Evolution of China’s flowering plants shows East-West divide between old, new lineages

February 1, 2018
Natalie van Hoose

An international team of scientists has mapped the evolutionary relationships between China’s 30,000 flowering plant species, uncovering a distinct regional pattern in biodiversity. Eastern China is a floral “museum” with a rich array of ancient lineages and distant relatives while the western provinces are an evolutionary “cradle” for newer and more closely related species.

The findings highlight the need for more conservation efforts in densely populated eastern China, home to many threatened plant species and the country’s top biodiversity hotspots.

Better connecting eastern China’s nature reserves and parks, currently fragmented by urbanization and provincial borders, would help conserve plant lineages and the animals that depend on them, said Pam Soltis, one of the study’s senior authors and a distinguished professor and curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“Conservation is not just about protecting species numbers but also protecting evolutionary diversity and processes,” said Soltis, who is also the director of the University of Florida Biodiversity Institute. “Focusing just on how many species are in an area, rather than how different they are from one another genealogically, could lead to conservation practices that miss important sections of the Tree of Life. Both are key measures of biodiversity. This study helps spotlight what is missing in China’s current protective strategies.”

In a study led by Li-Min Lu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, researchers produced the first dated phylogeny – a family tree of organisms showing when new species appeared – for all of China’s flowering plant species, or angiosperms, and mapped their distributions using 1.4 million museum specimen records.

The team published its results today in the online edition of Nature. Co-senior authors are Zhi-Duan Chen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Jian-Hua Li of Hope College and Pam Soltis and Doug Soltis of the Florida Museum and UF.

The researchers found that about 66 percent of angiosperm genera in China did not originate until the early Miocene, about 23 million years ago. Mean species divergence times – when species first appeared – were 22-25 million years ago in the East and 15-19 million years ago in the West.

Over the past 30 million years, herbaceous plants – those without a woody stem – diversified much more quickly than woody plants such as shrubs, trees and vines.

China is home to about 10 percent of the world’s flowering plant species, outstripping the number of angiosperm species in the U.S. by more than 3.5-fold. Its varied geography and climate contribute to its wealth of biodiversity. The hills, lowlands and plains in the warmer, more tropical East gradually rise to the West’s rugged mountains, deserts and the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the highest tableland in the world.

Unlike North America and Europe, China did not undergo the dramatic ecological turnover driven by glaciation in the ice age about 2.58 million to 11,700 years ago, allowing ancient plant lineages to persist in the East and newer lineages to be folded into ever-diversifying plant communities.

“China didn’t experience that big type of cataclysmic event,” said Doug Soltis, a distinguished professor and curator at the Florida Museum and professor in the UF department of biology. “That allowed it to be more of a museum than other parts of the Northern Hemisphere.”

The uplift of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in the West, caused by India’s collision with Eurasia, spurred the region’s evolutionary explosion of new species by opening up myriad new habitats and creating a cool, arid western climate. The West became a cradle for newer herbaceous plants while the East remained a museum for older herbaceous plants and both a museum and a cradle for woody plants.

The researchers used species distribution data to map China’s areas of genetic richness, pinpointing several eastern provinces as home to the country’s greatest genetic diversity of flowering plants: Guangdong, Guanxi, Guizhou, Hainan and Yunnan. Conservation in the East, however, is carried out on a much smaller, more fragmented scale than in the sparsely populated West, where large swaths of land are preserved.

“It’s good to preserve these areas with recent radiations of new species, but what’s missing is extensive protection of these older eastern lineages,” Doug Soltis said. “This study helps us better see the discrepancies between where conservation areas are and where the diversity actually is located. Scientists didn’t realize the importance of protecting genetic diversity – and not just rare species – until the last few decades, but we couldn’t measure this type of diversity in a rigorous way until the last 10-15 years.”

The researchers pointed to the value of museum collections in enabling this country-scale study of thousands of plant species spanning millions of years of evolution. Each plant specimen, painstakingly collected and preserved in herbaria over the past century and digitized, contributed to an enormous dataset that offered a detailed snapshot of China’s diversity of flowering plants.

“How do you do something like this without relying on millions of collections?” Pam Soltis said. “Without all those data, it’s impossible. The question of how communities of organisms came together and changed over time is unanswered for nearly all groups. Pinning down the history of 30,000 species – nearly 10 percent of the planet’s flowering plant life – is a major leap forward.                                                                         

Lead author Lu said the study provides a model for many other landscape-scale studies of biodiversity.

“We feel that the importance of this study extends beyond plant biology to other lineages of organisms and other regions of Earth,” she said. “Both the approaches used and the results are also of broad interest to scientists and the public who are concerned with the conservation of biodiversity.”

The research was supported by the National Key Basic Research Program of China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Chinese Academy of Sciences International Institution Development Program, the U.S. National Science Foundation, iDigBio, U.S.-China Dimensions of Biodiversity Program and the Priority Academic Program Development of Jiangsu Higher Education Institutions.

Science & Wellness

The #3 most powerful computer at a U.S. public university

February 2, 2018
Christine Coombes

The University of Florida’s recent move into the U.S. News and World Report top 10 standing has only propelled this Research I university forward and set their sights even higher. In order to continue its trajectory, UF is in the process of recruiting 500 of the finest investigators who are conducting and producing the highest caliber of research. That is made possible with the help of UF’s HiPerGator supercomputer.

HiPerGator is the most powerful supercomputer in Florida, the most powerful university supercomputer in the Southern U.S. and the third-fastest university supercomputer in the country, according to the latest world rankings. Originally unveiled in 2013, HiPerGator was already state of the art. But, Gators are not ones to rest on their laurels. In 2015 HiPerGator 2.0 came to life adding 30,000 cores to the already impressive 21,000, doubling the terabytes of RAM and increasing the maximum speed by nearly 1,000 teraflops. To put this into perspective for the less tech-savvy reader, HiPerGator can hold:

  • Nearly 21 million times more data than the computer program on Apollo 11 that put a man on the moon
  • 240 million books. This is more than the Library of Congress plus the nation’s Top 25 public libraries.
  • Nearly 40 years of HD-TV video.

“Supercomputing and BIGDATA are terms used on campus all the time.  But when you learn what is actually being done—in human terms, not technical terms—it is so exciting and humbling,” says Elias Eldayrie, vice president and chief information officer at the University of Florida.  “We have renowned scientists analyzing the effects that having HIV has in Alzheimer’s patients. We have faculty collaborating with colleagues in other states, evaluating data to improve early childhood medical care in underserved communities. We have postdoctoral students studying the epidemiological patterns of Cholera in Haiti and HIV transmission patterns in South Africa. And we have English faculty curating social media data to understand the ways digital platforms influence opinion. The work taking place at the University of Florida has the power to transform society.  And that power comes from our faculty’s imagination…and HiPerGator.”

“Having HiPerGator available is instrumental in the research I do at UF,” explains Steve Coombes, Ph.D., assistant professor in Applied Physiology & Kinesiology at UF. “We’re interested in the structure of the brain after a stroke. Collecting and analyzing images of brains from people who haven’t experienced a stroke helps us track the different motor pathways in the brain. Knowing which part of the tract is damaged after a stroke may be extremely helpful in predicting recovery.”

