From Florida

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.

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April 27, 2022

Season 2 Episode 17: The best climate change reporting drives solutions

Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett was at the forefront of climate reporting and has seen the field grow exponentially in recent years. A critically acclaimed author and regular op-ed contributor, she now teaches future journalists and lectures widely. In this episode, she explains why doomsday reporting is not the answer. Instead, she recommends a balance of wonder and warning, and options for what can be done.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. 

Our guest today is, in many ways, a pioneer. Twenty years ago, environmental journalism was a relatively obscure beat. Now, every major news platform is hiring science and environment reporters, and even entire climate teams. 

Cynthia Barnett was there at the forefront making the case that this was a portfolio that needed coverage and needed it urgently.

In addition to her contributions as a journalist, Cynthia is the author of four books, including the acclaimed “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History” and most recently, “The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans.”

She also has contributed to many other publications, authoring stories and op-eds in highly selective outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic and National Geographic. 

But her most powerful contribution may be through her role as environmental journalist in residence at UF’s College of Journalism and Communications and the work she does to guide future journalists, scientists and policy makers, among others. 

Obviously, we have much to discuss, so let's get to it. Cynthia Barnett, many thanks for being here. It's terrific to have you with us today.

Cynthia Barnett: Thank you, Nicci. Thanks so much for having me on.

Nicci Brown: So, let's talk about your early days. I'm very glad to share that you're a UF graduate and a Florida native, starting your career here at The Alligator when you were in our College of Journalism. You were a general assignment reporter at first. What led you to the environment?

Cynthia Barnett: It's a great question and it has so many different answers. I've answered it differently many times and one part of the answer is that I was working as a business and economics reporter for a very long time and every story seemed to come back to water. And there was a particular story where there was an epic drought happening in Florida and some developers had been told that they couldn't build a new housing subdivision because there wasn't enough water in this part of Florida to support that growth.

And it's quite shocking, as you can imagine, to have any place in Florida say that a new housing subdivision wouldn't be welcome. So, I started to think about this irony, that the same group that got rid of Florida's water in the first place, that drained Florida's water in the first place, had now become desperate to find water. And it was that kind of turning point that led me to start thinking about Florida's water history, and I actually came back to the University of Florida and earned a master's degree in environmental history.

And the reason I want to tell you that story is because there was a wonderful historian at the time, David Colburn, who has now passed away, he was a presidential historian, a Florida historian. 

He did not specialize in the environment, but he was a mentor to me. And when he saw what I was interested in, he created this incredible curriculum for me in independent study and had me reading Rachel Carson and all these people who I'd never been exposed to in the College of Journalism.

And as a teacher now, I often think about him and how amazing that was that even though it wasn't his personal interest, he really set out that path for me. So, I'm very appreciative of him. And when I teach now, I think about him a lot and the fact that, you know, I'm not foisting my own work on people as much as trying to figure out what they need and what their own interests are. 

So, I guess at the end, I would say I was lucky enough that my great interest lined up with a great need of the world. And that's what I really hope for, for my students as well.

Nicci Brown: Turning to your latest book then, “The Sound of the Sea,” what motivated you to write it?

Cynthia Barnett: So, I had written three previous books about water. I had written a couple of books about fresh water and I'm “rain's” biographer, as you mentioned, I think that's my favorite title. I mentioned during my master's degree here at UF, that master's thesis turned into my first book, which was called “Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.”

And for my fourth book, I kind of  wanted to complete the hydrological cycle. I liked the idea of now turning to the oceans and I wasn't sure what that book would be. And I was speaking in a small seashell museum in Sanibel Island, it's called the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. And I went out to dinner with the director afterward and she told me this really disturbing statistic. She had done a survey of visitors to find out how much they already knew about shells and the survey revealed that 90% of their visitors who were mostly tourists and children visiting Florida, 90% of them didn't know that a shell was made by a living animal. Most people thought they were rocks or stones. And I was so disturbed by that idea and that disconnection from nature that I just tossed and turned in my bed that night. 

And I think by the time I fell asleep, I knew I was going to write sort of an epic book of seashells that blended the life history and the human history. And what I love about it is this idea of shells as ambassadors, that seashells as perhaps the most beloved objects in nature could help connect people to life and to what's happening in the oceans.

Nicci Brown: There are many terrific stories in the book and we can talk a little bit more about them, but one thing that The New York Times wrote that it “remarkably spirals out… appropriately to become a much larger story about the sea, about global history and about environmental crises and preservation.” And that interconnection, not just of people and their immediate environments, but of the way we're all linked is just so important. How do you go about joining the dots?

Cynthia Barnett: I don't think of it as joining the dots so much as helping my readers or my students understand how everything is connected. So, in other words, I don't see myself making the connection so much as helping people understand the connection.

So, John Muir more famously said that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” And that's so true. So, one way the seashell book spirals out, for example, is in helping people understand that we can't fix environmental problems like, for example, overfishing without also working on the human dimensions of poverty and so on. So, those are the connections that I make in the book, but they're really connections that are already there.

And I think sometimes the problem in academe or in political circles is that we have separated things out so much, right? We're in silos. And the way we are going to solve problems is to be interdisciplinary, to put together science and humanities, for example. And so, that's the kind of work that I try to do in my journalism and in my work here at the university.

Nicci Brown: To really understand that balance between all things.

Cynthia Barnett: Yes, right.

Nicci Brown: You paint really exquisite word pictures of your subject matter, but your writing is also very approachable and at times quite funny. There was one passage in “The Sound of the Sea” where you are in the Maldives with your teenage son and there is an exchange about the weather.

And as a mother, I have to admit it made me laugh, but it also highlights the different way generations approach issues. Could you tell us a little more about the exchange and the differences that you experience between generations?

Cynthia Barnett: Yes, that's a good and interesting question. One thing I'll say about generations is how profoundly people respond to any generational story. I think generational stories are enormously important. So, I notice, whether I'm giving a talk or in my books, I notice that people really, they love it when I talk about my grandparents and they love it when I talk about my children.

I ended up opening the book with a scene. The scene is actually about a Neanderthal person collecting seashells, which is something that Neanderthal people were known to do even beyond for food but proving their aesthetic sense that they had. So, I imagined my daughter collecting seashells and that's similar aesthetic, and people really respond to that. I've been amazed.

I've had more response to this book than any other book I've ever written, and it's often these long letters from people who are talking about their memories. I've actually had several people send me shells and I've had people send me old things that they collected with a parent or a grandparent, and it's been quite moving.

So, I think to the extent that we can be relatable, be humane. Whenever I write as a mother, and I think the scene you're talking about, Will was just having a very teenager moment and rolling his eyes or something like that, and whenever you can be relatable that way, I think it really helps you connect to your audiences and that's terribly important for us.

Nicci Brown: You did quite a lot of travel when you were writing this book.

Cynthia Barnett: Yes, I traveled all over the world. I feel very lucky that I was finishing it just as COVID began. So, I had been already to the Maldives. The reason I traveled so broadly, in that case, was that I was sort of chasing the extraordinary story of the money cowry. So you, you sometimes hear these cryptocurrency guys say that cryptocurrency is the first global money; it definitely wasn't.

The first global money was a small shining  shell called... We now call it a money cowry because it had served as money for a thousand years, longer than any other coin or paper money in history. So, I followed this epic story to the Maldives where the little white shells were harvested en masse by a series of queens in the moonlight, and then followed their trans-Atlantic journeys and journeys all around the world. I ended up traveling to West Africa to tell the story of the cowries there, which is a really important story.

I feel really lucky that I was able to make those trips before COVID hit, because I know lots of other book author friends who were in the middle of reporting when COVID happened. So, it was still strange to finish writing it during COVID because that was such a worrisome time that it was very hard to finish and bring everything together, but  I did manage to make almost every trip that I had wanted to make. And it was a global reporting effort because the story of seashells is really a global story, and seashells are everywhere. They're at the tops of mountain tops and under our feet, and they are in every part of human history in this really incredible and profound way, and that's why it had to be such an expansive book.

Nicci Brown: And I remember you sharing with me that you had this sense of connection when you were in West Africa, going to those personal experiences and tying things together between human beings who may be in different parts of the world.

Cynthia Barnett: Yeah. That was my favorite trip for this book was definitely going to West Africa. And I did take my son along. At the time, he was in high school and we both loved being in West Africa. And one profound thing about being there was just how familiar it felt to both of us. We are from the South, and we you know we have both been exposed to really Southern food.

People in my family farmed peanuts and make all these peanut dishes. And we grew up eating black-eyed-peas and many other foods that were really similar in West Africa and so delicious there. And it's just this profound realization that enslaved Africans brought many of those recipes to the southeastern United States.

So yes, there's incredible connection and depth, and I hope to return. It was definitely a great trip, and I'd like to bring back the whole family. We have a student now whose done reporting in Africa and I hope many of our other students have the opportunity to go as well.

Nicci Brown: Well, speaking of your students, could you tell us some more about how you craft your courses so they are positioned for success and how do you help them to understand the past so that they can speak to the future in this really compelling way?

Cynthia Barnett: I'm glad you asked me about the past. Since I studied environmental history, I do start environmental journalism classes with the history of environmental journalism itself. And I take them back actually to the 17th century London during the rise of the Industrial Revolution, where there's this great writer named John Evelyn, who was really advocating to move smokestack industries out of central London.

This is a time when the air is just black and there's obviously a lot of disease. There are a lot of cancers from people being around these toxic industries and he was doing very much what we would do today. He's exposing the problem, he's writing a lot about it and he is advocating solutions, you know "Move the industry out of the city." He recommended mass planting of sweet-smelling flowers to get rid of some of the stench. And that is what eventually happened. Industry got moved out of cities, unfortunately, in ways that harmed people who were less fortunate. 

So, I start there, and I think it's very important to help students understand history and, especially, the things we have gotten right in the past. So sometimes students feel really overwhelmed by and depressed by topics, especially climate change and what's happening to the earth and its life. So, one thing we talk about are things in American history that we did right on a large scale and I'll give you an example. Right now, I'm teaching a class around the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, which is this year in 2022. 

So, in 1972, the United States really came together and did this amazing thing. We passed the Clean Water Act of 1972. Before that, sewage ran directly into bays, industrial pollution ran directly into rivers. Every bay in Florida was extremely polluted, bereft of seagrass. We had more fish kills than any place else in the country. And that law really changed Florida's and the nation's environmental fortunes. We cleaned up bays and rivers and cleaned up industrial pollution, and it was a big deal. And now things are heading in the other direction, the pendulum is swinging the other way. You know, we're losing seagrass again and losing manatees and pollution has really gotten bad again. So, this series of stories kind of looks at that history and what we did right and now asks, you know, what must we do now?

So, the way I structure the class is always to teach it around a hands-on project. In the College of Journalism and Communications, we think of ourselves as having a medical school model of teaching so that students are doing journalism as they learn journalism. And it's a really great way to get experience, but also to graduate with a great portfolio. So, this project that is analyzing statewide water quality for the anniversary of the Clean Water Act is being funded by the Pulitzer Center. And it will be published here on WUFT platforms, but also on other statewide professional platforms. And so, it's a great opportunity for students to do important work that they take the whole semester doing and then come out with some really terrific stories under their belts.

Nicci Brown: Well, as you mentioned, there is this need though to balance wonder and warning. Would you talk a little bit more about that and maybe give an assessment of where you think things stand right now, because there are a lot of dire messages out there?

Cynthia Barnett: Right. So, we know many audiences will shut down when the news is too grim, or sometimes in my field, we talk about this as climate doomsday reporting. There is definitely a branch of the profession that does report in a doomsday fashion. And we actually know from communications research that many audiences shut down when they read something really grim. They even know from eye-track research, they can watch people's eyes when they turn away from grim news. And so, we know that.

On the other hand, one doesn't want to be pollyannish or I think it's called toxic optimism, some people call it, right? It doesn't serve anyone to be overly optimistic or pollyannish either. And so what to me feels really important is to balance the warnings that scientists are giving us with options, with solutions, with things that we're doing right, with inspirational stories of scientists and others who are making a difference around the world on new research that's coming out. And in my case, another thing that's really important in this balance is to just remind people of the wonder of nature, because I think that's part of it. And you know that's also a reason behind the seashell book that there are these wondrous, mysterious animals inside seashells that build these beautiful works of architecture.

And so, I think helping people understand the wonder of the planet that remains and the animals that we share the earth with is all helping people to understand what's happening and to feel inspired to live differently and to help work on this big, big problem that we face.

Nicci Brown: And perhaps feel less helpless.

Cynthia Barnett: That's true. That's a very good point. Helplessness is the worst. Another thing that happens, sometimes you'll be reading a story, a doomsday story, and it just leaves you with nothing to do. And so, that's another thing that's known from the communications research. We know, for example, that even if you have a little box in your story that says how you can help, people will stay on that story longer than if there's no box saying how you can help. So, people really do want something to do and they want to be able to respond.

Nicci Brown: You also want to find ways to elevate the environment and sustainability above politics. Do you think that's possible? And if so, how do you do that in such polarized times?

Cynthia Barnett: I do want to lift stories of the earth, of animals, of life, of climate change above politics. I think that's got to happen. And many, many journalists cover politics and they do a great job, it's just not the area that I find the most satisfying and I'm also not sure that it's the area where we are going to move the needle. In my estimation and observation, the really important thing that needs to happen is a changing ethos among people.

So, if you look back, again, over American environmental history, when we got to these points, these turning points always happened when people said, "This is no longer okay." It was an ethical change. And you can see that in everything from civil rights; civil rights change happened in the courts, but only after the populace reached a turning point of, you know, seeing these things on the news and saying, "This is not okay."

It was the same with the environment. People reached a point of saying, "It's not okay for rivers to catch fire and to lose every fish living in Tampa Bay, and so on." So it really takes that large ethical change before elected officials do their part. They are influenced by their constituents and by the overall feeling of the populace.

And you really saw that with President Nixon during the Clean Water Act, you know, and other big things that happened at that time in our history. So that's what I mean by trying to keep this work elevated on this other plane. I think the important work is to help people understand what's happening and give them hope and inspiration and tangible ways of changing the story.

Nicci Brown: My last question asks you to look into the future, which is a little unfair, but I'm going to ask it anyway and I apologize in advance. How do you see things evolving in terms of our planet and the steps we need to take to protect it? Is the message getting through to those in power as well as the so-called man on the street?

Cynthia Barnett: Yeah. That's a really good question. That's the question I think about all the time. We know that the public ethos is changing on climate change and that belief. I am putting belief in quote marks, you can't see that, but science really isn't a belief it is a fact, but nonetheless. So, we know that belief in climate change is becoming much, much broader over time.

So, for many years, I've watched this survey that comes out of the Yale Program on Climate Change, and it asks people how alarmed they are, and it's on a scale from very alarmed to dismissive. And it used to be many people didn't believe at all or never worried about climate change — just 10 years ago, the dismissive category was very large. Today, the dismissive category is quite small and the alarm category is quite large. And so, the public is really coming to understand climate change.

It often happens when people are impacted where they live. So, for example, increasing hurricanes here in the Southeast or flooding in Miami or greater wildfires in the West, but that's actually not happening fast enough. It really needs to happen much faster. So, earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reporting on the scientific consensus with the approval of all the world's governments stressed that, we must make quote “immediate and deep cuts in emissions to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis."

So, the problem is that yes, more people are coming to understand, but not fast enough. Not fast enough to make the changes that scientists are advising and urging need to be made sooner rather than later. And that's where I hope that this generation of students can come in and young people and again, not just journalism students, but I think across the campus, there is so much interest in climate change and environmental sustainability.

I speak in classes from religion to, you know, all kinds of classes across campus that are focusing on climate through the lens of their own discipline. And I think there is a great deal of interest in that this generation will be the ones to help get us through this crisis. And I hate to put it on them and I want to make sure that I'm there with them with my sleeves rolled up as well, and I tell them that. But I do feel optimism about our students and the generation coming up.

Nicci Brown: Well, it's good to finish on a positive note like that. Cynthia, thank you for all that you are doing and thank you so very much for joining us today. It's been a true pleasure to have you here and to speak with you.

Cynthia Barnett: Thank you so much for having me on, Nicci. It was really nice talking to you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is James Sullivan. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

With the semester drawing to a close, we'll be pausing production of From Florida for a while. In the meantime, we invite you to check out past episodes on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting

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April 19, 2022

Season 2 Episode 16: Preparing students to take the lead in protecting our planet

Coleen Sailsman and Sarisha Boodoo are among 12 students who participated in the first Environmental Leaders Fellowship program, hosted by the Thompson Earth Systems Institute. They spent spring semester gaining skills that will make them better advocates for our planet. In this episode, Coleen and Sarisha share what they learned about community engagement and environmental advocacy.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Students at the University of Florida have many opportunities to engage in research, outreach and civic engagement, which is such an important aspect of the educational experience. Today, we are going to highlight just one of the great programs on our campus, the TESI Environmental Leaders Fellowship. This pilot program is hosted by the Thompson Earth Systems Institute — TESI, for short — and it is funded by the Henry David Thoreau Foundation.

Students from all disciplines are invited to apply for a fellowship, during which they participate in seminars, mentoring sessions, a field experience and a community project. During the fellowship, the students learn about protecting the earth and gain the knowledge, skills, confidence and connections to advocate for our planet now and in the future. This year, there were 12 fellows and we are going to talk with two of them — Coleen Sailsman and Sarisha Boodoo. Welcome, Sarisha and Coleen!

Sarisha Boodoo: Hi. Thanks for having us.

Coleen Sailsman: Thank you.

Nicci Brown: It's terrific to have you here. I'd like to hear a little more about you, where you are from and what you are majoring in. Maybe we can start first with you, Sarisha.

Sarisha Boodoo: Yeah, so I am originally from Upstate New York, born and raised in the Catskill Mountains, moved here in 2014, now I'm in Gainesville. I'm a senior studying political science and sustainability studies.

Nicci Brown: And you Coleen?

Coleen Sailsman: Yes. I'm born and raised in South Florida. I'm an environmental science major in my senior year.

Nicci Brown: And why were you interested in the TESI Environmental Leaders Fellowship program, Coleen?

Coleen Sailsman: I never had a lot of exposure to do a lot of activities in the environmental sector. I've had a lot of volunteer experience more in the traditional sense, but as far as going out and actually experiencing the field, I never had an opportunity to do that growing up. So, I thought this would be a perfect chance to get that exposure with people that also enjoy doing such activities. So, it was one of those perfect opportunities that just lighted up my eyes.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. And Sarisha?

Sarisha Boodoo: Yeah. So, I’m in political science so for me, it's kind of difficult to kind of find my position and role within the environmental organization roles. And when I found out about TESI, it just offered this very immersive, very diverse, disciplined background approach for students that didn't have to come specifically from these STEM backgrounds. So, for me, I found out about that and I felt like it was very much tailored to my interest. And one thing that really stood out was also just the inclusivity factor. I feel like a lot of environmental organizations do promote that, but TESI really seemed to really harness a lot of its values in that. So, for me, that definitely captivated me right away.

Nicci Brown: And how did that really support your academic goals? You say political science and there is a tangent, of course, what's discussed in politics and the way we lead and the decisions that are made there are impacts, but how did that really groove with what you had in mind for your academics?

Sarisha Boodoo: Yeah, so policy is definitely one of my major interests. Climate and environmental communication is so important. So TESI really equips us to have the right skills, the knowledge, the confidence to go out there, communicate with people from different communities, different leaders, even younger students, with these ideas of climate and environmental education and communication. And I think for policy, as far as that goes, everyone needs to be involved and everyone needs to understand. So that's where I'm heading in terms of major academic goals and where TESI is going to equip me to harness these strengths to get there.

Nicci Brown: And Coleen?

Coleen Sailsman: Yeah, so similar to Sarisha, actually, I'm also interested in policy. Going through a program, one of the field experiences we will also probably talk about later, was we ended up visiting Cedar Key and in Cedar Key we got to explore some of the different environmental justice issues they are having as well as with their environmental impacts related to climate change. And going through this program, we were able to see a lot of the physical aspects that we could apply to our later careers. So, in attending this program, I actually was able to kind of solidify what I really wanted to do later on as well.

Nicci Brown: And can you tell us about some of the things that you did see when you were in Cedar Key and some of those experiences, just give us a couple of examples.

Coleen Sailsman: One of the really cool things that actually happened when we went to Cedar Key is, Cedar Key is a really small city in which they have an older population and then a really large snowbird migrant population as well. The day that we went aligned with a dog fest that they had going on. So, it was actually a really lighthearted day in that sense, but we still got a lot of viewpoints from both visitors and residents that they're seeing impacts in the way that the vegetative landscape was changing. They could see how the tourist industry had been affected or how it actually gained interaction from the COVID pandemic. But we also could see that they did have issues supporting their population with that migrant population, or visitor population, as well.

Nicci Brown: Sarisha, were you part of that visit as well?

Sarisha Boodoo: Yeah. Cedar Key was also a brand-new place for me to visit as well. It was really great. We did some horseshoe crab tagging along the way. For me, I think one thing I really got out of that was just learning about the way solutions are approached from that community standpoint. There's some really great research going on there and it was amazing to see the way the research was implemented in a way where the community was aware of it and it was something that was also benefiting the human aspect as well as the environmental aspect. So, there's a lot of aquaculture stuff going on there, clam and oyster farming as well as one major issue that they have going on there is erosion on their coastal properties. So, there's a lot of mitigation efforts for natural seawalls that help not only just people living there, but also the environment as well as the aquaculture going on there. Instead of using nets, they're using a lot more sustainable practices, which benefit the economy in the long run, as well as the environment.

Nicci Brown: And I would imagine, too, for two people who are looking at policy and may well be shaping our future in terms of those policies, understanding that community connection and how that really impacts the efficacy of these programs must have been very powerful for you both.

Coleen Sailsman: Yes, definitely. I know we got the opportunity to do a lot of community interviews and in doing so we got to hear both sides essentially of the impacts related to the net ban that Sarisha had mentioned, and how they actually saw it being either very positive to the community and how they actually enjoyed that had been implemented to protect the wildlife, but also how it did hinder some fishermen in the area and how it did disrupt the community. But they saw growth and they were able to facilitate that growth through the program such as the living shoreline project or the implementation of the clam industry, I guess.

Nicci Brown: And was this part of the spring break experience?

Sarish Boodoo: Yes.

Nicci Brown: Okay. Were there other field trips that you took on the trip?

Sarisha Boodoo: Yeah. It was the first day when we were at Cedar Key, we visited the Shell Mound. It was this really amazing archeological, natural site of just what, five minutes away from Cedar Key itself?

Coleen Sailsman: Yeah. It wasn't very far and you can tell, but it's also really interesting to see how the landscape changed in between Shell Mound and Cedar Key as well. It was almost two very different environments, but very close together. 

Sarisha Boodoo: But yeah, we got to learn some more of the indigenous culture and education behind just the environment, how it was valued, how that environment was utilized. And for us, it was just such a transformative experience, like, I think some of us may have shed a tear or two.

Coleen Sailsman: No, definitely, whatever, our teammates also cried a little bit.

Sarisha Boodoo: A lot of tears, but yeah, that was amazing. We also, oh boy, we went to a lot of places, the Silver Springs Museum, Silver Springs itself. We did some kayaking around.

Nicci Brown: The program does bring together those students who have very diverse backgrounds and fields of study and has that been part of the power of this whole experience for you?

Coleen Sailsman: I would say it definitely has. Being able to not only meet people from different majors who are also interested in sustainability like Sarisha, although she is a sustainability major. She has a very large grasp on the concept of sustainability and how it applies to her own interests, which is something you could see with a lot of our other fellows as well. We had a data scientist, we had zoology major and even, I think, some other communication majors as well, which was interesting to see how they intertwine in the field and also how you can really apply that to your future careers. It was a very impactful experience because you got to get those different perspectives from the fellows, as well as all the other people on the field that we were able to meet.

Nicci Brown: Was there anything surprising that you learned from your fellow fellows?

Sarisha Boodoo: Well, for one thing, earth systems is about the interconnection of all these chemical, physical, biological process that impact things very differently. And with that being said, you do need a very broad discipline of studies being approached to these topics. So for me, I'm very rooted in the very human side of the environment — policy, even some of the anthropological, we had one or two anthropology majors, I believe. But also for me just learning about the whole STEM background.

So we had some people that were zoology and I think marine sciences as well. I'll admit sometimes those topics are a little intimidating for someone that doesn't have much of this very STEM scientific background, especially when it comes to the language and the communication behind it. A lot of these words can just seem to kind of go over my head every now and then but being around these fellows that were willing to take the time, explain it to you. For me, I realized that everyone may have a different discipline, but at the end of the day, it benefits us all and it strengthens what we're studying and we're able to apply that in our own ways.

Nicci Brown: And what about your final projects that you took part in with community partners? Maybe Coleen, you can tell us a little bit about that as well.

Coleen Sailsman: Yeah, for my community project, I'm working with a team to develop a survey that measures student engagement with the climate action plan 2.0 on campus, through the Office Sustainability. We found that it's a very integrated process in which they do publish a lot of their information as they go, however, not a lot of students know about it. So, we wanted to kind of engage students, see like what they know about it, where they are in the process, if they've even participated with it, and give that information back to the Office of Sustainability so they can use it in their future studies as well. We just released our survey. So it's actually live right now if anyone wants to do it.

Nicci Brown: Where can they find that survey if they want to participate?

Coleen Sailsman: We are actually in the process of putting some survey flyers up around campus with a QR code. So, if anybody's listening to this, we're trying to put one in Library West, there's going to be one in the IVC, in Lacacita, and as well as some other places around campus. So if you see it, whip out your phone, do the QR code, it's just less than five minutes.

Nicci Brown: Fantastic. And is it primarily for students or is it for the entire community?

Coleen Sailsman: It's for mostly the UF community to engage their process in the program’s initiative.

Nicci Brown: Great. And Sarisha, your final project?

Sarisha Boodoo: Yeah, so I'm working on a K through 12 educational outreach program, actually. So we are actually creating a set of educational videos, lesson plans and resources and materials to assist. Teachers can use them, but also homeschooled children, tutoring programs. For us, we're focusing on the Florida aquifer and coastal Marine processes. So, for me, the extent of my video is focused on the geological formations of these Florida aquifers. That's a really important thing when harnessing environmental stewardship and the value of these systems, because just starting about the very intricate, historical processes that led to the way we're getting our drinking water, we just turn on a tap, it's there. But when you learn about just all these vast systems that created this, to me, it brings up so much of importance. So we're creating these lessons to foster in a whole generation of scientists, educators, policy makers, if you will, starting them off young.

Nicci Brown: And I think we touched on this a little bit, but can you tell us more about how this program might have given you a new focus or maybe crystallized the plans that you already had, and maybe we'll start with you Sarisha and then Coleen.

Sarisha Boodoo: Education is something I've always thought about, obviously, because I feel like that equips everyone to be better communicators. When you are very confident with the topic, the best way to approach that is through education. So for me, it's figuring out what exactly I wanted to do in education. That was the next step. But being with TESI, I figured out I'm not limited, there are so many other routes. Environmental education that's something I've been kind of scared to approach because it's not within my field of study, but now having some experience with that, it's definitely something I'm interested in. Even museum education, like being in the Florida museum and also the Silver Springs Museum as well.

Just seeing the way it's so immersive and engaging, museum education is something that has also sparked my interest. And then policy as always, I think, is something, it's always been on my agenda, but I feel like I'm really interested in the ways in which we approach policy. So going back to that social and community aspect, figuring out what policy is best for certain communities. I really do enjoy that aspect of going out into these communities, talking to them, engaging yourself, becoming a part of that community and finding out what's best for them. Because if we have policy makers writing these policies behind their desk, without going into these communities, we're not going to find these effective solutions. So, for me that's something that I've really enjoyed.

Nicci Brown: And Coleen?

Coleen Sailsman: Yeah. So similar to Sarisha, I've also always had an interest in the educational side. Prior to this experience, I've had interest in education, more in the traditional aspect of being in the school system K through 12, but I realized over time, it's not necessarily something that interests me in any further. I would like to practice education through outreach more so. And going through the program, especially one of the first days when we're in Cedar Key, we were able to immerse ourselves with one of the extension offices in Cedar Key and getting that experience and seeing what they can do, seeing that you can work with outreach, but also you can work with research as well and develop solutions actively in your community — it was something that I was very interested in doing. I will say that the program didn't necessarily change what I wanted to do. It did help crystallize it though in the future. I see more opportunities in how I can integrate my interest into different options later on, though, it definitely was a completely immersive and beneficial experience.

Nicci Brown: Well, it'll be terrific to see what you both achieve in the future. I have no doubt there are big things coming. Thank you so much, Sarisha and Coleen, for joining us today.

Sarisha Boodoo: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

Coleen Sailsman: Thank you for having us.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of from Florida. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is James Sullivan. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll join us next time.


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April 12, 2022

Season 2 Episode 15: Sharing the experiences of African American elders

The Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History includes 1,000 interviews with elders in Florida, Mississippi, Georgia and elsewhere about their experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and their efforts to establish churches, schools, businesses and build their communities. In this episode, Paul Ortiz and Sarah Moeller describe the archive and how they are using AI to make the stories more accessible.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

The University of Florida is home to a very unique archive, The Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History, which contains interviews with African American elders throughout Florida and the wider Gulf South.

My guests today are Paul Ortiz and Sarah Moeller and we are going to talk about the archive's holdings, and the many ways the university is working to make the archive accessible to groups ranging from school children to researchers.

Paul is a history professor and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the university. Sarah is an assistant professor of computational linguistics.

Welcome, Paul and Sarah.

Sarah Moeller: Thank you.

Paul Ortiz: Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Paul, I'm going to start with you. The archive bears the name of Joel Buchanan. Who was Joel? And, how did the archive get started?

Paul Ortiz: Joel Buchanan was a beloved member of our community, both on campus and in broader Gainesville. He was a leading Civil Rights activist, an amazing African American historian. He was in that first cohort of African American children who integrated Gainesville High School in 1964. It was a very difficult, in many ways, humiliating experience for him and he bore the scars of that. It was just incredibly difficult for African American children in this part of the country to be the first of their cohort to go into a white high school. In this case, in Gainesville, a lot of the teachers opposed him. He was attacked, beaten by fellow students. The white students accused the Black students of ruining their high school experience, etc, etc.

But Joel was a person who was able to use history as a way to reconciliation, I think. And, I first met him in the late ’90s. I was a grad student at Duke University and I came down telling people, ‘Hey, I'm interested in African American history.’ And people said, ‘Well, you have to talk to Joel Buchanan. He's the person.’ And at that time, Joel was working in Smathers Libraries as a subject librarian. And he took me around and helped me get started as an oral historian in this community. And he was very close with President Bernie Machen, a lot of people in the community. So, Joel was really our most distinguished local Black historian.

Nicci Brown: It sounds like he translated what was a very traumatic experience into something positive in many ways.

Paul Ortiz: Yes. Joel brought people together and he believed in reconciliation and people getting along, but he believed that you had to have the truth first. You had to be candid. You had to understand when terrible things had happened, how are we going to be able to come together? The first thing is the truth. Where did we come from? What was the experience of segregation like for Black people? What was the white response?

Nicci Brown: And can you tell us a little bit more about how it actually expanded since the start and what kinds of stories it now contains?

Paul Ortiz: That's a really good question. Joel wanted us to start locally and then kind of radiate outwards if you will. And so, we really began doing a lot of oral history interviews in Gainesville proper, Alachua County. We moved down to Marion over to Putnam, St. Johns, Miami, but then we also began moving outside of the state.

And so, The Joel Buchanan Archive features these amazing oral history interviews of African American elders in Florida, but also in Southern Louisiana, up and down the whole Mississippi Delta, Georgia. Many of the people we interviewed who grew up in Florida now also live in other parts of the world. And, so some of the interviews are international. We have a growing strength, for example, in oral histories with individuals who migrated from different parts of the Caribbean or Latin America. And so, the collection just continues to grow. The Joel Buchanan Archive now has well over 1,000 oral history interviews. And, it's one of the most heavily used collections in the University of Florida Digital Collection, or the UFDC.

Nicci Brown: How do you decide what stories to collect? Are you focused on a particular subject or a type of person or geographical area? You mentioned that that's quite broad if you're talking in terms of geography.

Paul Ortiz: It's very broad. And, the question you just asked me is a question we ask ourselves almost every day in the Oral History Program, because we have so many interviewers and our students do the interview work and there's nearly unlimited number of people that we like to talk to. But we decided early on to really focus on issues like institution building. That is, men and women who are involved in building institutions, like, say, churches, businesses, labor unions, kind of institutional leaders, but also the types of experiences.

Another big issue, because we are a research university, a lot of our colleagues would give us research questions. And so, one of the questions from colleagues at the College of Education from the outset was, ‘Take us inside a Black high school classroom in 1949. Tell us what students were learning, what they were being taught. What were the limitations? What were the possibilities? Tell us why African Americans are very adamant about holding onto the histories of Black high schools?’

Black Alumni Associations now are a big thing all throughout the country, but especially in the South. What explains that connection that African American elders in their early 90s still have to their high school alma maters, even if they graduated in, like, 1949? And so, education, business, politics, the early Civil Rights Movement.
Another thing we wanted to do as researchers was to establish the fact that African Americans built incredibly vibrant Civil Rights Movements in Florida, all across the state. So, the origins of Civil Rights Movement questions were a big part of that early research agenda.

Nicci Brown: Sarah, your area of expertise is computational linguistics and I understand you're using artificial intelligence to analyze the archive. Tell us what you're doing and what, maybe, some of the challenges are and what makes the artificial intelligence aspect of it so important.

Sarah Moeller: Well, if you think about having all of these oral histories, right? So, they're recorded and then one of the things that happens is they get transcribed. And, there's a lot of information, a lot of very valuable information for history and really for linguistics as well because it's representing the way that African Americans speak. So, the unique way that they speak and I'm not an expert on it, but I could talk about the uniqueness of it. It's all represented there in the transcript. It's represented there in the recordings. But, if you think of having a document of someone talking, how are you going to get that information?

If you're looking for information on Civil Rights or on the role of Black churches in the history of Florida, most people, ‘Well, okay, I can open up a Word document. I can do a control F and I can search for a term.’ Which will get you so far, but there's a lot of tools out there already that are so much smarter than that. So, what we're trying to do is apply some of these tools, for example, to automate, finding out what is this document about? What is this oral history about? What are the main themes that are discussed in this history? And, for example, if we're looking for something on desegregation, which of these oral histories are talking about that? Which of them would be most prominent, most important, most helpful if you're wanting to learn about that?

So, we can do things like what's called topic modeling to do that. And, then some of the stuff that we have to do to make some other tools work, simple things like tagging words with part of speech automatically, which might sound fairly easy, right? You're tagging ‘This is a verb, this is a noun.’ But, actually if you set some native speakers on that task, they would probably only come to 97% agreement because once you put it into spoken language, things get really ambiguous. So, we have models that can do that almost as accurate as humans.

Nicci Brown: Do you mean assessing it by the context that's surrounding particular words?

Sarah Moeller: Yeah, that's exactly what's happening. Basically, these are statistical models and machine learning models that are looking at the context and determining, for example, what is the part of speech? We can also extract what are called named entities, which is a bit more sophisticated than just finding proper names. But the computer can say, well, this is a person's name. This is an organization. This is a time or a date. You can imagine with history how important those things are, to automatically pull that out, not just by recognizing, oh, it's capitalized, which is how we might think about finding a proper name, but the context surrounding it.

Nicci Brown: And you mentioned before, the very unique way that African Americans spoke back in other times and to this day as well. So, I would imagine that goes into the programming when you're trying to tag things.

Sarah Moeller: So, this is one of the challenges we have because English is a language that people who work in computational linguistics, or it's also called natural language processing, have worked on. There's all sorts of models, all sorts of tools, all sorts of pre-trained models out there. It's covered in my class, Google's released a model for kind of a way of finding out the meaning of a word, roughly speaking. The computer can figure that out and they trained it on billions of words, taking it from the internet or books. But the problem is the results are dependent on the data you have available in that training. And, all of these models for English do not have a good representation of African American ways of speaking.

And so, to try to apply them and get the same kind of good results on these oral histories is we don't expect them and we haven't seen that they work quite as well. So, one of the challenges we have is how to identify in the text those unique ways of speaking and hopefully get the models to recognize them so we can work with them. And, then we hope that this would provide some training and some resources for other people to create, for example, speech recognition. That's another thing, a voice-to-text application that can understand African Americans and not just general newscaster English, if you will.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. And to be clear, this is a part of the vocabulary that African American culture has, so it's not like this is the only way that they speak. But it's about these particular conversations and picking up when African Americans are talking with one another and this terminology that they might use.

Sarah Moeller: Yeah. And, it's not all African Americans speak this way. Not all African Americans speak this way all the time, but it is a unique way of speaking. And, it's also much more than just, say, different words or different pronunciation words. There's actually a unique grammatical system that they use, which is sophisticated in its own way. One of the interesting things that they don't always use these ways of speaking in the oral history. So, when do they appear? When do we see these features? For example, habitual be, using the ‘be’ to mean habitual action. What makes it appear? So, all sorts of interesting questions come out from that.

Just one of them was, well, maybe it has to do with the interviewer. Having a certain interviewer has the ability to make somebody feel at ease, so they relax. And I might start talking with you like I maybe would with my mother or my sister, and be like, ‘Hmm. Yeah,’ and just go back into this more natural way of speaking at home, opposed to a formal way of speaking, or I might say, ‘Yes, ma'am’ and ‘That's right.’ How do we get these? Where do they appear? When do they appear? How often do they appear? And, maybe from that learn how we can help people like Paul and his team interview people in a way that brings out these unique, rare and fascinating features in language.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. It makes complete sense when you think about it in that way. Paul, is there a lot of interest in the archive? I've got to imagine that there is. And if so, how are researchers and others using this information?

Paul Ortiz: Well, this collaboration is already making it easier for researchers and educators to use this archive. This is one of the most popular archives at Smathers Libraries and it's quickly becoming one of the most popular African American history repositories in the nation. Now, the challenge, though, is that when I say that I'm talking about university based researchers from the U.S. and abroad, who are working on different topics in Black studies or African American history or arts, culture, political science, etc., etc.

But if you're a K-12 educator in the state of Florida and you want to access these oral histories, that's a challenge because you're already overburdened with lesson plans, testing, etc., etc. And, it isn't good enough for me to just do an oral history with this amazing Civil Rights activist and say, ‘Hey. Here, listen to this two-hour interview.’ The teacher doesn't have time to do that.

So, this is where Sarah's team and then one of our other leaders, Dr. Rebekah Cordova who's our education coordinator, are really making this archive much more accessible. Part of the outcome of this project is going to be the creation of lesson plans for K-12 educators who are interested in plugging in certain themes throughout the course of the entire school year. Not just Black History Month and not just about what we might think of as traditional Black history, but the role that African Americans played in STEM learning, say, in the 1950s. How was math taught in Black schools and a whole raft of topics that currently we're not getting those out there. In other words, we're not translating well the cutting-edge research we do here at UF on Black history, we're not getting that out to say Hialeah High School in South Florida, or Palatka High School. And that's really what we want to do with this collaboration, is making it much easier for us to kind of break down those complex narratives and get them into classrooms, both in Florida and throughout the world.

Nicci Brown: And in so doing, I imagine giving those students a far more integrated view of what the history is and helping them to better understand the history.

Paul Ortiz: Exactly. And there's so much hunger here for this kind of history, especially the kind of area specific. And so teachers in Palatka, for example, often ask us, ‘Hey, we love your narratives, but do you have material on Palatka or Putnam County or Northeast Central Florida?’ Right? And so, these types of algorithms and new research tools that Sarah's team is really leading us on and then Dr. Cordova's education team and then also our dear colleagues in the libraries. Let's not forget. This is a wonderful project, talking about reanimating African American Oral History, I think because it's so collaborative. I was trained as a historian and I have a certain kind of training, but I'm not trained in linguistics. I'm not trained in curriculum development. I'm not trained in archival studies. And so, to be part of this research team is so exciting for me and I've learned so much.

Nicci Brown: How many people are on the team? Is there a way for you to actually quantify that? Or is that the $64,000 question?

Paul Ortiz: It's undergraduates at UF, who are essentially, Sarah can correct me if I'm wrong about this, but we have undergraduates at UF working on this project who are getting a graduate student experience. They're kind of like graduate RAs. And we do also have graduate RAs and we have full-time faculty like Sarah, myself and also colleagues in the libraries, but it's an expanding team. Here's kind of an inside thing. Maybe I shouldn't say this out loud, but people are constantly asking me, ‘Hey, can I join this? I want to play with you guys!’

Nicci Brown: Are you sure you want to be on this podcast right now? You might get more inquiries.

Sarah Moeller: Well, there's so many questions we could be investigating. So, I say, ‘Yeah, come on. Come talk to us.’

Nicci Brown: Sounds good to me. Well, we've been talking about some of the mechanics and what you're doing to evaluate things. But, let's talk a little bit about the stories that have to be just fascinating. Have there been any that are particularly inspiring or surprising that you've come across?

Paul Ortiz: How many hours do we have? Margaret Block is a person who was, at one point in her life, the project director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Bolivar County, Mississippi. So, she was a key Civil Rights activist. Her life was constantly under a threat. And the stories that she's told are students at UF, year after year, because for many years Miss Block was our guide into the Mississippi Delta and I would take van loads of UF students, drive to Bolivar County and then at that point we were in Margaret Block's hands. And, she would take us to talk to different Civil Rights movement leaders in the Mississippi Delta. And so, she literally adopted generations of UF students. Students just loved her.

And, if I get teary eyed, Margaret passed away a few years ago, it was very difficult for us. But one of the stories she told was about having to teach people in her community how to defend themselves from the Ku Klux Klan. And they had to learn how to make Molotov cocktails, for example. And, the students like, ‘Wow, you had to do that in the United States?’ And she's like, ‘Yes.’ And, she actually left Bolivar County late one evening, she was under a death threat by the Klan, she was hidden by her community, drove out in a car in the dead of night. So, there's a lot of stories like that about harrowing experiences that Black women in particular had.

I can also think of Laura Dixie. So, Mrs. Dixie, when she passed away a few years ago in Tallahassee, she was called the Mother of the Movement in Tallahassee. And, Laura Dixie told these incredible stories about being a rank and file organizer for the Tallahassee bus boycott, which is one of the historic events of the Civil Rights Movement in this entire country and having to organize that boycott, again, against the threat of constant violence. This is a woman who was a certified nursing assistant. She founded the Hospital Workers Union in North Florida, but she also had to go to work armed because there were white supervisors who physically threatened her constantly. And so, she was never able to live the kind of free life that she made possible for other people to live. So, when you listen to Mrs. Dixie, you're listening to a person who made it possible for us to do so many things that we take for granted, one of them being voting.

And so, I think the thing that's really amazing for our students to hear these narratives is they'll say, ‘Well, I always took voting for granted. I just thought you could always vote.’ But, a lot of these interviews we have with people who were talking about the first time they ever tried to register to vote, the hostility. The other narrative that comes up, I’ll limit myself, one more.

So, John Dew, who recently became an honorary doctorate holder at the University of Florida, the university granted him an honorary doctorate two or three years ago.

As a young man, he went to Florida A&M Law School. And, he graduated in the early ’60s and the first thing he did after he graduated from law school was go to McComb, Mississippi, and take depositions of African Americans who had been denied the right to vote. Some of our listeners have probably seen the movie “Selma,” where there's that really powerful scene in the beginning where the African American woman is trying to register to vote. And, they keep on turning her away, turning her away, but she's persistent.

John was one of the people taking depositions to prove that people were being denied the right to vote. You had to prove it. You couldn’t just say anecdotally, ‘Oh, 100 people were denied the right to vote.’ He was beaten by the police. He was arrested multiple times. And, just thinking about him as a young law graduate, his first job, going to McComb, Mississippi, and taking depositions from Black people denied the right to vote, what courage. Just incredible. And so The Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History at UF is full of those types of amazing stories. You could listen to it for years and they're inspiring. They're dramatic. They're tragic. They're joyful. They will bring tears to your eyes. It's unlike any other archive I've ever done research in.

Nicci Brown: Sarah, what are some of the things that you hear from the students who are actually involved in this project? We’ve heard about some of the surprises but anything else that really springs to your mind?

Sarah Moeller: First of all, I'll say on the linguistics team we have some really great students. We have two undergraduates, linguistic majors, and two graduate students and they've been doing a really excellent job. They've had to do some tedious work, marking up the transcripts and moving little lines on the computer to get the sentences and the transcripts matched up with the audio. And so we've talked a lot about the linguistic features, less about the content, but I do remember what was interesting to me.

So, one of the exciting things for me about this project on a larger scale is that it's training students in humanities to be ready for a job in the market with all the AI technology. So, there are linguistics and honestly there aren't a lot of jobs you can go into and just say, ‘I'm a linguist. Hire me.’ Because you're not necessarily just translating, you know, people think of linguists as translators. But this is people who analyze the language. So, a little bit less useful maybe, but more interesting.

One of the students, when I was talking with her about working with us on the project and about the qualifications, one of the things I said is, ‘One of the things we're looking for are native speakers of African American English.’ And, she kind of looked at me, kind of laughed a little bit. And later on in the conversation, she said, ‘I never thought about my ability to speak African American English as a job qualification.’ And I said, ‘Yes, it is. It's a unique way of speaking in and of itself. And, yeah, you're a linguist. It's a language. You should put it on your CV. It is a skill that you have.’ So, that was an exciting story for me to see, not from the oral histories, but to see the reaction of the students who are involved in the project and their growing realization of what they have to give as well as their growing skills as they work on it.

Nicci Brown: Absolutely. And I think it also is this reflection of the importance of AI across the curriculum, which is quite unique to the University of Florida and just how it is equipping our students to go out and practice their skills when they have jobs and be ready on Day One.

Paul, when we are thinking about the lesson plans for these K-12 students, are you envisioning that they'll actually hear the individuals that you've spoken with? That will be part of the experience for them?

Paul Ortiz: Yes. And we actually began, even before we received a grant, Dr. Rebekah Cordova was able to take some of our oral histories and kind of test this idea out. And, you're exactly right. As a writer, I love to write and read and everything like that. But after all these years doing oral history, I still radically underestimate the visceral power of listening to someone and the power that has on students. And, so one of the pilot projects was taking some of the oral histories of African American elders who'd been involved in STEM-related fields, medicine, nursing, science, etc., etc. and taking those in and actually having students in high schools listen to them.

And so, Rebekah did that a couple of years ago in the Duval County School System. And, they were used in a STEM research high school class. And, we were able to kind of watch and listen to these high school students respond to hearing someone who had been the first African American graduate of the College of Nursing, say, in the 1960s. And the response and the reaction of high school students to these interviews was remarkable. They began to say things like, ‘Well, you know, if Black people could overcome this adversity to become a doctor or a nurse in the 1960s, wow! That makes me even more committed to pursue this professional pathway.’

And again, that's something I kind of take for granted. I never thought of that, wow, this is a really powerful use of oral history. It can be used to really encourage people to go down a career pathway that maybe they didn't think of before.

Nicci Brown: Right.

Paul Ortiz: So, they're already kind of filtering out there, but this project, reanimating African American oral histories, is going to allow us, I think, to exponentially improve our ability to get those oral histories from UF into Florida's public school system.

Nicci Brown: So, empowering on many different kinds of levels.

Paul Ortiz: Yes.

Nicci Brown: Where can listeners find the archive?

Paul Ortiz: Well, there's a number of different ways. If you grew up in the analog era, as I did, you can actually go to George Smathers Libraries and listen to them there. Or, you can just log on to the UFDC, the University of Florida Digital Collections. And once you get there, you just type in Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History and you're on your way. But see, as you're looking through the archive, you'll notice quickly why this project is so important because there are thousands of stories. And so, to me, the excitement of this project, again, is that one of the outcomes is going to be, it's going to be so much easier to navigate this extraordinary archive.

If I was retired, that's all I would do. I would just log out of this archive, listen to stories day after day after day. But obviously, you've got to write a dissertation or do a film documentary or a podcast. And so again, I think one of the promises of this project is it's going to allow you as an end user, if I can use that language for a moment, whether you're a teacher or a minister or a museum professional or a curator of any kind, it's going to allow you a much smoother entree into this enormous archive, into these special topics you may want to look at.

Nicci Brown: So, it will touch many different places.

Paul Ortiz: Yes.

Nicci Brown: Sarah and Paul, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure to learn more about the archive. And, good luck and stand by the phone. You might be getting some more volunteers!

Paul Ortiz: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Sarah Moeller: Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is James Sullivan.

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April 14, 2022

Season 2 Episode 14: Does medical marijuana work? Florida consortium seeks answers.

A consortium of nine universities in Florida, led by two professors at the University of Florida, is in the early stages of investigating medical marijuana. In this episode, Professor Almut Winterstein describes the consortium, its three major efforts and the opportunities and challenges in understanding how marijuana works as a medical treatment.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Across the country a patchwork of laws and policies regulate medical and recreational marijuana. Today, we're focused on medical marijuana and what we know about its safety and effectiveness as a prescribed treatment.

Our guest is Professor Almut Winterstein who co-leads with Robert Cook, a professor in UF's College of Public Health and Health Professions, the state's Consortium for Medical Marijuana Outcomes Research.

Professor Winterstein is a Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Outcomes and Policies at UF's College of Pharmacy. She is also the founding director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Safety. Professor Winterstein's research focuses on drug safety and devising ways to improve medication use.

Welcome, Almut, we are delighted to have you on the show today.

Almut Winterstein: Thank you, Nicci, I’m glad to be here.

Nicci Brown: To support research on the clinical outcomes of medical marijuana, the Florida State Legislature created the Consortium for Medical Marijuana Clinical Outcomes Research, which you direct. Would you tell us more about the consortium? How many people are involved and, broadly, who is represented in the group?
Almut Winterstein: Yeah, so the consortium was created by the State Legislature in 2019 with the intent to have an entity within the state that conducts, supports and disseminates research on the clinical outcomes of medical marijuana. All universities in the state are open to join the consortium. So it's a multi-university consortium currently representing nine universities throughout the state. And they're researchers and trainees and students and all these people who are interested it in working on medical marijuana.

The lead university is the University of Florida and the executive team, if you will, with me as director, Bob Cook, as you mentioned, as associate director, is also supported by several other faculty members who lead certain cores within the consortium and they are all located within the College of Pharmacy in the College of Public Health and Health Professions.

Nicci Brown: So, this really is quite an integrated approach, if you will.

Almut Winterstein: Yes, the consortium is directed by a board. The board is represented by all these nine universities that are participating and we really are trying to have a joint enterprise going that tries to foster research and create research on this topic.

Nicci Brown: How many states have approved medical marijuana use for health conditions?

Almut Winterstein: Right now, there are 37 states in the United States that have some sort of medical marijuana program. They are quite diverse. There are also some states that, as we know, allow marijuana for recreational purposes. And there also are some states that don't allow it at all. So it is still a fairly heterogeneous landscape.

Nicci Brown: And does that extend internationally as well?

Almut Winterstein: Yes, that does extend internationally as well. Just looking at Europe, we have countries that have legalized marijuana entirely, like, I think Holland and Netherlands are well known, and then other countries don't allow it at all. And there's everything in between.

Nicci Brown: The conditions for when it has been approved — is there a lot of variation there as well or are we really talking about legislatures?

Almut Winterstein: There is a lot of variation, yes. The only indication that is included in the legislation of all 37 states that have a medical marijuana program is cancer. And beyond that, there is a wide variety of psychological conditions, muscular skeletal conditions, other pain conditions, behavioral health conditions or a variety of different focus areas. And they vary very, very much across the various states.

Nicci Brown: I've got to imagine that's very confusing for a lot of people, especially because we are quite a mobile society these days and move from one state to the other. So in one state, you've got this resource and then you may not have it in another.

Almut Winterstein: Yes. And the state legislation doesn't cross borders, right? So you may be legally permitted to have marijuana with you here and move into another state or go and visit a friend and are actually now illegally carrying marijuana with you. And that doesn't even include the recommendations related to clinical conditions, obviously.

Nicci Brown: And what was the motivation then behind creating the consortium? Was that part of the motivation or is it more so on the research front?

Almut Winterstein: Yeah, so I think that the Legislature really was very forward looking in creating something that supplements the research that is currently not sufficient. That is the main driver. If we put parallels to the FDA and the way that prescription drugs are regulated, they follow a very, very specific framework on how efficacy and safety must be established in clinical trials for every single indication that a drug is eventually approved for. A drug is not approved as such. A drug is approved for a specific indication and the risk/benefit for that indication needs to be weighted.

And so this framework doesn't exist for medical marijuana right now. We don't have a clinical trial framework that would basically approve a drug as, you know, it is safe and effective enough for patients to use it for particular condition s— so in other words, the risk/benefit is actually favorable. We don't have that.

And we also don't have a surveillance program on the back end like we have for drugs. We all have watched the surveillance program that is in place for COVID vaccines. That was a very nice way of illustrating what is in place in order to pick up even rare events when millions of patients are using a particular medication or vaccine in this case. We don't have that for medical marijuana. We have experience from recreational use, but we don't know how that translates to patients.

Patients may not be the average recreational user. They may be patients who have very specific conditions that might affect the risk-benefit of medical marijuana quite a bit. So all of this is a very open question mark. And that also explains why there is such a difference between the various states and what they're approving and whatnot because the evidence, unfortunately, is not straightforward.

Nicci Brown: What are some of the question, then, that the consortium is working to answer?

Almut Winterstein: Yeah, so this is a broad area. And one of the really big challenges was to narrow this down to the things that matter the most. And so our research agenda that we have established over the past three years, also considering input from clinicians who are on the front end, taking care of patients, patients themselves, as well as a very comprehensive literature review on the evidence that we have conducted. We are focusing on risk/benefit. So essentially the efficacy or the effectiveness of medical marijuana. And again, this is not as such, but rather for very specific conditions. What does it do for epilepsy? What does it do for ALS? What does it do for MS and so on.

And then the safety and the safety, there are direct side effects, but also drug-drug interactions. So again, we're talking about patients who may take other prescription medications and there was very limited information about what marijuana does in conjunction with other medications that patients might take.

We are looking at different dosage forms, routes, as you know if anybody has visited a dispensary, this is a wide variety of things that can be purchased now that contain THC or CBD, some sort of medical marijuana. And so that is important to consider whether there are differences in those routes, again, both with respect to risk and benefit.

And then we also do some general epidemiologic research with respect to who is using it, what are their experiences, who has access to it. Lawmakers are quite interested in whether there are disparities in the patients who actually can access medical marijuana now. Obviously it's not reimbursed by insurance. And so what is the population that is currently taking medical marijuana.

Nicci Brown: So, with all of these variables that you've just gone through, and I'm sure there are many more, how do you go about your analysis in a way that's effective?

Almut Winterstein: Yeah, so we have three major arms that support and conduct research in the consortium. The first is a grants program that we have been running with a portion of the state allocation of funding that we have. So that is open to all participating universities. There are smaller grants, starter grants, that focuses on translational bench science. So oftentimes animal models as the first step towards looking at specific efficacy questions.

And so, in this grants program are researchers who conduct surveys with patients who are using medical marijuana. I should say that the classic randomized trial that we know from prescription medications for medical marijuana is very difficult because marijuana is from a federal perspective still an illegal substance. And so for a researcher to randomize patients to take marijuana or not, they need a so-called DEA Schedule I license and they're very difficult to obtain, which hinders a lot of the research that we would typically want to see.

So a lot of the work that we're doing is rather than randomizing patients, we are observing patients who are using medical marijuana and try to compare them to patients who have similar conditions but are not using it. So that is observational research where general randomization is missing. So we have this grants program.

The second thing that we actually are just about to launch is M3—Medical Marijuana and Me. That will be a prospective cohort of patients who are initiating medical marijuana with the idea of following these patients over a year to track their experiences. So that will give us ideas about what type of dosage, form and product do patients eventually end up on. That is a very empirical approach because we have no head-to-head comparison of what works better or worse, what kind of experiences they have, what they think works, what doesn't, what kind of side effects they might experience and so on. And what might persuade them to continue versus discontinue treatment with medical marijuana. So that is M3, the prospective cohort.

And then the largest piece that we have been working on establishing is something called MEMORY. And MEMORY stands for the Medical Marijuana Outcomes Research Repository, which resembles very much the safety work that we are doing in particular in my department that uses prescription medication data that we have from pharmacies. And we link that to healthcare utilization data, like hospitalizations, emergency department visits, so we can basically follow patients longitudinally, very large populations, to see what kind of effects happen, positive or negative, among patients who are using certain medications.

This is the classic work that has been done for COVID to look at vaccine safety, for example, but also to answer effectiveness questions. So MEMORY will resemble the same database. The lawmakers were, again, had so much foresight to allow the consortium to have access to the dispensing data that the Department of Health maintains from medical marijuana that can be linked to the same sort of outcomes data.

So, we will be able to follow patients to see whether they have more or less hospitalizations because of their multiple sclerosis or whether their PTSD is becoming worse or less when they are starting to use medical marijuana versus, perhaps, a prescription medication.

Nicci Brown: And is this something that those patients sign up to be a part of or is this information anonymized?

Almut Winterstein: This information is anonymized, yes. It is not anonymized at this point of linkage because obviously this data need to be linked together somehow, but as soon as that linkage is completed, all these personal information, personal identifiers are stripped. And we even go that far to strip dates so that there is no way of starting to connect bits and pieces and then eventually drill down to a particular individual.

Nicci Brown: And what are you finding to date thus far as far as this research goes?

Almut Winterstein: Yeah, So MEMORY is our biggest baby and the most important baby, I must say, because we here in Florida, we have currently 700,000 registered medical marijuana patients, so it will give us access to a very large population where we can really drill down to specific health outcomes.

MEMORY is still in the works. We have worked with the Department of Health to obtain those data. The legal framework around that has taken some time. And, of course, Department of Health at some point was a little bit distracted with COVID. So, we are now in the process of hopefully signing those data agreements in the next few weeks, fingers crossed.

So that will be the largest piece of research output that we will be able to generate. And I can tell you, I'm really excited about this. What we have found so far is based primarily on these smaller pilot studies that I have mentioned. So, we have had several investigators throughout the state that have looked at animal models and specific pain models.

Starting from pain after amputation to pain from certain trauma to chronic pain, a variety of different conditions. So there are some promising data with respect to effectiveness. We have looked at access as I mentioned earlier and we have summarized the evidence that is currently available. And what I can tell you is that right now there is promising and fairly solid data that supports the use of medical marijuana as an adjuvant for pain therapy.

And there's also evidence that supports the use for certain types of epilepsy. For the majority of other conditions, we really don't know what it's doing. And from a safety perspective, we have even less of an idea.

Nicci Brown: Almut, how does what is happening here in Florida compare with some other states in the United States?

Almut Winterstein: Yeah, so some states have also invested some of the state revenue that is coming in from marijuana to support research. There is a center in California. I know that Colorado is supporting some research.

These are actually two states that have a huge deficit in terms of supporting research, if you will, compared to Florida, and that is that both of these states have recreational marijuana. And once it is recreational, there is no way to track anymore who is using what. So, my analogy to the prescription medications that we had earlier, we can use pharmacy records and we can actually look at what patients were taking longitudinally and follow them to look at outcomes.

The same is true with medical marijuana because for legal purposes, right now, the Department of Health needs to track who was dispensed what and how much. So, this data basically allows us to have the same framework of longitudinal follow-up with specificity of who was taking how much, when. Once this becomes recreational, this opportunity goes away and marijuana would essentially become as obscured as knowing what a patient is eating.

So, we would then have to rely on surveys to find out whether a patient is using and what he's using and so on. So, access to the same large number of patients that we currently, hopefully, will have very soon with the 700,000 that I quoted earlier is a quite unique opportunity.

Nicci Brown: And really helps with your accuracy.

Almut Winterstein: Absolutely.

Nicci Brown: What are the next steps then for the consortium? It sounds like there are a lot of things in the works.

Almut Winterstein: Yeah, so the biggest step is indeed getting MEMORY established because of the incredible potential it has to answer a lot of questions. The most immediate step is actually our CCORC, the Medical Marijuana Clinical Outcomes conference that is actually coming up in May. This is our second conference that the consortium is holding in Orlando this year. Last year was planned in Orlando and then of course went virtual.

We had 220 something participants last year, which we were very excited about given there was constraints with COVID. So we are hoping for great attendance in Orlando. And I hope that some of the people who are hearing this podcast might consider attending. This conference is meant for anybody who's interested in medical marijuana. So there are certainly pieces that patients might enjoy seeing, the industry and, of course, providers. But it is a research conference so it's focusing specifically on outcomes related to medical marijuana.

Nicci Brown: And how can people sign up if they are interested?

Almut Winterstein: They can go to our website. Our website is and they will see a link to the medical marijuana conference there. And it's very cheap.

Nicci Brown: That's good to know.

Almut Winterstein: Yes, we are really trying to get people interested in this topic and in particular making sure that they have access to objective information that really allows them to make the right decision with respect to the use of medical marijuana.

Nicci Brown: We've seen some remarkable things in recent years. If you were to look into the future, could you give us a sense of what changes we might see? I know that's asking you to look into the crystal ball a little bit, but when it comes to the use of medical marijuana here in the United States, do you see any big changes on the horizon?

Almut Winterstein: That's a really good question. You know obviously there are a lot of political issues that drive the decision, you know, how to regulate access to marijuana. What we currently have here in the States is use for medical purposes. And I would like to separate that very specifically from recreational purposes. These are two completely different animals.

Recreational purposes is not different from a person's decision to take alcohol or not. There are risks, there are benefits and they are very different from what a patient needs to know for a particular condition. And, in particular, the benefit question really needs to be answered for those patients. So where things are going, I think, is very dependent on what the political climate is going to be statewise, as well as federally, for sure. So even if we are moving towards a recreational framework at the end, and that might very well happen, the questions for patients will still not be answered because we now have very heavy marketing efforts that promises that medical marijuana is treating anything on the planet.

And those marketing efforts are not controlled as there are for prescription medication. For prescription medication, the marketing needs to follow the approval that the FDA has issued. For medical marijuana that's not the case. So that competition is even not really fair, if you will, because a medical marijuana dispensary can make way more claims in comparison to what a prescription drug could do.

So, we really need to make sure that this information on efficacy and safety is really available to patients and providers.

Nicci Brown: All the more important to be having the kind of research that you're doing then. So thank you.

Almut Winterstein: Exactly.

