Florida consumer sentiment rebounds upward in June
July 3, 2017
Consumer sentiment among Floridians rose 2.1 points in June to 96.4, changing course after two months of decline.
Among the five components that make up the index, four increased and one decreased.
Survey respondents’ perceptions of their personal financial situation now compared with a year ago showed the greatest increase, up 6.4 points from 85.5 to 91.9. “Importantly, all Floridians share these perceptions, independent of their age, gender or income,” said Hector H. Sandoval, director of the Economic Analysis Program at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
Opinions as to whether now is a good time to buy a big-ticket household item such as an appliance increased 1.7 points to 102, although readings vary across demographic groups. “In particular, positive perceptions are seen among women, those under age 60 and those with an annual income of $50,000 and over, while they are negative among men, seniors and those with income under $50,000,” Sandoval said.
Expectations of personal finances a year from now rose 3.5 points to 104.8. “Overall, Floridians appear to be more optimistic. Most of the increase is due to the positive perceptions of consumers’ current and future personal finance situation,” Sandoval said.
Views on the future of the U.S. economy were mixed: Expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the upcoming year dropped 1.8 points to 91.8; however, anticipation of U.S. economic conditions over the next five years ticked up eight-tenths of a point from 90.8 to 91.6.
The labor market in Florida has continued to strengthen, adding jobs on a monthly basis. Since the beginning of 2017, the unemployment rate has declined steadily. The Florida unemployment rate in May was 4.3 percent, down two-tenths of a percentage point from April. As of May, the number of jobs added statewide over the last year came to 228,000, a 2.7 percent increase that outpaces the nation’s job growth rate of 1.6 percent.
The positive outlook of Floridians may also be fueled by cheaper prices at the gas pump, the lowest in over a decade going into the Fourth of July travel season. Having a few extra dollars left over after each fill-up may contribute to feelings of financial well-being.
Nationwide, economic activity has increased and inflation has declined on a 12-month basis. As a result, last month the Federal Reserve decided to raise the federal funds target range to between 1 percent and 1.25 percent.
“This change will eventually be transmitted to other interest rates, including car loans, credit cards and mortgages,” Sandoval said. “The evolution of consumer perceptions as to whether it is a good time to buy a big household item in the following months will be an important indicator in assessing how the increased interest rates affect consumption.”
Conducted June 1-28, the UF study reflects the responses of 479 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.
Extinction event that wiped out dinosaurs cleared way for frogs
July 5, 2017
Natalie van Hoose
Florida Museum of Natural History
The mass extinction that obliterated three-fourths of life on Earth, including non-avian dinosaurs, set the stage for the swift rise of frogs, a new study shows.
In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international team of researchers presented a new tree of life for frogs that helps solve longstanding riddles about relationships and sheds light on the history and pace of frog evolution.
Unexpectedly, their analyses showed three major lineages of modern frogs — about 88 percent of living species — appeared simultaneously, evolving on the heels of the extinction event that marked the end of the Cretaceous Period and the beginning of the Paleogene 66 million years ago. Previous research suggested a more ancient origin to many of these modern frogs.
“Frogs have been around for well over 200 million years, but this study shows it wasn’t until the extinction of the dinosaurs that we had this burst of frog diversity that resulted in the vast majority of frogs we see today,” said study co-author David Blackburn, associate curator of amphibians and reptiles at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus. “This finding was totally unexpected.”
The speed at which frogs diversified after the asteroid or comet impact that triggered a massive die-off of most plant and animal life suggests that the survivors were probably filling up new niches on Earth, Blackburn said.
“We think there were massive alterations of ecosystems at that time, including widespread destruction of forests,” he said. “But frogs are pretty good at eking out a living in microhabitats, and as forests and tropical ecosystems rebounded, they quickly took advantage of those new ecological opportunities.”
Frogs rose to become one of the most diverse groups of vertebrates, with more than 6,700 described species. But sparse genetic data has hindered scientists from reliably tracing their evolutionary history and the links between frog families.
Blackburn joined researchers from Sun Yat-Sen University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California, Berkeley to tackle the mystery of frog evolution with a dataset seven times larger than that used in prior research. The team sampled a core set of 95 nuclear genes from 156 frog species, combining this with previously published genetic data on an additional 145 species to produce the strongest-supported evolutionary tree, or phylogeny, to date. The tree represents all 55 known families of frogs and generates a new timeline of frog evolution.
The researchers then used fossil records to translate genetic differences between frog lineages into dates at which they likely diverged from one another. When the analyses pointed to a simultaneous evolution of the three major frog clades — Hyloidea, Microhylidae and Natatanura — the researchers initially eyed the finding with skepticism, said Peng Zhang, a corresponding study author and professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Sun Yat-Sen University in China.
“Nobody had seen this result before,” he said. “We redid the analysis using different parameter settings, but the result remained the same. I realized the signal was very strong in our data. What I saw could not be a false thing.”
When examined in the context of the evolution of other animals, however, the finding makes sense, Blackburn said.
“Looking at bird or mammal phylogenies, we can see a reflection of Earth’s history — its climatic and geologic events,” he said. “You’d expect these major events — mass extinction and the breakup of continents — would have impact on frog evolution and that divergences between major lineages would relate to those in some respect. We see that in this phylogeny.”
The close resemblance of distantly related frog species around the world, a factor of frog evolution and biology that has long confounded scientists, might be illuminated by the simultaneous evolution of major frog clades, Blackburn said. After the extinction event decimated ecosystems and stimulated a reset, modern frogs may have faced similar evolutionary paths.
“You could easily go to Central Africa, the Philippines and Ecuador and find what look like the same frogs that might have last shared a common ancestor 120 million years ago,” he said. “These different lineages seem to have diversified in similar ways after the extinction.”
While the extinction event opened new opportunities for frogs, notably leading to the evolution of tree frogs worldwide, it snuffed out many frog lineages, particularly in North America, Blackburn said.
“Except for three species, all other North American frogs are ‘post-dinosaur’ colonists,” Blackburn said. “If you could travel back to the time of T. rex in North America, there would be frogs, but the chorus you would hear at night would have been nothing like you’d hear today. They’re not even the same families.”
