Florida consumer sentiment continues upward in July

August 1, 2017
Colleen Porter

Consumer sentiment among Floridians rose 1.5 points in July to 97.7, the second-highest reading since March 2002.

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

Perceptions of one’s personal financial situation now compared with a year ago showed the greatest drop in this month’s reading, down 2.7 points from 91.1 to 88.4.

“However, perceptions are divided across the population. Women, people 60 and older, and those with annual income under $50,000 held very positive views about their personal finance situation,” 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 major household item such as an appliance increased 1.5 points, from 102.1 to 103.6.

“Overall, perceptions about current economic conditions have deteriorated slightly among Floridians in July as a consequence of the pessimism among the men and those under age 60,” Sandoval said.

Expectations of personal finances a year from now ticked down nine-tenths of a point, from 104.7 to 103.8.

Expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the next year showed the greatest increase in this month’s reading, up six points from 91.8 to 97.8. Additionally, expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the next five years rose 4.1 points, from 91.1 to 95.2.

“Floridians are more optimistic,” Sandoval said. “The gain in July’s sentiment came from consumers’ future expectations about the economy in the medium and long run. Remarkably, these positive expectations are shared by Floridians across all demographics and economic levels.”

Since the beginning of the year, Florida’s labor market has strengthened, with solid job gains every month. Between January and June, the Florida unemployment rate declined by nine-tenths of a percentage point, from 5 to 4.1 percent, reaching the lowest rate since a decade ago, in July 2007—just before the Great Recession.

Moreover, the labor force in Florida reached over 10 million workers in February. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, in the first quarter of 2017, Florida’s gross state domestic product increased 1.4 percent and personal income grew 1.3 percent. The leading contributors to personal income growth for Florida were net earnings and transfer receipts, which include benefits received by persons from federal, state and local governments and from businesses for which no current services are performed.

In view of the labor market conditions and inflation nationwide, last week the Federal Reserve decided to maintain the target range of the federal funds rate between 1 and 1.25 percent to support further strengthening in the labor market.

“The positive economic outlook in the first half of the year brought consumer sentiment in Florida to its highest levels in the last 15 years. There’s no evidence that economic conditions will change in the short run, thus high sentiment levels should persist in the second half of the year,” Sandoval said.

Conducted July 1-27, the UF study reflects the responses of 461 individuals who were reached on cellphones, representing a demographic cross section of Florida.

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

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

Society & Culture

Concussions and CTE: more complicated than even the experts know

August 1, 2017
Russell M. Bauer and Michael S. Jaffee

Two UF neuroscientists explain that while a recent study showing 110 of 111 brains of deceased NFL players had a serious brain disease, there's a lot we still need to know about concussions.

File 20170728 23754 13wbuam
Youngsters leave a football field in 2015 after playing at halftime at a game between the Buffalo Bills and the Carolina Panthers. AP Photo/Bill Wippert

Russell M. Bauer, University of Florida and Michael S. Jaffee, University of Florida

For many, American football is a beautiful game that is simple to enjoy but complex to master. Choreographed with a mixture of artistry and brutality, it features the occasional “big hit” or bone-jarring tackle, forcing a fumble and turning the tide of the game.

But with this part of football comes justified concern about the long-term health effects of engaging in this type of activity over time, concerns that abound in practically every high-impact contact sport. It is possible that effects of continued involvement may accumulate quietly in the background until they show themselves, later in life.

A recent study appeared to give a “big hit” to the game of football itself, with findings that nearly all the brains of 111 deceased NFL players studied showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

At the University of Florida, our interdisciplinary team has studied brain injuries in athletes, military veterans and civilians for many years. Regarding sports concussion, there are many gaps in our knowledge and many associated issues to consider as we develop ways to keep our athletes, both young and old, safe.

The concussion ‘explosion’

Concussions result from mechanical impact to the brain that produces transient changes in awareness or consciousness and a range of other symptoms. A 2016 study reported that between 1.1 million and 1.9 million concussions occur each year in children.

Although diagnosed concussions have been the primary focus, they are not the only, or maybe even the main, problem. There is also rising concern about subconcussive impacts, repetitive blows that may not be severe enough to cause clinical symptoms. There may be hundreds of subconcussive impacts per player, per year.

In response to widespread concern, organized sports organizations from Pop Warner to the NCAA to professional levels have developed and implemented concussion management protocols to help in the identification and management of concussions.

Yet the massive attention given to concussion management and prevention has produced a level of public pseudo-awareness about CTE that currently outstrips what is scientifically known about the disorder.

Missing links and gaps in knowledge

Several scientific studies have linked repetitive brain trauma to CTE.

CTE is a “tauopathy” in which the normally occurring protein tau becomes misfolded and accumulates at the depths of the folds (sulci) of the brain, in regions that may also be susceptible to mechanical forces during head impacts. The abnormal accumulation of the tau protein gives rise to a cascade of brain pathology that leads to cognitive impairment, neuropsychiatric problems (depression, anxiety, aggression, reduced impulse control), functional decline and, eventually, death.

Researchers are trying to find the best helmet to prevent concussions, just as doctors are studying the best way to treat them. Steve Cukrov/Shutterstock.com

The study published July 25 that showed CTE in 110 of 111 deceased, former NFL players reflected a startling 99 percent prevalence rate.

The results were reported by news outlets across the world, leading many people to think that CTE is an all but inevitable outcome of playing football or other sports.

But is it? And most importantly for parents, coaches and fans, what is the actual risk to my kids, my players and my team?

The answers to these questions are not yet known, though the risk to the individual player is very likely to be considerably less than would be suggested by available research findings.

Two important facts should be considered.

First, studies of CTE have all been conducted on small samples of brains delivered to CTE research centers by families of former players who have had concern about post-retirement cognitive, psychiatric or behavioral problems and symptoms.

The likelihood of finding brain pathology in these brains of symptomatic players is high, but these results cannot be generalized to all former football players, many of whom are living healthy lives in retirement.

Second, no study has evaluated even a single living player to determine whether he or she exhibits the cognitive, psychiatric or behavioral signs of CTE and then followed that person to autopsy to verify that CTE-associated pathology actually exists in their brains.

So, we do not know the actual prevalence of CTE in the general population of players, though it is assuredly much lower than those quoted by studies of symptomatic players.

Why do some get CTE and others do not?

We also don’t know much about who develops CTE and who doesn’t. There are over 10,000 living NFL retirees, yet the entire science of CTE is based on samples of less than a few hundred former NFL players and a handful of athletes from other sports. This means that some of those exposed to the risk of repetitive head impacts develop CTE, but most do not.

There are several factors that may contribute to the development of brain dysfunction and disease, including:

  • medical or genetic risk factors
  • medical and psychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and abuse of prescription medications or other drugs and substances
  • reduced educational attainment or literacy, or socioeconomic deprivation

In addition, some athletes have poor adjustments to retirement, leading to psycho-social and psychiatric maladjustment, marital or financial difficulties, substance abuse and other behavioral problems.

Repetitive head impacts may heighten risk of CTE, but other factors are undoubtedly involved in determining whether risk becomes reality. Reducing risk of CTE will involve targeting and treating these other factors as well.

What parents, coaches and athletes need to know

We need to take seriously the possible health consequences of prolonged exposure to repetitive head impacts and concussions.

That said, parental decisions to remove children from contact sports should be weighed against the many proven positive aspects of participation in team sports. Decisions should not be based on inflated risk assessment. Several studies have shown that recreational or scholastic athletic participation in youth conveys no significant added risk to brain health later in life.

Still, the developing brain may be more susceptible to injury and may take longer to recover. Knowledge of the individual player and his or her response to injury should guide parents, coaches and athletes in decision-making. Some youth are more injury-prone than others, and some have other conditions (e.g., ADHD, learning disability) that may affect how they react to head impact. When all factors are considered, the strongest predictor of recovery is the severity of initial symptoms.

All states now have legislation requiring public schools to have a concussion program in place. Parents should ask their school or athletic organization what their policies are regarding concussion management.

While helmet manufacturers are developing helmets that might provide greater protection, there is not enough evidence to recommend one over another. We do know, however, that appropriate fitting of helmets and protective gear is necessary to get the full protective benefit.

Some measures to reduce possible exposure and risk have been implemented. The Dartmouth University football program has significantly reduced contact practices for its football team. Other Ivy League teams and organizations have followed suit. The NCAA has recently recommended the elimination of two-a-day practices and restricted the number of contact practices allowed in football.

Physicians and athletic trainers at the University of Florida are using data from helmet sensors originally designed to help detect concussions to inform coaching staff on which specific practice drills and pad configurations may incur higher risk so that such drills can be adjusted.

Ongoing research for this important issue is focused on developing techniques for accurate diagnosis while an individual is alive and understanding the exact pathophysiology that might inform future disease-modifying treatment, in addition to our current treatments aimed at reduction of symptoms.

The ConversationFor those athletes who choose to continue the sports they love, we hope for continued innovations and policies that make their participation as safe as possible.

Russell M. Bauer, Professor, Clinical & Health Psychology and Neurology, University of Florida and Michael S. Jaffee, Vice chair, Department of Neurology, University of Florida

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

Science & Wellness

Road trip oppor-tuna-ty

August 2, 2017
Steve Orlando

It was late spring, and Takashi Wickes and Nikhil Thota had an important decision to make.

The two University of Florida computer science juniors had landed internships with San Francisco tech companies and needed to figure out the best way to get to the West Coast. Flying was pricey. A long train ride held no appeal.

Driving? Perfect. Recording themselves talking about the trip along the way? Even better.

“But then we realized we’re pretty boring,” Takashi said, “so we thought, ‘Why don’t we interview people we meet along the way?’”