Nicci Brown: Well, Almut, thank you very much for joining us today. It's been a true pleasure speaking with you.

Almut Winterstein: Yes. It was my pleasure, too. Thank you, Nicci.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is James Sullivan. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll join us next time.

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March 29, 2022

Season 2 Episode 13: An expert shares best practices for preventing cybersecurity attacks

Charles Carmakal is a UF alum and senior vice president and chief technology officer at Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm that works with government entities, corporations and law enforcement agencies around the world. On this episode of From Florida, Carmakal shares what organizations and individuals should do to protect themselves against cyberattacks.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Cyber, ransomware and hack attacks are, unfortunately, commonplace today, disrupting operations at organizations of all sizes, from school districts, to manufacturers, small businesses, medical centers and government entities. Now, the White House has issued warnings that Russia may be preparing widespread cyberattacks in the U.S., a cause for alarm for all of us.

Our guest today is Charles Carmakal and he's going to help us understand why the president issued that warning and what we, businesses and individuals alike, can do to prepare and protect ourselves.

I'm especially delighted to have Charles with us because he is not only an expert in cybersecurity, but a Gator alum. Charles is the senior vice president and chief technology officer at Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm with headquarters in Reston, Virginia, that works with government entities, corporations and law enforcement agencies around the world.

Welcome, Charles. We are delighted to have you on the show.

Charles Carmakal: It's really nice to be here. Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Charles, before we go more deeply into the issue of cybersecurity, I'd love to hear about your time here at the University of Florida. You are what we call a ‘double Gator.’ What were your fields of study here at the university?
Charles Carmakal: Yeah. Look, first of all, I love the University of Florida. I really enjoyed attending the school, met a lot of people, made a lot of lifelong friends. I studied computer science and business while I was at the University of Florida. The name of the program at the time was called decision and information sciences. It was part of the College of Business. So I did both my bachelor’s and my master’s in the program.

Nicci Brown: What was your career path to cybersecurity? What attracted you to this field?

Charles Carmakal: You know, a hobby of mine was cybersecurity in middle school. And so I had a very unhealthy obsession with cybersecurity all throughout middle school and high school. At the time, I didn't really think there were career opportunities, but when I went to the University of Florida and I sat through a presentation from PricewaterhouseCoopers, they talked about this ethical hacking practice they were looking to build out.

I remember thinking, wow, you could hack into companies and you won't go to jail, and you'll get paid money? That's exactly what I want to do when I grow up. And so while I was at the University of Florida, my aspiration was to work at PWC. And so I did a number of things to enable me to get a job at PWC and ultimately do what I'm doing today.

Nicci Brown: Did that include internships or how did that come about?

Charles Carmakal: Yeah. So while I was in the university, one of the key goals of mine was to get an internship. Ideally, I wanted to get an internship at PWC, but quite frankly, as a student, I wanted to get an internship anywhere. I interviewed and interviewed and interviewed and it was a journey and a process. I ended up getting an offer for an internship with Exxon Mobil and PWC. Exxon's a great company, it would've been a great role, but it wasn't a dedicated cybersecurity internship, whereas PWC offered me an internship on their cybersecurity consulting practice, and that's what I wanted to do, and that's what I ended up taking.

Nicci Brown: I imagine this is a growing field. You maintain some strong relationships with the university and often work with our students. How do you help them prepare for this type of career?

Charles Carmakal: I really appreciated PWC coming in and speaking to me when I was a sophomore at the university. I wouldn't have learned about cybersecurity careers if PWC hadn't talked to me about it. And so as an outcome of that, I want to do my part to create awareness around cybersecurity roles. Now granted today it's very different than what it was like back when I was at the university. More people are aware of cybersecurity careers, but I want to do my part to inspire people, but also help people get jobs in cybersecurity. And so one of the things I did while I was at PWC is, I would come back to the University of Florida a day every semester and I would teach a class with a Dr. [Praveen Ashok] Pathak in the DIS program. It's since been renamed to ISOM [Information Systems and Operations Management].

But the idea was to provide practical learnings from what we do on a day-to-day basis in the real world and share that with students in Dr. Pathak's class. When I went to Australia for a few years for work, unfortunately, I couldn't come back to the university because I was so far away. But when I joined Mandiant, I wanted to come back to UF, and I started coming back roughly six years ago. So I come down to UF, or I teach a class, I'd say, maybe two or three days a semester for a few different programs to try to teach people about cybersecurity. I'm teaching folks in a computer science/business program, as well as from a law school program. So I'm teaching cybersecurity from a few different angles.

Nicci Brown: Have you seen a lot of change in the students in that period of time since you started working with the students here and to this point?

Charles Carmakal: Yeah, absolutely. When I first started doing this, roughly 20 years ago, most people didn't know there were cybersecurity opportunities after you graduated from university. Today, people recognized that. There is an acute demand for cybersecurity professionals. We hear about it all the time. We hear about the unfilled jobs that are in the millions. And so there's a lot more awareness. And really, what I'm trying to do is create some more excitement around it and help guide students into figuring out what are the things that they should do in order to get a serious start in cybersecurity?

Nicci Brown: One thing you mentioned, too, is that there is this multifaceted approach. So you're looking at the law, you're looking at the business, you're looking at the computer science, as well.

Charles Carmakal: Yeah, absolutely. There's so many facets of cybersecurity. When you think about it from a legal perspective — today when companies get hacked, there are a lot at different types of profiles of people that get involved in the response. You'll typically have a legal team that manages the overall communication and tries to manage the overall risks and the liability associated with data breaches. You’ve got board members of the organizations that are making decisions on behalf of the company or at least influencing management in their response to the event. You've got communications people that are handling internal communications of the company, as well as external communications. You've got HR people that are figuring out what are the implications associated with an event?

So, something that people don't necessarily think about is, when you deal with a cybersecurity event, it might be a material event to the organization if they're a publicly traded company. And so there are usually people within the organization that are in the know about a cyber event before it becomes public. And so making decisions as to whether or not those employees can no longer trade stock of their company for some period of time, those are all decisions that companies need to think about. What I haven't yet mentioned are all the IT and the security responsibilities. So the point is, there's just a lot of broad responsibilities and expectations around cybersecurity, particularly from a response perspective, but also from an ongoing security perspective.

Nicci Brown: We mentioned in the introduction that you are a senior vice president and chief technology officer at Mandiant, which helps organizations protect themselves against cybersecurity attacks. Can you tell us a little bit about the company and some of the cyberattacks that you've worked on?

Charles Carmakal: Yeah, absolutely. So, the company was founded back in 2004 by Kevin Mandia, and the premise at the time was that breaches are inevitable and we wanted to help companies respond to those security events. At the time, making a statement like “breaches are inevitable” was a very bold and very different statement to make. Most people were very focused on preventative controls and stopping breaches from happening. Nobody wanted to acknowledge that breaches were inevitable. And so it was a very different message by my company. I wasn't at the company at the time. I joined the company in 2011. But one thing that I tried doing differently when I joined the company was there was so much of an emphasis on responding to security events, but not enough emphasis on helping companies become more resilient to attacks.

And one thing that we recognized at Mandiant is we've just got so much experience and understanding of how threat actors operate, how they break into companies, how they escalate privileges, how they steal data from companies, how they disrupt business operations and we recognized that the methodology that the threat actors were following were very similar. If you know what their methodology is, you could build capabilities to prevent, detect and respond to attacks across the attack life cycle. And so one of the things that we wanted to do, in addition to responding to security events, is we wanted to help companies become more resilient to attacks and we did that by taking what we learned from the real world attacks and just helping companies better prevent, respond and detect to events as they popped up.

Nicci Brown: It's interesting that you note this line of thought, that these kinds of attacks are inevitable because I think that sounds like when people are setting things up, it really has to be part of the formula right from the get-go, when you're setting up your systems, so that if there is an attack, it's not as catastrophic as what it could be.

Charles Carmakal: Yeah. A absolutely. The earlier that an organization or that a team thinks about cybersecurity and bakes it into the application development life cycle or systems development life cycle, the more protected they'll become. One of the challenges, though, that we have, you know, as an example, when you think about, let's just say, the internet of things, the development of a lot of different devices that are out there that are connected to the internet. A lot of times some of these companies that build new tools or applications that are exposed to the internet, they're just rushing to get a product to market that people like. You got to think about a lot of different scenarios, but some of these companies are startup companies and they're looking to get to revenue as quickly as possible. And so cybersecurity, sure, it's important, but for some companies, they think about where does it actually fit into their journey of becoming a viable company?

And so a lot of organizations end up releasing software and products very quickly without baking in cybersecurity, and that's a very prevalent concern when you think about the internet of things and just all these devices and appliances that now have internet connectivity. You think about your home today, a lot of people have smart switches, they have smart light bulbs, they have refrigerators that connect out to the internet, and washers and dryers that connect out. They've got security cameras and baby monitors and a lot of things. Unfortunately, what we find is the security for most of these devices that are internet-exposed today are very insecure right now. They will get more and more secure over time, but a lot of these organizations are just rushing to get new capabilities developed without being able to spend the right amount of time and effort on cybersecurity.

Nicci Brown: So speaking of that ubiquity and the way that really our daily lives are affected, President Biden has said repeatedly in recent weeks that Russia may attempt to carry out cyberattacks against the United States and he's urged the private sector to harden its cyber defenses, making sure they're up-to-date and in place. How do you view the risk right now?

Charles Carmakal: Yeah. So I think the threat is very real. Let me talk about the threat prior to the invasion of Ukraine. So prior to the invasion of Ukraine, we saw a lot of attacks against government entities in the Western world. Those government entities had data that was of strategic interest to the Russian government. And so, we saw them going after ministries of foreign affairs for a lot of different countries. We also saw intrusion activity at commercial entities that supported governments in some capacity. So, they either had data of the government or they had access to the networks of the governments that were of interest to the Russian government. So, we saw a number of intrusions prior to the invasion in Ukraine.

Those intrusions typically resulted in espionage activity, so the theft of information, again, that's strategically important to Russia. Actually, prior to and then during the time of the invasion of Ukraine, we saw a significant amount of disruptive and destructive attacks against Ukrainian organizations, both government sector organizations and commercial organizations. The idea was to create as much disruption, from a cyber perspective, to help facilitate a physical intrusion of the country.

So, we saw a lot of what is in the capability of the Russian government. And by the way, the one thing I'll also say is most governments have cyber offense capabilities and they use it for a variety of means. When you think about countries like United States, the UK, Australia and India and Pakistan, China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, everybody's got offensive capabilities, and they choose to use it for certain reasons. There's military reasons why it to use, there's national defense reasons, there's economic reasons, but Russia chose to use their cyber capability in concert with a physical intrusion into the country.

What we are now preparing for and bracing for is the inevitability of offensive attacks against Western organizations by the Russian government, likely in retaliation for heavy sanctions. And so there's a number of sectors that will likely be targeted. So when we think about the financial sectors or perhaps energy sectors in the U.S., there's a lot of organizations that could potentially be in the crosshairs of either intelligence officers operating in Russia or commercial entities that are directed by the Russian government to cause some kind of cyber retaliation against the U.S. in response to sanctions.

Nicci Brown: Can you give us a little more detail about what likely targets might be? So are we talking public utility infrastructures? Are we talking our financial system?

Charles Carmakal: Yeah. I think the expectation is that the financial system and the energy system, and then probably the critical infrastructure, to some extent, may be targeted. I don't know how far will the attacks go, how to disruptive will they be, will it lead to a kinetic consequence? So if you think back to last year, and you think back to the attack of Colonial Pipeline and the impact that had, from our perspective that was a criminally orchestrated intrusion operation that had an unintended consequence of disrupting the gas flow to the East Coast of the United States. I think the threat actors behind that — although there is definitely some connectivity back to Russia, we don't believe that Putin himself directed the intrusion against Colonial Pipeline.

We saw attacks that were very similar to this across a lot of different organizations for a lot of different reasons. But when you think about what happened at Colonial Pipeline, the organization themselves decided to shut down the pipeline as a preventative measure to ensure that there was no harm to human lives or to environmental safety. There was a lot of unknown around what was going on at the time, so they shut off the pipeline and they were able to turn it back online and things were able to get back to normal, sort of. But the normal became a new normal, where we're all thinking about, what is the potential impact of another Colonial Pipeline-like attack, but something that's actually directed by a foreign leader for a purpose of causing chaos or disruption in other parts of the world?

I think the big fear that we all have is this at what point in time does a cyber event become an escalation that warrants a kinetic response, a response where missiles are shot at each other or perhaps a different kind of cyberattack gets launched at another country, which might have a kinetic consequence? And so there's a lot of unknowns and we're seeing it all play out right now for the first time ever at this scale.

Nicci Brown: I've got to a imagine that those are the kinds of things that you and your colleagues are talking a lot about right now.

Charles Carmakal: We talk about it every single day. We've been preparing for the Russian invasion for the last several months. At the second half of 2021, we all knew that this was inevitable. We all knew that there was going to be a cyber element here. From my company's perspective, we are front and center of all things cyber. We're helping organizations in Ukraine right now, we've got people on the ground, we've got people remotely supporting them. We're trying to help organizations that have been disrupted, figure out what happened, help them get their networks back online. But in the process, we're learning a lot about the intrusion activity. I think the assumption, not that I think, the assumption is there are a few hotbeds or hot zones in the world. Ukraine is a testbed for all things evil that come out of Russia from a cyber intrusion perspective. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the hot zone for all things evil from a cyber offensive perspective coming out of the middle east.

And so those are two countries that we keep a very close eye on because the things that happen there will inevitably happen in the rest of the world. And so we want to get as advanced knowledge and learning about countries' capabilities by monitoring what's going on there so we could help not only defend the companies and the entities there, but really defend the rest of the world.

Nicci Brown: What about these ransomware attacks? Are you seeing more and more of those as well? We talked a little bit about them before, but can you go into that a little more for us?

Charles Carmakal: So ransomware and multifaceted extortion, it is the No. 1 cybersecurity threat out there. It's something that impacts all organizations, irrespective of their size, irrespective of their sector. The reason for that is because within a very short operation, criminals can make a lot of money. Gone are the days where criminals break into companies and they just steal credit card data. Think back to the big breaches at the Home Depot and Target and you name it, whatever retailer had a big credit card acceptance process, they likely had some extent of a security incident where credit cards were stolen. But if you think about that process, the time that it takes to steal enough credit card data to make millions of dollars or tens of millions of dollars, we're talking about months and months of data collection. You've also got to go through the effort of selling the data on markets. Just . . . it’s very hard to do.

Now, nowadays, most criminals, they choose to monetize their intrusions by disrupting business operations, by threatening to publish sensitive data that was stolen and extort the organizations that these operations are conducted against. What we find is these criminals, they're easily able to make six figures, very easily, but they often make seven figures, so between say $1 million and $9 million or so. But we also see victim organizations paying $10 million to 40 million. Sometimes these intrusion operations are 24 hours in duration from the point in which the company gets hacked to the point in which data stolen and the business is disrupted. It could go on for longer than 24 hours. Sometimes it's a few days, sometimes it's a few weeks.

But the number of organizations that choose to pay — it’s probably surprising to people, but about half of the clients that my company work with choose to pay. Nobody wants to pay, but they feel like they have no better option. When you think about the problem today, it's much more than just ransomware. It's what we call multifaceted extortion. So these threat actors apply so much pressure to victim organizations. They try to embarrass them, they try to disrupt current business operations, they end up impacting future business operations. They ask for a lot of money and, quite frankly, they get paid very often.

Nicci Brown: How easy is it to catch them? We've seen some cases.

Charles Carmakal: It can be difficult. Most of these folks operate in countries that are outside of North America. So a lot of times, many of these individuals are operating in Eastern European countries, sometimes it's Russia, sometimes it's Ukraine, but it's . . . sometimes it's the Latvias, the Estonias, the Romanias, lots of other countries. Some of these countries don't have extradition laws with the United States, some of them don't want to take action on these criminals. And so, in a way, these criminals feel like they're operating without any real risks or repercussions.

Now, with that said, there have been a number of wins from a law enforcement perspective. We've seen Ukraine arrest a number of people, we've seen the Russian government arrest a number of people in recent time. And so it's pretty interesting to see some of the outcomes and some of the law enforcement wins. These intrusion operations will continue, but what is good is each time a criminal gets arrested and each time law enforcement does things like seizes computer infrastructure, takes over websites and says that it's been seized by the government or reclaims/steals money from threat actors, it creates more fear and uncertainty with threat actors.

You got to think about how the operation occurred. A lot of these people that are threat actors, to them, this feels like a 9 to 5 job for them. So they've got families, they've got kids. When the risk to them of potentially getting arrested and potentially getting taken away from their families becomes more and more realized, you'll start to have — we are already seeing it — some of these threat actors no longer want to do what they maybe had done for a long time because they felt that it was safe. They're getting scared.

Now, there's always going to be the brazen threat actors out there that don't care, will be very brazen, and will speak out against governments and law enforcement and antagonize law enforcement. But over time, many of these folks will be caught. By the way, we know who a lot of these folks are — you just can't touch them because they're in countries that won't do anything to them. But when you can't touch them, one thing you can do is you can indict them. That means that you can get their name and their photo out there. You can sanction them, so that it makes it harder for them to acquire money and to do anything with the money that they have. I'll tell you, it is incredibly frustrating to be a 28-year-old with $50 million or access to $50 million, but you can't do anything with that $50 million. And so the indictments and the sanctions help.

Nicci Brown: In the meantime, what can companies do and organizations? What are the measure they can adopt to protect their operations?

Charles Carmakal: There's a lot of things that companies can do and should be doing. Most companies have cybersecurity programs. I'll tell you, there's a few things that I think companies can probably do a better job of. Number one, it's always good to get the good folks out there to do ethical hacking and what's known as red teaming, which is basically you pay the good folks to do an authorized test to try to hack into the company. The idea is to try to figure out, are there vulnerabilities that exist that could be exploited that allow the testers to get in? Because if it allows the testers to get in, it's probably going to allow the bad actors to get in. So let's try to do that, so that you're doing it in a controlled way. You can identify things that need to be fixed and you can fix them in a short period of time. That's incredibly important.

The second thing that I encourage people to do is conduct incident response tabletop exercises. So pretend that the company was hacked today. Figure out how would you actually respond to it? And what's useful about that is you start to engage in conversations that you may not have otherwise. A lot of people today think that a security incident is the responsibility of the IT or the security leadership team, but they forget all the other people that are actually involved in a response. The CEO is probably involved in a response.

For example, the CEO of Colonial Pipeline had to testify before Congress multiple times about the security incident. There are people from the legal team, HR, communications. Again, a variety of people that tend to have some level of responsibility in a security event. And so it's good to exercise that and try to think about what would a company do? How would they coordinate in the event of a security event? There's usually a lot of learnings that come out of that process.
And then the third thing I'd recommend people do is try to learn from the organizations that have had security events because there is a lot of things that those organizations probably were doing before the event, but maybe they weren't doing it so well or maybe there were things that they just . . . maybe they knew they needed to do, but didn't do it or maybe they thought they were doing it well, but didn't do it well enough.

Those learnings are so invaluable, not only to the victims to get better, but for everybody else. There's a lot of different organizations that share information about security events and those are great things for companies to read and to study and to implement learnings from just to become a little bit harder for attackers to break into them.

Nicci Brown: What about members of the general public? What can we do?

Charles Carmakal: Yeah. There's a few things that I think average, everyday people should be doing. Number one, we should all be using a password manager and storing that password manager in a safe location and using a different password for every website that we use. When I say every website, I literally mean every single website you use. There's no way that you can memorize every single password for every single website that you connect to. But if you use a password manager, it becomes a lot easier. Google has a password manager that's built into Chrome, there's LastPass, there's 1Password. There's a lot out there, but just use one of them and try that their security will be better than any individual's security.

The reason why using a password manager and a unique password everywhere is so important is because when websites get hacked, threat actors will download the encrypted passwords from those websites and they'll try to crack them, and they'll try to figure out what the actual password is. And then they will attempt to use that username and that password across a thousand other websites, and there's a very good chance that that same username and password is used across a lot of different websites. Most people use the same password across all the websites they use. Threat actors know that and that's actually one of the most prevalent ways in which threat actors get access to company networks, but also get access to everyday people's social media accounts, communication accounts, bank accounts, things like that. Number two, leverage multifactor authentication everywhere that it's available. By the way, any kind of multifactor authentication is better than no multifactor authentication. So if you could do SMS-based multifactor authentication, that's great.

Nicci Brown: What does that mean, Charles?

Charles Carmakal: Yeah. So multifactor authentication basically mean when you log into a website, you provide your username, your password and then something else, and that something else is what's known as multifactor authentication. That's something else is sometimes a code that gets emailed to you or sometimes it's a code that gets sent to you over SMS or sometimes it's a random number that is shown on your phone when you click like on an application, like an authenticator application. What it does is it just makes it very hard for somebody that might have stolen your username and password to be able to log into the application as you.

Now, there's a lot of ways in which threat actors will socially engineer, convince somebody to give up that code and then allow the attacker to log into that person's account, but it just makes it harder and harder when you enable multifactor authentication. Again, it's also called multi-step verification on certain websites. So it's really important to do that on your banking sites, which by the way, it's more or less default nowadays. But for social media sites, for your email accounts, it's really important to do that.

And then I would say other good practices for people are to apply security patches on your devices, whether it's your laptop or your desktop or your phone. For the most part, most software nowadays will automatically update. Sometimes it'll prompt you, do you want to install the update? I know a lot of times we click on, let's wait for another day or so. Let's just try to get into a good habit of applying the patches. By the way, the one thing that could be tricky is, sometimes hackers will change websites so that it makes it look like you need a security patch and trick you into installing a patch, when it's not actually a real one. I know it's hard to be mindful and to be aware of what the fake sites look like, but to the extent possible, try to become comfortable with what the authentic patching prompts are so that you can spot the ones that are fake.

Nicci Brown: Do you have any clues for us about what are some of the things that the fake ones tend to use as opposed to the real ones?

Charles Carmakal: Yeah. So a pretty common fake update prompt is if you go to a website, you'll see a page that says your Adobe Acrobat or your Adobe Flash is out of date and it'll give you a prompt to install an updated version of the software. But if you look at the URL bar, it doesn't say, it might say some random company name .com, or just some random website. So you want to be, keep a look at for what's giving you the prompt. If you see something that looks like an operating system prompt, perhaps on the bottom righthand side of the Windows operating system, where you normally get the pop up saying, you've got a patch, your computer wants to restart, just try to figure out the difference between what is real, maybe ask somebody for help, versus what's not real.

Nicci Brown: Speaking of banks, should we all be making sure that we've got more cash on hand right now? You hear all these dramatic kind of things that people are doing.

Charles Carmakal: Look, our banking system, from a cyber perspective, is very resilient. When I think about the sectors that are actually the most secure out there, they're the defense contractors and the banks. The defense contractors are very secure because they've been hacked over and over and over again by foreign governments.

But every time they get hacked, they learn, they get better and better and better and they do everything they can to defend themselves from the next advanced attack. But I look at banks, they also spend a lot of time and money on cybersecurity because they're regulated very heavily by a variety of standards. And so they tend to spend a lot of money on cybersecurity. They've got good talent, they have good processes, they've got a lot of security technology. So, I believe they're pretty resilient from a cyberattack perspective. But they may not be as resilient around as . . . just think about 2008, that, potentially, could happen.

So, certainly, that is a real risk. There's an inflation risk right now. I wouldn't encourage people to necessarily go to the bank and take all your money out because they can protect your money better than you probably could protect your money by leaving it under your mattress. That's, obviously, a very real physical risk of the money being stolen if you do something like that. I have a decent amount of cash on hand if I need it, but I have a lot of faith in our banking system. I'm not too concerned about a crash.

Nicci Brown: Any other words that you can share with us that might give us a bit more reassurance with regard to cybersecurity in the situation that we're in now?

Charles Carmakal: Look, the most important thing is for folks that are listening to this to try to do your part to better protect yourself. There is a downstream and an upstream impact that you protecting yourself has on companies and organizations that you may be affiliated with. And so when you think about the three things that I mentioned, use a different password on every website, use multifactor, multi-step authentication and then patch your systems, that'll actually get you pretty far. It's those first two things that really impact a lot of people. By doing that, you'll help yourself and you'll help a lot of organizations. But there is definitely risks of foreign governments hacking into organizations in the Western world.

The Western world heavily leverages this internet infrastructure and connectivity and so that increases the exposure to ourselves. But there is a decent amount of resiliency in place and there also is a certain amount of fear in causing an attack against the Western world that might lead to a kinetic consequence. Nobody wants to start World War III. And so people are very mindful of what kind of attacks may result in an escalation, which may inevitably result in a physical retaliation?

Nicci Brown: Charles, thank you so much for joining us today. It is very good to know that there are people like you who are out there and guarding our best interests.

Charles Carmakal: Absolutely. Thanks for your time.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode From Florida. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is James Sullivan. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. I hope you'll tune in next week.

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March 22, 2022

Season 2 Episode 12: Digging up facts, telling stories and busting myths with a university archivist

Carl Van Ness has worked as an archivist at the George A. Smathers Libraries for nearly 40 years – and that’s given him a lot of time to read letters from the past, set the historical record straight when needed and uncover interesting facts about the University of Florida. In this episode of From Florida, you’ll hear about myths Carl has busted and listen as he describes some of his favorite items in the archives.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Our guest today is Carl Van Ness, who has a long history — and that is the perfect word in this case — at the George A. Smathers Libraries, where he has worked in various capacities as an archivist.

Carl's current role is the Florida Political Papers archivist and he previously served as head of archives and manuscripts, associate chair of the Department of Special and Area Studies Collections and University Archivist, to know name just a few of his roles.

To say Carl knows a lot about the University of Florida would, quite simply, be a huge understatement. After nearly 40 years of service to the university, Carl will be retiring this summer, but he has graciously agreed to join us here today to share a few highlights of his career. Welcome, Carl.

Carl Van Ness
: Thank you. It's a pleasure being here. I don't normally get to talk about what I do as an archivist. By the way, we pronounce it archivist.

Nicci Brown
: Oh, I knew you'd get me!

Carl Van Ness
: No, no, no, no. It's okay. Around the world it's pronounced differently. But normally the people ask me questions related to the university's history, so I don't often get the opportunity to talk about my profession.

Nicci Brown
: Well, it is wonderful to have you here. You joined UF as a project archivist. Did I get that right?

Carl Van Ness
: Yeah. Okay. Or archivist.

Nicci Brown
: Archivist at the George A. Smathers Libraries in 1984. Could you tell us what attracted you to this position? What was your background and maybe what was your first project?

Carl Van Ness
: Sure. I came into this profession surely through happenstance. I was a graduate student here. I was working on a master's degree in history, Latin American history, early Cuban history, and I was offered a position in the library, a six-month position, to process a collection related to the sugar industry in Cuba.

I had been working on a thesis related to railroad construction in Cuba, so this was kind of a good tie-in. I had no idea I wanted to become an archivist and I just loved the work. I just came in every day and was just this new adventure. Get to open a box that nobody's opened in 100 years and get to look at what's inside. It was just fascinating and from that period on, I was just hooked on being at archivist. I'm not going to not going to go back to grad school anymore, although I had to actually, I had to get a library science degree in order to work in the library.

Anyway, after doing that initial job, I worked in the university archives for about 16 years, not 60, 16 years, it seems like 60 at times, doing a lot of hands on work. Really just working with collections again. And then in 1997, I was appointed university archivist. I served in that role until 2003. Since 2003, I been pretty much a — I’m going to call it a utility archivist. In baseball, they referred to utility infielders, guys can play any position in the infield. Well, that's what kind of what I've been doing since 2003. I've been working with a variety of collections. I'm currently the political papers archivist in the department. I've also worked a lot with audiovisual materials, even though I have no training whatsoever in that, but they needed somebody to do that so I said, sure, I'll do that.

Nicci Brown
: And in 2006, you served as the university historian for UF. Can you tell us a little bit about that role?

Carl Van Ness
: Sure. The position itself has no particular responsibilities, no defined responsibilities, let's put it that way. I'm only the second person to serve as university historian. The first was Sam Proctor, who was one of Florida's most significant interpreters of the state's history and culture. And I got to work with Sam a lot while he was here, and I got to know his particular style and his approach to being the university historian. When I became the university historian, I just kind of followed Sam's script, so to speak, although I'm less of a public person than Sam was, although I do a certain amount of speaking for the public. Mostly I'm a behind-the-scenes type of person. The primary responsibility of a university historian is to be a question answerer. I get asked a lot of questions and I try to answer them as best as I can.

To give you an example from last week, I got a call from President Fuch's office. We get a lot of calls from President Fuch's office, as you imagine. And President Fuch is giving talk this week, I think it is, to the Fulbright scholars. And so they asked me, do we have anything on the early history of the Fulbright program at the University of Florida? And I said I don't know, but I'll check into that. I had no sense of the history of the Fulbright scholarship program in the United States, so the first thing I had to do was go to the Wikipedia page and see when was the act passed. It was passed in 1946 and shortly thereafter, the program got kicking.

So, that would put the beginnings of the Fulbright scholarship program during the period of President Jay Hillis Miller, who was our fourth president. So, I immediately went to Miller's records to see if there was anything there and there was. There was a little bit there. I also discovered at that point that Miller had appointed Dean Ralph Page, who was at that time the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to serve as the chair of the Fulbright committee. So, we also have his papers as well, so I went to those and I found an even much larger folder on the Fulbright program. And between the two, I was able to put together a decent sketch of the early history of the Fulbright program at the University of Florida. So that's typically what I do as university historian. Although, as I said, I do other things as well, have to speak before the public occasionally. I give tours of campus.

Nicci Brown
: I have been on one of your tours.

Carl Van Ness
: You've been on one of my tours?

Nicci Brown
: It was wonderful, yes.

Carl Van Ness
: Oh, thank you. I also do an indoor version of that, where instead of using buildings, I use objects or documents from the university archives to talk about the same things, but it's a lot easier indoors than outdoors. You don't have to worry about the weather and I can select whatever I want from the university archives to talk about, whereas with buildings you're kind of confined.

Nicci Brown
: It sounds like you're a detective almost in some ways, following those leads and piecing things together to really build out a story of the past. So not inventing but bringing it back to life.

Carl Van Ness
: That's true. That's a lot of what I do is detective work. Yeah.

Nicci Brown
: The library is both home to the archive and serves as a museum for the university. What are some of the interesting artifacts that you've got housed there?

Carl Van Ness
: Unlike the university archives itself, the normal records that we keep on the archives, the artifact collection, the museum collection, relates primarily to student life and culture. Whereas the archives is mostly about the administration, the presidents, the provost, that kind of thing, as well as faculty. But with the artifacts, it's mostly about student life.

There's a lot of things that students used, a lot of things that student wore. A lot of caps, specifically the ‘rat caps,’ which were the beanies that first-year students were required to wear before World War II, and then shortly after the war. We have a lot of posters from musical events, dramatical events, anti-war protests, that kind of thing.

We have our famous biscuit, which is a biscuit that reports to be a biscuit, anyway. We're not sure. We've never actually tested it to make sure it's a biscuit. But it was mailed by a University of Florida student in 1913 to a friend in Georgia. And that friend kept it, and eventually it ended up in the archives. So, we have the biscuit from the mess hall from 1913.

Nicci Brown
: So, is this just a normal biscuit? What does it look like?

Carl Van Ness
: It looks like a biscuit, it's round and it's flat. It's very hard now. It was actually a stamped item. This person put a stamp on the biscuit and put the address of this person on one side and on the back, it says "Mess hall from 1913." Yeah, it purports to be a biscuit. It purports to be an actual stamped item, although there is no actual cancellation to the stamp. A true stamp collector would say it's not authentic because it hasn't tied into the biscuit. You'd have to have the stamp where you'd have the postal cancellation on the stamp and the biscuit itself to qualify. Still, it’s an amazing thing.

Nicci Brown
: Right. And I guess I'm just wondering about what would cause someone to want to mail a biscuit.

Carl Van Ness
: Probably because the quality of the biscuit was so bad. I can only-

Nicci Brown
: Or so good. Let's say so good.

Carl Van Ness
: No, let’s say so bad. It says mess hall. The status of the mess hall was not the greatest thing in the world. In fact, the university was delighted when we finally switched to a cafeteria style. So, prior to the 1920s, if you were a student, you ate in common. Everybody got served the same meal, which was heavy on the starches, heavy on the breads and maybe some kind of meat. If you were lucky, maybe a vegetable, too. And then in sometime around early 1920s, we switched to a cafeteria style where you could actually choose what you wanted to eat. It was actually a big event when it happened.

Nicci Brown
: So that was proof of the suffering, I guess.

Carl Van Ness
: Proof of the suffering. Yes. You could probably throw that biscuit, and they probably did, they probably hurled those biscuits and hurt each other with them.

My favorite objects in the museum collection are the sign-out sheets that women who lived in the dormitories had to maintain. If you were a woman living in a dormitory up until mid-1960s, you were required to sign out whenever you left your dormitory and sign back in when you returned. You had a curfew. During weekdays, I think it was like 10 p.m., weekends it was more like 12, 1 a.m. And women were allowed to keep their sign-out sheets if they wanted to, and some women did. Some of them ended up in the university archives. I use them a lot when I talk to students. It just kind of provokes a discussion because students today are like, ‘What? Why did women have to do this? Why didn't the men have to do this?’ This leads to a discussion about gender roles and the changing roles of women in a university setting. It's a great way to start a conversation. It's also just an interesting artifact.

Nicci Brown
: And especially relevant now in women's history month as well.

Carl Van Ness
: Yes, thank you. And I forgot all about that.

Nicci Brown
: What are some of the reactions of students? You said that they're kind of like, ‘This can't be possible. Why did they have to sign out when men didn't have to?’ What other things do you hear from students when you're talking about some of these artifacts?

Carl Van Ness
: Yeah, they are very confused at times because they just can't imagine what it would be like to be a woman here in the 1940s or 1950s. One of the obvious reasons for having a sign-out sheet and all that is to control women's sex lives. They're like, ‘What? Why do they care?’ This brings up the whole concept of in loco parentis. Prior to the 1970s, students here under the age of 21 were considered minors. They were considered children. So, the university was in the place of the parent. And your parents would want to protect you. If you were a woman, they'd want to protect you and make sure that you didn't get into trouble.

Nicci Brown
: Did they have chaperones?

Carl Van Ness
: No. But you had to state who you went out with.

Nicci Brown
: Okay.

Carl Van Ness
: It was very, very clear as who you were going out with on the sign-out sheet. We have one sign-out sheet that's very interesting. It's that of Adele Khoury was her name at the time. And she went out with a guy named Bob Graham a lot. And eventually she married Bob Graham, eventually became the first lady of Florida. But we have Adele's sign-out sheet and there it is, Bob Graham, Bob Graham, Bob Graham.

Nicci Brown
: Does Adele Graham know? Does she know that you’ve got this?

Carl Van Ness
: Oh, of course. She donated it. She donated it to us.

Nicci Brown
: Okay, great.

Carl Van Ness
: No, I was down at Miami Lakes visiting them and I saw that she still had this. ‘Please give this to the archives. This is wonderful.’ And she didn't hesitate. We actually have had women who refuse to give us their sign-out sheets. They have them, but they keep them because it's a personal memento of their lives while they were here.

Nicci Brown
: And I guess in some ways, a diary of times.

Carl Van Ness
: A diary in a way, and very personal.

Nicci Brown: History can be a sensitive subject at times. What's your approach been to creating a historical record while being mindful of politics and sensitivities? Because we're seeing things through the lens of today, but we know that in the future they'll be viewed a different way, perhaps.

Carl Van Ness
: That's an interesting question. First of all, we don't actually create the records. Somebody else creates the records and we simply take them in, describe them and make them available to researchers. But in another sense, we do create the record because we are the gatekeepers. We are the ones who have to select which records get kept and which ones end up in the dumpster.

That's a very significant and weighty responsibility and we're very much cognizant of the biases that exist in a record's creation. Some people create records, some people don't create records. The university president creates a lot of records. The provost creates even more records. The person who cleans the bathrooms doesn't create any records and we're very mindful of that and we have been for a number of years.

We try to come up with ways to fill the gaps of selecting records that previous archivists may not have deemed worthy of maintaining. There's only so much you can do. We can't create records. Oral history fills the gap a lot, but we're not oral historians. We're archivists. We deal with paper records. We deal with the actual records that are created at the time. Oral history is a different thing, but it's very important. It also has its own biases as well. People's memories are faulty.

Nicci Brown
: Of course, they are. And they're seen through one person's perspective quite often.

Carl Van Ness
: One person's perspective, many years after the fact, in some cases. Archivists also have an ethical responsibility to make sure that the records are accurate, that we're keeping an accurate record and that all the information is available to researchers, to everyone, including information that might make some people feel uncomfortable. We hear a lot about that today. People feel uncomfortable, they don't want to talk about the past. Well, that's what we do.

We deal with the past and I'm not sympathetic to people who are uncomfortable with the past. It exists and we have to deal with the past.
I'm the son of a German Jew who escaped the Holocaust. Many of her friends didn't. Many of her relatives didn't. And I appreciate what Germany has done in the last 20 years in terms of talking about the past and revisiting the past and coming to grips with what happened during World War II. At first they didn't and nobody wanted to talk about it. It was like, ‘Oh, that's the past. Yes, we acknowledge these horrible things happen, but...’

Nicci Brown
: Move on.

Carl Van Ness
: Let's move on. Let's move on. And we can't do that.

Nicci Brown
: In many ways, the past is the greatest teacher that we have.

Carl Van Ness
: I think so, yes.

Nicci Brown
: So, you've written on a variety of subjects related to the university's history. Are there some topics that really stand out that you can share with us today?

Carl Van Ness
: Sure. First of all, I've always approached my research, regardless of whether it was aimed at a general audience or whether it was aimed at simply the people in the Gator Nation, I've always approached it with the attitude that this is serious scholarship. I've written some materials on some subjects that would only be of interest to someone in the Gator Nation and I've written other things that have more general interest or interest to other historians.

In all cases, I've tried to be somewhat of a myth buster. We have a lot of stories at this institution, every institution does, but we have a lot of stories about our origins and the origins of this and that. And I always try to confront those stories and challenge them and see if the archival record validates those stories or if it invalidates those stories.

Let me give you an example. I've written extensively on the origins of the Gator nickname. And the reason for that is that a number of years ago, I was going through the archives, wasn't looking for anything related to the Gator nickname, but I happened to find an explanation for why we were called the Gators. And the reason why that was interesting is because we already had a story more or less official, and this wasn't it. There's another story. So, I said, ‘Okay, well this is interesting. Now I have two stories. Which one is the valid story, which one is not?’ And I did a lot of research and I came away with the conclusion that the story that I found was, in fact, the real story of the origins of the Gator nickname and I was writing an article on that.

And then all of a sudden, I found a third explanation. At the end, I ended up doing what historians do. I said, ‘Well, we can't tell you exactly why we're called the Gators. There are various explanations for why they were the Gators.’ And that's a pitfall of archival research and historical research is that we look for that definitive answer, we look for that smoking gun, we don't find it. But we hope to come with some kind of consensus and even an overwhelming consensus, but at the end of the day, you're still left with questions and room for debate and other interpretations.

Nicci Brown
: Can you share with us just a touch of those three stories?

Carl Van Ness
: Oh, sure. The first story involved Phillip Miller who had a store in downtown Gainesville and he sold a number of things to students, including pennants. And according to the story, he was in Virginia visiting his son, who was at the University of Virginia, and they went to a manufacturer of pennants and they ordered pennants for the store. And the manufacturer asked what were the school colors, first of all, and they said orange and blue. And then he said, ‘Well, what's the mascot do you want to put on the pennants?’ And they said, ‘We don't have one.’ So they came up with one and that's the origins of the name. Well, turns out to be not the case. Those early pennants, I've never seen an early pennant with a Gator on it.

The second story involved the captain of the 1911 football team whose nickname was Bo Gator, which is Southern Brother Gator, so Neal "Bo Gator" Storter, and someone said that he was the origin of the Gator nickname.

Nicci Brown
: Wow.

Carl Van Ness
: But he denied it.

Nicci Brown
: Okay.

Carl Van Ness
: And he came up with the third explanation, which I'm not going to get into, because we've already got up to the weeds in this. But, yeah, it’s fascinating to people in the Gator nation, I guess, but other people may not find that so interesting.

Nicci Brown
: Well, one more Gator Nation question, though, because you did mention the school colors and from what I understand, they weren't always orange and blue.

Carl Van Ness
: That may have been the mistake that Austin Miller, the son made, when he told the story 40 years after the fact. Yeah, the school colors in 1907, when this supposedly happened, were probably blue and gold, not orange and blue. So, what they may have done, inadvertently, is influence the choice of colors. And that may have been why he was confused about it. But yeah, they were blue and gold, at least most people thought they were blue and gold, but some people thought the other color was orange or yellow. And eventually we decided on orange.

Nicci Brown
: Well, we know what we are now.

Carl Van Ness
: We know what we are now. We're blue and orange and we're Gators. Yes.

Nicci Brown
: There you go. What about some other fun stories or interesting stories from the past that might surprise people?

Carl Van Ness
: Sure. One that I always come back to is the fact that the University of Florida was one time in Lake City.
Most people don't know that. And it's one of those things that it's amazing, isn't it? I mean, why would the state of Florida move its university from one place to another, especially only 45 miles south? We're the only state in modern history to have done that. It had to be something really dramatic for that to happen. And the bottom line is that there had been a lot of problems in Lake City and when the opportunity came to move the university, after the passage of the Buckman Act of 1905, there were people who jumped on it and said yes. The situation in Lake City had always been very bad and the leading citizens of Lake City were all constantly interfering in the affairs of the university. So, they said, Hhmm, let's go to someplace else where they'd be more appreciative. And now we're in Gainesville.

Nicci Brown
: And water played a part in that?

Carl Van Ness
: Well, that's another story.

Nicci Brown
: Okay, lots of stories.

Carl Van Ness
: That's one of those stories about the University of Florida came to Gainesville because of free water. Certainly, probably was a factor, but mostly it was about just getting out of Lake City. And the only other city that offered the opportunity was Gainesville. Gainesville fought very hard to have the university come here. They were disappointed because the Buckman Act had abolished the East Florida Seminary, one of several schools that were abolished by the act, so they were putting up a fight.

Nicci Brown
: Well, no doubt there are some incredible items in the archive and I know this might be asking you to pick a favorite child, but do you have a favorite item in the archive?

Carl Van Ness
: Well, I've talked about some of the things that have always intrigued me, but it's amazing, almost 40 years as an archivist and I still enjoy reading other people's mail. I've been reading a lot of mail from the early presidents, Albert Murphree and Andrew Sledd. Andrew Sledd was our first president, Albert Murphree was our second president. And I have done a lot of research on the origins of public higher education in Florida and have gotten to know those two men rather well. And I feel like if either one of them showed up on the streets tomorrow, I'd be able to have an intelligent, great conversation with them and tell them how much I appreciate their efforts and all that. But I still enjoy just reading other people's mail.

But I have worked with a lot of different types of records over the years. I mentioned audiovisual materials. A lot of those audiovisual materials came from this very studio, WUFT, including a lot of news clips, but even B-roll and that kind of thing, the stuff that the studio rejected but we still have all the outtakes and stuff like that.
Another one of my favorites are the episodes of Conversation. It was a WUFT television interview-format program, very similar to this, that was done by Mike Gannon.

And we have about a third of the episodes that he did and we've been able to preserve them and they're fascinating. They're just various people who came through campus, but also just interviews with administrators and other people who had an influence on the university.

Nicci Brown
: Any other quirky kind of objects that you've got there that really stand out to you?

Carl Van Ness
: Oh, a few. One that's rather unusual is something that actually probably belongs at Florida State University rather than here. In 1903, the University of Florida in Lake City decided to become an all-male institution and so the women left. One of those women was this woman named Ida Morgan and her daughter ended up giving us a number of things that had belonged to her from both institutions. And one of them is this whiskey glass, which is a commemoration of a football game played between Florida State College in Tallahassee, before it became the state college for women, and the University of Florida in Lake City. Florida State actually won the game and it's garnet and gold, their school colors, but we have it.

By the way, Florida State does not have the type of archives that we have, in large part because no one thought to keep the materials, whereas we've always had people like Sam Proctor, I mentioned him earlier, who, in addition to being the university historian, he was the person who created the archives back in the early 1950s. Another person that preceded me was Carla Summers, who was one of the first professional archivist, there were two that preceded her, but they were here only for a short amount of time. Carla, on the other hand, stayed here for about 15 years. And she was the person who hired me, so I can never thank her too much for that, but she really put the archives on a professional road.

Nicci Brown
: I was going to ask you about that because we're such an enormous place and there are so many things being generated on a daily basis. How do you go about making the need or the importance of archiving, how do you make people aware of that so that things don't end up in the dumpster before you have a chance to realize or to look at it and ascertain whether or not it belongs in the archives?

Carl Van Ness
: It is a challenge. It's a challenge convincing administrators and everyone else that the archives play an important role and needs to be funded. It's difficult to get the word out to people. It includes a records management program, which again, Carla influenced the creation of the records management program. We have a records manager now and that's part of her responsibility and also the responsibility of the current university archivist is to go out and tell people, ‘Yes, we definitely want this material. Don't throw it away.’ So much of what we create today is electronic. I thank God I didn't have to deal with electronic records too much.
I'm more than content to let the next generation of archivists deal with those issues. But that is a major ... they don't end up in the dumpster anymore, they end up in your trash file. Yeah. Yeah. So it's a totally different world.

Nicci Brown
: Well, you will retire from UF this summer after having made an incredibly tangible contribution to the university. What are you most proud of? Is there one thing or a collection?

Carl Van Ness
: No, there's no one thing that I'm proud of, but I'm proud that I got to follow people like Sam Proctor and Carla Summers and carry on the tradition. I'm very proud of the fact that the things that I've done will endure. That's one of the great satisfactions of being an archivist, whether you work on a collection for a year or a month or a week. At the end of that time period, you've got the collection ready, it's available to researchers and you feel like you've accomplished something. I take great pride in having done that and I take great pride in knowing that it will continue and people will follow me to continue the work.

Nicci Brown
: Well, Carl, thank you for joining us today and thank you for all you've done for the University of Florida in preserving that history and those stories that are so much a part of us today.

Carl Van Ness
: Thank you very much and it's been a great pleasure.

Nicci Brown
: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode From Florida. I hope you'll tune in next week. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is James Sullivan.

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March 15, 2022

Season 2 Episode 11: Meet the astrobiologist and her students who are searching for life on Mars

As a child, Amy Williams gazed at the skies and had the same thought many of us do: Is there life out there? Now, as an astrobiologist at the University of Florida, Williams and her students are actively working on NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance missions to find out if ancient life forms ever existed on Mars. In this episode of From Florida, Williams describes the research taking place that hopes to answer that question.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

There is a lot of exciting news about space these days, from the successful launch of the James Webb Telescope to the ongoing explorations of the Mars Perseverance and Curiosity rovers.

Today, we’re going to talk to a researcher who has a front row seat to Mars research. Amy Williams is an assistant professor of geology, and an astrobiologist at UF. Amy worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center as a postdoctoral research associate, and then at Towson University, before coming to UF.

She has been a member of the Curiosity Rover Science Team since 2009, and also now was a participating scientist on the Perseverance Rover Science Team. I'll let Amy tell us more. Welcome, Amy.

Amy Williams: Thank you so much, Nicci.

Nicci Brown: Amy, first of all, what exactly is astrobiology and what drew you to this field?

Amy Williams: Those are excellent questions. So, astrobiology is really the study of the search for life beyond Earth. And when we think about life beyond Earth, we are thinking maybe less specifically of Martians, you know Marvin the Martian kind of idea, and more so of microbial life, sort of like today's bacteria. And so, my interest has always been in whether there's life beyond Earth. Even as a little kid watching meteor showers with my family, I wondered if there was someone out there in the stars looking back at Earth and wondering if there were anyone else out there in the universe. So, it's been a passion of mine my whole career, and now, it's the most amazing opportunity to serve on both of the active Mars rover missions today.

Nicci Brown: And can you tell us a little bit more about specifically what your research focuses on?

Amy Williams: Absolutely. As an astrobiologist and geobiologist, my interest is in how life can be preserved in basically rocks on Earth, on Mars, how life might be preserved, and we might be able to detect it even in outer worlds, like ocean worlds like Enceladus and Europa. So as an astrobiologist and geobiologist, I leverage techniques from geology, microbiology, and chemistry in order to address those questions and to try to understand, what kind of signatures of life does life leave behind, even if it's gone now?

Nicci Brown: How did you become involved with NASA? I imagine this has got to be highly competitive.

Amy Williams: It is an extraordinary opportunity. I was able to join the Curiosity mission as a Ph.D. student at the University of California at Davis. My research advisor was a CO-I on the mission. And, so, she had funding to bring in one graduate student. She said, "Do you want to work on Mars?" And I was like, "Is that even a legitimate question? Of course, I want to work on Mars." So, I was able to join the mission as a graduate student, stayed on as a postdoctoral researcher at Goddard Space Flight Center, and then was able to stay on Curiosity as a collaborator with the SAM instrument team, which is the instrument on Curiosity with which I work. And from there, I've had the opportunity to join the Perseverance mission now, as of 2021, as a participating scientist. And actually, just recently changed my role with Curiosity also as a participating scientist. Both of these are competitive grant applications to join the mission in this capacity.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little bit more about what that actually means to be a participating scientist?

Amy Williams: Absolutely. So, on these missions, I mean, it's hundreds of people—scientists and engineers—and many people are on the mission from its inception. They come on as either PIs, principal investigators of instruments, CO-Is who contribute to the instruments and the mission, and then the people who help run it. So, these two missions are run out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. And one of the opportunities to bring in effectively new people who have not been on the mission from the beginning is this competitive participating scientist grant system, which allows people to propose the best science that they can, and it is competed within NASA's system. And those that are selected are able to join the mission.

Nicci Brown: And what does that actually entail? Do you have regular meetings? Or what is your day-to-day if there is such a thing?

Amy Williams: There certainly is. So, with a participating scientist role, there's actually more flexibility and more autonomy than there is necessarily when you're serving on one of the instrument teams, which I'm able to do on Curiosity as a member of the SAM instrument team. So, a lot of what I do is actually day-to-day rover operations. We all sign in from effectively around the world, and we coordinate to look at the data collected from the day before from the rovers, make decisions about what we want to look at with the cameras, what basically chemical data we want to get from the rocks around us with some of our remote sensing instruments, and we write the scripts that up link to the rover, and we tell the rover what to do every day. So, you can wake up to images from Mars every single day, which is just one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.

Nicci Brown: It sounds like it. So, can you tell us about the graduate students who are working with you?

Amy Williams: Oh, the graduate students. Number one, the students at UF are just fantastic. And the graduate students who I've had the opportunity to work with have just been extraordinary. I have had the opportunity to have several of the graduate students working in my lab group join the mission, and actually also participate in daily rover operations. Much of their hope is that, after their Ph.D.s, they are able to stay on missions of some kind, and maybe Mars missions, maybe we'll be ready at that point to explore Titan, or Enceladus, or Europa, and they're very excited to take this experience and be able to transform it into future mission opportunities. But at this stage, the graduate students I'm working with work on daily rover operations, work on research related to the science of how life is preserved in rocks and how we can look for it on Mars.

Nicci Brown: It sounds like this is a kind of pay it forward moment for you.

Amy Williams: It truly is. This has been one of the most satisfying, personally and professionally, satisfying moments to know that my career was launched by someone giving me the opportunity to join a Mars rover mission. And I now have the opportunity to offer that to graduate students working in my lab group, not only on NASA's newest Mars mission, Perseverance, but also on the mission that my career started with, on Curiosity. This is just the best way to pay it forward and to help other nascent scientists, early career women, really reach all of their potential.

Nicci Brown: And are you seeing more women become involved? It must be really heartening for you.

Amy Williams: It's very exciting to see more women and persons of color be able to be represented in these extraordinary experiences working on planetary missions. It is personally very important to me to support women, and underrepresented groups, and persons of color in my lab group and in helping them be represented on the mission. And so, I focused on that in recruiting students and encouraging them to join the mission whenever possible. So, it is really heartening to see this increase in participation from all stakeholders.

Nicci Brown: I've got to imagine that the publicity that is happening around these missions also helps when we've got young children, even at the elementary age, seeing this on the news on the television. And like you were as a little girl, crafting this narrative of what they're going to be.

Amy Williams: Yeah. One of the best things about this opportunity is the outreach, the ability to engage with the public and, especially, to engage with the younger demographics. There's actually a friend of my elementary and middle school science teacher, and her granddaughter actually interacts with me on social media. And so, we just send these messages, and she's, you know, elementary school age, quite young, and she just asks me questions about Mars, and "Can I be a scientist?" And it's just that personal connection, a woman and her granddaughter I've never met in person before, but these beautiful connections we're able to make. And I, it's really heartening to think about the upcoming generations of scientists who are going to take my place at some point.

Nicci Brown: You gave us the note of waking up and seeing new photographs from Mars, which not photographs, images, I should say, to be on point. But it blows your mind thinking about that. Can you tell us a brief timeline for each rover mission, how it starts, how it evolves?

Amy Williams: Oh, absolutely. So, as a preface to what's happening with Curiosity and Perseverance, I like to point out that the previous rover missions were the Mars Exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Their nominal mission timelines were three months. And I think Opportunity went up to 14 years, something really extraordinary. So, we have this mindset that these missions last for a very long time, and we've been developing them so that they can. So, Curiosity and Perseverance, unlike the Mars Exploration rovers, both have basically plutonium battery packs that allow them to operate for quite a long period of time.

Now, Curiosity landed in 2012. Perseverance just landed in 2021. Curiosity is still going very strong. We're actually entering into our extended mission for Curiosity. And we are exploring these reaches of this huge mountain in Gale Crater called Mount Sharp. And we've been climbing this mountain almost the entire mission and exploring these changes in the chemistry and the sediments that we see in this mountain. And it's effectively like reading pages of a book. As geologists, we can deconvolve what's going on in Mars's history and in its climate based on what's present in these rock layers.

So, we have so much more that we want to explore with Curiosity. We're still climbing the mountain. We're still asking all of these great questions about how Mars evolved from a wet planet early in its history to the dry and cold world that we know today. And then for Perseverance, you know, we just landed about a year ago, and we are completing our crater floor campaign where we landed and getting ready to rapidly traverse to the delta.

The delta is a geologic deposit that's formed when water from a river flows into a lake, so we know there was a lot of water in this crater in its past, and that's why it's so intriguing to us. We want to search for evidence of ancient life on Mars, and we want to go to habitable environments, places where life would want to live if it were present. And so, a delta environment is just a fabulous place for us to conduct this exploration. One of the great opportunities that I now have is serving as a campaign science lead for the Delta Campaign. So effectively helping to select where are we going to collect samples for eventual return to Earth with the Mars sample-return architecture.

Nicci Brown: And how far apart are the two missions in terms of the geography, where they're located, and where they're doing their work?

Amy Williams: So many of our missions land close to the Martian mid-latitudes where it doesn't get so extraordinarily cold in the winter that it really is challenging for us to continue the operation of our missions. But Perseverance and Curiosity are hundreds of kilometers away. They're in completely different craters. I do have this, like a vision of them traversing and meeting up and saying "hi" to each other. But unfortunately, that is not really in the cards.

Nicci Brown: And when you talk about a huge mountain, can you put that into Earth terms? How large are we talking?

Amy Williams: Absolutely. So, in Gale Crater, Mount Sharp, which is formally known as Aeolis Mons, is like a five-kilometer-tall mountain. So that is pretty extraordinary.

Nicci Brown: What more do we know about Mars since you've started working in these missions? What are the kinds of things that we are learning or at least the highlights, because I'm sure there's a plethora of information?

Amy Williams: There is absolutely so much that we've learned since Curiosity landed. With the Mars Exploration missions, those rovers were meant to follow the water and search for evidence of water on Mars, which we now know was widespread early in Mars' history. And so it's almost a given at this point, yes, water impacted this area that we're exploring. Curiosity was sent to follow the carbon, to effectively search for organic molecules in addition to the different factors that go into a habitable environment. And now, Perseverance is taking that next step and searching for evidence of ancient life on Mars. So, as an astrobiologist, this is one of the most extraordinary missions I feel that I could serve on to attempt to answer that most profound question.

Nicci Brown: And one of the things about all of this work, and I think it was really highlighted with the Webb project, is the amount of time from start to finish. And in that case, it was decades, but this kind of work really does require a lot of patience, I imagine.

Amy Williams: Absolutely. We actually get data down on a daily or every other day basis from our orbital assets around Mars coming to the deep space network on Earth, which receives transmissions. And we're able to process those data pretty quickly. But on the grand scale of conception of a concept, we're going to send a rover to look for evidence of ancient life on Mars, to building the mission, to launch, to surviving landing, which we make look easy, but it certainly is challenging. We've spent the past over a year exploring the crater floor in Jezero with the Perseverance mission, and just now, we're finally ready to move towards the delta, that really extraordinary structure that we identified from orbit and said, "This is where we want to look for ancient life on Mars."

Nicci Brown: You speak with such affinity to all of these places. Do you have a favorite?

Amy Williams: Oh, oh this is like choosing children; I don't know if I'm able to do that. Curiosity will always have a special place in my heart as my very first Mars mission. I've had an opportunity to join the leadership of the Perseverance mission and so that has a different feel to me, but I would say that they are both extraordinary to me, and absolutely the best, most profound opportunities I've ever had in my life.

Nicci Brown: And what about the locations you've "visited?" Is there one that has surprised you more than the other?

Amy Williams: I would say that when we got to Jezero Crater, which is what Perseverance is exploring, we landed and we expected to be in a lake deposit, right? We know that river was flowing into a lake. And as we are exploring the area, we're starting to realize, "These aren't lake sediments. This is actually made of igneous rock, a rock that's made by magma or lava cooling.” And it's just not at all what we expected, which I think is such an important reminder that Mars is hard, that this exploration is hard and as much as we think we know about Mars or these other worlds, they are these dynamic and extraordinary environments. And it's really humbling to land somewhere and we were confident we knew what we were landing in, and things are not quite as we expected. So, it's always an adventure on Mars. I would say that landing there and realizing, "This is not what we expected, but let's see what there is to explore," is one of the great things about Jezero Crater.

Nicci Brown: And what's ahead for you and for NASA as far as additional missions go?

Amy Williams: So, the Perseverance mission specifically is the first of a three-part architecture to bring samples from Mars back to Earth for the first time. The only samples we have from Mars are from meteorites that are ejected from Mars' surface, circle in the solar system for a while, and happen to land on Earth. With a sample-return from Mars, this is going to be, I think, revolutionary. For planetary science, very broadly, not just Mars science. Because it's going to allow us to answer questions with our suite of instruments across the globe, with the best scientists, and the best technologies, to ask questions about the origins of these rocks and their minerals, what processes have affected them, and of course, the big question, is there evidence for life preserved in them?

So, Mars sample-return is sort of a decades-long process with the Perseverance mission collecting samples as the first step. Beyond that, we are working, NASA's working on program to eventually send humans to Mars and really kick off our opportunities to become a multi-planetary species, to explore these other worlds, which is truly extraordinary.

Nicci Brown: And what kind of timeline are we talking about there?

Amy Williams: Oh, so NASA is looking in the many decades ahead in order to develop the technologies and the capability to send humans to other worlds and that first step is sending humans back to the moon. And so that those are our first steps as we prepare to eventually send humans to Mars. But in the meanwhile, these robots, these rovers that we send to the red planet, they are our proxy. And looking through the robot rover's eyes, the images that are returned to us, I recognize this is the closest I will ever be to standing on Mars and looking up at these beautiful geologic units, looking up at an alien world that's so familiar because the tenets of geology apply on Mars, the same as they do on Earth.

Nicci Brown: So perhaps that little girl that you interact with on Facebook may one day be stepping onto Mars or perhaps a child of hers?

Amy Williams: I have been encouraging her to consider being an astronaut.

Nicci Brown: Amy, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure.

Amy Williams: Thank you so much, Nicci.

Nicci Brown: Listeners. Thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll tune in next week.

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March 8, 2022

Season 2 Episode 10: The bald eagle's surprising history -- and ties to Florida

The bald eagle wasn’t the hands-down choice to be our national emblem but today it is widely acknowledged as a perfect symbol of American patriotism. Pulitzer-Prize winning author Jack Davis, an environmental historian, has a new book out about the bird, its surprising past and its resilience – which leads Davis to call it an “environmental success story” we can learn from.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

The bald eagle has been our national emblem since 1782 and as such is recognized throughout the world. But despite being well known, there's still much to learn about this majestic bird and our guest today has the stories and other information that I suspect will both delight and surprise you.

Jack E. Davis is a professor of history and the Rothman Family Chair in the Humanities, specializing in environmental history and sustainability studies. He is also the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.” And he has a new book out this month, published by W. W. Norton, which is likely to be just as well received, “The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America's Bird.”

Welcome, Jack.

Jack Davis: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Nicci Brown: It's wonderful to have you here. I'd love to start our conversation by having you read just a short excerpt from the book, if you don't mind.

Jack Davis: Oh, sure. I'd love to. Let me give you a little bit of background on this excerpt. This is 1979 and the bald eagle population is imperiled around the country, primarily the lower 48 states. And it's the beginning of the restoration era when there's a movement afoot to try to restore the population. And this is about one woman's participation in that restoration. Her name is Doris Mager.


Bulging out from between the upper branches of a loblolly pine, a large finger lapped arrangement of sticks formed the familiar aesthetic of an industrious eagle couple. For some unknown reason, the pair had not returned for the 1979 nesting season. Staring up, Doris Mager was aware of the centrality of nests in the lives of bald eagles. Those compositions of meticulous labor, enigmas of intricacy and strength that marry art with utility, are essential to the renewal of life. The identity of few birds is as closely attached to their nest as the bald eagles' is to its. None in North America build larger or stouter ones. The balds’ are emblematic of their species’ resilience. Nests have been a key variable in determining the population's decline and they would be imperative to it revival. Without them, Mager knew, there would be no birds.

Mager was aware of the violent spontaneous weather that frequented Central Florida also, and at the moment dark clouds filled the sky to the west. Standing at the foot of the loblolly, one hand hesitantly on a climbing ladder hanging down from the height of a fire lookout tower, she was intent on spending time in the nativity of the former occupants. Mager had never scaled a tree before, much less in a storm. She reached over and touched an ominous-looking lightning scar running down the tree's trunk to the ground. Pushing ahead of the storm, the wind pulsed, and the green needles trembled in the branches high above. One eyewitness described the tree as “spindly.” Another called it “wind-whipped.”