Utilizing 3,000 HiPerGator cores, the images of Coombes’ team were processed in three months. Without HiPerGator’s processing power, analyzing the data on a single computer would have taken 42 years.

UFIT Research Computing is constantly refining and updating its services to the university community. Some of the latest advancements include “ResVault.” This is the super-secure environment for storing and processing meeting the rules specified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and mandated for all federal grants involving restricted data, like export controlled research and patient health information. Additionally, UF was one of the first universities to successfully set up and deploy a FISMA-compliant environment.

UFIT Research Computing is also home to a staff of professionals that train, support, and consult faculty and students in evaluating the best way to analyze data or offer expertise in the complex software available to them.

According to Erik Deumens, Ph.D., director of UF research computing, “as a scientist and computer engineer, I like to list the amazing specs and capabilities of UF’s supercomputer, but what is truly important to the university is the research our faculty and students are able to carry out with this resource. At UF, we strive every day to move the world forward and tackle problems and challenges that plague the world. HiPerGator supports our researchers to make that possible.”

To learn more about HiPerGator, visit here.
To view videos on the capabilities of HiPerGator and how UF researchers use it, visit here and here.

Campus Life

UF honors fastest-growing alumni-led companies during 2018 Gator100 celebration

February 2, 2018
Lindsey Farah

Some of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs were recognized by the University of Florida during its 2018 Gator100 celebration on Feb. 2. The annual ceremony honors the world’s fastest-growing businesses that are owned or led by UF alumni.

Inclusion on the Gator100 list is competitive and considered one of the most prestigious recognitions for alumni who are business leaders. This year’s honorees include companies from 17 states and two businesses based in China and India. In all, 2018 Gator100 businesses generate more than $6.2 billion annually and employ almost 44,000 people.

Topping this year’s list is the Orlando construction firm ACY Contractors. President Michael Young’s company provides services for schools and colleges, entertainment, health care and other niche markets. Young earned his UF bachelor’s degree in building construction in 1997.

“The Gator100 honors UF alumni from across the university who are founding and growing amazing companies around the country,” said Kent Fuchs, president of the University of Florida. “It’s an incredible affirmation of the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of The Gator Nation.”

Now in its fourth year, the university’s premier entrepreneurial awards program is sponsored by the UF Alumni Association in partnership with UF’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center. To be considered for the Gator100, companies must have been in business for at least five years and have annual revenues of $250,000 or more; an alumnus must be owner, CEO or founder. Companies’ annual growth rates over the past three years are calculated by the global accounting firm Ernst & Young to determine rankings. The entire 2018 Gator100 list is available online at gator100.ufl.edu.

The University of Florida has a long history of established programs in business and entrepreneurship, international education, research and service, and is one of only 17 public, land-grant universities in the prestigious Association of American Universities. It is currently ranked No. 9 in the most recent U.S. News and World Report’s list of public universities.


Global Impact

Human Trafficking Symposium emboldens students to take a stand

February 2, 2018
Andrea Carla Lopez

University of Florida’s second annual Human Trafficking Symposium on Tuesday, Jan. 30, brought together nonprofits, experts and survivors of human trafficking to shed light on the complexity of the issue, while also giving students and attendees a message of hope. The symposium was hosted by the Gators Against Human Trafficking and Bob Graham Center Student Fellows, and co-sponsored by the UF Chapter of the National Organization for Women.

The event kicked off with Savannah Parvu, a survivor of human trafficking and advocate, who shared her harrowing personal experience that started when she was five years old.

“You don’t tell what happens at home,” Parvu said. Her parents warned her to never reveal the harsh realities that went on at home, such as her parents’ drug abuse, which ultimately led to her own mother forcing her into prostitution for years.

According to Lisa Rowe, vice president of Selah Freedom, an anti-human trafficking organization dedicated to educating the community and helping survivors, Parvu’s story is not uncommon. In fact, Rowe added that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys are sexually assaulted, all of which are underreported crimes.

“This is the cause that’s worth everything law can offer,” said Frank Williams, assistant U.S. Attorney. On the panel, he shared that his prosecution of more than 18 Gainesville human traffickers were made possible through a victim-centered approach that focuses on stabilizing victims and offering support. Williams then went on to inspire the audience of nearly 80 by emphasizing that his message was hopeful and encouraging.

“Every time we take one of these traffickers off the street, every victim that we help, we will change the world,” Williams said. He added that most common misconception is that we can’t make a difference. Through awareness and stopping the promotion of abuse, he said in fact, we can change the culture that allows this trafficking market to grow.

Richard Tovar, President of Fight Injustice and Global Human Trafficking (FIGHT), continued the call to action by telling the audience that changing culture means making situations uncomfortable if it doesn’t seem right. Adding that when we stop the normalization of degradation of people bodies, for example, in pornography, we help fight the cycle of trafficking.

CEO of the Trafficking in America Task Force, Jerome Elam, also went on to rally the audience to push legislators to support harsher penalties for traffickers and long-term aftercare for survivors.

Speakers at the event also included Alison Ungaro, founder of the Gainesville nonprofit organization, Created; Nicole Ferranti, investigator for the Florida Department of Children and Families; and Anorine Ledet, a special agent for Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency.

Williams left the audience with a call to action: step forward when something seems off. “That’s what I learned about this cause – it’s going to take a team effort.”

To watch an archive of the event, visit http://www.bobgrahamcenter.ufl.edu/content/second-annual-human-trafficking-symposium.

Campus Life

An inside look at UF's 18-million-year-old fossil site

February 2, 2018
Stephenie Livingston
Biodiversity, Florida Museum of Natural History

Adobe Spark Page

Science & Wellness

UF reports 2017 as average year for worldwide shark attacks, deaths

February 5, 2018
Paul Ramey

With 88 reported unprovoked shark attacks and five fatalities worldwide, 2017 was “just an average year,” according to the University of Florida International Shark Attack File.


While the 88 reported attacks are slightly higher than the most recent five-year annual average of 83, the five fatalities are just below the average of six deaths per year. Of the 88 attacks, 60 percent (53) occurred in the U.S. Australia had the second-highest number of attacks with 14, including one fatality.

Lindsay French, who manages the database housed at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, said the slightly higher than average attack numbers were expected as human populations continue to climb and people spend more time in the water.

photo of Lindsay French
Lindsay French

“It really was just an average year, and significantly, the U.S. saw no shark attack fatalities for the second consecutive year” French said. “While we don’t put too much emphasis on year-to-year changes, a slight increase is expected as beach tourism and water sports gain in popularity. And as has been the case for years, Florida saw more attacks (31) than any other state while Volusia County led the state in reported attacks with nine, 29 percent of Florida’s total.”

Worldwide, Reunion Island had three unprovoked attacks and two fatalities. Ascension Island, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Indonesia and South Africa each had two attacks, with one fatality occurring in Costa Rica. Brazil, the Canary Islands, Cuba, Egypt, England, Japan, the Maldives and New Zealand reported single attacks, with Cuba’s attack resulting in the country’s first fatality since the 1930s.