The result is “Tuna Pasta,” a podcast that shines a light on the people of America that, in Takashi’s words, “most people pass by.”

Think of it as a mashup of the ‘60s TV series “Route 66” and “This American Life.”

The podcast’s name was inspired by the duo’s diet for the trip. Looking to save pennies, they loaded up on a variety of cheap eats, including – you guessed it – tuna and pasta.

That seemingly mundane choice proved pivotal.

“Most people wouldn’t think that would taste very good, but actually it’s delicious,” said Takashi, 21, of Jacksonville. “And then we thought, that’s kind of like the people we’re interviewing. Most people wouldn’t think they were very interesting, but actually they are.”

The diversity that is America seems to have struck a chord with listeners, not to mention Takashi and Nikhil.

“One of the main things we realized was that every single person we interviewed had a unique worldview and therefore a unique life lesson which has shaped this worldview, which in my opinion is one of the coolest things about the podcast,” said Nikhil, also 21, of Tampa.

The pair has kept a strict production schedule. Mondays are for script writing; Tuesdays for script revision; Wednesdays for recording – blending the interviews they recorded during the trip with their own commentary, observations and narration; Thursdays for editing. Each new episode is posted about midnight Friday. It all happens in the evening, after a full day of work.

The trip itself was a bit less structured. At the beginning of their 18-day, 6,387-mile journey, they pointed Takashi’s Honda Element north toward Philadelphia, then hooked a left with a jog into Chicago (Takashi’s brother lives there), a jaunt though America’s heartland,  a climb across the Rockies, and a dive southwest to Los Angeles before heading to their final destination.

Their first interview was in Atlanta with a mom named Afrika who was jogging in a park. The last was with Taylor, a medical student and mom they met at a Subway restaurant in Maricopa, California. In between were dozens of others sharing their stories, wisdom and life lessons.

They shunned hotels, opting instead for a tent and a camp stove, staying on farmland and in backyards (with owners’ permission, of course.)

That led to one of their more memorable encounters. A young farmer in Monroe County, West Virginia, who’d offered his property as a campsite invited Takashi and Nikhil to dinner in his home with his wife and two young sons.

“They were so nice and we were having such a good time we almost forgot to interview them,” Takashi said. Turns out the 30-something couple are into permaculture, a farming technique aimed at sustainability and harmony with the natural surroundings. Takashi said that revelation turned his preconceived notions of farmers upside down

Speaking of preconceived notions, Takashi is aware some might wonder how a couple of tech-oriented computer geeks got interested in something as soft and fuzzy as storytelling.

“Now more than ever,” Takashi said, “it’s not just about coding, it’s about what you can do with it.”

Said Nikhil: “I think that our view of computer science must change in order to not pigeonhole the profession into something that is limited by its own preconceptions. The mindset of doing weird things like talking to strangers and creating a podcast of it is what I believe will drive technology forward in a positive direction.”

As their internships draw to a close and they prepare to head back east, Takashi’s and Nikhil’s wish is for “Tuna Pasta” to have a lasting impact in a world where civility and compassion seem to be in increasingly short supply.

“I hope that at the end of the day our podcast will instill within our listeners a greater level of empathy,” Nikhil said. “It's so easy to go through your day to day life and not for once consider the perspective of other people and how every other person has an intricate maze of insecurity, joy, pain and pleasure just like ourselves. It's the human condition and that awareness, in my opinion, leads to a much more fulfilling life and is what I would ideally want every one of our listeners to experience.”

Campus Life

With NEH grant, libraries preserve pages of the past

August 3, 2017
Alisson Clark
history, libraries, digitization, newspapers, Florida

Tampa wallowed beneath three feet of water. Jacksonville was buffeted by 60 mile-per-hour winds. Snapped power lines sparked fires in St. Augustine, and Orlando went dark as power plants failed, pummeled by a Category 3 hurricane. Nearly 100 years after that storm, we can still trace its impact from the headlines of newspapers digitized by the University of Florida libraries.

UF’s George A. Smathers Libraries recently received $310,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to make pages from historic newspapers from Florida and Puerto Rico available digitally. The grant supplements earlier awards of $288,000 in 2015 and $325,000 in 2013 for a total award $923,000, the single largest direct award ever received by the Libraries.  

The funds will be used to digitize more than 100,000 additional pages as part of the Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project, a collaboration between UF and the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras. By the project's conclusion, it aims to provide free online access to more than 300,000 pages dating from 1690 to 1963.

In addition to the 1921 storm – which struck before the advent of today’s storm-naming convention – the newspapers detail other natural disasters, such as the freezes that swept Florida in 1894 and 1895. They follow the rise and fall of railroads and steamboats, citrus and cattle, sugar cane and phosphate. They trace the impact of the Civil, Seminole and World Wars. And now they will be available worldwide.

“Because these pages are not just on microfilm anymore, it completely changes the access. Anybody with an Internet connection can see them,” said project director Patrick Reakes, the libraries’ associate dean of scholarly resources and services. “It’s also a more sustainable way to preserve them. Microfilm gets old and brittle and hard to read. Once these pages are digitized, they’re safe. They’ll still be readable in the future.”

The digitized papers are available through the Library of Congress Chronicling America, the University of Florida Libraries Florida Digital Newspaper Library and the Biblioteca Digital Puertorriqueña at the University of Puerto Rico.  


Global Impact

Renowned scientist to UF doctoral graduates: ‘Live the life you have imagined.’

August 4, 2017
UF News
commencement, graduation

Dr. Duane Mitchell is co-director of the Preston A. Wells Jr. Center for Brain Tumor Therapy and the head of the Cancer Therapeutics & Immuno-Oncology program at the UF Health Cancer Center. He and his team are among the leaders in the battle to find ways to treat glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer that affects about 13,000 Americans annually. U.S. Senator John McCain was recently diagnosed with glioblastoma and is undergoing treatment.

Good afternoon. It is an honor and a privilege to have been asked to give this commencement address to the summer doctoral graduate class of 2017.

I graduated from my doctoral program in 2001 and over the last 16 years as an academic faculty member and researcher, I have given innumerable talks at a variety of national and international venues. This however, is a new experience for me and I just want to take the time to thank President Fuchs for what would otherwise be long forgotten experiences such as stage fright, dry mouth, panic, and nausea.

And I must say, it feels as exhilarating as I remembered. So thank you. No, I’m just being serious. Really.

As I prepared this talk I had thoughts on several occasions of “what could I say that would be meaningful to this audience?”

This question would interrupt my constant thinking of “Oh my goodness, I can’t do this.”

And...“You’ve worked so hard to create your comfort zone, what are you doing?”. 

And..."Please don’t start out with what an honor and privilege this is.”

And yet….here we are.      

So in the next 10 minutes or so, I am going to attempt to impart some information to the doctoral graduates gathered here today that you will remember. Something that you will find useful to you as you embark upon your chosen professional and personal endeavors.

For inspiration, I thought back to the core messages of my graduate school commencement address. I thought, “Who even spoke at my graduation? I’m pretty sure I was there. I do have pictures.” I truly couldn’t remember anything that was said that day. I did however, remember my college graduation commencement address.

But that was given by Susan Sarandon. She was the star of the hit movie “Thelma & Louise,” and at that time a three-time Academy Award nominee for best leading actress in a motion picture. I remember thinking, Duane, you are no Susan Sarandon.

And that is when I realized that sixteen years from now, nothing I say today is going to matter in your life.

I can’t think of one Nobel laureate, or Academy Award winner, or anyone with their last words of imparting wisdom, ever quoting their commencement address speaker. It just doesn’t happen. I realized that what I say today is going to matter as to whether I am ever asked to do something like this again.

However, for you, for the graduates who are being honored today for your achievements, for you, sixteen years from now, what is going to matter are the decisions you have made, the actions you have taken, and the attitude you have sustained throughout the process.

And so what I’d like to talk to you about for next few minutes are what I believe are the only variables we really have total control over in our lives. And yet through a conscientious directive of our decisions, our actions, and our attitude, we can largely define our future. It is instrumental to realize that life asks certain questions of us every day that demand answers. Either we answer these questions affirmatively with our decisions and actions, or through neglect, they are answered for us, by circumstances and by other people.

These daily questions are best designed to be asked each morning in anticipation of the day’s events, and again, each evening in reflection.

“What will you or did you accomplish today?”

“What long term goals will you or did you make progress toward today?”

“What will you or did you learn today?”

And...“Who will you or did you help today?”

Addressing these iterative life questions will help continually steer our lives in a positive direction. Through the urgency of “now” and the myriad of decisions that life thrusts upon us, these questions can keep us focused on the “not urgent but important” matters in our lives.

I love to collect memorable quotes as a way of codifying philosophies that resonate with life experiences. Every Monday in our research group, I share a “quote of the week” as a way to kick start the momentum for the next several days.

One of my favorites is Quote of the Week #135 which was sent out a while ago. It comes from a relatively well-known philosopher named Jack Handy. For those who don’t know Jack Handy, for several years he has been a featured writer on Saturday Night Live, who shares his philosophies in a series called “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy”.

“When you die, if you get a choice between regular heaven and pie heaven, choose pie heaven. It might be a trick. But if it’s not….mmmmmmm, boy!”

Now the reason I like this quote, is that, like most “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy,” on the surface level it is just utterly ridiculous.

Somewhat humorous, but utterly ridiculous. However, if we analyze these silly utterances more deeply there is often some hidden wisdom that can be gleaned. For most of us, regardless of our background or religious beliefs, the concept of heaven embodies the best there is. We’ve probably never realized that there was a pie heaven or ever even thought about getting there. 

And yet, Jack challenges us that if life presents us with a choice between regular heaven or pie heaven, go for pie heaven.