Jeff Klinkenberg, the outdoor editor for the St. Petersburg Times, is the one who used the word “spindly.” "Here she was," he reflected decades later, "fifty-three years old and climbing a ladder I would not have dared to climb at my age then, thirty."

Before putting herself at the mercy of the swelling wind, Mager tied a red bandana around her head of silver hair, which she had had cut and styled in a new hairdo for the occasion. Owl earrings dangled beside her cheeks, and, retaining the raptor theme, a spread-eagle necklace wreathed her neck.

She wore black jeans, a denim shirt, and gray running shoes. Yet her jogging routine had been inconsistent of late. In relating that detail, she confessed to Klinkenberg, "I've got fat little legs, and I probably shouldn't be that far off the ground at my age."

She slipped into a safety harness secured to an upper branch. Alongside the harness line the grounding cable of a lightning rod chased down the side of the tree. A number of precautions were taken that day, and Mager added one of her own by swallowing a motion sickness pill. "I get airsick and I get seasick," she again confessed to Klinkenberg, "and I'm probably going to get nest sick."

Mager put one foot on a lower rung and followed that with the other on the next rung. Grabbing a third at eye level with both hands, she stared nervously into the tree's rust-colored, scaly bark, and coaxed herself toward a fifty-foot summit. Whenever the wind kicked up, the tree creaked like an old door. When it swung like one, she would pause, grip the ladder tighter, and take a deep breath. She shouted to a friend below, "Get down on your knees and pray, Viola."


Nicci Brown: That's dedication for you. So, she was drawn to the birds to do this, I guess, to draw attention to what was happening to the eagles.

Jack Davis: That's exactly right. She was with the Florida Audubon Society and she had started a raptor rehabilitation center there, which was really in her backyard. And she was trying to raise money to build an aviary at the headquarters of Florida Audubon Society. And she succeeded with the help of others.

Nicci Brown: Okay. So, what drew you to the bald eagle then? We've got her story. I suspect you won't be climbing any trees or will you?

Jack Davis: You know, I wouldn't mind. What I didn't read in here is her view from the top and how spectacular it was and I would love to see that view that the bald eagles have from their nests. They build their nests in the top of tall trees, usually the tallest in the area, because they want to have a good visual of their territory. They also want to see the water around them, where the fish are. That's their primary source of food.

But what drew me to the book is I'm an environmental writer. As you said, I'm an environmental historian, and generally when we reflect on our environmental past, we tend to focus on the grim and the tragic, and I think readers are getting a little overwhelmed by that. So, I wanted to write an environmental success story, and this is one really spectacular story. It has its tragedies. It has its grim moments. But ultimately, it's this wonderful story about the bird and its relationship with us, and how we've changed. The bird hasn't changed, but we've changed.

Nicci Brown: And the eagle appears on the Great Seal of the United States. So, do you know how it came to be selected? Because it has been a journey together, I guess, in many ways.

Jack Davis: It has been a journey. And, of course, as you read, that's in my subtitle. And yes, I do. I devote an entire chapter to how the bald eagle got on the Great Seal of the United States. Developing a seal during the revolution, after America declared its independence and was fighting for it, it sorely needed a national credential on the world stage. And that would be, of course, a seal or a coat of arms. And it took three committees, 14 delegates in Congress along with some consultants and artists, and multiple, multiple proposals and six years to finally come up with the right seal.

The bald eagle was not included until the very end. It was proposed by Charles Thompson, who was secretary of the Continental Congress and really the most powerful man in Congress. And I think he was really a little tired of all these committees not coming up with anything. And so he took upon himself to design the seal. Bald eagles were all over, this is in Philadelphia and they were all over the Eastern seaboard, very visible all the time. And so all he had to do was look out his window or walk down the street, and he would've seen a bald eagle.

And eagles had long been, not bald eagles, but eagles, had long been a part of national heraldry dating back to the ancients. But the bald eagle is an all-American bird. It lives nowhere else but North America. So, Charles Thompson, while perhaps being inspired by those eagles on earlier coats of arms, chose the right one for the U.S. and that was the bald eagle.

Nicci Brown: But it wasn't everyone else's choice, right?

Jack Davis: Well, it depends on whether you believe Benjamin Franklin or not.

Nicci Brown: Okay.

Jack Davis: And many people think that he argued against the bald eagle appearing on the Great Seal or being put on the Great Seal. There's no evidence that he ever did that. He did object to the bald eagle as being a representative, at least in a letter to his daughter that he never apparently sent to her, that he did object to the bald eagle as a national representative. He called it a bird of low morality, a coward, a thief and everything else. And he did compare its morality with the wild turkey, but what he did not do is propose the turkey for the Great Seal of the United States, which many people think he did. I'm not going to tell you who he wanted for the seal because you're going to have to read the book to find out.

Nicci Brown: Okay, that's a good [crosstalk 00:10:01].

Jack Davis: But it's a huge surprise. It knocked me out of my chair when I read it.

Nicci Brown: So, in terms of why he called the bald eagle a coward and a bird of bad morality, what led him to use such terms?

Jack Davis: Well, it's interesting because people could call the bald eagle noble and brave in one breath, and then turn around and call it a thieving coward in the next. And, in fact, Franklin did such a thing. The bald eagle is a scavenger, like a vulture, and it also steals from other birds, including other eagles, most notoriously, though, from osprey, which come across as an innocent fishing bird, which I guess, I suppose you can say that. But they're also expert fishers, they're better fishers than bald eagles are. And so bald eagles are smart. They know where to get the food. They let the osprey catch it and then they steal it from them in midair. Right here at Paynes Prairie Preserve, I've seen two bald eagles fight over fish in midair, battle, and that fish go between the two of them five times.

Nicci Brown: Wow. Who ended up winning?

Jack Davis: I don't remember. I think the juvenile. As I recall, it was a juvenile and an adult.

Nicci Brown: And as far as being a coward, I've heard that word used to describe bald eagles. Where did that come from?

Jack Davis: Well, a lot of people called the bald eagle a coward, and that was associated with it being a thief and stealing from other birds. But also, Audubon, who by the way hated the bald eagle, called it a coward because the bald eagle wouldn't sit still and let him shoot it. I mean, I was amazed when I read this passage, he said, "The bird flew off, zigzagging." You know, it didn't stick around to take a bullet like a real man. Now I'm paraphrasing him there. I'm adding my own words, but that's essentially what he's saying.

Nicci Brown: So, what are some of the other things that you were surprised by when you did your work looking more closely at the bald eagle?

Jack Davis: I was surprised by a lot because I didn't know much about bald eagles. I grew up in Florida, in the Tampa Bay Area when the bay was in bad shape ecologically. And so there weren't many birds. There weren't many fish. We didn't see ospreys and we didn't see bald eagles. So, I didn't see my first bald eagle in the wild probably until the 1990s.

And so, when I sat down and write this book, there was just so much to learn. One of the things that surprised me is how much Americans throughout the 19th century and on into the early 20th century, like Audubon, loathed or disliked or even hated the bald eagle, the species itself. They loved the symbol. They loved the image of the bald eagle. They put it on everything, sports teams, uniforms, business logos, and, of course, all across the federal government, and the coins and so forth.

But they didn't like the species itself, because it's a predator bird and they believe that it would fly off with sheep, with calves, and with turkeys and pigs and chickens. A bald eagle cannot lift that much. It can lift a chicken, but it can't lift a sheep. It can't lift a calf. And they were also accused of kidnapping babies. Mothers were warned, "Don't leave your child unattended outdoors, lest a bald eagle fly away with it." And there were all kinds of stories, apocryphal, highly apocryphal stories, about bald eagles kidnapping babies, human babies, and taking them back to their nests. There was even a McGuffey's Reader, which was probably next to the Bible the most read book in America in the 19th century, had a story about a bald eagle stealing a child and taking it back to its nest. And so, a predator like a wolf, like a bear, like a coyote, the bald eagle was a predator that was to be eradicated. So, an eagle seen was an eagle to be shot.

Nicci Brown: They were truly vilified, then.

Jack Davis: Truly vilified. Yes.

Nicci Brown: The eagle has special significance and sacredness for many indigenous people. What did you learn when you were looking into that aspect of their history?

Jack Davis: Yeah, that was also an interesting history to me. The eagle among many native American cultures is a sacred bird. It's a spirit bird, a messenger between the people and their ancestors or the creator. It's a high-flying bird, so it was seen as the bird that would fly close to heaven and could deliver these messages. And their feathers in many native cultures are conduits to that spirit world and extremely important historically and even today important and rituals in native American communities.

And so, they've long been a bird that they’ve sometimes raised, so they could gather their feathers, depending on the native American group. Or they were captured and killed and then plucked. But all in a very ritualistic way and not in hoards, not in hundreds or even tens, but a few birds at a time.

Nicci Brown: And, of course, we went through a period where we almost lost the eagles. Their numbers went down very low in large part because of DDT. They are in many ways a phoenix, if you pardon the pun, where they have come back.

Jack Davis: Twice. So that's happened twice. I talked about how Americans were shooting bald eagles at every opportunity in the 19th century and on into the early 20th century. They brought the bald eagle in the Lower 48 states to the brink of extinction. Alaska, the territory Alaska, had a bounty on bald eagles from 1917 to 1952 and paid bounties on over 120,000 bald eagles during that period.

So, it was a close call in the early 20th century. In 1940, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act to preserve the bald eagle. And then five years later, DDT was released on the market, used in agriculture and commercial applications, but also in the home. Just as the population was poised to come back, DDT had a devastating effect, not only on bald eagles, but on a lot of bird life and fish life.

And the bald eagle population plummeted to the point that in 1963, the nesting population in the Lower 48 was under 500. Now that's compared with probably 300,000 to 500,000 bald eagles that lived North America at the time of European contact.

Nicci Brown: And they've had a resurgence. Where do we see the vast majority of their colonies, or where do they live for the most part?

Jack Davis: They live, as I said earlier, only in North America, so Northern Mexico and throughout the U.S. and Canada. Minnesota has the largest bald eagle nesting population, probably around 10,000, which is pretty phenomenal, largely because there are so many lakes, clean water lakes, with lots of fish up there. But Florida has the second highest bald eagle nesting population, about 1,500. A significant difference between Florida and Minnesota, but still pretty good and better than other states.

And we see a lot of them right here around Alachua County, which is wonderful. I mean, there's some dozen or more nests out at Newnans Lake and Paynes Prairie, you see bald eagles all the time. So, they're healthy across the United States today.

Nicci Brown: There's a lot of difference in terms of temperature and the environment that they're in. Are there variations within the eagles that are found in the north and the south, or pretty much the same, they're just highly adaptable?

Jack Davis: Well, to a point they're highly adaptable. Some scientists will say that there are two subspecies, there's a Northern bald eagle and the Southern bald eagle. And some scientists don't recognize them as subspecies but recognize different gene pools.

So, the bald eagles in the north, in Canada and the northern U.S., tend to be larger and so better equipped for the cold, but not well equipped for the heat of the south. And the bald eagles down here in the Southern states, below the Mason-Dixon, we'll say, tend to be smaller and can take the heat and avian diseases that Northern bald eagles have shown they're not immune to.

But what's interesting about bald eagles is they migrate between breeding season and they go back to the same place every year to breed and nest. They mate for life. They maintain a fidelity to the same nest year after year after year, as long as that nest exists and it isn't blown down in a storm or somebody doesn't come along, cut down the tree, which they're not supposed to. And they'll return. But when they migrate between breeding season, the female will go in her direction, the male will go in his direction. Pretty good idea, perhaps.

Nicci Brown: Right, time away from one another.

Jack Davis: Yes. But some of them will fly long distances. Say, Florida birds. Generally, the juveniles fly longer, farther, will fly to Canada or New England or the upper Midwestern states. And then the northern ones will come south. So, in many cases, southern eagles end up in the territory of northern eagles after they've left and come south, and they more or less switch places.

Nicci Brown: I've heard they're very good parents, too.

Jack Davis: They're extremely loyal parents. There's generally two eggs to a nest. And their domestic instincts are really a model for all of nature and the rest of us. They raise their young with such care, feed them so well that by the time they leave the nest, they leave the area at the end of breeding season, the young are sometimes larger than the parents.

Nicci Brown: Wow. We've spoken about the connection between the eagle and our nation, patriotism. And then we've spoken about the environment and the impact that the environment has had on their well being. So, what are the linkages that you're making here between the eagle, patriotism and environmentalism in this book?

Jack Davis: Well, there are a number of connections and/or linkages. When the United States was still a young republic, it struggled to establish its own identity separate of Europe. But at the same time, it was culturally derivative of Europe. Its styles in art, architecture and literature were influenced by European styles.

But what was distinctive about the United States, what it could hold up as different from Europe, and even superior to Europe was, its natural assets, was nature. Nature added to American exceptionalism. Yeah, I mean, and the Europeans were envious. And I'm not talking about just natural resources. I'm talking about the robustness, the beauty, the vastness of nature in America.

And so, nature was the original source of America's separate identity. And lording over all of that was the bald eagle, this native, this endemic, this bird endemic to North America, with this, as I say, this "Don't tread on me" stare.

Nicci Brown: Right.

Jack Davis: Charles Thompson couldn't have picked a better bird as far as I'm concerned. But then a century later, in the early 20th century, we almost lose the bald eagle, as I mentioned earlier, because we were shooting it, treating it as a common predator that needed to be controlled. And in 1940, a year before Congress went to war against fascist tyranny, it passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, making the argument that it was necessary to preserve the living species behind the symbol, because if we had lost that species, if we'd lost that bird, then it would've been a disgrace to the symbol. It would've undermined the integrity of the symbol.

And today, because of the eagles' restoration, its phenomenal restoration in the late 20th century, today when we see a bald eagle, it still very much symbolizes American patriotism, national strength and courage and unity. But it also has come to symbolize a society that has forged a wiser balance with nature and a more secure future for humanity.

Nicci Brown: You mentioned the connection of Florida having the second most bald eagles in the nation. Are there any other connections with the state and the eagle?

Jack Davis: Oh, I mean, that was another surprise. I just love it, being a Floridian. So, the first person to link DDT to the decline of the bald eagle population, which he did in the 1950s, was a bald-headed, retired banker from Winnipeg who lived in Canada. He retired to Florida when he was 59, just about 60 years old. This is a banker. This is not his scientist. He was not an ornithologist, okay? He was a bird enthusiast, but not a trained scientist.

He started climbing tall pine trees and tagging eaglets. He was the first to do this systematically and he did it for 20 years until age 79. And, of course, he was eyewitness to the decline of the population.

The other is right here in Alachua County in the 1980s. Florida still had a fairly healthy bald eagle population after the DDT scourge, but many other Southern states had no nesting birds. Alabama, Mississippi, for instance, Georgia from time to time, and South Carolina from time to time, and so forth.

And so a plan was spearheaded here at the University of Florida, along with the Sutton Research Center in Oklahoma, to take eggs out of bald eagle nests from a six-county area, North Central Florida, primarily Alachua County, and take those eggs up to the Sutton Center in Oklahoma and incubate them under hens, hatch them, and then move the birds into those other Southern states.

The Florida bald eagle population didn't lose any numbers because both eggs were taken out of the nest early on, and the female would lay another set. And so, this was a five-year program, hugely successful, 275 eggs were taken from Florida. So today, when you see a bald eagle nesting in one of the other Southern states, there's a good chance that is a descendant of a Florida bald eagle. So, to me, Florida bald eagles are heroes.

Nicci Brown: Definitely. One last question for you. What do you hope that people take away from reading this book? What are the main messages you're hoping they're going to get from it?

Jack Davis: One of the main messages that I hope they take away from the book is that we're connected to the same environment that wildlife is. When we do something to help that wildlife, to provide it with a healthy habitat, we're creating a healthy habitat for ourselves. Our quality of life is improved significantly, I think, with the resurgence of the bald eagle. I mean, who doesn't, when you see a bald eagle fly across the sky, who doesn't poke the person next to them get all excited? We all do.

Nicci Brown: Well, congratulations on the book and thank you for the stories that you're telling, and the information that you're sharing with us about this incredible creature.

Jack Davis: My pleasure, and thanks for having me.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll tune in next week.

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March 1, 2022

Season 2 Episode 9: A Rhodes scholar with a passion for justice

Aimee Clesi has long known that she wanted to be a lawyer. But an internship at the Jacksonville state attorney’s office solidified her focus on wrongful conviction, especially as it relates to the death penalty. It also led to her selection as the University of Florida’s most recent Rhodes scholar. Aimee talks more about her plans to study at Oxford University and joins UF external scholarship and fellowship coordinator Kelly Medley in offering advice for other students pursuing scholarship opportunities.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I’m your host, Nicci Brown.

Our guests today are Aimee Clesi and Kelly Medley. Aimee was recently awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, becoming the first woman and just the 13th student at UF to receive this prestigious honor.

She will graduate from UF this summer with majors in philosophy and history and is planning to attend Oxford in the fall. I’m sure you'll agree that Aimee’s perseverance and intellectual passion are both impressive and inspiring.

Kelly Medley is the external scholarship and fellowship coordinator in the university honors program and is Aimee's advisor. She’s going to share a little more about her role and how the university helps connect students to these outstanding opportunities. Welcome, Aimee and Kelly!

Kelly Medley: Thank you so much for having us.

Nicci Brown: Aimee, obviously, the Rhodes Scholarship is an enormous honor and a wonderful recognition of your past achievements and your potential. I'd like to hear a little more about your journey to this point and what made you decide to come to the University of Florida in the first place.

Aimee Clesi: Two things made me know that UF was right for me. The first is the Humanities and Sunshine State program that my sister and identical twin, Erika both participated in when we were 16.

It was led by the Center for Humanities and Public Sphere, and Dr. Sophia Acord and Dr. Steve Noll were the leaders of that program, and they come from sociology and history respectively. And the program was all about exploring Florida history, seeing the state in its rawest form, being on the water and canoes from Crystal Springs to the Ichetucknee. We explored the water in every way you can think of and its connection to the humanities.

That made me know that the humanities and a major in philosophy and history would be right for me. Dr. Steve Noll, in particular, is an inspiration for me in the way that he told the story of Rosewood, which is a town that existed a few decades ago, but it was taken from us by violence, and the legacy of that town and what happened to the people there is something that Dr. Noll was able to articulate and do justice by the people whose lives were taken by racial violence. And hearing him tell that is like no other historian I've ever met. It was impressive to me and I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be a historian like him and study history.

Dr. Sophia Acord is also the one who introduced me to this academic life. Her knowledge and expertise in the humanities was very exciting to me and to my sister as well, who ultimately pursued sociology here at UF.

The second thing that comes to mind about me deciding that UF was right for me is actually Justice Jorge Labarga from the Supreme Court of Florida. After the humanities program with UF, I started an internship with Three Rivers Legal Services, which has an office here in Gainesville. But the closest one to me and where I live in Branford, Florida was actually in Lake City. And so I would go 40 minutes to Lake City to go and volunteer at this small nonprofit law firm. And one year, they had a reunion and an annual celebration for having had the organization, and they invited Justice Labarga to speak.

And at the time, I didn't really know what a justice of the Supreme Court was, our state Supreme Court. But when he came, he introduced himself, and he was a double Gator, which was very impressive to me. It was at the Florida Museum for Natural History near the Harn Museum here in Gainesville, and he told his story, and how he practiced law in South Florida, and his journey to becoming a judge.

And one of the funniest things he said, I think this might be the moment that I knew UF was right for me, but he was describing how he went to an annual conference every year. So, at the time, he was the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Florida, and he went and he met the other justices from different states.

And I think that year, they had had it at Harvard Law School. And he's up there, and I think it must have been the justice from Texas, but he asked Justice Labarga, he said, "Jorge, what do you think at Harvard Law School? It's a very impressive place." And Justice Labarga, from how he told it, he kind of just stepped back, he looked around, and he said, "Wow, this must be where people go when they don't get into UF."

Nicci Brown: I think a lot of people here might agree with that. So just to be sure, a double Gator, too, is someone with two UF degrees, correct?

Aimee Clesi: Yes.

Nicci Brown: And how did you become interested in applying for the Rhodes Scholarship?

Aimee Clesi: I first went and met Ms. Kelly Medley, who's been my advisor through and through, and I approached her about the Beinecke Scholarship and the Truman Scholarship. It was more about, I had a project, and I wanted to find a way to carry that project out. Starting from there, the Truman was geared toward public service, and the Beinecke was a scholarship geared toward funding a graduate education in the humanities.

Nicci Brown: Kelly, can you tell us a little bit more? I mean, I know from talking with you that you were as excited, perhaps even more excited, than Aimee when she was awarded the Rhodes. So, you have this young student coming to you. She's got this potential. How did you work with Aimee on getting those applications together and helping her decide how to direct that energy?

Kelly Medley: I think a big part of it comes from talking to Aimee and understanding exactly what it was she wanted to accomplish, because a lot of students come to me and are interested in a particular award sometimes. But maybe what their actual goals are and what they want to accomplish really, really isn't specific to that award as they think it is.

And so, I often joke that a lot of times, I'll have a student referred to me, or a student will come to my office, and they'll say, “I'm interested in the Truman award or the Goldwater award.” And I'll talk to them, we'll talk a little bit about their goals, what they've done so far you know in their time at UF and beyond, and I'll say, “That's great. And you know what, that's a really great award, but that's not the award for you. These other three things are probably the better awards and the better fits for your time.”

Because applying to these awards take a lot of time, a lot of consistent effort over a really, really prolonged period of time, a lot of writing, and rewriting, and recrafting, and telling your story, and telling people why they should invest in you, right? And so with Aimee, I think, you applied to four, five different awards, some of which were better fits than others, ultimately, and a lot of it was about fine-tuning what her goals were, fine-tuning how to sell what she was trying to accomplish and who she was.

Nicci Brown: As part of that whole process, it sounds like it really helped you to understand yourself and understand your goals, Aimee.

Aimee Clesi: It absolutely did. And I owe a lot to Ms. Kelly for that. The Truman, in particular, was about public service, and right from the jump, I thought that would be the one for me. The project that I've been so concerned and so focused on for so long is about remedying wrongful convictions in the American south. It is about the death penalty as well, and people who have been wrongfully convicted, what can we do in our trial process, our appellate process to prevent that, but also combat it after the fact?

When I applied for the Truman, it's very particular in the way that it has you draft a public policy proposal. I had really wanted to model this proposal after State Attorney Nelson in Jacksonville, her conviction integrity review unit. I looked up how her defense attorney Shelley Thibodeau had funded her conviction integrity review unit. It's led by Ms. Thibodeau, and she has an investigator, and they go through many cold cases. But also people apply to have their case reviewed by the unit. That is something very rare in state attorney's offices, which are focused primarily with prosecution.

Looking back and seeing if a conviction was wrong is often very difficult for many people to admit, but that maybe somebody had made a mistake. But State Attorney Nelson and Shelley Thibodeau are two women I admire in the legal field for doing that very thing and seeing how they had received funding from the government, how they applied and won these grants to fund that office, the first in the entire state of Florida, was very inspiring. It made me even more passionate about what I am already doing, but it showed me how to do it. And the Truman Scholarship, I thought was a good avenue to pursue a project like that, doing something similar, funding, maintaining and starting up new conviction review units.

Nicci Brown: Did you get feedback from the scholarship adjudicators when you put in that application in or what took you to the next step to the Rhodes Scholarship, because it sounds like that one didn't work out as you thought it might?

Aimee Clesi: No, the Truman, it did not work out, but what did work for me and for Ms. Kelly with that scholarship is it let me fine tune what exactly it is I want to do. How do I want to approach the research? I learned much later that many Truman scholars do not pursue the exact policy proposal they had written about. They often change it, or they pursue something different. I did not receive any direct feedback, but Kelly on my behalf spoke with Truman advisors and the people who reviewed my application.

Nicci Brown: Yeah, Kelly, can you tell us a little more about that?

Kelly Medley: Yeah, so I think one thing that we really learned from that award, you have to articulate your graduate education plans, and that was something that you've thought about, but not really in the specific. In the general sense, you thought, “Okay, I'm going to eventually go to law school and this is what I ultimately hope to do after law school.” But hadn't necessarily really been doing the deep dive just yet into which law school and why.

And these applications are really tough. They ask sometimes really, really, really young individuals to say, “What are you doing for the rest of your life?” And so we worked and we picked one possible future, one possible law school, that she was interested in. She did a deep dive on that, and that was great, and I think you know what we take from that experience, even though that award doesn't work out, is this is a possible law school that's a really, really good fit for me.

This is really good to know, right? because it's an investment in yourself. Most of the people who apply for these awards don't win. I'm a super competitive person, so I love when students that I work with do win, that's always certainly my goal, but we know that that's not the case. So, we want this to be just as professional development and a personal development experience in applying as we do actually the potential of winning.

Nicci Brown: And how long was the whole process from beginning to when you found out?

Kelly Medley: Ah, well, we start working on the application well before the application even opens for that cycle. I always say you don't make a Rhodes scholar in three months. That's not how that works. And so, we started working and talking about it early on. We knew what the criteria was, we knew what that application looked like. You can have a maximum of eight letters of recommendation n for it. Aimee, we knew was going to easily get that maximum of eight recommendation letters. But, you know we were having conversations way earlier on in the year about who those eight people were going to be, what the best distribution of it would be. And then I'm working with her on it, but that doesn't mean she's actually going to get even selected by the University of Florida to go forward to the competition.

So we actually have a wonderful group of faculty volunteer reviewers, who they will review application materials, interview students, and say, “These are the amount of students this year. And Aimee was one of the two students that we selected for endorsement this year. We worked on that application, talked about it again you know over a period of several more weeks before the national deadline in October, found out a few weeks later she was a finalist, and then just went into finalist interview prep mode for two full weeks. I think that's what we both completely lived and breathed and right up until we found out about it.

The one thing that is nice about the Rhodes Scholarship, when you're a finalist and you interview, they tell you right then and there if you have won or not. There was at least no more waiting after that.

My favorite thing about finding out that Aimee won, I was sitting on the couch and I was just about to watch the Gators football game that was coming on. I ended up not seeing a single play of that entire game! But I was just about to watch it when she FaceTimed me from where she was studying abroad in the UK, and I knew she was crying and yelling, and I couldn't understand at all what she was actually saying. And thankfully, Erika, her twin sister happened to be in the room-

Nicci Brown: And was the translator?

Kelly Medley: And was the translator! Just all of a sudden from the background, I hear, “She won.” And then I started crying and yelling as well. So, it was just a bunch of an incoherent mess, but we were all really, really excited.

And then she said, “I need to call my mom.” And I said, "Yes, you need to get off with the FaceTime with me and call your mom."

Nicci Brown: And what went through your mind? I mean, it sounds like you were in shock to a certain degree.

Aimee Clesi: I still am, Ms. Nicci. And the committee, they had deliberated on the final day of interviews, they had deliberated for about two hours. And during this time, they could have called any one of us 14 finalists back for a further interview. I was so scared that they were going to call me back. And talking to the other finalists, and you're laughing about one thing, and then the next second, you're like, “Oh, my God, they might call me back. They might call me back.”

And when they came back after that two-hour period, we were just ... the whole Zoom room went silent and I remember very clearly that Mr. Mark Crosswhite, the CEO of Alabama Power, and the chair of the committee for the Rhodes, he came back right away, and he said, you know the whole room was silent, and he said, “Well, we're not going to beat around the bush anymore. I'm about to announce the two.”

And then he just went into it, and he didn't stop for a moment to really say anything individually about us. He did make a comment, I think, about how hard each of us had worked, how our accomplishments were amazing, but he announced my name was first because of alphabetically it's . . . and I had kind of known while we were waiting for those two hours that if my name didn't come first, then it wasn't happening. And they said my name, and then Mr. Crosswhite said Shreeya Singh from Yale had won as well. They picked two of the 14 finalists to go on and win the scholarship, and we were it.

I remember the finalists dispersing really quick, leaving the Zoom call, and then it was us and the seven committee members, and it was very overwhelming right away. I don't really remember a lot of what they said. They said that we were going to send more information, follow up with an email, send a bunch of stuff about preparing to apply. But I think I missed everything they said, other than that. And as soon as they let us go from the Zoom call, I immediately called Kelly. She was the first person I called, and then my mom.

Nicci Brown: And what did your mom say?

Aimee Clesi: My mom at the time was driving, and she was with her friend, Suzanne, and they were coming from Home Depot, having just bought a ton of trim to redo the garage. Ms. Suzanne was going to help my mom paint and all I remember is my mom being on the phone with her, and Ms. Suzanne going, “Vicky, we got to pull over, we got to pull over.” And you know, and they're just both crying and hysterical, and I really remember my mom, she was so proud. It was like the first time she had heard Erika, my twin sister, on the radio, like I had made it, you know, in my mom's eyes. And I just remember, she's like, “Aimee, I got to get off the phone. I need to go tell everyone. Let me get off the phone, so I can go start telling you know everyone in Branford,” and it was completely overwhelming.

Nicci Brown: And you grew up here in Florida. You're by and large, a small-town girl, small-town girls, you and your sister, and your mom has been your greatest champion as well.

Aimee Clesi: Yes, my mom has ... she was adamant that when Erika and I were in high school, that we dual enroll, which we started taking college classes when we were 15 years old. And our mom, she gave us this option to go and take these classes. She didn't push us or really force us to do that. I mean, she greatly encouraged us, but it's not something that she said we had to do, but it's something that she really wanted us to do.

And my grandmother, her mom, had passed away around the age that my mom is today, and my mom was greatly concerned that maybe something would happen, and Erika and I would be in this world, just us, and my mom wanted to know that if something happened, we had a college degree to fall back on, that we could get a job, and we could do well with that degree. And I owe tremendous debt to Branford High School and Suwannee County because they funded me and my sister, our college education in that fashion.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little bit more about the focus of your studies and how you actually became interested in that area?

Aimee Clesi: This started for me when I was at the Jacksonville state attorney's office. While I was there as an intern, there were undergraduates and law students, and I had mentioned earlier Melissa Nelson, Shelley Thibodeau, these two women who I greatly admire and want to be like. Before working at the state attorney's office, I had come from the Supreme Court of Florida. I had saw the justices, like Justice Jorge Labarga, who I mentioned, and these were all these people that I wanted to be like. So, during this internship, I found what I was truly passionate about. I had known I wanted to be a lawyer. I had liked the idea of criminal defense and going to trial. I thought, "Well, you know what, I'll see what it's about." So, the state attorneys and the prosecutors over in Jacksonville really took me under their wing. And they, I went to court with them. I saw first appearances. I saw a trial in one case, and it was just really, really cool being there.

For a while, though, I wasn't getting any assignments. And so, I remember going to the division chief and saying, "Hey, can I, can I help you with a case?" And I mean, they wouldn't have me write anything like the law students were because I wasn't in law school. But being able to see what these lawyers were writing in certain cases was really amazing. I remember going into this division chief's office, and she had a huge box of files on her desk and I told her, “Hey, I want to work on something." And she points to this box, and she goes, “Go through this box and make sure everything's there.” And I thought, “Okay, I got my first assignment, you know.”

While I was going through this case, I was looking at all the evidence. I was looking up Florida rules of criminal procedure, how the case was tried, and all kinds of things. I learned exactly what the division chief was doing by going through this case file. And I remember this young man who’s at the center of the case, and I was convinced that maybe the state attorney’s office had gotten this wrong. There were pieces of evidence that were not presented at trial that I thought merited particular attention that could have changed the outcome of this boy’s future at the time, and the jury never heard any of it.

So, I went back to the division chief and she was concerned because I wasn't a law student, maybe I didn't know what I was doing. And really, I showed her all the notes that I had taken and she did give me a chance, and she said, "Well, go upstairs. Go to the conviction integrity review unit, go see the defense lawyer and bring her what you found.” And that is how I met Shelly Thibodeau. And I will add, too, that this case, it was started prior to State Attorney Nelson's tenure. It was before the conviction integrity review unit was founded. So, Ms. Thibodeau looked over the case, and they could not take it because of the stage of appeals that it was. But I went back to the division chief. I explained this, and I said, “Is there any chance that you could write a favorable response so that maybe this boy, now a grown man, could have a chance at another trial to have certain pieces of evidence heard?" And she said something along the lines of, "Well, I'll think about it."

And I remember going back to my desk where they had me and writing up a draft of her document, and I know she couldn't use it, and she didn't because I'm not a lawyer, but I remember taking it back to her and showing her later. And ultimately, the response was not favorable, and that was devastating to me. But from there, the focus on wrongful convictions started with this young man who was African American, who was in an impoverished section of Jacksonville, who had had violent crime in and out of his whole life. That's where it started for me, and ultimately, the court did grant him an evidentiary hearing, is what they call it, even though my division chief, she did not write a favorable response, and he awaits a hearing to this day. COVID-19 has postponed it. I mean, I interned in 2019 with the state attorney's office, and then fast forward, he's still going through the system and I keep an eye on his case to this day. When I'm a lawyer, I hope it's not going on when I do become a lawyer, but maybe I could do something. But that's where it started.

Nicci Brown: So It sounds like justice is just something that really drives you.

Aimee Clesi: It truly is. And the justices of the Supreme Court, Justice Labarga, Justice Carlos Muniz, those two men, I see the opinions they write and the impact that they have apart from trial. They have it in the world of appeals, and some of the biggest cases have gone to them. And being at both levels, being at the supreme court and then being at a state attorney’s office, you know, in Jacksonville, those are the two things that showed me. It gave me an overview of the justice system that I had never seen or had before. It's one thing to say you want to be a lawyer, but then to be able to say exactly what you want to do, that has to come from research and knowing where you want to be.

Nicci Brown: Kelly, I've got to imagine that the passion that Aimee has shown struck you in your role.

Kelly Medley: Absolutely. I think Aimee is amazing. I think she's going to go on and do amazing things, and she knows that. I think one of the things you know that we worked on so much was that she had this story, but it's how to craft it in a convincing way to different audiences, how to write in a manner that is convincing, that is emotive to really get that story and that vision across that she's trying to convey. It was another one of those challenges, but that she obviously did successfully here.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us anything about the university's previous Rhodes scholars?

Kelly Medley: I can. As you may have heard, Aimee is the first woman from the University of Florida to win a Rhodes Scholarship, which is absolutely wonderful, and I also couldn't be more proud of that fact as well. UF has had 12 Rhodes scholars prior. The overwhelming majority of them came between 1910 and 1933. When Aimee, you know, came into my office that first time, I don't know that I necessarily saw, oh, she's going to be the next one, right, the next Rhodes scholar, but I definitely saw that she was going to do some really, really great things. And I'm just happy that we ended up finding a scholarship that is going to give her the permission to do all of those amazing things.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little more about some of those other prestigious scholarship and fellowship opportunities?

Kelly Medley: So, we've mentioned Truman, Beinecke, Marshall today a little bit, but there's also Fulbright, there's Goldwater. There's a number of different awards out there, and they all have a different set of eligibility, they all then on top of that, of course, have a different set of competitive criteria as well. So, what my office does is really coordinates the nomination process for these awards on behalf of the university. But what I do specifically on a more day-to-day level is I'm obviously working with the students to help workshop their applications, help them tell the stories that they want to tell to really show who they are and what drives them.

So that's a little bit about what my office does. But like I said, I have a lot of faculty volunteers who are very, very giving of their time because they help ultimately determine, okay, based on the criteria of this award, this is who we should put forward.

Some of the awards we work with also don't require a campus nomination. Anybody can apply to them. So, I also help students with workshopping those kinds of applications. And like I said, mainly helping students find is applying to a prestigious award something that makes sense for them, is a good fit for them? And if so, really which ones, right? Because they do all fund something a little bit differently.

Nicci Brown: Speaking of opportunities, Aimee, you were with your sister when you were over in the United Kingdom. That must have been quite the adventure.

Aimee Clesi: It absolutely was. I think Erika and I were very fortunate in the way that we met Ms. Lynn Fisher, who lives in Staines-upon-Thames. And it's a little bit south of Heathrow and not too far from London, about 30-minute train ride. But while Erika and I were over there and we were figuring out how to get to Royal Holloway, which is the school we exchanged with through UF, Lynn was just so helpful in the way that she recommended the secret places to go to, you know, the best food, where to go and see the things that people often miss when they visit London.

Lynn is older, and she worked from a very young age in London. She knows the area extremely well, and we just owe a tremendous debt to her for taking both of us under her wing and being like ... She wrote me a card, and it said that Erika and I, we had adopted British family now. You know. Her two sons, both tremendous young men, the whole family just, they really took us in.

And being over there and also being at Royal Holloway, we met an extraordinary range of people in different fields, different disciplines, different life experiences. We learned about the educational system in the UK, how it differs from how we've been brought up in education in America. And the classes that Erika and I took, we were very lucky in the way that we took one together. So that was something that we'd never done at UF before.

And we had an amazing time there, and we recommend UF exchange programs to everyone at UF. It’s a way to diversify the things that you're able to do. Maybe if you’re scared to travel abroad for the first time, like I was, it can help break that fear, you know, and see a whole new place, and how other people live in the world.

Nicci Brown: Providing context for those things that you learn in the classroom.

Aimee Clesi: Absolutely.

Nicci Brown: And you met with the Rhodes registrar. Can you tell us a little bit more about that experience?

Aimee Clesi: That would be Ms. Mary Eaton. So, while Erica and I were in Staines and attending school at Royal Holloway, Oxford is not a far distance at all from Staines and from our school. So, what Erica and I did was we took a train ride up to Oxford. I had been communicating back and forth with Ms. Mary Eaton, but many scholars, especially American scholars because of the pandemic restrictions and things, they weren't really able to do something like this, go and meet Ms. Eaton, the registrar. The Rhodes Scholarship and The Rhodes Trust, they have their own building, their own kind of community within Oxford. And Oxford is a big place. I immediately noticed when Erika and I got there that the city is the school, and the school is the city. It's a very amazing thing.

So, while Erika and I were there meeting with Ms. Eaton, she provided some really good insight into what I was about to face. And what I mean when I say that is applying and winning the Rhodes Scholarship is only the first step. If we thought that was incredibly difficult, then the next step is actually applying and being admitted to Oxford.

That is an entirely separate application process. You are just like everyone else applying. They do flag your application as a Rhodes scholar to indicate that you have full funding. But other than that, you're still expected to write the same proposal. In my case, it was for a D. Phil. in law is what I ultimately applied for. I applied for two other scholarships at the recommendation of Ms. Eaton, just to ensure that I would be admitted, because what a horrible thing that would be to win a full ride, and then not be admitted to the university? So, Ms. Eaton's job was clear to me as soon as Erika and I got there, that she wanted to make sure that I was admitted. And applying to three programs is how it's going to happen to ensure I had the highest chance.

Nicci Brown: And when do you find out about that, Aimee?

Aimee Clesi: Ms. Eaton just emailed me recently and Kelly, and that'll be around before or on about very specific March 18th.

Nicci Brown: Okay. Well, somehow I have some positive feelings that things might work out, knowing you as we do, but good luck.

Aimee Clesi: Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Kelly, what advice do you have for students who might be interested in coming to the University of Florida and pursuing these types of opportunities?

Kelly Medley: Yes, advice for other students, I have leaps and bounds of advice for other students. So, I think I've narrowed it down to maybe an aspirational advice, and also one piece of very practical advice. The aspirational advice is really quite simple. If you don't apply, if you don't take the risk, if you don't invest the time you can't win. If you don't apply, you can't win. Right?

One of my biggest pet peeves is when I'll be talking to students that I think are really, really smart and have really, really interesting goals. And they just come up with some kind of reason why they're already giving up. Before they even open the application, you know, before they even start down the road of thinking about what it would really mean to apply, they just already go ahead and say, “This isn't for me. No, nobody wins that. Or that's only for students that go to Ivy league schools” or whatever that kind of misinformation is.

And my really practical piece of advice, I honestly take this just right out of a page of Aimee's playbook, cultivate faculty relationships early and often.

With Aimee, we were talking early on about which eight people or which professors, because she has been a force anytime that she's on campus at networking and you know building this team of mentors around her and so cultivate those faculty relationships, go to office hours, even when you don't have questions, is what I always like to say.

Don't be afraid of us faculty members. You're the best part of what we do day in, day out, and we really do want to be mentors, and we do want to talk to you. And I think if you just approach faculty and kind of get the ball rolling from there, it pays off in both directions.

Nicci Brown: And Aimee, what about your perspective, what advice do you have for someone who might have a similar story to your own?

Aimee Clesi: Take the chance that is presented to you. Don't be afraid to go, like Kelly says. I remember distinctly approaching Dr. Jaime Ahlberg and Dr. Sheryl Kroen from philosophy and history. And I was interested in something that they had wrote; in Dr. Ahlberg's case, it was more of philosophy, in Dr. Kroen's case, it was European history. And I wanted to know how had they gotten to where they were. How did they go into graduate education? How did they make it possible for them? These chances come along and present themselves, but what you have to do is be in a position to take those chances.

I commute to the University of Florida to attend classes to be part of student groups. And what I try hardest to do while I'm here is to maximize my time, to meet with professors, to go to different events, to see faculty-led research efforts, to find where it is that I want to be, and what's possible. I would recommend other students do the exact same thing.

Nicci Brown: Well, thank you so much. I can only imagine what you're going to achieve in the future. Aimee and Kelly, thank you for being with us today.

Kelly Medley: Thank you so much for having us.

Aimee Clesi: Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining for another episode of From Florida. I’m your host Nicci Brown and I hope you’ll tune in next week.

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February 22, 2022

Season 2 Episode 8: Decision Day: Welcoming the Class of 2026!

Thousands of high school seniors who applied to the University of Florida as part of the Class of 2026 will learn if they’ve been admitted on Friday, Feb. 25. It’s an exciting time for students, their parents and for all of us. We can’t wait to welcome the newest Gators! Mary Parker, the university’s chief enrollment strategist, explains in this episode of From Florida what will happen on Friday, what comes next and offers her perspective on enrollment trends around the country.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

This Friday, thousands of high school seniors will learn if they've been admitted to the University of Florida as members of the Class of 2026. It's an incredibly exciting time, but the next few days are also going to seem extremely long for these students as they, and their families, wait to find out if they'll be coming to UF in the fall. I'm hoping today's episode will make that wait a little bit easier.

Our guest is Mary Parker, vice president for enrollment management and associate provost, and we're going to talk about what's about to happen and what goes into admission decisions.

As the University of Florida's chief enrollment strategist, Mary oversees the offices of admissions, the university registrar, student financial aid and scholarships and UF online enrollment services. Mary joined UF last summer, bringing more than 27 years of enrollment management experience that includes leadership at Kent State University and the University of Utah. Given all the work underway for Friday's announcements, I'm particularly grateful Mary could join us today. Welcome Mary!

Dr. Mary Parker: Thank you. Very excited to be here!

Nicci Brown: So, thousands of students are anxiously awaiting word from your office about whether they've been admitted to the University of Florida. What time and how will the news be shared?

Dr. Mary Parker: Yes, thousands of people are waiting and I'm excited to say on Friday at 6 p.m., admissions decisions will be released. Prior to Friday, students will receive an email that will tell them to go into the admissions portal on Friday at 6 o’clock and that's where they will find out their admissions decision. So, on Friday at 6 o’clock will be go time for all students and their families.

Nicci Brown: Wonderful! And what happens next after they get those decisions?

Dr. Mary Parker: It is just beginning. First, I want to say they should celebrate! They should celebrate the accomplishments of their students, whether they got in or not, they should celebrate. Their students have been in high school doing amazing things. They should celebrate that.

But I will say for those students who are admitted, there are a list of things they need to be thinking about. Most importantly, I want them to think about, we want them at UF. We want them to come here and have an amazing experience with world-renowned faculty. And they will have an experience that will change their lives. They will be taught by some of the best faculty. So, the first thing they need to do is to think about am I going to live on campus? And if so, they'll be receiving an email from housing. They need to do their housing application. They will need to be able to say, "Yes, I'm coming," to confirm. They will do all of that through the admissions portal. And so, students need to think about that.

Throughout the month of March, these events these admitted students will be invited to and it's a way for them and their families to come and really learn more, learn more about the academic programs that those students have been admitted in, to learn about the experiences their students are going to get inside and outside of the classroom. Another way to help them make those decisions. We highly encourage students and their families to come to those yield events because they learn, again, more information. But if they follow the admissions portal, it gives them step-by-step exactly what they need to do.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. And those events, are they all in person or are there some that are virtual for students who may not be here, close to the University of Florida?

Dr. Mary Parker: Great question. We are going to have both. We're going to this year have in-person events, but we're also going to have virtual events. Colleges are going to host virtual events, so those students who can't come can learn more about the colleges. We'll have financial aid, Preview, which is like our orientation program. We will do a set of virtual events as well. Admitted students don't have to worry, they will get all of this information sent to them and their parents so that they can decide if they want to come in person or do one of our virtual events. And of course, if they have any questions, they can always call us.

Nicci Brown: That was my next question. Even during those events, they can ask questions, interact?

Dr. Mary Parker: Absolutely. It is really important that we make sure that during these events that we have the necessary people there that can answer all of the students’ questions and the parents' questions. So financial aid will be there. How much does it cost? What type of aid, what scholarships can I get? We want to make sure we have that. What do the dorms look like? What does it cost to live into the residence halls? What student organizations are they? We want to make sure everything the students have access to, the parents have access to, to answer their questions.

Nicci Brown: And can you tell us a little more about this year’s incoming class? I know you can't give us all those granular details, but maybe the number of applicants or some noteworthy characteristics of the class.

Dr. Mary Parker: I will tell you, I was so impressed with this year's class. We got over 65,000  applications this year. More importantly were the individual characteristics of these students. Not only were they highly academically qualified, but they also had service. Service, not only within their high schools, but within their communities.

Many of our students, we saw, participated in service that had an impact on a community or on an organization. And I think for me, that was really important to see, because we look holistically at our students. It's not just about the ACT and GPA, we want to make sure that we are looking at students who are going to be able to come here and be a part and engage in conversations in the classroom. And that the experiences of the students we admit maybe are different because they can learn from each other. So, to see those students not only be academically qualified, but have those experiences was amazing. Many of our students did dual enrollment. We had a lot of our students, probably about 70% of them, took AP honors or IB courses. So again, incredibly talented, diverse group of students that applied.

Nicci Brown: And I think it's worth underscoring just the amount of time that is given to these applications. This is not just about test scores or anything like that. To your point, this is about evaluating these students on a holistic basis and really understanding who they are and what they're hoping to achieve.

Dr. Mary Parker: Absolutely. I think many times families, it's a confusing process when you hear what is holistic review? And I think it's important for families to know that we don't just look at test scores and GPA. We also look at what high school did that student go to? What opportunities did they have, did they have at their high school? Not all students have opportunities to take IB courses or AP courses, that needs to be part of our conversation. We want to look at students, how well did they do in the courses that they actually took? What are their grade trends? We look at what activities that they had to do. Students tell us they have to work. I haven't been able to do extracurricular because I'm working to help support the family. Those situations are important to know through our application process. So again, we evaluate each individual student holistically and we want to make sure that we are giving the students who are admitted, those students who can be successful here, who can thrive here and who can actually be a part of the Gator community and give back.

Nicci Brown: You've been at this for quite some time, you know the area. I'm sure that over COVID, you've seen some real changes in terms of those experiences and challenges that students have faced.

Dr. Mary Parker: Absolutely. I think everyone has been impacted, whether it's K through 12, whether it's higher education. I think learning in the United States, students have been, and teachers and administrators, have been impacted. I think one of the things that we as an institution, and I know institutions across the country are looking at, is how do we make sure, if students had lost learning through the impact of COVID, that we make sure we're supporting those students when they get here. We've seen students not be able to engage in some of the activities that they normally would because of COVID.

And that's had an impact, that's had an impact on them. And it certainly has an impact on the process as well because things maybe we would've looked at, are not there. So again, it's evaluating that, having the student talk about that, having to talk about how else were they able to give back or do support in the community that maybe didn't have a face-to-face type of implication.

Nicci Brown: Given all those implications, though, it must be a particularly intense time for you and your whole team when you're just poised to send out these admissions invitations, really, is what we're talking about, and also the life changing experience that being a Gator offers.

Dr. Mary Parker: It is a responsibility and something that we don't take lightly in our office. These are not easy decisions to make because they do impact families. So, we want to make sure, and I make sure that our team looks at all these applications, make sure that we are assessing, because again, these decisions impact lives. And we do our very best to make the best decisions for UF, for the students, because again, we want students who can come here and be successful, with the caliber of the university. So, it is a tough decision.

However, it's one that we also, again, it is so heartwarming to see when you release admissions decisions and then people put on Instagram or social media I got in! I'm a Gator! Posing pictures! I think that makes all of the tough decisions that we have to make, the tough conversations we have to have, for those 6,500 students that I'm able to say, "You're going to be a Gator!" Wow. I'm changing their lives, but they're changing our lives by being a part of this community.

Nicci Brown: And I was going to say that, aside from the 6,500 students and their families, this really is a day of celebration for the whole Gator community and a day of excitement of, come join us! We're so thrilled that you're interested in becoming a UF student and hopefully an alum moving forward and being part of the Gator family as well.

Dr. Mary Parker: Absolutely. We hope that the students know, those students who are selected, we want you to come. It is an invitation to say, we want you to be a part of the Gator community. You belong here. We value you. And I hope that they get that through our admissions. I hope they get that through all the communication they receive up until when they make a decision, and even after they make that decision.

It is, again, something that also our Gator community is saying, “Wow! We're embracing you,” because part of what we do here is take care of our students, right? Providing those experiences, making sure our faculty and staff are supporting our students from the time we admit them through graduation. So, everyone's going to be welcoming that class.

Nicci Brown: And I think it's fair to say that journey doesn't end, though, once they graduate. This is a relationship that goes on for years and years. And it's a two-way street as well.

Dr. Mary Parker: Absolutely. And thank you so much for pointing that out because it doesn't end at graduation. It is important that we are creating an experience students are going to love and have and when they graduate, we hope they become alumni who give back, but not just monetary, but also give back to this community by supporting us through admissions, through recruiting, helping us get future Gators to come here. It is so important to make sure that experience leads to them wanting to continue to stay involved.

Nicci Brown: And by employing those UF graduates as well. They know how good they are.

Dr. Mary Parker: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Nicci Brown: For those students who don't get the decision that they want, what kind of message do you have for them?

Dr. Mary Parker: First of all, I want them to congratulate. The group of students that applied were strong and it was a really tough decision. So, I want them to know that they are valued and certainly it's a tough call. And it didn't maybe go the way that they wanted. But what I want them to remember is that there are multiple pathways to UF. And maybe it didn't happen through the freshmen, but maybe it might be through a transfer once a student has gotten their AA degree. Maybe it may be through a graduate program or a certificate program, but there are multiple pathways. So, if you are not one of those students who get admitted and you want to talk about the multiple pathways, that is what we're here to do, to help you understand maybe this wasn't the right time, but maybe we can help you find another path to UF.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. So, across the country, there are many colleges and universities that are not in the situation that UF is, and we have seen declines in enrollment. What would you share in terms of your perspective of those declines in enrollment?

Dr. Mary Parker: We are very fortunate in Florida, as we look at high school graduates, as we look at demographics, you know, we're one of the few states who aren't seeing major declines, like my colleagues are around the country. But we are as a nation, I guess I should have said. And that impacts all higher education. Because it is a competitive process and universities are going all over now to recruit students. So, we are seeing that.

But I think affordability plays a huge piece in this. And I think it is incumbent on us as the flagship university in the State of Florida to make sure that we are educating our citizens. And maybe that's not educating them here, but also educating them about financial aid, educating them about access, helping them find the right path for them. I think that is important because we know that families and many low-income students aren't going to college because they think they can't afford it. And there are financial aid programs and other programs that are available.

So, one of the things we're really going to focus on at UF is our financial aid office wants to do more outreach, so making sure the State of Florida and our students in the communities know what's available and how they apply, whether they come to UF or not. I think that's important. I think that if we all do that around the country, that maybe that can help us.

But nationally, again, the demographics with the high school graduation rates, we're seeing more our students of color. And so, I think from an enrollment perspective, I'm also recognizing that the students I admitted five years ago are not going to be the same students I admit in five to 10 years. And what are we doing as an institution to make sure that we are developing our outreach to those populations, that we make sure that we are providing an experience for them when they get here and we're helping to support them.

And I think whether it's UF, whether it's any other school in the country, that is what we have to be thinking about. Students are going to be at a different place. They're a different type of student, and we need to make sure that we are providing and meeting them where they're at and helping to support them through these processes, whether they come to our institution or not, is the only way we're going to continue to try to solve this problem about how do we increase college-going rates.

Nicci Brown: I think it's particularly powerful that you mentioned about students really having a strong understanding of the options that are available, because it seems that some may be ruling themselves out before even knowing what could be possible.

Dr. Mary Parker: Absolutely. In higher education, in recruitment, many times we've waited in the past till a student's senior year to talk about financial aid. In today's society, we've got to start earlier. We've got to start in junior high. We've got to start in elementary, talking to them about college is possible and continuing that communication. And then we've got to start doing more in the communities, more grassroots efforts to really talk about what's available and how they apply. And I think that's where you're going to see us focusing more here at the university, to really make sure that if a student is academically qualified to come to UF, we do not want cost to stand in the way. We do not want them to think I can't apply there because I can't afford it.

Nicci Brown: On the national front, we are seeing more women than men applying and pursuing college education, and it's been a bit of a trend. Is that something that we're seeing here at UF as well?

Dr. Mary Parker: It is. And when you look at, again, the national data in the students who are graduating high school, you're seeing more females across the country than males. And we definitely are seeing that here. When we look at our enrollment at UF, total enrollment, we're 54% female and 45% male, so we are seeing that same trend. So, one of the things we're certainly looking at, there are certainly populations, our STEM, we're so focused on we need to get more women in STEM, but we also have to look at what are the programs like nursing. How do we help to get more males into that? How do we look at, I guess, how do we look at these students that are not graduating, that are maybe not considering college and talk about what's available, how to apply, what you can do. But absolutely, we are seeing that.

Nicci Brown: And what do you think is driving that trend?

Dr. Mary Parker: I think many times we've seen particular populations when the economy's doing well and jobs are available, certain populations may not go to college. I think some of that is attributing to that. I think we have to, again, provide opportunities and experiences and pathways to support. Just as we've done in the past for women, I think we need to think about that for all segments of the population. And I think for all of us in the country, male will be another population that we need to think about.

Nicci Brown: We hear a lot in the media and just general discourse about the attributes of kids this age. This is a group of individuals who grew up after 9/11, who the phone is like an extension of their being. And I'm sure that phones are probably out now. They don't wear watches, all of these things. What are college-age students looking for in an educational experience now that might be different to that of the past?

Dr. Mary Parker: I have a sophomore in college, so I feel like it's my professional life, but I just went through it in my personal life.

Nicci Brown: I hear you, yep.

Dr. Mary Parker: So, I feel like I've covered fronts on this. I think 10 years ago, five years ago, we were all building rec centers or you may have all of these fancy services for students. What I see now is students want to know how they want to make an impact, how they can make an impact, what we have to provide to them, what can they do to come here and help solve world problems or problems in the community. They want to give back.

I think it is not so much about ... certainly facilities matter. I'm not going to say that facilities don't matter, but I also think there's this combination of we need to have nice facilities, but we also need to be showing students that they can come here and they can make a difference and they can make a difference through these various avenues.

And we're seeing a lot more of that. Students want to know about how they can do a Study Abroad to learn about other cultures. Students are asking more questions on the front end, not necessarily about do we have a lazy river in the rec center, but where can I go, because I want to be able to learn more about this culture or I want to do undergraduate research that's going to help solve a problem. We are hearing more of that now on the front end than about, I need to see this specific residence hall. I need to see this specific facility.

Nicci Brown: Do you think there's an element of pragmatism there, in terms of the pathway to getting a job or the pathway to a career?

Dr. Mary Parker: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think now more than ever families, students and parents are asking about the value. The value, if I'm going to invest in my son’s or daughter's education for them to go to UF, what opportunities are they going to get and what are the outcomes? Who's going to be hiring them, or what graduate programs are they going to get in?

And I think about that as my own child was going through the decision process and so I try to take that and provide that information in the work that we do and what we provide to parents. They want to know if I'm investing, because maybe they're concerned about this cost and how am I going to pay for this? We want to show them, A, we can help to support and provide a nice financial-aid package, but also by your student investing, here's what this education at UF is going to do for them. And now more than ever, we are focusing on that conversation from early recruitment, all the way through the yield process until a student raises their hand and says, "Yes, I'm coming."

Nicci Brown: It's an interesting balance because we've got that pragmatism of getting the job, but we've also got the notion that we know that these days people are not staying in the one field or the one job for their entire careers. And so we want to give them the skills to be able to learn and change when they have graduated, in some ways, future-proof our graduates.

Dr. Mary Parker: Absolutely. You know, I think right now the state of Florida, our BOG is really talking about this very thing, of skills, workforce aligned with education and making sure that the skills and things that we are providing to our students help for that very thing. It's not just providing and getting that student ready for the first job. It's how are we making sure they're ready for job five? Because we know students are going to change. How do we help them develop skills that are adaptable?

And then how do we, as an institution, also think about, how do we take our alumni and say, "You've been out X long, how can we help you with credentials? These are the new things in the work environment. How can we help you gain those skills that you need?" Lifelong learning, I think that's going to be the other thing that we see a lot of right now — not just getting the student to graduation, but how do we continue to help them develop as a professional once they're out.

Nicci Brown: And again, talking about that lifelong experience and that tie with the Gator nation.

Dr. Mary Parker: Absolutely.

Nicci Brown: You mentioned the BOG, the Board of Governors. The university's tuition and fees are an incredible value and we do have great support and investments from our state legislature. How do we compare to other top ranked institutions?

Dr. Mary Parker: I like to say that a student can get this amazing, reputable education at a very affordable price because the state has invested in our state scholarship programs for the citizens of Florida. We know that many of our students that come in, a majority of them already have the state scholarship that helped to reduce that. I think we are very affordable compared to our colleagues around the country who are also in the top five, and the education that you're getting is top notch.

And so,  I think, you know, we need to really talk about that because students can come here and get a top five education with amazing experiences for a very affordable price. And if you're a Florida resident and you have one of our state scholarship programs, it even helps. Again, I'm going to say, our goal is to make sure, whether you're a Florida resident or not, that cost does not stand in the way to get you to come here.

Nicci Brown: Mary, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Mary Parker: Thank you so much for having me.

Nicci Brown: We are excited for Friday to get here so we can learn more about the newest members of our campus community and offer them our warmest welcome. It's a big day for all of us!

Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll tune in next week.

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February 15, 2022

Season 2 Episode 7: Ancestry matters . . . even at the cellular level

This year, the theme of Black History Month is Black health and wellness, which makes it an ideal time to learn more about the work of Dr. Josephine Allen and Dr. Erika Moore, both materials science engineers at the University of Florida. In this episode of From Florida, they explain why genetic diversity is important to medical research.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

This year, the theme of Black History Month is Black health and wellness, which makes it an ideal time to learn more about the work of today's guests. We know that race is a social construct, but we also know that different diseases impact different populations in different ways. Despite this, the samples used for medical research are often not representative of diverse populations.

That disparity is at the heart of the studies being conducted by Dr. Josephine Allen and Dr. Erika Moore. Dr. Allen is an associate professor and the Genzyme Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. And Dr. Moore is the Rhines Rising Star Larry Hench Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. Both are faculty members at UF's Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, and both are African American. Dr. Allen and Dr. Moore, thank you for joining us today.

Erika Moore: Happy to be here.

Josephine Allen: Thanks for having us.

Erika Moore: Thanks for having us.

Nicci Brown: Dr. Allen, I understand your own research has been impacted by the lack of availability of diverse cell samples. Could you tell us a little more about your work, and the impact that this lack of diversity has had on it?

Josephine Allen: Great, yeah, I'd be happy to. So, I work in the area of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. And, a big amount of our work, a large focus rather, is in the area of biomaterials development. And so, when we're thinking about engineering biomaterials, whether it's going to be a vascular graft or, you know, a construct that can be used to support wound healing or what have you, we really need to think about how we design those materials for the patient that would eventually receive such materials. And so, really, it starts to become looking at the individual, whether it's their sex, male or female, or their ancestry and how those cells that are eventually going to interact with the material may interact differently, depending on those parameters.

Nicci Brown: How did you come to work with Dr. Moore?

Josephine Allen: So, Dr. Moore is a relatively new hire at UF in the Materials Science and Engineering Department. We both work primarily on diseases where there is a health disparity. So, for me, one is cardiovascular disease and, I think, for Dr. Moore here, it's lupus.

Erika Moore: Yes.

Josephine Allen: And so, because of that, we both had this sort of interest in thinking about how our work could translate into different patient populations. And so, that was sort of a nice segue for us to work together on this.

Nicci Brown: When you were going to do your work and you were trying to get these samples, you came across access problems and trying to get these diverse samples, correct?

Josephine Allen: That's correct. That was one of the areas, as we started to look at sex-based differences and how cells respond to biomaterials, we went to commercially available vendors, ones that we'd been using, and many researchers used, for years. What we found is, when we tried to attempt to buy male and female cells, that there really was a lack of diversity in the cell populations that were available to us. So, essentially, we were going to have to use whatever cells we could get for our research, which really wasn't representative of the populations that we think we need some of these innovations.

Nicci Brown: Where do those organizations, those companies, get the cells in the first place? I mean, how does it all work?

Erika Moore: That's a great question. Most of the samples that commercial vendors get are through volunteers. And so, this is a small plug for people to give blood and to donate tissues, whatever they can, because we do use that in our medical assessments, in our assessments that we do with our materials. And so, after they give their donations, basically, depending on the quantity, amount that they donate, some of that can be sold to commercial vendors that then can sell that to different researchers to conduct human based research on.

So, there is a pipeline for us to access these donors. In addition to that commercially available pipeline, we also do clinical trials. So, we can get people to give us blood samples. We do this in the lab, actually, just to get healthy controls or healthy people to give us samples so that way we can also assess their cells and their responses in interactions with our materials that we create.

Nicci Brown: So, it sounds like it's almost a two-way street, in that those vendors need to do more to try and get those diverse samples, but then, also, to the public in general, to be willing to participate in some of these kinds of research and also, as you said, giving blood, that sort of thing.

