rifts in the UN Security Council between supporters of Nkurunziza, like China and Russia, and their opponents ensured the failure of a concerted diplomatic initiative.

Burundi’s planned withdrawal from the international criminal court in response to pressure to investigate the country’s human rights situation stands as another ill omen for the future.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Society & Culture

UF ranks 6th for PhD production nationally, 5th for PhDs awarded to Hispanic and Latino students

December 13, 2016
UF News

The University of Florida ranks No. 6 among all U.S. universities for the production of doctoral degrees and No. 5 for doctorates awarded to Hispanic and Latino students, according to a new federally supported survey.

The results are found in the latest version of the Survey of Earned Doctorates, covering the year 2015. The survey is conducted by NORC, an independent research organization at the University of Chicago, on behalf of six federal agencies: the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The institutions that awarded the most doctorates in 2015 are:


Source: Inside Higher Ed

The institutions that produced the most Hispanic and Latino doctorate holders from 2011 to 2015 are:


Source: Inside Higher Ed

Nationally, according to Inside Higher Ed, nearly 70 percent of recipients of math and computer science doctorates and 68.5 percent of psychology and social science doctorates said they had definitive jobs or postdoctoral study positions, compared to 58.6 percent in the life sciences and 54.8 percent in the humanities and arts. The figure was 64.4 percent for education doctorate recipients and 58.2 percent for engineers.

Campus Life

What Castro’s death and Trump’s election mean for Cuba’s economic awakening

December 14, 2016
Brian Gendreau

Brian Gendreau, director of UF’s Latin American Business Environment program, speculates about the future of US-Cuba relations in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death and the dawning of the Trump administration.

Before his death on Nov. 25 at the age of 90, Fidel Castro had made no secret about his reservations about the normalization of relations with the United States and had insisted that the ideals of the Cuban Revolution would never be abandoned.

So following his death it is natural to wonder if the economic reforms initiated by his brother, Raúl Castro, will accelerate or what else might happen.

Since his death, we haven’t seen any instability. This is unlikely to change: Raul has been in charge since 2008 and has no plans to step down until his term as president is up in 2018. He has remained a supporter of the reforms despite disagreements with his brother.

But it would be unrealistic to expect a swift transition to a more open market economy, as I’ve learned from 25 years spent following Latin America’s economies and politics. Internal opposition to the reforms persists in Cuba, which helps explain why implementation of the reforms has been slow, and with the election of Donald Trump, the thaw in relations with the United States that has encouraged those reforms is, for the time being, in question.

The thaw begins

Since Raúl Castro began a series of reforms after replacing his ailing brother as president in 2008, market forces have begun to play a larger role in the Cuban economy.

Cuban citizens are now allowed to operate small businesses such as restaurants, barber shops and room rentals, and they can buy and sell homes. Individuals and cooperatives are allowed to cultivate unused plots of land. Managers have been given more autonomy to allocate resources.

These reforms have been accompanied by fewer restrictions on travel by Cubans abroad and by the gradual spread of communication technology. Cellphones are more common in Cuba than they were just a year ago, and Wi-Fi spots have become popular in Havana, though so far not many exist.

Castro’s reforms included allowing more small businesses to open up. Desmond Boylan/AP Photo

A slow pace

The pace of reform, however, has been uneven and slow. Self-employment is still limited to specific and usually unskilled activities. Architects, for example, may drive taxis but still cannot go into business in their own profession.

The government explicitly prohibits the accumulation of wealth – hardly an incentive to entrepreneurship – though it is hard to imagine that this is enforced effectively. And backtracking has occurred in some areas.

In January, for example, the state shut down some street vendors and asserted control of part of the food distribution system, which had earlier been opened to private participation.

And not everyone in Cuba is happy with the reforms. The Cuban government laid off almost 600,000 government workers from 2010 to 2014 in an effort to improve productivity and free up labor for the private sector. While there have been no announcements recently of plans for further layoffs, the three-quarters of Cuba’s workers that are still on government payrolls are apprehensive. Complaints that tourists and rising incomes in the private sector are raising prices are common in Havana.

As the government seeks to encourage a more vibrant economy in the face of resistance to change, the outcome is likely to be a continuation of the reforms, but at a controlled pace. Raul Castro indicated as much at the Communist Party Congress in April, when he said Cuba’s reforms would proceed with “neither haste nor pause.”

Two economic shocks

Cuba’s economy, meanwhile, is in trouble after growing at a brisk 4.4 percent in 2015 as tourism- and construction-related investment boomed.

Growth is decelerating sharply this year as Cuba struggles to cope with two external shocks.

First, prices for Cuba’s traditional exports of nickel, refined oil and sugar have fallen with global commodity prices since mid-2014 and remain low. Second, with its own economy in shambles, Venezuela cut supplies of oil to Cuba by as much as 40 percent.

Cuba has traditionally swapped medical services for oil with Venezuela and sold the oil it refines from Venezuela to the rest of the world. As a result of the cutbacks in oil imports, Cuba has had to ration energy domestically and delay payments to foreign creditors, while its oil export earnings plummet.

While rumors of a return to the hardships Cuba suffered in the early 1990s after the loss of subsidized trade with the Soviet Union are exaggerated – earnings from tourism will help offset the lower oil imports – Cuba will be lucky to eke out any growth at all in 2017.

Depressed prices for commodities like sugar are hammering Cuba’s economy. Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo

A third shock

Cuba may yet be hit with a third shock: a chilling of relations with the United States.

Donald Trump has said he will reverse the deal President Barack Obama reached in 2014 to reopen relations with Cuba and relax restrictions on trade and travel unless the Castro regime agrees to free political prisoners and restore political freedoms. Cuba released 53 political prisoners a few weeks after the Obama administration’s 2014 announcement but has resisted calls to free more political prisoners since then.

The normalization of relations between the two countries has supported Cuba’s reforms by supplying a stream of new visitors to the island and by increasing Cuba’s connectivity with the rest of the world. Although tourism is still banned under the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, in 2015 140,000 U.S. citizens took advantage of one of the 12 licenses established in December 2014 under which the United States permits travel to Cuba – a 54 percent increase over 2014.

U.S. airlines commenced regular air service to Cuba this year, and several cruise lines now offer trips to the island. Several U.S. mobile carriers have signed voice, text and data-roaming agreements with Etecsa, the Cuban telecommunications provider. A Florida-based bank has issued a credit card intended for use in Cuba, and U.S. credit cards are accepted for currency transactions at state-owned foreign exchange facilities in Havana, though they so far do not work elsewhere in Cuba.