You will have occasions throughout your life where your personal or professional experiences will expose you to opportunities beyond what you’ve previously imagined, or will present challenges to you that are beyond your current comfort zone or perceived capabilities.

Taking the dream job versus the one your family approves of; launching your great idea into a business venture vs. saving it until you’re established; stepping forward and introducing yourself to that person you know you need to meet vs. remaining quiet so you don’t risk looking foolish.

These may not be embodiments of heaven, but nonetheless they represent the types of crossroad decisions that we are often faced with throughout our lives.

The author Robert Brault said, “We are kept from our goal not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.”

Do not be afraid to set ambitious goals and high expectations for your life. However, “It might be a trick.” 

What if pie heaven isn’t real? What if we go for it and fail?

Jack reminds us that success is not guaranteed. There is risk involved in going after pie heaven. Fear of failure is one of the main obstacles that prevents us from living up to our true potential. Particularly those of us who have been trained to be “experts.”

Many of you will enter careers where there will be a low tolerance of being wrong, of making mistakes, and in failing at what you’ve set out to accomplish. I mean, after all, I am a doctor.

You may be employed based on your very high level of training and expertise and expected to perform at a very high level of competence and productivity.

While this is an appropriate expectation for the day to day executive functions of a professional, you must not allow fear of failure to become the guiding principle for your decision-making processes. Fear is simply faith in a negative outcome. Do not be afraid to let your dreams, goals, and aspirations guide your life choices.

Although, Jack states “It might be a trick,” he also states, “but if it’s not…” then imagine the rewards.

The truth is, that the reward is not actually in attaining the goal. The rewards come in the form of the person you become through the process of stretching and growing to reach your goals. 

Today you are being recognized for achieving the goal of completing your doctoral program. For many of you, it probably was tougher than you thought, took longer than you planned, and may have had unanticipated detours, obstacles, and restarts along the way.

While the outward recognition of the achievement may be occurring at this moment and conveyed with additional letters before or after your name, the true reflection of the achievement is embodied in the resilience you’ve developed, the specialized knowledge you’ve amassed, and the analytical thinking skills you’ve acquired.

You are almost certainly a better orator, writer, and leader than you were when you entered your program.

It is who you have become through this process that is far more important than the degree or the letters that you now carry with your name. Choosing to go after your goals and aspirations involves some risk, but almost always comes with the guarantee that you will grow and become better through the process.

Many people got through life afraid to make a wrong decision, but Dr. Phil McGraw, or Dr. Phil, stated, “Sometimes you make the right decision. Sometimes you make the decision right.”

Often times the difference between the right and wrong decision is not in the choice itself, but in the level of corresponding conviction and action put behind the decision.

I have three young sons, Anthony, age 9, Brandon, age 7, and Austin, age 3.

A while ago, I asked them this relatively simple math problem.

“Three frogs are sitting on a log in a pond and one decides to jump off. How many frogs are left on the log?” 

Anthony and Brandon proudly chimed together, “Two!” 

To which I promptly said, “Wrong. The answer is three. The frog only decided to jump off, but he didn’t act on his decision.”  

Now in retrospect, I recommend saving this life lesson for your children until they have moved onto multiplication and division. It really confuses them and irritates their teachers when you mess up their foundational math skills. However, for adults, I think this “new math” equation illustrates a very important facet of life. We must decide to do fewer things, but to follow through on the decisions we make with definitive action.

After 18 years of marriage to my lovely wife, Michelle, I have learned that it is better to state outright something I am not going to do than to say I am going to do it and deal with the consequences of having that promise go unfilled for months or years to come.

As talented experts entering the workforce, you will have a huge number of demands placed on you for your time and energy investment. 

The more productive you are, the more these demands, also known as opportunities, will increase. Additionally, you already do or will have increasing responsibilities to care for family and loved ones. You will quickly learn that the quantity and quality of your life’s experiences will be shaped as much by the things you decided not to do as they are by the things you decided to do.

This is why setting short-term and long-term goals for your personal and professional life can be so instrumental in navigating the sometimes turbulent seas of life.

Much like a GPS device set upon a specific destination, or a lighthouse beacon to a ship out at sea, your goals can serve as a guiding post to keep you headed in the right direction.

Henry David Thoreau said, “It is not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, 'What are we busy about?'” 

As doctoral graduates entering a new phase in your life, now is a great time to reflect upon your priorities, to decide what is truly important to you, and to set and write down goals for your professional, personal, and recreational lives.

For many years I kept the question, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” above my desk at work and at home. At work, it would remind me to think big about the challenges in my field and to not be afraid of going after the tough questions in research. At home, it would remind me to envision the family life and the experiences I wanted for my wife and children, and to continually fight against the inertia of a life that can easily crowd out quality time and cause one to take their family for granted.

Decide what you want out of life. Back up that decision with continual action. Answer life’s daily questions for yourself.

Our approach to answering the life questions, or our attitude, not only greatly influences the outcome of our efforts but also determines the quality of our experiences along the way.  

The writer Erich Heller stated, “Be careful how you view the world, it is that way.”

If facts are black and white but perception is our reality, then our attitude is the lens filter through which we color the world’s experiences.

I can remember moving from New Jersey where I grew up to North Carolina to attend medical school and graduate school. The first week I was there I went grocery shopping and when I went to check out the cashier asked me, “How are doing?”

I said, “Fine.”

She then said, “Getting your shopping done for the week?”

To which I thought to myself. “Obviously.”

But said, “Yes.”

She rang a few more items and then asked, “Are you from around here?”

At this point, I thought, “What’s with the 20 questions? I mean I’m paying for my items. What’s the deal here?”

I answered her probing questions and completed the transaction and went home. It wasn’t until a couple weeks later, after I’d experienced the same thing at numerous establishments that I realized that people in North Carolina were just friendly. They actually were genuinely just trying to have a conversation. This was a foreign experience to me.

Although I would have classified myself as a friendly person, I did not realize that my lens filter had been colored by a “Jersey attitude.” 

Our attitude about ourselves, or our self-image, sets the boundaries of what we believe is possible.

Our attitude about others determines our capacity to build lasting relationships based on trust or only superficial ones that are opportunistic.

Our attitude about serving others often dictates our capacity to be effective in leadership roles.

Our attitude about life often determines whether others want to be around us or prefer to clear the room.  

Quote of the Week #95: “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.”  — Helen Keller.

Surround yourself with people who have achieved great things and are encouragers of your aspirations, and your attitude about what is possible will grow.

Read about or get to know people who have overcome great adversity and you will steel your attitude toward facing down the challenges you face in your own life. 

Pour yourself into helping others and you will enrich and widen the pathway towards your own aspirations.

You sit here today because you have achieved much.

You have many talents, you are exceptionally motivated, and you have amassed a level of education and experience that few people in the world attain.

By answering life’s daily questions through conscious control of your decisions, your actions, and your attitude, you can weave together the fabric of an extraordinary life. 

I leave you with one of my truly favorite quotes of all time, also from Henry David Thoreau, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

Congratulations, Class of 2017! Go Gators!

Campus Life

Mother of Bed Bugs

August 7, 2017
Stephenie Livingston
Entomology, bugs

Science & Wellness

World’s smallest neutrino detector finds big physics fingerprint

August 7, 2017
UF News

After more than a year of operation at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the world’s smallest neutrino detector has found a big fingerprint of the elusive, electrically neutral particles that interact only weakly with matter.

The research, performed at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) and published in the journal Science, provides new evidence for a neutrino interaction process predicted by theorists 43 years ago, but never seen.

“While the neutrino, one of the fundamental particles of nature, has been studied for more than 50 years, there still remain many mysteries about its basic nature. This observation furthers our understanding of how neutrinos interact with matter, allowing us to better understand what happens in the final stages of a star's life, and will provide vital information to other areas of research where coherent neutrino interactions may cover-up or hide the presence of new forms of matter, such as dark-matter experiments,” said University of Florida physicist Heather Ray, co-author of the study that included 80 researchers from 19 institutions and 4 nations.

The SNS produces neutrons for scientific research and also generates a high flux of neutrinos as a byproduct. Placing the detector at SNS, a mere 65 feet (20 meters) from the neutrino source, vastly improved the chances of interactions and allowed the researchers to decrease the detector’s weight to just 32 pounds (14.5 kilograms). In comparison, most neutrino detectors weigh thousands of tons: although they are continuously exposed to solar, terrestrial, and atmospheric neutrinos, they need to be massive because the interaction odds are more than 100 times lower than at SNS.

The scientists are the first to detect and characterize coherent elastic scattering of neutrinos off nuclei. This long-sought confirmation, predicted in the particle physics Standard Model, measures the process with enough precision to establish constraints on alternative theoretical models.

Typically, neutrinos interact with individual protons or neutrons inside a nucleus. But in “coherent” scattering, an approaching neutrino “sees” the entire weak charge of the nucleus as a whole and interacts with all of it coherently.

“The energy of the SNS neutrinos is almost perfectly tuned for this experiment—large enough to create a detectable signal, but small enough to take advantage of the coherence condition,” ORNL physicist Jason Newby said. “The only smoking gun of the interaction is a small amount of energy imparted to a single nucleus.” 

That signal is as tough to spot as a bowling ball’s tiny recoil after a ping-pong ball hits it.

Physicist Juan Collar of the University of Chicago led the design of the detector used at SNS, a cesium iodide scintillator crystal doped with sodium to increase the prominence of light signals from neutrino interactions. After trying more sophisticated technologies, he went back to simple inorganic scintillators. “They are arguably the most pedestrian kind of radiation detector available, having been around for a century. Sodium-doped cesium iodide merges all of the properties required to work as a small, ‘handheld’ coherent neutrino detector,” he said. “Very often, less is more.” 