“The hotspots we’re keeping an eye on are Ascension Island, which had its first attacks since the 1800s, and Reunion Island, which had two of last year’s five fatalities,” French said.

In the U.S., other states reporting attacks were South Carolina (10), Hawaii (6), California (2), with single incidents in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Fifty-nine percent of the attacks worldwide involved board sports. French said this group spends a large amount of time in the surf zone, an area commonly frequented by sharks.

“We need to remember we’re going into a shark’s natural habitat when we enter the water,” French said. “Water sport activities often unintentionally attract sharks because of splashing, paddling, kicking and wiping out. But the number of unprovoked attacks is remarkably low considering the billions of people who participate in water sports each year.”

French said the world’s shark populations continue to suffer as a result of over-fishing and habitat loss.

“On average, unprovoked shark attacks cause six fatalities worldwide each year,” she said. “But fisheries kill about 100 million sharks and rays annually, so there’s definitely a real need to conserve these animals and their habitat to ensure their long-term survival. They play an important role in marine ecosystems.”

Former shark program director Burgess retires, will focus on research

Throughout his more than 40-year career at the University of Florida, George Burgess gained an international reputation with the media and public as a reliable source and shark attack expert who always stressed the importance of shark conservation.

photo of George Burgess
George Burgess

And while he officially retired in 2017, Burgess is crystal clear on one point: He’s not done working and plans to stay engaged.

“Gen. Douglas MacArthur said, ‘Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,’ ” Burgess said. “I’ll continue to focus on sharks and sawfish as long as I’m able. I have some new shark species I’d like to describe and many back-burner research projects I’m looking forward to moving to the front burner.”

For decades, Burgess was the most-quoted source at UF outside of the athletic program, giving an estimated 300 to 600 interviews annually depending on the number of shark attacks.

He said at times he spoke with media daily for three or four weeks straight, including the summer of 2001, dubbed “the summer of the shark.” The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 of that year changed the focus of the news media and the public, and interestingly, Burgess didn’t give another interview that year, though multiple shark attacks occurred.

The Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, then called the Florida State Museum, hired Burgess in 1975 to work in its Ichthyology Division, researching sharks and other elasmobranchs, which include skates and rays.

When the museum acquired the Shark Attack File in 1988, it became Burgess’ self-proclaimed “baby.” He added “international” to the title because of its worldwide scope and began working to fill gaps of data that formed while the file sat inactive during the previous 20 years, all the while maintaining the current attack data.

In the mid-1990s, Burgess also started the Florida Museum’s International Sawfish Encounter Database, which played a key scientific role in the effort to have the smalltooth and largetooth sawfishes declared as endangered species.

“One thing I’m most proud of is that I’ve served as an ambassador for sharks around the world and as an intermediary between hard science and the public,” Burgess said. “I’m extremely proud of the team of people I’ve had the opportunity to work with on the development and growth of the International Shark Attack File and International Sawfish Encounter Database, which documents the status of five species that have really disappeared right under our collective noses.”

The Florida Museum hired Gavin Naylor, formerly with the Medical University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston, in May 2017 to lead its shark research efforts. Naylor has been researching sharks, skates and rays for nearly 30 years and said he hopes to expand the program’s reach and focus.

photo of Gavin Naylor
Gavin Naylor

“I believe George has done an excellent job of building this program and helping educate the news media and public about shark attacks and how to avoid them—while always driving home the critical component of conservation,” Naylor said. “I hope to build on that success by researching and communicating the importance of worldwide biodiversity and some of the ancient lineages of these fascinating creatures, including learning some of the tricks they have used to survive all these years. Some of these secrets could be lost forever if these species go extinct before they are discovered.”

Naylor pointed to the example of the taillight shark, a deep-water species for which only four specimens have been found. Scientists believe the shark may expel a burst of luminescent fluid from its anus as a self-defense mechanism.

“This is only one example — there are many that we know so very little about because the deep oceans are just poorly known,” Naylor said. “But just because some people are bitten by sharks doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study them. Thousands of people are bitten by dogs each year, and that hasn’t kept us from having them as pets.”

Burgess said being freed from his daily contact with the media, a duty now primarily handled by International Shark Attack File Manager Lindsay French, will allow him to focus on research.

One project on Burgess’ radar is a comprehensive analysis of the International Shark Attack File database, something that hasn’t been done since the 1960s. He said now with more than 6,000 investigations, it’s time for a more in-depth look at the numbers, including illustrating how the number of shark attacks over time correlates very closely with human population growth and the amount of time people spend in the water.

As he’s always been known to do, Burgess pointed to humans as the most important part of the shark-human interaction equation.

“Shark and elasmobranch populations in general have continued to dwindle over the years, primarily due to overfishing, lack of regulations and habitat loss,” he said.

Burgess said when he does finally “hang up his cleats,” what he’ll miss most is the people.

“It’s the people I’ve had the opportunity to work with at the museum and shark colleagues and friends I’ve made all over the world—that’s what makes it all worthwhile,” he said.

Science & Wellness

How Americans came to embrace meditation, and with it, Hinduism

February 6, 2018
Vasudha Narayanan

A UF religion scholar traces the history of “Eastern” religions in the West during the week marking the death anniversary of the Indian guru who brought transcendental meditation to the United States.

File 20180202 19918 1j8tahy.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Mahesh Yogi (seated in front) gained a following in the United States with musicians and artists, including members of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Ben Merk (ANEFO) (GaHetNa (Nationaal Archief NL), via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Vasudha Narayanan, University of Florida

This week marks the death anniversary of Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru who brought transcendental meditation to the West in the sixties and became a spiritual teacher to The Beatles, comedian Jerry Seinfeld and countless other celebrities.

Today, the legacy of the Maharashi, as he was popularly known, is evident in the widespread appreciation of meditation: Over 6 million people worldwide practice the technique the Maharishi introduced – transcendental meditation. An even larger number practice other forms. Health professionals and practitioners extol its many benefits, which range from anger management, lowered blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, reduced post-traumatic stress and simply a healthier lifestyle.

In the 1960s many Americans may have only known Hinduism through meditation, but the story of this country’s relationship with Hinduism is much longer and more complex.

Early embrace of Hinduism

The first time the American public formally learned about Hinduism was through the World’s Parliament of Religions, a gathering of practitioners of different faith traditions, which took place in Chicago in 1893. It was at that time when the American public first saw and heard people from “Eastern” religions, including Hindus and Buddhists, on their own soil.

At the time European and American scholars were becoming more accepting of other major religions in the world. Not considered as good as Christianity, they were nonetheless being included in the roster of an emerging group of “world religions.” Unfortunately, no representative of any Native American traditions or indigenous religions was invited.

Swami Vivekananda at Parliament of Religions. Parliament of Religion, 1893 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Vivekananda, a young monk representing Hinduism famously began his speech hailing his hosts as “brothers and sisters of America.” It was most unusual for an Indian monk to embrace the audience as a single family, at a time when societies were segregated and racial superiority was an accepted part of life. Vivekananda received a standing ovation. The appreciation continued as he journeyed through America after the talk. One journalist wrote:

Vivekananda’s address before the parliament was broad as the heavens above us, embracing the best in all religions, as the ultimate universal religion—charity to all mankind, good works for the love of God.”