Obama lifts up the arm of Castro during the former’s visit to the island in March. Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo

What’s next

Absent details on the president-elect’s intentions on Cuba, it is difficult to see how relations will unfold. Here’s my read on the situation:

The new administration will initially take a hard line on Cuba – to do otherwise would appear to be backing down from campaign promises. History suggests, however, that Cuba will steadfastly resist demands on human rights or democratic reforms, even if it means enduring considerable hardships. This means that a standoff and worsening of relations is possible, which could involve restrictions on travel and trade.

But there are long-term costs to isolating Cuba.

A chill in relations would mean U.S. businesses would lose out to foreign competitors. Cuban-Americans could have their ability to see and support relatives in Cuba hampered. Americans would not be able to enjoy travel to the island or to buy Cuban cigars and rum.

In fact, a New York Times/CBS poll has found that nearly six in 10 Americans support normalizing relations with Cuba, and a 2016 Florida International University poll found that a majority – 56 percent – of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County “strongly” or “mostly” favors a reengagement with the island.

Cuba, meanwhile, has an obvious interest in avoiding isolation. Tourism provides a good example. According to a 30-year development plan by Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism, capacity in Cuba’s hotels is to grow from 63,000 rooms today to 85,000 in 2020 and 200,000 in 2030. It is hard to see how those hotel rooms can be filled with a full U.S. trade and travel embargo still in place.

The day after Fidel Castro’s death, Trump called him a “brutal dictator” and said “our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.”

The second phrase suggests that he is leaving the door open to a rapprochement. Trump sees himself as the “negotiator in chief,” so the temptation to try to get a better deal from Cuba will be strong. Such negotiations, however, are bound to be to be difficult: Human rights, claims for expropriated property and Cuba’s insistence on compensation for damages from the embargo – issues on which little or no progress was achieved in past talks – will all be on the table.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Society & Culture

National Book Award winner addresses UF doctoral grads

December 16, 2016
UF News

Ibram X. Kendi is an assistant professor of African American History, with a particular emphasis on racist and antiracist ideas and movements. In November, Kendi won the National Book Award for his second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which has been praised nationwide for turning our ideas about racism upside-down. His speech is below.

“Are you an intellectual?” by Ibram X. Kendi

University of Florida Doctoral Commencement Address | December 16, 2016

What an honor it is to stand before you! I would like to thank President Fuchs for inviting me to speak. 

I would like to greet UF’s Board of Trustees.  I would like to greet UF’s administrators and faculty and staff and students.  I would like to greet my fellow Floridians and fellow Americans.

President Fuchs mentioned my new book, Stamped from the Beginning. Well, I have been traveling all over this nation speaking on it the last few months. And when I say all over this nation, I mean all over the nation.

I even spoke in Anchorage, Alaska two weeks ago. Yes, I am still defrosting. So if you see water coming out of my pores during this speech—it’s not sweat, it’s ice melting.

In all seriousness, Anchorage is a beautiful city surrounded by mountains that seem to always be kissing the beautiful blue sky. From the city center, you can see the highest mountain peak in North America, a mountain the natives call Denali. You may know it is as Mount McKinley.

As we gazed up at the mountains one day, my host asked if I ever had a desire to climb a huge mountain. I replied, “I have already climbed a huge mountain. I climbed one of the highest mountain peaks in the world: the doctoral process.”

So I would like to greet all those courageous climbers who trekked up the mountain that is the doctoral process.  I am so happy to be standing here at this mountaintop with you and your families and your friends and your doctoral advisers who pushed you and pulled you along the way. 

As you stand at this peak about to receive this prestigious doctoral degree from the University of Florida, I suspect you are not only celebrating, but you are also thinking about what is next.

When I say thinking about what is next, I am not talking about you thinking about what is next in your career. I do not want to talk to you about that today. Enough people have talked to you about that already.

I want to talk to you about what is next for your mind now that you are a doctoral recipient. What is next for your mind now that you will have those three letters by your name. What is next for your mind now that some people will call you doctor. I say some people because don’t expect your parents to start calling you doctor. You will still be your mama’s baby, even with a doctorate degree.

-The point of my address is to ask you a simple question: are you an intellectual? I know you have earned your doctorate degree, but I am asking: are you an intellectual?

I am asking this question because you need to know that having a doctorate does not make you an intellectual. Becoming a professor does not make you an intellectual. Working in a research lab does not make you an intellectual. Thinking at a think tank does not make you an intellectual.

It is so embarrassing, but there are doctorates who are not intellectuals. Just like there are MDs who are not healers. Just like there are JDs who are not about justice. Just like there are Reverends who are not about God.

Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a Reverend who is not about God? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a JD who is not about justice. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a MD who is not a healer? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a doctorate holder who is not an intellectual?

Do not become that person.

Today you are joining the illustrious academy of doctoral recipients. But I want to talk to you today about joining the even more illustrious academy of intellectuals. No doctorate degree is required to join the intellectual academy. This is an inclusive academy with all types of people with all types of backgrounds. There are people with only a GED in this intellectual academy. There are incarcerated people in this intellectual academy. There are homeless people in this intellectual academy. There are poor people in this intellectual academy.

When I say intellectual, I am not referring to someone who knows a wealth of information. All of you, I am sure know a lot. You know a lot about your discipline and your field and your research—otherwise you would not be here waiting for me to finish this speech so you can get your degree already and go to dinner. I’ve learned the hard way that standing in the way of students and their degrees is unwise; and standing in the way of American families and their food is really unwise. But please bear with me.

I do not measure a person’s intellect based on how much a person knows. I do not consider myself an intellectual because I know a lot about American history. How much you know has no bearing on how much you are in intellectual.

I define—and many others define an intellectual as someone with a tremendous desire to know. Intellectuals are open-minded. Intellectuals have a tremendous capacity to change their mind on matters, to self-reflect, to self-critique.  Intellectuals are governed by only one special interest that is rarely self-serving—the special interest of finding and revealing the truth.

All of you will be getting your doctorate degrees. But how many of you have a tremendous desire to know? How many of your minds are wide open to new ideas? How many of you are searching for ideas that challenge how you see the world? How many of you are willing to look at the world differently with the blink of new evidence? How many of you are critiquing your own ideas as intensely as you critique the ideas of others?