The study also indicates that global frog distribution tracks the breakup of the supercontinents, beginning with Pangea about 200 million years ago and then, Gondwana, which split into South America and Africa. The data suggests frogs likely used Antarctica, not yet encased in ice sheets, as a stepping stone from South America to Australia.
Blackburn is eager to use the new phylogeny as a roadmap for the fossil record, particularly for frogs that occurred in the Cretaceous.
“This sets up expectations of what we should or shouldn’t find,” he said. “It’s exciting to think about what discoveries could lay ahead in the frog fossil record.”
While the survival and subsequent comeback of frogs testifies to their resilience, Zhang said, their current vulnerability to disease, habitat loss and degradation is cause for concern.
“I think the most exciting thing about our study is that we show that frogs are such a strong animal group. They survived from the mass extinction that completely erased dinosaurs and boomed back quickly,” he said. “However, frog species are declining nowadays because humans are destroying their habitats. Does that mean humans are making a huge extinction event even stronger than this one? We need to think about it.”
Other study co-authors are Yan-Jie Feng and Dan Liang of Sun Yat-Sen University, David Hillis and David Cannatella of the University of Texas at Austin and David Wake of the University of California, Berkeley.
The research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, National Natural Science Foundation of China, the National Youth Talent Support Program and the National Science Fund for Excellent Young Scholars of China.
But is this what the survey is actually telling us? To us as researchers studying science communication and public understanding of science, factors in the survey itself and in the way the media report on it raise questions about how much to read into these findings.
Survey’s results aren’t publicly available
Researchers are trained to look for the original methods whenever they read a new study, especially if the results are surprising. Learning how the study was done provides information that helps determine whether the science is sound and what to make of it.
The chocolate milk survey is described as a nationally representative survey of 1,000 American adults, but this is impossible to verify without seeing how respondents were selected. Likewise, how the survey was conducted – whether it was a phone or online survey, for instance – can have significant impacts on its accuracy. Research suggests that phone surveys may be less accurate than online surveys because they require people to give their responses out loud to another person instead of quietly clicking away in privacy.
For instance, someone who holds racist views may feel comfortable checking a box about it but might avoid openly professing those opinions on the phone to a stranger. It’s unlikely the chocolate milk survey ran into such problems, but depending on the questions asked, other challenges may have presented themselves.
Likewise, it’s difficult to interpret the results of the chocolate milk question without seeing how it was worded. Poorly phrased or confusing questions abound in survey research and complicate the process of interpreting findings.
Social scientists call this a problem with validity: the question doesn’t really measure what it’s supposed to measure. Of course, without seeing how the question was worded, we can’t know whether the chocolate milk question had validity.
Indeed, early media coverage focused on the 7 percent statistic but left out the fact that 48 percent of respondents said they don’t know where chocolate milk comes from. This gives context to the 7 percent number. While it’s conceivable that 7 percent of the population doesn’t know that chocolate milk is just milk with chocolate, the idea that a full 55 percent — over half of adults — don’t know or gave an incorrect response begins to strain credulity. This points toward a confusing survey question.
We reached out to Lisa McComb, the senior vice president of communications for Dairy Management, Inc., about the survey. She confirmed that it’s not publicly available. “The purpose of the survey was to gauge some interesting and fun facts about consumers’ perceptions of dairy, not a scientific or academic study intended to be published,” she told us.
Story feeds a popular narrative — and media missed it
Questions about the original findings aside, there’s reason to explore how the media covered the chocolate milk survey.
The results were instantly shared and republished by a mind-boggling number of outlets (a Google Trends search for “chocolate milk” and “brown cows” shows a spike beginning June 15th). This factoid likely garnered such massive attention because it feeds into a popular narrative about American ignorance and science illiteracy.
Studies suggest we are more likely to accept new information when it confirms what we already want to believe. In this case, the chocolate milk statistic fits well with the notion that Americans are fools, so it’s accepted and republished widely despite the numerous red flags that should give scientifically minded people pause.
But the fact remains that many reporters and news outlets decided to run the story without having seen the original results, instead citing one another’s reporting. This led to some interesting challenges when trying to fact-check the survey: The Washington Post links to Food & Wine’s coverage, which linked to the Innovation Center’s website, which originally publicized the survey results. The Innovation Center, in turn, links to a story on Today.com, which linked right back to the Food & Wine article. This type of circular reporting without seeking out the original source can lead to the spread of misinformation. Unfortunately, as news stories quickly pop up and go viral online, it’s all too likely that we will continue to see such problems in the future.
Importantly, none of this disproves the notion that some adults believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows. It certainly does nothing to undermine the need for increased science education in the United States or suggests that a better understanding of our food production system wouldn’t be beneficial to society. All of these points are still valid. Likewise, this isn’t necessarily evidence that the survey itself is flawed. As McComb notes, the survey is not a scientific one and isn’t meant to be taken as evidence of Americans’ knowledge (or lack thereof) of dairy products. The problem is that it’s being reported on as though it is.
So this survey did point out a lack of science understanding. Ironically, rather than showing Americans’ ignorance of chocolate milk’s origins, the fact that media coverage of this survey was reported so widely and with so few caveats instead showed that many people are not skeptical of the science they read.
UF ranks 10th among publics in Money magazine’s annual “Best Colleges for Your Money” list
July 10, 2017
The University of Florida is once again ranked as one of the nation’s “Best Colleges for Your Money” by Money magazine, coming in a 10th among public institutions and 18th overall in rankings released today.
“The University of Florida is one of the best bargains in higher education,” UF’s entry in Money reads. “Despite the low net cost, students get access to some of the world’s top professors in fields such as biotechnology, gerontology and astronomy. (UF has produced eight astronauts.)”
Among student comments posted on Niche.com, a college- and neighborhood-finding website and included on Money’s website, was the following:
“The University of Florida is by far one of the best universities in the country … The academics are wonderful but demanding being we are one of the top research universities, which allows students to further their study in any science career path of their choosing.”