Success depended on finding the right combination of neutrino detector and source. “The detector was designed with SNS in mind,” Collar said. “SNS is unique not only as a neutron source, but also as a neutrino source. It will provide us with opportunities for many more exciting sorties into neutrino physics.”

Because SNS produces pulsed neutron beams, the neutrinos are also pulsed, enabling easy separation of signal from background. That aspect makes data collection cleaner than at steady-state neutrino sources such as nuclear reactors.

In the SNS experiment, three neutrino flavors were seen—muon neutrinos that emerged instantaneously with the neutron beam and muon antineutrinos and electron neutrinos that came a few microseconds later. “The Standard Model predicts the energy and time signatures we saw,” Newby said. “Juan [Collar] wanted to make sure that he chose a detection mechanism with the timing resolution to distinguish the prompt from delayed signals.”

The calculable fingerprint of neutrino–nucleus interactions predicted by the Standard Model and seen by COHERENT is not just interesting to theorists. In nature, it also dominates neutrino dynamics during neutron star formation and supernovae explosions.

“When a massive star collapses and then explodes, the neutrinos dump vast energy into the stellar envelope,” said physicist Kate Scholberg of Duke University, COHERENT’s spokesperson. “Understanding the process feeds into understanding of how these dramatic events occur.”

Coherent elastic scattering is also relevant for detecting the enormous neutrino burst from a supernova. “When such an event occurs in the Milky Way, neutrinos of all flavors will bump into nuclei, and sensitive dark matter detectors may observe a burst of tiny recoils,” she said.

“COHERENT’s data will help with interpretation of measurements of neutrino properties by experiments worldwide,” Scholberg concluded. “We may also be able to use coherent scattering to better understand the structure of the nucleus.”

Though the cesium-iodide detector observed coherent scattering beyond any doubt, COHERENT researchers will conduct additional measurements with at least three detector technologies to observe coherent neutrino interactions at distinct rates, another signature of the process. These detectors will further expand knowledge of basic neutrino properties, such as their intrinsic magnetism.

The team included partners from the Russian Federation (Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics named by A.I. Alikhanov of National Research Centre “Kurchatov Institute”; National Research Nuclear University Moscow Engineering Physics Institute), USA (Indiana University, Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory, Duke University, University of Tennessee–Knoxville, North Carolina Central University, Sandia National Laboratories at Livermore, University of Chicago, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, New Mexico State University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, University of Washington, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, North Carolina State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, University of Florida), Canada (Laurentian University), Republic of Korea (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Institute for Basic Science). 

The title of the Science paper is “Observation of Coherent Elastic Neutrino-Nucleus Scattering.”

Science & Wellness

UF donors rally to support the university’s teaching, discovery and outreach missions

August 9, 2017
Dave Finnerty
Philanthropy, UF Foundation

University of Florida alumni and friends give record $449 million in FY 2016-17

University of Florida alumni and friends invested a record $449 million in UF’s programs and people this year to support the university’s aspiration to better serve families and communities across the globe. Those gifts provide scholarships, elevate professors’ work in classrooms and laboratories, and support key life-enhancing UF focus areas ranging from biodiversity, neuro-medicine and cybersecurity to early childhood studies, food sustainability and renewable energy.

This is the sixth consecutive year donors exceeded the previous fiscal year’s gift commitment total and continues a two-decade growth trend in private investments in the university’s mission and initiatives. Since 1996, UF’s philanthropic support has increased nearly 600 percent — from $76 million then to $449 million in the year that ended this June 30. Private giving has topped $400 million each of the past two years.

That support directly correlates with UF’s climb in national reputation and its abilities to address critical societal challenges, generate innovative ideas, stimulate the economy and groom new generations of civic and industry leaders. Recent accolades include producing more Fulbright Scholars than any other university, being No. 3 on Milken Institute’s “Best Universities for Technology Transfer” list, ranking sixth in the nation in number of university-inspired startup companies and sixth on The New York Times’ list of “Top Colleges Doing the Most for the American Dream.”

"The University of Florida already ranks among the top 10 public research universities in the nation in the majority of rankings. Our goal now is to join the top five. That Gators believe in that shared vision and support it so generously speaks to the compassion and spirit of our alumni and friends, and will make UF a truly transformational force for the 21st century,” UF President Kent Fuchs said. 

More than 72,000 Gators made gifts in 2016-17 to support an array of UF programs and initiatives, including:

  • Signature facilities, such as the new Joseph Hernandez Hall chemistry building; Stephen C. O’Connell Center and Exactech Arena’s revitalization; the transformation of 107-year-old Newell Hall into a state-of-the-art, around-the-clock student study center; the second phase of Florida Innovation Hub; and the soon-to-be-completed twin Heart & Vascular and Neuro-medicine hospitals.
  • 37 new endowed professorships and chairs that provide consistent, reliable funding streams for research, equipment, student stipends and other resources that advance learning and discovery. Widely considered critical incentives for recruitment and retention of top faculty members, the new endowed positions bring UF’s total to 455.
  • Along with other forms of student support, $15 million for UF’s Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars program. Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarships open UF’s doors for first-generation college students from some of Florida’s most disadvantaged families — talented scholars who might not otherwise earn a college degree.

Another notable fundraising achievement is the growth of UF’s endowment, which increased from $996 million in 2006 to $1.6 billion this year. The endowment’s earnings ensure everlasting support for programs throughout campus. President Fuchs has called boosting its size crucial to UF’s ability to sustain its vision to be an international preeminent university.

“When you stop to consider the University of Florida and its potential, it’s obvious that we’re uniquely positioned. Not only is Florida a bellwether state, but the pure depth and reach of our university sets us apart. There is practically no issue that people care about that UF is not addressing. For that reason, it’s critically important that we’re coming together to support UF’s mission and vision,” UF Campaign Chair Anita Zucker said.

Campus Life

East Coast's rapidly rising seas explained

August 9, 2017
Stephenie Livingston
Sea level rise, climate change, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering

University of Florida scientists discover cause of Atlantic coastline’s sea level rise hot spots

When the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s Atlantic coast became much saltier after 2011, Arnoldo Valle-Levinson began to investigate.

The UF professor of civil and coastal engineering sciences in the College of Engineering checked local tidal gauges, revealing that seas in the region were rising nearly 10 times faster than the long-term rate recorded in that region. When he reviewed tidal data for the entire eastern seaboard, he found similar numbers for all the tide gauge stations south of Cape Hatteras, revealing the regional extent of the "hot spot." 

Sea level rise hot spots — bursts of accelerated sea rise that last three to five years — happen along the U.S. East Coast thanks to a one-two punch from naturally occurring climate variations, according to a new study lead by Valle-Levinson.

After UF scientists identified the hot spot reaching from Cape Hatteras to Miami, they probed the causes by analyzing tidal and climate data for the U.S. eastern seaboard. The study, published online today in Geophysical Research Letters, shows that seas rose in the southeastern U.S. between 2011 and 2015 by more than six times the global average sea level rise that is already happening due to human-induced global warming.

The study’s findings suggest that future sea level rise resulting from global warming will also have these hot spot periods superimposed on top of steadily rising seas, said study co-author Andrea Dutton, assistant professor in UF’s department of geological sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“The important point here is that smooth projections of sea level rise do not capture this variability, so adverse effects of sea level rise may occur before they are predicted to happen,” Dutton said. “The entire U.S. Atlantic coastline is vulnerable to these hot spots that may amplify the severity of coastal flooding.”

The combined effects of El Niño (ENSO) and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), both of which are naturally occurring climate processes, drove the recent hot spot, according to the study. Study authors also discovered similar hot spots at various positions along the U.S. eastern seaboard over the past century. They found that these past hot spots are also explained by the combined influence of ENSO and NAO.

The finding challenges previous arguments that a hot spot north of Cape Hatteras over the past few decades was due to a slowdown of circulation in the North Atlantic, which is itself due to global warming. Instead, study authors discovered the combination of these two naturally occurring ocean-atmosphere processes explained both the timing and the location of hot spots observed along the entire U.S. Atlantic coast, Dutton said.

While a slowdown of circulation in the North Atlantic can further exacerbate sea level rise in the northeast, it does not explain the accelerations observed in the southeast, and was not required to explain the hot spots observed in the northeast, according to the study.

The authors found that hot spots observed over the past century were created by the influence of ENSO that affects the amount of water that accumulates in the western portion of the North Atlantic and causes seas to rise along the entire U.S. Atlantic coast. This sea level rise is then concentrated to the north or south by the NAO, which is a measure of the atmospheric pressure difference between Iceland and the Azores.

Valle-Levinson said hot spots are difficult to predict and it’s not clear if the hot spots will worsen with time. By decreasing emissions, he said we may be able to stabilize rising seas long-term, but the trend will likely be difficult to reverse.

“It’s amazing to see construction along the East Coast. That’s the worst place to build anything,” said Valle-Levinson, who described the future for some southeastern U.S. cities as “Venice-like.” “We need to understand that the ocean is coming.”

The study was also co-authored by Jonathan Martin, a UF professor of geological sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

Science & Wellness

Want to fix America’s infrastructure? Build in the places that need help the most

August 10, 2017
James C. Nicholas

A UF legal scholar joins with an economist, a finance expert and an urban planner to ponder the challenge of urban infrastructure, examining a New Mexico program for possible solutions.

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How can we limit urban sprawl? kla4067, CC BY

Gregory Burge, University of Oklahoma; Arthur C. Nelson, University of Arizona; James C. Nicholas, University of Florida, and Trey Dronyk-Trosper, Tulane University

Political debates over U.S. infrastructure spending are painfully incomplete. The discussion focuses almost exclusively on how much money should be spent, ignoring important questions about what projects are most needed and where those projects should be placed.