Intellectuals are a nomadic people, constantly changing their conceptual location, constantly in search of a better conceptual space.

Intellectuals are constantly working out. We have work out warriors of the body, those who pump iron to break down old muscles to allow newer and bigger and better muscles to grow in their place. Well, intellectuals are work out warriors of mind, regularly breaking down old ideas to allow newer and bigger and better ideas to grow in their place.

Are you an intellectual?

Or will you become the tragedy that is the anti-intellectual with a doctorate degree? You know, those anti-intellectuals who stay close to what was taught to them by their family and friends and favorite teachers and favorite shows. You know, those anti-intellectuals who are constantly seeking to reinforce their beliefs. You know, those anti-intellectuals who have planted themselves so deeply in a position that no hurricane of truth could uproot them. You know, those anti-intellectuals who develop convincing lies that ensure pseudoscience is well funded, convincing lies that ensure corrupt politicians are elected, convincing lies that ensure harmful products are sold, convincing lies that ensure that facts are discredited, convincing lies that ensure that bigots are exonerated for their crimes against humanity.

I chronicle these anti-intellectuals in my book, Stamped from the Beginning. The history of racist ideas in America is the history anti-intellectualism. For nearly 600 years, some of the best trained minds in Western Europe and the American colonies and the United States have been trying to prove that White people have been on the winning and prospering and living end of Western society not because of racial discrimination but because they are superior. For nearly 600 years, some of the best trained minds have been trying to prove that Black people have been on the losing and impoverishing and dying end of Western society not because of racial discrimination but because they are inferior.

You should know that a racist idea as any idea that suggests a racial group is inferior or superior in any way. You should also know that there are only two ways to explain racial inequities and disparities. There were only two ways to explain why Black people were enslaved and White people were free. There are only two ways to explain why young Black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than their white counterparts. Either there is something wrong with Black people—racist ideas—or there is something wrong with society, racial discrimination.

Throughout this nation’s history, Americans have dove into the false waters of racist ideas because we do not want to face the reality of racial discrimination. We have not bred intellectuals because only intellectuals are willing to always face reality. Only intellectuals pledge to look for and say the truth and nothing but the truth.

I show in Stamped from the Beginning that ignorance and hate did not lead to racist ideas as we have been commonly told, but the production and circulation of racist ideas led to ignorance and hate. We hate because we are ignorant about other groups. Our nation is a racially divided because we attack groups of people instead of the policies that harms us all.

We have been led to believe that Latino immigrants are taking our jobs, even though the hard data shows otherwise. And so, ignorantly, we hate them. We have been led to believe that Muslims and Black criminals are the greatest threat to our security, even though the hard data shows otherwise. And so, ignorantly, we hate them. We have been led to believe that lazy Black people depend on the so-called handouts of welfare and affirmative action, even though the hard data shows otherwise. And so, ignorantly, we hate them.

Racist ideas have suspended reality, drenched us in lies, subjectified standards, misled millions by faulty statistics, and forcibly herded generations of unsuspecting Americans into legal ignorance and lethal hate. We now live in a society where comfort matters more than certainty, where tradition matters more than truth, where labels matter more than logic.

The task of intellectuals is to transcend political labels. The task of intellectuals is to transcend political ideology and economic interests and cultural traditions.  The task of intellectuals is to transcend comfort.

The task of intellectuals is to fashion a clear and unadulterated mirror of humanity, so we can see ourselves for what we really are.  The task of intellectuals is to investigate the problems of our world. The task of intellectuals is to solve the problems of our world. 

Are you up for these tasks doctoral recipients? Are you up for the task of being an intellectual?

We are here at the mountaintop of the doctoral process. So I ask again what is next for your mind? Will you continue the never-ending climb that is being an intellectual? Or will you start making your way down the mountain towards the valley of anti-intellectualism, thinking you know it all, thinking you have the world figured out, thinking you are beyond critique.

It is certainly much easier to be an anti-intellectual, to go with the flow of the academic current, to reinforce what people already think. You can have a nice career as an anti-intellectual, and the energizers of the academic current will certainly reward you.

But know that the academic current will engulf you. Your work will not be remembered. You will not make history.

I want you to make history, not be history. I want your work to be remembered, not be forgotten. I want you to power and steer the academic current, not be engulfed by it.

I want to be celebrating you one day. I want your family and friends to be bragging about more than their child has a doctorate degree. I want your family and friends to be bragging about how your groundbreaking work is changing the world.

But in order to break new grounds, we must break from our old grounds. In order to change the world we must critique the world.

But before we can change or critique something else, we must have the capacity to change and critique ourselves. We must have the capacity to be intellectuals, to be on the perpetual climb towards the always rising peak of truth.

Congratulations on receiving your doctorate degree. But in all honesty, that is not enough for me. I don’t want you to leave UF with just a doctorate degree. I want you to leave UF as an intellectual.

Thank you.

Campus Life

How to know when holiday drinking is hurting your brain

December 16, 2016
Jamie Smolen

Associate professor of medicine Jamie Smolen describes the three stages of alcohol addition, which can manifest in binge drinking, a condition more than 66.7 million Americans reported in 2015.

For many, the holidays are indeed the most wonderful time of the year. Families and friends come together and enjoy food, good cheer – and, often, alcohol.

Commercially speaking, alcohol and the holidays seem to be made for each other. Alcohol can be a quick and easy way to get into the spirit of celebration.

And, it feels good. After two glasses of wine, the brain is activated through complex neurobiochemical processes that naturally release dopamine, a neurotransmitter of great importance.

When the dopamine molecule locks on to its receptor located on the surface of a neuron, or basic brain cell, a “buzz” occurs. It is often desirably anticipated before the second glass is empty.

This image shows an illustration of a man drinking a pint of beer, indicating how the body metabolizes alcohol and the organs that this alcohol affects. Wellcome Images via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

There are those, however, who drink right past the buzz into intoxication and, often, into trouble. For them, the brain starts releasing the same enjoyable dopamine, no different than what happens in the casual drinker’s, but it doesn’t stop there. A compulsion to binge drink can result.

As someone who has studied alcohol use disorder for over 15 years and who has treated thousands of patients who have it, I think it’s a major, yet often poorly understood, public health problem. Our culture seems to be moving beyond the point of labeling those with opioid addictions as “weak,” and I hope we can do the same for those with alcohol use disorder, too, which is more widespread than people may appreciate. Excessive drinking accounted for one in 10 deaths among working-age adults in the United States.