Vivekananda spoke extensively about the spiritual benefits of yoga and meditation, explaining how they were common resources for all human beings, and not just for Hindus.

“Think of a space in your heart and in the midst of that space think that a flame is burning. Think of that flame as your own soul and inside the flame is another effulgent light, and that is the Soul of your soul, God. Meditate upon that in the heart.”

In fact, long before the World’s Parliament of Religions, American transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, showcased their fascination with Hindu texts in their poems and essays. Emerson copied long passages from Hindu texts in his journals and called the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text composed approximately 2,000 years ago, a “trans-national book.” Emerson’s poems, “Brahma” and “Hamatreya,” modeled on passages from Hindu texts speak about the impermanence of life and the immortality of the human soul.

Indeed, their adulation has assured the presence of the Bhagavad Gita in most large libraries in the United States.

Hinduism in popular culture

Since the 1960s, two kinds of Hinduism have made their home in the U.S.

One is a continuation of the popularization of meditation started by Vivekananda and Mahesh Yogi. Many other gurus came from India during the sixties and taught self-transformation through yoga and meditation. This acquired such popularity that Life magazine called 1968 the “year of the guru.”

In more recent years, Deepak Chopra, who was once a disciple of Maharishi, brought the meditation-body-mind healing to American consciousness. This work has made Chopra a popular author, public speaker and advocate for complementary healing in America today.

Some, though not all, of these movements underplay or distance their connections with the word “Hindu” and some use labels such “spiritual” to emphasize their “universal” content.

In other words, though the teachers were Hindu and their teachings had Hindu origins, they were presented not as Hindu or as “religious,” but in a generic form as “spiritual” and as applicable to all human beings.

Meditation advocated by these gurus became distanced from its religious roots. In India, meditation, especially on a mantra (a syllable, sound, word, or phrase), is only one part of the larger Hindu culture.

Conservative estimates by the National Institute of Health show that over 18 million Americans meditate and approximately 21 million adults and 1.7 million children practiced yoga regularly. Interestingly, although some Americans may associate meditation with Hinduism, another set of data shows that more than half the Hindus in America never practice it.

Movies too have embraced Hindu ideas. For example, “the Force” in “Star Wars,” has parallels with Hindu philosophical ideas such as “Brahman,” the Supreme, the ultimate principle of the universe, as does the illusory overlay in “The Matrix,” with “Maya,” the wondrous illusory power. It’s no accident that the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, learned from Joseph Campbell, who was a student of Hindu-Vedanta philosophy.

Hinduism today

A Hindu and Jain temple in Nevada. Vasudha Narayanan, CC BY

The second kind of Hinduism that has grown in America since the 1960s is what I would call “temple-Hinduism,” brought by immigrants from India and the Caribbean.

In 1900, seven years after Vivekananda set foot in America, there were only about 1,700 Hindus. Today, there are about 2.4 million Hindus who have made America their home today. Many of the current immigrants came following a new immigration law enacted in 1965 that abolished a quota system.

The new immigrants wanted to practice of their faith centered on rituals done in temples at specific days and times with processions, dances and music. Meditation was only one part of it.

The ConversationThoreau could have hardly imagined that within 150 years of his meditations, the waters of the Ganges in India would be mingled with waters of Walden to consecrate the temple of the Goddess Lakshmi in Ashland, Massachusetts, in 1989, and hundreds of temples across America.

Vasudha Narayanan, Distinguished Professor, University of Florida

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

Society & Culture

University of Florida launches nation’s first center for public interest communications

February 6, 2018
College of Journalism and Communications
College of Journalism and Communications

Emerging field focuses on applying science of strategic communication to drive social change

The University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications has announced the launch of the Center for Public Interest Communications, the first center in the U.S. dedicated to developing, translating and applying the science of strategic communication to drive social change. The Center will work with philanthropic, governmental, academic and business organizations on their efforts to have sustainable impact on social issues.

Public interest communications combines truthful and compelling storytelling with strategic communication grounded in primary research and social science. It has been defined as a “science-based approach to planned and lasting change on an issue that transcends the objectives of any single individual or organization.” This approach requires organizations to move past communication efforts that simply “raise awareness” of an issue and instead focus more narrowly on connecting with the group of individuals whose belief or behavior change will result in a lasting difference on pressing issues.

“Educating students who want to make a difference in their world is a cornerstone of our College,” said Diane McFarlin, the College’s dean. “The Center is the culmination of many years of curriculum development and community building in this nascent discipline.”

The Center will be led by Ann Christiano, the Frank Karel Endowed Chair in Public Interest Communications, the only PIC endowed chair in the country. Frank Karel, B.S. Journalism 1961, endowed the chair in 2009 after a 30-year career as vice president for communications for the Robert Wood Johnson and Rockefeller Foundations, where he pioneered using science-based communication for social change.

The Center for Public Interest Communications will work toward these goals:

1.     Build and test both undergraduate and graduate curricula for adoption by other Universities.

2.     Nurture, generate and promote scholarship that can advance the practice of public interest communications.

3.     Build and support a vibrant community among those who practice, fund or study public interest communications.

“Increasingly, causes and organizations are seeing the value of taking a public interest communications approach to their work, just as students are increasingly looking for careers that create opportunities to work on causes that matter to them,” Christiano said. “The Center gives us an opportunity to support and connect the field, while also providing immersive opportunities for our students.”

This week also marks the opening of the fourth annual frank event, the largest gathering of social change communicators from around the world.  The event includes speakers from the media and entertainment world, non-profits, academia and industry.  To view a live stream of speakers, go to frank.jou.ufl.edu.

In anticipating the development of a center, the College has already made considerable progress toward its goals. In addition to the frank event, the College recently launched the Journal for Public Interest Communications, the first-ever, open-access academic journal in this emerging discipline.  Hundreds of undergraduates have completed PIC course work that is not available at any other university. Many of those students are working in the field at places like Campaign for Tobacco Free Florida and public interest communications agencies such as Burness and Spitfire Strategies.

The Center will continue to work as a partner to organizations who are adopting a public interest communications approach, and to hold workshops to help social change leaders and scientists develop communication strategies rooted in sound research. The College’s PIC program has previously worked with organizations such as the Gates Foundation, Department of State, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Innovation Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Metropolitan Group, among others.

Global Impact

UF Health pediatric oncology patients pilot HealthSteps mobile platform

February 6, 2018
UF Health
UF Health

A select group of University of Florida Health pediatric oncology patients are being enrolled in a trial for HealthSteps — a smartphone-based digital care plan with clear patient care instructions, built-in reminders, a symptom tracker and the ability to share care plans between family members and medical teams. UF Health is the first in the nation to pilot the mobile application, which was created at the Innovation Hub at the University of Florida using UF resources.

“The Innovation Hub at UF’s mission is to build, drive and support the spirit of entrepreneurship in North Central Florida by providing top-notch facilities, programs and mentoring,” said Mark Long, director of incubation services at UF. “HealthSteps is a rising star resident client of the Innovation Hub, and we are extremely pleased with its progress.”