Erika Moore: Absolutely. There is a huge need for multiple populations of people, all populations of people, to be willing to interface with medical research. And, because of the stigma around medical research, it's hard to get certain populations or people who've had some type of prejudice against participating in medical research. So, that is a huge problem that's being tackled by epidemiologists, geneticists and us, biomedical engineers.

Nicci Brown: What is the impact then down the road of not having this diversity when you are getting your samples? What are the day-to-day kind of impacts that you see?

Erika Moore: Yeah, that's a wonderful question. I think it's highlighted in the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, All of Us campaign. They have this nationwide campaign to actually increase diversity of their samples because when we do our medical based research now, if we don't have representation of entire populations, certain diseases get overlooked or are not studied readily within the populations of impact.

A really good example that Dr. Allen just mentioned, cardiovascular disease development, right? If we're only studying that in one specific, select group of people, well, we're missing out on what's happening in all of these other groups, right? And, sometimes, that fact that we're missing out, creates and propagates health disparity.

Nicci Brown: Could you tell us a little bit more about your research, Dr. Moore?

Erika Moore: Yeah, I'd be happy to. So, I'm here at the University of Florida. Thankfully, Dr. Allen, helped recruit me here, I think about three years ago now. My work really focuses on understanding the immune system and our immune response to materials. And so, if I'm the combination of two worlds, it's material science, and immunology. Specifically, we design new materials to control how the immune system responds upon healing or after injury.

We also use and design biomaterial models to basically recreate small tissues outside of the body, to study different disease development. And so, one that Josie, or Dr. Allen, mentioned before was specifically in reference to lupus. So, we create a biomaterial model of lupus and understanding vascular inflammation in lupus. So, we kind of mix and dabble, but at the center, we are material science whose applied to immunology.

Nicci Brown: We touched upon this a little bit, but I think it's worth going back and just emphasizing. How did it come to be that we have this lack of diversity in medical research samples? It seems that it's a very real need to offset the negative impact of racism and that has undermined the importance ancestry plays in medical research. So, it's a push and pull, I guess, if you will.

Erika Moore: Absolutely. It's a very delicate topic. I think that your question really identifies how hard it is to make progress in understanding ancestral contributions to disease development, but not having those contributions be solely race-based. So, one of the ways that we try to do that, or how we try to probe that, is by specifically having different collaborators and interacting with people and getting lots of advice and help. There are people who have studied this tension that you mentioned for generations. But, how we inherited the state that we're in today is really a reflection of access, you know? So, only certain people had access to study engineering or to study science, or to study medicine.

And so, as we see increased access, increased diversity across STEM, science, technology, engineering and math, we can increase the questions, the diversity of questions that we ask as researchers. And so, right now, I think Dr. Allen and I both feel so grateful, because we've been able to be trained and now we can use our training to ask more innovative questions, applied to populations of interest, specifically, for ourselves.

Nicci Brown: Dr. Allen, as the more senior member of the two of you, have you seen a lot of change in the last five, 10 years? Has it started to accelerate that change that Dr. Moore mentions in terms of people actually working on these issues?

Josephine Allen: Yes, absolutely. As we've seen more diverse researchers enter the research field, the biomedical field, we see that more diverse research questions are being asked and answered. And also, more emphasis on research related to health disparities that affect different populations. So, there is that connection, I think.

Nicci Brown: And, again, going back to the real-life impact, are we talking about things like rejection of materials that might be implanted? Or, how people respond to various treatments? Is that what we're seeing down the line?

Josephine Allen: I think we could be seeing things like that, just how cells and how the body interacts with not just biomaterials, but drug therapeutics and other devices that we're engineering. The different response could potentially lead to different outcomes medically. We've seen that in some instances even now, particularly, for drug treatments that just don't affect male or female in the same way. And then there's, of course, the component related to ancestry.

Erika Moore: Yeah, absolutely. I was just going to add that, we do see that in the clinic now. One disease that I study is systemic lupus erythematosus. People who develop that, you know, there's a disparity in terms of women of African ancestry are more likely to develop it than women of European ancestry, and it's not known why, right? Even disease progression, comorbidities related to cardiovascular disease, we don't know why these differences persist. That's one really real-world example of how a lack of questions around ancestral contributions to disease development leads to differentials in clinical outcomes for people of different ancestry.

Nicci Brown: Now, you both collaborated with another University of Florida professor, Dr. Connie Mulligan who is an anthropologist, on an article that was published by Nature, so, firstly, congratulations on the article. It's a wonderful and highly regarded publication. Dr. Moore, could you tell us more about that collaboration and the article that resulted? And, I guess, what the response was when it came out?

Erika Moore: Absolutely. I am so grateful that you mentioned Dr. Mulligan. She played a pivotal role in helping us frame this article because she is a geneticist and a cultural anthropologist. And so, her work has literally studied the application of ancestry in populations in Florida, specifically. And so, it's great for this audience to hear about some of her work, specifically as it relates to cardiovascular development in Floridians.

And specifically, through her navigation and guidance, we wanted to frame the article for a large impact or population. And so, that's why we specifically selected Nature Reviews, because we wanted to get people thinking about it. It's a thought-provoking piece, right? How do we consider ancestry as we design our material systems, and as we try to undergo bioengineering? And so, that's why we birthed the project with Connie, or Dr. Mulligan, because we thought, together, with our voices, with our background, all of the people who published on the article are women. We're all in science and the majority of us are actually women of color. And, so, we wanted to say, from our perspective, from our history building these systems, how can we make an impact? We thought Nature was a great way to make that statement, to induce thoughts for people.

Nicci Brown: When did it come out? The article.

Erika Moore: The article came out in December 2021. And so, the outpouring from our communities, our collective communities, was so positive specifically, at UF and then also within Florida, nationally, even internationally, because a lot of science communication occurs independent of realm, independent of time zone. And so, we saw people from Brazil, we saw people from Europe, we saw people all over the world reading this article and responding in kind to say, "How do we consider ancestry," right? So, the purpose of asking the question was successful.

Nicci Brown: Dr. Allen, how do you see things evolving now that you're getting that kind of response from people all over the world?

Josephine Allen: Yes. With the response being generally so positive and really just highlighting this need, I think it opens the doors for people to start to ask these questions and really, within the same context of the work that they're already doing, just to kind of add as another variable in their study's ancestry and patient-specific demographics, and sort of thinking how to apply different research more broadly, to broad population. I think the response has been positive, and I think it has the potential to change the field, at least we hope.

Erika Moore: Absolutely.

Nicci Brown: As we mentioned at the start of our time together, the theme of Black History Month 2022, is Black health and wellness. How do you view the progress that's being made in this area? And Dr. Allen, perhaps we can start with you, and then hear from Dr. Moore.

Josephine Allen: You know, if I take a step back, I'd like to see more progress, right? I mean, there is some progress, but we can always do more. The health disparities exist. They have existed for decades, generations. And even in our current crisis of COVID, we see that there are some differences in the way different populations are affected. So, while I think there is some progress being made, I would like to see more and I think that a paper, like the one that we published, and others that we've worked on, essentially open the door, I think, for the field to say, "Hey, let's ask broader questions about our work and see how we can make it apply to broader populations."

Erika Moore: Yeah, absolutely. I think of the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, about the arc of justice, right? It might be long, but it always comes back. And so, I do think that there's the ability for us, in these conversations, to try to bring us back to asking questions about who's being impacted in the research, in the science that we study? How do we consider different populations? And, with that, we can kind of achieve the promise of encouraging more people to get involved in STEM, encouraging more innovative questions to be asked, and, hopefully answering some of those questions. So, it's encouraging and we do need more progress.

Nicci Brown: And a message, I guess, to people who are not, perhaps, researchers, members of the general public, who might be listening-

Erika Moore: Absolutely.

Nicci Brown: ... and have those very understandable concerns about participating in research. Maybe, if you could tell us a little more about why they shouldn't be as concerned? What are the protocols that are in place, now, if there are any things that you can share with them?

Erika Moore: Absolutely. I think that hesitancy around medicine is very well understood and is very appropriate. I don't want to come across as if we're judging or condemning anyone because we're certainly not, you know? There is history around why certain populations might be more hesitant to engage in medical research. So, my only piece of advice is to become curious about what's out there, to read primary literature articles.

You know, there's a lot of articles that are not vetted, that do not have any type of peer review. So, there are articles also published in Nature, in Science, that are rigorously peer reviewed. And so, beginning to understand those conversations. Beginning to understand those statements made in the peer-reviewed articles, educating yourselves and taking your time with it. There is no rush, right? We want to help all populations, but if we design the best material in the world and no one wants to use it, we've truly failed, right? And so, the conversation around vulnerability and hesitancy needs to take place and that can occur, hopefully, beginning with education and openness.

Nicci Brown: And, perhaps, also with people like Dr. Connie Mulligan . . .

Erika Moore: Absolutely.

Nicci Brown: ... who can help in her work, as well.

Josephine Allen: Absolutely.

Erika Moore: Yep, definitely.

Nicci Brown: Dr. Allen and Dr. Moore, thank you so much for your time today. It's very much appreciated.

Erika Moore: Thank you so much for having us.

Josephine Allen: Thank you.

Erika Moore: It's been a pleasure.

Josephine Allen: It's been wonderful. Thank you

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll join us next week.

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February 8, 2022

Season 2 Episode 6: What makes the University of Florida's online bachelor's degree program No. 1 in the nation?

The University of Florida decided seven years ago it wanted to create an online bachelor’s degree program that mirrored the quality and experience of its on-campus programs. Dr. Evangeline Cummings, assistant provost and director of UF Online, explains what UF did to reach that goal and, most important, serve the needs of all kinds of students.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Our guest today is Dr. Evangeline Cummings, assistant provost and director of UF Online. U.S. News & World Report has just ranked UF's online bachelor's degree program as No. 1 in the nation, the first time the program has earned the top spot. UF also has several other top-ranked online programs in education, master of business administration, engineering and non-MBA business programs. The ranking also named UF's online programs as among the best in the country for veterans.

This recognition says a lot about the leadership of Evie and her team and I'm looking forward to hearing about the programs and how they've made them so successful. Welcome, Evie.

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Thank you. Delighted to be here.

Nicci Brown: This is such a significant achievement. So first, congratulations. Before we get into the specifics about online programming, could you share with our listeners a bit about your background and how long you've been at UF and how you came to be interested in online learning in the first place?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Sure. I'd be happy to. So, I'm actually a Gator by birth and degree. So, I was actually born in Gainesville way back when, was here for my undergraduate degree, went on to graduate school at Johns Hopkins and settled into a pretty comfy federal career in Washington, D.C., never thinking I would come back to the University of Florida.

But I was delighted in 2015 to be invited back to help lead this new fancy undergraduate program that was UF Online that was going to buck national trends and create a highly engaging and amazing undergraduate online experience. I guess I've been here about eight years and I'm just delighted to be with you today to think about how far we've come.

Nicci Brown: The pandemic aside, online programs have increased in appeal for many reasons. Can you tell us what you've seen as far as demand for online education?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: We all know, and we all went through, I guess what I call the great education adaptation of 2020, right, where schools, universities, we witnessed, oh my gosh, incredible change, incredible transformation, incredible adaptation. The University of Florida was proudly already forging this online community for many years. So, when the pandemic was thrust upon all of us, the university already had the great benefit of so much effort by our faculty and 12 different colleges. It had spent many years, again, trying to figure out how do you do that course in a different format? Fortunately, I will say that we were well served by the efforts of our faculty when the pandemic hit.

But I think what we've seen since the pandemic is actually a surge in demand for fully online programs. We've seen it nationally. We've seen it at UF Online and across other top programs, where students, I think for perhaps the first time were realizing, huh, you know, my son or my daughter, they're online, maybe I should go back to school. I know one of my neighbors, who's a fascinatingly brilliant physician here at UF Health, she was no longer traveling for work during the pandemic. And she thought, "I'm going to get my MBA online."

So, I think there was this moment of opportunity for a lot of families who were seeing the best of the online opportunity and thinking about how they might better leverage and manage their time. What's really interesting for us to see is, therefore, the changing kind of demographic of our students.

So, before the pandemic, sure, we had predominantly working adults, caregivers, even active deployed military. And then since the pandemic, we're also seeing a rise in the first-time college student, the more traditional age student, the completer, the returner who maybe had a couple years of college before the pandemic and now they're like, "Huh, maybe I want to go back and finish."

So, I think what we're seeing, and this is something that folks in the online community think about — what happens next? And how can the best of the kind of emergency response, in terms of education, how can the best continue? How can we all learn from what really didn't work well? Nobody likes Zoom university. So, how do we move forward, bringing all of our experience from the past, the best of the response, and then forge ahead and think about the needs of our current students, but also a whole new set of students that are going to be thinking about education in new ways and are residential students, right, they're showing up in the summer and the fall with an expectation, a renewed expectation. Oh, well, my lectures they're recorded, right? Oh, everyone's going to have a Canvas shell and my assignments will just be there, right? So how do we as a university adapt and how can UF Online help play a role in that. It's a fascinating next chapter for us.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. And you mentioned as well that we have faculty who've been looking at this for years and years. I mean, an online program has to be done in different ways for it to be successful.

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Yeah. So, I will say, so I'm married to an epidemiologist, and two of probably the most frustrated parts of the country during the pandemic response were probably epidemiologists and online administrators.

Nicci Brown: Yeah, I Can imagine what your dinner conversations were like!

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: It was riveting. But it was definitely like, oh no, no, we know that doesn't work like that, oh, we know we can do that better. And so that would happen when people were talking about masks, and even when it came to online education, a belief that online meant, well, we'll just go on Zoom. And we have faculty, as you say, who are experts in this, who have spent years thinking through, okay, I used to accomplish this lesson in a face-to-face classroom. How might I teach my students about nutrition in a fully online environment? And they have come up with, not surprisingly because they're amazing, the most fascinating ways to engage their online students on, let's say, nutrition. You could actually send your students to the grocery store. You can have them do things in groups and in teams, they can involve their families.

I think one of the bits of advice I would give folks is they're thinking about what's next, is there's actually this bastion of creativity across our faculty that is just ready to be harnessed for our next phase.

I will say we have some of the best faculty here at the University of Florida for STEM online, including STEM labs — physics, biology, anatomy, chemistry, microbiology, entomology, the list goes on. So, I would hope that we're going to kind of tap more into their wisdom as we go forward. But they've been really thinking about, okay, for students who don't necessarily want to be on campus, who perhaps can't live in the dorm full time, how do we ensure that they have the same fascinating microbiology lab experience? And what does that look like? I find it to be just like a thrilling place to work in that regard because every semester our faculty are coming up with new and creative ways to teach.

Nicci Brown: Could you give us an overview of the online bachelor's degree programs here at UF and how many are we talking about? What are the options that we're talking about?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Sure. Yeah. I'm actually really proud that when we talk about UF Online, we're talking about the University of Florida. So, some universities you'll hear about their online program and it's actually a separate campus, it's a separate set of faculty, a separate set of degree offerings. So that's not the case here at UF. So, when we talk about UF Online, 12 different colleges, teach the courses, 10 colleges offer their bachelor's degrees via UF Online. We have 25 bachelor's degrees, 33 different pathways to get to those bachelor's degrees. And when you earn your degree through UF Online and you walk across the stage, as we would love to see you do, your diploma says University of Florida, because you've earned the same University of Florida degree. So, it doesn't say University of Florida online. So a lot of other institutions you'll have the extension program or you'll have a global program.

And this is authentically the University of Florida. So, students can also apply at many different stages. So if you want to go to UF at the residential campus, you either have to be a first-time freshman or you have to be transferring to the residential campus at 60 hours. Not so in UF Online. So, we welcome folks that want to start, that have never been to college. Maybe they have 10 college credits or less and they're thinking about, I meant to finish and I haven't finished. Maybe they have 60 and they're a transfer student or maybe they already have a bachelor's degree and they want to get another bachelor's degree. So we've not only created, I like to say, a really agile environment where you can get the same degree, but you can also have many entry points to come back and to complete your degree at the University of Florida.

Nicci Brown: So, this is really about meeting people where they are, so to speak?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Certainly. We also know there's about 3 million adults in the state of Florida with some college credit, but no degree. We know folks are working, raising families. We also know careers shift, like, look at me. I had one career in Washington, D.C., and now I'm here in a very different career. Got my doctorate while in while working as part of my second phase. So, life is long. We have many different careers over a lifetime. And so, the university really needed to become a much more welcoming place in that sense. When I went here, of course, I was traditional age, full time, got my degree in four years. That's not the case anymore. Students attend many different schools. They tend to be working. So, we at UF Online, wanted to offer students this kind of gateway to all of the wonderfulness here at the University of Florida, but in a much kind of more accessible and agile format, but not also eroding the quality and the reputation of the institution. So, we took on, I would say, an incredible challenge and I'm just so thrilled at where we are.

Nicci Brown: Well, as we mentioned, UF’s Online bachelor's degree program is not the only highly ranked program that we have, correct?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: This is true. So, the University of Florida has a fascinating legacy of distance education, correspondence education and, of course, as a public land grant, through our extension, so it should be no surprise that we also now in 2022 are leading the way on these modern formats. Undergraduate, graduate. So yeah, I'm delighted that I think over the last five years, in particular, we're really showing students nationally, prospective students, that the University of Florida can be a destination for them, even if they don't want to come and live in Gainesville.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. It's interesting that you raise that, because it really does align with that tradition of having a land-grant institution making education available to people who it might not have been otherwise available to.

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Yeah. UF Online is really the modern extension program, right? The whole concept there is how is the university fundamentally tethered in and connected to its community, how is it meeting the community where the community is? And also, how are we then enriched by the community? So, especially as we rise to top five, I think it's important we're also incredibly relevant to the students across the State of Florida, to employers. So, we're also partnering with employers across the state that, especially in today's job market, you're not only seeing career shifts, you're seeing the Great Resignation, you're seeing employers also thinking about how to retain, recruit workers. And a lot of major corporations are starting to add education as a benefit. And so, this also at UF Online, positions the university to also meet employers where they are and support students while they're working full time.

Nicci Brown: Could you tell us a little bit more about some of the things that we've done to lift the quality of online programming and to really expand on what we've been doing in the past?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Happy to. Yeah. So, the University of Florida online has been committed since day one to quality, to engagement, to a small class size. So, our average class size is 28 in UF Online. All of our courses are taught by faculty here at the University of Florida. Our instructors are highly qualified. So, a lot of the things that U.S. News looks at, we were looking at already, which is how do we ensure the quality of instruction, the engagement. And also, we go a little bit farther than our residential campus when it comes to academic advising. So, each online to student also has a dedicated personal academic advisor, it's assigned to them. We not only look at the classroom, the academic environment, but the support and the services for students as well. The university also embraces online students with 24-hour IT support, full access to the library. So, I'm really proud that when we have built UF Online and expanded it, we've always been mindful of how to serve students best. How to ensure they have an authentic experience. They're Gators from day one. We say this all the time. And they're not an afterthought. They're a fully integrated part of our campus community. So, I think that's reflected in what the U.S. News looks at when it looks at online programs, how engaged are students, how qualified are the faculty, and that's clearly a place where UF leads.

Nicci Brown: It sounds like you've got quite the operation. How many people are involved?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: 18,000. No, I'm just kidding!

Nicci Brown: In your dreams, right?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: No. So the fascinating thing is that our UF Online central team is a pretty small mighty team. So again, the model we chose here at the University of Florida is that this would not be a separate entity. I look at us as kind of a conductor of an orchestra, in all seriousness, like the work, the commitment to students, it's all emanating from the colleges. And what's fascinating is how each and every department brings their culture and tradition into the online space. So, our job is to really make, and I think this way about administrators in general, to make the conditions ripe for everyone to thrive. So that's our small team's job, but to do so through others is our mission. So, we really aim to keep a pretty small central team and to ensure that the colleges are successful in serving their students.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. How does the cost of an online degree or bachelor's degree compare to that of a degree completed on campus?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: The cost is the best part. I will say it is something we don't talk a lot about, because there is this unfortunate nuance of pricing that folks think since it's less expensive, it's less in quality. But what we've been able to do, with the state of Florida's support since 2014, is to ensure that our online and students actually pay 40% less than our residential students in tuition and fees. And I probably should back up and really credit the state of Florida. Back in 2013, the Legislature decided to invest in the University of Florida. 2013. Way before we even knew of a pandemic. There was a strong, continually annually reoccurring investment from the state to say we want to forge this fully online undergraduate community at the University of Florida. And in doing so, students will pay 40% less. So, they pay 25% less tuition. And that includes if they're in-state students or out-of-state students. And they pay way fewer mandatory fees.

Now, the reason for that is because it was considered downright reasonable to not charge an out-of-state student online the student activity fee or the transportation fee. So, there was this belief, I think, grounded in rationality, which was like, you know, maybe if you're online, you're not going to be using the rec center or the buses and that sort of thing. But then a fascinating thing happened, Nicci, where we had online students though, that felt that they were being left out of fees. So, what we originally thought would be a very out-of-state student population, right, online students, distance students, they'd never want to come here, they'd want to be left alone. It's not the case. Online students are, surprisingly, students. . . . really wanted to interact with campus, were overwhelmingly in the State of Florida. We actually have a sizable, about 1,000 of our 4,000 students are right here in Gainesville. So we had a sizable population of online students that were like, "Hey, I know you weren't charging us fees because you wanted to be reasonable, but I want to pay the fees, I want to go to the rec center. I want to use the health center. I want to ride the buses. I want to have access to discounted athletic tickets." So, the University of Florida responded and now offers an optional fee package, but I'm so proud, we still keep it at 40% less. And if you want to do the fees, you have the option. So, that enables students to really customize their own experience.

Nicci Brown: And that role of the state, I guess, connects to one of the other things that you mentioned earlier as well, and that is growth of business, growth of industry, having this educated workforce and being a step ahead of what people may need in terms of that workforce.

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: And I think it was a strategic decision on their part. You know, if you look nationally, Florida is one of the few states that's really growing in high school graduates over the next five to 10 years. So, it's also becoming an incredible hotbed for advertising for for-profit online institutions and other providers.

The University of Florida was invested in as part of the state's, I think, intentionality to ensure that students across the state, workers across the state had a homegrown option. A quality option and an affordable option. And we see that today. And, fortunately, across the state university system, there's a lot of really great online programs. And even now at state college across the state, but I think you'll continue to see it, especially the next 5 or 10 years, maybe it's just me. I turn on the radio, I get the Arizona State ad. I get the Purdue Global. My kids know, "Oh, here's that ad for Western Governors on TV. Mom's going to say something." But Floridians really are well served with incredible options across the state, for high quality online university programs that are also affordable.

Nicci Brown: Are there any online programs that even you, someone with your background, you look at what they're offering and think, wow, I wish I could take that. Or wow, the way they're doing that really surprises me. I wouldn't have thought of doing it that way?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: For sure. I mean, especially there are fantastic universities across the country that are reinventing, especially labs and STEM courses. I think this is the other thing when it comes to U.S. News rankings, I would say at least the top 20 schools, we're actually friends. So, we're very much thrilled for one another. And what we're doing, excited about it, applauding one another at rankings, and really looking at what each are doing for online. I think the next phase here, ideally, would be connecting faculty by discipline. So, the innovation that you'll see in online really should emanate from the chemistry departments, the physics departments, the writing departments and connecting them, I think is what's going to be fascinating going forward.

I admire folks like Oregon State. They're doing fantastic biology online. UCF is also doing fantastic things. So, this is where I think that as we go into this next phase, students have a lot of options, prospective students, adult learners that are thinking — and maybe some listeners right now are thinking — yeah, I meant to finish and I never did. And so you can really look out there and be confident if you're going, at least in my biased view but I think it's true, if you're looking at top public research institutions that are doing online, you're going to find great options and affordable options. And no matter the state, I think I would really say, look to your public universities and I think they're going to have great options now.

Nicci Brown: And also you spoke a little bit about this before, the students who pursue online programs, how do they compare to the ones on campus? I mean, is there a great difference between them?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: I think we can look at some demographic differences in terms of rates of work and caregiving. So, we know the majority of our online students are working, and of the ones that are working about 60% are working more than 40 hours a week. It's incredible. And they're also of course enrolled as students. They're also caring for dependence and they're caring for adult relatives. So, we talk about the sandwich generation, especially women, that are caring for kids and adult relatives. So, I think if you look at the fully online student, they are going to be obligated elsewhere with responsibilities elsewhere. And so that's, I think, a challenge for the university going forward, is how do we meet our students where they are, given their responsibilities, and then how awesome is it to bring that student into our classroom?

So just one example, I've mentioned before, but take a criminology class. We will have here at the University of Florida, a UF Online section and a UF main section, all residential students and online students together. And what you'll get are these amazing moments of traditional age, 19-year-old on campus in the same course with, say, a full-time law enforcement officer in Miami who's with us through UF Online. And just think about the discussions, the learning, the teamwork that can happen, which unlock new conversations, probably not even possible before in some of these classrooms. So, as our residential students tend to skew younger, our online students average is about 26. So, they're not as old as somebody like me, but they're still relatively young, but they're leading these fascinating lives. We also have students in 46 states, 16 countries. It's always incredible to me that have active duty military in our courses and their spouses. It really gives Gators an opportunity to connect with us around the world.

Nicci Brown: You mentioned veterans, but what does make this such a good place for veterans to get their education?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Yeah, and actually UF Online serves students that are not just veterans, but active duty military, reserves, national guard. There are now tremendous online options for our military-affiliated students. And, actually, I will say this is where the large publics have really had to do some catch up. The for-profit online institutions, really ramped up by the post 9/11 GI Bill and other bills, really swung in to serve our nation's military. And now I'm proud that UF is a yellow ribbon school and willing to support those who serve us, both residential and via UF Online. We also have a Collegiate Veteran Support Center, a ton of services available to help folks that are military affiliated and their families.

Nicci Brown: And for those people who are listening who may be a few credits short of their degree and might be considering it, what's the pitch?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: We want you back. So, there are many Gators for a lot of really good reasons, you know, life happens, and I've met some of our UF Online graduates who have returned to UF Online, who were here as resident residential students lost their scholarship for one reason or another and had to stop out. So, we, in particular, want to welcome Gators back.

So, we have a lot of students who were students, but never graduated, never walked. And they might think that their only option is to come back in person. So, we would be delighted to welcome those folks back. And, actually, previous Gators are considered readmits and they can apply at any time so they don't have to wait for an application deadline. We’d loved to hear from them all the time. And then for folks who are yet to be Gators, who have some college credit, but no degree, we welcome you as well.

We hear from a lot of students, “Oh, I got my AA or I did a few college classes and then I had to stop out and take care of my mom, and I don't know where to start.” So, we also have a fantastic team at our recruitment and outreach center, our one-stop team, you can send them an email, you can give them a call and say, “What are my options? How do I get started?”

We've also just launched a program called Gator Pathways. Because what we've found, some students, especially folks that have credit from before, their GPA might not be in the best shape. So previously UF would say, sorry, we can't accept you at this point in time. Now with Gator pathways, we say, actually, let's help you find a place to start.

So, we're working with Santa Fe College. College of Central Florida, Seminole State Community College. And we're actually going to be adding HCC very soon to, in particular, refer all of these wonderful applicants into UF Online that are almost ready, but not ready just yet. And they could start within our network, within those schools. And then we'll seamlessly transfer them to UF once they've met our transfer requirements. So that's another example about, I think just UF leading the way to say, not only here's a great online program and we want to welcome you back, but we also know the reality of how hard it is to find your way back sometimes. And we also want to help students do that as well.

Nicci Brown: And I imagine you can find this information online?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Yes, you can visit our website, learn all about Gator pathways. But what I'm most proud of is that you don't have to know your path. So, you can apply, it takes about 30 minutes to apply. Or you could just give us a call and ask your questions.

We have remarkable admissions teams that can help you talk through what credits do you have from where? What might transfer? How's your GPA looking? How are you feeling about it? What might be your best next step? Because, ultimately, and this is what I'm also really proud of, we're here to see students succeed. If we're not your best fit, we're not going to say, oh, you must apply and you must come here. We really want to help students find their best fit online and if that includes us, that's great.

Nicci Brown: And what about those students who have done that? That have come back? They took the opportunity. What do they say to you? How does it change their lives?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: I mean, I just got chills. I know it's corny, but it's true. So, there is this amazing joy on their faces, and in particular the faces of their spouses and kids. And we see them at graduation where it's a family affair and they're really excited to celebrate their mom or dad. We also have amazing football players that went pro, but of course, when you go pro you don't get your bachelor’s, you go right into the NFL. And we had a gentleman, Ike Hilliard, who had made a commitment to his mom to finish his degree and he did it through UF Online. And it's just an important moment in folks' lives and we're delighted to celebrate it with them.

Nicci Brown: Well, No. 1 is wonderful, but also challenging, because there's an expectation now, but congratulations on that, Evie, and thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Thank you for having me.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I’m your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you’ll tune in next week when we speak with UF’s latest Rhodes Scholar, Aimee Clesi.

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February 1, 2022

Season 2 Episode 5: Innovative programs are positioning UF to meet demand for nurses and provide health care in rural areas

There is a nationwide shortage of nurses and it has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has caused burnout, turnover and frustration for many nurses. Interest in nursing as a career remains strong, however. UF’s College of Nursing has a long history of developing innovative programs aimed at meeting the need for health care services, as Dean Anna McDaniel and Clinical Director Denise Schentrup explain.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where we share stories about the people, research, and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Even in the best of times, we owe a debt of gratitude to nurses for their service, but that is especially the case for their heroic care throughout the pandemic. Many have been on the front lines of critical care, leading to burnout, turnover and frustration that has exacerbated a national shortage of nurses.

UF's College of Nursing is top ranked in the state for its bachelor and doctor of nursing practice degrees. Today, we'll learn more about how it's working to meet demand for nurses and to provide care, especially in rural areas.

Our guests are Anna McDaniel, dean and the Linda Harman Aiken Professor at the College of Nursing, and Denise Schentrup, clinical director of UF Health's Archer Family Health Care.

Let's begin our conversation with Dean McDaniel, who has led the College of Nursing since July 2013. Dean McDaniel has advanced nursing science and nursing education throughout her distinguished career. As a researcher, she focused on the innovative use of information technology to enhance decision making by clinicians and to promote positive health behaviors in consumers.

In addition to her role as dean, Anna is the associate vice president for academic practice partnership at UF Health Shands Hospital and serves as the immediate past chair and current member of the executive board of the Florida Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Welcome, Dean McDaniel, it is a pleasure to have you as our guest today.

Dean Anna McDaniel: Thank you, Nicci.

Nicci Brown: The American Nurses Association wants the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to declare a national nurse staffing crisis, which I think highlights the fact that the shortage of nurses is not just due to the pandemic. What can you tell us about the nurse staffing crisis?

Dean Anna McDaniel: Well, the nursing shortage is not new, but it has been accentuated due to the impact of the pandemic. We anticipate as many as a half a million nurses will retire as soon as the end of this year. And that doesn't even count the number that we are seeing leave the profession, even though they're not retiring.

But it's not only the issue number of nurses. Research by Dr. Linda Aiken, a Gator nurse, has shown that the level of education is critical as well. She's conducted research in this area since 2003 and she has found that the effect of 10% or more nurses with bachelor's degrees will decrease the odds of death in all hospitals, regardless of the work environment or any other kinds of stressors, by roughly 4%. So, if you have more nurses that are prepared at a college level with a college degree, like we have at the University of Florida, it will decrease death and other kinds of unfortunate outcomes in the hospital. So basically, what I'm saying is our state needs more better prepared nurses to meet the needs of our growing and aging population.

Nicci Brown: So, with many nurses leaving the field or completing their careers, how has that affected then the interest in the nursing profession? Are you seeing a greater interest?

Dean Anna McDaniel: Oh, yes. We've not seen a decline in the applications and neither have my colleagues across the state. In fact, if anything, the pandemic has increased the public's awareness of the value of nurses and nursing and have heightened the interest in nursing as a career. For 20 consecutive years, nurses have been rated as the most ethical and highly respected and trusted professions in the United States in a national survey by the Gallup Organization. And I think that speaks to the kind of people that are attracted to becoming a nurse.

Nicci Brown: You mentioned earlier, too, about the value of having a bachelor's degree and having nurses with bachelor's degrees. It is an increasingly complex vocation.

Dean Anna McDaniel: Exactly. The needs of the public, both at the individual level and at a community level and the population level, are much more complex and include the need for health coaching, for keeping people healthy and active, for using technology to enhance and extend the reach of the nursing.

Nicci Brown: And how is UF's nursing program responding both to those increases in terms of the complexity, but also meeting that student interest?

Dean Anna McDaniel: Well, we've increased our enrollments since I've been the dean by adding a program at the UF Health in the Jacksonville area, at the Jacksonville hospitals. We've also added a special program for working nurses so that they can obtain a bachelor's degree, that higher level of skill and training and prepare them for leadership roles in the profession.

Enrollment in our program and in other programs across the state, and the United States actually, is limited by budget constraints, by faculty retirements and faculty shortages and a critical shortage of preceptors and clinical placements. Even though the hospitals need nurses so desperately, it's still very difficult to place our students and faculty on the units, especially when they're so stressed during the pandemic right now.

So, faculty shortages limit the number of students that can enroll in nursing education programs, and that is cited as the primary reason that more students are not accepted into nursing programs. That's across the United States.

Nicci Brown: How do you see that being met, that problem being met?

Dean Anna McDaniel: Well, it's a very difficult problem because nurses can make more money in the hospital setting or in the clinical setting than we pay them in the academic setting. So that's one problem. One thing that's good for us is the work environment in the universities and colleges is seen as better than the clinical arena, where the workloads are just unbelievably difficult, especially now. Those are part of the problems.

I mentioned the number of nurses that are going to retire, even more faculty are closer to the retirement age. So we have to figure out a way to tap into both nurses and nursing faculties' skills and abilities and desire to continue to make a difference without creating some kind of a bridge program, where we can tap into their intellectual capital and their experience while still providing a safe and healthy environment for nurses' well being.

Nicci Brown: And in fall last year, UF's College of Nursing launched a new certificate program to prepare people to become nurse educators. Can you tell us a little more about that opportunity?

Dean Anna McDaniel: Sure. So, we started this program so that we could prepare nurses for a faculty role through our new online program. This is a program that consists of three online nursing courses that includes the fundamentals of teaching and evaluating the competency of nursing students. There's really a science to nursing education, and it's really quite distinct from patient teaching or the delivery of clinical nursing care. So, we find that many nurses want to give back to the profession and they want to be a part of preparing the next generation of nurses. So, we hope that this will provide an avenue for them to become nurse educators and to help us so, as a society, that we can continue to grow the nursing profession.

Nicci Brown: Are you seeing shifts in terms of the types of students that are applying to nursing school, both in terms of their backgrounds, their gender? Are you seeing changes there?

Dean Anna McDaniel: We are seeing more men coming into nursing, but not as much as we have seen in other professions where it's the other way. So, in other words, about half or more of people applying for medical school are female, but we don't have nearly that many men coming into nursing. It's gone from about 5% male in the profession of nursing to 10% and maybe even 15% in certain areas. So, we see that.

One of the things that the profession is very concerned about and wants very much to change is underrepresented minorities in the nursing profession. The nursing profession is still mostly white and research has shown that, both nurses and physicians, patients that are in those underrepresented groups are more likely to be compliant with the orders and more likely to divulge problems and issues that may have stigma attached to them to people that are from their own ethnic or racial group.

So, we're actively trying to enroll more. One of the things we see that's different at UF College of Nursing is that we have a program that we call an accelerated program. This is for people that have a bachelor's degree, sometimes master’s and doctoral degrees in other areas, now wanting to be nurses. And we see more diversity in those students and in that class than we do our traditional people that have been at UF — they live in the college dorms or sorority, fraternity houses, that kind of thing.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little more about some other things that UF might be doing to meet the need and the demand for nurses?

Dean Anna McDaniel: One of the things that I'm particularly proud of as a college is that we partnered with our hospitals in both Gainesville and Jacksonville to provide some innovative learning experiences and opportunities to work with the staff in those institutions, because they are a part of UF, even though they're at the hospitals.

Now we hope that we can expand this kind of opportunity to the hospitals that are now located in Central Florida. The National Academy of Medicine, this past year, distributed a new report called The Future of Nursing 2020-2030, and it highlights the needs for nurses to be able to meet the needs of people in a community setting, not just in the hospital or acute care setting. And we have invested very heavily in our newly revised curriculum that includes opportunities and learning experiences in the community.

Another area that we are really excited about is the use of simulation. Recently, because of a generous donation from the Kirbo Foundation, we renovated our nursing skills area in this lab and have included state-of-the-art technology that provides students with high fidelity scenarios, that they can learn critical decision-making and opportunities and decision-making skills in a safe but realistic environment.

Everybody knows that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes, but we can't let students make a mistake on a real person. So, we use simulation to provide an opportunity for them to experiment and to figure out, "Oh, if I do this, it can lead to a bad outcome." And they can learn so much. The individual, but also the rest of the students in the group can learn a lot about that in a safe and, I won't say, non-threatening because I think the students are pretty threatened by the fact that they're being observed . . .

Nicci Brown: Of course!

Dean Anna McDaniel: . . . and that they're being assessed and evaluated by their faculty. But it's better than if they're afraid that they're going to hurt somebody.

Nicci Brown: For sure! Can you give us an example of what one of those scenarios might be that the students face?

Dean Anna McDaniel: Oh, there are so many. We have them in every area. Okay, so we have them in mental health nursing where we actually use what's called a standardized patient, which for all intents and purposes is an actor taking the role of a patient and they're expressing maybe suicidal thoughts. And people that are 23, 24, 25 years old, they don't know how to handle that. So, it's a very important learning experience because mental health needs are almost universal in our society. And we have mannequins that give birth.

Nicci Brown: Oh, wow! That's mind-boggling.

Dean Anna McDaniel: Because that's one opportunity that . . . they have limited time on a maternity ward and they might not even see a live birth, almost all of them do, but admittedly, they're going to be back in the corner and not right there with that. Whereas with the simulation, they can do that. We can set up a code situation like a cardiac arrest and they have to learn to do that. We have a simulation where the patient is dying and they learn how to comfort a person, but also how to comfort and attend to the loved ones. So, it can be anything.

Nicci Brown: Well, you clearly love the nursing profession. Let me hear your pitch to students about why nursing is a great career option for them.

Dean Anna McDaniel: Yeah. I've always believed that nursing is the hardest job you'll ever love and it's very true. I tell my student this in orientation every year.
Nursing provides an opportunity for us to be present at life's most sacred moments — the birth of a child, the death of a loved one. And those are not opportunities most people get. And so, it's really a privilege. And I've always believed that there's no other career that can, one, make such a difference in the lives of another person. Nursing is everywhere and it's in every setting. It can be schools and hospitals, telehealth, community organizations, working with the technology and working in settings that we've not even imagined yet. So, you name it. Nurses can never complain about being bored because if they are bored or they don't get a lot of enjoyment or satisfaction from their current career or their current job, they should go find another job in another setting and they find that opportunity. It's probably one of the most greatest variety that you could ever imagine.

Nicci Brown: Dean McDaniel, it's no wonder that nurses are so highly regarded and it's a great comfort that people like you are leading the charge and your colleagues. Thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your insights.

Dean Anna McDaniel: Thank you very much. It's been a privilege.

Nicci Brown: We're joined now by our second guest, Denise Schentrup, who is the clinical director and lead nurse practitioner of UF Health Archer Family Health Care, the college's nurse-led health center. Among other roles in the college, Denise teaches graduate courses for adult and family nurse practitioner students and serves as the associate dean for clinical affairs at the College of Nursing. Welcome, Denise.

Denise Schentrup: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Nicci Brown: It's our pleasure. Dean McDaniel shared with us her perspective on the nursing shortage and how the college is striving to meet the need for healthcare providers.

Now, that need is especially acute in rural areas throughout Florida as well as in the rest of the nation. So, I'd like to dive a little deeper into one hallmark initiative of the college and that's the Archer Family Health Care. Could you tell us a little bit more about the practice, its history and the need it's meeting?

Denise Schentrup: Sure. Archer Family Health Care is a nurse-led clinic that is located in the town of Archer. It is about 12 miles from here, from the campus, and it serves a population in Archer of about 1,200 individuals in the town. The town is much smaller than Gainesville, a very different demographic than what you see in Gainesville. A little over 20 years ago, one of the Archer residents approached the College of Nursing and asked if the College of Nursing would be interested in opening a clinical practice in the area. So, my mentor, Dr. Dee Williams, she was the workhorse that developed the clinic itself. She did all of the background work and got the clinic up and running, and that was in January of 2001.

Nicci Brown: And students have been quite involved in terms of how things are run now, but also in the formation as well, correct?

Denise Schentrup: Yes. Part of the mission of the clinic was to provide a space for students to learn how to become nurse practitioners, how to take care of patients, learn community engagement. And so, throughout the entire 20 years of the practice, we have had students come out and do their clinicals in the clinic. So, they learn with the nurse practitioners that are providing care to the patients. They work one-on-one with the provider and see patients as well.

Nicci Brown: How is the funding managed for this kind of outreach because there's got to be a number of costs associated.

Denise Schentrup: Yes. There are significant costs associated with providing healthcare, in general, and particularly for us because about 40% of our patients don't have any insurance. So, the funding is crucial to keeping us together. So, we have diversified funding in that we have some funding that comes from the county through county grants. We have some funding that comes from the state. It's another state Department of Health grant that we do have. Of course, we bill insurances and get reimbursement that way. And we also have some donations from alumni, from people who are just wanting to support our mission and we do accept donations in that aspect also.

Nicci Brown: And in terms of the number of people you see, Archer, as you noted, is a smaller community, but how many patients would you say that you see annually?

Denise Schentrup: Well, we certainly have grown from 2001. In 2001, we did about 900 visits a year. Now, we do about between 5,000 and 6,000 visits a year. And that's quite a significant growth in the last 20 years. And we have about 1,500 active patients. So those patients that are assigned to our clinic that have been seen in the last few years, that's about 1,500. And then those patients equal about 6,000 visits per year.

Nicci Brown: So, it's particularly important thing, I would imagine, for the community, but also this is a two-way street. The students I'm sure gain a lot from being involved, learning how to interact with people closely, especially in such a tight-knit group of people.

Denise Schentrup: Yes. We have a small staff of about 14 people and the students work intimately with not only the nurse practitioners, but also with the patients, with the staff and just learn how to interact in a medical setting. So this really gives them the opportunity also to engage completely. So, they are the ones going into the room. They're getting a history from the patient, they're doing the exam. They're getting all the information, coming up with a plan and working together with their preceptor, who is our family nurse practitioner, and putting the pieces together to learn how to care for complex patients.

Nicci Brown: How many students do you have working in the rotations?

Denise Schentrup: So, each semester, we have about three or four students a semester so that it's really a one-on-one learning experience for the students. So, they're paired up with one of our nurse practitioners. And in addition to the family nurse practitioner, we do have a unique model in that we have an integrated practice. So, we have family practice or primary care, but we also have an arm of mental health. So, our patients that are primary care patients, they can get mental health care as well all in the same place so that's really helpful for our patients who have limited resources to come into Gainesville so they can get all of those services in one place.

Nicci Brown: And particularly important in rural areas where mental health issues can be especially problematic.

Denise Schentrup: Yes. Yes.

Nicci Brown: Tell us a little bit more about that integrated approach because it has a lot of advantages entwined in it.

Denise Schentrup: So, the model of integrated care has really picked up in the last few years. One of the interesting things and one of the things that we're really proud of is that we have been providing that integrated care for the last 20 years so we feel like we're ahead of the game with that.
In the integrated model, we have the primary care provider and then we have a mental health provider, and they work together to provide really holistic care to the patient. The integrated model also allows the patient to not feel like somebody knows why they're coming to the clinic. If they are out in the waiting room, nobody knows why they're there. They could be coming for their primary care or they could be coming for mental health and it really reduces the stigma of going to a mental health practice. So, we hope that that really makes people feel more comfortable with really sensitive topics and things that they need help with. And so with that approach, people won't know why they're there.

Nicci Brown: Especially in a small community, I've got to imagine that's particularly important.

Denise Schentrup: Yes. Many of our patients know each other. They see each other in the waiting room and they recognize each other. So, if the community or the people in the waiting room don't know why they're there, that really helps them to not have to really divulge what's going on if they don't want to.

Nicci Brown: I understand the Archer center is a federally designated rural health clinic and serves as a national model for how to meet the health care needs in underserved communities. Can you tell us a little bit more about that designation?

Denise Schentrup: Sure. Originally when we opened the clinic, it was what you would consider almost like a private practice, where we billed insurances, we did take money from patients who didn't have insurance, but overall, we functioned as a private practice, so to speak. It was about 2013 or so we felt like the designation for the rural health clinic would give us a little bit more of opportunity to provide more services to patients, particularly who had Medicaid, patients who have no insurance. We are able to expand our services under that model. And one of the things that model is a strong proponent of is advanced practice nurses.

So advanced practice nurses are required in a rural health clinic. We already met that because we were a nurse-led clinic already. So, it was a matter of just completing the paperwork and getting that designation. That designation also gives us a little bit higher reimbursement for those patients that are underserved, I would say, particularly our Medicaid patients. So, we get a higher reimbursement so we don't have to limit our numbers of Medicaid patients as well.

Nicci Brown: And what does that actually mean, the advanced care designation for the nurses?

Denise Schentrup: So the role is the advanced practice registered nurse. So in that role, these individuals who do this training, they're already nurses, they have a bachelor's degree in nursing, and then they go on to get a graduate degree, whether it be a master's degree or a doctorate to be a nurse practitioner, which enables them to take care of patients similar to where you would when you go to your primary care provider. We diagnose the problem. We order diagnostic tests. We order medications. So, we can treat any kind of disease process that we are trained to treat — diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol. We can do acute visits like ear infections or pneumonia. So, we take care of patients with those problems and can provide them with antibiotics or prescriptions they need, things like that.

Nicci Brown: You touched on this a little bit earlier, but one of the big things that I've heard about the clinic is this commitment to community engagement and helping people to feel comfortable and know that they can get their health care needs met. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Denise Schentrup: Sure. One of the interesting things or I think it's a benefit for our clinic is where we're located. So, we are in the southwest portion of Alachua County so our reach expands farther than Alachua County. It expands into Levy County and Gilchrist County. And so we really try to put ourselves out there in all of those areas to let patients know that we're there.

We do a lot of things with the community, community events. A couple of times a year, we do a festival where we put our table out and we have health care information for patients.

We sponsored a baseball team in the Archer town. There's a rec center and so we sponsor a team, which is really cool to see our banner up in their field and our names on the back of their shirts and stuff. And they're also cute, the little kids running around. So, we do that.

We are right now working also on outreach program for vaccines, including COVID vaccines and pneumonia and flu vaccines. So, we're doing an outreach program with that, and we just make sure that we are engaged in the community, so we try to go to the community meetings. We're going to be attending a community meeting for the businesses in the area and just promote our practice and what we do.

Nicci Brown: And those relationships just are so much of a life blood for so many rural communities and we've heard also during the pandemic that having those relationships and meeting people through others that they trust really is so critical to vaccines and other areas.

Denise Schentrup: Yes. Often the patients come in and say, "Well, what do you think about this vaccine? What do you think about this blood pressure medicine? What do you think about this?" And they really want to know what our opinions are on it, and they really take that to heart a nd if they trust us, then . . . they want to stay healthy. They want to be around for their kids and their grandkids. So, they will try to do those things that we're offering them — education medications, support.

Nicci Brown: Could you tell us a little more about other things the clinic has done in response to the pandemic?

Denise Schentrup: Sure. We’ve remained open the entire time. So, I think that is . . .

Nicci Brown: Is a big thing.

Denise Schentrup: . . . definitely a big thing. Yes. We have not closed our doors. We've made some modifications to how we see patients. So, we've created some workflows where we can see the patients in their car if we need to if they're sick and they can't come into the building, then we'll see them at their car. So, like a curbside service. So, we've done that. We also offer free testing, free COVID vaccines. But the main thing is we've created ways that we could see the patient, even if they can't come in.

Another big thing that we've done is telemedicine. So, we have the capability now of doing telehealth visits. If the patient isn't able to come in, then we'll get them on Zoom. We send them the invite, teach them how to get on to the Zoom link and do their visit that way. We've done that. So those are some of the major things that we've done.

Nicci Brown: And if anyone is listening and has an interest in finding out more, what's the easiest way for them to find out about the clinic?

Denise Schentrup: So, the best way is to call our office, make an appointment. The phone number is (352) 265-2550. And we also have a website and that has some patient information, some education and our contact information as well and that is

Nicci Brown: Denise, thanks so much for joining us today.

Denise Schentrup: You're welcome.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll tune in next week.

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January 25, 2022

Season 2 Episode 4: Studying glaciers . . . from Florida

Mickey MacKie, an assistant professor of geological sciences and glaciologist, joined UF this summer. She has set up the Gator Glaciology Lab, where she and a team of undergraduate students are using machine learning tools to study conditions under glaciers to better understand movement and melting, which has implications for sea level rise.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Our guest today is Mickey MacKie, assistant professor of geological sciences and a glaciologist. Yes, you heard me right! She is studying glaciers from Florida. Mickey is one of UF's newest AI faculty members. She joined the university in August and we are delighted that she has brought her fascinating work to our campus. Welcome, Mickey.

Mickey MacKie: Thank you for having me.

Nicci Brown: We are so very glad that you decided to join us at the University of Florida. Can you tell us a bit more about your background, where you were previously and how you became interested in studying glaciers?

Mickey MacKie: Sure. I recently completed my Ph.D. in geophysics at Stanford, where I was interested in this problem of merging geological knowledge with machine learning tools so that we can better study the conditions underneath glaciers and ice sheets. So as an undergrad, I had a more classical geological training where I was a rock hammer-wielding geologist, going out into the field and looking at rocks from prehistoric ice ages.

And so, I've always been interested in glacial geology, but as I continued my education, I got more and more interested in modern ice sheets and geophysical methods like radar and then data science tools and machine learning. So, all of those things have sort of culminated into what I do now, which is developing and applying machine learning methods to study subsurface conditions in polar regions.

Nicci Brown: And at face value, Florida may seem like a very unlikely place to study ice sheets. What attracted you to UF?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah, I get that question a lot and what I always say is that the state of Florida has the most to lose when sea level rises. And so I think we have a lot of skin in the game and it's really important to be studying this question here in Florida. And what attracted me to the university in particular was this machine learning and AI initiative. So, I do machine learning research at ice sheet scales, which is non-trivial and requires a lot of computational resources.

And so I was very excited about the HiPerGator computing cluster and having the opportunity to use those resources that I could scale up my research. And I'm very excited to be at a place where there are so many different people working on machine learning problems and working on machine learning problems in different applications.

So, when I was in grad school and I took machine learning courses, I would take them in the computer science department and I would learn about facial recognition and things like that. And the types of tools that you use in facial recognition or CAT detection algorithms are completely different than what you need if you're studying the physical environment. So, I'm very happy to be in a place with lots of people who are working on different types of problems and are interested in developing these different tools.

And then, there are a number of members of my department in geology who are studying glacial geology through different lenses. And so there's all of this complementary geological and machine learning knowledge at UF that I'm very excited to bring together.

Nicci Brown: Taking a step back, can you tell us a little bit more about what machine learning actually is?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah, it's a really broad field, but machine learning is any time where you're learning patterns from data in order to make predictions. And so, there are hundreds of different tools that fall into that bucket and I specialize in using tools and developing tools in such a way that we’re integrating geologic knowledge and making really geologically informed algorithm design choices to make these estimates.

Nicci Brown: And you have a lab, the gator, let me get this right . . . the Gator Glaciology Lab. Say that three times fast!

Mickey MacKie: I'm very proud of that!

Nicci Brown: Yeah. And you've got several undergraduate students working with you. Can you tell us a little bit more about the lab and about your student researchers?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah. So, I've just started building up the Gator Glaciology Lab. Right now, we have three undergraduate students in geology, computer science and mechanical engineering who are doing all sorts of cool research related to subglacial conditions. So, there's Caroline Riggall, who's analyzing radar data and using machine learning methods to characterize the geologic and hydrologic conditions underneath ice using radar data. I have another student, Matthew Hibbs, who is working on developing software that we're going to use to map the topography beneath the Greenland ice sheet. And finally, I have a geology student, Sam Williams, who's analyzing sediment core data offshore of Antarctica that we will be using to improve our reconstructions of past ice sheet behavior to give us insight into the future ice sheet evolution.

Nicci Brown: And is that the focus of your research, to really take a look at what that evolution will be?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah. We're really interested in what is underneath the ice. Glaciers are flowing bodies of ice that are sliding over the topography. If you imagine yourself going the slide, the shape of the slide, whether or not there's water and the roughness of the slide, those things are going to affect how fast you move. And the same is true for ice sheets and glaciers. So, we really need to know what the topography looks like under the ice, what the geology is and where there is liquid water if we want to be able to make good sea level rise projections.

Now, it's very difficult to do that because this environment is under a couple miles of ice and Antarctica is the size of the U.S. and Mexico put together and it's very difficult to access. You know, this environment has very limited data available. And what we do is we come up with ways to estimate those conditions at ice sheet-scales, so that we can use them as ice sheet model input parameters to make better sea level rise projections.

Nicci Brown: Do you do any field work as well as the work that you're doing in the lab?

Mickey MacKie: In theory, yes!

Nicci Brown: Yes.

Mickey MacKie: Yeah, pandemic permitting, I'm hoping to go to Svalbard in a couple months. Svalbard is an island archipelago next to northeastern Greenland and it's got the highest density of polar bears in the world.

Nicci Brown: Are you ready for that?

Mickey MacKie: Yes, I am. I'm actually planning on brushing up on my rifle target practice because we do have to carry firearms for polar bear safety. But what we'll be doing out there is taking both seismic and radar measurements of glaciers there. And we're interested in both monitoring those glaciers because these smaller glaciers are a good canary in the coal mine for looking at climate change. But I'm also interested in developing ways that we can combine geophysical observations like radar and seismic data to make better large-scale estimates of the subglacial conditions. And so this is kind of a practice run for building up those methods so that eventually we can do this in Antarctica or Greenland.

Nicci Brown: And you mentioned the polar bears and it is a very real danger. I mean, we laugh, but it is something that has happened in the past to a lot of researchers. But what other challenges do you envision encountering doing this type of work?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah, polar regions have a lot of challenges. They're very remote. They're very cold. Last time I was in Svalbard, it hit minus 40, which is the same in Celsius and Fahrenheit. And so I remember my first season out there, I didn't even, I brought an insulated water bottle, but the cap wasn't insulated and my water froze. And they're just things like that I had to learn how to deal with. But yeah, we have an incredible logistics team out in Svalbard and I work with very experienced researchers, so I'm very excited to get back in the field.

Nicci Brown: And I'm guessing that those researchers come from all over the world.

Mickey MacKie: Yeah. In Svalbard we're collaborating mostly with Norwegian researchers at universities of Bergen and Tromsø, who are obviously very experienced at working in that environment.

Nicci Brown: Can you give us a sense of some of the questions that you're trying to answer?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah. So one of the things that is unique about the research that my lab does is the way we map the topography beneath ice sheets. So, we have measurements of the topography in some locations from airborne ice penetrating radar. So, radar mounted on airplanes is used to see through the ice and measure what the topography is. But we have a lot of gaps in measurements, sometimes up to hundreds of kilometers. And what most people do is they fill in those gaps with a flat surface. And that is not a very realistic basis to use for an ice sheet model. So, what we do instead is we come up with ways to simulate realistic looking topography in those blank spots. And, so the radar measurements nearby show that there are mountains then in between, it should look like there are mountains.

And instead of creating one map, we generate hundreds of realizations of the topography. So, you get an ensemble of maps that represent all the possible perturbations you could have based on existing measurements. And then you could imagine applying an ice sheet model to each of those instead of just one. And that's really important because it allows us to represent sea level rise as a probability distribution instead of a single solution. And so you can imagine if you're building a nuclear power plant on the coast, you don't want to know what the 50th percentile sea-level rise scenario is going to look like. You want to know what's the worst possible trajectory so that you can build according to that scenario. And so our work is part of a bigger effort in the glaciology community to start working on quantifying our uncertainty in future sea-level rise projections so that we can give policy makers this information.

Nicci Brown: And I've got to imagine that having access to AI and a supercomputer is critical to being able to do that work.

Mickey MacKie: Yeah. Especially because we're talking about doing ice sheet scale simulations, multiple times, generating hundreds of realizations of the maps and then ultimately coupling that with an ice sheet model, which is also very computationally demanding work. So, I think these high-performance computing resources are going to play a big role in achieving that.

Nicci Brown: You mentioned that in the past we've thought about these ice sheets as being flat and we're discovering that that's no longer the case and we've got to treat them as such. What kind of impact does that have on our predictions?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah, so right now it's really difficult to say because we have not yet been able to run ice sheet models in this way using realistically rough topography. So, I think it's anyone's guess how these ice sheet models are going to respond.

We have done some preliminary work with ice sheet modelers at Cambridge on using simulated topography in very small areas and seeing how glaciers at very small scales behave with these different types of topographic maps. And, our initial results are showing that the ice deformation behavior is very different and the patterns of friction at the bed are very different and the spatial distributions of water is different. So, I think we're going to see some significant changes in the ice sheet response using the simulated topography, but we're going to have to work very closely with the ice sheet modeling community to be able to adapt ice sheet models to handle this type of information.

Nicci Brown: And this is the first time that it has been done at this scale?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah. Or this is the first time that we have used realistically rough topography in an ice sheet model at this very tiny scale.

Nicci Brown: And you mentioned the community. How many people are we talking about here?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah, so the glaciology community is pretty small, maybe a 1,000 or 1,500 people. And then the ice sheet modeling community, there may be a few dozen people who are really focused on ice sheet modeling development and applications. We're talking with people at Cambridge and at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at Georgia Tech about how we can integrate our information with their ice sheet models.

Nicci Brown: Can you give us a sense of how big these ice sheets actually are?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah. The Antarctic ice sheet is the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined. And the Greenland ice sheet's a little smaller, but these are massive bodies of ice. Right now, the west Antarctic sheet, if that melted, that would lead to seven meters of sea level rise. So these are incredibly large volumes of ice that we're working with.

Nicci Brown: And speaking of that, there is a new international scientific research initiative that has just begun on the melting of the Thwaites Glacier. And that is actually known as the Doomsday Glacier, no threat there! Can you tell us a little more about that glacier and why scientists are so focused upon it?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah, so Thwaites Glacier, also known as the Doomsday Glacier, is a glacier about the size of Florida in west Antarctica that right now is losing the most ice out of any glacier in Antarctica. And we're really concerned about this glacier because if this glacier were to undergo significant ice loss, it would destabilize the west Antarctic ice sheet leading to seven meters of sea-level rise. And so a large fraction of my field is involved in efforts to study this glacier and better estimate the subglacial conditions at this glacier, so that we can improve sea-level rise projections for Thwaites and know how vulnerable the west Antarctic ice sheet is.

Right now, a lot of my lab's research is involved in this effort. So, Caroline and Sam, two of my undergrads, are working on projects related to Thwaites. I'm working on a project to estimate the topography and the geology at this glacier, because those are two major sources of uncertainty in ice sheet projections at Thwaites. Thwaites is a primary concern for our field and for the foreseeable future I think we're going to be heavily focused on mapping and modeling this glacier.

Nicci Brown: Thwaites is known as the Doomsday Glacier. What does that actually mean? How concerned should we be?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah, so right now, we're very concerned about the ice shelf at Thwaites, which acts as a buffer for the glacier. So, glaciers have grounded ice, which is in contact with the topography, and then floating ice, the ice shelf. And the ice shelf helps stabilize the glacier. And right now, there are some signs showing that the ice shelf could start to break up in the next few years and that could significantly weaken the position of Thwaites Glacier. Now, I don't want to freak people out. I think it'll take approximately a few hundred years before Thwaites could undergo that significant retreat leading to the collapse of the west Antarctica ice sheet scenario, but we will be seeing the effects of ice sheet melts at Thwaites and, you know, throughout Antarctica and Greenland in decades to come. So, right now we're on track to hit about a meter of sea level rise by the end of the century.

Nicci Brown: And this is the window for us to do something to try and hold that at bay.

Mickey MacKie: Yeah. Yeah. And I think in our community, we talk a lot about tipping points or points of no return where if we don't do something before we hit one of those tipping points, then we're going to get caught in these runaway ice sheet melt cycles. And, so we're, we're interested in seeing if, you know, have we hit those tipping points yet? Or, when will we hit those and when can we still do something about it and if not, what is sea level rise going to look like and how can we prepare for it?

Nicci Brown: And you're talking about two extremes of the earth. The far north and the far south. Discoveries that are made in those areas, are they extendable to one another so what you find there, you can make a prediction to the south and likewise?

Mickey MacKie: That's a really interesting question. So there's a lot that's similar about these two ice sheets and the governing physics is the same, but from a machine learning standpoint, you actually have to be very careful about training on one glacier and applying it somewhere else because the statistical relationships could be entirely different in these two settings. And so a lot of the work we do can be applied to both of these glaciers, but we do have to be very mindful about how we transfer knowledge between the two.

Nicci Brown: I'm curious, how did you become interested in this field of work? Was it something that you started studying in one area and moved into? How did that come about?

Mickey MacKie: I got interested in this machine learning, geologic data integration field in my first year of grad school. I took a data science course for geologists and it was taught by Jeff Caers, a professor at Stanford who specializes in oil and mineral exploration and uses these types of data science methods to study subsurface conditions to look for oil. And I realized that you could easily adapt a lot of these methods, or schools of thought, to glaciers and come up with much more robust estimates of subsurface conditions at ice sheets as well. So, I actually work with a lot of petroleum engineers and people with mineral exploration backgrounds to study climate change.

Nicci Brown: And is it an area where you are seeing more interest? You mentioned your undergraduate research assistants. Is it a growing field?

Mickey MacKie: Yeah, I think especially here at UF, I'm noticing that the undergrad students are really interested in environmental science problems and are keenly aware of how important it is to study sea level rise in climate change.

Nicci Brown: Mickey, thank you so much for joining us today and thank you for your research.

Mickey MacKie: Thank you for having me. It's been great.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of 'From Florida'. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. And I hope you'll tune in next week.