Moving beyond judgment

Although alcohol can feel as though it is relieving stress, it contributes to 88,000 deaths in the United States each year. That is more than double the number of people killed by heroin and opioid prescription drug overdose, another major public health crisis, in 2014.

In addition, more than 66.7 million Americans reported binge drinking in the past month in 2015, according to the recent report on addiction by the surgeon general.

The consequences to the individual and the family are staggering, affecting physical and mental health, an increased spread of infectious disease, reduced quality of life, increased motor vehicle crashes and abuse and neglect of children, to mention a few.

Scientific study of the brain has helped explain binge drinking even if it may be hard for family and friends to understand. It’s defined as drinking five or more drinks for men and four for women on the same occasion on at least one day in the past 30 days.

Binge drinking is a medical condition. It happens through no fault of the individual, who is victimized by the comparative malfunction of the pleasure circuits in the brain. This causes the drinker to want more and more alcohol. Brains of binge drinkers have a disease, acknowledged by the American Medical Association since the 1950s, yet binge drinkers are often vilified.

Americans typically want to know and are willing to make some lifestyle changes out of fear and common sense when it comes to diseases such as heart disease, obesity and cancer. We as a society are not quite at the same point with substance abuse disorders, but researchers are desperately trying to bring that same willingness for prevention and treatment to substance use disorders.

Science understands the cause well enough to explain it and treat it so that lives can be saved and spared the devastating consequences for the millions who suffer with these conditions, their families and communities. This has become an urgent matter of national importance for scientists and medical practitioners.

The three stages of addiction

The alcohol addiction process involves a three-stage cycle: Binge-Intoxication, Withdrawal-Negative Affect, and Preoccupation-Anticipation.

It begins in the neurons, the basic type of brain cell. The brain has an estimated 86 billion of these cells, which communicate through chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.

Neurons can organize in clusters and form networks or circuits in order to perform specific functions such as thinking, learning, emotions and memory. The addiction cycle disrupts the normal function of some of these networks in three areas of the brain – the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

The disruptions do several things that contribute to continued drinking. They enable alcohol or drinking-associated triggers (cues) which lead to seeking alcohol. They also reduce the sensitivity of the brain systems, causing a diminished experience of pleasure or reward, and heighten activation of brain stress systems. Last, they reduce function of brain executive control systems, the part of the brain that typically helps make decisions and regulate one’s actions, emotions and impulses.

These networks are critical for human survival. Unfortunately for the binge drinker, they become “hijacked,” and the bingeing continues even after the harmful effects have begun.

Because binge drinkers’ brains feel intense pleasure from alcohol, there is a powerful motivation to binge drink again and again. What may begin as social binge drinking at parties for recreation can cause progressive neuro-adaptive changes in brain structure and function. The brain is no longer well enough to function normally. It’s getting sick. Continued partying can transition into a chronic and uncontrollable daily pattern of alcohol use. These maladaptive neurological changes can persist long after the alcohol use stops.

Your brain on alcohol

During the Binge-Intoxication Stage, a part of the brain called the basal ganglia rewards the drinker with pleasurable effects, releasing dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for the rewarding effects of alcohol and creating the desire for more.

With continued bingeing, the “habit circuity” is repeatedly activated in another part of the basal ganglia called the dorsal striatum. It contributes to the compulsive seeking of more alcohol. This explains the intense desire (craving) which is triggered while a binge drinker is driving by a favorite bar and can’t resist pulling in, even after a promise to go directly home after work.

During the Withdrawal-Negative Affect Stage, there is a break from drinking. Because the reward circuit has a diminished ability to deliver a dopamine reward, there is far less pleasure with natural (safe) experiences – such as food and sex – compared to alcohol.

During abstinence from alcohol, stress neurotransmitters such as corticotropin-releasing factor (FRC) and dynorphin are released. These powerful neurochemicals cause negative emotional states associated with alcohol withdrawal. This drives the drinker back to alcohol in order to gain relief and attempt to reestablish the rewards of intoxication.

Regions of the brain are affected differently by alcohol. Surgeon General's Report on Addiction

After a period of abstinence from alcohol, which may last only hours, the drinker enters the Preoccupation-Anticipation Stage. This involves the prefrontal cortex, where executive decisions are made about whether or not to override the strong urges to drink. This part of the brain functions with a “Go system” and “Stop system.”

When the Go circuits stimulate the habit-response system of the dorsal striatum, the drinker becomes impulsive with a craving and seeks a drink, perhaps even subconsciously. The Stop system can inhibit the activity of the Go system and is important especially preventing relapse after being triggered by stressful life events.

Brain imaging studies show that binge drinking can disrupt the function in both the Go and Stop circuits. This interferes with proper decision making and behavioral inhibition. The drinker is both impulsive and compulsive.

An illness that can be treated

There is good news, as scientific evidence shows that this disorder can be treated.

The FDA has approved three medications for treatment that should be offered whenever appropriate. There is well-supported scientific evidence that behavioral therapies can be effective treatment. This includes recovery support services, such as Alcoholic Anonymous.

Most importantly, it is important to know that alcohol use disorder is a brain disorder causing a chronic illness. It is no different from diabetes, asthma or hypertension. When comprehensive continuing care is provided, the recovery results improve, and the binge drinker has the hope of remaining sober as long as lifelong treatment and maintenance of sobriety become a dedicated lifestyle choice.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Science & Wellness

Colombian choir makes merry music with UF students

December 16, 2016
UF News
holidays, Sounds of the Season, College of the Arts

For the annual Sounds of the Season concert, students had the opportunity to perform with Ensamble Vocal de Medellín, a choir from Colombia. The Latin-themed concert brought the Colombian singers together with UF’s Concert Choir, Symphony Orchestra, Women’s Chorale, Chamber Singers and Jazz Ensemble, along with musicians and singers from the Gainesville community.


Society & Culture

Gators giving back to the community

December 16, 2016
UF News

Florida Gators' Athletics Department Ambassador Steve Spurrier was joined Thursday by Thaddeus Bullard and several University of Florida student-athletes to give shoes and socks to students in Alachua County on free or reduced lunch. This is the 15th year of the program known as Gator Tracks. Bullard, now a professional wrestler known as Titus O'Neil, played football at UF when Spurrier was the head ball coach.

Check out UAA's photo gallery for more.