UF was the top-ranked school in the state. Other Florida schools and their overall ranks were:
Florida State University (251) University of Miami (277) University of South Florida (374) University of Central Florida (422) Florida International University (455) University of North Florida (525)
Money listed 711 schools that it ranked on 27 factors in three categories, each carrying one-third weighting:
Quality of education – graduation rates, instructor quality, peer quality
Affordability – Net price of degree, debt, value
Outcomes – Graduate earnings, career services, job meaning
A universe of organisms living inside you may affect every part of your body, from your brain to your bones, and even your thoughts, feelings and your attempts to lose weight.
This is a universe of trillions of microorganisms – or what we biologists call microbiota – that live in your gut, the part of your body responsible for digestion of the food you eat and the liquids you drink.
As researchers, we have been looking increasingly into the effect these bacteria have on their host’s body, from obesity to mental illness and heart disease. With obesity, for example, these tiny organisms may play a big role by influencing what foods we crave and how our bodies hold onto fat.
In a recent study of the gut microbiome, we set out to determine whether the microbiota in the gut can be affected not only by our nervous system but also by an unsuspected source – our bone marrow.
Our hope is that, by understanding the interactions of the microbiome with other parts of the body, one day treatments could be developed for a range of illnesses.
The gut-brain-bone marrow connection
The gut, which includes your esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, colon and other parts of your digestive system, is the first line of defense and the largest interface between the host – in this case, a person – and the outside world.
After birth, the gut is the first point of entry for environmental and dietary influences on human life. Thus, the microbiota in the gut play a crucial role during human growth, as they contribute to development and maintenance of our immune system throughout our lifetime.
While we initially thought of the microbiota as relatively simple organisms, the fact is that they may not be so simple after all. Gut microbiota can be as personal and complex as a fingerprint.
There are more bacteria in your gut alone than cells in your entire body. This vast bacterial universe contains species that combined can have up to 150 times more genes than exist in humans. Research suggests that the bacteria in our gut predates the appearance of humans and that they may have played an important role in evolutionary separation between our ape ancestors and us.
Healthy bacteria actively interact with the host immune system in the gut. They contribute to the barrier between disease-causing microorganisms or infections introduced via ingestion. They also help prepare the host immune system to defend the body. The wrong mix of microbes, on the other hand, can contribute to many digestive, immune and mental health disorders and even obesity.
These tiny organisms work very hard in digestion. They help digest our food and can release nutrients and vitamins essential for our well being, all in exchange for the privilege of existing in a nutritious environment.
Researchers are actively exploring the many facets of this symbiotic relationship. Recent data show a link between gut microbiota diversity and richness and the way we store fat, how we regulate digestion hormones and blood glucose levels, and even what types of food we prefer.
This may also be a reason our eating habits are so difficult to change. Some research suggests that microbiota may generate cravings for foods they specialize in – even chocolate – or those that will allow them to better compete for resources against other bacteria.
A three-way call?
There’s growing evidence of a link between the brain and our microbiota as well. The brain is the equivalent of a computer’s main processor, regulating all physiological variables, including the immune system, the body’s defense against infection and illness.
So we wondered: Could the bone marrow immune cells be playing a role in signaling between the brain and the gut? We wanted to find out.
Using a novel experimental mouse model, we replaced the bone marrow that occurs naturally within a mouse with bone marrow cells from a different, genetically modified mouse. This replacement marrow was deficient in a specific molecule called adrenergic receptor beta, which made the bone marrow less responsive to the neural messages from the brain.
In this way we could investigate how the host brain-immune communication will modify gut microbiota.
Indeed, by studying this new mouse model, we determined that our nervous system – directed by our brain – can modify the composition of gut microbiota by communicating directly with the bone marrow immune cells. The brain, therefore, can change our gut microbiota indirectly by talking to the bone.
Fewer inflammatory cells in bone marrow resulted in fewer in the gut
Based on our experiments, we observed that fewer inflammatory cells were present in the circulation of mice that received the special bone marrow replacement than in those that didn’t. This means there are fewer immune cells able to infiltrate the gut and influence the bacterial environment.
Thus, by suppressing the communication between the brain and the bone marrow, we observed a muted inflammatory response in the gut and a consequent shift toward a “healthier,” more diverse microbiome.
This appears to be mediated via specific changes in inflammatory genes in the gut. However, this interaction between the host and the gut microbiota is very complex, and much more research is needed to pinpoint the exact mechanisms of their close communication.
A key to heart health, mental health and weight loss?
This finding may also have implications in immune diseases as well as treatments either resulting in or employing immunosuppression. The latter may affect the gut microbiota, which in turn may cause unwanted effects in the body, including those associated with digestive and mental health conditions.
In the context of cardiovascular disease, this muted inflammatory response appears to be beneficial, as it leads to beneficial lowering of blood pressure in our experimental mice.
Most interestingly, a link between gut microbiota and our mental health has recently become clearer. In particular, some have suggested that gut microbiota influence the stress and anxiety pathways in the brain in a way that can alter mood and behavior both positively and negatively, giving a whole new meaning to the term “gut feeling.”
This could soon lead to a new class of drugs, called psychobiotics.
Much like the “chicken and the egg” scenario, however, this complex interplay warrants further investigation to fully understand the consequences (or benefits) of perturbing one single component of the gut microbiota. This understanding is essential if we are to fully harness the power of manipulation of gut microbiota in health and disease, without negative side effects.
My academic engagement with Brazil began in the late 1970s, well before Lula – as he’s commonly known – finally won the presidency in 2002 after three tries. Over these four decades, I witnessed his remarkable rise and now his devastating fall, and met him three times.
Given that Lula is practically synonymous with brand Brazil, I believe his conviction confirms the total bankruptcy of Brazilian politics and raises serious doubts about the future of Latin America’s largest country.
Lula’s improbable emergence from the poverty of the Northeast and slums of Sao Paulo to the highest office in the land is well-documented.
As a young political scientist focused on Latin America, I first became aware of Lula the union organizer and political activist in the industrial suburbs of Sao Paulo during the country’s harsh military dictatorship (1964 to 1985). On three occasions our paths crossed.
The first came in the halls of Congress in the late 1980s when he served as a deputy following Brazil’s return to civilian rule. I initially dismissed Lula as a being too far on the leftist fringe to become a serious national player. But he defied skeptics like me and rapidly rose to prominence, where he remains today.