Benjamin King, CEO of HealthSteps, pondered ways to use digital resources in patient care when his mom received treatment for a brain tumor. While helping to manage her care, King noticed multiple breakdowns in communication among family members, which led to last-minute runs to the pharmacy and uncertainty regarding whether she took her medications. From this experience, he developed HealthSteps.

“The main goal of HealthSteps is to complement health care delivery by more effectively connecting patients with their caregivers. We developed a patient-centered mobile digital app that tracks a patient’s care plan success, helps to prevent medical errors and improves compliance through care plan synchronization,” said King. “Recent studies have indicated that a lack of communication between caregivers is the most frequent source of errors. We are hopeful that this app will provide patients and their caregivers a better pathway to improve their health.”

Patients enrolled in the pilot are undergoing maintenance treatment for leukemia. During this phase of treatment, most of the protocol and administering of medications happens at home. With HealthSteps, caregivers will receive medication reminders and be able to input the patients’ symptoms and medication intake. The patients’ physicians and care team at UF Health can then log into the HealthSteps clinical web platform to see updates and make important health care decisions.

“I can see how HealthSteps could be valuable for patients and their families,” said Shamani Moore, mother to Tionna, who spent 378 days battling leukemia at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital. “After Tionna was finally discharged, we still had to keep up with her medications and IVs at home and manage her symptoms. Having a system where an app could track everything for us and communicate with Tionna’s providers would have been helpful.”

The patients enrolled in the pilot will use HealthSteps for approximately two months and will provide feedback in the middle and at the end of the program. Feedback will be submitted to HealthSteps so they can continue to update the app to make it as efficient and easy to use as possible.

“This app gives our providers access to our patients’ medication tracking logs in real-time,” said William Slayton, M.D., chief of pediatric hematology/oncology at UF Health. “We are looking forward to working with HealthSteps to determine whether or not using the app helps reduce readmissions and improve patient outcomes.”

Science & Wellness

Art and science converge in the Harn Museum’s Asian wing

February 9, 2018
Cindy Spence
Harn Museum of Art

See the story at https://ufresearch.atavist.com/bodhisattva-project-9f5q4

Society & Culture

Why treating addiction with medication should be carefully considered

February 12, 2018
Scott Teitelbaum

A UF professor of psychiatry discusses the current focus on using evidence-tested methods for addressing the drug epidemic in the United States and the need for caution in prescribing medication to help addicts.

File 20180131 157466 1se70eb.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Vivitrol, a non-opioid medication, is used to treat some cases of opioid dependence. Addiction specialists stress that not all patients need medication, but that many do. AP Photo/Carla K. Carlson

Scott Teitelbaum, University of Florida

When a patient has diabetes, doctors typically prescribe insulin, along with diet and exercise. When a patient has high blood pressure, we prescribe medication, and we also reinforce the importance of healthy eating, exercise, weight loss and quitting smoking.

When it comes to the disease of opioid addiction, however, some critics describe the use of medication as merely substituting one opioid for another, preferring instead total abstinence. Others see pharmacotherapy as the most critical component in treating the current opioid epidemic.

More than 2 million people in the U.S. have an opioid abuse disorder, yet only a small fraction actually receive treatment. For those who do, our society uses a specific term to refer to the medication part: “medication-assisted treatment,” or MAT.

The medications currently approved to treat opioid addiction act on the brain’s opioid receptors by either substituting as a less rewarding drug or blocking the euphoric effects of opioids. In either case, the goal is to decrease the use of the more addictive and lethal opioids and stop the cycle of addiction.

As with any illness, the goal should be to have patients on the least amount of medication needed. But sometimes, as with diabetes or heart disease, medications are needed in concert with other treatment.

To me, even the name “medication-assisted treatment” is problematic: We’re treating addiction differently than other diseases, due to the stigma that’s always surrounded it.

As medical director of the UF Health Florida Recovery Center, I consider medication to often be part of a multi-pronged treatment approach for many patients suffering from opioid addiction. Each person is different, and we need to individualize treatment. While using medicine is often important, it is not a panacea. Here’s why we need to carefully consider how and when we use medications, for all types of addiction and mental health issues.

Dr. Scott Teitelbaum discusses opioid addiction.

A nation with a long history of opioid use

Prior to the Civil War, morphine was synthesized to treat pain. This, combined with advancements in anesthesia, exposed a great number of soldiers to opioids. Following the war, addiction was called “the soldier’s disease” or “the Army’s disease.”

Soldiers said the drug not only relieved physical pain, but also the emotional pain of their wartime experience. Even then, the wounded and those who treated them recognized that opioids relieved both physical and psychic pain.

Civil War casualties after the battle at Antietam Creek, Md., Sept. 17, 1862. The war claimed more than 700,000 lives and left thousands more disabled, damaged and disfigured. AP Photo

Our country’s first heroin epidemic began in the late 1800s. This was followed by the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, which stated it was not in good faith for physicians to treat heroin addiction with morphine, as addiction was not considered a disease then. It was illegal for physicians to use opioids to treat opioid addiction, and many physicians went to prison when they did.

A bottle of heroin, which was legal to purchase in many parts of the world, even after the 1924 Heroin Act banned its sale in the U.S. Wikimedia.com, CC BY-SA

In the 1920s and ’30s, people who were caught “doctor shopping” to get opioid prescriptions were sent to “narcotic farms” in Lexington, Kentucky, and Fort Worth, Texas, for treatment. Once released, most relapsed.

In the 1950s and ’60s, U.S. doctors began the practice of methadone maintenance, initiated in large part to reduce urban crime.

Another shift in opioid usage happened in 2001. The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations first established standards for pain assessment and treatment. Though the standards did not state that pain needed to be treated like a vital sign, some organizations implemented programs by making pain “the fifth vital sign.” Doctors began to treat pain more liberally, exposing more sufferers of pain to opioids.

Today, the U.S. has about 5 percent of the world’s population, and we use an estimated 90 percent of the world’s prescribed pain medications.

Today’s opioid crisis has been the deadliest yet. More than 64,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdose in 2016 – about two-thirds were from opioids. Most of the other overdose deaths were from central nervous system depressants like Xanax and alcohol, highlighting the importance of not forgetting the risk of other drugs.

Pain medications as gateways

For those who become addicted to painkillers, heroin becomes attractive because it is cheaper and widely available. Because of this, overdose deaths from prescription opioids decreased about 2010, while there was a precipitous rise in overdoses of heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic narcotic sometimes sold on the street as heroin.

Fentanyl is extremely potent; it’s used in the operating room to put people under anesthesia. The sharpest increase in number of deaths – an estimated 20,000 deaths – was due to fentanyl.

Undoing the damage a slow process

Modern-day MAT stems from the 2002 Food and Drug Administration approval of buprenorphine for the treatment of opioid withdrawal and maintenance. Buprenorphine is a partial opiate agonist, or a drug that operates as an opioid, but with a ceiling effect to help significantly decrease the chance of respiratory arrest from overdose. Unlike methadone, which must be dispensed in a highly structured clinic, buprenorphine can be prescribed in a doctor’s office on an outpatient basis.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, medications are an important element for many patients with opioid addiction. They are especially effective when combined with counseling, other behavioral therapies and 12-step recovery programs like Narcotics Anonymous.