Campus Life

Merging neuroscience and education research to personalize multimedia and online learning

December 21, 2016
Larry Lansford
College of Education, Preeminence, online learning, neuroscience

University of Florida education technology researcher Pavlo “Pasha” Antonenko has never been afraid to take risks and go against convention. His pioneering spirit emerged in the 1990s in his Ukraine homeland, where personal computers were scarce and there was no internet connection. Today you’ll find him leading groundbreaking studies on a radical new approach for advancing and personalizing the still-fledgling field of online learning.

Setting the stage

Antonenko’s journey to UF started in the late 1990s when he was a high school teacher. He became fascinated with computers at a time when his hometown of Nizhyn, Ukraine had no internet connections and few computers. He began building and selling computers to supplement his income while he earned a master’s in linguistics in English and German languages.

“I was one of the first people in my hometown to get an internet connection, but it wasn’t very good. I started building websites even before I had internet, but they were just sitting on my computer,” he recalls.

His career path changed dramatically in 2002 when he traveled to Orlando to work as an interpreter at a conference on education technology, a discipline that wasn’t even recognized in Ukraine. But Antonenko had found his passion: exploring ways computer technology can improve education.

“Everything I heard there and the people I met, I said ‘wow, this is what I want to do as my graduate education and job,'” he says.

Within a few months, he and his wife, Yuliya, moved a half-world away to settle in Ames, Iowa, where he spent five years at Iowa State University earning a doctorate in curriculum and instructional technology and human-computer interaction.

Along the way, Antonenko worked with Iowa State neuroscientists on one of his personal research interests—the use of electroencephalography, or EEG, to monitor brain activity known as “cognitive load,” which is the amount of mental effort expended by the working memory during a learning task. EEG, which records the brain's electrical activity, is most commonly used in medicine as a first-line, non-invasive method of diagnosing stroke and other brain disorders.

It would have been intriguing to monitor Antonenko’s own brain activity as he thought to himself, “Hmmm, I wonder if EEG might be a reliable way to study the mental processes underlying learning.” He wrote his dissertation on the topic and became one of the first education researchers to use EEG to measure the cognitive dynamics of learning.

The stars begin to align

After earning his doctorate and serving five years on the education technology faculty at Oklahoma State University, Antonenko joined UF’s ed. tech faculty in 2012. His appointment coincided with the education world's identification of personalizing online learning as a global challenge and a top research priority of the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.

UF administrators also targeted research of personalized e-learning for investment of state “preeminent university” funds, which enabled the College of Education in 2014 to recruit top ed. tech scholar Carole Beal from Arizona State University, where she was conducting her own pioneering neuro-education studies. Beal became the first director of UF’s new campuswide Online Learning Institute.

The College of Education made a priority of integrating neuroscience with education research to improve online learning at all levels. Pivotal developments during the 2015-16 academic year made that push a certainty.

Merging neuroscience and education research at UF

In 2015, Antonenko, Beal and UF education technology colleague Kara Dawson attracted vital grant funding to lead novel interdisciplinary research projects using wireless EEG brain monitoring and other neuro-technology to study how multimedia learning can be impoved for all students, not just those who test well on academic exams.  These studies focus on education in the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and math—areas in which the use of multimedia learning tools “has far outstripped the ability of research to keep pace with,” says Antonenko.

Their focus on custom-tailoring instructional design for individual learner differences, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach, is a distinctive feature of their studies.

“Virtually all research on multimedia learning methods has been performed on high-achieving students at elite research-intensive universities, where studies like this usually occur. We are evaluating these methods with more diverse student populations and those with special needs,” Antonenko says. 

NSF study focuses on community college students

Antonenko heads a team of highly specialized researchers drawn from multiple institutions on a three-year study, supported by a $765,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The researchers are gauging how effective technology-assisted learning practices are for a diverse group of community college students, which now constitute nearly half of all U.S. higher education students.

In 2015, Antonenko became the first UF education faculty researcher to win 5 NSF grants in the same year.

The team, dubbed the Science of Learning Collaborative Network, includes top scholars in education technology, neuroscience, STEM education, neuropsychology, computer science and educational measurement. They hail from UF, the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Washington State University.

Some 120 students from three colleges—Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and SUNY Buffalo State in Buffalo, N.Y.—are participating in the study. The students are screened for demographics and learning differences, such as working memory and visual attention levels, to ensure a varied test group.

Team specialists in cognitive neuroscience are employing EEG and other high-tech methods, including functional near infrared spectroscopy (to measure neural changes in blood oxygenation) and eye tracking (to understand visual attention) to assess the students’ attention and mental processes while they learn using multimedia materials that include text, images, videos, animations and audio.  

The researchers hope to land follow-up NSF grants by demonstrating the effectiveness of their network’s organization, infrastructure and integration of diverse research strategies, along with their unique approach to personalized learning.

“Working with scholars from other disciplines and other institutions is really exciting but it’s also challenging because each discipline and each person has a different way to work,” Antonenko says. “We have to make sure everyone is invested and feels valued and make sure we pull all of the expertise together in a way that makes sense."

UF co-researchers are faculty members Dawson and Beal, and psychology professor Andreas Keil. Co-principal investigators are computer science and STEM education scholars Matthew Schneps from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Marc Pomplun from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and Richard Lamb of SUNY Buffalo State, who focuses on science education and measurement.

Adapting digital media for students with dyslexia

Professor Dawson heads an educational neuroscience study focused on multimedia learning for students with dyslexia, the most common language-based disability. People with dyslexia typically have difficulty reading and processing words.

Dawson was awarded $85,000 for the one-year project from UF’s Office of Research, which awards Research Opportunity Seed Fund grants to UF scholars for the merit and potential of their research proposals. Antonenko is a co-principal investigator.

The study involves 72 college students with dyslexia, each participating in one of four multimedia learning settings while wearing wireless EEG headsets to monitor and record brain activity during the multimedia exercise and comprehension assessment. The student volunteers are drawn from four institutions: Santa Fe Community College and the universities of Central Florida, North Florida and South Florida.

While neuroscience-based methods are central to the study, Dawson is quick to make one thing clear: “In no way am I a neuroscientist.”

“To me, this is not about neuroscience,” she says, “I am interested in what neuroscience techniques can tell us about the learning process. That is what it’s all about for me.”

Dawson and her team will use their findings to evaluate the validity of merging EEG and behavioral measures and, ultimately, to develop new instructional strategies and materials that teachers can personalize for individual students with varied learning traits and backgrounds.