In 1989, in Brazil’s first democratic election since 1960, Lula made his first bid for the presidency. Although he lost, he made a much stronger showing than predicted. The campaign rallies I observed were large and impassioned.
Throughout the 1990s, Lula and his socialist Workers’ Party (PT) strengthened their hold on politics. The party increased its representation in Congress as well as at the state and local level. Lula ran again in the 1994 and 1998 presidential elections. Again, he fared well but lost.
Eventually Lula and the PT leadership saw the need to broaden their base beyond blue collar workers, urban slum dwellers and the rural poor if they were to win power and govern. This meant moderating their hard left image.
Moving to the center
I witnessed the beginning of this effort in the 1994 campaign.
A respected public figure – who was not a PT militant but saw Lula’s potential – set up a trip for the candidate and his advisers to Washington and New York. The goal was to assure political and business leaders that he would not upset U.S.-Brazil relations if elected.
I was invited to sit in on a meeting of the delegation with two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and to attend a reception where one of the hosts was Lincoln Gordon, ambassador to Brazil during the 1964 military coup. In the minds of many Brazilians, Gordon represented Washington’s support for the armed takeover and would not have expected Lula to meet with him.
On another occasion five years later, a Lula adviser approached me during a trip to Brazil and asked if a delegation of institutional investors I was accompanying would be interested in meeting his boss, who was dining at the same Brasilia restaurant. To me, this was another instance of reassuring foreign investors they could continue to make money in Brazil.
These and many other examples of outreach to the center proved decisive to Lula’s eventual victory in 2002. His “Letter to the Brazilian People” promised that his government would pursue market-friendly economic policies. This pledge neutralized business opposition and calmed the middle class. He also promised to root our corruption from politics.
Because of the widely perceived failure of Brazil to realize its potential, Brazil was branded as “the country of the future … and always will be.”
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had a mandate to lead Brazil into the future by integrating the dispossessed 40 percent of the population into the nation while working with the private sector to grow the economy and strengthen the rule of law.
In an annual assessment of the Latin American business environment, published from 1999 to 2014, I chronicled Lula’s considerable accomplishments in fulfilling two-thirds of his promises: His government coupled redistributive social programs with pro-growth measures, and as a result the economy boomed, poverty declined and life got better for all Brazilians.
The car wash (lava jato) investigation, which has focused on corruption involving the national oil company, Petrobras, has already taken down many once-“untouchables” in politics and business, such as former Speaker of the House Edardo Cunha and construction mogul Marcelo Odebrecht.
And it has now laid bare the full extent to which Lula and PT leaders engaged in politics as usual. They now join the rogues’ gallery of those under investigation, convicted or in prison. Its ranks include President Michele Temer and the presidential runner-up to Dilma Rousseff in 2014, Sen. Aecio Neves.
So far, more than 200 lawmakers, former presidents, Cabinet officials and businessmen have been convicted of corruption as a result of the car wash investigation. With Lula joining their ranks, it shows clearly that Brazil’s current political class has lost all credibility.
He proclaims his innocence, claiming the charges against him are politically motivated. And he says he will run for president in the 2018 election – a contest in which he remains the favorite in the most recent polls – and is campaigning while his conviction is appealed.
Even should his conviction be reversed, however, I believe that after three-plus decades as the commanding figure of Brazilian politics, the Lula era is over. He faces other criminal charges. And although still popular, his negatives are rising. One recent poll shows 46 percent of those surveyed would vote against Lula.
So where does that leave Brazil? How much of the good he accomplished will survive is uncertain, as is who will replace him to lead Brazil into the future.
Brazilians can only hope that it is someone who shares Lula’s commitment to social justice and economic partnership with the private sector, yet unlike him has a genuine commitment to strengthening rule of law. The one thing we know for sure is this person will not come from the bankrupt political class.
Just when you thought it was safe to turn on your television, the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” and National Geographic Wild’s “SharkFest” are hitting the air with competing daily programming.
As director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and curator of the International Shark Attack File, I offer the advice to viewers to cast a jaundiced eye on each episode’s title and premise. Remember, TV show titles and preview teases are constructed to hook an audience.
And they do. Although many of today’s shark shows depict sharks in a more level-headed way than in the past, the networks just can’t seem to put certain stereotypes to rest. But if you want to know more than whether sharks can outswim Michael Phelps, there are ways to watch smartly.
Here are some flagrant characterizations of sharks that viewers are likely to hear, and alternative phrasings that are more measured and scientifically accurate:
“savage killers” = predators
“deadly” = carnivorous
“man-eater” = occasional attacker of humans
“terror” = fear
“fierce predator” = successful nonvegetarian
“shark-infested waters” = the ocean
“killing machines” = efficient carnivores
Another question to consider as you read or listen to the tease for a show is whether or not the featured “marine biologist” or “shark expert” really is one. A quick search on the internet for academic or laboratory affiliation and scientific publications should let you know if you’re watching a practicing biologist or a shark groupie. Then you can decide how seriously to take what you’re hearing.
White sharks – scientists don’t usually insert “great” – always are prominently featured on these shows, and we can expect more of the traditional emphasis on the “terror” associated with this “savage, man-eating, deadly killing machine.” The real news is that white shark populations on both coasts of the United States appear to be on the rise, and that’s good.
This slow growth toward recovery comes primarily from governmental restrictions on killing white sharks and protection of their preferred food items. White sharks have been listed as a prohibited species for two decades by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has essentially eliminated all human-induced mortality of the largest of the predatory sharks in U.S. waters.
Perhaps even more importantly, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 has safeguarded seals, sea lions, dolphins and whales – an adult white shark’s favorite food items – which has allowed these equally vulnerable species gradually to return to normalcy. Score one for the good guys.
We can logically predict that the latter trend will lead to more bites in the future, although on a per-capita basis one’s odds of being attacked likely will not change much, because both parties’ populations are growing. However, knowing about this trend allows humans to figure out ways to stay safe as we jockey with sharks for the same space. Of course, that aquatic environment belongs to sharks and seals, so we’re the species that will have to adapt.