Research shows that MAT results in what we addiction specialists call harm reduction. This means that while some of these patients may not be ready to be opioid-free, we want to keep them alive and achieving the greatest level of functioning. We don’t want them engaging in self-destructive behaviors like relapsing to street drugs, committing crimes, overdosing or acquiring infectious diseases like HIV. And there’s good evidence, some of which was presented as recently as Jan. 23, 2018, that medications have helped decrease HIV, hepatitis C and crime, as well as improve function.

It’s not that abstinence is not a goal, but the aim of MAT is rather to stop the devastating consequences of this terrible illness and keep the patient alive and engaged in the process of treatment. Many have serious, co-occurring health problems, such as mental illness and a history of trauma. They may not yet have the ability to deal with the physical and emotional discomfort of being opioid-free.

In the last two years, the FDA has approved new formulations of buprenorphine to treat opioid addiction. One is a once-monthly injection and another an implant that can be effective up to six months. These longer-acting options can stabilize a patient by decreasing cravings, which then discourages use.

Larger treatment plan important

It is true, nonetheless, that if not done carefully, these MAT medications can be abused themselves. If taken with other drugs or in larger amounts, these drugs can cause overdoses, too.

In my view, the goal should be prescribing the least amount of medication one needs. Regardless of what medication is used during treatment, we should be pushing patients to be the best versions of themselves and to live their fullest lives possible. I favor scrapping the debate over whether we are abstinence-based or medication-based and instead asking, “What does this individual need?”

The ConversationThen one day, I hope, we can shake the “medication-assisted” and just call it what it is: treatment.

Scott Teitelbaum, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Florida

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

Science & Wellness

Black Americans mostly left behind by progress since Dr. King’s death

February 12, 2018
Sharon Austin

A UF minority politics scholar explains how African-Americans, by most measures, remain worse off than white people a half-century after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

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How much has really improved for black people in the U.S. since 1968? Ted Eytan, CC BY-SA

Sharon Austin, University of Florida

On Apr. 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, while assisting striking sanitation workers.

That was almost 50 years ago. Back then, the wholesale racial integration required by the 1964 Civil Rights Act was just beginning to chip away at discrimination in education, jobs and public facilities. Black voters had only obtained legal protections two years earlier, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act was about to become law.

African-Americans were only beginning to move into neighborhoods, colleges and careers once reserved for whites only.

I’m too young to remember those days. But hearing my parents talk about the late 1960s, it sounds in some ways like another world. Numerous African-Americans now hold positions of power, from mayor to governor to corporate chief executive – and, yes, once upon a time, president. The U.S. is a very different place than it was 50 years ago.

Or is it? As a scholar of minority politics, I know that while some things have improved markedly for black Americans since 1968, today we are still fighting many of the same battles as Dr. King did in his day.

That was then

The 1960s were tumultuous years indeed. During the long, hot summers from 1965 to 1968, American cities saw approximately 150 race riots and other uprisings. The protests were a sign of profound citizen anger about a nation that was, according to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Economically, that was certainly true. In 1968, just 10 percent of whites lived below the poverty level, while nearly 34 percent of African-Americans did. Likewise, just 2.6 percent of white job seekers were unemployed, compared to 6.7 percent of black job seekers.

Dismantling ‘Resurrection City’ in 1968. AP Photo/Bob Daugherty

A year before his death, Dr. King and others began organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to “dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.”

On May 28, 1968, one month after King’s assassination, the mass anti-poverty march took place. Individuals from across the nation erected a tent city on the National Mall, in Washington, calling it Resurrection City. The aim was to bring attention to the problems associated with poverty.

Ralph Abernathy, an African-American minister, led the way in his fallen friend’s place.

“We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America’s wealth and opportunity,” Abernathy said, “and we will stay until we get it.”

This is now

So, how far have black people progressed since 1968? Have we gotten our fair share yet? Those questions have been on my mind a lot this month.

In some ways, we’ve barely budged as a people. Poverty is still too common in the U.S. In 1968, 25 million Americans — roughly 13 percent of the population — lived below poverty level. In 2016, 43.1 million – or more than 12.7 percent – do.

Today’s black poverty rate of 22 percent is almost three times that of whites. Compared to the 1968 rate of 32 percent, there’s not been a huge improvement.

Financial security, too, still differs dramatically by race. Black households earn $57.30 for every $100 in income earned by white families. And for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04.

Another troubling aspect about black social progress – or should I say the lack thereof – is how many black families are headed by single women. In the 1960s, unmarried women were the main breadwinners for 20 percent of households. In recent years, the percentage has risen as high as 72 percent.

This is important, but not because of some outmoded sexist ideal of the family. In the U.S., as across the Americas, there’s a powerful connection between poverty and female-headed households.

Black Americans today are also more dependent on government aid than they were in 1968. Currently, almost 40 percent of African-Americans are poor enough to qualify for welfare, housing assistance and other government programs that offer modest support to families living under the poverty line.

That’s higher than any other U.S. racial group. Just 21 percent of Latinos, 18 percent Asian-Americans and 17 percent of whites are on welfare.

Finding the bright spots

There are, of course, positive trends. Today, far more African-Americans graduate from college – 38 percent – than they did 50 years ago.

Our incomes are also way up. Black adults experienced a more significant income increase from 1980 to 2016 – from $28,667 to $39,490 – than any other U.S. demographic group. This, in part, is why there’s now a significant black middle class.

Legally, African-Americans may live in any community they want – and from Beverly Hills to the Upper East Side, they can and do.

But why aren’t those gains deeper and more widespread?

Some prominent thinkers – including the award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The New Jim Crow” author Michelle Alexander – put the onus on institutional racism. Coates argues, among other things, that racism has so held back African-Americans throughout history that we deserve reparations, resurfacing a claim with a long history in black activism.

Alexander, for her part, has famously said that racial profiling and the mass incarceration of African-Americans are just modern-day forms of the legal, institutionalized racism that once ruled across the American South.

More conservative thinkers may hold black people solely accountable for their problems. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is in this “personal responsibility” camp, along with public intellectuals like Thomas Sowell and Larry Elder.

Depending on who you ask, then, black people aren’t much better off than in 1968 because either there’s not enough government help or there’s way too much.

In 1963, 250,000 people marched on Washington to demand equal rights. By 1968, laws had changed. But social progress has since stalled. United States Information Agency

What would MLK do?

I don’t have to wonder what Dr. King would recommend. He believed in institutional racism.

In 1968, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council sought to tackle inequality with the Economic Bill of Rights. This was not a legislative proposal, per se, but a moral vision of a just America where all citizens had educational opportunities, a home, “access to land,” “a meaningful job at a living wage” and “a secure and adequate income.”

To achieve that, King wrote, the U.S. government should create an initiative to “abolish unemployment,” by developing incentives to increase the number of jobs for black Americans. He also recommended “another program to supplement the income of those whose earnings are below the poverty level.”