In the U.S., two-thirds of the population lives in urbanized areas that take up less than 3 percent of the nation’s land. Paradoxically, the majority of the explosive growth in urban populations during the 20th century came in the suburbs, leading to urban sprawl and unprecedented levels of race and income-based segregation.

While new homes, schools and roads are consistently placed in the suburbs, the central urban locations that we’d expect to drive the regional economy are sadly ignored. The damage associated with this underinvestment in urban infrastructure often surfaces in times of crisis such as natural disasters, when the inadequacy of city infrastructure is placed on display.

As experts in urban planning and public finance, we think U.S. cities should support infrastructure in the neighborhoods that need it most. Local revenue-raising programs that require developers to support the costs of urban infrastructure have the strongest potential to combat urban sprawl and promote investment in core urban areas.

Development impact fees

Impact fees are one-time charges assessed on new real estate development. They reflect the cost of expanding public facilities to meet the development’s new demands. For example, municipal revenue from fees might be spent on new schools to alleviate student overcrowding problems or new parks that serve the new residents.

Most states have legislation that enables impact fees. The fees are common in many rapidly growing areas, particularly in the southern and western U.S.

Most impact fee programs assess all new development according to the average cost of facilities that will serve it, regardless of the actual location of the new development. However, this approach is flawed. For example, we know centrally located residents have much shorter commute times than those who live further from the city center. By definition, the high-cost area for the cities’ transportation needs is the fringe property.

Under the everyone-pays-average-cost system, centrally located urban areas will tend to pay more than their proportionate share of new infrastructure costs. This extra burden discourages the exact type of development that mitigates urban sprawl. By contrast, more remote high-cost areas receive an implicit subsidy and pay less than their total costs. Even though they need extensive infrastructure investments, they pay only average costs.

At the margin, this reduces development in low-cost areas, but subsidizes development in high-cost areas. In urban jurisdictions, impact fees can distort the distribution of new development to be inefficient. New infrastructure goes to places where it’s less valuable than it might be elsewhere.


In 2005, Albuquerque, New Mexico became one of the first cities in the U.S. to embrace a fully location-based impact fee system. The program had been discussed and developed by this team and local officials over the preceding years. After fighting sprawl for decades in ways that the city government deemed ineffective, they were willing to be creative and follow the advice of a leading team of urban planners.

After decades of seeing increased urban sprawl in the absence of any development impact fee programs, Albuquerque designed a new system that charged little or no impact fees to new development in central locations where public infrastructure already existed. Meanwhile, it charged relatively high impact fees in areas where new facilities were needed to mitigate the impact of new development. That meant that central core locations were charged far less than suburban fringe locations.

Our research team has studied the impact of this program on urban residential development and infrastructure in the city over the years leading up to and following the program’s implementation.

Our study looked at 21 years of construction data from before and after their program was implemented. We found that accurately priced fees significantly curtailed development on the fringe of the city while preserving investments in central locations. Meanwhile, urban sprawl got worse in neighboring areas outside Albuquerque.

In your city

While local governments understand their own infrastructure needs best, the federal government should encourage the adoption of location-sensitive development impact fee programs. One way to do this might be creating matching grants focused on infrastructure renovations in core urban areas.

If successful, this could have positive long-term impacts that would help combat urban sprawl and revitalize core urban centers. For example, expansion and improvement of core public transit services could potentially carry large economic gains and reduce traffic congestion.

In a nation rapidly becoming more urbanized, but also one that hopefully recognizes the damaging effects of urban sprawl on carbon consumption and the quality of our environment, our policies should reflect priorities to reduce sprawl.

The ConversationJulian C. Juergensmeyer at Georgia State University contributed to this article.

Gregory Burge, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Oklahoma; Arthur C. Nelson, Professor of Planning and Real Estate, University of Arizona; James C. Nicholas, Professor of Law, University of Florida, and Trey Dronyk-Trosper, Postdoctoral Fellow in Public Finance Policy , Tulane University

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

Society & Culture

Nationally respected business leader named Gator of the Year

August 11, 2017
UF News

1972 graduate Linda Parker Hudson called one of ‘50 Most Powerful Women in Business’

North Carolina businesswoman Linda Parker Hudson, founder and CEO of the leadership, communications and business consulting firm The Cardea Group, has been selected the University of Florida’s Gator of the Year for 2017 in recognition of her extraordinary career and longtime service to her alma mater.

Hudson is the seventh person to receive what has become one of the university’s most prestigious awards. It honors Gators whose contributions — investment, advocacy or expertise — to the university are exceptional. Past honorees are Jeremy Foley (2011), John James (2012), Danny Ponce (2013), James Pugh (2014), Joelen Merkel (2015) and Anita Zucker (2016).

“University of Florida alumni have a long tradition of being trailblazers, civic and business leaders, and doers committed to the people the university serves. No one embodies that Gator spirit more than Linda. Even as she’s risen in her career, UF has remained close to her heart and a personal priority,” Vice President for Advancement Tom Mitchell said.

Prior to starting The Cardea Group in 2014, Hudson retired as president and CEO of the global defense, aerospace and security company BAE Systems Inc. Named four times as one of Fortune Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and to numerous other “most powerful” lists, she is known as the “first lady of defense.” She was one of only two pioneering women to graduate with a UF degree in systems engineering in 1972, and went on to become the first female CEO in the defense industry and first woman to lead a major national security company. Before joining BAE Systems, Hudson held leadership positions with General Dynamics, Martin Marietta and Ford Aerospace. She currently serves on the boards of Bank of America, Southern Company and Ingersoll Rand. 

Hudson’s service to UF is equally impressive. A Florida native, she works with numerous university boards and committees, including the University of Florida Foundation’s Executive Board of Directors, Engineering Leadership Institute and Industrial Engineering Advisory Board. She is a distinguished alumna and a member of the university’s Industrial and Systems Engineering Hall of Fame. Hudson is also a generous philanthropist. Along with being a Bull Gator and supporting a number of community organizations, she established a scholarship and fellowship in UF’s College of Engineering and created an engineering leader-in-residence program at the university.

Hudson will formally receive the Gator of the Year award during UF’s annual Gator Gala celebration in Emerson Alumni Hall on Friday, Sept. 15.


Campus Life

UF research awards total nearly $686 million for fiscal year 2017

August 11, 2017
Joseph Kays

University of Florida faculty earned nearly $686 million in research awards in fiscal year 2017, including major grants to study Zika, citrus greening and special education training.

“Our faculty are world leaders in applying the tools of science to issues facing us all, from human health to food production and education,” said David Norton, UF’s vice president for research. “Florida’s citizens can be proud to have such a world-class research institution.”

The College of Medicine brought in more than $304 million. The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or IFAS, had $107 million in funding and the College of Engineering had almost $72 million.

Funding from federal agencies – the most competitive of the sources – reached $456.9 million, representing a $5.7 million increase over 2016. State and local government funding totaled $53.9 million and support from industries and foundations totaled $144 million.

Faculty submitted 3,075 peer-reviewed proposals, an 8.4 percent increase over 2016. In all 5,466 proposals were submitted, which resulted in 2,974 new research agreements. 

Among the projects receiving the largest awards:

  • A $10 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish a highly collaborative research program focused on stopping diseases such as Zika before they spread farther into the United States. The Southeast Regional Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Disease: The Gateway Program will be led by Rhoel Dinglasan, a faculty member in the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Emerging Pathogens Institute. Dinglasan has enlisted faculty at the University of Miami, Florida International University and the University of South Florida to collaborate.
  • A $4.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use genetic engineering to develop new citrus tree rootstocks that are resistant to citrus greening. Jude Grosser, an IFAS professor of plant cell genetics, is leading a team developing trees that exhibit enhanced resistance to greening and reduced disease severity. 
  • A $5 million grant to UF special education Professor Mary Brownell from the U.S. Department of Education to help school districts transform their preparation of effective teachers and leaders serving students with disabilities. The CEEDAR Center helps states strengthen their standards and methods for preparing, licensing and evaluating their teachers and school leaders. 


Global Impact

New team members at MCDA ready to welcome students

August 16, 2017
Sara Tanner

Fall semester is about to get underway, and four new staff members are on hand at the University of Florida’s Multicultural and Diversity Affairs office, joining a highly capable team already in place to help cultivate a more inclusive campus community.

At the helm is Will Atkins, who served as interim executive director of MCDA and who co-led the Black Student Affairs Task Force. Following a national search, Atkins was elevated to the position full time.  He is a proud Gator alum and honored to serve the university in this capacity.

Photo of Will Atkins

Atkins previously served for two years as assistant director of UF’s Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program, where he advised first-generation, low-income undergraduate students and connected them with campus and community resources. At Miami University before that, he was associate director sorority and fraternity life. He also worked at the University of Michigan in Greek Life and campus activities.

Under Atkins’ leadership, MCDA partnered this summer with the Career Resource Center’s inclusive recruiter initiative and with UF Human Resources on inclusion efforts for faculty and staff. MCDA also held sessions on “Understanding our Global Community” with incoming students, and led committees toward developing plans for the Institute of Black Culture and the Institute of Hispanic-Latino Cultures, known as “La Casita.” Currently, the department has revised the ambassador program and is enhancing one of its signature social justice education programs called Gatorship. The department also is revitalizing the PAACT program, a four-day welcome for incoming Black students.

Also, new this fall are:

LGBTQ Affairs

The new director of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Queer Affairs, Billy Huff, comes to UF from the University of South Florida, where he was an instructor in the department of communication. He previously taught in communication at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he also served as the adviser for the Gender and Sexuality Alliance.  