The real killers
One topic that the shark shows are unlikely to cover is the relationship between killer whales, or orcas, and white sharks. Although shark biologists like myself often refer to sharks as apex predators, the real top of the food chain truthfully belongs to orcas. (An argument can be made that sperm whales are ahead of sharks as well.)
In the last several months we have seen dead adult white sharks wash ashore in South Africa. Scientific examination of the carcasses reveal they had died from orca attacks to their bellies, and that their oil-rich livers often were missing. A similar attack by an orca on a white shark was witnessed in 1997 off California. The orca was seen apparently playing with the liver, pushing it up and down the water column, after the attack. Orcas also have been known to attack tiger sharks, mantas and stingrays.
Meet the relatives
Watching this year’s “Sharkathon,” it’s easy to think that all sharks are apex predators, but that is far from the truth. Some sharks drop farther down the food chain and occupy the middle of the pack as “meso-predators.” Plankton-eating specialists, such as whale, basking and megamouth sharks, fall even lower.
Mantas, stingrays, skates and sawfishes, collectively called batoids, are close relatives of the sharks. They share a cartilaginous skeleton – that is, one with no bones, just cartilage – and gill slits (usually five). Most batoids have pancaked shark bodies that look like cartoon characters that met a steamroller. Their paired pectoral fins form wing-like structures along the body starting at or near the head.
By contrast, most sharks are more cylindrical in cross section and have traditional-shaped pectoral fins that are placed just behind the head and emerge from shorter bases. Most batoids have small teeth designed for crushing food items, while most sharks have larger, pointed teeth that are capable of shearing or impaling prey. The gill slits of sharks lie on the sides of the head, while those of batoids are located on the bottom of the head.
Don’t take the bait
The most important takeaway from “Sharkathon” television is that these shows are primarily entertainment viewing. They often are far closer to reality TV than to traditional documentaries, and most episodes wouldn’t make it as scientifically rigorous documentaries. This makes it important to take some of the content with a grain of (sea) salt, until you can do a bit of post-view fact checking. Enjoy them, but don’t fall for them hook, line and sinker.
Fulfilling the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act
July 25, 2017
As the Americans with Disabilities Act turns 27, true equality is still out of reach for many. A UF professor of special education explains why it’s everyone’s responsibility to fulfill the promise of the law.
As we celebrate 27 years of ADA, we can see the significance of this law. It has challenged discrimination and helped remove many barriers so that roughly 56.7 million Americans with disabilities can lead independent lives.
But it’s important to note that the promise of ADA cannot be fulfilled unless those without disabilities act on its “clear, strong, consistent and enforceable standards.”
I’ve certainly observed this to be the case on college campuses. In my work as a special educator, I have observed how students, faculty and administrators are helping to fulfill this promise by sponsoring inclusive organizations, teaching to specific learning needs and making campus policies more equitable.
A proclamation of emancipation
The ADA was introduced to ensure that people with disabilities get equal opportunities to fully participate in all aspects of community life, to live independently and to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
The ADA builds on 20 years of disability-specific legislation to eliminate the historic and pervasive isolation and segregation of Americans with disabilities. Before that, they were viewed as objects of pity, unable to work, go to school or live on their own.
The ADA altered this view by making buildings, transportation and services adapt so that people with disabilities could participate.
Former Senator Tom Harkin, the chief sponsor of the ADA in Congress, referred to the law as the “20th century emancipation proclamation for people with disabilities.”
In 2008, new amendments to the ADA broadened the definition of a disability, extending protections to individuals with substantial limitations in a variety of major life activities – including reading, concentrating and working.
The amendments also extended protections to those using a variety of supports such as cochlear implants, hearing aids and prosthetics.
What has changed on campus
About 11 percent of undergraduates in the U.S. have documented disabilities, including dyslexia, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD), sensory and mobility issues, mental illness, and health impairments.
I see the impact of the ADA every day on our campus: students and faculty using wheelchairs, accessible e-readers for those with low vision, sign language interpreters and other technologies that allow people to learn and to work.
As an instructor, I get help from the campus disability resource center to make sure I provide reasonable instructional accommodations in my classes (such as repeating or clarifying directions or providing a note-taker) to students who need them.
Today’s undergraduates grew up in a post-ADA world where people with disabilities are expected to be included in – not segregated from – campus life. Many attended elementary and secondary schools alongside students with disabilities.
College leaders use principles of universal design to prevent discrimination against students and employees. Universal design makes things accessible and desirable to as many people as possible. (For example, curb-cuts in the sidewalk were made for wheelchair users, but are used by everyone.)
Programs in disability education and disability studies can promote campus awareness about the experiences of people with disabilities. Many universities offer courses that can help reduce the stigma still associated with disabilities.
On my campus at the University of Florida, students from different fields, including business, design, engineering, nursing, education, pre-law and medicine, enroll in the Disabilities in Society minor so they’ll be prepared to interact successfully with future coworkers, customers and neighbors with disabilities.
The way forward
Despite 27 years of advocacy, equity and inclusion are still out of reach for many Americans with disabilities. More needs to be done to fulfill the promise of the law.
The disturbing fact is that students with disabilities tend to leave school after two years and graduate at half the rate of their classmates. They’re also employed at half the rate of workers their own age who do not have disabilities.
In short, the ADA is not just about people with disabilities; it’s about society at large. Ensuring equity, access and inclusion is a shared responsibility.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 26, 2015.
As a naval aviator, John McCain was shot down during the Vietnam War and spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war. He received inadequate medical care for injuries that nearly killed him, enduring years of unimaginable deprivation and torture.
He persevered with a remarkable resilience and fighting attitude that made him an American hero and helped him grow into the role of public servant and, as a United States senator, a leader on a national stage.
Now, McCain faces another remorseless enemy that will again test him in body and spirit – glioblastoma, a malignant brain cancer that kills about 13,000 Americans each year.
As the co-director of the Preston A. Wells Jr. Center for Brain Tumor Therapy at the University of Florida, I engage continually with patients and their families in the battle against glioblastoma. And I know firsthand how patients can often be swept into despair by the devastating diagnosis.