Besides Dawon and Antonenko, the research team includes UF colleagues Beal and Albert Ritzhaupt, dyslexia diagnostic specialist Linda Lombardino from UF’s special education program, and UF neuropsychologist Keil. Doctoral students participating are Kendra Saunders from school pyschology and Nihan Dogan, Jiahui Wang, Li Cheng, Wenjing Luo and Robert Davis from the School of Teaching and Learning. Matthew Schneps from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysicists also is collaborating.

 “We all share this mutual goal of figuring out how technology can help all types of learners,” Dawson says. “We need to make technology work so everyone feels they can learn and be smart and successful.”

Much promise but not yet ready for prime time

The researchers describe both educational neuroscience studies as exploratory, but Antonenko says he expects them to yield solid preliminary findings that may lead to follow-up NSF research proposals.

 “EEG appears to be a great tool for educational research that can produce important implications for teaching and learning in education.” he says. “Our focus is on helping people who need additional support as they learn using 21st century online and multimedia tools in education.”

“That is what I find most rewarding.”

Global Impact

'Working memory' decline in normal aging linked to loss of specific receptor

December 16, 2016
Michelle Koidin Jaffee

University of Florida researchers have identified a subtype of a specific receptor in the brain that is critical for “working memory,” or the ability to hold information in mind for a short time — an ability that often diminishes with normal aging. In a new study published this week in The Journal of Neuroscience, the UF team details how the loss of that specific receptor predicts the severity of working-memory impairment due to aging.

The researchers further found they could use a drug to positively affect those receptors to enhance working memory in aged rats with cognitive decline. The findings suggest a potential future pathway for drug treatment to target those receptors and improve working memory in humans.

“Working memory is the ability to hold information in mind for a relatively short duration, for example, the ability to look up a phone number and remember it until you get to the phone,” said principal investigator Jennifer L. Bizon, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience and psychiatry in the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida. “The ability to do that simple process of holding information over a period of about 30 seconds is critical for planning and carrying out daily activities and is the foundation for more complex cognitive operations such as decision-making.

“We know across species — rats, non-human primates and people — that working memory declines over the course of the lifespan,” Bizon said. “It’s also very vulnerable in a number of neuropsychiatric diseases, such as schizophrenia.”

Previous studies have pointed to receptors for the neurotransmitter glutamate in working memory function. The new UF study, led by postdoctoral fellow Joseph A. McQuail, is significant because it identifies glutamate receptors containing a specific protein subunit as critical for working memory and its decline across the lifespan.

“Many treatments have sought to broadly modulate these receptors to improve working memory in schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric diseases and have not been successful,” Bizon said.

The new findings “give us a more selective target for treating working memory deficits,” she said.

The UF research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the McKnight Brain Research Foundation.

Science & Wellness

Cancer cells’ transition can drive tumor growth, UF Health researchers find

December 21, 2016
Doug Bennett

As cancerous tumors fester in the body, they need an ever-increasing blood supply to deliver the oxygen and nutrients that fuel their growth. Now, a team led by University of Florida Health researchers has established how some tumors bolster their own blood supply.

Certain cancer cells can convert into blood vessel-supporting cells that drive tumor growth, according to the researchers’ findings. The results were published recently in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

The findings shed new light on how tumors are able to maintain themselves and grow: A subset of cancer cells get reprogrammed into more mobile cells that are essential to a tumor’s steady blood supply. That process — known as epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition, or EMT — was first recognized in the 1980s. The UF Health-led study is the first to elucidate how that process sustains blood vessels.

“Our study shows that through the EMT process, cancer cells are virtually converted into blood vessel-supporting cells and support tumor growth. This is certainly a novel discovery and may change our thinking and therapy in this field,” said Jianrong Lu, Ph.D., an associate professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology and a member of the UF Health Cancer Center.

Using human and mouse breast cancer cells in mouse models, the researchers found that a small number of cancer cells undergo EMT. Lu said this allows them to associate with cells that constitute the inner layer of the blood vessel wall and begin stabilizing vessels that nourish tumor growth.

“Our work shows that this mechanism supports tumor growth. Because this small number of tumor cells become blood vessel-supporting cells, they allow the majority of tumor cells to grow faster,” Lu said.

Now that the researchers understand more about how tumors develop a blood supply, they can begin the challenging work of assessing new treatments to block that process. Cells that have undergone EMT are expected to be harder to kill because they are associated with blood vessels, said Brian K. Law, Ph.D., a co-author of the research paper, an associate professor in the department of pharmacology and therapeutics and a UF Health Cancer Center member.

One possibility is someday designing a treatment that inhibits the transition of cancer cells into blood vessel-supporting cells and providing it as a supplement to traditional chemotherapy, Lu said.

Next, Lu wants to learn more about why transformed EMT cells have a much higher chance of surviving anti-cancer treatments and how that may lead to relapses. Inhibiting the EMT process may be one way to overcome or delay the emergence of treatment-resistant cancer cells, and he plans to test that idea during future research.

The research was supported by grants from the Florida Department of Health and the National Institutes of Health. Researchers from the California Health Sciences University and the University of Massachusetts collaborated on the work.

Science & Wellness

Study shows discrimination interacts with genetics and affects health

December 21, 2016
Stephenie Livingston

It’s no secret that discrimination is stressful for those who experience it, but turns out the issue is more than skin deep—these stressors can interact with our genetics to negatively impact our health, a new University of Florida study shows.

Study researchers developed a novel measure of unfair treatment to study the effects of discrimination on health, particularly with respect to racial disparities in complex diseases, which are illnesses resulting from both genetic and environmental factors. They used the measure to investigate hypertension, which is more prevalent in African-Americans, and found that discrimination interacts with certain genetic variants to alter blood pressure.

The researchers also measured vicarious unfair treatment, or experiences of discrimination by close friends and family to the study participant. They were surprised to discover that study participants were more significantly impacted by unfair treatment of close family members or friends than when they experienced discrimination firsthand, said Connie Mulligan, a professor with appointments at UF’s department of anthropology and Genetics Institute.

“We’ve been missing a huge factor in explaining racial disparities in disease,” said Mulligan, co-author of the new study online today in PLOS ONE. “Our finding of an interaction between genetics and environment could explain why it’s been so hard to identify all the risk factors for complex diseases, particularly those that have racial disparities. You have to look at genetics and environment in the same study if you’re investigating complex diseases like hypertension, certain kinds of cancer and psychological disorders.”