Photo of Billy Huff

“I come to MCDA after 15 years in faculty and teaching positions,” Huff said. “I was always the most passionate, however, about the work I did with students outside the classroom. This work included working with LGBTQ youth in the community and advising LGBTQ student organizations. I am thrilled to have a position that allows me to unite my academic work in Queer Theory, Trans Studies, and social movements with my passion for supporting and advocating for students. I hope to work with students to create a welcoming and affirming space for all LGBTQ students at UF.”

As part of MCDA, LGBTQ Affairs educates, advocates and supports LGBTQ people at UF and in the local community via student-centered programming, outreach, community building and advocacy in order to create a safe and developmentally supportive campus community for people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions.

APIA Affairs

Jack Nguyen, who was named director of Asian Pacific Islander American Affairs, began in mid-July. As intercultural specialist in the Student Life Multicultural Center at The Ohio State University, he oversaw planning, development and implementation of all Asian American intercultural programming to address and highlight engagement.

Photo of Jack Nguyen

“My journey into higher education and student affairs stems from my involvements during my undergraduate career within a number of student organizations and initiatives created by the university to support first year students as well as learning in depth about this field as I had a number of work study positions within the Division of Student Affairs,” Nguyen said. “I believe what excites me the most about the opportunity as the incoming director of Asian Pacific Islander American Affairs is building an inclusive and just space with my colleagues, peers and students for all who utilize our space. The potential possibilities are endless, and I hope that I can work toward advocating the needs of our underrepresented, underserved and marginalized communities on and beyond our campus.”

As part of MCDA, APIA Affairs promotes deeper understanding of APIA issues and identity while empowering and advocating for the needs of the community.

Black Affairs

Overseeing Black Affairs, which creates, sustains, promotes and affirms black scholarship, culture history and leadership is Carl Simien, who served as director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center at Western Illinois University. A former college and career director at Umoja Student Development Corporation in Chicago, he also has served as the program coordinator of the Roberts Family Development Center in Sacramento.

Photo of Carl Simien

Simien’s student development background and experience working with TRiO programs, the U.S. Department of Education student support services, have shaped his ambition for empowering students, he says.

“I love being in community with students and having the opportunity to support them as they pursue their goals and aspirations,” Simien said. “I love getting to witness students discover their ability to have a meaningful impact on campus and in their communities. My vision for Black Affairs includes initiatives focused on supporting student retention, leadership and professional development of students and engagement with UF alumni.”


Danielle Domingo is a proud Gator grad who earned her degree in family, youth, and community sciences with minors in leadership and nonprofit organizations. She brings valuable experiences to MCDA, especially her leadership with the Preview Staff Orientation Program, the Dean of Students Office, and the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program. She volunteers with local youth in Gainesville and has served as the Mission Trip Coordinator for a local nonprofit called Projects for Haiti, Inc.

Domingo is passionate about organizational leadership, mentorship and empowerment. In her role with MCDA, she will oversee the University Minority Mentor Program. UMMP is the only mentoring program that matches a first-year undergraduate student with a faculty or staff mentor to assist with the student’s transition to college. This program makes a large university campus seem smaller as connections are made and mentors encourage our students to complete a degree.

The search process for each new post included on-campus and live-streamed interviews with search committees.

“This is truly an exciting time for MCDA. We have a dynamic team with great passion, vision and commitment for our students and our work,” said Atkins. “We are focused on providing identity-based and culturally responsive resources, education and community for our campus. We know that The Gator Nation comprises students, faculty and staff from various backgrounds, identities and experiences. They are meaningful, powerful, and should be respected by all. Our role is to use education as a vehicle for our community to embrace humanity.”

Campus Life

UF denies National Policy Institute request for campus event space

August 16, 2017
Janine Sikes

In the wake of weekend violence in Charlottesville, Va., and amid serious concerns for campus safety, the University of Florida announced today it will deny the National Policy Institute’s request to rent space for a Sept. 12 appearance by its president, white nationalist Richard Spencer.

UF leadership made the decision after talking with campus, community, state and federal law enforcement officials and assessing the potential risk for violence following clashes Saturday in Charlottesville between white nationalists and counter-protestors.

The decision also came in light of continued calls online and in social media for similar violence in Gainesville, such as those decreeing: “The Next Battlefield is in Florida.”

Spencer spoke at Texas A&M University in December and was scheduled to speak there again on Sept. 11. On Monday, Texas A&M canceled the event, citing security concerns.

In a statement issued to the campus today, UF President Kent Fuchs said, “I find the racist rhetoric of Richard Spencer and white nationalism repugnant and counter to everything the university and this nation stands for. That said, the First Amendment does not require a public institution to risk imminent violence to students and others. The likelihood of violence and potential injury – not the words or ideas – has caused us to take this action. Denying this request for university space is the safest and most responsible decision we can make.”

Campus Life

Fate, dreams and honey

August 21, 2017
Rachel Damiani
Honeybees, Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences


Science & Wellness

Meet the Gator behind Atlanta's new stadium

August 25, 2017
Alisson Clark
College of Design Construction and Planning

When fans step into the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, they might be too astonished by its many world’s firsts — such as the roof that opens like a camera lens — to consider the effort that made it possible. But that’s exactly what University of Florida alumnus Wayne Wadsworth will be thinking about on opening day. 

Wadsworth, executive vice president of Holder Construction, served as the principal in charge of the team of general contractors that built the stadium, home to the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United, and the SEC Football Championship.

“I have been fortunate to work on a number of iconic projects in my career, but nothing would really compare with this,” he said. 

Take that jaw-dropping roof, for example: When he first saw the concept five years ago, Wadsworth was a little skeptical that such a groundbreaking design was possible. 

“I’ve seen lots of creative ideas by some really talented architects over the years,” he said. “I was pretty shocked and amazed, and even more amazed that we’re putting it into reality.”

Add in the world’s first halo display, a five-story circular video board that’s the largest LED display in all of sports. Stretched end to end, it would be taller than the Eiffel Tower.

“There were just so many unique and challenging circumstances, and the fact that we had to do it with such speed and such accuracy just made it all that much more challenging, but we figured out how to do it and we made it work.”

Wadsworth credits his time at the Rinker School of Construction Management in UF’s College of Design, Construction and Planning for helping him stay cool under pressure.

“It absolutely opened the door for me to join Holder Construction Company almost 28 years ago. It laid the foundation for me to enter into an extraordinarily challenging industry and do it with a high degree of success.” 

Wadsworth remains closely connected to his alma mater: He has served on the Rinker School’s advisory council executive committee for more than 15 years, recruits new employees on campus, and leads an alumni group for the school’s Atlanta-area grads. 

Holder vice president Wayne Wadsworth meets a student at UF's career fair.

Wadsworth greets a student at UF's career fair. Photo courtesy of UF College of Design, Construction and Planning.

Plenty of Gators joined Wadsworth in building Mercedes-Benz Stadium, including those he has brought to Holder and grads working for the joint venture companies and subcontractors. Naturally, they’re looking forward to cheering UF on to an SEC victory in the new venue.

“That would be a crowning moment, to have the Gators come and win an SEC Championship in any sport in this building,” he said. “It’s going to be an exciting day for the Gator Nation.”

Society & Culture

Can you pass this smell test?

August 28, 2017
Steven D. Munger

How well do you know your chemical senses? Answer the true-or-false questions included in this essay that explains how taste and smell are linked to each other in ways that experts are continuing to explore.

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The smell of daffodils is a treat for most people, but some cannot experience the joy because they have lost their sense of smell. Mila Supinskaya Glashchenko/Shutterstock.com

Steven D. Munger, University of Florida

Each of our senses gives us a unique view of our world. Our visual system detects parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, revealing movement, brightness and color, but also a smile or a tear. Our auditory system registers changes in pressure, but also allows us to hear the crash of ocean waves or the smoky contralto of Billie Holiday. To appreciate the flavor of food and drink, recognize the perfume of the first spring flowers or detect the danger of a gas leak, we rely upon our olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) systems.

Smell and taste are intimately linked to each other. They are collectively known as chemical senses because each system functions to detect chemicals in our external environment. Our brains also process aspects of smell and taste together, especially when it comes to perceiving the flavor of food.

The chemical senses play hugely important roles in the lives of all animals. For example, a recent pair of studies showed that social order breaks down dramatically in ants with a disrupted olfactory system. These animals, which rely on odors to communicate with each other the way humans rely on language, could no longer perceive important social messages sent between individuals.

Anosmia, which is the complete loss of smell, and other smell or taste disorders can be life-changing for humans, too. Because your brain combines smell and taste to create a perception of flavor, impairments in either of these senses can make food seem bland or even unpalatable. And while we don’t rely on odors to communicate the way ants do, those who can’t smell their new baby, their partner or the freshly mown grass can feel isolated from others and from the world around them.

Unfortunately, there are no effective treatments for most patients with smell and taste disorders. Additionally, patients often find it nearly impossible to be properly diagnosed or to receive support that can help to improve their quality of life – critical needs that we are helping to address in the laboratory and the clinic at the University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste.

Test your knowledge

How well do you know your chemical senses? Answer these true-or-false questions below to find out more.

Humans can track scent on the ground the way dogs do.


The human sense of smell is better than you were told. In fact, it rivals that of other animals. Humans can even follow a scent track on the ground.

Dogs in a field chase a scent. CG3/Shutterstock.com

However, dogs, rodents and many other mammals are attuned to parts of the chemical world of which we are unaware: They can detect specialized odors such as pheromones that may influence social interactions, mating behaviors or aggression responses. There is little evidence supporting a role for pheromones in humans, no matter what those internet ads might say!

Some people smell odors that aren’t there.