The news of McCain’s condition – and his return to Washington July 25 to participate in the health care vote – provides an opportunity to remind the public about important and potentially game-changing research into therapies with the promise of greatly extending survivability for those with glioblastoma. Some of these therapies are in clinical trials and offer the ultimate hope of someday turning a cancer perceived as a quick killer into a curable disease.
Stats are one thing, but people are another
One thing often misunderstood by the public when talking about cancer in general is survivability. Projections for how long a person might be expected to survive are just that – projections. Each person is different, and each person’s cancer is different.
In the case of glioblastoma, survivability is 15 to 18 months, with standard treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and, recently, alternating electric field therapy. These very short survival times cast an understandable pall over talk of the disease.
We also know, however, that some patients with the cancer, with even just standard treatments, have lived very long – even decades after their diagnosis. Granted, those numbers are a small subset of patients. But we do measure two- to three-year survival rates, and now from some promising clinical trials, five- and 10-year survival rates.
Glioblastomas typically arise from genetic changes to cells inside the brain. There is no behavior that contributes to their random appearance, and there are no clear risk factors.
And, there is no definitively curative therapy for glioblastoma. It is a relentlessly aggressive tumor. What makes these cancer cells so challenging is the fact that they migrate in the brain, very far from the origin of the tumor. Though surgeons can remove a large percentage of the tumor cells, unfortunately, islands of invasive cells remain. They often move into other areas of the brain that we cannot eradicate with surgery. Radiation and chemotherapy can slow the growth of invasive brain tumor cells, but limitations on the intensity of these treatments that can be tolerated within the brain and the existence of resistant tumor cells hinder the overall effectiveness.
Enlisting the immune system
While patients with glioblastoma, like all patients with cancer, often feel as if they have been betrayed by their own bodies, it is one of the most remarkable aspects of every person’s physical makeup that provides perhaps the greatest promise in fighting the disease: the immune system.
Using the immune system to fight cancer is not a new concept. The idea that the immune system could be goaded into potentially recognizing cancers and lead to their rejection was advanced more than a century ago. But the science and our understanding of the immune system and human genomics required time to catch up to our ambitions.
Immunotherapy, combined with an ever-increasing understanding of genomics, leaves us on a cusp of a revolution in cancer treatment.
In genomics, we seek to understand how genes are altered in cancer. We can profile a patient’s tumor and understand the landscape of alterations that are present in those cancer cells. That has allowed us in some cases to predict how those tumors are likely to behave. It also allows us in some cases to select therapies that may be more effective in targeting those cancers.
We can also identify specific proteins produced by these tumor cells and essentially program immune cells to home in on them and kill the cancer. This leads to a personalized treatment approach where you direct a patient’s immune system against a cancer, boosting or enhancing a patient’s immune response against specific alterations found in their tumor.
At the University of Florida, one of the immunotherapy approaches we are advancing is called adoptive T cell therapy. In this work, we generate large numbers of “killer T cells” designed to recognize a patient’s specific tumor and transfer those T cells back to the patient with the hope that these activated cells can seek out and destroy remaining tumor cells. We have active clinical trials exploring this approach in patients with aggressive brain tumors.
Additionally, we are exploring new ways to take advantage of drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors, which elevate the activation state of the immune system of a patient so that it can more effectively combat cancer.
We currently do not have any immunotherapies that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of brain cancer, although a number are being investigated in clinical trials at UF and other leading medical centers.
One of the things we know about our immune system is that it is essentially designed to handle almost an infinite number of unknown external threats. It’s a remarkable system that, once harnessed, might be the most effective tool in battling brain cancers.
A matter of heart
But perhaps one of the most critical tools fighting glioblastoma is the one that is in McCain’s own heart. It is the will to fight and engage an enemy. It is the resilient spirit to battle against great odds.
We all have experienced in the field of clinical research or clinical care those patients whose outlook and approach to tackling their disease seems to lead to better outcomes. We don’t necessarily have a quantitative assessment of how these factors impact the duration and quality of life in patients battling cancer, but we seem to agree that they matter.
With glioblastoma, we can’t ignore what the data and the numbers tell us about its aggressiveness. But I think bringing to bear all your personal resources, spiritual and emotional support and the obstinate will to fight can lead to better outcomes.
And nobody doubts John McCain’s deep reservoir of resilience.
Imaging biomarker for Parkinson’s could aid in testing drugs to slow disease’s progression
July 28, 2017
A newly discovered imaging biomarker could be used to track changes in the brain associated with the progression of Parkinson’s disease, findings that represent a significant advancement that could aid in development of new drugs to slow progression of the neurodegenerative disease.
The team of University of Florida neuroscientists who made the discovery has validated the finding in data collected as part of an international multicenter study published in the current issue of the journal Brain. The study shows that on diffusion MRI scans there is an increase over one year in “free-water,” or fluid unconstrained by brain tissue, in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra in a large cohort of more than 100 newly diagnosed, unmedicated Parkinson’s disease patients. This change is not seen in people without Parkinson’s.
Additionally, in a subgroup of Parkinson’s disease patients who have been followed for up to four years across Europe and North America, analysis of the diffusion MRI data revealed that free-water in the posterior substantia nigra continued to increase.
“This could change the way studies are conducted for disease-modifying trials in Parkinson’s disease,” Vaillancourt said.
Until now, Parkinson’s disease has generally been diagnosed based on a patient’s symptoms.
“It’s been 200 years since the behavioral symptoms of Parkinson’s disease have been described, and we still use symptoms in testing therapies,” he said. “This is not the way it occurs in cancer; it’s not the way it occurs in heart disease or multiple sclerosis. But symptoms are still the hallmark of what’s used in Parkinson’s disease because there are few options out there.”
Now, this could change.
Two years ago, Vaillancourt’s team published findings based on a type of MRI technique known as diffusion MRI that revealed changes in free-water in the posterior substantia nigra that are specific to Parkinson’s patients. Now, the team’s new study validates findings in data collected across 10 sites, from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Progression Marker Initiative database.