In a first of its kind study, UF researchers combined anthropological analysis, including in-depth, ethnographic interviews with 157 African-Americans, with measurements of 30,000 genetic variants and measures of genetic ancestry.      

Mulligan and colleagues identified eight significant genetic variants in five genes that were previously associated with cardiovascular disease. When they added sociocultural data collected by study co-author Lance Gravlee, an associate professor of anthropology at UF, and community partners in Tallahassee, Florida, and their novel measure of vicarious unfair treatment, and tested for interactions between genetic variants and unfair treatment, they were able to identify associations with blood pressure and a new class of genes that previously had been associated with psychosocial distress and mood disorders.

Study authors suggest genetic variants that predispose some people to depression, anxiety or suicide might also make them more sensitive to the effects of discrimination and lead to higher blood pressure. The role of these genes with blood pressure regulation may only become relevant when dealing with the effects of discrimination and could help explain why it’s been so difficult to understand racial disparities in disease, Mulligan said.

As for the finding that vicarious discrimination causes greater stress, Mulligan said people may feel they have more control over things experienced personally than acts of discrimination happening to people close to them.

“People may also be reluctant to report personal experiences of discrimination to avoid the stigma, and denial may itself be a coping mechanism,” Mulligan said “It’s also likely effects of vicarious unfair treatment may be even greater, since the study did not include events that one hears through the news, such as an act of racial violence.”

Mulligan was inspired by the personal history of the study’s lead author Jacklyn Quinlan, a former UF postdoctoral researcher, who tackled the project after the loss of her Caribbean-American husband to a heart attack.

She hopes the new study will broaden the way both the academic and medical fields approach disease.

“We’re quick to say that racial disparities in disease are due to poverty or access to good healthcare. Or that there might be a genetic basis. Our research suggests it’s even more complicated,” Mulligan said.

Other study co-authors were Qasimah Boston with Health Equality Alliance of Tallahassee (HEAT) and the Florida Department of Children and Families Substance Abuse and Mental Health Program, Christopher J. Clukay with UF’s department of anthropology, Miaisha M. Mitchell with HEAT and Greater Frenchtown Revitalization Council in Tallahassee, and Laurel N. Pearson with Pennsylvania University’s department of anthropology.

Science & Wellness

Four state universities collaborate on $10 million center to address Zika and other diseases

December 22, 2016
Cindy Spence
Vector borne disease, CDC, zika, mosquito

With a $10 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Florida will lead a highly collaborative research program focused on stopping diseases such as Zika before they spread farther into the United States.

The grant is part of nearly $184 million in funding the CDC announced Thursday to states, territories, local jurisdictions, and universities to support efforts to protect Americans from Zika virus infection and associated adverse health outcomes, including microcephaly and other serious birth defects. These awards are part of the $350 million in funding provided to CDC under the Zika Response and Preparedness Appropriations Act of 2016.  

“Zika continues to be a threat to pregnant women,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden. “States, territories, and communities need this CDC funding to fight Zika and protect the next generation of Americans.”   

The Southeast Regional Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Disease: The Gateway Program will be led by principal investigator Rhoel Dinglasan, a faculty member in the College of Veterinary Medicine's department of infectious diseases and pathology associated with UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. Dinglasan has enlisted the University of Miami, Florida International University and the University of South Florida to collaborate on research to address the statewide and regional challenge of Zika and other diseases.

“While everyone is imagining the introduction of diseases like Zika into their states, we don’t need to imagine it,” Dinglasan said. “We have seen Zika, dengue and chikungunya, and it is our responsibility as scientists to do our part to stop them.”

Florida provides a unique environment to examine the biocomplexity of vector-borne diseases in real time. Miami-Dade is often an entry point for such diseases, adding to the urgency of the research and providing a real-world lab. Solutions that work in the densely populated urban environment of South Florida should work in other locations as well, Dinglasan said.

“Florida really is ground zero. We are the gateway for vector-borne diseases into the United States,” Dinglasan said. “But we have the research capability to stop them.”

State University System Chancellor Marshall Criser II and UF Vice President for Research David Norton noted the significance of the work.

“By leveraging the resources and expertise of multiple institutions, Florida is poised to make the next major breakthroughs on Zika and other vector-borne diseases,” Criser said. “This is an excellent example of how collaboration between higher-education institutions and businesses can lead to scientific advances that help us all live healthier, better lives.”

Norton added: "The research at this Center of Excellence is remarkably important to the state, nation and the world. By teaming with other universities within the state, we are able to deliver a unique array of talent that greatly enhances the impact of this work."

Dinglasan, who was recruited under the state's Preeminence Program, had only moved to UF from Johns Hopkins University a month before the call for proposals for the Center of Excellence went out in September. A globally recognized malaria researcher, he knew just where to turn to assemble a team quickly, and he called on international experts at UM, FIU and USF.

Each university has a particular expertise in diseases carried by vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks, flies and fleas. Although Zika has dominated the news lately, the long list of vector-borne diseases includes malaria, dengue, Chagas, chikungunya and yellow fever. The World Health Organization estimates there are 1 billion infections a year from vector-borne diseases and 1 million deaths.

Dinglasan said he also looked for broad regional support for the Center of Excellence and found it in leading scientists at the Scripps Research Institute-Florida, the Naval Entomology Center of Excellence, the USDA Center for Medical, Agricultural & Veterinary Entomology, Florida A & M University, Georgia Southern University and the Florida departments of Health, and Agriculture and Consumer Services. The Center of Excellence also will leverage Florida’s 61 mosquito control programs as a sizable ground surveillance force that could report conditions and bring recommendations back to the labs.

“It was very important to engage the mosquito control people; they know those neighborhoods much better than those of us in the lab,” said Dinglasan, who is also a faculty member in the College of Veterinary Medicine. “They’re on the front line. They’re the ones who are going to tell us if there’s a problem with our strategy.”

Training is a huge component of the center, with a focus on tackling the shortage of workers in public health entomology and addressing an impending retirement wave among mosquito control managers. The UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences will play a key role in training, partly through its Center for Leadership, Dinglasan said.

Each university brings a robust research program to the enterprise, Dinglasan said. FIU is conducting research on mosquito neural genetics, testing a bait that lures female mosquitoes to lay eggs in a trap that kills all the eggs.