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January 18, 2022

Season 2 Episode 3: Artificial intelligence is reshaping agricultural practices

Researchers with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are at the leading edge of using artificial intelligence to improve agricultural practices and production. Scott Angle explains the innovations happening at UF that will help Florida and other southeastern states take an increasing role in the nation’s food production.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I’m your host, Nicci Brown.

Our guest today is Scott Angle, who is UF’s Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leads the university's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Dr. Angle will explain what that entails in just a moment, but first, a little more about him.

Prior to joining UF, Dr. Angle served as the director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His past experience includes leading a global center focused on helping smallholder farmers in Africa and South Asia increase production and profitability. He has also served as a dean and professor.

I'm delighted to welcome you to our From Florida audience, Dr. Angle.

Dr. Scott Angle: Thanks. Glad to be here today.

Nicci Brown: The University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, otherwise known as UF/IFAS, is at the center of our mission as a land-grant university. Could you give us a broad overview of IFAS, what it encompasses, its focus and its reach throughout the state?

Dr. Scott Angle: It's a comprehensive organization. It's one of the largest and most highly ranked organizations of its kind in the world. It probably ranks number two or three nationally and four or five globally. It's got several missions. The most obvious one would be to assist agriculture to grow more food for a hungry planet. But it also has a strong focus on natural resources and environmental quality, sustainability, family and youth sciences — for instance, 4-H, which is the state's largest youth organization, is also housed within IFAS. Parts of the vet school report directly through IFAS. Sea Grant also partially reports through IFAS, the School of Forestry and many others. So again, it's quite comprehensive but it's all of the managed resources and, to a lesser extent, unmanaged resources that would fall under the purview of IFAS.

Nicci Brown: And given that perspective, can you share with us some of the major challenges that you see in the agricultural world at the moment?

Dr. Scott Angle: Sure. The most obvious one is to feed a growing population. We don't know quite where the population of the world is going to end up. It's going to be somewhere between 9 and 10 billion people. We're at, what, 7.8 billion now. But we’ve got to double food production by the year 2050. It's not just that there will be more people on the planet, rather that the people that we do have are going to demand more food and higher quality food.

So, a large portion of the world's population today, beans, rice, maybe a little bit of dairy in their diet, but that's all they have. And so the first thing that happens when you're moving out of poverty, where you're literally hungry if you eat beans and rice all day, you probably go to bed hungry at night. The first thing you want is more food and higher quality food and so the need to double food production on this planet by 2050 is a tremendous challenge and if we don't meet it, there's going to be all kinds of global problems that result from hungry people and the things that arise from that.

So we’ve got to grow more food, but here's the problem. We don't have any more land. We're not going to be cutting down more tropical rainforests in Brazil because of climate change issues. We're probably going to have less land around the planet 50 years from now or 30 years from now than we will today to grow food, and we certainly are going to have less water to grow more food. That's the main input for growing food is water.

So less land, less water, how are we going to double food production? The only way that can happen is through enhanced technology. Doubling food production on every acre of land. So whether it's an animal species, you need to put twice the number of animals on the land or make them grow faster and more efficiently, the same thing for plants. That's the only way we are going to meet this challenge.

Now it's not going to happen all over the world either. There are some parts of the world that simply can't grow more food. Australia, for example, where you're from, as you know, it's quite a dry continent. There's not a lot of ability to grow more food in Australia. The same thing is true for China and India. They just don't have enough rainfall really to double down on food production. Europe is tending to go into the organic and very sustainable approach which won't, frankly, allow them to grow a whole lot more food. South America could grow more food, but we know that we need to put some of that land back into savannas and jungles for carbon sequestration.

So really it comes down to North America, where more food will be grown for the future and it's not really a matter of should we do it here or somewhere else, there's no choice. It really is Canada, the U.S., Mexico. This is where the round of doubling food production will have to happen. And even in this area, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, most of that is actually going to happen in the Southeast for a couple reasons.

If you go too far north beyond Iowa, for example, it's just too cold and you can't have two or three crops grown a year, which is a requirement to grow more food. Agriculture is driven by sunlight, that's the energy of agriculture, and if you just don't have a lot of it, you can't do a whole lot more. And if you're Mexico, the western part of the U.S., unfortunately they seem to be running out of water. You will read every day, not so much right now because California is having fabulous rainfall, but they are running out of water eventually, and so it's really going to come down to the southeastern part of the U.S. that is going to have to produce a whole lot more food.

Florida is one of the major producers in this region. Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama — it’s all of our responsibilities, but Florida, because of our unique climate, the amount of water that we have in this state, our subtropical or tropical nature, we can do some things that you can't do anywhere else in the country. So, in many, many ways, it really comes down to Florida and the states that touch Florida that have the responsibility, tremendous responsibility, for making sure the rest of the world doesn't go hungry.

Nicci Brown: And as we've touched on before, the university has made artificial intelligence, the understanding of it and using it, a key component of all the disciplines here because it is a complex area. How is that happening at IFAS?

Dr. Scott Angle: Well, agriculture traditionally, and probably unfortunately, has been a little behind the technology curve compared to so many other industries. We have always relied on cheap inputs, cheap labor, good luck, good government policy, but we're finding that it's becoming harder and harder to count on all of those things.

For instance, our labor pool is drying up. As, for example, as the economy in Mexico improves, a lot of people want to stay home and work in their country rather than come here, which is a hard life. I think we all understand migrant labor and how difficult that is for many people. So, we have less and less labor in this country all the time. Our input costs are going up. You still need fertilizers, you still need chemicals to grow food. But the price of fertilizer, for instance, has doubled in the last six months.

So, we see that is another challenge to being able to do this. So, technology is a way forward and here's how it has worked in the past. Kind of the first grand wave that allowed humans to grow more food was when fertilizers were discovered. That was considered the first wave of significant production increases. So initially they were organic fertilizers that were mined out of the bat guano fields of South America and some of the islands in the Caribbean. Later on, we learned how to artificially and chemically produce nitrogen particularly for crops but once we started doing that, we were able to significantly improve food production. So that made a big change.

Back in the ’30s, ’40s, really even into the ’50s, for some parts of the country, the second wave was mechanization. Up until that time, agriculture was frankly a very, very hard business. It was all hand labor, work that was just in my mind unbearable in many ways. Harvesting, picking cotton by hand, was just such an awful thing to have to do and there were so many other parts of agriculture that were very similar. So around that time, ’30s, ’40s,’ 50s, mechanization was introduced. So, we now had the tractor, which could pull equipment. We had harvesters that could mechanically harvest cotton, for example, or peanuts or wheat or soybeans. And so that took away a lot of the hand labor and that had a tremendous impact on productivity. That's also why a lot of people started to move out of agriculture because we didn't need nearly as many people. A 100 years ago, 40% of the population grew our food. Today it's 2% of the population grows our food because of mechanization.

The third wave was genetics and genetic modification. It's still a controversial area, for sure. I am a strong advocate of the need to genetically modify food because it has tremendous impact on our ability to produce that food, but that allowed us to start using fewer pesticides and to use less fertilizer and less water. It began to reduce our inputs into the agricultural systems. That was back in the ’80s and the ’90s when those technologies really began to take root in some segments of agriculture, not all.

Since then, our yield increases have been slow but steady but, frankly, not enough to keep up with the need to double food production by the year 2050. So, we are headed towards a very serious situation in the next 30 years, unless we have the next wave and we, particularly at the University of Florida, believe that that next wave of technology to be adopted into agriculture will be artificial intelligence.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell me a little bit more about how that might manifest? How will we use that intelligence?

Dr. Scott Angle: Yeah. As I began, agriculture really is behind the curve in artificial intelligence. The automotive industry, the airline industry, banking, healthcare, they've all been into artificial intelligence now for at least a decade and have used it widely. Agriculture has not. So, in some ways, our slowness to this technology actually creates a great opportunity for the future.

We can make tremendous progress with artificial intelligence. And a couple examples. The example here I always use would be human medicine, someone who has cancer. Currently, we treat cancer with drugs that attack the whole body and you hope that you kill the cancer without killing the person. That's kind of the old model for cancer treatment. The new model of cancer treatment is you attack only the cancer cells itself and not the whole body.

So, it's really very similar for agriculture. When you have a field that has weeds in it, for example, right now we go through the whole field and we spray every single square foot of that field for the weeds, even though the weeds may only occupy one-tenth of 1% of the field, so we grossly overspray our fields using our current technology. The same would be for fertilization. The entire field doesn't need as much fertilizer as some parts. Some parts can grow well and need a lot of fertilizer, other parts are limited because maybe it's too wet or too dry. You don't need as much fertilizer there. So how do you limit and how do you control the fertilizers, pesticides, only to where you need it?

So, one of the fascinating technology that we're looking at right now, and it's pretty well-developed, is a pull-behind implement, pull behind a tractor, that has computer visualization on it that will find the weeds and only spray the weed. So, it won't spray the cotton or the peanuts or the orange tree. It will spray the weeds that are around those plants. So, you actually use, even in our still developmental phase, you only use about 20% of the amount of pesticide that you would normally. So, what does that do? That saves the farmer a lot of money. Farming is a tough business right now. You don't make much money and anything you can do to reduce input costs is another dollar added into your pocket. So, you save the farmer money. You reduce pesticide use by 80%, tremendous environmental impact as a result of that. And you also reduce the labor because a lot of this can actually be automated.

Some of these technologies that we're developing have no human operator associated with them. They may be small implements, they're actually quite a bit cheaper than tractors. Tractors now can be a quarter of a million dollars. They're big and they're powerful and they're expensive. These can be things as small as a desktop that is driven autonomously, that you can just turn loose in your field and it will go up and down the rows, spraying the weeds, with no human involved in it. They’re typically electrically powered. When they run out of pesticide or when they run out of electricity, they guide themselves back to the farm shed and re-power themselves and refill the chemical that they're using. So huge, huge benefits all the way around, and that's becoming the future of agriculture.

I did want to give you one more example that I think is equally as important. As I said, we're losing labor in agriculture and I don't bemoan this. I think much of the labor done in agriculture today is very, very hard and often done by migrant labor, often by people who would rather stay in their own countries if they could and work there, and as their economies improve, that is happening. So, for several reasons, we are losing labor, particularly in Florida, and there are reports all the time of crops going unharvested because the farmer couldn't find anyone to pick it.

We now have technologies that can actually pick strawberries, for example. Florida is the second largest strawberry grower in the United States, only behind California. We now have technology that will allow those strawberries to be picked by a machine. So, we have always had good mechanics to pick a strawberry or an apple or a peach or a Vidalia onion, it doesn't matter what it is. We've had good mechanics, so this would be a claw at the end of an arm that will go out, find the strawberry, pick it and then chuck it into a bin and go on to the next strawberry. The problem has been is that strawberry ripe, is it ready to be picked? That's easy for you and I to figure out. Look at a strawberry and it's ripe or it's not. Very simple decision. Or, once you have the claw that grabs that strawberry, how tight do you squeeze it? If you don't squeeze it tightly enough, it falls out of the claw and if you squeeze it too tightly, you squish it in, it damages the strawberry.

So both of those things rely on computer visioning and the ability to analyze huge amounts of data and to make very quick decisions about how tightly to grab that strawberry. That's where artificial intelligence will now, and just only recently, but now allow us to make those decisions on that fly. Is that strawberry ready to be picked and how tightly should you hold it in the claw. These are problems that have only been solved in the last two or three years.

The University of Florida has been the leader of a lot of this, and you're going to see those types of things just proliferate in agriculture. So, whether it's environmental quality improvement, lowering input costs or relieving humans of some of the backbreaking work of the really hard part of agriculture, AI is that next wave that is going to allow that to happen.

Nicci Brown: So, this strawberry picker, for example, sounds like a fascinating technology but how do you move from the lab into the field with something like that?

Dr. Scott Angle: Well, that is a good question because our scientists have, to some extent, unlimited resources, unlimited control of their environment, the fields that they test these new machines in have much of the random nature of it taken out of it. But when you get it to farmers, a real farmer's field, that farm is random. The strawberries may not be all planted in a straight line. They may not all have been planted on the same day, the soils are different. So, there may be bumps in the field.

All of these things can impact these new machines that can be used to pick strawberries or other things.

So often, these technologies are initially developed using government funding because they're high risk, high reward, but the risk is so high that no private company can see how this is actually going to make them any money. But once we de-risk some of that technology, we've proven it works, the cost may be high at that time, we don't necessarily know if it works in a real field, that has a lot of random nature to it. That's where it becomes essential then to find industry partners. So it could be John Deere is a big one. There are lots of startup companies and certainly we have a lot of those down in Balm, Florida, where we have a research center, that are working with our scientists there to build out that strawberry picker.

So we work with these scientists. They will bring down the costs, either through by mass production or finding ways to reduce the costs of the materials that are used for that. So they'll reduce the cost to the point where it can then be practical at the individual farm level, and they will also make sure that it actually does what it says it can do on that farm.

So it's important to bring down the costs and make sure that it really works in the field, but even with that, it may not be practical for an individual farmer. So strawberry farmers, for example, in Florida may own, may crop 50 acres. That would be a pretty big farm, that's a lot of strawberries. But that's not enough to justify the cost of an automated strawberry picker and so that begins then a whole new discussion about building a whole new business. For instance, and we've already called it this, the Uber of strawberry picking. So we would have a service that would own these machines that pick strawberries that would go into a farmer's field, maybe for two weeks, pick strawberries and when they're done, they would be called to another farmer's field. So essentially you'd rent out the technology and the expertise that goes along with it and so it truly is the Uber of automation and we think that that's going to be an important part of agriculture.

As I said before, tractors now cost a quarter million dollars. Some farmers can't afford a quarter million dollars for a new tractor, but what if they only needed that tractor a month a year, they could rent it out through Uber Tractor. We see all kinds of opportunities like that. So these businesses, it begins with science, technology and discovery, but then it moves on into the private implementation and then it develops things about cost-sharing and moving equipment around Florida. There's all kinds of new businesses that can come from what was a fairly singular discovery 10 years ago when we first started thinking about automated strawberry picking. Now we're talking about the Uber of strawberry pickers.

Nicci Brown: Dr. Angle, can you give us more detail about some of our recent wins, so to speak?

Dr. Scott Angle: There are lots of them and they go back decades now. For instance, most of the strawberries grown in Florida were developed at the University of Florida research farm, and so the University of Florida actually gets royalties from those strawberry varieties. If you've been to the grocery store recently, there are now white strawberries in the grocery store. They taste just like a red strawberry but they're white. They're developed at our Balm research station, Southwest Florida Research and Education Center.

A couple of other really, I think, cool successes. Thirty years ago, on the west coast of Florida, oyster production had collapsed for a lot of reasons. Pollution is one of them, over-harvesting was another, diseases a third reason. But anyway, the oyster production had really not completely disappeared, but it was down about 90% from what it was in the heyday. Florida used to be a major producer, harvester of oysters. It was not at that time, just very small niche market. And Cedar Key, which is just west of us in Gainesville, it had been particularly devastated by the loss of oyster production because it really depended on oysters for its livelihood in Cedar Key, which was a lively seaport town long ago, had really just deteriorated to a couple people hanging on, not sure what the future was going to look like.

And so, working with the state government, a couple private foundations and our scientists, we found a way to repopulate much of the area around Cedar Key. Not with oysters this time but with clams. It has taken off, it is now a fabulously well-known clam production system around the world. So, people in Europe, for example, will ask for Cedar Key clams, because . . . I'm not a, I don't eat clams, so I can't give you a lot of detail . . . but apparently the flavor and the taste and the saltiness of them is just right and so here is a place where the industry had collapsed, the town had collapsed, most people had moved away and now, there's businesses moving back in to Cedar Key, not to harvest oysters, but rather to harvest clams and we're seeing clam production grow all over the East Coast.

But at the same time now, we are also reintroducing oysters — oysters that might be resistant to some of the diseases. There were two diseases, in particular, that devastated the population, so we have discovered some oysters that are resistant to these. Not completely immune, but resistant. So, we're reintroducing those oysters so oysters may be back some day, too. They're certainly on their way back right now.

One other really ... I think this is one of the coolest things we're doing in IFAS. I don't know how big of an industry this is going to get, but vanilla production globally has been declining because of some diseases in the vanilla plants. Vanilla is an orchid, it can only grow in tropical regions, and it requires a tremendous amount of labor in Indonesia and Malaysia where it's grown. Now they happen to have a lot of cheap labor, so it actually does work there. Vanilla has never been grown in the United States, mostly because there's not many places we can grow it. Hawaii, Miami and south into the Homestead area. Maybe a couple of the Virgin Islands, Caribbean islands, South Pacific islands, U.S. territories. But we've never really grown vanilla. So, there's now a vanilla shortage.

So, we have a scientist down at our Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, his name is Alan Chambers, and he is finding varieties of the orchid that produces vanilla that will grow in that region. And the advantage is that we — apparently, we're just lucky — we have bee pollination of orchid flowers, whereas in Indonesia and Malaysia, it all has to be done by hand. But we just got lucky. We've got the right type of insects here that they don't have in Malaysia that will allow us not to have to hand-pollinate the orchids for the bean pod production and so he's found varieties that grow in that area. He has found a commercial way to extract the vanilla oil out of the pods and he's now working with chocolatiers in Miami to make sure that we are producing chocolate produced in Florida that was developed with Florida vanilla.

I'll give you one more quick example because this is also another fun one. A lot of our breweries, whether it's here in Gainesville or other places, they all like to have homegrown brews. So it could be sugar cane for rum or it could be hops for beer. Hops don't grow in Florida because our day length is too long. You need very short days and you need very long days, so the further north you get, you get more of that. The further you go towards the equator, our long days and short days, are not as significantly different as they would be in a more northern climate. So we've always grown hops in Washington and Oregon and North Dakota and South Dakota where you've got dramatic differences in day length. It didn't grow here in Florida. Yet our breweries were constantly asking for hops grown in Florida.

So, our scientists developed a technology that now allows hops to be grown in Florida and what it involves is supplemental lighting. So, hops are long vines that can grow 20 feet tall. Well, we'll put up lighting that is 30 feet tall, the type of lights you would see on athletic fields, and we turn those on once the sun goes down, and that gives longer days and the hops grow just fine with these artificial long days and the advantage that we have here in Florida is that we can grow two crops of hops, where in Oregon, they can only grow one crop because it's too cold.

Nicci Brown: Well, the beer-drinking public thanks you for that.

Dr. Scott Angle: Our pleasure.

Nicci Brown: Can we talk a little bit more about individual farmers and how we actually get these technologies from the lab to them because we do also hear about that tension between these huge multinational companies and then you've got the individual farmer, who's trying to survive, as you said, in what is a particularly tough industry at times. So, what's the impact there?

Dr. Scott Angle: It is a tough industry and that's the essence of the land-grant system. The land-grant system was created during the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln to support farmers, engineers and also the military sciences at the time but mainly farmers, because farmers weren't able to do research on their own. It's expensive, it's complex, it takes a lot of training and unlike Boeing aircraft company, they've got lots of smart people in their own R&D department, so when they need a new technology, they call up the R&D department and say, "Work on this." They develop a new technology, they have then educators who will transfer that technology out into the factories, where it can then be used to build bigger and better airplanes.

In agriculture, we don't have that because agriculture literally is millions and millions of farmers that, even if they're mid-sized farmers, sometimes even large farmers, they don't have the wherewithal to spend a lot of time and a lot of money conducting research to solve a problem. Even large-scale farmers, they're not able to do a lot of that and so what we do in the land-grant system, and I've used this term here recently, we de-risk agriculture for farmers. We find things that will work for them. None of these technologies are ever perfect, but we can take 90% out of the risk so that when they do start to implement some of these technologies in their field, we will be pretty sure that it's actually going to do what it says it's going to do.

So, agriculture, yes, there are large multinational farms, but one of the things also to remember is that's not quite what it seems all the time. Many of these farms, which are called corporate farms, they're still family corporations. So this is generally a couple and their children that have incorporated to take some of that legal risk out of their system. So while it often appears to be a large multinational corporation, often it's just a family corporation, too.

Nicci Brown: IFAS is working with several key groups in Florida to help farmers adopt climate-smart practices. Can you tell us a little bit more about this effort and how you are impacting those farmers?

Dr. Scott Angle: I think we all understand in Florida, Florida particularly, that we do have water pollution in this state. Our streams, our springs, our bays and some areas of the state are impacted and agriculture is part of that. We're not the total cause of pollution of some of the springs, for example, but we are part of it. We have an obligation to do what we can and so we do work with a number of groups around the state to help make sure that agriculture has the least impact footprint of its operations on the environment.

So one that I love working with is called Solutions from the Land. It's a national organization, but it really seems to have the largest hold here in Florida because we have so many environmental issues in Florida. And so they are trying to work with us to help find ways to reduce the impact of agriculture on water. So, using fewer fertilizers, using fewer pesticides, cultivating the soil in ways that will allow for less erosion, the movement of actual soil particles into water. So Solutions from the Land is working directly with us and Nature Conservancy is another group that has had a lot of interaction with IFAS. Ducks Unlimited, for example, we have very similar goals to Ducks Unlimited. We all want clean water. Ducks Unlimited wants clean water for ducks and geese. We want clean water because it's the right thing to do.

So, we are working with these groups. They often provide funding, they often provide opportunities for us to work on some of their and with their staff and on some of their farms. Every one of them owns farms and so we can use some of their farms actually to demonstrate the technologies that our UF/IFAS scientists come up with. And that's really important in agriculture. Scientists, or excuse me, farmers tend to be . . . it seems like they're all from Missouri, you’ve got to show them. They want to see it for themselves. They'll read the papers and they'll read the information online and that we provide them and talk to our extension agents, but they also want to be in the field and see it for themselves working. And so working with those partners, that allows us to have demonstrations in the field, we bring farmers to those facilities and we show them, "Here's what the future looks like" and then they can go back and begin to think about it and eventually adopt that as the technologies are ripe for implementation.

Nicci Brown: What are some of the reactions that you're seeing from the farmers?

Dr. Scott Angle: They're grateful, number one, because . . . I've said this twice now, it's tough in agriculture. Commodity prices are low, the prices that you sell your products for are low, and input prices are going up. We're probably going to have some farmers this year who go out of business because they just can't make that input cost/output profitability worksheet work for them anymore. And so it's very sad and so any time we can bring them to a farm, for example, and show them, "Here's a way to reduce your fertilizer and pesticide use by 50%, that's 50% of the cost of those materials that we have just now reduced for them and every dollar that we save obviously is a dollar back in their pocket.

So, we can't control commodity prices. We live in a global environment now, prices are set multi-nationally. What happens in Australia with the citrus industry, for example, will impact citrus prices here in Florida. So, we can't do very much about that, but we can control the cost and the value of those products that we utilize to grow food in this country, and that's where IFAS has a tremendous advantage in being able to help farmers reduce their input costs.

Nicci Brown: And you referenced the growing importance of the southeast of this nation to the future of food production. Can you talk a little bit more about Florida specifically and that tension between maintaining our environment but also meeting those challenges?

Dr. Scott Angle: There is a lot of tension right now. I am smack dab in the middle of all of this. I came, though, from the Chesapeake Bay region. I worked at the University of Maryland for a long time and I was a soil scientist who worked on water quality. Chesapeake Bay back in the ’70s and ’80s, even into the early ’90s, was quite polluted. Oyster populations were declining, clams, crabs, rockfish, a lot of the submerged aquatic grasses, grasses that live on the bottom of bodies of water had disappeared, all from pollution, and some of it was from agriculture, and so we were having, in the 1980s, we were having the same discussion. Farmers pointing their fingers at “There are just too many people in the Baltimore-D.C. region, that's the problem.” And the people in Baltimore and D.C. pointing their fingers at the farmers, saying, "No, you guys are plowing fertilizers into your field and those fertilizers run off into the Chesapeake Bay."

So, it was very similar to what I'm finding here in Florida now. We're still in the finger-pointing stage in Florida, unfortunately, but I think through a lot of good dialogue, it's going to require industry and the farming community and certainly groups like IFAS that have the technologies that can help. Government's going to have to step in, I think the federal government, state government, local governments, foundations like The Nature Conservancy, they all came together on the Delmarva region of Maryland, which is that land east of the Chesapeake Bay, they came together and developed a plan that no one was completely happy with but everyone understood was critical if we were going to save the bay.

And today, the bay has recovered. It is much, much cleaner than it has been in the last 100 years. The farmers are still in business, they're still growing food. The water quality is much better. So, it actually worked. So, I'm convinced that we can do that in Florida. It seems like we're 30 years behind the curve here in Florida. I wish we had gotten on this 40 years ago. But we didn't and so I see a path forward for Florida. It's been done in the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie also, which has had a lot of impact from people and agriculture. They are on the path forward and Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes are much cleaner than they were just 20 years ago. So, the model is there.

Now Florida, unfortunately in some ways, this is kind of what makes Florida so fascinating, Florida is so much more diverse than any of those other environments. In Maryland, for example, agriculture was chickens and things to feed chickens. You did not have that many targets that you had to "fix" or provide better technologies for. In Florida, we have 300 crops that are over $10 million each. It's the second largest industry in the state, but it very much pits agriculture against tourism, which is the number one industry in the state. So, the tourists are here because we have clean water, whether it's the springs or our coastal areas, they come not just for Disney, they primarily come for the beaches, and we've pitted the agricultural community against the tourism industry in the state, the number one and number two industries. I don't want to call it a battle because everyone wants an amiable solution to that, but it's a huge issue for Florida and one that I have said over and over again, I am confident that we can solve this problem, not because I know the way forward necessarily, there are some glimmers of how we're going to get forward, but because we don't have any choice.

We've got to figure out a way for this and one of the things that I think is going to help more than anything else, where we in Florida are leading the way in artificial intelligence, particularly is going to help make this possible it's called ecosystem services. So farmers, one of the things they do for Florida is they do cleaner water. So yes, we have some areas that pollute, but most farmers in Florida actually have cleaner water coming off their farms than the water that goes onto their farms. We, not we, they provide habitat for wildlife. they manage forests and even their crop areas are managed in such a way now so that there's an abundance of wildlife. One of the most important ones is called carbon sequestration, so climate change. That is a result of enhanced CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Some of it came from agriculture when we originally plowed up our soils back in the 1800s. A lot of it comes from burning of fossil fuels, obviously. It can be a tractor, it can be a car. But agriculture has had a role in climate change and increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere that has resulted in increases in temperature.

That's been a big problem and I think in agriculture to some extent we have been an unrecognized, more significant contributor to climate change and what people talk about. So, We've been a bigger problem than most people have understood. So, we can undo it, though, so we actually become a bigger solution than most people understand, so in photosynthesis, sunlight works on chlorophyll in the plant and it takes carbon dioxide out of the air and turns it into plant material, so leaves and roots and stems and oranges. We can now manipulate the soil and manipulate the agriculture so that we can actually capture more of that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, CO2, turn it into plant material and then bury that plant material into the soil, where it then becomes part of the permanent organic matter complex of the soil.

So, it does two things. First of all, it reduces CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, has tremendous impact on climate change. But secondly, we need organic matter in soil. Without organic matter, the soil then just becomes kind of an inert rooting medium, but the soil really is a living organism. It's organic materials, it's bacteria, it's fungi, it's viruses, it's worms, it's nematodes. These are all the things that make soil healthy, and when you lose that organic matter, then the soil becomes “unhealthy” and that's when diseases of roots can take hold and insects and weeds can proliferate in those soils. So you have a lot less resiliency of those soils that don't have any organic matter in them. And so, by now using more modern technologies to grow plants and return some of that organic matter back to the soil, you can actually make the soil a whole lot healthier.

So benefits to the climate, benefits to agriculture and to the soil, and lastly, we need to pay the farmers for doing this. They shouldn't have to do it for free. They should not be cleaning their water for free. There's no one in Florida that we expect to clean water for free to create wildlife habitat. There are companies that are trying to sequester carbon out of the air using alternative methods. No one's doing that for free. Yet farmers are doing that for free now. So we need to find a way to reward our farmers for doing all of these good things for everyone. The benefits of what they do, it's 2% of the population is benefiting the other 98% of the population. So the other 98% of the population should have to pay for that. I don't know how we're going to do that, that's a political question and not everyone agrees that raising the money to do that is necessarily a good idea.

But our farmers are not making enough money right now, a lot of it is out of their control. They are providing services for free that they should be paid for and so we in IFAS are . . . we're involved in a significant effort to try to promote and ultimately find a way to monetize ecosystem services. And artificial intelligence is a way that will allow us to do that because every field is different. We can't just have one rate for wildlife conservation, for example, because every field is different, every farm is different. So how do you, for that field, how do you calculate the impact on wildlife habitat preservation, carbon sequestration, cleaning the water? And so that's a very difficult calculation that would have to be done tens of thousands of times over in Florida, and we just can't do that using a pencil and a calculator, so artificial intelligence is the way forward.

Nicci Brown: Dr. Angle, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today and thank you for your leadership and to the IFAS researchers and to our farmers as well. It's been terrific having you here.

Dr. Scott Angle: Thanks. I appreciate the opportunity.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I am your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll join us next week.

Season 2
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January 11, 2022

Season 2 Episode 2: UF is bringing a scientist to every Florida school

Students and teachers throughout Florida are learning more about scientists and their work through UF’s Scientist in Every Florida School program. Bruce MacFadden, director of the Thompson Earth Systems Institute, oversees the program and shares how the program got started and why it matters. 


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida.

I'm your host, Nicci Brown. Our guest today is Dr. Bruce MacFadden, who is director and distinguished professor at UF’s Florida Museum, among other titles.

Dr. MacFadden's research specialization is in paleontology and he is the author of more than 200 peer-reviewed scientific articles, along with numerous other achievements, including multiple grants from the National Science Foundation.
Obviously, we could talk with Dr. MacFadden about any number of fascinating subjects, but today we're going to focus on something that I believe is close to his heart — the education of future scientists and specifically the “Scientist in every Florida School” program. Bruce, thank you for joining us. It's much appreciated.

Bruce MacFadden: It's great to be here. Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little more about the Scientist in every Florida School” program and how it came about?

Bruce MacFadden: Sure. So, I'm the director of the Thompson Earth Systems Institute that was created in 2018, and the UF president challenged the UF faculty with what was called the moonshot programs just after we formed the institute. So, we submitted a proposal to develop a pilot program called a “Scientist in every Florida School,” And we were fortunate enough to be one of the projects that was funded. So, that's the origin of the project that I'd like to talk about today, the “Scientist in Every Florida School.”

Nicci Brown: So, is the program unique or are there others like it in the United States?

Bruce MacFadden: Yeah. So, there are some other programs that have similarity, but so far as I know, the “Scientist in every Florida School” is the only one that reaches out to the entire state to try to give high quality STEM instruction for teachers and students, particularly in public schools and we focus on schools that are Title 1.

Nicci Brown: What was the impetus behind the generation, aside from the fact that there was this moonshot kind of challenge issued, what are some of the challenges that might be faced by our K through 12 science teachers?

Bruce MacFadden: Well, that's a big question. Staying current with modern research discoveries that are made at places like in the University of Florida is very hard for teachers to keep up with. So, part of our institute's mission is to do a better job of communicating the research discoveries that are being made by scientists here at UF and elsewhere in Florida, with regard to what are called earth systems, which is basically an understanding of the interaction of air, water, land and life, and human impacts on those earth systems. And we wanted to make sure that we were communicating the most current knowledge about these sorts of scientific concepts throughout the state of Florida.

And what we found was that many teachers who may have gone to school a decade or so ago, really needed to have some training or additional training and professional development to make their content knowledge more current. And likewise, teachers who teach science in elementary schools, grades K through five, some of them never had much of a science-content training when they were in college. So, what we want to do is we want to reach out and we want to sort of bring up the level of the scientific research that's current to both teachers who teach science in middle and high school, but also to help elementary school teachers teach good science as well.

Nicci Brown: It's obvious this is something you're incredibly passionate about. Can you tell us a little bit more about where that passion comes from?

Bruce MacFadden: It comes from my sense that I'd like to give back to society. I've been very fortunate to have been a scientist and had I not had a very encouraging 10th grade earth science teacher when I was a student in a public high school outside New York City, I probably would not be a scientist right now. So, I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Greenstein and I'd like to give back to society. So, I want to give teachers the best opportunity for them to be successful in their professions. And one way I can do that is give back through the science and through this program.

Nicci Brown: And I've got to imagine that Florida is a terrific place to be able to apply some of those things that you learn in the classroom for our students and just taking a look with our coastline and all of these places that we have in the state.

Bruce MacFadden: All the really important things that relate to the science in our earth systems can be seen in Florida. The coastline is changing, invasive species, the predominance of hurricanes and other storms, all these things we need to know about because they affect Florida and Floridians. And the best way to better understand about what's going on now, but also to understand how we can cope with these elements in the future is through better education.

Nicci Brown: And one of the things that struck me when taking a look at the program is just how it has helped in a way that makes it easier for teachers to access this kind of information and really made it very simple for them.

Bruce MacFadden: Yeah. We have an online application portal where a teacher will say, I'd like a scientist to come in, in a month's time, and I have a curriculum on, say, coastal processes or the earth's magnetic field or invasive species. And what we do is we're a matchmaking service. We have about 750 scientists who we see if their content expertise aligns with what the teacher wants and then we put them together.

Nicci Brown: So, you match up the scientists and the teachers, but there's magic, I guess, and that's a bad word probably speaking to a scientist, but there is something special in that reaction of how you get it to a student in a way that they're going to understand.

Bruce MacFadden: It's a synergy between the scientists and the teacher. We do not have prescribed lesson plans off the shelf. What we typically do is we talk with the teacher and say, what would you like to do? In fact, the meeting that I'm going to have with the teacher this afternoon, I want to make sure that I align my presentation with what she needs. I want to basically understand that we can co-develop my visit so that it makes sense to the teacher as well as that I can provide the best kind of content.

Nicci Brown: And it seems like that's really the very special thing about the program that you're running, that it is encouraging that kind of synergistic partnership.

Bruce MacFadden: Yes. And we want it to be sustained. We do not do one-offs where we just go to a school and then that's it. We want to go to a school and establish a collaboration with teachers, and then we want the teacher to know that they can get back with us and ask us questions or invite us back into the classroom in the future. And then maybe next summer they'll want to take another professional development training session with us.

So, our goal is to form a network of sustained collaborations between scientists and teachers. And what we've found also is that the scientists get a lot out of this in terms of feeling more confident about how their communication skills are and giving back to society. So, it really is both of the partners in this are benefiting mutually in the relationship.

Nicci Brown: And in a broader sense, society is benefiting as well.

Bruce MacFadden: That's right.

Nicci Brown: One issue that was raised in a recent report by the National Science Board is the disparity between different school districts and even between schools in a way that science is taught. And I think you touched upon this a little earlier, it sounds like that's part of the true rationale behind the program.

Bruce MacFadden: It is. We want to make sure that there's a level playing field with the understanding and teaching about STEM in a larger context. But for me, it's more about earth system science so that all teachers and students can benefit from what we know about current research in this field.

Nicci Brown: I think many of us have stories about that one teacher or that one mentor who set the course for our current careers. And it also looks like this is a real crucible, if you will, to try and expose young students to entertain the idea of being scientists for the future.

Bruce MacFadden: Part of the project, the “Scientist in Every Florida School” is to send role models from diverse backgrounds into the schools — these are mostly graduate students at the University of Florida — so that the students in the schools can see that a scientist can look very different and have very different journeys. And that's what we want to let them know that if they want to be a scientist and apply themselves, they also can be a scientist. So, the role model visits are very powerful and teachers really want us to come into the classrooms virtually — now it's mostly virtual as a result of COVID, but that basically has led us to scale up and broaden our ability to reach schools throughout Florida.

Nicci Brown: Yes. Looking at the map, it sounds like you've really gotten right anywhere from the southern tip of the state right through to the north.

Bruce MacFadden: Yeah. That was intentional. We wanted to make sure that all parts of Florida were covered in our ability to reach out to them. And we now are working with about 40 counties ranging from Escambia County in Pensacola area to Duval County in Jacksonville, to Lee and Collier counties in Southwest Florida to Palm Beach, Broward in Miami, in Southeast Florida.

Nicci Brown: Thinking about the word scientist, do you think that students K through 12 really understand what it is to be a scientist?

Bruce MacFadden: I would say there's a general misconception about what a scientist looks like and it's typically an older white male. We're trying to dispel that misconception so that students can aspire to be a scientist and they might come from different backgrounds and have very different interests.

Nicci Brown: What are some of the things that you hear from teachers when they're talking about reactions from their students when they're exposed to these young scientists coming into their schools?

Bruce MacFadden: It energizes them. It makes them feel that they can identify as being a scientist themselves.

Nicci Brown: And when you hear about the kinds of ideas that they're having, do you think they make that linkage between, okay, I'm going to be a scientist and I'll do X and it will have this impact that's very tangible to my everyday life?

Bruce MacFadden: Maybe not, but they want to. So, that's why another part of what we try to do is to instill in the students and the teachers what kind of careers are available in the 21st century for these students. Because otherwise, if you're a scientist, maybe they don't know that they actually can find a job, a really good job in society and be a scientist. So, we want to also let them know that there are very interesting kinds of jobs that they could aspire to if they want to become a scientist.

Nicci Brown: So, really dispelling that person locked in the laboratory with the white coat and sitting there with beakers.

Bruce MacFadden: That used to be the traditional notion of what a scientist looks like. But I sense and, hopefully, it's changing.

Nicci Brown: So, how do schools and teachers engage in the program?

Bruce MacFadden: So, they sign up on an online request form and then we pair the scientists with the teachers. That's one way they engage with the program, but we also have teacher training or professional development. And we typically have a summer institute here at the University of Florida and each summer we have a different theme. The first year, three years ago, the theme was on the biosphere, so life on earth. And then two years ago it was on the nature of science, which is how scientists act, what is the process of science and how is it actually done? And this past July, we did our teacher professional development on the hydrosphere, also Florida water.

Nicci Brown: What about the scientist? How do they get involved?

Bruce MacFadden: Yes. So, there's an expectation of giving back to society for many scientists and actually funding agencies like the National Science Foundation, require that, in addition to doing your science, you also have to give back to society through something called broader impacts. So, we're very much, in our institute and in the program, about broader impacts. And actually, the class I just came from is a graduate course in broader impacts.

Nicci Brown: How do you measure the suitability of a scientist? I mean, there might be someone who’s like, I really want to get involved, but I'm assuming there's some kind of assessment program.

Bruce MacFadden: There certainly is. We interview every scientist to make sure and we sense about their attitudes and their communication skills, whether they would be a good match. And the other thing is, it's one thing to talk about your science in, say, an IB course in a high school, but to try to talk science to a third grader is very different. And you have to have the skills and sense of who your audience is and how to communicate with them in a way that makes sense.

Nicci Brown: So, in many ways you're really acting as a matchmaker?

Bruce MacFadden: Well, absolutely. And we have over 1,000 teachers in our database from the 42 counties and 750 scientists.

Nicci Brown: Going back to this National Science Board report, it does reiterate the fact that the U.S. lags behind most wealthy nations in STEM education. Given the national importance of STEM, has there been interest from other states in the “Scientist in Every Florida School” program?

Bruce MacFadden: One of our graduate students just wrote a paper, where he partnered with four other graduate students and early career scientists elsewhere in the United States, and wrote a position or a policy piece on that something like the “Scientist in Every Florida School” program should become a national model. But right now, we're not there yet.

Nicci Brown: Are there any steps that you've imagined that you could take to get to that point? Is there anything moving forward?

Bruce MacFadden: I'm focusing right now on Florida, which is a heavy lift because as the name says, we would like to each year put a scientist at least once in every public school in Florida and there are more than 4,000 public schools in Florida. So, we have our hands full just fulfilling that need. When we're successful there, then we can think about moving to other states. But right now, I'm totally focused on making a difference in Florida public education.

Nicci Brown: Well, I do like the “when we’re successful” definitely a positive spin on that. So, thank you very much for being our guest today. It's very much appreciated.

Bruce MacFadden: You're welcome. Thank you for having me here.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll return for our next story of innovation From Florida.

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January 4, 2022

Season 2 Episode 1: This supercomputer is a game-changer for researchers

The University of Florida is home to one of the world’s fastest supercomputers. It’s called HiPerGator and in this episode of From Florida, Erik Deumens explains how its speed and capacity is making a difference in what researchers are able to do.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where you learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

The University of Florida is home to one of the 25 fastest supercomputers in the world and today we're going to talk about how UF has differentiated itself among research universities with its investments in computing power.

Our guest today is Erik Deumens, who is the director of research computing at UF and is also a faculty member in UF's Department of Chemistry. Erik received his doctorate in computational nuclear physics from the University of Brussels in Belgium.

He has been at the forefront of numerous advances in his field — electron nuclear dynamics, ENDyne software and the Super Instruction Assembly Language approach to programming massively parallel computers — which I think in simple terms means he knows how to get a lot of computers to work together!

Welcome, Erik, it's a delight to have you here with us today.

Erik Deumens: Thank you very much for having me.

Nicci Brown: So, let's start at the beginning. What is HiPerGator? Can you give us a brief history about the vision that made it a reality on our campus?

Erik Deumens: Well, HiPerGator is now an integral part of the University of Florida and it started in 2011 when the University of Florida hired a new CIO. And he had this vision to build a much more robust, high-performance computing infrastructure. And we built a data center, which is where we now have everything on the east campus.

And we got a supercomputer. Once the data center was ready, we put in a supercomputer. Then we had a contest for the name and finally we found something that really sounded well —  HiPerGator. And it's sort of spelled in a funny way because it stands for High-Performance Gator. At the University of Florida, everything, of course, has to be Gator!

And the HiPerGator was such a good name that when we got a new version of it, that was the first one in 2013, we got a new version in 2015, we couldn't imagine coming up with a name that was as good. So that's why we just called it HiPerGator 1 and HiPerGator 2.0, and now this last year we had HiPerGator 3.0.

And then something extra happened that was even more exciting. The University of Florida under the leadership of the provost and the Board of Trustees wanted to do this big AI initiative. And one of our donors, Chris Malachowsky, who is an alumnus of the University of Florida, was convinced to donate something for a new building — the Chris Malachowsky Data Science building, which is being constructed.

And to celebrate that, he visited the campus one more time. And at that time, he asked the CIO, "I would like to see your data center." So, the CIO and I accompanied him to the data center and at that time, the data center had a big machine room and it was half full. It had HiPerGator 1 in it and HiPerGator 2.0.

And when he saw that he said, "Oh, you guys have room for a supercomputer." And somehow, he must have been thinking, although he's excited about donating to the University of Florida for a building, being a computer person, as one of the founders of NVIDIA, of course, he was very excited about computers.

And he had been thinking probably about giving the University of Florida a computer, but he didn't know that we would be sort of ready to receive it. Because if somebody gives you a $50-million machine that requires 1.6 megawatts of electricity to run, you have to have the staff and the power and the room to do it.

It's not just something like, "Oh, here it is. Here are the keys" and off you go. So that was the beginning of this massive activity in 2020. And the goal was to have everything ready by January of 2021, which we did.

So now this last year, we have been using this new machine for teaching and all kinds of interesting things. So that's the quick story of HiPerGator. And now the latest version is HiPerGator 3.0 and HiPerGator AI. HiPerGator AI is the name of the machine that Chris Malachowsky and NVIDIA donated. It was a partnership donation between Chris Malachowsky and half from the company.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. So just so that people are aware, when we say how HiPerGator is spelled, it's capital H-I, capital P-E-R, and then of course, Gator. Erik, can you help us understand what we mean when we say supercomputer? How does that relate to what we know?

Erik Deumens: A supercomputer is really a computer of supersize. Just compare it to moving gasoline. In your car, you have a gas tank. So, you're moving gas around to drive, it's like your laptop or your cell phone. And then to bring gas to gas tanks, you have the tanker trucks. But then in order to bring gasoline from one country to another, we use oil tankers and they basically have the capacity to move massive amounts of oil in one transition, whereas if you wanted to do that with little boats or trucks or train tanks, then it would take a lot longer and it would be more complicated. So, a supercomputer is some computer that has the capability to process massive amounts of data in a reasonably short time.

Nicci Brown: So again, it sounds like it's the capacity we have, but also the speed which is such a key factor here.

Erik Deumens: Yes, that is very important. So, the supercomputer is sized so that it can handle massive amounts of data and bring a result in a short amount of time. If you wanted to do this with regular computers or by human effort, to process that same amount of data would take so long that it's no longer useful. Just think of predicting the weather. People could look at and do all of  the calculations by hand and then they would be able to say, "Okay, here's the weather report for... Oh, well, actually, that's now a year ago because it took us a year to do the calculation." That is not useful.

Nicci Brown: Can you take us behind the curtain a little bit and tell us what actually the staff does when they're working with HiPerGator?

Erik Deumens: Yeah. So, the research computing team at the University of Florida consists of two types of people. We have one group and they're called the system-facing people. And they're the ones who care and feed the machine, make sure that everything is working, that it doesn't overheat, that the software is working. And then there's the researcher-facing people. And they are the people who help the researchers get their problem done.

And we do all kinds of tasks from answering simple questions, "Well, I'm trying to find this file and I cannot find it" or "I run this software and it immediately dies." And then we give them a training session or we have some documentation all the way from, "Well, I have this question about how I've been trying to find a particular pattern in this data. How do I go about it?"

And then we provide something that's more like a consulting service where we help them define the question, what is available software that they might possibly use and then guide them through the steps of setting it up, provide some training and let them be successful in answering their scientific question.

Nicci Brown: So earlier this year, HiPerGator was named one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 3 worldwide for higher education. Who gave this recognition? Who are the people who can say this is what it is?

Erik Deumens: Well, there is something called the Top 500 list of supercomputers and it was created in 1989 or something. And it's actually associated with the International Conference of Supercomputing that has been held also since that time. So, the way this works is there is a particular computational benchmark that you have to run. And then that gives you a particular speed. It's sort of like running the marathon and the one who does it the fastest, that's how you rank.

So the Top 500 computers are listed like that. And Supercomputing ’21 was in June, and that's where HiPerGator was listed as No. 22 of the fastest supercomputers in the world. But it includes everything. It includes industry computers, education, research labs. So that's where we then look and say, well, if you look at only universities, then you get to these numbers that you just mentioned.

Nicci Brown: So, I think it's fair to say that having a computer with this level of power is a game-changer for a research university. Can you explain in everyday terms just how powerful HiPerGator is? How does it compare to, say a regular desktop or laptop computer?

Erik Deumens: Well, I can make you a small sort of calculation of how powerful this computer is. If you look at a full length, high-definition movie, two hours, it takes about four gigabytes to store it. And then you take 2,800 of those high-definition movies and you ask it an AI relevant question, like, "Well, who are all the actors in all these movies and when do they appear, and how many roles and how many lines do they have?"

Well, then HiPerGator AI can watch all those 2,800 movies and at the end give you a report and do all of that in one second. Now, if a person wants to watch all these movies, then it would take about 700 eight-hour working days. And I know the millennials now like to watch videos at twice the speed, so they can do it in 350 eight-hour working days, but it's still a whole year compared to HiPerGator AI doing it in one second.

Nicci Brown: It's mind-blowing when you really think about it and put it that way. So, what are some of the research projects that are making use of HiPerGator's power and how is HiPerGator impacting that work?

Erik Deumens: Our vice president for research, Dr. Norton, made a Catalyst Award announcement in the summer of '20. Lots of people applied with ideas of how they could use and how AI could enhance and HiPerGator could help their particular research project. And we had 95 awards that are now working on HiPerGator AI to do their stuff. And it involves graduate students, collaborators all over the world and all led by faculty at the University of Florida.

Some examples are precision medicine, like in dentistry. One of the things that people are interested in is if you want to put an implant, it's very important to very accurately place the hole where you're going to drill that screw. And if that is too close to this little channel in the jaw where the nerve is, then you're going to have constant toothache. So, it's very important. And now this is done by looking at X-rays with people. So, one of the projects would be, “Can we use AI and its image recognition to make that more precise” so that we can make sure that people don't end up with a permanent toothache?

Then there are other things, in agriculture, you basically are trying to find canker. Canker is a big industrial impact to the state of Florida. It's obvious if you take satellite pictures or drone pictures or air pictures, if half of your crop is gone and all the trees are turning a brown color or something, then of course, yeah, it's bad, but then it's usually too late. What you want is you want to see that it's happening in a small location. And that's, again, where AI can look at these thousands of images that come from the satellites and you take drone pictures and you mix them all together just trying to get more and more information — something that humans could not do in a timely manner — and then give a report to the farmers. So those are just two examples and then there's everything in between from engineering and so it's way too long. I could talk for hours about it.

Nicci Brown: Well, it is incredible when you think about just how much AI is integrated across our world and can be integrated across so many different areas. And we know that the University of Florida is engaged in trying to do this across the curriculum so that every student, no matter what their field of study, has some kind of exposure to this technology and how it's transforming our world. So as part of this initiative, we've been hiring a lot of faculty, I think 100 AI faculty, and more than half are on board already, I believe. So, I would imagine the opportunity to be able to engage and use HiPerGator is a huge draw for these faculty members as well.

Erik Deumens: Actually, yes, it is and also it is very impressive. As a matter of fact, this afternoon, I am going to give a tour to a faculty candidate and the dean of the College of Dentistry to show them HiPerGator. And in the past months when we were hiring all these people, I've given many tours to show what our capability is. And as you said, it is a big attraction. There are lots of people who come here because they read about it. And then when they see the infrastructure, it's like, "Well, this is where I can make my research dreams come true because the infrastructure's there, the tools are there." Yes, it's very exciting.

Nicci Brown: And UF is also providing researchers at other institutions with access to HiPerGator. And these include institutions in the Inclusive Engineering Consortium, the entire state university system.

Erik Deumens: Yes, that is correct. So most, if not all, of the universities in the state of Florida are already working with some of their faculty on HiPerGator.

Nicci Brown: Are there other reasons why we're engaging in these partnerships?

Erik Deumens: Well, it's basically the vision of our provost and the Board of Trustees and the governor of making sure that we are creating and training the next generation of citizens that are aware of AI is important.

So, it's mostly focused on teaching and then enabling research, but it's highly focused on making sure that everybody in the country can learn about what is AI, what can it do. Even if you are not going to be a computer science person looking at the nitty-gritty details of AI, you still need to know what are the dangers of AI, how does it work.

Nicci Brown: So how would that benefit Florida? What are some examples that an everyday person living at home in Florida, what are the tangibles that they're going to get out of this?

Erik Deumens: One of the things is that we want to be an attractive place for people to come. And if somebody has an idea … everybody is convinced that this whole AI will generate a lot of startup companies, the University of Florida is very good at nurturing startup companies. So, if people have an idea, then we can help make it into something that turns into a product or a service. And with HiPerGator AI here, people will want to come here and interact with other people who are doing the same thing. So, it'll be good for the economy. It'll create jobs and put the name and fame of the state of Florida out there everywhere.

Nicci Brown: Well, that sounds like a wonderful note to end on. Thank you so much for being our guest today. It's been terrific to have you here.

Erik Deumens: Thank you very much for having me.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. And I hope you'll return for our next story of innovation from Florida.

Season 1
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December 21, 2021

Episode 15: Untangling the knots in the supply chain

Disruptions in the supply chain have impacted consumers’ ability to get a wide range of products, from couches to milk. Asoo Vakharia, the McClatchy professor and director of the Supply Chain Management Center in UF’s Warrington College of Business, explains what’s happening, what consumers can do and what companies should do in this episode of From Florida. 


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Today, we are going to talk about something that is affecting so many of us in ways we never even considered: the disruption of the supply chain, both globally and nationally. We're joined by Professor Asoo Vakharia, the McClatchy Professor and Director of the Supply Chain Center in UF's Warrington College of Business. Asoo also is a fellow of the Decision Sciences Institute and the Production and Operations Management Society. Asoo, thank you for joining us.

Asoo Vakharia: You're welcome, Nicci. Thank you for inviting me.

Nicci Brown: I think it's fair to say that many of us never gave the supply chain a second thought, that is until the past year when long waits developed for major products, such as refrigerators and couches and even simple things like grocery items became harder to get. So, let's start with the basics. What is the supply chain?

Asoo Vakharia: To understand it, perhaps taking the example of a product, milk, we all use on a regular basis might be helpful. So, I tend to think of a supply chain as three different positions that are occupied before we get the product. The first position is who produces it. And in this case, it's farms, and there are about 50,000 farms in the United States producing milk. All right. These farms store the milk for at most 48 hours. And then it's put on trucks to be sent to, I guess, processing centers. That's where the homogenization as well as pasteurization takes place.

And then once that's complete, then it's sent again on trucks to, maybe, a distribution center, or a Publix distribution center in Jacksonville or maybe directly to Publix's retail outlet. All of this actually is really interesting to observe because it's supposed to happen in about two and a half days after the milk is produced. So that, in a nutshell, is the supply chain. We've got the source, the farms, we've the processing stage where we homogenize milk and pasteurize it, and then we got the retail outlet, which is the place where we go ahead and buy it.

Nicci Brown: Is it accurate to say the pandemic set off supply chain disruptions or was this a problem simmering out there before March 2020?

Asoo Vakharia: This is a really interesting question because when you say the pandemic set off disruptions. Yes, it did. That's a short answer, but anything can set off a disruption. And disruptions are a way of life. If I'm a supply chain manager, I'm a supply chain operator, whatever pain point I'm at, even a consumer, disruptions are faced by us all the time. I mean, we saw this with the great toilet paper shortage maybe around March of last year or April of last year. So, I think this is happening all the time. What's unusual about the pandemic is three or four things. One is it was the scale effect was significantly higher. So, what happened was demand dropped so quickly and at such a high volume that it created a problem for us. The second thing was that over and above the demand stage, everybody sort of shut down.

So, we had what's going to be known today to us as The Great Resignation, which is actually a great reduction in employment. The second part is most of this got impacted on an international scale. So, it wasn't limited to a region of the world where we could deal with it in that region. It happened everywhere. The third thing is we don't know when it's going to end, okay, because I think there's this recurrence that's taking place in terms of the Delta and the Omicron [variants]. So, I don't know that the pandemic is over. And finally, is it going to reoccur frequently because if it is, then we have this issue about dealing with problems of this type over and over again. So again, the short answer, yes, the pandemic caused a disruption, but it's part of a supply chain is encountering disruption. The scale here was significantly bigger.

Nicci Brown: And I'm guessing that the shortages of workers and materials is a bigger factor in the disruption of the national supply chain, especially food items and household goods.

Asoo Vakharia: Yeah, I would tend to agree with that to some extent because there is the sort of notion that everything within the country shut down. But if you actually take the global footprint of a supply chain, this was something that everybody also shut down. It wasn't only us. So, when we say shortage of material, shortage of this, that. Yes, but it's part of this entire supply chain which we expanded on a global basis. And so that's why this whole thing is being felt by us and every part of the world. It's not only the United States. It's just that we are paying a lot more attention to it.

Nicci Brown: So, let's focus on the global picture. Would you give us an overview of the major ports in the United States and where they are and who runs them?

Asoo Vakharia: Yeah, I think the very simple way of looking at that is just do a very quick scan of all the imports that come into the United States. And you'll see that approximately 20% are coming in from Asia and they are downloaded at LA. So that's the big port, right, in terms of scale. I think 20% of the entire volume in the U.S. is LA. The second big one is Long Beach, again, because the shipment is from Asia. It's about 13% of the total volume in the country. Both of these ports are run by the local city councils or the municipalities that are involved. So, there is very localized control here.

Now, if you go down the list, there are lots of smaller ports that emerge, okay. For example, New York/New Jersey is one, Houston is another, there is even Brunswick and Savannah, which are ports, but the scale effects compared to the imports coming in on the California side, which is LA and Long Beach, is significantly smaller, okay. Across the nation, it appears that there is local control or, for example, state control. So, for example, the Port Authority of New York, there's the Port Authority of Georgia and things like that. So those are the ones that control the ports. It's not federal control at all.

Nicci Brown: Is there anything the federal government can do to have a significant impact?

Asoo Vakharia: I think actually they've done what they can, but here is a problem that you encounter in most of these situations. You have a federal government which is probably trying to look at the collective good. Municipalities, ports, everything when it's run at the local and state level, there is an essential conundrum that emerges, which is that the collective wisdom of the federal government, which is looking at the collective country as a whole, is not sort of manifested at the local level. So, there is always going to be this tug of war. And yeah, sure. I mean, we did start to enforce a mandate that they should be open 24/7. But coupled with that, there were some other effects that happened. So, it's not exactly the federal government not doing things but there is a difference in terms of how whatever they do will be received by the local authorities.

Nicci Brown: And what were those other effects? Why didn't the 24/7 work the way that it was supposed to?

Asoo Vakharia: Yeah, I think if you look at it from another perspective, it's the following. I try to think about this whole thing, and I talk about this in all my discussions with the execs and as well as my classes, think about a kitchen sink, okay. You have the inflows of the tap and you have the outflows of the drain, right. By doing the 24/7, all we did was we took that drain, which was maybe 18 or 12, made it 24/7, so it'd make it larger. So, the water that came into the sink from the tap is being processed faster, right.

Now, we didn't think about two things when we did that. One was, is there any change in terms of this magnitude of stuff coming in, that means the tap. How much have you opened it? And we kept opening it more and more and more. So, the water level actually didn't drop when you opened the drain. The second part is when you open the drain, at the bottom, there is a pipe. Now if that pipe is not expanded, right, simultaneously, the effects are going to be felt at the pipe now.

So essentially, we call it shifting bottlenecks. We have the drain at the bottleneck. We expanded the size and what happened was the pipe at the bottom, got to be the bottleneck. So, it's not that it didn't work. Of course, it worked. But now we've got containers on shore, which are lying to be picked up and all the ports are leaving these huge charges if people don't pick up the containers.

Nicci Brown: So, let's talk about Florida. How do Florida's ports fit into the nation’s supply chain infrastructure?

Asoo Vakharia: Yeah, I think this is a really interesting question and I'm glad that we are talking about it a little bit because there's two things here that we should keep in mind. One is that when we discuss issues about Florida ports, first of all, from U.S. level, we're apart 5% of the total volume currently. So obviously we can always make the case saying, "Oh, we can have more capacity these ports." Now, what does more capacity mean? We need to have longshore people loading and unloading all the stuff that comes in.

We need to have an infrastructure which is a rail or trucks, which are going to visit these ports and take the goods of away from them because otherwise we're going to do the same thing we did in Long Beach, which is boats are going to be out there, we want to unload them, we do and then we have this huge set of warehouses where all the containers lie.

So, I think when you think about these types of issues, it's a little bit more complicated than it really appears to be — "Oh, we have capacity. Let's use it” — right, which is really the rationale that's being put forward. The other two parts here is that people might not be familiar with this, but most of the shipments are coming on what we call Ultra Large Vessels. These Ultra Large Vessels are about 14,501 TEUs (twenty foot equivalent unit) and above. Some of the ports on the Florida's side might not be able to handle those vessels. The second thing is to get them to Florida, you got to go through the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal does not handle Ultra Large Vessels. They handle Neopanamax and lower.

So, the idea is that you have to have smaller vessels coming in. If you have smaller vessels coming in the cost is higher. The third thing is if you don't have the infrastructure, how do we actually manage those ports? So, I think it's a very deep issue that you need to think about and try to entertain all the solutions to it before you suggest it as, I guess, a policy.

Nicci Brown: So, it sounds like it's not anything that could happen overnight, per se, but what about looking further into the future?

Asoo Vakharia: Yeah, I think further into the future, actually, there's a unique solution that I don't know if, you know, it's just come out in the last five or six days or has been publicized in the last five or six days. The unique solution of the following. Amazon is a case in point. What they did is they actually went out and bought a lot of small vessels. They're shipping their whole products to over 42 centers in the U.S., not the two ports only. The second thing is because they have their own vessels and they're smaller, they can navigate the canal, they can get other places. And the idea is, costs are higher but at this point, the idea is to get the product to the people who want it. So, people seem to be willing to bear the costs, right? So, if you do this far-reaching analysis or thoughtful analysis at a more strategic level where you think about things in advance, they've done that in advance.

So now they're not facing the short. For example, they say that their shortage percentage jumped 15%, but the shortage originally were only about 1.5%. So, when you say 15% increase is not a significant percentage of that total volume. So, companies need to motivate this effort. We can have a simple solution. I mean, Walmart and Costco actually have jumped into the same process. So, we have examples of companies that are trying to do this and use the smaller ports as service points.

Nicci Brown: Do you think in a way, that's why we ended up, I mean, we had the perfect storm of the pandemic. But it seems that we had really gotten to the point where we had gotten so close to the bone in terms of not being able to stretch anything any further. So we were primed to be in this position and so now if we can avoid it in the future, it might mean having a little more padding in that supply chain.

Asoo Vakharia: Yeah, absolutely. We call it building flexibility in the supply chain, making it more agile to respond to stuff. Technical terminology or whatever supply chain terminology. But the idea is that building in flexibility and building in additional slack or capacity indirectly is obviously warranted. But think about the shortage we have, for example, in trucking today. We don't have enough drivers. The containers that are offloaded and they're empty, they don't know where to put them.

So, the whole point is that, we are going to have these disruptions occur. The amount of padding that we build in will just drive our costs up, right, because, eventually somebody has to bear the cost. And the idea is that usually it's the consumer that everything is passed down to — not always the right thing to do, but that's what happens, right? So, if we do that, absolutely. But on the other hand, we got so used to certain products costing so little that now all of a sudden if you have to pay more, I wonder what our reactions are going to be. So, unless there's a change in consumption patterns, I don't see this building capacity or flexibility as a solution.

Nicci Brown: What does the picture look like then in the months and even years ahead, based on your experience?

Asoo Vakharia: Yeah, I think that we can do several things and I think some of the stuff that we do is actually very much reasonable. I think the managers, if you look at most of the people, the executives that are running most of the companies, you'll see a marked shift over the last 10 years. About 30, 35% of them said disruption is the major issue. Today, it's almost 75 to 80% say "That's my major, major issue." Right? So, there's a mindset change. Other changes mindset changes in terms of technology. So, bringing technology to bear in some of these methods and implementation the supply chains, I think will probably have the positive impact for us going forward.

Like I keep saying, I don't want to go on to Amazon and so on, but even Walmart today recognized the shift in online buying that took place because of the pandemic. And they've seen that the shift is not going back. So, it's not like we are going to start going more to the store. It's just that we go to the store, maybe, but we will still continue buying online. So, trends like that are hard to, in some sense, go against the grain. I think the pandemic has changed a life set, and it's going to be a little time before we all can adapt to the new way to doing things and how best to serve a customer.