Those ideas were revolutionary in 1968. Today, they seem prescient. King’s notion that all citizens need a living wage portends the universal basic income concept now gaining traction worldwide.

King’s rhetoric and ideology are also obvious influences on Sen. Bernie Sanders, who in the 2016 presidential primaries advocated equality for all people, economic incentives for working families, improved schools, greater access to higher education and for anti-poverty initiatives.

The ConversationProgress has been made. Just not as much as many of us would like. To put it in Dr. King’s words, “Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

Sharon Austin, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of African American Studies, University of Florida

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

Society & Culture

Building a better Groupon: Big data predicts demand for daily deals

February 15, 2018
Warrington College of Business
Warrington College of Business

Big data has become a significant influence for business innovation and productivity. Research from the University of Florida Warrington College of Business now shows how big data can help businesses predict demand for discounts in particular locations.

Professors Dr. Anuj Kumar and Dr. Praveen Pathak in the Department of Information Systems and Operations Management, along with Ph.D. alumnus Brent Kitchens, a faculty member at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, have created a model that can accurately predict the demand for daily discount deals, like those offered on Groupon and LivingSocial, in different geographical areas.

Brent Kitchens, Praveen Pathak and Anuj Kumar

Kitchens, Pathak and Kumar

Kumar, Pathak and Kitchens combined a variety of publicly available data to construct local geographical clusters of competition among restaurant and spa businesses using hierarchical agglomerative clustering. The team then aggregated the daily deals offered on Groupon and LivingSocial on the clusters, creating a dataset that allowed them to model the competition of daily deals offered by restaurants and spa vendors in geographical clusters across 167 cities in the United States over 39 months. The research team used a variety of publicly available resources to showcase how an appropriate big data set can be constructed and analyzed to obtain business insights, including location information from Groupon, LivingSocial and Google Maps, pricing and category information from UrbanSpoon.com (now Zamato.com) and reviews from websites like Yelp.com.

Kumar, Pathak and Kitchens found that as restaurants and spas in particular geographical clusters offer discounts on Groupon and LivingSocial, local competition increases among these businesses, and other businesses in that particular cluster offer discounts online and deepen discounts in response. However, those businesses that are located in other clusters in the same city remain relatively unaffected. Additionally, lesser known and low-quality vendors offer discounts to obtain the advertising effect of electronic markets like Groupon and LivingSocial to increase their awareness among customers.

Using this insight and the model, the team can accurately predict the demand for daily discount deals in local geographical areas. Kumar, Pathak and Kitchens’ research recommends that electronic platforms like Groupon and LivingSocial deploy their sales force as per the model’s predictions to significantly improve their productivity.

This research is published in Information Systems Research, the flagship journal in the area of Information Systems. Read the full research here.

Society & Culture

Researchers discover method for harvesting ‘green’ sunscreen ingredient

February 15, 2018
College of Pharmacy

With spring break only weeks away, many Americans will apply sunscreen to protect against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. Now, scientists at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy have identified a new method to harvest a key ingredient responsible for making the product more environmentally friendly.

By pushing the discovery to commercialization, UF researchers hope to make ‘green’ sunscreens more available, reducing dependence on oxybenzone- and octinoxate-based sunscreens. These harmful chemicals accumulate in aquatic environments; they’re toxic to marine life and potentially disrupt the human reproductive system.

The researchers found a more efficient way to harvest the UV-absorbing amino acid known as shinorine, which marine organisms like cyanobacteria and macroalgae produce. The conventional method extracts shinorine from red algae, which takes as long as a year to grow and has a long processing time.

The new method reduces harvesting time to less than two weeks. Principal investigator Yousong Ding, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry, and his colleagues have brought production out of the wild and into the laboratory, where they have much more control.

Researchers selected a strain of freshwater cyanobacteria, Synechocystis, as a host cell for shinorine expression because it grows quickly, and it’s easy for scientists to modify its genes. Next, they mined the genes responsible for the synthesis of shinorine from a native producer, the filamentous cyanobacterium Fischerella.

The researchers inserted these genes into Synechocystis. Using this method, they produced 2.37 milligrams of shinorine per gram of cyanobacteria, which is comparable to the conventional method’s yield.

“This is the first time anyone has demonstrated the ability to photosynthetically overproduce shinorine,” Ding said. “Not only is this an advancement in shinorine research, it’s a big step forward for the entire field of cyanobacterial natural products research.”

The production method researchers discovered has broader applications for the production of other known cyanobacterial products and could expedite the process of turning cyanobacterial genomes into potential new drug leads.

Researchers secondarily confirmed that the shinorine they harvested through the new method protects cells from UV rays. To test this, they exposed shinorine-making cells to UV radiation. Control cells that do not produce shinorine experienced an obvious decline in population from UV-B exposure. In the other cells, shinorine acted as sunscreen against UV-B light, which helped the cells live and grow better.

The American Chemical Society’s peer-reviewed journal, ACS Synthetic Biology, published findings from Ding’s shinorine study this month. Other University of Florida researchers participating in the study included Guang Yang, Ph.D.; Monica Cozad; Destin Holland; Yi Zhang and Hendrik Luesch, Ph.D., a professor and chair of medicinal chemistry and the Debbie and Sylvia DeSantis Chair in Natural Products Drug Discovery and Development.

Science & Wellness

UF tops applications record

February 15, 2018
UF News

The number of applications to the University of Florida saw the one-year largest increase ever as nearly 41,000 prospective students threw their hats in the ring to be admitted for the summer and fall semester of 2018.

The total number of applications – 40,849 -- represents a nearly 18 percent increase over the previous year’s total of 34,112. Part of the increase is due to UF now using the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success application, which, among other things, allows students to apply to multiple colleges and universities simultaneously.

Part also may be a result of increased awareness that UF last year rose into the top 10 U.S. News & World Report Best Public Universities ranking.

Application Numbers:

Nov 1st              38,912

Post Nov 1st        1,937

Total                40,849


Enrollment Goal:            

6,400 Summer B/Fall

Admits = 14,866 (Fall = 11,741; Summer B = 3,125)


Fall Admit Profile

Average GPA    4.4

Mid 50% GPA   4.2 – 4.6


Average SAT     1364

Mid 50% SAT    1300 - 1440


Average ACT     30

Mid 50% ACT    29 - 33


Innovation Academy:

Total Admits     649


Pathway to Campus Enrollment – PaCE

Total Admits     2,271

Campus Life

Butterflies get a bigger, better evolutionary tree

February 16, 2018
Natalie van Hoose

For hundreds of years, butterfly collecting has often inspired a special kind of fanaticism, spurring lengthy expeditions, sparking rivalries and prompting some collectors to risk their fortunes and skins in their quest for the next elusive specimen.

The result is a treasure trove of scientific information stored in the form of millions of butterfly specimens, offering insights into community ecology, how species originate and evolve, climate change and interactions between plants and insects.

But a comprehensive map of how butterflies are related to each other has been lacking – until now.