UM has developed an attractive toxic sugar bait that has been tested in Africa but not in an urban environment in the United States. Mosquitoes use sugar for energy, so using a toxic sugar bait to attract and then kill mosquitoes could reduce the need for spraying.

At USF, researchers are working on a way to block transmission of eastern equine encephalitis by migratory birds, who winter in Florida and fly north in the spring. USF has identified locations where the birds contract the disease from mosquitoes and is working to target mosquito control in those areas to keep the migrating birds free of the disease.

One of UF’s contributions is in mathematical modeling, to quantify how well the research-based solutions work. Dinglasan said modeling will allow researchers to test predictions over the five-year research program, with the goal of stopping vector-borne diseases before they travel north.

“The powerhouse within UF is our mathematical modeling, and that is the linchpin for a data-driven project like this,” Dinglasan said. “Data modeling is the one thing that unites all the research.”

Key to that modeling ability and to the Gateway Program is UF’s supercomputer, HiPerGator 2.0, the most powerful university supercomputer in the Southern U.S. and one of the fastest university supercomputers in the country.

The collaboration on the Center of Excellence has already led the four universities to explore other research collaborations, Dinglasan said. Where one university had a need, another university has stepped in.

“We each have our own niche, our own expertise, but together we’re unstoppable,” Dinglasan said. “We’re a natural team.”

Science & Wellness

UF plays key role in trial for successful Ebola vaccine

December 22, 2016
Evan Barton
Ebola, vaccine

An international group of researchers associated with the World Health Organization has published its final report on the Ebola vaccine trial in Guinea, finding that the vaccine is a safe and effective way to prevent Ebola infection.

Researchers at the University of Florida have played an integral role in the vaccine trial’s execution, finding that it is 100 percent effective at preventing Ebola when given 10 or more days prior to exposure to the deadly virus. The study findings were published today (Dec. 22) in The Lancet.

“The goal was to estimate the vaccine efficacy from a phase III randomized vaccine trial,” said Ira Longini, a professor in the department of biostatistics at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and the College of Medicine and director of the UF Center for Statistics and Quantitative Infectious Diseases.

The 2014 Ebola virus outbreak was by far the largest and most lethal Ebola outbreak ever recorded. Transmission occurred primarily in three West African countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus infected nearly 29,000 people in the region, with more than 11,000 deaths occurring due to the disease.

Longini, who is also a member of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, was a key figure in the design of the Ebola vaccine trial and the analysis of its statistical data. The trial was called “Ebola ça suffit!” and it was the first successful phase III trial for an Ebola vaccine. Having successfully completed phase III indicates it has been tested on hundreds of subjects and proven both safe and effective.

Natalie Dean, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of biostatistics, worked with Longini on both the design and analysis of the vaccine trial.

Trial participants were organized into 117 clusters, of which 70 clusters received the vaccine immediately and 47 clusters received it 21 days later. Disease takes several days – even weeks – to develop following Ebola infection, yet there were zero cases among vaccines more than 10 days after any cluster received the vaccination.

Those in immediately vaccinated clusters who were not vaccinated still received protection, thanks to the trial design – known as a “ring vaccination” trial. This type of trial creates clusters around contacts of people who have contracted the pathogen, as well as contacts of contacts, since these people are at a higher risk of contracting disease. Since the immediately vaccinated participants reduced the number of infections, those ineligible for vaccination within immediate clusters benefitted from herd immunity.

According to the report, vaccinating only 52.1 percent of the participants was still 70.1 percent effective in preventing the spread of Ebola.

The Ebola vaccine – rVSV-ZEBOV – is not available for sale. The WHO has collected a stockpile as a safeguard, just in case another Ebola outbreak occurs.

“We are now helping WHO replicate this experience for all emergency infectious disease threats through the Research and Development Blueprint for Action to prevent Epidemics at WHO,” Longini said. “This includes the design and analysis plans for Zika vaccine trials.”

Science & Wellness

Florida consumer sentiment soars amidst holiday shopping, improved Florida economy

December 23, 2016
Colleen Porter

Consumer sentiment among Floridians surged up 6.9 points in December to 97.2, according to the latest University of Florida consumer survey. This is the highest reading since March 2015 and the second-highest since February 2004—before the Great Recession of 2008.

All five of the components that make up the index increased.

Perceptions of one’s personal financial situation now compared with a year ago rose 1.4 points, from 81.5 to 82.9. Opinions as to whether now is a good time to buy a big-ticket item such as an appliance jumped 8.2 points, from 92.6 to 100.8, with a particularly strong increase among those 60 and older.

“Perceptions of present conditions have largely improved as a result of the buying conditions in the holiday shopping season in conjunction with the strength of the state’s economy,” said Hector H. Sandoval, director of the Economic Analysis Program at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

The future also looks bright to survey participants:  Expectations of personal finances a year from now rose 2.9 points to 104.4. Expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the next year increased 11.6 points, from 88.1 to 99.7, and expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the next five years increased 10.2 points, from 87.9 to 98.1.

“Overall, Floridians are far more optimistic this month,” Sandoval said. “The gain in December’s sentiment reading comes mainly from consumers’ future expectations about the economy, independent of their demographic characteristics and socioeconomic status. These are very positive signs, which provide great conditions for the upcoming change in federal government.”

The Florida unemployment rate ticked up one-tenth of a point to 4.9 percent in November. As 2016 ends, the Florida labor market is in its best shape since the Great Recession with sustained job gains over the last years. Compared with last year, the number of jobs added in November statewide increased by 3.2 percent.

For the second quarter of 2016, the most recent figures available, Florida’s gross domestic product grew by 2.3 percent, the highest rate in the Southeast and seventh in the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Moreover, the Federal Reserve’s recent decision to raise interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point reflects their confidence that economic activity nationwide will keep expanding and the labor market will strengthen further.

Florida consumer sentiment is back to the high levels observed between 2001 and 2005, before the economy showed signs of the housing market crisis that led to the Great Recession.

“The year is ending with an important increase in consumer sentiment among Floridians and a positive economic outlook both nationally and at the state level. Despite the potential uncertainty due to the change of the administration next year, we expect consumer sentiment in January to remain around the average levels observed in the past two years,” Sandoval said.

He also observed that consumer sentiment is significantly higher compared with December 2015. “One can expect holiday sales to perform better than last year,” Sandoval said.

Conducted Dec. 1-18, the UF study reflects the responses of 418 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

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