Nicci Brown: Well, speaking of time, when do you anticipate, or when can consumers anticipate an end to the supply chain issues that we're experiencing right now?

Asoo Vakharia: You’re going to put me out of a job if I have to respond to that question! I told you supply chain disruption is a way of life. So, I don't think we can have an end. We can have definitely an end to this current disruption that's happening and that's simply by recognizing that just because we handled one bottleneck, like the ports, operating them, there's going to be another one that comes up. So, we have this phenomenon of what we call shifting bottlenecks and that's going to keep happening. So, until everything stabilizes to the new surge in demand that's taking place, this is not going to be resolved.

And if you say timeline, it depends on the goods and the products. But I think that for certain product categories, for example, electronics, the ones that use the chips especially, is going to take a little bit longer because we are trying to build up the infrastructure locally to make those things. In fact, the federal government is making investments in that sector so that we have local capacity. Well, that's going to take a little while to pay off. So, it might even be the middle of next year. I think the most immediate stuff, we talk about toys all the time, we talk about stuff in the grocery stores, I don't see that as a major thing extending beyond February of next year simply because the demand will go down after the Christmas season. And so everything will get to a stable level. And then people will start planning ahead from February to the next year's December. And that lead time is enough for the supply chain to react and stabilize. So, I think that's the way I'm thinking about it.

Nicci Brown: And it sounds like even though there might be a little more diversification in terms of where we get things from, you don't see a huge shift in terms of us no longer bringing things in from global suppliers.

Asoo Vakharia: I think if it's left up to the people who manage the corporations, the companies and so on, there are very good reasons why we've gone international. It's not that in some sense it was a half-baked decision that, "Oh, we wanted to minimize, we already get something for 10 cents versus 15 cents." I think it was a very measured response. And I think it happened over time. So, I don't think you can correct for that immediately.

There is the idea of what we call insourcing now versus outsourcing, so basically getting stuff from closer. So, what we might do is the buffers or flexibility that you talked about building in earlier, we might build that in some location, which is much closer to where the customer is, right? But that's the real change that I see in the longer run. I don't see these supply chains disintegrating or new ones emerging. Of course, there are certain regions of the world that are so badly affected that they might suffer for a longer period of time than we have or we will.

Nicci Brown: And your advice to consumers, anything that you would share with us?

Asoo Vakharia: So, this is always hard to say. And I think that I don't know how to best put it, but I'll give you a couple of things. We've done this before, we are in this together. Let's not get on this bandwagon of, "I want this, I want that." Let's moderate our wants a little bit. Let's think logically. Let's realize that we can't solve the problem by ourselves. And please, please, please, don't go and do this toilet paper shortage for us again. I mean, just curtail your impulses and be a little bit thoughtful.

The second thing is yes, you will pay higher prices. But the part about high prices is I just read today, in fact, that a lot of corporations in 2022 are going to pay us higher wages. So, I know people say inflation, but wait a minute. If people are going to be back to the status quo in terms of the net effect, it's not too bad. Our incomes have gone up and costs have gone up, so, okay, we'll manage that.

And the third thing for consumers is look for deals continuously. There is lots of opportunity out there. People are offering stuff at good prices and maybe you won't get the brand you want, but you'll get a good brand. So, in terms of moderating what we do.

I wanted to end a little bit not with the consumer so much, but with the companies. If you think about what should we expect and what should people do. I think companies need to be a little bit careful here because the idea of a container from China to a port in the U.S. being $1,200 at one time and now costing $20,000. The idea that Maersk, which is the biggest shipping line in the world, is making exorbitant profits just on that big margin jump, is a little disappointing to see, to be totally honest.

To me, it looks like when we have a shortage of gas, the gas stations raise the prices to gouge us. So, I just would like the corporations to be a little hesitant. I think the best examples are, actually, if you look at pricing schemes and stuff, Walmart's gone up about 22%, Amazon about 25%. I think those are maybe some things that consumers can bear. But anything like what we've seen in the shipping lines is enormous. That level of profit — be a little bit thoughtful.

The second thing is, remember consumers have long memories and they will reward people who have a little bit recognition of our conditions, too. And finally, don’t do things short term. This financial return, I have to get a better return for my shareholders and stuff. Just be a little bit longer term and I think you'll come out ahead overall.

Nicci Brown: Great advice. Asoo, thank you so much for being our guest today.

Asoo Vakharia: You're welcome and thank you for inviting me.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll return for our next story of Innovation from Florida.

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December 14, 2021

Episode 14: Sharing photos of your kids online? Here’s what you should consider.

Today’s parents are the first to raise children alongside social media and this generation of children is the first to grow up constantly “shared” online. Stacey Steinberg, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law is an expert on “sharenting” and the intersection of parents’ and children’s rights in the online world.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Today I'm delighted to welcome Stacey Steinberg to the podcast to share her research on an issue of concern to many parents — how to protect the privacy and safety of their children online.

Stacey is a professor at the Levin College of Law and oversees the Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic and the Center on Children and Families. She is an expert in “sharenting,” where a parent’s right to share online and the child's interest in privacy intersect. In addition, Stacey is the author of Growing Up Shared: How Parents Can Share Smarter on Social Media and What You Can Do To Keep Your Family Safe In A No-Privacy World.

We obviously have a lot to talk about on this subject, so let's get started. Hello Stacey!

Stacey Steinberg: Hi, thank you so much for having me here today.

Nicci Brown: It's terrific to have you. So let's start with how you became interested in children's use of and safety on social media. What was the catalyst?

Stacey Steinberg: I think it was a perfect combination of my love of photography. It's my hobby, my expertise and my research as a children's rights attorney, and the reality that I'm a mom of three kids trying to figure this out on my own. I started writing about my experience as a mom, right around the same time that I shifted from being a child abuse prosecutor to being a law professor. And I was writing about the mundane and the daily, all the things that go along with motherhood and work motherhood.

And I started to feel that what I was sharing online about my kids could cause them harm, but I didn't really know what that harm would be or how. I just knew from my time in the courtroom, that the decisions we make as adults can often impact our kids. And sometimes in ways that we don't understand until many years later.

So much of the attention that I was hearing focused on online sharing really focused on what kids were doing and the mistakes kids were making online. There was very little attention and very little guidance focused on parents and what parents were doing and how they could better protect their children's privacy online. So, I dip my toe on the water really to try to solve a problem. I was experiencing in my own family. I had no idea that it would make such a splash, that it would help or at least start a conversation for families around the world.

Nicci Brown: And we are in an unprecedented era when it comes to children's engagement with screens and the use of social media. Can you set the stage for us with your perspective on that particular aspect of what we're experiencing?

Stacey Steinberg: Certainly. We are the first generation of parents to raise kids alongside social media and our kids are the first generation to grow up shared. There's so much information that's out there online about kids that other people are sharing about them, whether it's schools, organizations or parents. And then as kids get older, they're also sharing a lot of information about themselves. We know that machine learning and artificial intelligence is often used to collect and collate information about people.

And so we're in, as you said, an unprecedented era of information collection and information sharing, and we really don't know how all of this will affect this next generation as they come of age alongside social media with digital footprints, partially of their own making, but often digital footprints that others have made for them.

Our experiences as adults who were once children don't really translate well in this social media minefield. My experiences in the school lunchroom, for example, are very different than my child's experience trying to navigate social situations on Snapchat. And the way that our kids interact with others has just changed so much. I really don't know what the long-term impacts will be. I imagine there will be a lot of drawbacks, but I think there will also be some benefits to our connectivity that we're experiencing now. And one thing that I really want to encourage families to do is not to fear the technology, but to try to learn about it.

When I did this work, I was always . . .  really got a chuckle when I think about other areas where we've seen new technology develop and the instant reaction has been fear, only later to learn that there are so many benefits. Even Plato once was afraid of the devastation and the danger of so much writing that would be taking place and thought that writing could actually harm young minds. So, my perspective on this is that we really need to look at this carefully, to not rush to judgment and to invite children into the conversation as they get older because really this issue is going to affect them a lot more than it will affect us.

Nicci Brown: And I think part of what you're saying, too, is an intentionality when it comes to the way that we do share things and really thinking about it. Because I recall sometimes as a journalist asking parents if we can share the photograph that we might take of a child or getting permission slips, but then when it's our children, we don't give it a second thought.

Stacey Steinberg: Yeah, exactly. I've always been very intentional with my work when I take pictures of other people's kids, when I was doing pictures for UF Health and for families there. Even when I was a prosecutor and there were stories or information that families needed me to share with the court or with others, always making sure that it was the right thing to do. the right way to tell it, with everyone's blessings.

But my own family was very different. I became a photographer when my second child was about a year old and my role of memory-keeper and memory-revealer were constantly in flux. I was sharing my way through motherhood without a care in the digital cloud only to one day wake up and realize that I had done a lot without thinking about it and realizing that unless I stopped and paused, I really was creating potentially real issues for my kids growing up.

It's funny, a lot of people call me an expert in sharenting, but I'm really doing this alongside all of the other families trying to figure it out. And the things that I thought I knew when I started this research — even the things that I believed I knew after I wrote my first academic paper — it’s constantly changing and growing as I see how social media impacts our family.

Nicci Brown: What about the pandemic? How do you think this has impacted how families are using social media?

Stacey Steinberg: Well, when we went into lockdown and social distancing became the norm, families still needed ways to stay socially connected, and social media really filled that role for a lot of families. It was where families would go to, to see how friends were doing, even friends down the street that they could no longer see, just like they were seeing family across seas and how the pandemic was facing families there.

I even saw schools using social media to stay connected with kids. A lot of my kids' teachers would have different Facebook groups where the kids would be able to stay in touch. I also had to start thinking about my own kids and how much social media I wanted them to have access to because before the pandemic, I really wanted to keep them away from it — probably a lot of other families did as well. But when the pandemic hit, and that was the way that they could communicate with their friends, like through Facebook messenger, I had to lean in a little bit and consider that maybe social media could really play a helpful role during a time of social distancing.

Nicci Brown: So, it really is about balance?

Stacey Steinberg: Absolutely.

Nicci Brown: What are some of those concerns, though? The dangers? I mean, as parents, we all want to post those cute photos of our children, and I'm definitely guilty as charged, but should we?

Stacey Steinberg: Well, I think for every family the answer's going to be different. I can tell you what the risks are and then I'll tell you a little bit about why it's hard to weigh these risks against the benefits. We know that there are risks that data brokers are collecting the information that we're sharing about ourselves, and it's likely they can collect the information that we're sharing about our kids as well. There's a Barclays study out that says that by the year 2030, almost two-thirds of all identity theft cases will be related to what parents are sharing online about their kids.

Just think about all the safety mechanisms that we've used in our passwords — our pet's first name or our mother's maiden name. A lot of that information is now readily available for this next generation.

We also know that pedophiles take advantage of what families share and can be saving those pictures and using them for bad purposes. A startling statistic that I heard when I started my work was that the Australian eSafety commissioner had said that 50%, five-zero, 50% of all images on pedophile image-sharing sites had originated on family blogs and on social media. And these weren't pictures of children nude. They were pictures of kids doing everyday activities, but they were being targeted by pedophiles and collected and then being used for bad purposes.

So, we know that there are these real, tangible risks out there, but we don't really know how to measure these risks yet. We don't know how common these occurrences are as far as academic studies that have faced strong methodology. These are studies that we've seen anecdotally by private corporations or sometimes by governments outside of the United States. So, I would love to see more research right here at home that really helps us understand how common these risks are to our families.

I've really focused on some of the less tangible risks that I think are also very important and much easier for me to measure as a parent. The importance of modeling appropriate social media behavior, for example. If we want our teenagers to get to an age where they take pictures of other people, only when they ask first, and they only share pictures of others when they have permission from that other person. Well, the only way we're going to teach them to do that is by modeling it at home. If I want my 15-year-old son to practice good social media etiquette, I could tell him all day long what I think he should do. But if I show him by respecting his views on what's shared about him, I think that I can go a lot further than just telling him why it's important.

I also think that we spend a lot of time stuck in our newsfeeds, spending time being connected to our devices instead of living in the moment that we're in. When I was on a school field trip, for example, I saw all the fourth graders pull out their recording devices to try to record the lecture that the guest speaker was giving. We were in St. Augustine and I just remember this beautiful site that we were at and all this helpful information we were receiving, but all the kids were really experiencing it through their screens.

Nicci Brown: And these were fourth graders?

Stacey Steinberg: Yeah, these were fourth graders! And I think that it's a danger that we’re not staying in the moment, that we’re escaping to our newsfeed or that we're constantly posting and seeing who's liked our images and liked what we've said instead of focusing on real connections with the people in front of us.

Also, a lot of times when we share all this information, people who are friends to us are still strangers to our kids. And so when our kids interact with people, say at the grocery store, and they say, "Oh my goodness, I saw you hit the home run at the baseball game." It might be confusing for a child because we've taught them about perhaps the risks of stranger-dangers, or we've taught them about privacy. But then when people that they don't know come up to them and know a lot about them, I think that it raises some red flags and it could create some issues for families.

Lastly, I think one of the areas that I've seen in my own life, really applies to me so much, is that when we're constantly documenting something, in some ways we're rewriting the memories that we have of it.

Even when I went to give my Ted Talk in Vienna last month, I remember I was up on stage giving my rehearsal. I was giving a rehearsal of the event and there was a speaking coach there. And when I got off the stage, she had told me I had done a really nice job and I was excited. But then my husband showed me the recording that he made of me up on that stage. And all of a sudden, I didn't feel as empowered as I felt when I first stepped off the stage. Instead, I was second-guessing my choice of attire or the way my voice sounded because of this recording, instead of just enjoying the memory that I had from actually being on the stage.

I want our kids to be able to grow up remembering experiences from their perspectives. I want my daughter to remember the first time she went to Disney World on her own terms, not by the edited and curated view that I chose to post on my newsfeed that she goes back and looks at one day.

Nicci Brown: That's a really important point. You know, this balance that you mentioned earlier of parents modeling, but also acting as hall monitors in a way for their children when they are online. Can you tell us more, though? What about the role that you think tech companies should have in this whole dynamic?

Stacey Steinberg: That's a great question. And I think we're seeing overseas a lot of pressure being placed on tech companies to be more responsible. And we're seeing here at home, we're starting to see some congressional hearings on it. I think that there's actually congressional hearings happening this week on protecting kids online. It's called “Instagram and Reforms for Youth Users.”

So, we're starting to see that there's some societal accountability being placed on tech companies. And I've been skeptical about how companies have been doing. I haven't been thinking that companies had been doing a very good job trying to protect kids. Every now and then I see a glimmer of hope though. And I'd be happy to tell you about that glimmer of hope that I've seen instead of telling you about all the things I wish tech companies would do that they aren't doing right now.

Nicci Brown: Always happy to hear hopeful things, so go for it.

Stacey Steinberg: Sure. When parents share about kids online, or when schools share about kids online, they're creating obviously these digital footprints about kids. And so when kids get older and someone searches their name on Google, it's likely that the information shared about them during childhood is going to rise to the top. And so, unlike you and I who kind of defined ourselves online on our own terms, a lot of kids don't really have that benefit right now.

In Europe, there is a concept called the “right to be forgotten,” which is actually a century-old doctrine that says that after information is no longer relevant to a person's reputation or to a person's name, that they have a right, basically, to have society forget about it. And in the context of internet sharing in Europe, there was a case that held that the right to be forgotten did apply on Google.

There was a man who had a lot of bad business dealings in the ’90s. He got his business affairs in order later on, but every time someone searched for his name on Google, those bad business dealings, the articles reporting on it, would rise to the top. And he was actually able to convince a court that Google had to basically delete the connection to his name and those news articles.

The news articles still exist on the newspaper websites, but those results are no longer coming up when somebody searches his name on Google. I have always advocated that we should have a right to be forgotten in the United States for what parents share online about their kids.

When I went into labor with one of my kids, I had had quesadilla the night before from a local restaurant here in town. And a bunch of my friends also went into labor right after eating at that Mexican restaurant. And so the newspaper did a story about us and this wonderful quesadilla dish that will induce labor. Well, now my poor teenager, when someone searches his name in our town, that article comes up. Luckily, he thinks it's pretty funny.

But the United States really would have a hard time creating a right to be forgotten for that article, for example, not to show up when someone searches his name because in the United States, we have really strong, free speech protections and we really value parental autonomy, which really would come into play with regards to a right to be forgotten. But Google has recently said that teens and kids should have the equivalent of a right to be forgotten and Google, a company that is not part of the government, was able to create a form . . . has a form now that parents can fill out, that older kids can fill out and ask that pictures and information about youth be removed from the internet.

I think it focuses on pictures right now, but it's a really promising step that a company is recognizing that kids have unique needs and special needs when it comes to online sharing and that they need special protections. So, I love seeing that step that Google is taking, giving kids a way to request that pictures be taking off that are shared about them when they're kids. I wish more companies would do other things that could really help protect kids online.

Nicci Brown: Well, I mean this summer Apple announced plans to release new tools that would combat child pornography on iPhones and Facebook was set to release an Instagram platform for children. And then the companies delayed the rollout of those tools and apps after experts like yourself raised concerns. So it seems the pressures are being felt by companies.

Stacey Steinberg: Yeah. I think the companies are feeling pressure to do something. And when Apple's rollout came out, when they made the announcement that they plan to release these new tools, there were a lot of concerns made about privacy and how we could balance competing interests, keeping kids safe and protecting individual privacy. And we see this in other areas of the law that these issues have come up. The newest initiative that Apple has is that it will warn kids before sending out pictures of what their artificial intelligence believes are nude images. But they'll still allow kids to send these out. And it doesn't actually alert parents that these pictures are being sent out.

There were other features that Apple had announced that are no longer happening. One is that it was going to scan pictures on individual phones and iCloud, using artificial intelligence to predict which were known images of child pornography. That release has actually been paused over privacy concerns, which has caused a lot of backlash from children's safety experts. They really wanted this to go forward, but a lot of privacy experts, separate from children's privacy experts, privacy experts generally were concerned that this sort of artificial intelligence technology could be used in ways that could actually harm people further along. So, there are now through Apple more online safety tools for kids to find, to get resources and to get help. But the announcement that all of these changes would happen was really met with a lot of backlash. And so Apple had to really retreat. And they're still, I think, trying to slowly navigate the complex waters between privacy and safety, between giving parents control of their children's information and respecting children's ability to control their information themselves.

Nicci Brown: You touched on it a little bit earlier, but what is the federal government doing in comparison to actions in other countries?

Stacey Steinberg: Well, I hate to say it, but I think the federal government in the United States is behind what a lot of other countries are doing. Europe has the GDPR, which is a personal data protection law. Its framework focuses on ideas. There's actually seven key principles of lawfulness, fairness and transparency, purpose of limitation, data minimalization, accuracy, storage limitations, integrity and confidentiality and accountability. And these seven key principles I think most of us could probably agree on are really important for personal data protection.

But in the United States, we've been slow to roll out something similar. And perhaps it's because we have a different set of rights that individuals have here that needs to be balanced against the need for privacy and safety. I would love to see us do more. And there have been a lot of really great ideas thrown out. If we could find ways to minimize the amount of data that's collected about individuals to make sure that any artificial intelligence is used responsibly and ethically, and if we could find ways that we could better protect kids' privacy and make sure that families understand what it is that they're agreeing to and allowing when their families engaged in things online.

Nicci Brown: It does sound, though, that in the end parents must decide how much to share about their children online and they'll continue to have a primary role in monitoring and measuring their children's screen time.

Stacey Steinberg: Yeah, absolutely. Ultimately we are a country that strongly values parental autonomy. And so I find that it makes more sense for us to empower parents rather than try to regulate parents in this space. And so while I'm an attorney and finding legal solutions is really what I do a lot of the time, I think that in this situation, this isn't so much about regulating parents as it is about educating parents. And I think a public health model of child protection is really the way to go. Most parents want to do what's best for their kids. They just don't always have the tools necessary to do that.

Nicci Brown: And how has your own online sharing changed as a result of your research?

Stacey Steinberg: It's changed a lot. And in some ways, it's been like a pendulum swinging back and forth. The biggest change is that I give kids veto power. My kids have the ability to tell me when they want something shared or not. And sometimes they come to me wanting me to share things. I think that what's really important in my family is that my kids know that, yes, I share because I'm proud of them, but that I'd be proud of them even if they didn't want me to share. I also think deeply about how sharing will impact them now, but also in the future and are there ways from me to minimize the digital footprint that I've left behind in their childhood?

So, I try to delete pictures after I feel like they're no longer relevant or no longer need to be online. I spend a lot of time teaching my kids to be present and in the moment, which is something I struggle with all the time myself, I absolutely struggle with it. But being honest about that challenge I think is really helpful for kids.

I certainly try really hard in my own life and with my kids online to avoid sharing overly personal information, not to shame others who share differently than myself. In any social group, there's going to be a lot of different ways that parents choose to share. I think that this is a new area, this is a novel part of child-rearing and it needs to be a central part of child-rearing discourse. So just like when we go to coffee with other parents and talk about how can we feed our kids better? How can we discipline them better? How can we make them get their homework done more efficiently? This just needs to be part of that conversation. And so I think that this is now a central part of our conversations in our family, at our dinner table and when we're out with friends as well.

Nicci Brown: Some really great advice there. Is there anything else, any other tips that you would offer to parents and ways that they can ensure their children's safety and privacy online?

Stacey Steinberg: I'd encourage parents to make talking about children's privacy, a central part of what they do around the kitchen table. This is a really important topic and I think that it's glossed over a lot in family circles and family meetings.

Number two, I would say is that as a society, we really need to push for more research, more well-informed research to help guide parental decision-making so that we can empower families to make the best choices for their families. And number three, I would say, is that as we go through this process to give ourselves some grace. We are the first generation to try to do this. We'll make mistakes along the way, but as long as we can keep moving forward, learn from those mistakes and help our kids understand that process of figuring out how to share? Why to share? When to share? I think that will be a lot better as a society.

Nicci Brown: Stacey, thank you so much for joining us today.

Stacey Steinberg: Thank you. It was so wonderful to be here.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida. I’m your host, Nicci Brown, and I’ll hope you’ll return for our next story of innovation from Florida.

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December 7, 2021

Episode 13: A conversation on the porch with Charlie Hailey

Porches are designed for social connection and for observing the world around us. In this episode of From Florida, hear what Charlie Hailey, a professor in UF’s School of Architecture, learned in his meditation on porches – a space where writers find inspiration, presidents seek solace and which present us all with a perfect perch to observe life and nature.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Our guest today is Charlie Hailey and we're going to be talking about his newest book, The Porch: Meditations on the Edge of Nature. It's a very thoughtful, provocative exploration of space, places and nature and I'm excited for Charlie to share more about his work. But first an introduction.

Charlie Hailey is a professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Florida. He has received numerous awards, including recognition as a teacher scholar of the year here at UF. He has also been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Scholarship and a Graham Foundation grant. He's a prolific writer with six books about the built environment and his research focuses on the intersection of climate, building and community and how architecture and humanity intertwine. Welcome, Charlie!

Charlie Hailey: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Nicci Brown: So, I shared a broad overview of your professional background, but it would be great if you could tell us a little more about yourself, including your affiliation with UF and your particular focus as a scholar.

Charlie Hailey: Sure. As you mentioned, I'm a professor in the School of Architecture where I've taught for 20 years now. I'm fascinated with architecture's connections with nature. I'm also intrigued by what we can learn from the edges of what we build. And I love teaching a wide range of courses. I've taught design studio courses, architecture history and theory, research methods and what we call design-build studios, which is where we actually build what the students have designed.

Nicci Brown: Can you describe a few of these and tell us where we can find these design projects?

Charlie Hailey: Sure. Working with students out in the field, we've completed more than a dozen projects over the past seven or eight years — those design-build projects that I mentioned. We worked with a town of White Springs to build a community music pavilion about an hour north of Gainesville. And there have been a few projects here in Gainesville working with nonprofits, including The Repurpose Project and the Boys & Girls Club of Gainesville. 

Nicci Brown: How do you go about that? Do you go and interview people? How does it all come together?

Charlie Hailey: So, it's interesting because we have to put it all together in a semester. So it's usually small in scope and scale. And we start by working with members of the community and then deciding what they'd like to see and what they'd like to build. Recently, we've been working in Cedar Key building a series of projects. We actually built one out on Seahorse Key, about four miles offshore. It was a stair from the Marine Lab down to the Gulf of Mexico. We also built a few small projects out in Cemetery Point Park there and one behind the Chamber of Commerce.

Nicci Brown: I've got to imagine that's tremendously gratifying for the students to see that work come together, but also it really epitomizes that land-grant institution of community and the university working together in a very balanced relationship.

Charlie Hailey: I think so. And we really value that connection that we make with the communities and since we have a series of projects, we can actually go back and see them and also maintain them over time. 

Nicci Brown: Terrific. Well, let's turn to your newest book now, The Porch, which was published earlier this year by the University of Chicago Press. It seems you've been thinking about porches for a long time. How did the idea for the book come together?

Charlie Hailey: Yeah. I've always really enjoyed living and working on porches and really any of those spaces that are somewhere between the inside and the outside. And as a kid, I used to build small structures along the river that was near my house and so I think there's a little bit of that in this project. And I get really excited when the context of research becomes the method or vehicle for that work. So I love that I could study the porch by simply being there.

Nicci Brown: So, your book has a setting, the porch of your cabin. For listeners who don't know much about the area that it's in, can you describe your cabin and the area for us?

Charlie Hailey: Sure. The Homosassa River is about 70 miles south of Gainesville. It's midway between here and Tampa. It's one of the first magnitude spring-fed rivers along the Gulf Coast, just north of Weeki Wachee, and just south of Crystal River. And the spring's head is called The Fishbowl and it's always been known as a great place to fish for both freshwater and saltwater.

It's beautifully rendered by many artists, including Winslow Homer, who did a series of watercolor paintings there. And he really captured the mix of live Oaks, Sabal palms, Cedars and marsh grass and certainly the water, the quality of the water is beautiful.

Our cabin itself is boat-access only. So it's down the river about two miles. So you really feel like you're getting away from it all when you head out there. And it was built in 1950, which makes it one of the first cabins on the river, at least boat-access cabins on the river. It's about 20-by-20 feet and the front porch spans about 10-feet deep and it faces out on the river. So you can really watch the tides come in and out. You can watch the wildlife and really get a sense of the place.

Nicci Brown: You identified four core elements that demonstrate as you say, the fundamental nature of a porch to our humanity. Would you briefly share what those are and how they work to frame your thinking about porches? 

Charlie Hailey: Sure, sure. One of the intriguing things that define the porch is the in-between. It's a place where we can be both inside and outside. It's about coming and going. It's about open and closed, here and there. And there are these wonderful paradoxes of the porch. So I came up with those four elements that include tilt, air, screen and blue.

And tilt is based on the slope of the porch. The idea that we can find a stability even in instability. And if you think about the way the porch works, it really assumes that it's going to get rained on so it sheds water really easily.

The second element, a porch wraps architecture in air and this is the place where public and private mix. It's where hosts meet guests.

And then screen maintains openness with enclosure. So the porch protects as it also exposes. I was fascinated to learn that the weave of screening material was studied right here at UF in the 1940s in an office called the Insect Wire Screening Bureau. And they found that 20 openings per inch is just about as dense as we can go without losing that connection with the outside. But it's also still wide enough to allow the no-see-ums, the biting gnats that we all know here in Florida, to get through.

Finally, blue talks about how we daydream on a porch. It's a place that mixes the actual and the imagined. One of the first things I did with the cabin’s porch was to paint the ceiling Robin’s egg blue. So not so much to ward off the insects that made it through the screen, but to really explore the restfulness of that blue-green color.

Nicci Brown: You know, I think it's fair to say that through the pandemic and some of the things we've experienced recently we've gone through a collective trauma. Did that help crystallize your thinking about porches and what you find so fascinating and important about them?

Charlie Hailey: Yeah, it really did. One of the things that I found on the porch during the pandemic was it's sort of architecture that's ready-made for social distancing and it actually ended up being a really important place that connected us during the pandemic. A lot of what I had read about porches before the pandemic was about porch pirates and about the porch as this sort of oversized Amazon delivery box, but when the pandemic hit, I think it really redefined what the porch was about. Not in a nostalgic way, but actually in a very practical way of finding new ways to connect us.

Nicci Brown: And along with those ideas is another I guess, perhaps, central theme and that is porches as muse structure, a method for tuning us to a rapidly changing climate. “A porch is an ideal place to become connected to the world around us and to gauge how our environment is changing.” And I'm quoting you there again, but what perspectives have you drawn about our climate from the vantage point of your own porch?

Charlie Hailey: Right. Well, I found that porches are essential ways to connect us with nature and also to witness the changes that are happening around us. And sometimes those are subtle and sometimes they're quite dramatic. Porches protect us from the elements, but they're also vulnerable. And they really put us on the cusp of those changes. Our cabin on the river has air conditioning, but the porch remains unconditioned. And you might say that it's even conditioned by nature. So as the temperatures rise with climate change, the porch is essentially on the move southward. You could say that the porch is moving with that changing climate and it's something like 100-feet per day, if you actually run the numbers. So by the time I finished writing the book, the porch was actually 70 miles south in Tampa.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little more about that 70 miles? It sounds pretty dramatic. 

Charlie Hailey: Yeah. It's a way that I tried to illustrate and really understand how to visualize that change in climate. Because I think sometimes we feel quite distanced from what climate change really means and how we can understand it. So for me, the porch embodied that change, by sitting on the porch and feeling that temperature change, you really essentially occupy a space that is further south over time. And 100-feet per day is not something that you could sense, but over a period of 10 years, I feel like the porch offers that connection to climate so that you could really start to sense that change that's happening.

Nicci Brown: You bring many people and their experiences into your exploration of the porch, from philosopher John Dewey, who had such an impact on education in this nation, to writers Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, James Agee, Carson McCullers and presidents — William Taft to Richard Nixon. In fact, you have a section on presidents and their use of porches. And I have to admit, I did not know about the White House's rooftop porch and I suspect I'm not alone. Could you share with us a story or two about the different ways presidents put that space to use.

Charlie Hailey: Yes, there was a sleeping porch on the roof of the White House, if you can believe it. In my research, I had found one photograph of what looked to be a temporary structure on the roof. The only information was a handwritten note, a caption, with the date 1916, attributing it to President Taft. So imagine the view in the photograph, just above the south portico of the White House. You can see the high balustrades and then next to the attic where the president's family slept is something that looks like a makeshift-tent with cables that anchor it back to the roof and screening around its edges. So I was intrigued by that photograph and I spent a week in the National Archives, kind of pulling my hair out and trying to find more information. And it was on the last day that I found a drawing kind of buried in the bottom of a drawer that showed that it was actually built in 1918. And so it was probably during the Wilson administration.

And at the time sleeping porches were strongly recommended and encouraged for health. And so you can imagine presidents weren't immune to what some people called the passing fad of sleeping porches. So I loved the idea of essentially camping on the roof of a national symbol. And then when this temporary architecture was transformed into what was called the Sun Parlor and then later the Solarium on the roof, it's where presidents’ families could relax. It was where Carolyn Kennedy went to kindergarten and Eisenhower had family barbecues.

Nicci Brown: Wow, that's fascinating. You really do take us on a trip through time with your stories and you take us from ancient Greek to modern times during this meditation on porches. So how should we think about porches today? Are we getting the most out of our porches? And what's the message you'd like to leave us with about porches?

Charlie Hailey: Yeah. During the course of the research, I mentioned the connection with the pandemic and I had found that there was a small resurgence in porches, but a lot of them aren't really being built deep enough to occupy. They're more symbols cast on the front of houses and buildings. So I was really interested in talking more about how porches are exceedingly useful and actually really important places to witness climate and also to connect with people. And I recently wrote an essay for Orion Magazine making a case for the porch and how porches might help repair our connection to the world and change our perspective from one that centers on humans to one that works from nature. So I think porches remind us to pay greater attention to the edges of what we build so that we might in turn pay greater attention to nature.

Nicci Brown: Well, it sounds like a really important way to look at things and I think our listeners would very much appreciate hearing you read a section from your book. Would you do that for us?

Charlie Hailey: Sure. I'd love to. Thank you. Thank you.

A manatee's breath drifts across the porch screen. It is a sound so delicate yet insistent that I stop breathing. I count time in the rings of smooth water that drift with the river’s current toward the ocean. I listen for the next breath but this manatee is moving fast, and its footprints blend back into the burnished roll and flicker of the river that holds its own breath between tides. The manatees are on the move this January day as Florida warms after a cold snap. What we call fire weather is what most other parts of the country think of as winter, but manatees know the subtle changes of the lower subtropics. They feel the air through water like we feel it in porches.

That was the fourth manatee I've heard in the past hour. The extraordinary can become routine, but it never gets old. Set back from the river, we don't always see them, except when we catch a black snout sending out its wake like a skidding duck or a piece of driftwood plowing the current, and except that time when a mother came into our lagoon with her calves — the littlest looked like a puppy. There's another one, louder, closer, but on a porch earshot isn't necessarily eyeshot. It rained last night, and the cedars drip like metronomes. A kingfisher calls, far enough away to mix with the gentle lapping of breeze and water on limestone. It is quiet today, but it feels like anything can happen. I hear my own breath again, waiting.

The porch where I write will soon be underwater. For seven decades it rode hurricanes and winter storms. In another seven, the sea will cover the boards where three layers of flaking paint sandpaper my bare feet. We do not complain about this reality, neither the porch’s vulnerability nor the paint’s inconstancy. In a position both privileged and ill-advised, I sit here by choice, aware of what's coming and what's at stake, saturated by a knowledge of this place and its climate — one that is constantly and dramatically changing. Here, on the porch, theory meets practice. There's the idea of a changing climate, and then there's actually witnessing its effect. Here on a porch, the unseen is inescapable, like the manatee. And the mullet who just splashed in the brackish water taut with low tide. I didn't see the fish, but I heard the dazed flump of reentry into a river saltier than it was last year, and now watch the ripples widen from this joyful leap.

In our time here, the porch’s floor has been inundated once, and nearly a second time. A fragile wrack line still clings to the porch’s concrete pile, just below the wood framing of its floor. The flecks of cedar needles, tiny bits of shell and soil, left there from this fall’s hurricane, seem trivial compared to what happened up north in Mexico Beach, but it's all part of the same thing, this living on the coast, which is really living in the coast, deeply embedded in the littoral. Not fixed in place, but held adrift between tides, floating. Like all the things that Hurricane Hermine and her seven-foot storm surge set afloat in our porch and its cabin four years ago.

When we took the boat out to the cabin the next day, the tannin-stained water was still lapping onto the porch. When my son and I stepped up onto the porch, we walked into a washing machine that had just finished its cycle, one set for heavy soil and turgid water moving this way and that. Even though no doors were ajar or windows broken, it was like someone had ransacked the place, leaving it turned in on itself. Like nature was trying to find us, trying to send a message.

When I walk out on the porch now, I instinctively check the water for signs of change. I watch and hold my breath. I am teaching myself to sit on a porch. I am learning to read what's around me. Checking for signs, I scan the water. Floating.

Nicci Brown: The book is The Porch: Meditations on the Edge of Nature. Charlie, it was a delight to have you as our guest today. Thank you so much.

Charlie Hailey: Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida where we share the stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. And I hope you'll join me for our next story of innovation From Florida.

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November 30, 2021

Episode 12: Research aims to create fairness in AI-assisted hiring systems

Professor Mo Wang of the Warrington College of Business is in the early stages of a research project looking at how to design trustworthy, transparent and fair AI-assisted hiring systems – work funded by a grant of nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation and Amazon. Wang talks about the project, why it is needed and what the team hopes to achieve in this episode of From Florida.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Today we are joined by Professor Mo Wang, the Lanzillotti-McKethan Eminent Scholar in UF’s Warrington College of Business. Dr. Wang is in the early stages of a research project about fairness in AI hiring practices, an issue that is being widely discussed across our economy and workforce.

First, a little more about Dr. Wang. His work focuses on older worker employment and retirement, occupational health psychology, human resource management and quantitative methods. In addition to his role as a professor, Dr. Wang is the director of the Human Resource Research Center and chair of the Management Department. He is the founding editor of Work, Aging and Retirement, and has authored more than 200 scholarly publications. In addition to this, Dr. Wang is the incoming president of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology for 2022-2023. Mo, thank you for joining us.

Mo Wang: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Nicci Brown: You received a grant of nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation and Amazon to study how to design trustworthy, transparent and fair AI systems to assist hiring decisions. Please tell us what you and your collaborators are looking at in your study.

Mo Wang: So, my research team, actually, we have computer scientists, we have information systems specialists, and then I am a psychologist. So what we are trying to do here is we are trying to improve the existing AI system for hiring to inject a social science perspective because so far a lot of the hiring decisions made by AI systems are designed by computer scientists. And often time their disciplinary training and also disciplinary tradition tend to pay less attention about the legal consequences and also the social evolutionary trends. So, we're trying to use this grant to inject this knowledge and then see whether we can build better system and also see whether we can actually eliminate the discrimination cases in the labor market.

Nicci Brown: So, building on that, much concern has been raised about hiring bias and AI is regarded as both a potential solution and a potential problem. So, let's start by talking about hiring bias. Can you tell us more about this problem?

Mo Wang: According to federal law, it is illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability status or genetic information. However, we know those kinds of discriminations happen on a day-to-day level. For example, in 2020 the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, they actually received 22,000 charges on the basis of race-based discrimination. And a similar amount of charges were filed on the basis of sex-based discrimination and also disability-based discrimination. So, the discrimination in hiring is actually happening pretty frequently.

Nicci Brown: And let's talk, too, about the fact that not all of this is something that people are aware that they're doing. Some of this bias is actually implicit. They don't understand that they're being biased.

Mo Wang: Yeah, exactly. So, a big chunk of it is actually implicit bias, right? So, a lot of time people actually have discriminatory actions without even realizing, right? And also, of course, there are other more explicit bias, but more and more we see the implicit bias.

Nicci Brown: And AI is seen as a potential solution to this?

Mo Wang: Yes. So, AI has been viewed as a potential solution for two reasons. First, AI has been viewed as being more objective, so removing human bias, right? Because if the AI training algorithm is used, it can be blind to demographic information. So, from the surface you can see that all the algorithm does not consider like race, gender, age in evaluating the candidate. So, that's the first reason it's viewed as a solution.

The second reason is in the AI system, the algorithm can allow the desired fairness level to be specified as a parameter. And so, what that means is as a selection model, as a prediction model, so the AI system allows to do a complex mapping from predictors to decisions that optimize accuracy while satisfying the fairness constraint. Basically this is called in recent advancement, this is called fairness-aware AI system. So, it is viewed as helping with the fairness issues.

Nicci Brown: And yet there are still concerns about structural bias in algorithms, correct?

Mo Wang: Oh, yes. So, this is actually based on our recent research on the grant. So, the first thing is, although AI can be blind to demographic information for job candidates, it may still pick up other predictors that entail bias against the minority candidates. So, for example, if an AI system capitalizes on certain predictors that are prone to bias against the minority candidates, for example, criminal background, credit history or cognitive ability tests, well, it would generate a lower scores for those minority candidates although the demographic information is not explicitly in the model.

So, the second issue is actually related to the fairness-aware AI system I just talked about. So, the fairness-awareness AI system tends to select some candidates with high expected criterion and some others who look very much like minorities to satisfy the desired fairness level. However, when the AI system does that, it tends to create different predictive functions for different group of applicants. So, for example, the majority group and the minority group, their algorithm can be very different. So, that creates a differential treatment situation and we know that's not legal. So actually, although it's a fairness-aware AI system, by using the system itself, it creates a bias in its own form.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. So, it's by basically continuing on something that's biased to start with. So, it just extends that bias, say, with those kind of cognitive tests or whatever else it may be drawing on.

Mo Wang: Mm-hmm. Yeah, exactly.

Nicci Brown: So, there's no question that more employers, though, are relying on artificial intelligence to assist in their hiring decisions. So, what does this mean for job candidates? What can they do?

Mo Wang: So, actually this is a very good question. So, although more employers will rely on AI to assist in hiring decisions because it's automated, it's more efficient, the factors that make job candidates successful in jobs are relatively stable. It doesn't change very dramatically. So, in other words, so what the employers are looking for is still largely predictable. So, as a job candidate well, today what my employer wants from me would be largely stable like in, let's say, one or two years, right? So, a good AI hiring system should still pick up those factors in assessing job candidates. Therefore, when preparing for their job applications, job candidates need to understand what knowledge, skills and abilities or work styles that they should possess to be successful to perform the jobs they're applying for.

So, such understanding can help them better emphasize those qualifications in their job applications to enhance their chance to be selected. And one thing I want to mention may be helpful is actually the Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Labor, hosts this online database called O*NET and it includes all kinds of information about jobs. So, basically when you develop your job applications, it would be good to search for that job in O*NET and find out what are the desirable levels of knowledge, skills, abilities and the work styles it require from you and emphasize that in your job application and that will enhance the chance.

Mo Wang: So, there are three things to consider when we design the AI system for hiring decisions. One is we need to minimize adverse impacts, which is we should have systems that generate the same selection ratio for majority and the minority groups. But at the same time to do that, we also need to minimize the predictive bias, which is what I was talking about. We need to avoid the differential treatment for different groups. So, they should share the same predictive function, because otherwise you are actually not using the same standard to hire people. But then at the same time, we also need to pay attention to the employer’s goal, right? So, employers want to maximize the fit between the job candidates and the job that they're hiring for. So, we also need to pay attention to that.

Our research actually shows of those three considerations, it's often easy to satisfy two of them and then to satisfy all three of them is quite difficult. So, our next step is to see how to optimize in this impossible triangle to create the best social value for the labor market. And then down the road, I think this may also have implication about the current employment law, because the employment law generally emphasizes the adverse impacts, right? So, most of system designers, they pay attention to this four-fifths rule, which is the minority selection ratio cannot be lower than 80% of the majority selection ratio. But our research shows that only paying attention to that is not enough, you also need to pay attention to the differential prediction for different groups. So, I think what we are going to do next step will have a lot of implication for guiding companies in designing those systems.

Nicci Brown: And when will the study be completed? Do you have a sense of that?

Mo Wang: So, the grant, it's a three-year grant, so we should wrap things up in 2024, but then we are also looking for other sources of funding maybe to continue this line of research. So, for example, so what we are looking at here are mainly a majority group versus minority group, but I also have research on aging, right? So, but when you look at people aging, so it's not majority versus minority because everyone ages. So, one day everyone become older. So, this kind of research will tackle different kind of discrimination issues. So, we're trying to also expand on that.

Nicci Brown: So, it sounds like this is going to be an ongoing and very interdisciplinary kind of work that you're doing. Mo, thank you so much for being our guest today. It's been a real pleasure.

Mo Wang: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to explain my research. Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown and I hope you'll return for our next story of innovation From Florida.

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November 23, 2021

Episode 11: What to know about the ongoing protests in Cuba

Note: Cuba is a subject that evokes a wide variety of viewpoints and emotions, especially in Florida and especially among Cuban-Americans. Today’s “From Florida” episode examines one expert’s views and observations on current events in Cuba, particularly within the context of its relationship with the U.S.

Lillian Guerra, a professor of Cuban and Caribbean History at the University of Florida, is a go-to source for national media on Cuba – from its history and its politics to the ongoing protests in the country. In this episode of From Florida, Professor Guerra, whose scholarship includes five history books about Cuba, shares her insights about the latest protests, who is behind them and the path forward as she sees it.


Note: Professor Guerra misspoke in referring to Yunior García’s public challenge of a top Communist official in the original recording of this episode. The interview has been updated with the correct information.

Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

A planned protest in Cuba on November 15 was quickly repressed by government security forces as police took to the streets and key individuals were arrested or barred from leaving their homes. Today, our guest is Professor Lillian Guerra, a professor of Cuban and Caribbean history and director of the Cuba program at UF. She is considered one of the leading experts on Cuban history with five books and numerous awards to her credit and is a widely sought media commentator on Cuban affairs. Today, she's going to share her expertise with us. Welcome, Lily.

Lillian Guerra: Thank you so much for having me.

Nicci Brown: Last summer, Cubans took to the streets in protest against the government of President Miguel Díaz-Canel. They were the biggest demonstrations in six decades, according to the Washington Post. Could you briefly tell us what led to these protests and what were the key issues?

Lillian Guerra: Well, one is to say that first, the internet made them possible. And that is because the Cuban government allowed Cubans, really as of 2018, to have access to the internet on their phones. They have only the been allowed to have cell phones since approximately 2009. And so that meant that people in the far western province of Cuba, in a small town, were staging a small demonstration around 8:30 in the morning. And it got livestreamed and, extraordinarily, it catalyzed dozens and dozens of locations across Cuba and about 100,000 to 150,000 people, and that's pretty conservative estimate, came out on the streets and began marching.

They were people from all walks of life and, effectively, I think, what happened because it was so improvised, it was so spontaneous, was that Cubans exploded in the kind of rage and anger that they have been building up for some years now. There's much to complain about, there are very few places to complain and those places have reduced in size and number extraordinarily since about 2016. So, the economic situation is certainly part of their list of demands that need to be addressed. But mainly, the fact that the Communist Party exercises so much control over the economy itself, over their daily lives, over their choices, that's really what they were protesting.

Nicci Brown: And it sounds like the officials, the party, was caught off guard in a way just how ferocious their outpouring was.

Lillian Guerra: Yeah. I think, first most of the members of the top echelons of the Communist Party and the Ministry of the Interior, which is really the security state along with the armed forces, they tend to just speak to each other. They have really no clue as to what's going on at the level of the barrio and among the public. They have convinced themselves in the kind of echo chambers that they live in that levels of discontent are manageable and that they had everything under control and effectively that was proven a lie. So, they were not just repressive, but they seemed to be ferocious, as you say, in their vitriol, in their condemnation. We saw special troops being deployed that Cubans didn't even know existed. They looked like some kind of thing out of Star Wars, many of my friends said in Cuba, dressed all in black. They used attack dogs. This was in broad daylight. It was also live streamed and filmed by literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Cuba.

And so all that made for a situation that they were unprepared for and that really revealed what I would call the other Cuba that has always been there. And especially has been there in the last 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. We now have multiple generations that have only lived the last 30 years and they were out there. But so were old ladies and old men and blacks and whites, and there was a majority of people of color on the streets. It really, again, it was a shock to the world for those who are not constant observers and not lived in Cuba, but I think it was an even greater shock to the Communist Party.

Nicci Brown: So, things seemed to quiet down, and then artists and activists organized a new protest they called the Civic March for Change, but that was quickly shut down. And media reported that police filled the streets. Can you share with us what happened?

Lillian Guerra: Yeah. So, to be brief, I would not say that things quieted down. What happened was about 5,000 people were arrested in the next seven days after July 11. Today about 500 of those people are still in prison. There were already artists and intellectuals who had been arrested. There's a rapper named Maykel Osorbo and Luis Manuel Otero, who is an artist, who'd been arrested much earlier in May. Luis was briefly released and then rearrested before July 11 or at the time of July 11 and didn't actually participate in the protest. So, there are tons of people that were gathered up and silenced through this process. And at the same time, the Cuban government was preparing for another blow. So in August, August 17th, they issued a new law decree which is extremely draconian and which makes criminally liable anyone who posts anything on the internet that the Cuban government determines is subversive of national security or its own interests or those of socialism.

So it's pretty broad. And then anybody who posts, anybody who sees the post and doesn't immediately report it is equally liable. The level of offense is the highest level of offense. So, this was all because, I think, they anticipated that they would have more protests like this. What, again, perhaps they didn't know was that a Facebook Community called Archiepiélago would emerge pretty quickly at the same time around August. And it would immediately garner to itself about 36,000 members, 17,000 of them registered in Cuba. They announced in October that they wanted to have a protest and there were three different cities signed on. This is really unprecedented.

They then issued a letter to the Cuban state saying that they wanted to have the protest authorized. It was a march for civic peace, civic protest, was supposed to be peaceful and they dated it for November 20th. The Cuban government had responded immediately saying no way, in writing — also unprecedented — and stated that the basis for their protest was really espionage and inspired by the CIA and it was a national security threat, so under no means would they approve it.

So, then the Archiepiélago group moved the date to the 15th, which really matters, because the 15th in November the Cuban government had stipulated as the opening of the country. They were opening the airport to tourism. They had claimed that 85% of the population was vaccinated with a vaccine that they claim as well is highly effective. And so, this was supposed to be the inauguration of their return and supposedly lots of people were expecting great things to happen. So, the coincidence was very strategic by Archiepiélago. And what we got as a result was planning on the part of the government to squash any possibilities, not just of the activists coming out, but of the population.

Nicci Brown: So, can you tell us a little bit more about Yunior García, who I believe is one of the key figures that has been involved with this whole movement?

Lillian Guerra: Yes. He is somebody who is a playwright. He graduated from one of Cuba's top art schools. He was known to those of us who observed things closely because of an incident that happened in early 2016. He was at a meeting of the Brothers Saínz Association, that’s an agency of the Communist Youth, and it took place in front of the First Secretary of the Communist Party for García’s home province of Holguín. And at that meeting he had the audacity to address the First Secretary with 15 questions and among them was the question of why Raul Castro’s economic reforms had never passed or been passed under the first 50 years of the revolution  under Fidel Castro. He asked why there was currently a playwright whose work was being censored and yet supposedly there has never been any censorship nor was there any current censorship in the sphere of culture in Cuba. So his audacity and the framing of those questions and the context of those questions really blew a lot of people’s minds. 

And it was about the very thing that he's protesting today, which is the absence of the freedom of speech and the right to express opposition, criticism, and to get away with it and to make an impact on the state through those means and to change the state.

So, here we are almost literally, more than a decade later, and he signed onto Archiepiélago along with a lot of other people. The day of the protests he, as well as major activists, about 400 of them in fact, found that on their doorsteps they had 30 to 50 security agents. And then in addition, they had these orchestrated mobs created and governed by an organization called the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. They exist on every block in Cuba, have since 1960, and were prevented from leaving their homes and then spent hours being taunted.

In the case of Yunior, he was prevented from speaking to the press. He lives in an upper story of an apartment building and they even lowered Cuban flags and other things to prevent him from looking out his window. And at one point, he was able to pull out a white flower and to show that to cameras that were placed in an apartment building adjacent to or directly across from where he was. But that was all that got out.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us about the symbolism of that white flower? Why a white flower?

Lillian Guerra: Well, all children in Cuba since really 1902, when the Cuban Republic was inaugurated, we learn the poem by Jose Martí which is, "I cultivate a white flower symbolizing unity and harmony, a nation for all" which is exactly this nationalist writer, independence fighter’s mission, his message and his mission. So, all Cuban children grow up with that. 

It's a reference directly to this idea of returning to consensus and to democracy, frankly, because Martí was not associated with anything like an authoritarian state. He was associated with racial democracy, with equality and with republicanism. So, the pulling of the white flower really was a dramatic symbol. He had also issued a manifesto prior to the 15th which talked about returning to the vision of Jose Martí and the white flower. And one has to say it was to the great astonishment that by the next morning, Yunior García had left the country.

Nicci Brown: Yes, so tell us more about that. We understand that he is now in Spain.

Lillian Guerra: Yeah. He gave a press conference this morning [Thursday, Nov. 18]. It was pretty dramatic. I would say, before I get to the points about the press conference, when he left almost immediately the Ministry of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior started circulating photographs of him at the airport attempting in fact, to make him appear as if he had been an agent of Cuban intelligence rather than an activist. And that's one of the things that the Cuban state first, does regularly, tries to discredit activists by claiming they're either agents of the CIA or their agents of state security, you know, so that's an old narrative.

Now, when he did leave nobody knew about it on the island. And it seems that he has fled with his wife. He gave a very dramatic statement this morning saying first that had he remained in Cuba it was very clear to him that he was going to live what many activists had lived until that point before these protests, which is months and months and months of house arrest. And that he wasn't going to be able to handle that, that he would've turned into somebody who was more muerta en vida, that which means dead in life. Cubans use that a lot as a phrase to talk about demobilizing or how they feel demobilized politically and sort of constantly suppressed in their abilities to complain and to do anything about the conditions.

People also use the word zombie, yo soy un zombie, which also means that we eat each other, you know, we distrust each other so much that we cannibalize each other. We pull each other down. So, he said, that's what remained for him. And he also warned that if the world community does not recognize what's happening in Cuba, that there will be eventually a blood bath there. There will be a blood bath because people will continue to oppose the state and we might have more protests like the one in July. And the Cuban government, which does not negotiate, does not apologize, will pull out all the stops the next time.

Nicci Brown: There's a lot of symbolism in these terms that you use. Are you surprised that young artists have been at the forefront of what's going on or is this to you what should be expected?

Lillian Guerra: Well, it definitely should be what is expected. Artists have, especially since the early ‘90s, been able to take advantage of spaces that the Cuban Communist Party's adoption of capitalist reforms allowed them. So, from 1993 until really 2020, Cuban artists were able to write their work and create work and sell it and distribute it without Cuban government authorization.

So, art and the art world became one of these very extraordinary spaces where Cubans artists would speak in part about the other Cuba, would speak about what was happening. Art became, whether it was film or was actually a painting, became kind of an archive. It became alternative journalism. It became a source of entertainment. It became where people looked to see themselves and their lives and what could not be stated in the media. So artists were slammed by a new reality in 2019 when the Cuban government suddenly released Decree No. 349, which reversed all of that and said that suddenly, musicians and artists and filmmakers would have to have the mediation of the state, the authorization of the state, for the production and dissemination of their work.

And that resulted in some pretty unprecedented protests. On November 27, we're going to have the one-year anniversary of the first, really big one, 300 or so artists staged an eight-hour protest in front of the Ministry of Culture, a sit-in. And these were not random people. These were the most prominent, most famous filmmakers, actors out there. People like Jorge Perugorría, who's a very famous actor, Tania Bruguera, who had at that point been subject to months and months of house arrest and there she was back on the front lines. So, this reality here that the artists were leading the charge through this pioneering act, really, I think made it possible for Cubans to follow their example. And now artists have become the primary enemy of the state.

Nicci Brown: Now, U.S. officials have condemned the Cuban government and the show of force and the use of what the U.S. officials are describing as intimidation tactics. Is this response more aggressive than in the past? And why do you think that's happening?

Lillian Guerra: Well, we haven't seen things like these mobs standing in front of people's homes for 40 years. I mean, this is a tactic that was unleashed in 1980, when about 125,000 Cubans registered to leave the country in the Mariel boatlift. And so these mobs, which are organized by the Committees for the Defense of Revolution, carry out what they call meetings of repudiation, where they stand in front of your house, they taunt you. Back in 1980, they were cutting off people's electricity. What makes this very dramatic is the revival of all that against people who don't want to leave Cuba, who want to stay in Cuba, who want to change Cuba that way. And perhaps that's why they're a greater threat.

And we see as well that the intimidation factor was tremendous because Havana looked like it was an abandoned city on the 15th. It wasn't just the protestors who were intimidated or those who would've been out there. It was everybody, nobody wanted to leave their house. So, the economy was paralyzed. You looked at Santa Clara, you saw the military and the security forces out on the main plaza of the city. And the same was true of other cities. So, people weren't even leaving their homes. I mean, it was like the country's on lockdown, something we haven't really seen since the death of Fidel Castro. So, this I think is something that, it's a turning point, really.

Nicci Brown: And to that point, the risk of being locked up in jail for not just months but years for things like protesting are stories that we're hearing.

Lillian Guerra: Or using the internet to become part of a Facebook community. A lot of independent journalism has been happening on the internet. We have newspapers circulating on the internet. We have people who live in Cuba who livestream on YouTube interview shows like this one and they have thousands and thousands of viewers. The Cuban government can't control this other than to shut down Wi-Fi. And, of course, it has to live economically through Wi-Fi. It has to provide these services to its own industries and to the tourist sector. So, it really finds its hands tied and as a result, what they've tried to do is launch a campaign against what they call “media terrorism,” which is to engage in the kind of acts that I just described, where you listen to a radio program on YouTube, where you engage in debate, you read news that's being produced in Cuba by interdependent journalists who are also cordoned, had their Wi-Fi cut, have been jailed, have been under house arrest. I mean, so we have a kind of oppositional culture rising there that I think is going to be very difficult to stop.

Nicci Brown: Last summer the Cuban government promised to institute economic reforms. Has that happened?

Lillian Guerra: Well, they have done this kind of promise repeatedly. The issue here is that the Cuban state relies on its ability for it to survive, on its ability to monopolize the wealth in the country through its own state-owned businesses. So, you have state capitalism effectively. Eighty-two percent of the economy is in the hands of one major conglomerate, called GAESA, that is run by the Ministry of the Armed Forces. The Ministry of the Armed Forces generals, their role is largely to be the CEOs and chief executive and financial officers of these corporations. Their partners are often foreign investors. They're major free trade zones outside Havana in addition to the tourist sector of the economy.

So, if the economic autonomy of the people, entrepreneurialism, were to really take off it would inhibit the state's ability to control people politically. I mean, if you don't owe your livelihood to the government, then you're kind of fearless. You don't have to go to rallies. You don't have to worry about your Committees for the Defense of Revolution, what anybody thinks, and you don't believe in socialism. You believe in entrepreneurialism and small-time capitalism and relying on one another. So, I think that the government for the last 30 years has relatively or regularly rather opened up the private sector, the non-state sector, and then it shut it down again. And it is repeatedly done that. So, it has to, on the one hand, provide self-employment opportunities because it cannot employ everybody. On the other hand, it doesn't want people to succeed. And so that's the catch-22, that's always a part of the state, this situation.

Nicci Brown: And Florida, of course, has a large Cuban population, and we have seen protests here. Many people have family and friends in Cuba. What's the reaction that we've seen so far, as I mentioned, there have been some protests and where do you see that going?

Lillian Guerra: Well, I think that, first and foremost, and I speak as somebody who was born in the United States of Cuban-exiled parents who arrived in '64, I think we have to recognize that Cubans on the island are fully capable of negotiating with the Cuban state. We have to support them in their ability to do that and we have to support their voices. And that includes voices that we might not agree with. There are many Cubans on the island who are extremely angry at the state because it says it's socialist and then the Communist Party effectively does not invest in education or health care. Instead it invested in its own industries and that kind of behavior mimics big-time corporate capitalism on the Walmart scale. So what Cubans are asking for on the island is very diverse because there are many different kinds of demands and really they've never had the opportunity to voice them or to galvanize groups.

I think that it's hard for the right wing in Miami to put down their own or put aside their own interests for the sake of change in Cuba. And when I say that, taking a hard line and sticking to the same policies we've had for 60 years will get Cuba nowhere. The embargo, in particular, hurts mostly the Cuban people because it allows for the Cuban state to monopolize the resources in the country and decide how to distribute them. It gives them an excuse and a banner to wave about how the United States is really responsible for their poverty and their lack of food, et cetera.

And this also, the fact that the right wing will often continue to say that we must, in fact, harden the embargo or prevent Cubans from visiting the island or prevent Cubans from sending all the money that they want to the island, if they want to. Under Obama, that was possible, the normalization of status, and has become virtually impossible. When Cubans take these positions in the United States, they really enable the Cuban government to continue to be in power and to have its power undiminished.

So, we also have a lot of people on the left who want to denounce the Trumpists and will do that without any regard for what the implications are. So, then they take the position of the Cuban state and then they support what they say and they don't look beyond the Cuban state's discourse and justifications for its rule to the reality that that state has created.

Nicci Brown: So, you mentioned two hard-line approaches, I guess, or extreme approaches. What do you think should happen or could happen to help move things forward? And do you think it will?

Lillian Guerra: First of all, I think that we need to start ending the isolation of the island and we need to do that through a variety of means. First, the Trump administration, in its last breaths, put Cuba back on the list of terrorist states or states sponsoring terrorism, which is really absurd. All he did was really to pound the voters who had voted for him on the back, those who support hard-line stances, there is nothing more hard line than claiming that Cuba is in league with North Korea or Iran. It could barely feed its people and the Cuban government has no interest in sponsoring terrorism. Their leadership is more interested in lining their own pockets, frankly. So, what that particular condition does is it prohibits anybody in the state of Florida like myself or the library here from having academic exchanges and intellectual exchanges, bringing students to Cuba, using our research funds to do research in Cuba.

Those are the things that change Cuba, that empower intellectuals in Cuba, that provide alternative sources of information and pluralistic understandings of what academics are all about and pluralism in general. So that's first because we have a law in the state that says that if Cuba's on that list, then we can't do anything. We can't engage in those kinds of activities.

I think secondly, we need to re-establish people-to-people exchanges, which enabled in the last year of the Obama administration about 100,000 Americans to visit Cuba, who would otherwise never have gone. And they established in the short time that they went, many of them, business-type arrangements with small entrepreneurs in Cuba, setting up entrepreneurial businesses where a product was designed in Cuba and made in the United States and then distributed. And then they were able to share the profits. That’s technically illegal again.

So, you can't have this kind of collaboration, even in small businesses, across borders. And we should, because of course that empowers the entrepreneurial class. It creates economic autonomy for the citizenry, the very things that the Cuban government disdains and does not want to happen.

I also think we need to restaff the embassy. We need to have full of consular services. Right now, if you have a visa to come to the United States and you've had that visa from before COVID you can't. You have to go to a third country to get anything processed. And we don't even have from Biden a sense for how they're going to establish whether people have been vaccinated appropriately or not upon arrival. We've done that for other folks, coming from Brazil for instance, big hotspot, upon arrival here, they get vaccinated again because we don't trust the Brazilian vaccine, okay.

Well, we need to have these kinds of guidelines. We need to have a statement from Biden and just simply saying, ‘Well, we side with the protestors and what's going on is wrong,’ does nothing. It does nothing. I also think that Biden needs to stop worrying about gaining the Republican vote or the South Florida Republican vote because he is never going to gain it. Whatever he does, whether he does nothing or he does something, he is never going to have an audience in that community. They will always condemn him. And just as they did with Obama, Where he has a lot of room to work is with younger generations of Cubans, people who don't vote or would vote if they had a reason to vote. And if they see changes that immediately impact their family's lives on the island. And I think that those changes would be immediate as they were when Obama made normalization a possibility.

Nicci Brown: Are you hopeful those changes might happen?

Lillian Guerra: I am very hopeful. I think, you know, the best way we can ensure a change in Cuba is to galvanize the forces that already exist there and to flood them with us. I mean, we are great diplomats for change and for pluralism and what we understand, even when we're wrong about what happens in Cuba, we're inaccurate in our understandings of Cuban society, when we arrive in Cuba and we're faced with that, we have conversations with Cubans who are the greatest teachers about their reality. So, the Cuban state, really, I think we would like and we need to call the Cuban state's bluff on a number of things that they say that we will never do. One of which is to really open up our relationship with the islanders.