Lepidopterists Akito Kawahara and Marianne Espeland led a team effort to produce a bigger, better butterfly evolutionary tree with a 35-fold increase in genetic data and three times as many taxa – classification units of organisms – as previous studies. They then calibrated the tree based on the fossil record, assigning dates to certain developmental milestones.

“We still have a long way to go, but this is the first comprehensive map of butterfly evolution,” said Kawahara, associate professor and curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity on the University of Florida campus. “Lots of previous studies cover butterfly evolution on smaller scales – by locality or taxon – but surprisingly few have reached across the breadth of butterfly diversity.”

The study was published today in Current Biology.

The evolutionary tree produced by Marianne Espeland, Akito Kawahara and their collaborators provides a much-needed backbone for a revised classification of butterflies. Figure by Espeland et al. in Current Biology

Shake-ups and surprises

The team analyzed a dataset of 352 genetic markers from 207 butterfly species representing 98 percent of tribes, which are a rank above genus but below family and subfamily. Their findings paint a detailed picture of relationships between butterflies and point to some name changes.

The data confirm that swallowtails are a sister group to all other butterflies, meaning they were the first family on the butterfly family tree to branch off. But while previous literature groups swallowtails, birdwings, zebra swallowtails and swordtails together, this study shows they do not share a common ancestor, a finding supported by the fact that these butterflies feed on different host plants.

“That tells us that butterflies and plants may have evolved together,” Kawahara said.

A finding that surprised Espeland, the study’s lead author, is that the blues are nested within the hairstreaks.

“Both of these groups have remained quite stable through time, but our study shows that a substantial rearrangement of the classification is necessary,” said Espeland, who started the project as a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum and is now curator and head of the Lepidoptera section at the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig in Germany.

Most blues and hairstreaks and some metalmarks have mutually beneficial relationships with ants: Butterfly larvae provide sugary nectar in exchange for the ants’ protection from predators. The researchers found this association evolved once in blues and hairstreaks and twice in metalmarks.

Previous studies suggest the first butterflies date back more than 100 million years, a date this study supports. But most of the lineages that exist today originated after the mass extinction event that killed off non-avian dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.

“It is actually quite nice that the ages inferred in this study are relatively similar to those found in previous studies since this means that we are gradually converging towards a consensus, which should be close to the correct ages,” Espeland said.

One curious finding, Kawahara said, is that the phylogeny suggests butterfly-moths – the only butterflies known to be nocturnal – developed hearing organs before bats, their primary predator, appeared.

“I’m fascinated by the timing of when these hearing organs developed and why,” Kawahara said. “There’s a lot of mystery and uncertainty here.”

He pointed to the value of the museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, home to one of the world’s largest collections of butterflies and moths, in providing the data necessary – especially from rare specimens – for the study.

“The collections at the McGuire Center made this possible,” he said. “There are probably only a few other research institutions in the world that would be able to carry this project.”

Childhood dream

Like many butterfly enthusiasts, Kawahara developed the obsession early. By age 5, he had a tiny collection and could differentiate swallowtail from brush-footed butterfly, skipper from blue. He used his mother’s Xerox machine to photocopy a simple butterfly phylogeny to help him identify specimens, posting it to the wall of his bedroom.

“It was a really boring-looking picture, gray with lines on it,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about evolutionary trees, but I was mystified by the unknown. A lot of the lines were dashed – there were clearly discoveries to be made. I remember looking at it and just thinking, ‘It would be really amazing to be able to study this one day.’”

An even bigger tree

The researchers have set their sights on an even more comprehensive phylogeny, one that accounts for every described butterfly species. Generating this tree is the main goal of the U.S. National Science Foundation-funded ButterflyNet project, which will organize all butterflies based on how they are related to one another. For each species, the project will include associated data such as its geographical distribution, host plants and life history traits.

“This tree represents 207 species out of some 18,800,” Kawahara said. “So, it’s a tiny, tiny fraction. But it’s the first step.”

Science & Wellness

Erin Jackson brings Florida heat to Olympic ice

February 16, 2018
Robin Shear

The UF Alumni Association shared a sneak preview of their story on Gator speed skater Erin Jackson ahead of her Olympic run on Sunday. The full story will run in the spring issue of the UFAA member magazine, Florida Gator.

Up until Jan. 5, relatively few people beyond the worlds of roller derby and inline speed skating had heard of Erin Jackson. It took her just 39.04 seconds to change that.

On a frigid Friday night inside Milwaukee’s Pettit National Ice Center, the University of Florida alumna made her first run of the 500-meter long-track ice speed skating event, clocking 39.22 seconds at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Incredibly, in her second run, Jackson shaved that down to nearly 39 flat, surging ahead of Olympian Sugar Todd at the finish to take third place behind two other seasoned Olympians, Brittany Bowe and Heather Bergsma.

The 25-year-old Gator not only clinched her 2018 Olympic spot that night, but she also cemented her place in history as the first African-American woman to make the U.S. Olympic long-track speed skating team.

“It’s a pretty awesome feeling,” says Jackson, who graduated with an engineering degree in 2015. “Since qualifying for the Olympic team, I've come to realize that many people of color find inspiration in stories like mine. Something you might notice if you watch the Winter Olympic Games is that there are not a lot of black people participating. I'm looking forward to being someone who children and people of color in general can look to and make them think, 'Hey, maybe I should go out and try some of these sports, too.'"

A competitive inline skater and USA Roller Derby national team member, Jackson had been training on ice skates for only a little over four months. Those familiar with Jackson’s hard work, humility and drive know she’s been carving her own path to greatness since childhood, balancing her time between the worlds of academics and athletics while excelling in both.

Nancy J. Ruzycki, a faculty lecturer and director of undergraduate laboratories in UF’s materials science and engineering department, remembers Jackson as “an incredible scholar” and “a really good person” who would “take a couple days a week and drive almost 100 miles to train and then come back and carry a huge course load and be successful at both.” 

Jackson didn’t skimp on campus involvement, either, joining tutoring organizations and the American Association of Blacks in Energy.

“She was just really focused,” says Ruzycki, who had Jackson in four of her classes. “She has grit, perseverance, resilience – all of the qualities that make for a great athlete and a great engineer.”

In February 2017, Jackson spent a month with the inline-to-ice transition program at the Utah Olympic Oval before resuming her hectic inline competition schedule, interspersed with roller derby bouts. Jackson returned to the program full time in late September, just three months before the Olympic trials.

She had some serious catching up to do.

So, like any good engineer, she began problem-solving and recalibrating. “About a month in, I decided I needed to take a step back and really focus on my technique and on how to become an ice skater,” she says.

It worked.

Jackson’s next goals include starting engineering grad school and training for the 2022 Games. 

“I just always had goals of getting to the top level of both academics and sports,” she says. “Right now, I’m seeing ‘Olympic champion’ as the top level. That’s the end goal by the next Olympic Games — to be in medal contention.” 

Jackson’s coach, Ryan Shimabukuro, says she absolutely has a shot at the podium in 2022, adding: “We still have a long way to go before she realizes her full true potential.”

That suits Jackson just fine.

“I love to have things to work on,” she says, “because that just means there are still more levels to unlock.”

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