People with phantosmia perceive an odor even when there is not one present. These smell phantoms (there are taste phantoms, too) can have many causes, including nasal infections, neurological damage accompanying surgery or conditions such as epilepsy. Phantosmia is but one type of smell and taste disorder, the most common of which are hyposmia, which is diminished ability to smell, and anosmia, which is the inability to detect smells.

Sweet taste can be an illusion.


Artichokes contain chemicals that don’t taste sweet on their own, but leave behind sweetness when washed away by a drink of water. These chemicals act by locking the sweet taste receptor in your mouth into the “off” position; when the chemical is washed away, the receptors all snap to the “on” position simultaneously, evoking a sweet “water taste” even in the absence of sugar or other sweeteners. The sweet taste inhibitor lactisole – a compound added to jams and jellies to dampen the intense sweetness from high concentrations of sugar used as a preservative – can elicit a similar perception.

Mosquitoes (and other insects) have noses.

False (technically).

But they do have have antennae and other structures that function much like the human nose to detect odors. And they use their sense of smell to find you when they want a meal. The insect repellent DEET works in part by disrupting the mosquito’s sense of smell.

Sour can taste sweet.


An unusual protein called miraculin, found in the “miracle fruit” of the tropical plant Synsepalum dulcificum, doesn’t taste sweet on its own but becomes a potent sweetener when exposed to acids. Suck on a lemon after eating a miracle fruit, and it will taste like lemon candy.

A lemon will taste like candy after you eat miracle fruit. grey_and/Shutterstock.com

Smell and taste aren’t the only chemical senses.


While you can tell the difference between basil and garlic by their smell, your sense of taste is largely indifferent to herbs and spices. Then how do you sense of cooling of the menthol in mint, the heat of capsaicin in a habanero, or the tingling of sanshools in Szechuan peppercorns? Compounds in many herbs and spices trick temperature, pain and vibration sensors associated with the trigeminal nerve in the mouth and nose to give you these sensations. This third chemical sense is known as chemesthesis.

Mirrors can change smells.


A mirror won’t alter a smell. But some mirror image molecules (known as stereoisomers – think of comparing your right and left hands) have very different smells. The best-known stereoisomers that evoke very different aromas are D-carvone and L-carvone, which smell like caraway and spearmint, respectively.

The ConversationFew people may appreciate the biology and chemistry that allows us to experience our chemical world. But those of us who study the chemical senses hope that our research will lead to tastier and healthier food, reduce the spread of insect-borne disease, improve the lives of people with smell or taste disorders and create a better understanding of the importance of smell and taste.

Steven D. Munger, Director, Center for Smell and Taste; Professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, University of Florida

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

Science & Wellness

Florida consumer sentiment down slightly in August

August 29, 2017
Colleen Porter

Consumer sentiment among Floridians dropped 1.2 points in August to 96.5. Among the five components that make up the index, one increased and four decreased.

Respondents’ overall views of their personal financial situation now compared with a year ago ticked down one-tenth of a point, from 88.2 to 88.1; however, there was a split by gender, with the reading rising 4.8 points for men but dropping 4.7 points for women.

Opinions about whether now is a good time to buy a big-ticket household item such as an appliance dropped one-tenth of a point, from 102.8 to 102.7.

“In the last two months, July and August, Floridians’ perceptions of present economic conditions shifted slightly downward; nonetheless, they remained 2.6 points higher than the average over the last 12 months,” said Hector H. Sandoval, director of the Economic Analysis Program at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. 

Expectations of personal finances a year from now increased two points, from 103.8 to 105.8. Anticipated U.S. economic conditions over the next year decreased 1.8 points, from 98.1 to 96.3. Expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the next five years showed the largest drop of any reading this month, falling 6.1 points from 95.8 to 89.7. These three components indicate opinions about future economic conditions. 

“Most of the pessimism in August stems from negative expectations regarding the national economic conditions in the long run. It might be the case that consumers remember their experience a decade ago when the earliest signs of a weakening economy began to appear, and they may be expecting a repeat of the cycle. This may be reflected in the latest trends of the three ‘expectations’ components of the index,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval noted that despite the overall decline in the index, people 60 and older consistently reported very high consumer sentiment. “In particular, they hold positive views regarding their personal financial situation compared with a year ago and are very optimistic about their personal finances in the short-run,” Sandoval said. 

He added, “Those with income under $50,000, however, reported negative perceptions and very unfavorable expectations. In fact, most of the pessimism came from those with income under $50,000, who held unfavorable expectations about the national economic conditions in the short and long run.”

Various reports indicate that both the U.S. and Florida’s economies are performing well and their prospects for 2018 remain good. In Florida, jobs have been added on a monthly basis over the last seven years. Florida’s job gains were led by construction, education and health services, and professional and business services industries.

In July, the unemployment rate in Florida remained unchanged from June at 4.1 percent. That number is particularly significant because an unemployment rate around 4 percent is considered to reflect a full-employment economy.

“Despite the positive economic signals, particularly in the labor market, consumer opinions in the short run may be affected by uncertainty around federal fiscal policy with talk of major changes to the tax code and a possible government shutdown,” Sandoval said.

Conducted Aug. 1-24, the UF study reflects the responses of 403 individuals who were reached on cellphones, representing a demographic cross section of Florida.

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

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

Society & Culture

Why Muslims celebrate Eid twice a year: six questions answered

August 29, 2017
Ken Chitwood

As Muslims worldwide prepare to celebrate Eid al-Adha, a UF Ph.D. candidate studying global Islam explains the festival’s meaning and importance.

File 20170828 1612 1wnyyra
Eid prayers. IIOC Masjid Omar AlFarouk, CC BY-NC-ND

Ken Chitwood, University of Florida

Editor’s note: At sundown on August 31, Muslims all over the world will celebrate one of the principal festivals, Eid al-Adha. Earlier in June, Muslims celebrated Eid al-Fitr. Ken Chitwood, Ph.D. candidate studying global Islam, explains the two Islamic festivals.

What is Eid?

Eid literally means a “festival” or “feast” in Arabic. It is celebrated twice a year as Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.

Why is it celebrated twice a year?

The two Eids recognize, celebrate and recall two distinct events that are significant to the story of the Islamic faith.

Eid al-Fitr means “the feast of breaking the fast.” The fast, in this instance, is that of Ramadan, which recalls the revealing of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad.

Eid celebrations can last up to three days. In many countries with large Muslim populations, it is a national holiday. Schools, offices and businesses are closed so family, friends and neighbors can enjoy the celebrations together. Saudi Arabia has announced a 16-day holiday this year for Eid. In Turkey and in places that were once part of the Ottoman-Turkish empire such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Azerbaijan and the Caucuses, it is also known as the, “Lesser Bayram” (meaning “lesser festival” in Turkish).

The other festival, Eid al-Adha, is the “feast of the sacrifice.” It commemorates the end of Hajj, an obligatory annual pilgrimage by millions of Muslims to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Eid al-Adha recalls the story of how God commanded Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ishmael as a test of faith (the story is of Abraham and Isaac in the Hebrew Torah and Christian Old Testament). The story, as narrated in the Quran, describes Satan’s attempt to tempt Ibrahim so he would disobey God’s command. Ibrahim, however, remains unmoved and informs Ishmael, who is willing to be sacrificed.

But, just as Ibrahim attempts to kill his son, God intervenes and a ram is sacrificed in place of Ishmael. This story has institutionalized the ideal of sacrifice in Islam and continues to be commemorated each year. During Eid al-Adha, Muslims slaughter an animal to remember Ibraham’s sacrifice and remind themselves of the need to submit to the will of God. Eid al-Adha is also known as the “Greater Bayram.”

When are they celebrated?

Eid al-Adha is celebrated on the 10th day of the 12th and final month in the Islamic calendar.

Eid al-Fitr is celebrated on the first day of the 10th month in the Islamic calendar.

The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, and dates are calculated based on lunar phases. Due to this, the Islamic calendar year is shorter than the solar Gregorian calendar year by 10 to 12 days.

Thus, Ramadan and Eid “rotate” through the Gregorian calendar and can be celebrated during different seasons in the Southern and Northern hemispheres. In 2017, for example, Eid al-Fitr was celebrated on June 25. In 2018, the date for Eid al-Fitr will be June 15. For Eid al-Adha, the date this year is September 1. In 2018, it will fall on August 21.

What customs are common during the two Eids?

Eid al-Fitr features two to three days of celebrations that include special prayers. People greet each other with “Eid Mubarak,” meaning “Blessed Eid.” Gifts are given out to the poor before the morning prayers. In addition, Muslims are encouraged to forgive differences and let go of grudges. There are a multitude of other practices that vary from country to country.

On Eid al-Adha, pilgrims in Mecca reenact Ibrahim’s rejection of Satan’s temptation. During the pilgrimage, Muslims cast stones at a pillar, which represents Satan. In remembrance of how Ibrahim was given a ram to sacrifice as a substitute for his son, they proceed to sacrifice animals such as goats, cattle, sheep or camels.

Those unable to go on the pilgrimage visit mosques and even family gravesites..

What is the spiritual meaning of sacrifice during Eid al-Adha?

The sacrifice represents how, like Ibrahim, pilgrims and practicing Muslims worldwide are willing to give up even their most precious possessions.

Charity to the poor is a highly emphasized value in Islam. The Quran says,

“believe in Allah and his messenger, and give charity out of the (substance) that Allah has made you heirs of. For those of you who believe and give charity – for them is a great reward.” (57.7)

So, as part of this practice, only around a third of the meat is consumed by the family or group of friends; the rest is given to the poor and needy.

Furthermore, the sacrifice of animals too is carried out through specific instructions that minimize their suffering. This is part of the moral obligation of Muslims.

What are some of the modern-day challenges?