Nicci Brown: Lily, thank you for being our guest today. It's been a pleasure having you here and hearing more about your thoughts.

Lillian Guerra: Thank you so much. I'm so glad you did this.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you will return for our next story of innovation From Florida.

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November 16, 2021

Episode 10: Hurricane researcher follows storm fury in the lab and on the land

Forrest Masters was an undergraduate student at UF when a professor asked if he wanted to join a research team that chased tropical cyclones. He has been tracking storms ever since. In addition to conducting research during major storms, Forrest oversees UF’s advanced wind tunnel – a National Science Foundation user facility that attracts researchers from across the U.S. In this episode of From Florida, Forrest shares what it is like to conduct research in the middle of a hurricane and how his research may help contribute to more resilient communities. 


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and today we're talking about hurricanes.

Experts predicted that the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season would have above average tropical storm activity. And they were right. There have been 20 named storms as of October 11, and we won't reach the end of what is the typical hurricane season until November 30.

This season storms have resulted in damages collectively estimated at more than $70 billion. On top of that, dozens of people have lost their lives during flood surges and other storm-related events. This loss of life and property makes the work of the University of Florida researcher who is joining us today incredibly vital.

Forrest Masters is a professor of civil and coastal engineering in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. He works in the college's School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment and is also the college's associate dean for research and facilities. In addition to his work at UF, Forrest serves on the board of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. Forrest has received more than 50 grants from state, federal and private organizations to support his work, which is focused on developing a deeper understanding of hurricane behavior and how to better design structures to withstand the increasing ferocity and frequency of these storms. Forrest, it's a pleasure to have you with us today.

Forrest Masters: Good morning. Really great to be here.

Nicci Brown: So as a starting point, I'd love to learn more about what made you interested in hurricanes in the first place.

Forrest Masters: For me, it began as an undergraduate student at the university. I was in a structural engineering course and the professor came to me and said, ‘Do you want to chase storms?’ And when you're 20 years old, there's only one answer to that question. And subsequently I got involved in an undergraduate research program here and that's when I really began to fall in love with the study of tropical cyclones. And from there, I built a career. Eventually became a professor studying both the meteorological effects of these events, but also studying how buildings respond under extreme winds and wind-driven rain conditions.

Nicci Brown: So, you've conducted field experiments in nearly 40 named storms, several of them Category 4. What's it like to chase a hurricane?

Forrest Masters: Well, certainly it's not as sensational as what Hollywood would show you. There's a lot of hurry up and wait, honestly, and a lot of driving. When we leave the university, we're bringing a lot of equipment. We have a convoy of vehicles, large trucks, trailing portable weather stations that get deployed in the path of the storm and hauling other types of equipment. Ultimately, we're bringing the lab to the hurricane.

As deployments typically go, I'd say most of the work actually happens in the lead-up to the event. There's just a lot of planning and preparation. But once we hit the road, we stay on the road. And so generally all of our trucks, we have 100-gallon diesel reserves so we don't have to do a lot of stopping. We keep moving, we move to the site, we do a lot of coordination on the road with local officials to get permission to go into different places.

There's a lot of communication with meteorologists and other people that are keeping close tabs on the storm to identify the right place to be. But when we actually get there, it's relatively quick. We have these 6,000-pound weather stations that when they're fully deployed are about 33 feet in the air. You know, we've done this now for almost 20 years, over 20 years. So, we have a lot of experience putting these out. So that takes on the order of about an hour to put one up. We move around the area, we put these in strategic locations. We're often coordinating with other university teams that are in the field. For example, we have colleagues at Illinois and Texas Tech and Oklahoma and University of Alabama Huntsville who bring portable Doppler radar systems.

And we try to co-deploy so that as they're surveilling above, we're taking measurements below. So there's just a lot of coordination and we get out there. But I don't think our heart rates get over 100 beats per minute or anything like that. It's a very intentional process. And you know, this is the great thing about doing it today. The amount of information I have at my fingertips is exceptional. So I really have a great idea of what's going on, down to maybe the 15-minute increment about weather conditions to get us in the right place at the right time. So, I hope I didn't dash any dreams for anybody that's listening about how exciting this is to go in the field.

It is quite exciting, but at the end of the day it's work and it's professional work. That's how it's treated. We're very safety conscious and we spend a lot of time making sure that we have the best information to make sure that we're making the right decisions. We're trained to be highly analytical, to respond to changing situations, so this is a perfect environment to put those skills to test. There's a lot of improvisation involved because you don't know exactly where you need to be and by when you need to be there. The situation is very fluid. It's a wonderful opportunity to work with your colleagues and particularly to bring students in the field. In my experience, it brings out the best in them. They almost always, after leaving their first storm, come out a different person, someone who's more prepared for their professional future and someone who's more in touch with the issues that ultimately drive all the engineering work that's being done to protect society from these storms.

Nicci Brown: I understand that we've become a lot better at tracking hurricanes. But with all of the science and technology we have at our disposal, why aren't we better at predicting the changes in the strength of hurricanes?

Forrest Masters: Predicting the intensity of a storm, it's a very tricky business. Storms, when they're moving across the Atlantic and eventually they recurve and they strike the U.S., as they're moving towards the shoreline typically they're encountering a lot of new conditions. I mean, the presence of land, for example, cuts off the supply of moisture and heat. We also see dry air become entrained in the storms, among other factors. And so the reality is when a storm's over the water, often we know more about it than we know about it when it's actually making landfall. It's the period of sort of greatest uncertainty because of those changing conditions. And that's in large part what motivates us to go out in the field and take the type of measurements we do, is really to create both situational awareness about the overall storm intensity but also to collect data that will be used for many generations from now to improve those models. So, eventually we hope we can help put ourselves out of the storm chasing business by having better and more actionable data to improve modeling.

Nicci Brown: So, we hear about modifying clouds with seeding. Why can't we modify hurricanes so they just dissipate or become less powerful?

Forrest Masters: The topic of weather modification has existed for a long time. And there are notable projects that looked at all possibilities to do this, including a very large one called Project Storm Fury, which was done in the last half of the last century. And generally, the biggest problem with modifying a storm's intensity is simply the sheer amount of energy in a storm. These large events can have more than 100 terajoules of energy. It's not straightforward. There isn't a magic bullet here to kill a hurricane.

So while it may be true that some of these technologies can be deployed and can ultimately reduce intensity in certain parts of the storm, when you're talking about a storm that spans hundreds of square miles, it's not a trivial thing to do. And also there are unintended consequences of modifying the environment that have to be dealt with.

I wouldn't rule out at some point in the future of humankind, we don't figure this problem out. But for the time being at least, it's a very complicated problem. And we have other areas certainly where we can make a difference in terms of, for example, improving our building codes and standards and our design practices. And there's also just handling the flow of people during these events through evacuation and that type of thing to give us a more direct path to ultimately reducing the impact of the storm.

Nicci Brown: So, the data you collect when you are chasing hurricanes, what is that data like? How do you gather it and how are you using it?

Forrest Masters: The purpose of our program is to measure surface wind speeds. We take out ruggedized weather stations that are designed to withstand up to 200-mile-per-hour winds. And we deploy them right where the highest winds are expected to arrive. And we measure wind in three different directions at a very high resolution. And that ultimately allows us to characterize the structure of these damaging winds. And that's important because the nature of the turbulence affects the loads that act on buildings. And so we're able to make strong inferences about if we're going to simulate that environment, for example, in our wind tunnel here at the University of Florida, we can use that information to help improve those simulations so that we're doing additional testing. The data are also used for post-storm damage assessments. This is one of the, probably the hardest problems, hurricanes, these extreme events, make it very difficult for people to actually go out and observe what's going on.

Yet, engineers and meteorologists are called immediately back in to tell us what happened. And so providing these types of measurements gives us a very clear line of sight on what the wind field intensity was at that location so that we can evaluate if the building stock performed adequately. And as often is the case, what we do see is a lot of damage at well below design wind speeds. And that's important because it allows the engineering teams to pinpoint what are the links in civil infrastructure that ultimately cause systemic failures. So, those are some of the ways that we use the data. We also provide it to operational users.

It's fairly common to see when the National Hurricane Center is monitoring hurricane weather conditions at landfall that were reported out on measurements we're taking. And in turn, this information is shared with emergency managers, both at the state and local leve,l who are ultimately figuring out when can they get their people back in. So it's a wonderful community of people, both on the research and operational side, sharing information and supporting each other.

That by far is probably the part I love the most about being in this role is interacting with all these people that are so passionate about doing the best they can to take care of the affected community. And I take a lot of pride that I'm part of that community and I can contribute to it.

Nicci Brown: Well, let's talk a little bit more about that wind tunnel. It's called the Terraformer and it's quite central to your work. Can you tell us more about what it is and what it actually can do?

Forrest Masters: So, in addition to our field work, we do a lot of work in our laboratory. We, for example, do physical testing where we actually destroy systems to see how they perform and then we study the underlying engineering that led to the design. We also operate a large, what's called a boundary-layer wind tunnel. And the purpose of the wind tunnel is to simulate, at a reduced geometric scale, the actual atmospheric boundary layer. So you can imagine if you went outside and you felt the wind on your face and it's changing in different directions, well that's a product of the fact that the wind is moving through trees and buildings to get to you. And so we actually, in this tunnel, we can simulate the Earth's landscape over a very far extent.

And the Terraformer is one component of the wind tunnel that allows us to dial up any type of terrain at a specified geometric scale. So if you came to me and said, I need to run an experiment at 1 to 100 scale in marine conditions or a 1 to 10 scale in suburban conditions, within 90 seconds we can reconfigure the floor of the wind tunnel. There are over 1,100 individual roughness elements that we can raise and lower and twist to give us exactly the type of condition that we'd expect. And so the Terraformer allows for high-throughput testing in different types of terrain environments to evaluate loads or evaluate how buildings might move, aerolastically is how that's referred to, in the wind among other applications.

Nicci Brown: How large is it?

Forrest Masters: The wind tunnel's quite large. It's one of the largest in the world actually for this type of application. Nominally at the test section it's 20-feet wide by about 10-feet tall, and it's powered by eight large what are called vane axial fans. And it's an open-circuit wind tunnel because it's so large and also the tunnel in length, I think, is about 125 feet. So it's a pretty substantial piece of equipment to operate. In fact, because it's so large and we built so much sophistication into the equipment we use to control the flows in it, it actually became a National Science Foundation user facility back in around 2015. So, anybody in the United States that's an academic that wants to use the wind tunnel can work with the National Science Foundation to come to our lab. So, we have people coming there all the time to exploit its unique capabilities and its size.

Nicci Brown: Fantastic. So, it sounds like this really does help guide you when you're looking at building an infrastructure safety and the guidelines or recommendations that you would make.

Forrest Masters: Yeah. That's what we're shooting for. I would say our aspirations go further than that. I mean, ultimately, we're trying to create a test bed that allows people to be as creative as possible about exploring these issues. So, I wouldn't say that the structural engineer is the target audience. It goes way beyond that. You know, we work with meteorologists, we've worked with people in other fields looking at different types of technology deployment for sensing and so on. I think that's really, I mean, if you really had to distill down what we do at the University of Florida, I think it's trying to push the envelope. The facility, although it probably could operate with the speed and productivity of a commercial facility, that's not the intent. The intent is to allow people to come in and try wild new ideas that potentially could be transformative or ultimately lead to better solutions in an engineering context.

Nicci Brown: And to your earlier point, this really is a community, if you will, of people interacting and coming up with solutions and trying things out. Despite the improvements we're seeing in building codes and the like, we are still seeing increasing damage to buildings. So with all of that in mind, what are the implications that you see for the future?

Forrest Masters: Yeah, this is, I think, one of many lenses when you think about society and how it operates that tells us a lot about how the U.S. infrastructure will change over time. Because ultimately, we're looking at buildings that might have existed 50 to 100 years and are expected to be around for another 100 years or so. And the implication is that actually in solving the hurricane problem, we have to actually understand how buildings perform in day-to-day weather. So I think it's a good platform to sort of study the holistic performance of buildings. And if you want to sort of step out to more of a macro scale, when you think about how communities respond to events, that's the thing about a natural disaster or some other type of exogenous shock to a community. Time speeds up. And all the bad things that might happen to that community over 20 years might happen in three months.

And so there's a real opportunity to, I think, self-reflect on how resilient communities are in the face of these events. And, specifically, to places like Florida, which has a lot of coastline and I think upwards of a 1,000 people a day moving into the state, it's an opportunity to think long term. I have real concerns about what the state of evacuation will look like in 50 to 100 years in a crowded place like southeast Florida, where people can't build. I mean, we're going to be forced to think about the function of buildings, particularly sheltering in place in areas that don't flood more so than we've ever thought about that before. So, these events really, I think, positively influence design engineering thinking around what we're going to do. And ultimately this is a silver lining, I guess, to the problem. It forces us to think about building better communities to stand up to these events.

Nicci Brown: Forrest, thank you for the work that you're doing and that of the other researchers that you partner with. It was great to have you as a guest on our show today. Thank you so much.

Forrest Masters: Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida, where we share the stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward. I'm your host Nicci Brown and I hope you'll return for our next story of innovation From Florida.

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November 9, 2021

Episode 9: How UF helps military veterans succeed as they pursue an education

Thanks to the GI Bill, thousands of military veterans have been able to pursue an education at the University of Florida. It is just one way the nation and UF shows gratitude for our military veterans’ service. And it also helps to broaden the experience for non-veteran students. In this episode of From Florida, Roselind Brown of the Collegiate Veterans Success Center highlights UF’s history of working with veterans, while Savanna Turner, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard, talks about the opportunities and challenges veterans face on a college campus.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Thursday is Veteran's Day, a day set aside to honor those who served our country in the United States Armed Forces. Our gratitude for our military veterans is deep and abiding. One way our nation has worked to show that appreciation is through educational support.

Today, we're going to hear from two people at the center of UF's efforts to make military veterans feel welcome and help them succeed. Savanna Turner is a student veteran at UF, but to get us started, I'd like to introduce Roselind Brown, who is assistant director of care in the Collegiate Veterans Success Center. Roselind, thank you so much for joining us today.

Roselind Brown: Hi, Nicci. Thanks for having me. I'm glad to be here.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself first of all and your career with UF and the Collegiate Veterans Success Center? I believe this is a fairly new role for you.

Roselind Brown: Yes, you are correct. So, I have actually worked with the university for about two years, but I've just transitioned into this role about a month and a half ago. So, brand new into the Dean of Students Office, which is where we're housed, and into the center as well. But very excited to be a part of the team.

Nicci Brown: So, could you share with us a little bit of a brief history of veteran services at UF?

Roselind Brown: Yes. So, UF actually has a really long history of military service, veteran services, and then also military training. As a land grant university, it was actually a part of the act that created the land grant to have military curriculum a part of the university. So we have a long-standing military history. Additionally, with that we were one of the inaugural units for the ROTC. So again, really strong military training. And jumping forward many decades, we also really had a strong presence within World War II. It actually had a very significant impact on our university with our students as well as faculty and staff joining the service during those years.

A lot of our student housing was actually created as barracks to house all of those students coming back to campus. One in particular would be the Corry Village, which was named after William Corry, who was one of the two student body presidents who unfortunately did pass away during World War II. Flavet Village was created to help when we had our soldiers come back during World War II. It was initially created with travel trailers and then was made into that permanent housing facility, just to house the many students that came back during World War II. Additionally, we have had members serve in Korea, Vietnam and every single conflict since.

Nicci Brown: So, obviously, we have a very rich history of veterans and involvement with the military here at the university. Can you tell us how many veterans we currently have attending UF?

Roselind Brown: Sure. So, we are able to track our veteran students in a variety of different ways and that includes our students that are utilizing military benefits. So at this time we have 947 students that are actively using their educational benefits. That does include, though, active duty as well as dependents of veterans. Overall, though, we have a strong estimate of about 2,100 students that identify with the military community who might not be using benefits, but are still either active duty, spouses of a military member or a dependent.

Nicci Brown: And I would imagine that runs across all levels of the university. So, everywhere from first-year students right through to doctoral students.

Roselind Brown: Exactly. And also within our professional students as well, too.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. So, one of the things, too, in terms of how we are recognized across the nation, U.S. News & World Report ranks UF as the 10th best college for veterans in the country. So we are well known. What kinds of services and support does the Collegiate Veterans Success Center provide for all of these students that are here?

Roselind Brown: Yeah. So, the Collegiate Veterans Success Center, it was actually created out of concern for our veteran students, wanting to really create a space where they were able to feel supported, could relax, study and really have a space to build a community with others that were within the military community or military-affiliated. So, a lot of our services are around social connection and support and transition into such a large university as University of Florida is. We have a wonderful lounge for them to come, just relax, hang out, chat. We have a study space where they can come in and bring groups as well as a computer lab and free printing.

But we also partner with the VA and we have a Vet Success on-campus counselor, who works with us 20 hours a week, as well as with Santa Fe, so she understands a lot of the transfer requirements, which a lot of our veteran students are a part of the transfer classes as well. So, she's great with handling questions about VA benefits, academic advising, career counseling and really also the transition to UF as well.

Nicci Brown: I would imagine that sense of camaraderie or connection is something that's very important to veterans.

Roselind Brown: Yes. Very, very, very much so. It allows them to really just speak with someone who understands, even if they're from a different branch, from reserves, active duty. They really have kind of a common language and being able to have someone to talk to that understands that language.

Nicci Brown: Well, Roselind, thank you so much for joining us today. And thank you, also, for the work that you're doing. It's greatly appreciated.

Roselind Brown: Thank you. It's been great speaking with you today.

Nicci Brown: Now, it's my pleasure to introduce listeners to Savanna Turner. Savanna is an officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, who earlier this year was named Veteran of the Month by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. She is a doctoral student who is studying agricultural education and she also is the president of UF's Collegiate Veterans Society. Welcome, Savanna, and thank you for your service!

Savanna Turner: Thank you.

Nicci Brown: So, tell us a little bit more about yourself. What drew you to the Armed Services in the first place?

Savanna Turner: Yeah. So, I come from a family that has a lot of people in the military, who have served in some capacity. And so when I was an undergrad at UF, I was curious about that pathway and kind of seeing what that might be like. At the time, I was in the Department of Agricultural Education and so my career route looked like I was going to be an agricultural teacher at a K-12 school and I felt like I was way too young to teach kids. So, I was looking around and kind of decided that the United States Coast Guard was the way for me. I was really interested in, at the time, marine life, which I did not do anything related to marine life so far in the Coast Guard.

But that was kind of something I wanted to do and be able to serve my country and do it in a capacity that was of interest to me and ended up starting to become a passion of mine, and now I'm at 10 years and counting in. So that's kind of family in the military and then just kind of wanted to do something a little bit outside of my comfort zone and be able to travel and do different things because I grew up close to Gainesville, about an hour and a half south, and that was about the most I've had with experience in the world at the time. And so I wanted to do stuff bigger than myself, but also get my opportunity to travel.

Nicci Brown: And was anything surprising to you when you did join the military?

Savanna Turner: Not really. I watched a lot of YouTubes on basic training and what that would be like and talked to my recruiter and prepared, to the best of my ability. I mean, I think that when you go through training there's things you can't prepare for, but it was about what I expected and it was very interesting going in and being active duty and everything.

Nicci Brown: So, can you tell us a little bit more about what you did when you were with the Coast Guard?

Savanna Turner: Yeah. So, my first unit, I came out of basic training as an E3 and I was stationed on a ship. It was actually a sailboat, it's a big, tall ship, and the purpose was to do PR in different countries and around the United States.

Nicci Brown: By PR, you mean public relations?

Savanna Turner: Yeah, sorry. Public relations. So, we went around and were in different ports around the world. And so it was kind of like, I guess, an ambassador of the United States. And we also trained the Coast Guard Academy cadets, which are similar to ROTC but there's an academy, so like West Point if anyone's familiar with that. So, we trained them in seaworthiness. That ship went to Saint-Pierre, France, which is past Nova Scotia, and then I went all the way down to Aruba, lots of places along the way.

And then after that, I went to training to become a marine science technician. I got stationed in New Orleans after that and that job entailed a lot of pollution response, hazardous material response when it becomes waterways, waterfront facilities that manage hazardous materials over waterways and then foreign freight. So foreign cargo ships that come through, we do safety, environmental and security laws and regulations. So, we have to make sure that they maintain all of those international and U.S. laws. So, I was a marine science technician for the majority of my enlisted career and then I switched to the reserve, did the same job in Savannah. Yeah, Savanna in Savannah, I know! Savannah, Georgia, I got that a lot! And then after that I became a commissioned officer in the same field, just as an officer and my current assignment is in Port Canaveral or Cape Canaveral.

Nicci Brown: Wow. You've really clocked some miles. Or nautical miles, I guess. So how do you feel that that experience has really directly impacted you as you study and with your studies?

Savanna Turner: Yeah. So, I've always really been interested in the way that people are, like the way w e— why do we pick certain behaviors? Why do we do certain things? And so, I originally said I went into the Coast Guard because I wanted to do marine life stuff, which I didn't end up doing, but a lot of laws and regulations are meant to protect the environment. And so, with the experience as an undergrad, I definitely was very interested in environmental protection, environmental education. And that sort of led me into my doctoral degree, which is in agricultural education and communications, more specifically looking at public outreach in relation to sustainability.

So, looking at how we can become better as people to help save the planet, is basically — that experience in the military added to the idea I already had. My dad likes to tell a story that when I was four about how I told one of his friends he needed to recycle some plastic he had in his hand. So that's kind of been part of who I am, but I think that the military sort of helped me see how people live throughout the world firsthand, to understand it a little bit better. And that helped inform my master's degree in sustainability, which led me here as a doctoral student.

Nicci Brown: And I guess a lot of that draws upon your PR experience as well?

Savanna Turner: Yes. So, you mean PR, like public relations?

Nicci Brown: I do. You got me.

Savanna Turner: Yes. Yeah. So, working a lot with the public, I mean, in the military, that first unit I talked about being on a ship, it was an ambassador of the United States. So, I talked to a lot of people, especially the cadets that were on board that we were training. We also had prior enlisted that would come on and learn how to be an officer on board. So, I had a lot of interface with a lot of different people from different cultures, different areas of the world. And so, that kind of inspired me in a way to say, ‘I'm on the right path. I really want to pursue a Ph.D., to be able to learn about all these social science theories and why we do what we do and how to be able to help people change behaviors that are going to be more sustainable and more environmentally conscious.’

Nicci Brown: So, you were on active duty for five years. Was it difficult to transition to the reserve?

Savanna Turner: Yes, surprisingly so. So I was active duty for five years and when I transitioned to the reserve, I was definitely still in the active-duty mindset of go, go, go all the time, I’ve got to do all this stuff. And the reserve is — a commitment is one weekend a month, two weeks out of the year. You're still able to do a lot of the same job responsibilities. That's the fortunate thing about the Coast Guard, is we're always actually doing the mission. And so, I was able to still maintain the same level of qualifications and be able to go out and do inspections and things like that even as a reserve.

But I think that getting out of the active-duty mindset and switching into a more, I guess, less time-consuming role and still being able to maintain a civilian life and be able to get a civilian job and then battle that with doing the one weekend a month was very challenging in the beginning. And it was kind of challenging transitioning mentally out of that active-duty mindset. Not bad, but just different. You kind of — it’s sort of like losing a family, in a way, and it was kind of — some people equate it to a divorce. I was only in for five years, so I don't think it quite felt like what maybe a divorce would feel like, but it was still a very big transitional step.

Nicci Brown: For sure. So, what were some of the things that you did to help you transition, to move along?

Savanna Turner: So, I have a very unique thing that I did. A lot of people told me, "Find a project, keep yourself busy" because a lot of times you'll save up your vacation time and you'll use it at the end of your contract. So, you're still technically in, but you're on vacation at the end. And I had, oh gosh, like 50 days, I think. And so, I was looking for a job. I hadn't got a job yet in the civilian world. And I moved back in with my parents for a few months because I didn't know where I was going to live. I wasn't going to commit to anything. And so, I decided that I wanted to live in an RV full time.

So, I bought my grandparents' travel trailer and I ended up renovating it. So, I had wood floors. I painted, I ripped out all the furniture. So that actually really helped me be able to transition because I had a purpose every morning. Because that's one thing that's really difficult is that loss of sense of purpose. And then it kept me up and moving and something that was active with my hands. So, it helped me transition out of that. And so that was a really big project that I was working on, in addition to yoga and trying to reflect and understand that it's okay I'm making this transition. I will have a new purpose in life, that's fine. But that was, yeah. I lived in that RV for three years. So, I lived in an RV!

Nicci Brown: Wow.

Savanna Turner: But, yes. It was an awesome project. I had a great time.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. I hear about people being really passionate about that lifestyle, but also very innovative in terms of rehabbing those RVs.

Savanna Turner: Yeah. It was a lot of fun.

Nicci Brown: And what about your move back to the classroom? And, obviously, UF isn't new to you because you earned your undergraduate degree here. But now that you're a veteran, how do you see things differently in the classroom?

Savanna Turner: So, I started fall 2019, right before COVID, so I had one regular fall semester. And it was very similar, but it was different. So, obviously, I'm familiar with campus. I was here as an undergrad. And this town, it's changed a lot in the eight years, I think it was, that I had not been here. But I think that, at first it was difficult because I didn't know how to connect with other graduate students because my life experience is so vastly different. And I'm older than most people and so that was kind of a challenge. How do I communicate with them without sounding like I'm just boasting about my experience? And so, I was kind of quiet and reserved at first, which is definitely against my personality. I'm usually very talkative and doing different things.

And so that was kind of a little bit uneasy in the beginning. But I'm very fortunate. I'm in a really great department and it feels like a family since I went there as an undergrad. A lot of the same professors are there, and we have a really great graduate student structure.

But as far as my internal struggles, it was still hard to really be able to connect with people in general. I think that that's kind of a challenge. But then I happened to find the Collegiate Veterans Society during that semester and that really helped me to feel that sense of belonging. I still get along great with all my graduate student friends but having another set of students who understand my past and my history and have similar experiences has been really helpful to find that sense of belonging.

Nicci Brown: For sure. So, you're now the president of the society. Can you tell us a little bit more about the group, and what your role entails?

Savanna Turner: Yeah. So, the Collegiate Veterans Society is a student-led organization. We're under student government. We're also part of the Student Veterans of America, which is a national organization. And so, our organization exists to create that sense of community among student veterans — active duty, reservists, dependents, military-affiliated students, even anyone who might be interested in the military. We want to create a sense of community and a place that people feel safe and inclusive and they feel like they belong somewhere. Because I think that sometimes we tend to think more like, ‘I can do this on my own, I'm self-sufficient’ because that's how we've been trained to think and that's a lot of times the position we've been put in. So, I think it's great that we have this organization to create that sense of you can stop in whenever you want, you can hang out with us. You don't have to, but we're here for resources and whatever you need. That kind of helped me and so I wanted to be able to be put in a position where I can help others as well.

Nicci Brown: And you started UF's first peer-to-peer student veteran mentorship program. Can you tell us more about that?

Savanna Turner: Yeah. So, this semester it's kind of on pause. I think when we all went to in-person, everyone's super overwhelmed and everyone's still trying to get their bearings, but we will start that back up, hopefully, in spring. I've been partnering with the Veterans Success Center here on campus to help get that up and running. And so, I kind of got that idea from my department, actually. We have a pairing process that we do with new graduate students and then more seasoned graduate students to help people coming from all over the country, even just coming to Gainesville, maybe they already lived in Florida, to acclimate to being able to be at the university. And so I kind of modeled it after that, same similar design as that. Student veterans that have been here a little while connect with new student veterans to kind of help get their bearings — if they need to be connected with the right person, with their VA benefits, if they need just someone to support them, someone to talk to, professional development opportunities.

So, I wanted to make sure that we had that opportunity and I kind of modeled it after some other universities. I just kind of did a quick search and kind of saw what other universities were doing and realized that UF didn't have that peer-to-peer opportunity. And so, I kind of used the department's modeling. And then I have always really enjoyed mentorship. So I kind of used some of the things that I've used in the past or that I've come across that I thought might be helpful, because I think that being a mentee is just as important as being a good mentor. And so I wanted to create a sense of a workshop so we can all get together and learn together about how to create actionable plans on what that relationship would look like. I think that it's a little bit harder right now, but I think in spring we'll definitely be able to ramp it back up and be able to have that opportunity for student veterans.

Nicci Brown: Sounds terrific. So, you've mentioned some of them, but what are some other challenges that veterans face when they take on university studies?

Savanna Turner: I think that . . . I've thought about this question because everyone has a unique experience in the military. You have people who have served combat roles, people who have been stationed in other countries, people had good experiences and bad ones, just like anything else. And so, I can't really tell you what exactly everybody has to go through because everyone has a unique sense of their life. But I do think that some of the other things that student veterans have are, we usually have more refined or polished skills in the sense of leadership or team building or maybe time management or meeting deadlines, and self-discipline.

So, I think we bring a lot of those skills to the table when we come here. So, I think that it helps to our success, but only if we're put into a supportive environment that allows us to be able to utilize those. And I think that sometimes we like to hide and we don't want people to know that we're veterans because then people look at us differently. So I think that that's really important, that you have a supportive environment for us to be able to flourish and be able to utilize those skills, not only for ourselves but be able to help other students as well.

Nicci Brown: What about the whole idea of questioning? When you're in the military it's very important that you follow command and that you work together as a unit. At universities, sometimes part of the core of things is to always question why, what if. Is that also a challenge?

Savanna Turner: For me, personally? No!

Nicci Brown: I got that!!

Savanna Turner: My experience in the military, before I was an officer, I was actually enlisted for nine years. I recently became an officer in the reserve and I was put into a field as a marine science technician. And so, I was actually in a field where it was welcoming to question things, not in a command sense, not in those more formalized systems that are in place, but more in the field work. So, I did a lot of environmental laws and regulations and inspections. So, we had to be very inquisitive about what we were doing and very like, ‘Why is the ship doing this, this way?’ So yes, they're not meeting the intent of the regulation, but you have to go more in depth on the why's and ask the questions.

And so I was in a position where that was a good thing, obviously not in certain scenarios, like chain of commands and things like that. So, I didn't really have a problem with transition. I think sometimes I ask too many ‘why’ questions. It gets me in trouble because I do tend to ask, if it's an administrative thing or something, I'm like, ‘Why are we doing it this way?’ And that's not always the best approach. But, yeah. So, I think that that's, actually, in my experience, been a thing that I've been able to carry with me into my studies.

Nicci Brown: Sounds terrific. So, let's talk about the original GI bill, or the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, as it was formally called. It was signed into law in June 1944 and is credited with having been a key contributor to establishing the American middle class and boosting the post-war economy. How do you view the impact of the Post-9/11 GI Bill?

Savanna Turner: That actually has been a huge benefit for a lot of people. For me, in particular, when I was working as an extension agent, when I got a civilian job and switched to the reserve, I was able . . . UF paid for most of my master's degree. I paid for a little bit here and there, but then I was able to utilize that degree or that Post-9/11 GI Bill to be able to get a doctoral degree, which is extremely expensive. And so being able to come out of here with a degree and not have any debt . . . I mean, I have some for my undergrad, but as far as my master's and Ph.D., I don't have any debt. And obviously, that's in the news a lot, we always talk about student loan debts. And so being able to serve your country and kind of be able to serve others and then the benefit you get is that you get a four-year university paid for. It's a huge benefit and it helps out a lot of people.

So being able to utilize that was a really big factor in my decision to become a doctoral student because I knew I didn't want student loans anymore and I didn't want to have to pay for that. And then, we also have an opportunity to have a monthly housing allowance. So that takes a little bit of the burden off of having to worry about being able to pay rent. Many of us still work part-time jobs. I'm a graduate assistant and so that helps with food and things like that. But it really has set me on this trajectory. I definitely would not be pursuing a doctoral degree without it. And I feel that a lot of students that use it kind of look at it like, ‘This is a great opportunity. I spent four years in the military and now I'm able to go to school for free.’ Basically, for free. It's been really beneficial for a lot of people.

Nicci Brown: And I think it's important to remember, though, this isn’t a zero-sum game. You've served your nation, then you're coming back and you're getting this great education, but that will again contribute to society as well.

Savanna Turner: Yeah, exactly. I mean, now, you think about a student veteran that's coming out — most of us are a little older, we’ve had some life experience. We have a lot of polished soft skills that we come into university with, that we can help mentor and teach others about our life experience. And then getting that formalized education that maybe compliments those soft skills that we've learned really makes us a better member of society. And we come out of the university with more, I guess . . .  I don't want to say we're more prepared, but we do have a lot more to offer the world as far as combining all of that experience.

Nicci Brown: You touched upon something there that I think is worth following up on about coming into the classroom and having some life experience. And I think that's another side of things that we talk about, the benefits that veterans bring to the university, to their classmates, that they do have these different viewpoints that they can share. And earlier in our conversation, you also mentioned that, at first, you didn't want to share that you'd been in the military. So, can you talk a little bit more about that evolution and just what veterans do bring to the atmosphere of a university?

Savanna Turner: Yeah. So, I still don't like sharing. I won't openly walk up to someone and be like, ‘Oh, I've been in the military for 10 years.’ I don't know. It just feels weird to talk about it. I talk about it sometimes in a general sense, like if I use that as an example in a classroom or something like that, but I still am not comfortable just talking about it openly. I actually talked to some grad students and I was like, ‘What do you think that I bring that's different?’ And a lot of them said, ‘That diverse world view.’ I have a different perspective on the world compared to my peers because — I didn't serve in a combat role, I wasn't stationed in another country — but I was on a ship and I did go to a lot of other countries, experienced a lot of cultures.

So being able to have a different worldview based on my life experience I think helps a little bit. When people get to know me it kind of . . .  I can offer up a lot more experience and say, ‘Hey, I think it's a good way to do this, but you may want to consider these other factors because I've been there, done that, and I made that mistake. Or I did this and I was successful.’ And so I think that that's a lot of what student veterans can offer. We're not going to openly do that. I think you have to, like I said, create a supportive environment where we're able to kind of offer up that worldview. But I think that we have a lot to offer as far as life experience, especially being that a lot of students are younger than us and maybe haven't had that experience yet. I think that we could offer a lot to be able to give some insight and some wisdom to some degree to some people.

Nicci Brown: Savanna, thank you so much for your service and thank you for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure chatting with you.

Savanna Turner: Yeah. Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida, where we share the stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward. I hope you'll return for our next story of innovation from Florida. We are going to be talking with Forrest Masters about his research on hurricanes. Please join us.

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November 2, 2021

Episode 8: Taking the cryptic out of cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency is a mystery to many of us. In this episode of From Florida, Mark Jamison provides a straightforward explanation of cryptocurrency’s origins, how it works, why it’s attractive to some investors, what regulators are looking at and implications of cryptocurrency for the average person. He also talks about the one big question no one has yet answered: Who is or was Satoshi Nakamoto? Jamison is the director and Gerald Gunter Professor of the Public Utility Research Center and director of the Digital Markets Initiative at the University of Florida's Warrington College of Business.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Cryptocurrency. I'm sure I'm not the only one who is trying to figure out what it is and what it means for most of us. However, it is the topic of conversation in the financial and political worlds, drawing both enthusiastic and cautious investors and the scrutiny of regulators.

Our guest today is Mark Jamison and he knows a thing or two about cryptocurrency. Mark is the director and Gerald Gunter Professor of the Public Utility Research Center and director of the Digital Markets Initiative at the University of Florida's Warrington College of Business.

Welcome, Mark!

Mark Jamison: Glad to be here. Thank you.

Nicci Brown: So, cryptocurrency has been around a lot longer than many people may realize. Can you give us a little history and a basic explanation of what it is?

Mark Jamison: Sure. Let me take you back to 2008. As you might recall, the country was going through a financial crisis and that attracted the attention of a group of people called Cypherpunks. Now they go clear back to 1992. It’s basically a group of people that met in somebody's basement in Oakland, California, and they had two basic worries. One is they worried about the government getting into their privacy, getting all their information about them. And then also about just how big and controlling the financial institutions were around the world. So the financial crisis played right into their suspicions. So they were very worried at this moment. And they had worked on cryptography — how do you hide your digital information so nobody can read it — and they had also tried to figure out a type of digital currency that would be something that could keep them independent from the banking system. But they'd never quite been able to solve one particular problem. And it's what's called the double-spend problem, which is, if I'm going to tell you that I have this digital money and I'm going to buy something from you, how do you know I really have it? I might be giving it to somebody else at the same time.

Well, on Halloween, October 31, 2008, on their listserv shows up an email that says basically this: I have been working on a new electronic cash system that is fully peer-to-peer with no trusted third party. And it's signed by Satoshi Nakamoto. Now the trusted third-party issue is important because when you and I engage in an electronic transaction there's a bank between us that verifies that, yep, Mark really does have that money. And yes, I am delivering it to you. So, this was no party in between. It's just the computers took care of it.

Now, there were a couple of curious things about this paper or about the person. One is that no one had ever heard of this person before. And so how did he actually get access to their listserv? And then so many people had worked on digital currency before the listserv pretty much just blew him off — except for one gentleman named Hal Finney. Hal said, you know, if you need some help, I'll help you. And so this Satoshi Nakamoto — who we still do not know who that is. It may be a guy, it may be a woman, it may be a group of people. We have no idea who it is. All we ever have are emails from this person or group of persons.

Nicci Brown: Do we even know where this person, these people, were?

Mark Jamison: No, we really don't know. We're guessing from the timestamps on the emails this person and or persons sent that they were probably either in Europe or the U.S. That's just the best speculation that we have, but we don't know, actually.

So Hal helped, via email, Satoshi work out some of the computer coding and in January 3 of 2009, Bitcoin launched. That's what emerged from that work.

And it's important in that Bitcoin gave us what we call a blockchain. And this idea of a blockchain is that you have a network of computers that are all peers. It means there's nobody in charge. They're all basically working off the same software. And the purpose in Bitcoin, of this network of computers, is they all act as what we call miners, which means that each of them has a complete record of every Bitcoin that's ever been created, who's it gone from, who's it gone to and you can download all of that anytime you want to and become a miner — I won’t go into the details of how that works — but their job is to keep that ledger all up-to-date. That worked. And it got so many people excited that now we have a lot of these types of what we call cryptocurrencies floating around.

Nicci Brown: Right. So Bitcoin, as you just said, is one example and the oldest one, but it seems that every day we are hearing about a new cryptocurrency. So how does one get launched and who sets the value?

Mark Jamison: Well, you're right that we have a lot of what we call cryptocurrencies around. There are over 10,000 the last time I looked. But there are basically three types and it's important to tease those apart in order to understand what's going on. There are some that are indeed pure cryptocurrencies, which is what Bitcoin is. It is simply a ledger that says I've transferred this from me to somebody else. And that's all it represents — a transfer.

Then you have some that are called utility tokens. A utility token is something where it's actually a close system that where you have all these entries of the currency, if you will, or the token, on the ledger, but it can only be used for particular purposes. So, the most famous of those is something that's called Ethereum. And I won't go into the details on it, but essentially Ethereum allows people to share a network of computers. And by owning the Ethereum token, you can use those computers. So it's a closed economy in some sense.

Then you also have what are called security tokens. Security tokens means that you actually have some property rights to something out in the tangible world, if you will. And so those have their own types of properties and own legal arrangements.

So the question about where do they come from and how do they get value? The creation of a cryptocurrency of any of those types always starts with what we call a white paper, where some person or group of people say I'm going to create this cryptocurrency and I'm doing it for these purposes. And here's how the computer code is going to work. Then they launch that particular business or enterprise or whatever it might be. If it is a pure cryptocurrency, like a Bitcoin, or if it is a utility token, like an Ethereum, they have what we call an initial coin offering. If it is a security, we call it a security token offering — just different names.

Now, how does the value get set? Well, there are two ways. One is that at the start, the person launching the coin or token might set the value and say it's worth this much, how many people want to buy it? And they may have a target number in mind or what have you, but that's essentially how it would work. Other people will say, yeah, I've got 2 million of these I want to sell and I'll just put them out in the market and see what you people want to buy them for. People just bid on these. So, it's in some sense an auction of some sort. And either of those ways works just fine. From that point forward, it is simply supply and demand that determines what the prices of these tokens or coins are.

Nicci Brown: So, is the proliferation of cryptocurrencies a problem then?

Mark Jamison: Well, no. The producers and the users of the cryptocurrencies determine whether or not it's going to be successful. If the producer has a good business plan or a good functional token that people can use or cryptocurrency that people can use for a lot of different things and the users agree, then that works. And it has value to all of them, that's why they engage in it. And actually in some sense, it has been helpful to a lot of small enterprises because there are some businesses that can't afford to go through some of the traditional means of raising capital. Trying to get money out of a venture capitalist is tough. You've got to be in the right network of people. You've got to meet certain demands of the venture capitalist. As long as you stay within the law, you can issue some sort of a security token and get the capital that you need. So it actually has helped in a lot of places for that. Also has helped a lot of people with transactions that for whatever reason don't have access to banks. But you can engage in transactions with these cryptocurrencies.

Nicci Brown: What about data mining? Can you tell us a little bit more about data mining?

Mark Jamison: Well, data mining is a very different kind of a thing. A data mining is where you're gathering massive amounts of data and you're using different mathematical statistical formulas to say, what does the data tell me? So, you don't go into it with a particular question in mind. I'm an economist. I always go in with a question in mind. I'm trying to figure out how something works or what explains something else. Data mining just says, I'm going to let the data speak and it may relate, it can relate, to cryptocurrencies but it doesn't have to, but it can relate to cryptocurrencies because this blockchain, this massive database on all these computers is a lot of very clean data that data miners love.

Nicci Brown: Got it. So we've heard in the news issues surrounding the environmental impact of cryptocurrency. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Mark Jamison: Sure. When Satoshi Nakamoto designed Bitcoin, he, she, they had to make it expensive for someone to cheat. That was the key to keep someone from getting it to that double-spend problem. They tried to make it really expensive to lie. And the way they did that was by developing a computer algorithm that took a lot of energy to solve, a guessing game is what it essentially turned out to be. Well, that's fine. But once you get several thousand computers around the world all playing the game, they start burning up a lot of electricity. So when you look for miners, you typically find them in places in the world where energy's very cheap. And so people worry about this.

Now that is called a proof of work concept. There are other ways of running blockchains. For example, Ethereum, one I mentioned earlier, which is a really popular utility token, is trying to implement what they call a ‘proof of stake,’ which says that you don't have to go through lots of expensive effort to be credible in our system if you just have a big stake in the system. That decreases your incentive to cheat. And so we'll take it that way and they may get it to be much less expensive. There are some other algorithms that people have worked on out there, hypergraphs and things, that might be a lot cheaper to run as well. So people are working on the problem, but there have been some concerns.

Nicci Brown: Interesting. Could you tell us a little bit more about some of the opportunities and I guess the dangers that investors might come across?

Mark Jamison: Sure. Now, first off, I don't give investment advice.

Nicci Brown: Okay.

Mark Jamison: I actually hire somebody to do that so no investment advice from me. But it helps to think through the three different types of cryptocurrencies, tokens, that we have because they have different kinds of financial properties. Let's start with just the pure cryptocurrency. If you think of yourself as investing in a pure cryptocurrency, I discourage people from using the term “invest” in that case because there's nothing tangible behind it. The currency is only good for transactions and its value is determined by two things. One is how useful is it for making transactions? If it's accepted by two or three people, that's it, it's probably not very valuable. If it's accepted by thousands or millions that makes it valuable to use. It also has value for speculation. These cryptocurrencies tend to be a bit volatile. And so a lot of people just love trying to own them in, buy low sell high with them because they move a lot. So that is the demand side.

The supply side is that they exist only in a fairly fixed amount. It's very predictable how many they're going to be out there. So, if you're thinking about, ‘I would like to speculate or own or whatever in a cryptocurrency’ think in those terms. You know, are you paying a price that reflects speculation or its actual functionality? And how's the supply going to change. Similar for utility tokens. There's a computer that says here's how many they're going to be in circulation. Demand is indeed still functionality. How big is this system? How valuable is this system that people can trade in? And then there's a lot of speculation as well.

Now the security one is different. Again, the number of security tokens is fixed in a computer algorithm, but there are underlying assets. You might be an owner in a business or a debt holder in a business. You've got some stake in the success of a particular business. And the value of that business helps determine the value and then there's speculation as well.

Probably one of the better pieces of advice I've seen on using these types of things for investments is they might be really useful for diversifying your portfolio. You know, a portfolio you manage risk by having different types of things you own, where one of them goes up and value to other going down in value so that the portfolio stays about the same value. It turns out these cryptocurrencies behave very differently from all of our other financial instruments. So it is a new way to diversify that portfolio.

Nicci Brown: Because it's so new is that part of the risk, though, as well and some of the danger?

Mark Jamison: Perhaps. You have to understand what the volatility is, how it relates. And that has been pretty well researched. Now, a lot of academicians jumped into that. There is one thing though, I need to point out as well. And that is while there's this idea that there's no trusted third party, that computers just do it and it all works great, you are trusting the computer programmers. Very few of us have the skills to go read the computer code and know that the algorithm is doing what it said it would do. In fact, there was a research study done at the University of Pennsylvania, which looked at — this is several years ago now — 50 of the top initial coin offerings that were done over the past year. And some computer scientists read the paper, looked the computer code and found out that many, many times the computer code did not do what the white paper said. So, you might want to find a trusted third party to check out that computer code for you.

Nicci Brown: So, speaking of third parties, I guess, Congress is looking at regulating cryptocurrency. And so it's interesting for me to understand what are lawmakers looking at and why?

Mark Jamison: Well, I think as far as I follow it, there are basically two efforts. One is actually by our Securities Exchange Commission. That's the one that regulates Wall Street, if you will. They are worried that some of these security tokens, primarily, but they reach pretty far, so some of the utility tokens as well. They say these look like securities to us and we regulate securities. So, you know, here's the 150 or 2,000 pages of paperwork that you've got to do to launch one of these things. And so they're after it and they're checking into it. They have now approved some of the different types of cryptocurrencies, but some people have gotten in trouble for not following the rules, even though they didn't know the rules were there and thought they didn't apply. It was kind of the wild, wild west there for a while.

So that is going on out there. Oh, I should mention as well, just to be complete. There's also anytime you have a technology change that really affects traditional business models, the incumbents fight back and some of that's going on as well because we have in our banking system a trusted third-party system that makes a lot of money being the trusted third party. And if that can be replaced by computer software, that's a little scary for those folks.

There's another effort, and this is actually showing up in some legislation in Congress, to force the entities that are involved in helping people trade these cryptocurrencies to requiring them to report everything that's happened. So if you and I, for example, well, let me change the example. Suppose that that you're a large business and you do work in the U.S. and Europe. There'll be times where you will want to convert dollars to euros and times you want to convert euros to dollars. Any time there's a change in value of those you have to report that to the IRS. It might be a loss. It might be a gain. The IRS wants to do that with cryptocurrencies as well. Right now, you are required if you're trading in cryptocurrencies to report that. Congress, the IRS, would love for the exchange entities to have to do the reporting just to make sure nobody's cheating.

Nicci Brown: Understood. So at least two countries, Afghanistan and El Salvador, have adopted cryptocurrency as their official national currency. Why did they make this move? And what are your thoughts about cryptocurrency as the basis of a country's monetary system?

Mark Jamison: Well, my understanding in the case in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and El Salvador as I understand them, are different in this regard. In Afghanistan, this is primarily a movement of the citizens and it's largely with the Taliban taking over. People were concerned about what if they come and take my money? You know, where can I, how do I manage the risk, what if the currency collapses, all of these things. So they just started using a lot of cryptocurrencies and they had limited access to banks. That was particularly true for women and girls — that generally in a lot of those countries, women and girls are not allowed to have bank accounts, but they can have Bitcoin. And so they start managing their own finances that way. That's how El Salvador started out as well. People who did not have bank access started using Bitcoin or perhaps some other cryptocurrency.

Eventually, my understanding of it is, that the president of El Salvador saw that, that's pretty cool. In fact, I would like to be a really cool president. So he said, let's have Bitcoin as one of our currencies. So now they have two currencies, Bitcoin and the U.S. dollar. Now that can be a problem. So there's no problem with having a cryptocurrency as your currency, per se, as long as it's designed for that purpose. So in the case of like an El Salvador or even an Afghanistan, if it became official and they had two currencies, just think of yourself as a person running a small shop or just sitting out in the street and selling goods, you have to accept either Bitcoin or dollars and their values change considerably relative to each other. So, you have to keep track of all of that. That's going to be difficult for a lot of people, it would be easier for them just to have one currency.

So that's a challenge for a poor country if it tries to do that. But what I also encourage countries to think about is that they've got a real supply problem when it comes to a cryptocurrency. The way that our currency, the U.S. dollar, the way its volume changes is if you want to create a business, you go to a bank and you borrow money to do that. And the bank doesn't really have that money that it loans to you. It has some percent of it. So, when you borrow that money from the bank that creates new money, but it's based upon you creating value in the economy.

So, there's a tracking of how much the economy is growing and how much the currency, the volume of currency, is growing. The only exception of that is things that we have going on right now where the Federal Reserve Bank tells the U.S. Treasury, “I'm giving you a billion dollars, just go spend it.” It comes from nowhere. They just make it up and send it. So that becomes an issue. But the supply can follow the demand for the U.S. dollar. That's not true with the cryptocurrency. The supply follows a formula in a computer, regardless of how many people want the cryptocurrency. That rate of growth is stuck by that program. And that's one of the reasons why the values are so volatile. And if you're a country thinking about this should be my currency, understand it's going to be very volatile.

Nicci Brown: Do you ever see a time where currency, as we know it, traditional currency, is going to be phased out?

Mark Jamison: You mean like the hard-copy currencies that some of us still see, but not everybody?

Nicci Brown: Yes.

Mark Jamison: I would be surprised, not for a very long time. One is that not everybody has a smartphone and certainly your smartphone doesn't work every place you go and you need something like that to engage with a cryptocurrency. So I don't think that'll happen anytime soon.

Nicci Brown: Moving on, how might investments in and use of cryptocurrency impact Wall Street and the financial markets?

Mark Jamison: So far, it's been additive. We've created new financial markets with these cryptocurrencies because they don't have a lot of the cost of the traditional system built into them. A lot of people who can't afford those costs, those transaction fees, are now part of a financial system. So there are people who might migrate from one country to another and want to send money back to their family, they can do it through Bitcoin or some other cryptocurrency at almost no cost. If they were to do it through the official banking system, they would lose 10, 20, whatever percent of that. And if they tried to do it through the informal system, it even gets more expensive. So we've added new financial markets.

We've also added new financial instruments that are showing up in the traditional markets. There's an effort to have futures of Bitcoin. I think that's about wrapped up. I didn't follow the latest news on it. It's been a multi-year effort, but it looks like there's the traditional Wall Street systems are now going to be participating in the cryptocurrency system.

Nicci Brown: So then for the average person, what's the bottom line as far as cryptocurrency goes? What does it mean for us now? And I guess in the future.

Mark Jamison: Well, you can just blow it all off and pay no attention to it whatsoever and it won't affect you a bit. You can decide that you want to diversify your portfolio, make sure you know what you're doing, because there's no one guaranteeing that this all continues to work, because we have had cryptocurrencies disappear. So you want to watch out for that. You could maybe help finance a new business with some of it as well. You could do that kind of a thing. But I just encourage people to think carefully, know what you are doing because a lot of this is still being discovered, still being developed, and we'll see how it all works out. It's going to play a role in our future economy. How big of a role and exactly what role is yet to be seen.

In fact, it's interesting to note that having founded Bitcoin and being the very first miner, Satoshi Nakamoto actually owns, I don't know how much millions of dollars in Bitcoin and has never touched it. There's some speculation that maybe he, she or they have passed away and just can't access it. And that is something to make sure you pay attention to with cryptocurrency. I think it's true for almost all of them — I may be wrong, but I think it is — that if you lose the code that gives you access to your cryptocurrency, you can't get it anymore. No one else has that code except you. There's no way to break into the system and pull it out. So we've had a lot of people that have gotten a lot of Bitcoin worth, a lot of money, lost their code and there it sits and it'll sit there forever.

Nicci Brown: Wow. That's a word of warning there.

Mark Jamison: Yes. 

Nicci Brown: Mark, thank you for sharing your insights with us today. It's been great having you with us.

Mark Jamison: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida, where we share the stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. I hope you'll return for our next story of innovation From Florida.

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October 26, 2021

Episode 7: There’s a lot more to bats than their spooky reputation

Bats! Bats are the only mammals that power their own flight and the University of Florida has hundreds of thousands of them living in the world’s largest occupied bat houses. In this episode, From Florida host Nicci Brown talks with Verity Mathis, mammal collections manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History about the history of bats at UF, species found in our colony, the role bats play in the ecosystem and other fascinating facts about bats.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Now, Halloween is just around the corner and we thought we'd take a moment to learn about a creature often associated with this time of year — bats! Here's a fact many people may not know. The University of Florida is home to the world's largest occupied bat houses. There are two bat barns and a bat house just across from Lake Alice on Museum Road and they are home to hundreds of thousands of these flying mammals. Our guest today is Verity Mathis, mammal collections manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Verity, welcome!

Verity Mathis: Thank you so much for having me.

Nicci Brown: So how did we come to have three bat barns on our campus?

Verity Mathis: So, back in 1991, there was a colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats that were roosting in the stadiums, on the track stadium and the tennis stadium. And as you can imagine, when you have a large colony of bats, they make a lot of mess and smell. If you've ever gone past the bat houses, you know what I'm talking about. And so the Athletics Association decided to try to build a house to rehome those bats. So they built the house and, funnily enough, they transported all these bats into the new house, excluded them from the stadiums and then the night after they transported them, they all left and they didn't come back for three years. But then finally in 1995, the bats started recolonizing the bat houses on their own and they've made it a permanent home now. And so then in 2010, they built the bat barn to help give the bats some more space and then in 2017 they built the new bat house. And that was built with the intention of eventually tearing down the original bat house, which is becoming really deteriorated and getting to the point where it's probably going to have to come down. And so they're hoping the bats will colonize that new house.

Nicci Brown: So from what I understand, there are more than 1,400 species of bats. Would you tell us more about the ones that live here on the UF campus?

Verity Mathis: Yeah, so like I mentioned, the bat houses are primarily occupied by Brazilian free-tailed bats, which are one of the most common bat species in North America. They're definitely the most common one here in Florida. And that's the majority of bats that you see probably around town and just pretty much anywhere. And then there are also a couple other species that you might see coming out of the bat house. There's the Southeastern myotis, which is in smaller numbers. I think the estimates I read were maybe a hundred or so might colonize that house. And then you might also get a few evening bats as well, but by and large when you're seeing bats coming out of that house, it's going to be the Brazilian free-tailed.

Nicci Brown: I understand they're really quite amazing when it comes to flight.

Verity Mathis: They are! So, bat species, all of them are capable of different heights of flight and types of flight. But the Brazilian free-tailed bat that we have here is actually really remarkable. Not only is it capable of long-distance flight, so within a night it can go 30 miles or so foraging, looking for insects, but it's also capable of very high-altitude flight. So, the species out West that are migrating, they've been documented to migrate up to like 9,000 feet in the air, 10,000 feet in the air, which is really, really high. And in fact, when they're doing these migrations, sometimes if there was enough numbers of them, they actually show up on the weather radars and you could see these masses moving through the air. And they're also really fast flyers. So this particular species, normally it can maybe fly around 60 miles an hour is probably like maybe top speed, but they've actually been documented to go as fast as 100 miles an hour in like short bursts, which is just amazing to think about. This one species is just capable of so much.

Nicci Brown: As you can probably tell from my accent, I grew up in Australia and we have the flying fox there.

Verity Mathis: You're so lucky.

Nicci Brown: One of the largest bats, but how big are the bats here at UF in comparison?

Verity Mathis: They are really small in comparison. So the ones that you have over in Australia, which are the flying foxes, those are what we call mega bats. They're huge. They can have a six-foot wingspan. You compare that to the bats we have here in Florida, which are much, much smaller. They might have, I don't know . . . the wingspans vary depending on the species, but anywhere from maybe six inches or nine inches, something like that. They're maybe a little bit bigger, but they're small bats here. They call them microcystins, which is hard to say. But so, yeah, they're a lot smaller.

Nicci Brown: And then even when you look at their wings, the structure of what are called wings, but really they're like hands.

Verity Mathis: They are and they are our hands. They have the exact same bone structure in their wings that we have in our hands. So, the thin bones that are in the actual wing membranes are their fingers. They're the same fingers that we have. And in fact, the order of bats, the order is called Chiroptera and that literally translates to “hand wing.” So that's the same morphology, just like the flipper in a whale is our fingers. It's all homologous.

Nicci Brown: So can you tell us how many of them we actually have here?

Verity Mathis: So, the estimates vary and I don't know the last time anyone has done a real true estimate count, but we think we have around 400,000 to 500,000 of the free-tailed bats. And like I mentioned, maybe around a hundred or so of the Southeastern myotis. And so that's a pretty good size and the bat houses have the capacity . . . the two houses have the capacity to hold, I think, 750,000 bats and now that we have the third house, we have even more capacity.

Nicci Brown: Wow. So small bats, but large population.

Verity Mathis: Yes.

Nicci Brown: What's the typical behavior of these creatures?

Verity Mathis: When you see them emerging for the evening, they're going out to forage. And so they're going out to look for insects. So they come out and about 15 minutes after sunset is when you start to see the emergence. So that's a good time to go to the bat houses if you're trying to watch that. And then just throughout the night, they're going to be flying around looking for food. They might come back to the roost occasionally throughout the night. But the cool thing about the Brazilian free-tailed bat is it is capable of really long-distance flights for a bat its size. It can fly over 30 miles a night just looking for food. So they're going to be ranging pretty far. And they're feeding on insects. All the bats we have here in Florida are insect eaters. So they're going to be looking for mosquitoes, for moths, beetles, flies, anything that they can find.

Nicci Brown: Wow. So, they are the only mammal that flies, too, from what I understand?

Verity Mathis: That's true. Yeah. They're the only one capable of power flight. We have gliding squirrels or flying squirrels, which really don't fly. They just glide from tree-to-tree, but bats are the only ones that are actual true flyers.

Nicci Brown: So, when they are out flying at night, when do they generally come back to roost? Is it called roosting?

Verity Mathis: Yeah. It's roosting. Yeah. So, the bats are roosting in the bat houses or in trees or in caves, depending on the species. So, they'll forage frequently throughout the night. Sometimes they'll come back to the roost, like every three or four hours maybe. And then they usually start to really head back for the morning or we would say we're going home for the night and they're going home for the day. Maybe like around three, four, in the morning, they'll start making their way back. Although, I've seen them out still foraging at 5:30, 6:00, in the morning when I'm walking my dog when it's still dark outside. So, there's still some late . . . I don't know what you would call that — early morning bats?

Nicci Brown: Right? Yeah. Well, I guess it's all relative. Right?

Verity Mathis: Right, yeah.

Nicci Brown: One of the things that I think is really important for us to recognize is the part they play in our ecosystem. How is the bat population doing in our state and are the colonies decreasing or are they increasing?

Verity Mathis: Right. So bats are extremely important ecosystem service providers because they provide natural pest control. So, the ones that we have here on campus, the Brazilian free-tailed bats, seem to be doing really well. They tend to roost in large numbers. They seem to have a pretty steady population. We have 13 species of bats here in Florida. They're all insectivorous but we have two that are federally endangered. Those are the gray bat, which is found in north Florida. And then the bonneted bat, which is only found in south Florida and the bonneted bat is cool because it's the only bat that is only found in Florida. It's not found anywhere else in the world. So that's what makes it special. So those two bats are of conservation concern and are being monitored and FWC, which is the Florida Wildlife Commission, is actively looking at those populations. And they survey other bat populations as well. But by and large, I think the Florida bats are doing really well.

Nicci Brown: How does the weather affect their behavior?

Verity Mathis: So, they do tend to slow down on their emergence when it's cold outside, when it's rainy. The bats that we have here are active year-round. They don't hibernate like some bat species would up north because it just doesn't get cold enough for them to need to do that. You'll notice if you go out on a really cold night, you probably won't see the same emergence numbers that you would see in the summertime, but they are here year-round. So, the bats that we have here also don't migrate. So, the same species of bat that you find out West will be migrating to Mexico during the wintertime, but here they're just year-round residents.

Nicci Brown: And are there other bat houses in Alachua County?

Verity Mathis: There are, I mean, a lot of people have bat houses on their own properties, which is great and then some of the businesses are starting to put them up as well. So, if you go to Swamp Head Brewery here in town, they have a really nice big bat house out in their area. And then we're really lucky to have Lubee Bat Conservancy here in town. So not only are they doing really great conservation work for bats, like the flying foxes that you have in Australia, but they also are really active in building bat houses.

Nicci Brown: And it sounds to me like that is something that you encourage -- people setting up these bat houses in their yards.

Verity Mathis: Absolutely. Yeah. The one thing we do say is if you're interested in putting a bat house up in your yard, it's just to do your research and make sure that you're getting the right kind of house and putting it in the right kind of location because Florida does have a little bit more . . . maybe some more specific requirements just based on our temperature and just everything because Florida, you know, we’re special! So, there's some really good information out there on the web, especially if you go to the UF/IFAS website, which is the Institute for Food and Agricultural Services. They have a really good web page dedicated to bat houses in Florida and how to do it, what kind of design you want, how high you want it, the direction it needs to face, because the bats do have very specific requirements.

Nicci Brown: And what should you do if you encounter a bat?

Verity Mathis: Well, No. 1 is never handle it with your bare hands. Bats do carry rabies. So do almost all mammals. Maybe the exception could be made for the possum. But bats are a health risk. So, you want to be careful. What we usually tell people is if you find an injured bat on the ground and it doesn't look like it's capable of flying is to put on some nice thick gloves, get it into a container, maybe put a towel on there so it has something to hold onto and then call your local wildlife rehab. So here in Alachua County, we have Florida Wildlife Care and they're certified and trained on how to handle these bats. If you have a bat in your house and you're trying to figure out how to get it out of your house, you want to open up your windows, maybe open up your door, close any interior doors in your house to keep it in that room and then try to just stand back and stay out of the way and hopefully it'll get out on its own.