“To evaluate and validate an imaging marker, it is important to confirm results across data collection sites, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation database provides a unique opportunity to do that,” said lead author Roxana G. Burciu, Ph.D., a research assistant professor. The database provides a collection of clinical, imaging and biological data available for researchers to use in order to advance knowledge on Parkinson’s disease.
A key finding of the new study is that results were consistent across sites. Another important finding is that the one- and two-year increase in free-water in the posterior substantia nigra predicts long-term progression of disease symptoms.
“We found that the increase in the free-water measurement in the substantia nigra goes up every year and keeps going up over four years,” Vaillancourt said.
'This means if you want to start designing studies to slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease, testing a drug on that measurement in the substantia nigra might be a good way to go. If the measurement in the substantia nigra is increasing year after year after year, and if you can stop that from occurring, you’re likely to slow or possibly stop the progression of the disease,” he said.
“This has never been shown before,” Vaillancourt added.
The study also found that the increase in the free-water measurement over one year’s time predicted a patient’s four-year clinical change in motor function.
“It suggests if you were able to control that measurement with medication as early as possible, then you could control long-term clinical progression,” Vaillancourt said.
“This finding is a potential game changer as it could shift the way Parkinson’s disease clinical trials are designed and conducted,” said Dr. Michael S. Okun, a professor and chair of neurology at the University of Florida and medical director for the Parkinson’s Foundation. “Free-water is a validated measurement that will likely decrease the number of patients required to demonstrate the slowing of clinical progression.”
The study, titled “Progression Marker of Parkinson’s Disease: A 4-Year Multi-Site Imaging Study,” was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
This move comes after two other Hong Kong lawmakers were expelled from the Legislative Council earlier this year and at the same time as the recent death of Chinese political activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Add to this the growing unpopularity of Hong Kong’s new leader, Carrie Lam.
In a classic David and Goliath scenario, pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong are struggling to stand up to the Chinese mainland’s increasing control over the territory. Unfortunately for Hong Kong’s democratic movement, it looks like Goliath may have the upper hand.
My dissertation research on the 2014 Umbrella Movement shows that despite recent attempts to gain more political momentum, many recent pro-democracy calls to action have struggled in the face of Chinese power and Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing dominated Legislature. In fact, more radical “localist” movements that favor complete separation from China are becoming more common.
The rise of localism
The localist movement, made up of different and diverse groups, gained popularity in the wake of the 2014 Umbrella Movement in which 100,000 people took to the streets for 79 days to demand universal suffrage. Following the Umbrella Movement, I interviewed the people of Hong Kong on their views on the territory’s political future. A year after the movement, these individuals felt optimistic about the territory’s democratic future. Two years later, people began to lose faith in Hong Kong’s political system.
Many of the people I interviewed on my trips in 2015 and 2016 believed the Umbrella Movement remained peaceful because neither the Chinese government nor the people of Hong Kong wanted a repeat of June 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square, when the student movement that had lasted for months ended with the deaths of hundreds at the hands of Chinese forces clearing the city square.
And at first, localists seemed willing to work within the political system, so long as their elected officials were able to enact policies under “one country, two systems.” But in 2016, violent skirmishes between Hong Kong police and localist activists took place in what was dubbed the “Fishball Riots.” Although violence has not been the primary goal of recent protests, activists have expressed willingness to use more forceful action if Beijing continues to increase its control.
I believe this new wave of protests may potentially lead to more violence. As opposed the Umbrella Movement’s call for universal suffrage, localist groups will likely unite under the rallying cry for independence from the unseen influence of Beijing.
One party politics
With the expulsion of the six lawmakers this year, the pro-democracy faction of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council no longer has veto power against pro-Beijing politicians. Some of the ousted politicians have announced that they will run for office again, but it is unlikely that pro-democratic politicians will ever outnumber their pro-Beijing counterparts. Increasingly, Hong Kong’s government seems to be an extension of Beijing’s one-party rule: a political system in which only the Chinese Communist Party makes decisions.
It’s no surprise that China is so eager to reassert its control over the territory. Hong Kong was once considered China’s “Gateway to the World” and “Asia’s World City.” Yet Hong Kong was also one of the few places that kept the memory of democratic ideas alive in the region. That democratic tradition may be nearing its end.
Hong Kong’s democratic traditions, remnants of British colonialism, are being challenged. Under Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong’s political system is being pushed in the opposite direction favoring more authoritarian policies.
The yearly June Fourth candlelight vigils, established to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, were once well-attended events. In recent years, interest has dwindled. Younger generations have become more interested in their own causes. A growing number of factions seems to plague Hong Kong’s democratic movement.
Hong Kong’s relative autonomy following its 1997 transition out of British rule seemed to signal that the mainland could also experience democratic reform. As both economies flourished, more political freedom seemed possible.
Unfortunately, China’s authoritarian system has continued to exert control, thwarting democratic reform in both territories. If the global community does not pay attention, the prospect of a democratic China will continue to slip away. The more attention that is placed on Hong Kong’s current political crisis, the harder it will be for China to overtake the territory’s weakening democratic movement. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp cannot stand up to China alone.
Methane-eating microbes found beneath Antarctica's melting ice sheets
July 31, 2017
Climate change, Antarctica, microbiology
Lurking in a lake half a mile beneath Antarctica’s icy surface, methane-eating microbes may mitigate the release of this greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as ice sheets retreat.
A new study published today in Nature Geoscience traces methane’s previously unknown path below the ice in a spot that was once thought to be inhospitable to life. Study researchers sampled the water and sediment in Antarctica’s subglacial Whillans Lake by drilling 800 meters through ice for the first time ever. Next they measured methane amounts and used genomic analyses to find that 99 percent of methane released into the lake is gobbled up by microbes.
These tiny microorganisms may have a big impact on a warming world by preventing methane from seeping into the atmosphere when ice sheets melt, said Brent Christner, a University of Florida microbiologist and co-author on the study.
“This is an environment that most people look at and don’t think it could ever really directly impact us,” Christner said. “But this is a process that could have climatic implications.”