With more than two million arriving in Mecca these days, the pilgrimage presents a logistical challenge for countries providing meat for the sacrifice. Saudi authorities strive to find alternative methods of preserving, distributing and dealing with the vast amount of meat that comes from the animal sacrifices.

The ConversationIn the U.S. Muslims consume halal meat – that is, meat that has been prepared by adhering to the rules – but they are not allowed to perform the sacrifice themselves. Food laws require that meat be acquired from certified butchers who follow standard federal and halal rules. However, some Muslims might send money to their friends and relatives in other countries to help fund a sacrifice.

Ken Chitwood, Ph.D. Candidate, Religion in the Americas, Global Islam, University of Florida

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

Society & Culture

Ahead of UF-Michigan game in Dallas, UF president urges Gator family to help Hurricane Harvey victims

August 29, 2017
Steve Orlando

As residents of coastal Texas continued to grapple with widespread catastrophic flooding and other impacts from Hurricane Harvey, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs today urged the UF community to offer storm victims much-needed assistance.

Fuchs made the appeal as the Gators football team prepares to play its season opener in Dallas on Saturday against the University of Michigan.

Harvey, now a tropical storm, made landfall Friday near Corpus Christi as a Category 4 storm and has inundated Houston with unprecedented rainfall. Some predictions call for the area to receive up to 50 inches by the time the storm leaves the area later this week.

Among those affected are 27 UF Online students, including eight in the counties declared federal disaster areas, and potentially the families of nearly 500 UF students who call Texas home.

In keeping with the wishes of governmental and emergency officials in the areas hit hardest, Fuchs encouraged Gators to make financial contributions to the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

“It is so important to remember during difficult times that while we embrace competition on the field, we all become one team whose goal is to help one another,” Fuchs said. “Today, we are all Texans. That’s truly what the Gator Good is all about.”

Campus Life

Are store brands just as good? An expert weighs in

August 31, 2017
Alisson Clark

As a graduate student on a tight budget, Woochoel Shin chose store brands over name-brand products. But he always thought that when he became a professor, he would leave generic brands behind.   

That day has come, but Shin, the JCPenney Professor of Marketing at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business, still buys store brands. That’s because years of studying them — not just as a consumer, but as a researcher – have shown him that their quality is often comparable to their brand-name counterparts.

In recent years, retailers have not only upped the quality of their basic offerings, but introduced higher-end versions of generic products to compete with mid-tier and premium national brands. At the grocery chain Publix, for example, Publix Premium products offer a lower-priced version of upmarket brands. Shopping at Target, you might see a bag of Market Pantry coffee for $5.99 alongside the higher-end Archer Farms for $6.89. They’re both Target brands, each vying for a different type of customer.

Store brands have been growing since the 1980s, expanding from a 10 to 15 percent market share to nearly 25 percent today. The phenomenon isn’t limited to supermarkets, but extends to home improvement, office supply and big-box stores. However, “consumers still think of store brands as a lower quality than the national brands,” Shin said. “That’s the biggest misconception.”

In the ’80s, store brands could be pretty terrible, which could account for lingering negative perceptions, he explained. (In blind tests, consumers rated some store brands higher than national brands, but when they knew a product was a store brand, they tended to like it less.)

Whether you buy them or not, store brands lower prices across the board, Shin said.

“Store brands put more pressure on national brands to make a better product at a cheaper price,” he said. “The overall average price for the category is going to be lower with the introduction of the store brand, so it helps consumers.”

Woochoel Shin

Woochoel Shin/Photo:UF Warrington College of Business

Manufacturers and retailers win, too, because lower prices expand the market for that category to people who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy the product before, Shin said. His latest research looks into the effects of “category captaincy,” in which a retailer gives a national brand manufacturer control over the display, promotion and selection of products it carries in a category, including its own store brand, in order to maximize profits for the retailer and manufacturer alike.

Shin expects the proliferation of generics to continue until store shelves in the United States look more like European countries such as Switzerland, Spain and the United Kingdom, where store brands account for 40 percent or more of sales. But don’t expect national brands to go away, he says.

“National brands bring people into the store, but they have a thinner margin for the retailer. With the store brand, the retailer has a huge margin. So retailers want to sell more store brands, but they can't give up on national brands because they generate traffic,” he said. “National brands will always be there. The question is how much.”

Even Shin admits to some brand loyalty, especially when buying snacks like Oreos for his kids. He’s also partial to Kraft cheese. “On the one hand, I know the quality differentiation is probably small.” On the other hand, the store brand “didn’t seem as tasty.”

Society & Culture

‘Gluten-free water’ shows absurdity of trend in labeling what’s absent

August 30, 2017
Brandon McFadden

A UF food and resource economics expert discusses the ways companies are exploiting a consumer knowledge gap regarding supposed health hazards of certain ingredients.

File 20170824 18734 g7730j
Gluten-free, GMO-free and 100 percent vegan. ericlefrancais/Shutterstock.com

Brandon McFadden, University of Florida

The food labeling craze coupled with banner headlines about the dangers of gluten, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and hormones are leading to increasingly absurd results.

For example, you can now buy “premium” water that’s not only free of GMOs and gluten but certified kosher and organic. Never mind that not a single drop of water anywhere contains either property or is altered in any way by those designations.

While some labels provide useful information that is not readily detectable by consumers, others contain misleading claims that exploit a knowledge gap with consumers and take advantage of their willingness to pay a premium for so-called process labels. For example, details on a product’s country of origin are helpful; labeling a bottle of water “gluten free” and “non-GMO” much less so.

In my experience as a food economist, such “fake transparency” does nothing to inform consumers about the nature of their foods. Moreover, it can actually decrease well-being when accompanied by a higher price tag. A new labeling law set to take effect next year will only make matters worse.

A side-by-side comparison shows the differences between old and new food Nutrition Facts labels after changes were made earlier this year. Food and Drug Administration via AP

Brief history of food labels

Until the late 1960s, consumers knew very little about the nutritional content of the prepared foods they purchased.

The dramatic growth in processed foods changed this and led to a system of voluntary and mandatory nutrition labeling in the early ‘70s. As we learned more about the relationship between diet and health, Congress sought to provide consumers more information by passing the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to require companies to list certain nutrients and other details on food packages.

Since then, food labeling has only gotten wilder. Some labels, such as “organic,” follow strict federal guidelines, while others aren’t regulated, such as “natural.” Eggs might come from chickens that are “cage-free” (which isn’t regulated) or “free range” (which is), while your milk could come from cows that are “grass-fed” (no standard) or “hormone-free” (requires verification).

These labels are largely the result of the consumer desire to know more about the way food is produced – and the willingness to pay more for the claims, spurious or not.

Healthier internet? Mr. Gray

Characteristics of a product

To understand how all this labeling drives consumer behavior, let’s turn to economics.

The economist Kevin Lancaster hypothesized that consumers derive happiness not from a product they might buy but from its characteristics.

For example, when purchasing a car, it’s the characteristics – color, brand, size, price or fuel efficiency – that make you want to buy it. Browsing online even allows us to refine searches by these characteristics. Some of these characteristics, such as size and color, are visible and verifiable to they eye before purchase, while others, like a car’s fuel efficiency, can’t be confirmed until you sign on the dotted line and collect the keys.

In other words, the company knows more about the car than you do, something economists call asymmetric information. Economist George Akerlof won a Nobel Prize for his work on asymmetric information and how it leads to terrible market outcomes.

Similarly, food has characteristics that can be observed only after purchase. You can pick up an apple and see whether it has any blemishes, but you don’t really know how it will taste, and you cannot know how many calories it has even after consumption. That’s where food labels can help.

Exploiting the knowledge gap

Unfortunately, the problem of asymmetric information can never be eliminated entirely, and consumers may never have as much knowledge as they’d like when making purchases.

Mandated labeling has helped narrow this gap, particularly when the additional information increases consumer well-being, such as knowledge that a food contains 160 calories or 60 percent of the recommended daily does of vitamin C.

Some companies, however, use food labels to exploit this knowledge gap by preying on consumer concerns about a certain ingredient or process in order to collect a premium or increase market share. One of the ways they do this is by providing fake transparency through so-called absence labels (like “does not contain”), which are increasingly found on products that could not possibly have the ingredient in the first place.

While the water example I mentioned earlier is the most clear-cut illustration of this, others only require a bit more knowledge to see that they don’t serve a purpose. Since federal regulation requires that hormones not be used in pork or poultry, advertising a chicken breast as “hormone-free” doesn’t make sense – yet doing so allows a company to charge more or help its products stand out from the less-labeled competition.

The FDA allows a business to use the phrase as long as the label also notes that “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

Signaling safety

A new law that makes GMO labeling of some foods mandatory will likely compound these problems once it takes effect in the summer of 2018.

To understand why, let’s return to asymmetric information and a related economic theory called the signaling effect. A signaling effect occurs when a buyer receives an implicit message from an explicit cue. For example, a food labeled “low sodium” may implicitly communicate that salt should be avoided. When the government is involved in the signaling effect, such as when a label is mandatory, the impact tends to become stronger.

Thus the new GMO labeling law is bound to signal to consumers that bioengineered foods are somehow bad. While some countries have banned the use of GMOs, such as in Europe, the FDA has said that “credible evidence has demonstrated that foods from the GE plant varieties marketed to date are as safe as comparable, non-GE foods.”

As a result of the new law, companies selling products without GMOs will likely slap “GMO free” on the label even though the law doesn’t apply to those foods.

The ConversationMy worry is that consumers will become ever more mystified as more businesses make increasingly absurd claims on their labels so that their products stand out from the competition in the grocery store aisle. I expect that the only thing consumers will get in return for these “fake transparency” labels is a higher price tag.

Brandon McFadden, Assistant Professor of Food and Resource Economics, University of Florida

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

Science & Wellness

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