A melting Antarctic glacier from the air. Photo by Jim Yungel, NASA photographer
Since sunlight cannot reach Antarctica’s subglacial lakes to provide energy for life, some microbes convert methane into carbon dioxide as a way to make energy. Ultimately, methane traps more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and study findings suggest microbes may play a critical role in reducing the quantity of methane released into the atmosphere as ice sheets melt, according to Christner, a professor of microbiology and cell science in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“There’s been a lot of concern about the amount of methane that’s beneath these ice sheets because we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to it,” Christner said.
The study found that Lake Whillans contains large amounts of methane. Melting Antarctic ice sheets may release the trapped gases stored in these underground lake reservoirs, Christner said. Researchers have estimated that over 10^14 cubic meters of methane, enough gas to fill more than a billion hot air balloons, is stored beneath Antarctic ice, ready to be released under the right conditions.
Given that methane has a greenhouse effect that is 30 times that of carbon dioxide, the researchers were motivated to understand its quantity, source and ultimate fate beneath the ice, according to the manuscript. However, Christner said it is important to note that while carbon dioxide does not increase warming as quickly as methane, it is still a driver of climate warming.
Future studies will assess whether this process is pervasive across subglacial lakes in Antarctica. Christner and his colleagues plan to drill into a different subglacial lake in 2018-2019.
Other study authors include Alexander Michaud, John Dore, Mark Skidmore, and John Priscu from Montana State University, Amanda Achberger from Louisiana State University, and Andrew Mitchell from Aberystwyth University.
Growing up in rural Cameroon, Africa, Calistus Ngonghala watched helplessly as malaria and HIV-stricken neighbors traveled on foot for hours or days to reach clinics with antibiotics and antiretrovirals. Others made the journey by piling six to eight into compact cars designed for four.
These haunting memories fuel the mathematician's ambitions. In a field known for working equations, Ngonghala puts equations to work for the world's sick and poor.
The University of Florida assistant professor of mathematical biology uses math to understand the complex biological and socio-economic processes that characterize vicious cycles of poverty and disease in developing countries, and make predictions and policy recommendations for ending the cycles. Ngonghala argues that math should work to solve real world problems, and that governments can utilize mathematical models to help the world’s most impoverished people climb out of poverty traps.
“Mathematics is not just the equations done in elementary and high schools around the world,” Ngonghala said. “There’s this idea that math is just solving equations and it’s not all that useful in everyday life. Actually, math is a special language, a fundamental tool, for critical thinking in almost every walk of life. My ambition is to put equations into practical use. And I’m trying to do it in a way that relates directly to me, to my home country, and to the problems I experienced growing up.”
As a visiting professor in the masters of public health program at the French School of Public Health in Paris, a postdoctoral associate at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School, and now an assistant professor in UF’s mathematics department and an affiliate of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, for years, Ngonghala has developed models to investigate the connections between poverty and disease in the world's most impoverished places.
In Cameroon, Ngonghala noticed a cycle of poverty, disease and pests, which kept his friends and family members from reaching their fullest potential. When people were too sick to work, they became too poor to afford health care. If they were too poor to afford health care, they certainly were not able to afford pest control to rid their homes of insects like malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
“If you’re poor, you’re more likely to get sick. And if you’re poor, you’re more likely to stay sick longer,” Ngonghala said. “As you can imagine, that’s lost income if the sick person is the breadwinner of the family.”
Of course, things are only made worse when local clinics cannot adequately treat common diseases, are understaffed, and when people have to walk long distances to reach a doctor.
“Infectious disease is just one of the drivers of poverty. There are other things, too, like loss of renewable resources, population growth, land use changes, agricultural pests, and the list goes on,” Ngonghala said, pointing out that people in extremely poor parts of the world rely mostly on their immediate surrounding for subsistence. “So I’m developing mathematical models that explain reinforcing feedbacks between poverty and these drivers, and using the models to inform policy on ways to disintegrate such feedbacks.”
He recently led a team of scientists that developed a combination of economic, ecological and epidemiological models used to understand how relationships between biological and economic systems can lead to poverty traps. The team’s findings appear this month in Nature Ecology and Evolution.
For the study, Ngonghala used economic and disease data from 83 countries, ranging from the poorest to the wealthiest nations. His team looked at factors like annual income, disease and death rates, and financial losses resulting from disease. They found high rates of disease and instances of unaffordable, or unavailable, health care were significantly higher in extremely poor countries.
Ngonghala’s models show what he calls “two different worlds.” In the first world, poor people live in a place with low rate of disease among people, crops and animals, and are often able to escape poverty with economic aid. But in the second world, places like Madagascar, where the average income is less than $2 a day and disease is widespread, poverty traps are common and the poor are unable to dig themselves out.
In these cases, the numbers are against the poor and sick. Ngonghala’s team found that unsustained economic aid and health care might not be enough for the poor to permanently break free of these poverty traps.
But Ngonghala’s models show that there’s a way to turn these numbers around. His analysis found that with sustained efforts to address the root causes of severe poverty, poverty traps can dissolve. His models also show that affordable, robust health care is a key determinant of sustainable economic growth for the poor.
Ngonghala created the models with an end result in mind of influencing policy in the developing world. He hopes the models will eventually encourage developing countries to adopt similar action as Rwanda did in 2015, when the Sub-Saharan country achieved all of its Millennium Development Goals, a series of international development goals. Rwanda did this through universal health coverage with social insurance systems and providing broad access to health care for the poor. Since then, economic growth in Rwanda has been among the highest in Africa.
Ngonghala’s models still need to be tested using more detailed data from surveys done on the ground in developing countries. So, he is partnering with Pivot, a nonprofit that provides health care in Madagascar, to collect data, test the models and validate their efficiency. Once data is collected and the models validated, Ngonghala will be able to make predictions and recommendations, which governments and nonprofits can use to combat poverty traps.
“The problems in Madagascar are in many ways like the problems in Cameroon and other developing countries,” Ngonghala said. “When we finish testing in Madagascar, then from there we’ll go to other of the most impoverished countries and continue implementing the models.”
By the end of his career, Ngonghala hopes to have contributed substantially to ending poverty and disease in some of the most impoverished areas of the world — including at home, in Cameroon.
“There were just so many times when it could’ve been different,” Ngonghala said, recalling the past. “And it all goes back to poverty and disease.”