And then if for some reason it lands on your curtains or on furniture and it's just hanging out, put on those gloves again, get him into a container and then you can take it outside and very carefully put it up on a tree or some other vertical surface because bats really aren't great at taking off from the ground. They have to be up in a nice vertical service and then they can fly away. So, you just want to get them into a place where they can do that.

Nicci Brown: They have pretty amazing skills, though, in terms of not hitting people or running into people and, from what I understand, it's not likely that they will fly into you or anything like that.

Verity Mathis: Exactly. That is a huge myth that bats will get tangled up in your hair or attack you. They're just trying to avoid you. And so the other . . . like bats aren't blind. They have vision and they have echolocation, which is very . . . it’s not unique to bats because whales and dolphins also have it, but it is really cool because they can emit these sonar signals and that bounces off things and tells them information as to what they're looking for. So, it tells them if that's an insect they want to eat, that's a tree they want to avoid. So they're really good at navigating the environment around them and they're going to avoid you if they can.

Nicci Brown: Well, let's talk a little bit more about some of those myths, because we know that bats feature quite prominently in popular culture — everything from being characterized as blood-sucking vampires to being represented by one of our greatest superheroes, Batman, and even being the namesake of an operetta by Johann Strauss, “Die Fledermaus,” which translates directly, if I'm not wrong, to “flutter mouse,” which I have to admit I love. Why were you so fascinated with bats and are we being fair with these representations, especially the ones that we associate with evil things?

Verity Mathis: Yeah, bats, they get probably the worst rap of almost any mammal I can think of and it's very undeserved and a lot of that has to do with pop culture and their long association with blood-sucking and vampires. And the funny thing is, out of the 1,400 species of bats that there are in the world, only three of them are actual blood drinkers. And those are all found in South America, Central America. So, it's not even a problem for North America. And they, like I mentioned before, provide all these amazing ecosystem engineers of natural pest control. There are pollinator bats that are found in other places which help pollinate the plants around them, especially if you like tequila. Tequila is from agave and agave is a bat pollinator obligate. So, they have to be pollinated by bats.

There's bats in tropical countries that eat fruit and then they disperse the fruit and help the forest diversity that way. Their bat guano, the bat poop itself, is a really great fertilizer. So it's really helpful for gardens and things like that. So they do all these great things for us and then we turn around and we're scared of them. We want to be respectful of them and of their lifestyle and we don't want to encroach upon them and bother them because like I mentioned, there's always the possibility of handling a bat wrongly and getting bit by rabies, but that's actually not a very common thing that happens. I think as long as we continue these conversations about telling people how cool bats are then maybe eventually pop culture will catch up to that.

Nicci Brown: Catch up. And I understand there is a connection between our namesake Gatorade and bats.

Verity Mathis: Yeah. So, one of the things that we sometimes do is . . . well, sometimes we find bats on campus that maybe aren't doing so great or found on the ground in the middle of the day and they need to get rescued. And so what we sometimes do is we will get gloved up and get them into a box and then we'll get them Gatorade and just using a little dropper, give them some Gatorade just to give them some hydration, some sugar just to perk them up a little bit, and that helps them recover. And then we can then release them out into the woods here on campus and hopefully they can continue on their way. We used to have a container of Gatorade in our work fridge that was just labeled “bat juice.”

Nicci Brown: Oh, my goodness. Little bat athletes!

Verity Mathis: Yeah.

Nicci Brown: Are there any other interesting facts that you'd like to share with us?

Verity Mathis: Oh my gosh. I probably could talk for hours about bats. So, like you mentioned, there's 1,400 species of bats, which makes them a quarter of all mammalian diversity in the world. And they're the only ones that can fly so how cool is that? But some things that people maybe not might not know is bats are also extremely long lived for their size. So, when we think about small mammals like rats and other things like that, they only live maybe a year or two in the wild and bats can live decades. The oldest living bat that's known in the wild lived over 41 years and that was a small bat. That wasn't one of the big flying foxes, too. So it's pretty amazing that they can live for so long. And as a counterpoint to their long lives is they only give birth maybe once a year to maybe one pup, maybe two.

Sometimes if things are really great, they might give birth at twice year, but I think that's pretty rare. So they have very low reproductive rates, but very long lives, which I don't know, that's fascinating for such a small mammal because that's pretty opposite to everything we know about how size correlates to reproductive activity and how size correlates to age.

And yeah, they're not rodents. People want to call them rodents. They're more closely related to humans than they are to rodents.

Nicci Brown: I want to circle back. How did Verity get involved with bats? Was there a young Verity that was fascinated or was it something that came upon you when you were studying? How did you get so enthralled with bats?

Verity Mathis: Yeah, it just came upon me through my job and how I just came to Florida. My background is actually more in rodents. And then I was working for a time in Mississippi and I started helping out our bat biologist there and just going out and getting to net bats with her and learning more about them. I really just got into it. And then when I came here, I just, I don't know, it just happened that I started becoming more and more about bats. And then our curator of mammals, he had an active research program on bats in the Bahamas. So when I first started working here about seven years ago, I got to go on trips to the Bahamas where we were netting bats there. And that was just so much fun and really cool. And so just learning more about them just through life, I guess.

Nicci Brown: And if anyone who is listening wants to share that passion and learn more about UF bats and the bat barns, where can they go?

Verity Mathis: So, if you just go to your favorite search engine and just put in “UF Bat Houses” that should take you directly to the web site that we have. The museum hosts a web site about the bat houses and it gives all the information about them that I talked about today and some more information as well. I think that's probably the first hit you'll get when you search for it. So that's probably a good resource to start and then you can always just email or call me.

Nicci Brown: Verity, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure.

Verity Mathis: It was awesome. Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners. Thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida where we share the stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward. I hope you'll return for our next story of innovation From Florida.

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October 19, 2021

Episode 6: Innovative solutions at UF are supporting students’ mental health well-being

For UF’s Student Life division, helping the university’s more than 55,000 students connect and thrive over the past 18 months was a challenge as the pandemic and social issues escalated the common pressures of the college years. Student Life Vice President D’Andra Mull shares how UF adapted and expanded services to connect students to campus services and to each other. She also discusses the innovations that worked so well they are being continued.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where you will learn how minds are connecting, great ideas of colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

The University of Florida is among the nation's largest campuses with more than 54,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students. That is a lot of students, which means UF’s Division of Student Life fills a leading role on our campus, with more than 25 departments and 2,500 full- and part-time employees.

The role of Student Life was especially important in ensuring our students stayed connected to our campus and each other during the pandemic. Student Life also plays a vital role in meeting the mental health needs of our students.

There have been numerous reports about the mental health challenges faced by college students today — not only because of the pandemic, but in general. We're going to talk about that and how UF's Student Life division has come up with innovative ways to address students' mental health and help our students thrive.

My guest today is Vice President D'Andra Mull. She joined us in January 2020 from The Ohio State University, where she served as associate vice president of Student Life and dean of students. Welcome Vice President Mull, we are delighted to have you as our guest today!

Vice President D'Andra Mull: Thank you so much, Nicci. I'm also very delighted to be here with you all.

Nicci Brown: Well, you chose to come to UF at one heck of a time!

Vice President Mull: Yeah. It seems like I have perfect timing in this space — three weeks before we learned of this small event, that we thought would be over within a few months, and, ha! Here we are.

Nicci Brown: Right! So, I shared a little bit about your background before you arrived here at UF, but we'd love to know more. What led you to a career in Student Life?

Vice President Mull: Absolutely. So when I began my undergraduate student career, it was with the intention of going to law school upon graduation. I did what many students will find themselves doing and that is exploring career opportunities through things such as internships or externships and leadership experiences, and I actually completed an internship.

During that internship, while I recognized how much my time spent with the lawyer was amazing, I loved what she did for her. But for me I also learned that's not what I want to do with my career. I did know that I really wanted to be in a space where I could advocate for those who perhaps didn't always have a voice in the conversation or a seat at the table. And so I went back to my mentor, who was the vice president for student affairs and vice-president for enrollment management, and I said to her, "I'm wrapping up this internship and I don't want to be a lawyer anymore."

She said, "Well, I figured you'd come to that conclusion. As I've walked through your internship experience with you this summer, you've spoken very highly of it, but I could sense that there was some tension between what you eventually want to do and what you're saying to me now. So I figured you'd get to this point." And I was like, "Well, should've told me that a long time ago, then maybe I would have saved some time!" But no, it was an awesome experience, and she said to me, I'll never forget. She said, "Who do you want to help? How do you want to live your values?" Something to that effect. And I said to her, "Well, I love advocating. I love being in spaces where I can really tell the story of why things should matter. And perhaps what we do to move needles and really shift some things in favor of audiences or groups that I've been able to work with."

And she said, "Have you ever thought about a career in Student Life? — or, she said student affairs at that point. And I said, "Well, no. What's that?" She's like, "It's what you do every day." I was student body president, president of my sorority. So for me, it was just an opportunity for me to figure out how all that came full circle. And I was like, "Oh, you all get paid to do this?" And so that was how I began my journey into the profession. It was definitely being in the right place at the right time with the right mentor and being able to take the right risks, because I think sometimes we get caught in a journey where we've gone along a path for so long that we don't want to shift. I'm glad that I had a mentor that had the courage to say to me, "Hey, it's okay to change." And then also for me to realize that just because it's your time doesn't mean it's your door. So it was certainly my time to graduate, but my door looked different to advocacy than I thought it would.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. That sort of self-reflection is so important and also having that guidance. And it's a perfect segue, I guess, to what you're doing now that you started off with that guidance.

Vice President Mull: Absolutely. The work that I do now allows me to make magic happen for students, with the leadership of the amazing team of professionals that make that happen and students and graduate students alike. And so it certainly is a very big operation. As you mentioned earlier, we have 2,500-plus professional and peer-professional employees helping guide the way. We have 25+ departments that make it all happen, ranges with everything from counseling and the wellness center to our GatorWell office or our recreational sports, our residence life and education to a multicultural diversity affairs area. We run the gamut and make sure that students not only leave with an education, but they leave with an experience. We really do work to make sure that we prepare Gators to engage, transform and thrive. And again, having a team that's centered in that, whose mission is to live their values out loud and help students find their purpose and passion certainly allows me to come to work every day, find my broom and get in, and do good work.

Nicci Brown: Sounds terrific. It is a challenging job though, and I think we all know that even in the best of times that the college years can be stressful and very challenging for young people. And that has been especially true over the past several years due to the pandemic and many other societal events. What have you seen at UF and has there been an increase in students’ mental health needs?

Vice President Mull: One hundred percent. We have been acutely aware of what's going on nationally and we've seen that reflected in our student population here at UF. We've seen an increase in need, which goes together with an increase in communication and our proactive outreach in the de-stigmatization of mental health. We want students to know that it's okay to know when you need to get some assistance, right? No different than if I'm writing a paper and I realize that perhaps I'm having a writer's block or I have some anxiety going on, it's okay for me to reach out to someone who has either walked the journey or is trained to offer me guidance. And so helping students to first recognize that it's okay to ask for help, that we are made to have helpmates, we are made to ask for assistance, we are not made to go this alone, and to put in place the resources that allow them to do that.

We've seen this through the lens of student anxiety and mental health needs. We've seen it with some just simply managing the stress. We've seen some distracted learning environments. So we run the gamut of what we've always seen. I've seen some students who need to have their weekly visits with our mental health professionals. That's what helps them stay guided. That's what helps them feel safe and supported in the environment and so we've certainly worked to make sure that we can provide that service.

We also know that we have students who simply need help in areas of, whether it's healthy eating habits, it may be they're coming into an environment that is more stressful, and so they've either forgotten those grounding principles of health and nutrition, so they need some help finding their way. So, we have our offices like the GatorWell health promotion services who allows our students to find their way that way.

We have recreational sports. And so we think of health and wellness as a large scale, not simply what happens in the mind, but also what happens in the body. We think it's all interconnected and so we try to make sure our services and our support for students help them to recognize that help comes from many different directions and it is about the whole body and the whole student and the multiple dimensions of wellness that keeps us all healthy, engaged and thriving.

Nicci Brown: Do you think that some of the comments we've had from high-profile young leaders, such as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, has really helped students to recognize that and to come out and seek help but also understand that it is a holistic approach, if you're going to succeed in one thing you need to take care of your entire self?

Vice President Mull: Yes. Without question. I think that the best thing about folks really being comfortable moving in and speaking out about their needs is that it allows students to see mirrors and reflections of themselves.

I believe that both Naomi and Simone have given students the courage to say, "I see you. And because of the fact that I see you, I now also see me a bit better." And so it allows them to go into spaces and really understand that they're not in this alone. The stories that Simone and Naomi and others like them have shared with students allows them to, again, know that this is not about a fight on their own. Whether it's stress management or this idea of the mental health stresses they may have, maybe it's healthy eating. Whatever that looks like, we have lots of representatives across the national media scope that allow our students to understand that they're human and that is not a weakness to know that everything doesn't align perfectly on every day.

There are some days where it's going to take you a little bit longer to get out of bed, perhaps. There are some days you're going to spend a little more time struggling as you try to sleep. There are some days when you're going to really say, “You know what? I can't go to that meeting after classes today because I'm just worn out." And I think that Naomi and Simone and, again, the whole community of folks who are so courageously speaking out about the fact that sometimes they're not feeling okay, has been very instrumental in helping our students to feel more comfortable doing that as well. It reduces the stigma in ways that we need to have done.

The reduction in stigma here means an increase in uptake and services, but for us that's okay. I think the best thing you can do is get help before you need it. And when you need it or wait until you're so far down the road, it's kind of like your warning lights that come on on your dashboard, you deal with that check engine light before it becomes an engine failure.

The check engine light is essentially telling you, "Hey, there's something that's going wrong. There's something that's a bit off in this space. Let's get it checked out and worked out before we can actually get to a place where it becomes harder for us to get to the heart of what's going on and it takes more resources to help correct course or offer support." So I think that Simone and Naomi both offer us a gut check, a reality check point. It is certainly a stop in the road for us to say as a university community, "Hey, we have a lot of students who literally are mirror images to these high-achieving athletes that we have in front of us. We have a lot of students, whether they're achieving academically or in athletic fields, who are putting a lot of pressure on themselves and we are, too.”

So how do we make sure that what we do, as we have high expectations, we also understand there may be high needs and that we offer roadways to their success that allows them to, again, look in the mirror and see the things that others may see in themselves and they can recognize that. But then we also offer support that allows them to grow and bloom from what they've learned.

Nicci Brown: I know that during the pandemic Student Life instituted several measures to give students as much of a typical campus experience as possible and to help them connect with other students. Can you share a little more about those innovations?

Vice President Mull: Yes. So, the pandemic certainly brought a lot of things to light for all of us. One of the biggest truths that we saw come out was that our students are deeply social. We know that it doesn't matter if the world is experiencing a pandemic, it doesn't stop the fact that we all need connection. We knew that that was true for our students, we watched how they navigated it. We watched them struggle in the very beginning as we told everyone that we have to hunker down and make sure that we're being safe. We didn't change our scope from being safe, but we moved away from talking about “social distancing” to talking about “physical distancing.” That was a critical movement and step on behalf of the University of Florida. We knew that for students, they live in social spaces. I can't imagine most of our students not having owned a cell phone at some point in their formative years.

They've always grown up with the internet. I remember I used dial up. My first experience with the internet was dial-up and someone would jump on the call and be like, "You have to get off the line. I'm really trying to do some work here." But for them, how do we keep them engaged in spaces and ways so they knew the university still cared and was committed to their success, while also honoring the pandemic that was blowing up largely across the world. So again, we made sure that we had ways to connect that were innovative, inclusive and dynamic.

These range from the creation of the first virtual student union in the country at a large institution. So, what we did there, we launched our virtual student union to provide a hub for the programs, services and events that shape the student experience.

We did everything from comedy shows to check ins. We did meet ups. We did movie nights. We did a lot of things that allow students to still be in a space where they can engage. It became a really large sensation for students. We had millions of users of that space. Many of them were repeat users, others were one-time drop ins. They saw Tiffany Haddish, who's a very popular comedian and they wanted to hear from Tiffany Haddish. So, for them, it was really important that they could still engage in that experience. We also expanded our online classes. So, we talked a lot about the dimensions of wellness and so that's a big focus for us. We made sure the rec sport students could get up off their couches and literally engage with their rec sports from the comfort of their living room. That was very popular with students as well.

And so while we had the opportunity for students to come to campus and engage in rec sports by making sure that we made the areas smaller for students’ usage, made sure that they have some privacy, we also want to make sure the students knew that they could join wherever they were.

We also hosted a “pod” concert. We had an in-person concert where students could come and be in pods. All throughout the pandemic we talked about the power of “quaranteams,” T-E-A-M-S. We know that's important — that students are deeply social. We knew that if we did not create social outlets for them, they would create them for themselves. So, we made sure that we recognize that if you live in a house with four other students, it makes no sense for me to tell you that you can't attend a concert with them.

So we made sure that we had ways to really embrace and engage them while also honoring the pandemic. And I think that it's important to say that because I don't want to give the impression that we didn't understand what was going on around us, but we also understood the students that we were serving.

We had recharge days. We knew the students were just tired. We leaned into the benefits of the Florida weather and embraced the sunshine and had an outdoor day of activities. You could do painting. You could go and make a clay pot. You could get a T-shirt. You could make a tie-dye T-shirt. You can do a host of different things that just got you out into the sunshine and embraced what that meant for us. The way that that really does help us is that we had thousands of students that came out to take part in that. Heck, I came out for a cupcake, those cupcakes were delicious. So, we had different food stations. There are all types of things that we really did do to engage students. So again, we really did honor the pandemic, but also honored the needs of our students. We found ways to connect them to their student experience even though it looked a bit less traditional than they would have had in previous years.

Nicci Brown: And I'm guessing that even though, hopefully, we will be through the pandemic in some way, shape or form very soon, a lot of these innovations are things that we can build upon in the future.

Vice President Mull: Oh, absolutely. We will leave our virtual student union in place. We knew that for the first time, this was a time where some students who've never been able to engage in UF activities beyond their classroom experience, this became possible. Meanwhile, we have a lot of UF online students who are not here locally in Gainesville. For the first time they could attend the concert with their peers. They could see the comedian, see the expressions of laughter from their colleagues as they're on that screen. They could take part in a rec sports class, as well as others who are around them. So, knowing that what we did actually should be something we should continue to do, we've taken that seriously and so we will be leaving those services in place. The same for telehealth. While we had some telehealth resources and services that were available, we expanded the scope and scale big time. And so we will also continue to meet the needs of students.

If students want to meet virtually, we will give them that opportunity. For those students who want to be back in our counseling spaces, they will also have that as an option. We're not going to remove services, we're simply expanding them. And so again, the promise of what we learned from the pandemic is that there are more ways for us to meet the needs of students. And so we're certainly keeping those in mind as we move forward.

Nicci Brown: Well, I'd love to hear more about the innovative approaches that we've developed here at UF to care for, counsel and promote the well-being of our students.

Vice President Mull: Yeah, so there's a lot. I'm thinking, particularly, what we learned is that there were a lot of students who simply wanted some drop-in appointments, to be able to just say, "I need to drop in and touch base." I always think of it, as you think about the ability to just walk into Chipotle and place an order before they get there, then take their order and they go. In some ways, that's what students need. They just need, again, a gut check or a spot check, for someone to just say, "Hey, you're good. Let's talk about these stress management techniques." Or, "Hey, have you thought about this," or "Hey, let me help get you to the next resource." And so we prepared an a la carte program. So that is located in Peabody Hall and it offers brief, same day 20- to 30-minute consultations for students to make sure that we can get the right support for them.

So, it doesn't mean that you have to take time and wait, perhaps, for a counseling appointment, as you would in other spaces. We offer the ability for students, again, to stop, meet with a professional, make sure we're having them pointed in the right direction as they move forward.

Telemental health and telehealth services largely have become a much bigger spotlight for us. What we did learn from the pandemic, and I like to call it the promises of the pandemic, is there are ways for us to expand the services in ways we support students. We have a lot of students for whom telehealth services are now the way they'd like to go. If they don't want to come to campus, but they certainly want to talk to someone about what's going on in their lives or questions they may have or anxiety that may be valid, they can now literally jump on a Zoom call and do that. They can pick up a telephone and schedule an appointment to have that done as well.

So, it allows us to be nimble in our services to students and make sure we're meeting them where they are, and we literally mean that. Wherever they are at this point, we're able to meet their needs and make sure that we're supporting them. And again, we've also found that both the virtual and in-person counseling allows us to meet more students' needs. So, whereas previously, perhaps you had a 45-minute counseling session or a 30 minute counseling session and then there was a turnover because you're setting up your space, you're cleaning your space, you're doing all those things. We eliminate some of that time and we're able to spend more time directly with our students there as well.

And so we offer, through our partnership with SilverCloud, a self-guided program that students can download to help manage their stress and anxiety. There are many virtual spaces. We're moving into the AI space, the artificial intelligence space. We're really using different resources to make sure that students can get what they need wherever they are.

We’ve also launched My CWC, which is the virtual space for students to learn about services and resources available to support their mental health. Similarly to a lot of our outside of scope university resources, students can now go in and they can almost do a punch list of things that they're experiencing. They can talk about some of their symptoms. They can talk about some of the services they've already had before they'd gotten to the university and then they can figure out from there where they go. So, it's almost a self-guided tour to what you need with regards to assistance. And so students have really picked up and honed in on that and it helps them identify things that they didn't know existed within them. So, we ask a student about anxiety. They haven't identified it previously as anxiety, but it's helping them to understand, perhaps, when you're having these mini panic attacks, it goes back to stress. Let's talk about stress management techniques.

And then we also have Gator to Gator. We know that, again, I talk a lot about mirrors with students and the fact that we're all meant to be a mirror to someone. And so this initiative allows students to get connected to one of our trained student ambassadors for personal support and or referral information. So we're really pouring and leaning into our student-to-student dynamic here because, again, I think to your point earlier, Simone and Naomi allow us to see that we aren't the only ones going through some things alone and students being able to support other students allows us to reinforce that.

Nicci Brown: Yeah, it really sounds like by drawing in their peers, but also providing all these different touch points, what you're doing is normalizing and really, as you said, meeting students where they are and helping them to understand this is not something that they should feel ashamed of. This is a very normal human experience and allowing them to get the help they need when they need it.

Vice President Mull: Yes, absolutely. It's normal for a car to need gas, it's normal for a car that's electric to need to be recharged. It's very normal for a student to need to get support to help them go as well. And so we definitely want to double down on that and make sure that again, we're lifting the stigma and normalizing student success. Because student success runs a continuum, it doesn't just mean that you're successful in the classroom. It means that we're preparing all the tools that help you to be successful so that when you leave here, you're not just leaving with your education. You're leaving with an experience that you've learned, you've grown from, you've figured out how you manage, you've figured out how to build some resilience and, ultimately, you figure out how to thrive both here on campus and beyond.

Nicci Brown: Yeah, let's talk a little bit more about that because the GatorWell Health Promotion Services really does focus a lot on not just the success in college, but setting up those healthy habits so that when you do graduate you can build upon them throughout your life.

Vice President Mull: Yes. And so I am so proud of the work of Dr. Monica Webb with her team in the GatorWell space, because that is what they talk about. Wellness is not just a one-stop. It doesn't mean that because you're doing well academically, that means you're well. It doesn't mean that because you're hitting the gym regularly, that you're doing well. It means that it gives you the ability to focus on all the pieces and parts that keep you running smoothly. And so we talk a lot about the various dimensions of wellness with our students so that they know that it's okay to, again, figure out how all the pieces work together and get you really moved along. They do lead many of our upstream initiatives as they work to prevent issues before they become problems for students.

We do a lot of things in the reactive space, but GatorWell is the most proactive mental health or health and wellness initiative that we have. So, it's not just mental health. We have CWC that supports that as well. While GatorWell certainly helps to support student's mental health, they're all about health and wellness holistically. And so their holistic health model certainly allows students to grow in that space. It ranges from alcohol education, to time management to simply guidance and tools and consultations on a variety of levels. They partner closely with our Greek community, because we have such a large population of students that live in that space or thrive in that space. So they really are here to make sure that, along with our Student Life assessment and research team, we're figuring out what the patterns are for students, we're working to be proactive in that space for next classes of students to come and that we protect the well-being and promote the well-being of our students collectively.

We really do want to create whole initiatives and wellness initiatives and not simply focus on one dimension, but rhelping students recognize that wellness is a large scope. It goes to scale. It doesn't simply stay in one place or it doesn't focus on one particular element.

Nicci Brown: Well, it sounds like our students are in great hands. Thank you so much, Dr. Mull, for the work you're doing and your team and your partners. And also thank you for being our guests today, it was really terrific to speak with you.

Vice President Mull: Well, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. Anytime I get to talk about the amazing work of the Student Life team and our phenomenal students that we get to support as they move throughout their educational journey here, I'm always motivated by that. I know that I'm in the right place. I know that that conversation that I had with Dr. Nancy Scott many years ago that led me to this field was the right conversation to have. And hopefully we can continue to make sure that we're doing all we can to lead students in directions that allow them to be well holistically, too. So thank you for the opportunity.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida, where we share the stories of faculty researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. And I hope you'll return for our next story of innovation From Florida.

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October 12, 2021

Episode 5: Our rise to Top 5: A conversation with President Fuchs

At his inauguration in 2015, President Kent Fuchs set an ambitious goal for the University of Florida: Become one of the nation’s Top 5 universities. Mission accomplished! President Fuchs shares why he didn’t hesitate to set that goal, what has made the university’s rise possible and what’s next – including his thoughts on a day of celebration. 


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality, because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and we have a very special guest today — University of Florida President Kent Fuchs, who's going to share his thoughts about our university and its rise to a Top 5 ranking. Dr. Fuchs became the 12th president of the University of Florida in January 2015. He previously was provost of Cornell University and had served in academic leadership positions and as a faculty member of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell, Purdue and the University of Illinois.

In addition to his doctorate from the University of Illinois, President Fuchs holds a master of divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Association for Computing Machinery. Welcome, President Fuchs. It's terrific to have you as our guest today.

President Kent Fuchs: Thank you, Nicci. It's great to be here.

Nicci Brown: Now, you set the University of Florida on a path to a Top 5 ranking at the start of your presidency in 2015. In fact, during your inauguration speech, you challenged us to think of a University of Florida that, and I quote, "Has the same acclaim in academics as athletics" and that, "the nation looks to for leadership in both areas." You did not hesitate in stating the goal: "We will be among the nation's Top 5 public research universities." What made you believe UF could rise to this level?

President Fuchs: The university for a number of years had a goal of being amongst the nation's Top 10 universities all the way back to President J. Hillis Miller, who in 1948, in his inauguration address, said that, "The nation deserved a university in the state of Florida that was amongst the top 10 to 12 universities in the nation." It took us a number of years to get to that point, to be amongst the Top 10. And indeed, before I was recruited to come to the University of Florida, the university had already made a lot of progress in establishing metrics that it believed would indeed be important to achieve and to make progress on, to be amongst the nation's Top 10, and so I had the privilege of riding on that momentum.

When I was interviewed and did my own assessment, and then in my first year, just decided that Top 10 wasn't ambitious enough. We were going to get there probably within a few years and we needed a goal that would be more aspirational. So indeed we looked at the metrics. We looked at other universities that would be considered amongst the Top 5, and we felt that we could get there. And the state, again, deserved it and the nation deserved the university in the state of Florida that was considered amongst the Top 5. So we indeed established that as our new goal even before we had moved into the Top 10 of university rankings.

Nicci Brown: Well, speaking of aiming high, you have a great partner in Mori Hosseini, chair of the Board of Trustees. How has Chair Hosseini helped develop and drive this vision?

President Fuchs: Mr. Hosseini is just truly unique, I think nationally, in just how he has worked so hard on behalf of higher education for the state of Florida. He was the chair of the Board of Governors for the state university system before he was on our board and then was appointed to our board and then was vice chair and now is, indeed, chair. So, he spends an enormous amount of time with our elected officials. I know this past week he was in Washington, D.C., working on behalf of higher ed broadly and specifically for the state of Florida and certainly for the University of Florida, as well as other universities, including Embry-Riddle University, from which he actually graduated in the area of aeronautical engineering. He has done several things.

Not only does he make the case for higher ed and the University of Florida with those that are supporters of the university, particularly elected officials, but he also holds us within the university accountable to making progress on metrics that we decide on that are important — important for the student body, important for faculty, important for, indeed, the reputation of the university. So he is really, really focused on the University of Florida and just continuing to make progress on what we broadly call its stature — this combination of its excellence and its reputation nationally. He's just laser-focused on that. He spends more time than anyone I've ever met, on a volunteer basis, working on behalf of higher ed, in addition to all the companies that he's responsible for during this day job.

Nicci Brown: So, can you share a little more about the specific things that the university did to make a difference in its ranking evaluation?

President Fuchs: The University of Florida is really metric driven, more so than any place I've been, and I'm an engineer by background so I love numbers and trends and graphs and tables and charts. But we track over a 100 different metrics across the institution. Some of them are inputs to the university. Examples of that would be the size of the endowment of the university. We also have outputs. So an output, an example of that would be the prestigious awards that our faculty may achieve on an international or a national basis, things like graduation rates, students that have financial need, what percentage of those that start at the University of Florida actually get a university degree. So, we have about a 100 of these different metrics that we measure.

We would do that, regardless of whether there were any rankings based on that, because we believe it's important to see how we're doing and the progress or lack of progress that we're making. And secondly, to be able to compare ourselves to others. And much of this information you can get from public databases, some of them federal. So we're able to measure ourselves against other institutions, doing our own internal rankings. It's natural for us to take those metrics and look out at how different rankings are established and then to measure our progress against those metrics — not only the ones that we've already been measuring, this 100, but also how those then map into rankings.

Nicci Brown: So, a degree from the University of Florida not only has high value, but importantly is incredibly affordable, which of course translates to students being better positioned to capitalize on their education. What can you tell us about the partnership with state leaders that has made this possible?

President Fuchs: The state of Florida is, I believe, one of the most generous of the states in terms of the state government and the citizens of the state investing in higher education. And because of that, we're able to keep our tuition incredibly low, lower than any universities outside of the state of Florida. So to get a degree from the University of Florida typically, as an undergraduate, it would take four years or eight semesters. An academic year of tuition is about $6,800 in terms of tuition and fees. And that's about, about roughly 10% of what it would be in terms of tuition at a private university, like where I was before I came to the University of Florida. So that is just incredibly affordable.

And then on top of that, there's state financial aid. There is financial aid from the university itself that we've achieved through philanthropy and our endowment. So, coming to the University of Florida and getting a degree from the University of Florida, we believe should never ever be limited by a person's financial needs. And if you have the ability to be admitted to the University of Florida, then we're going to work our hardest to make sure that you actually graduate and that you graduate with almost no debt. Only a third of our students have any debt of any kind when they graduate. And of those third that have a debt when they graduate, it's less than $20,000 that they have on average. So our students in general have no debt. I know I went to college many, many years ago, graduated in 1977, and when I graduated, the equivalent debt that I would have today, adjusted for inflation, is about $50,000.

So, it's so different here at the University of Florida than it is at most other universities outside of the state of Florida. And it is indeed due to the generosity of donors that assist with financial aid and sustain the programs at the university, and then indeed the financial resources that the state invests. And then we demonstrate, in return, a return on that investment.

Nicci Brown: So, it is wonderful to be able to say we're a Top 5 university and we have this ranking and the students were so excited about it. But what does it actually mean for students, staff, faculty, researchers and our alumni?

President Fuchs: You know, what I tell our alumni and our current students — it means that their degrees or the degrees they're going to get are more valuable because when people think of the University of Florida, they see that on your diploma, they're going to realize that you achieved that degree from a university that was one of the very best in the nation, and recognize this. So the ranking is really just the recognition of the quality of the institution. It also does several other things. One, it's a reflection of real metrics that are meaningful. For example, social mobility, the graduation rate, the selectivity in terms of the rank of students in their high school that come to the University of Florida, your peers. You'll be networked for the rest of your life with people that are just incredibly, incredibly talented.

It also has benefits for the state and for the state of Florida in terms of attracting companies that want to be in a state where higher ed is valued or higher ed is incredibly high quality and rankings affect the perception of companies that may want to be here.

And then lastly, I believe it actually affects the perception of people that want to move here and live in the state of Florida. They want to live in a state where their children or they themselves will have the ability to go to a university or a college that is equal to any others around the nation. So, in some sense, we're changing the perception that people have about higher ed. Our state is a relatively new state, the state of Florida, and we don't have the history of a lot of other parts of our nation that are a couple hundred years older than we are, but we're rapidly making a progress across the state in all of the public universities, with the University of Florida leading that mission.

Nicci Brown: You touched upon this a little bit, but we are, of course, a comprehensive land-grant university. Do you think that people have a strong understanding of what it means to be a land-grant and how that benefits people in the community?

President Fuchs: Yeah, we have this heritage, that the university was created as part of the nation's land-grant initiative to be a place where people from any economic need could come and learn skills, get an education that would benefit them in their career. And that started out in agriculture in what, then, was called the mechanic arts. We would call that today engineering. So those indeed are our roots and we focus on that. We have one of the very, very best and largest agriculture programs, for example, in the entire nation. That just makes a huge impact on natural resources and the ability to feed the world, much of that coming from the state of Florida. But in addition to that we're a truly, truly comprehensive university, one of the most comprehensive in the nation. Sixteen colleges spanning not just agriculture and engineering, which were our roots, but the fine and visual and performing arts, medicine and then everything else you might imagine in between.

We also are an academic health center here at the University of Florida. We actually own our own hospitals. We have one of the largest hospital systems that are centered right here in the University of Florida and associated with that would be programs such as in public health or in pharmacy or dentistry and nursing. And then we have veterinary medicine with animal hospitals here in Gainesville and then programs across the state. So, when a student is looking for a place to study, I almost always am certain that we're going to be able to offer that program because of how comprehensive we are. Or if there's some grand challenge that's facing our state, our nation or, indeed, our world, we're going to have faculty that have expertise in addressing that. They've dedicated their lives to working on it. Anything from a pandemic to an issue in, say, political science, world peace or anything else you could imagine we have faculty working on that.

And I find that exciting, not just from, say, a faculty perspective, but also from a student perspective, that they have a passion, if a student has an interest, there's going to be a faculty member that is going to be one of the world's experts on that.

Nicci Brown: So really a driver of innovation.

President Fuchs: Absolutely. And I would say innovation that obviously affects the economy and we have some of the most incredible incubator and startup facilities in the world right here associated with the University of Florida. But innovation in the other areas, the humanities and the social sciences, as well as areas of what are thought of as STEM, the science and technology and engineering and math.

Nicci Brown: You mentioned the state of Florida and, of course, Gainesville, but the Southeast — how do you think having a Top 5 public university benefits the Southeast?

President Fuchs: Well, having lived in the Midwest for many years, in Illinois, and actually having gone to graduate school there and been a faculty member, both in Chicago and Urbana-Champaign, and then having lived in and been an academic leader in the Northeast and in the state of New York, and then spent a fair amount of time out in California. I know there is a national historical perception that maybe the Southeast, and maybe the South in general, just doesn't value higher ed as much as say, a New England or maybe the Midwest. One of our goals is to change that perception, that indeed the universities in the Southeast and the South compete heads up with those and other parts of our nation. The rankings can influence that perception and indeed the accomplishments of graduates can influence that perception and indeed the work of the faculty and others that make a difference nationally will change that perception.

I think the hardest part is to indeed change a reputation or perception, but we're making progress and I'm proud to say that University of Florida is one of those national leaders that is changing the perception of higher ed in the Southeast.

Nicci Brown: Well, speaking of perceptions, how are the public universities that are ranked above us —so UCLA, UC Berkeley, University of Michigan and the University of Virginia — different from UF? And what do you think it will take for us to rise even higher in the rankings of public universities?

President Fuchs: Yeah, those five universities have been ranked amongst the Top 5 from the very beginning of rankings, so many decades. And they're all excellent as are dozens and dozens of just wonderful universities across the United States. I think our greatest asset, and I'm biased, but I think our greatest asset as a nation is the quality of its colleges and its universities. There are 4,000 colleges and universities and we're talking about the ranking of research universities, of which there are a couple of hundred of those. So for the University of Florida, we do have some distinctive attributes. I would say the most obvious would be how comprehensive we are. Those other universities do not have, for example, agriculture programs, what we call our Institute for Food and Agriculture Sciences, and extension programs that we have in every one of our counties and the natural resources that those faculty work on and work to develop and sustain.

And the fact that our 16 colleges span all these different areas makes us fairly distinctive. All those universities are comprehensive, but we have a distinctive characteristic to them. The second characteristic would just be how low our tuition is. We're dramatically lower than all of the other universities in the Top 10 by any metric and that is a distinctive attribute. But then thirdly, the investment by our state. We're the only university in the nation over the last few years, the last couple of years, that has grown its faculty by 500. Not just hired 500 back, but actually grew the faculty by 500. And we're adding another 100 faculty in the next year, year and a half, around artificial intelligence. And so that gives you the distinctive nature of this trajectory that we're on that will indeed be one of excellence, but also what I would call stature, it's comparative excellence.

So I don't wish any university to slip in the rankings, but we are committed as an institution to sustain our Top 5 ranking and to move up in the perception, in the mind's eye of everyone, the broad public, as well as our peers nationally.

Nicci Brown: I think when it comes to AI, it's important for us to recognize that it is infused across the curriculum as well. This is not just a standalone and that's probably another distinction as well.

President Fuchs: Our initiative on artificial intelligence is one in which we're not trying to compete with those universities that for many decades have led in artificial intelligence, narrowly focused say, on computer science. Examples of that would be a Carnegie Mellon University or Stanford or MIT. We want to compete and actually lead in having, as you said Nicci, artificial intelligence embedded in our curriculum across every one of our 200 academic departments, every one of our 16 colleges, so that every graduate, no matter whether they're undergraduate or a master's or doctorate degree or another professional degree, will have had AI as part of their curriculum. And they will be, as we're describing, enabled to be a part of the workforce that realizes and actually develops AI in their field and understands it, the risks and the opportunities around AI. It's exciting to see the College of the Arts recruiting faculty in AI or the College of Public Health and Health Professions. Every one of those 16 colleges is, as we speak, interviewing and hiring faculty in AI specific to their discipline.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. The University of Florida is now ranked 28 amongst both public and private universities. Why do you think it's important to be competitive with both types of institutions and what’s your goal for UF's status in the combined public/private ranking?

President Fuchs: Yeah. I don't think I'm ready yet to announce a new ranking goal because we're still celebrating just all the progress of the past 10 years or so. But it is important, when we think of students or our employees including faculty, most of them don't distinguish between a public university versus a private university. Again, I came to the University of Florida from a private university, although it was still land-granted, had agriculture and had the same heritage. Therefore, since we're competitive, we are competing with not just with publics — that Top 5 ranking is amongst the nation's very best public universities — but those that are private. And some of the privates are quite different than the University of Florida. Probably the obvious would just be the size of the student body. If you're a student at Princeton or Yale, at Princeton, the number of students is less than 10,000 total. At Yale, it's slightly more than that.

So there, you're going to have a student body that's, say, 20% the size of our student body. And some of the rankings, actually, are normalized by the number of students. So in other words, for example, the resources you have per student. And so if you have 55,000 students, like we do, compared to maybe eight or 9,000 at Princeton, it's hard for us to have the same amount of resources. And it's hard, not just for us, but for any public university because you almost always are going to have a larger student body. But even though some of those metrics don't work as well for public universities we still have to compete for students. We compete for faculty, we compete for employees, we compete for grants, philanthropy, just heads up with all those, the most prestigious privates as well as the publics.

Amongst the publics, rarely are they ranked in the Top 20. I believe this year the highest public was ranked No. 20. We were 28th amongst the privates and publics. That is one of those areas that I believe the publics have opportunities to have reputations that are equal to the very best privates and that's one of our aspirations. So, to be specific, it is to move up in that ranking of privates and publics combined.

Nicci Brown: Well, see, we did get you to make a goal for us! But we'll stand by for a few more. So speaking of celebrating and setting ourselves goals, in 2019, you tweeted a “note to self” in which you said you'd asked the faculty if you could cancel classes for a day-long celebration if the University of Florida reached the Top 5. Well, we're there now and I understand there's something in the works. So for those who may have missed it, can you update us?

President Fuchs: Yes, that tweet has been repeated back to me by our students. I'm not sure. I didn't know they noticed it from a couple of years ago, but they did. And as soon as the rankings came out, the next day, they were hoping that classes would be canceled that week. I think some of them must've had exams or papers due that week. It turns out that the university president can close the entire university, send the employees home, cancel classes, if there's an emergency like a hurricane or, if we were up north, a snowstorm. But, for discretionary reasons, such as celebrations, I can't do that. I don't have that sole power. So, I do have to, by our university policy, consult with the colleges and the Faculty Senate, which we are doing, and we've picked a date in February. The end of the first week of February, beginning actually at the second week of February, in which we will have a day of celebration and a day also of gratitude, just gratitude for all the contributions of everyone. We're at that point, nearly two years of the pandemic, so gratitude to our healthcare workers, our employees, our students, for the success we've all had as an institution and individually over the past two years.

And I am going to the Faculty Senate and asking them to cancel classes on that day. It'll be a Wednesday, the second Wednesday in the month of February. We're also going to roll into that a reflection on our university's values, which have not had as much visibility as I have wanted. So a couple of years ago, we established a set of values around excellence and curiosity and support of one another. And we're going to work that in as well. So reflection, gratitude and, hopefully, a lot of fun with food trucks and maybe a concert and other things. And with any luck, no classes on that day.

Nicci Brown: Well, it definitely sounds like something to look forward to. I have one final question, if you're open to it. Rankings are important. They’re certainly not everything. With the UF community and Gator alumni having just celebrated homecoming, I would love to know what you most appreciate and cherish about the University of Florida.

President Fuchs: One of my favorite things to do when I give a talk to members of our community, including alumni, is to start with what are the things that they would like not to change at the University of Florida? Because often presidents talk about things we want to change and make better or make new. And there's a long list of attributes at the University of Florida that alumni and those of us that are here today cherish.

I think that the most important one for me that I very much and am working hard that we not change, is to avoid us becoming competitive with one another in a negative way as we indeed enhance our reputation and our stature. So, to say it another way, this is an institution that has been thought of historically as one where people support each other, care about each other, a place where we work hard but yet have a lot of fun. And to me, I want to continue that and, if anything, double down on it as our stature increases.

Nicci Brown: Sounds wonderful. That joy of discovery and I guess it's always great to be a Florida Gator.

President Fuchs: That's right.

Nicci Brown: Well, thank you so much, President Fuchs, for being our guest. We do appreciate it and we very much value your leadership of the university we love.

Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida, where we share the stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you’ll return for our next story of innovation From Florida.

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October 5, 2021

Episode 4: At this hackathon, students take on the challenge of a sustainable future

More than 700 teams of students from across the country are participating in the Florida Hacks with IBM event, which runs through November. Their challenge? Find solutions to some of the most difficult environmental issues, from protecting waterways to developing sustainable fisheries. Sanethia Thomas, an assistant instructional professor in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, is overseeing the hackathon and shares how the event is teaching students more than how to code.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida.

I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I'm joined today by Sanethia Thomas, an assistant instructional professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.

Sanethia, as you're about to learn, is an amazing person and she is overseeing the first “Florida Hacks with IBM” event for the university. Now, I don't know much about hackathons, but today we are going to learn what they are and how they help students learn and grow.

Welcome, Sanethia, thanks for joining me today!

Sanethia Thomas: Thank you for having me.

Nicci Brown: So Sanethia, tell us a little bit about your background. You were a successful student athlete, a professional basketball player and are now a highly regarded professor of computer and information science. How did your interests come together and why information technology and computer science?

Sanethia Thomas: Yeah, so as a child, I was always intrigued with computers and so I knew that computers were going to be the future. I was also very talented in sports and so I played basketball and that's when I got a full-ride scholarship to the University of Texas at El Paso. Halfway through, I said there's not really much as far as opportunity for women's sports at the time. WNBA was not formed. But I was very talented and I wanted to play, so I went overseas and played for a short period of time. I played in Belgium, Amsterdam. Came back and then went straight into industry and worked for AOL. It's funny, because sometimes I ask my students, "Have you heard of AOL?" And a lot of them are like, "No!" But that's where I got my start in industry working for a tech company, a very prominent tech company at the time.

So then, I decided to get my master's degree at Clemson University. And so I always loved working with younger student athletes and youth in general. I got my master’s of science at Clemson and I met Juan Gilbert and one conversation with him changed my life

Nicci Brown: For those who don't know who Juan Gilbert is, can you tell us a little bit about him?

Sanethia Thomas: Yes, Juan Gilbert, he is the Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Chair of the Department of Computer Science here at University of Florida.

And so I decided to get my Ph.D. in computer science because he showed me that you can merge computer science with pretty much anything. And you can see that in reality today, that computer science touches every part, every industry, across the board. It became very interesting when I could take my passion working with young student athletes and develop technology tools for them to use.

And so, that's when I decided to get my Ph.D. in computer science. My research is in athlete development and I create tools to help young athletes realize that they're more than just an athlete and they can strive to become a professional athlete, just as I did, but then there's life after sports, as well, so to give them that paradigm to say, "Hey, you're more than just an athlete. You are a total individual, so what other things are you interested in?" And my tool shows them different career paths that they can take.

Nicci Brown: Terrific, and I want to take a moment to give you a shout out for your incredible work to pay it forward and help student athletes through Second Shot and Score High Coach. What are these programs and why did you start them?

Sanethia Thomas: Yeah, so Second Shot evolved for my dissertation work and my research work, as I mentioned before, helping young athletes identify a career path outside of sport. It has a play on words. Those that are familiar with athletics, you get that second shot on the foul line to where you can take another breath or that second shot when you're kicking in the end zone for football, so that second shot is very strategic. You have to plan it out, and it's really impactful of how the game will turn out. And so, translate that into life. You have to be strategic about your life. Second Shot informs student athletes of all the career paths that are out there.

Score High Coach is a tutoring program where I work with all youth on how to raise their SAT, ACT scores, hence, Score High, so I work with them in that area.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. Sounds like a conversation for another day. But our main topic of conversation today is the “Florida Hacks with IBM” event — also being sponsored by the Florida Technology Council — which just got underway. I think it would be helpful to start with a description of what a hackathon is for our listeners who, like me, may be unfamiliar with these events.

Sanethia Thomas: So yeah, a hackathon is traditionally targeted to computer scientists, graphic scientists or the people who are interested in developing and coding programs. Normally, it's for a predefined period. You will see it, maybe over 72 hours. In the school setting, students will stay up, bring their sleeping bags and code throughout the entire 72 hours. They're trying to come up with solutions and different types of products that can answer whatever question that the hackathon has surrounded by or targeted at. So, it allows students to, one, try technologies that they haven't used yet, get a deep dive, immersive experience in using the technologies, work with a team, and create innovative answers to problems, in a short period of time.

Nicci Brown: From what I understand, this is the first hackathon hosted at UF, so can you tell us a little bit about how it might be different and how the partnership came about?

Sanethia Thomas: Sure. UF has clubs where we do small hackathons, as I mentioned the 72-hour hackathons. And so, when Dean Abernathy spoke with me about that, she mentioned, "Well, what if we do a hackathon to bring in other people outside of computer science?” We have this big AI initiative and we would like to open it up to other students, not necessarily targeted at computer science students. And I thought it was a wonderful idea because a lot of times students are intimidated by hackathons, because if they're not in the computer science field or they haven't heard of a hackathon, they tend not to join in since it's such a compressed time of 72 hours they have to turn around a solution.

Provost Joe Glover and [Engineering Dean] Cammie Abernathy worked with IBM and we created this hackathon for students at the University of Florida. Then we brought on the Florida Tech Council and it rolled out to the entire state of Florida. And now, it's offered to anyone in the U.S. 16 years of age and older. It's a longer period of time, so where we're able to target more students. It's over 11 weeks to give people a chance to learn the tools, attend webinars, get some information, and then come up with a sound solution that they are to build. It's literally from September 13 all the way to November 29.

Nicci Brown: Fantastic. How many students are participating in the “Florida Hacks with IBM”?

Sanethia Thomas: We are very excited that we already have 734 teams registered.

Nicci Brown: And how many schools are represented?

Sanethia Thomas: We have about 60 schools represented all across the U.S., schools from Duke University, Clemson University, Berkeley, MIT. We have schools in Rochester, the Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Southern California. All the Florida schools are participating, so it's a great representation across the map.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. And speaking of representation, is there a lot of diversity in terms of the students that you're seeing?

Sanethia Thomas: Yes. I have a personal interest in that, and I'm very excited. We have a lot of women that are interested and we have positioned ourselves to offer a lot of women mentors. That is very attractive because if you see a woman in computer science, then that says, "Hey, I can do that, too. She looks like me." And so, as we know, computer science has mainly been a male-dominated field, and now we're seeing more women involved, which I'm very excited about. We are prepared for that and we are expecting a lot more women to join in.

Nicci Brown: And I guess that also speaks to the fact that computer science and AI really is integrated across so many different fields?

Sanethia Thomas: Yes, it is. It doesn't matter if you're in agriculture, if you're in computer science, if you're in art, AI touches all the industries.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little bit more about some of the challenges they are trying to address? Do you have information about that?

Sanethia Thomas: Absolutely. We are advertising “Be a part of the change.” And so, we are protecting environmental resources and we have six challenge statements. The challenges are, challenge No. 1, deals with climate change in the Florida ecosystem. Challenge two deals with improving the condition of Florida's waterways. Challenge three, sustainable fisheries. Challenge four is power consumption. And challenge five is animal agriculture. And then we threw in a wild card, so anything that deals with climate change or sustainable fisheries or animal agriculture, they can bring all those together for a wild card. Our focus is on the environment and improving the environment for all.

Nicci Brown: As you mentioned, this hackathon really is focused at problem solving, but you also alluded to something else, and that was what students get out of it in addition to that. Can you speak a little bit more about that aspect?

Sanethia Thomas: Yeah, so when you participate in a hackathon, you are immediately stretched. One, students are learning new technologies and they have a lot of pressure under the gun. With pressure, things rise and things come to fruition, so students are able to work in teams. They're able to learn the different technologies. This hackathon is unique because we have webinars where students are able to work with mentors one-on-one to help them learn the IBM tools and technologies. Just for registering, IBM is offering $200 in credits for these tools. The AI initiative that Florida is really embracing, this hackathon allows students to operate in that. The winners will actually receive access to the HiPerGator AI platform, which is really enticing, as well. Those students that are not computer science students, they will definitely learn some basic tools to help them operate in this world that's being run by AI.

Nicci Brown: Right. It's that interconnected world and so there'll be able to form relationships with people outside of their programs.

Sanethia Thomas: Yes. Yes.

Nicci Brown: Can you talk a little bit more about that big prize at the end?

Sanethia Thomas: Yes, so there's a $100,000 prize pool and that's broken up into different categories. The grand prize is $30,000. Second place is $20,000. Third place is $15,000. But those that have participated, maybe this is your first hackathon, we are even giving awards for that. So, if this is your first hackathon, you can win a $2,000 prize.

We also have prizes for each challenge category that I mentioned before. There will be award at $3,000 for each team within each challenge category. We also have a submission incentive, so the first 20 teams that submit qualified projects will receive $4,000.

One additional category, which is really exciting, is the social media category, so it's the TikTok challenge, and students can win a $1,000 by creating a really good TikTok showcasing their project.

Any team that has some type of gamification will receive $10,000 and that gamification you get points by watching different webinars, watching the video replays, interacting with mentors. We are rewarding students for being active in the platform and learning the different tools and working with the mentors because that's the overall goal is for students to get educated on what we're doing on the AI initiative, and they can walk away as better students and better off for the University of Florida.

Nicci Brown: Sounds like a lot of fun. We'll have to be on the lookout for that one. When will we know the results of the hackathon and where can listeners learn more?

Sanethia Thomas: Yes, so the results will be released on December 6 and you can find more information

Nicci Brown: Wonderful. I want to say good luck to all the students who are participating in the “Florida Hacks with IBM” competition. We look forward to hearing more about the solutions you propose to address these challenges facing our state and many others as well. Thank you so much, Sanethia, for being our guest today.

Sanethia Thomas: Thank you for having me. This was a wonderful opportunity.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida, where we share the stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward.

My name is Nicci Brown and I hope you will return for our next story of innovation From Florida.

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September 28, 2021

Episode 3: Can song, murals and other art forms help us achieve better health?

As trusted influencers, artists and culture-bearers communicate information in ways that make it both understandable and memorable. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention turned to Jill Sonke, director of the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida, for help crafting a plan to bring public health and arts and culture organizations together to empower vaccine confidence. In this episode of From Florida, host Nicci Brown spoke with Sonke about her work as senior advisor to the CDC’s Vaccine Confidence and Demand Team.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Today, I am pleased to have with me, Jill Sonke, the director of the Center for Arts in Medicine. Jill is an affiliated faculty member in the School of Theatre and Dance, as well as the Center for African Studies, the STEM Translational Communication Center, the One Health Center and the Norman Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases.

And for the role that we're going to be talking about today, Jill is also currently the senior advisor to the CDC Vaccine Confidence and Demand Team, which is part of the CDC’s COVID-19 Task Force.

A warm welcome to you, Jill. We are so glad you could join us.

Jill Sonke: Thank you so much, Nicci. It's great to be here.

Nicci Brown: Let's start with a little background about you and the center. Where and when did your journey begin as an ally and advocate for the arts and medicine?

Jill Sonke: Well, it began when I came to Gainesville and started teaching as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Theatre and Dance. At the same time, the Arts in Medicine program was just beginning to bubble up at UF Health Shands Hospital. I had earlier in my life, when I was in high school, I was heading toward a career in medicine. I was volunteering in hospitals from the day I turned 14 and was eligible to do so. And I took a turn from that pathway when I began dancing at the age of 17 and then went full steam ahead to dance, had a career in New York City. Then when I came to the Gainesville and started teaching at the university and heard about this Arts in Medicine program, it just felt like the most extraordinary opportunity that I could be an artist in health care and really realize both of my dreams together. It was really incredible to be able to step into that new program and to become one of the first two artists-in- residence.

Nicci Brown: You say the new program, but the University of Florida has one of the oldest programs for Arts in Medicine. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the program?

Jill Sonke: That's right. In 1992, when I got involved, the artist-in-residence program was just beginning. But in fact in the late 1980s, a group of caregivers at Shands began to come together to explore their understanding of the health benefits of the arts related to their own lives. This was Dr. John Graham-Pole and a number of other care providers who recognize that they were dealing with the stresses of their work, their burnout and anxiety by turning to poetry and painting and music. They've rather informally started offering what they called “Laughter Play Shops” for other care providers and eventually a community member, Dr. Mary Rockwood Lane, heard about this. Her husband was a clinician and she approached John and said, “If doing art is good for you, don't you think it might be good for your patients as well? I think we should create an artist-in-residence program.”

That was the beginning of the artist-in-residence program. Another wonderful thing about this history is at the same time, the College of Medicine had started its own program. Tina Mullen, who is the director of the UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine program today, at that time had been hired by the College of Medicine to bring the visual arts into the environment of care. It took about a year's time before those two initiatives found each other and became one program, the UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine program. So that program was established in 1990 and was among five programs that began around that time in the United States. Now, of course, that small landscape has developed into a very robust landscape where there are arts programs now at least half of hospitals in the United States.

Nicci Brown: Jill, what is it about the arts that makes it such a powerful tool to communicate about health?

Jill Sonke: That's a great question, Nicci. There are a number of things. On one level, it's about the artists themselves, artists and culture bearers, those who hold the cultural and creative practices in communities and in groups. Those folks tend to be trusted members of communities, they are people who listen, they are people who question, they're people who care innately about the well-being in their community, and they are people who take action and they rally people to action collectively as well.

The CDC thinks of artists and culture bearers as trusted messengers. They're people who facilitate really important dialogues in communities.

And then the arts themselves are so powerful. Like, they're fun. We want to come to them, more than we want to come to maybe a PSA or a billboard, just to compare with some other more traditional public health forms of messaging.

They also put ideas and information into very personal and cultural contexts. They make them really personally and culturally relevant for us and they can make information more understandable. They facilitate dialogue. We go to see a great film, we go to a concert and what do we say to one another after? What did you think? We just dive into talking about it because they're compelling in that way. And in those dialogues, we consider the difficult issues and vaccination can be a difficult issue, right? So, that the dialogue that's facilitated provides opportunities for people to consider their own values and decisions.

I do want to say, this is not about propaganda and about persuasion, though, we certainly want everyone to get vaccinated. I believe this is a really important moment for this, but I also believe that the arts are uniquely powerful in allowing people to make their own decisions and that's really important to me in this moment. They enable that kind of personal insight that facilitates personal decision-making. And in turn, through that dialogue, they can really drive collective action. Artists have been agents of social change throughout our human history and this moment is no exception.

Nicci Brown: You recently collaborated with the CDC on a project to boost public confidence in COVID-19 vaccinations, which, of course, has become such a large issue. How did that collaboration come about?

Jill Sonke: I actually love this story. When the CDC formed its vaccine task force, it brought together a group of incredible people from across its divisions and the majority of those people were public health professionals who had worked in other parts of the world on health communication campaigns. And they all recognized that in those contexts you would never launch a major health communication campaign without artists, without songs, without dances, without the visual arts. They decided, why not here? We need the arts, it's time for this to happen in the United States. This is the moment, in this critical moment, for us to bring artists and culture bearers in community to bear in addressing vaccine confidence.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little more about the initiative and the projects that you actually led?

Jill Sonke: Sure. I was appointed at the beginning of June as a senior advisor to the Vaccine Confidence Team on the Vaccine Task Force, as you mentioned, with the assignment to create field guides as a part of a kind of a multimodal initiative that the CDC was launching. They had partnered with the Georgia Department of Public Health and with two arts organizations in Atlanta to mount a pilot, a demonstration project, to use the arts to partner with local artists, to bring vaccine information into communities. They had also made a plan to create a funding stream for arts organizations to be funded to do this work, to partner with artists and culture bearers across the country.

They knew that if they were to make funding available that there had to be guidance. They asked me to serve as co-author on two field guides. I developed, in partnership with the task force, one field guide focused on developing partnerships between public health departments and professionals and arts organizations and artists, and a second focused on developing creative campaigns and arts-based communication programs within those partnerships. Those two field guides were released about a month ago. So, the CDC foundation now has $2.1 million available for arts organizations to partner with public health departments to engage in vaccine confidence work. They plan on awarding about 30 grants of about $75,000 each.

Nicci Brown: What kind of evidence is there that art actually does influence well-being and health behavior?

Jill Sonke: There's evidence, Nicci, around the arts and health communication, including in the Ebola epidemic, incredible things happened. I did research with our team here at the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine on what happened in the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the way musicians stepped forward at the moment when the general public was very distrustful of health professionals and when, especially in Liberia, the idea that Ebola was a government conspiracy was widely held.

Musicians stepped in and started writing songs. There was the first song was written by two artists named D-12 and Shadow, and they just were frustrated with the situation. They just at home one night recorded a song called Ebola in Town, and within a week it was topping the charts and playing on the streets and in dance halls and on the radio. UNESCO and USAID and the World Health Organization took note. They came in and immediately started partnering with artists. The second song that was released was called Ebola is Real, written in partnership with public health professionals to counter that conspiracy theory.

There is a long history around the world of the arts being used in health communication and some very strong evidence that arts-based programs can, in comparison to more traditional public health methods, lead to more behavior change.

There also, as you asked Nicci, is a lot of evidence around their relationship between the arts and health and well-being. We established about a year and a half ago here at UF the EpiArts Lab, which is a National Endowment for the Arts research lab. It's a partnership with Dr. Daisy Fancourt at University College London. Daisy is really the leading researcher globally in this area. She's published over 100 studies now that look at associations between arts and cultural participation and health outcomes, and the findings are extremely compelling using longitudinal, large cohort data sets in which she can essentially simulate randomized clinical control trials.

She's found associations, for instance, between participating in arts and cultural activities just once a month or more leading to 48% less likelihood of the development of depression among people over the age of 50. Similarly, significant reductions in loneliness. Children who engage significantly in creativity are also about 50% like less likely to be maladjusted and the implications for lifelong health there are very, very significant.

She's also found significant reductions in age-related disability and chronic pain, and she's even replicated studies that were done in Scandinavian nations, beginning in the 1980s and now through her work in the UK, that show associations between arts participation and longevity. So people who engage more than just every few months or more and arts and cultural activity have a 31% lower risk of dying early than people who don't. And these studies are all really well controlled for things like socio-economics and education, geographic location.

Those social gradients do exist. we know, in arts participation, but they are not a factor in the relationship between the arts and health and well-being.

Our EpiArts Lab is now using Dr. Fancourt's statistical models, and seven longitudinal American data sets and we're doing studies to investigate the associations between the arts and an array of health outcomes in the United States, which is a very different context. And we're finding very similar and really compelling associations between arts participation and a number of age-related outcomes and child development. Most notably, one of our recent analyses showed a really exciting association between arts participation and reduced what's called delinquent behaviors, behaviors that can result in engagement with the juvenile justice system and behaviors that are often maladaptive. We're really excited about advancing that research here and broadening the understanding in the United States of the health benefits of arts participation.

Nicci Brown: Can we dig into that just a little bit further? How does the United States compared to other countries in enlisting the arts in major public health initiatives?

Jill Sonke: Well, frankly, we've been a little bit behind. Since 2010, I've been doing research in other parts of the world around how the arts are used in public health. I started that research in east Africa because I noticed in Uganda, the arts have been a primary means of health communication and health education since the 1950s. The government has invested in the arts and the Ministry of Health employs a lot of artists. In fact, when I'm in Uganda, I always laugh because artists will say, “Thank God, I'm an artist, I can always work because there are jobs in public health for artists,” which is really wonderful. It's just common sense. In one of the interviews I conducted with a senior member of the Ministry of Health, my first question was, “Why do you use the arts in public health?” He kind of furrowed his brow and looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Well, you can't do public health without the arts. You can't just tell people health information, you have to engage them emotionally.”

He had a deep understanding of aesthetic experience, the idea that when we have aesthetic experiences, those moments that are different than other more mundane moments, we have them in art, we have them in nature, they're moments that mark themselves in our memory and in our lives, they are memorable, they have lingering effects. And when we engage people with health concepts in those kinds of moments, not only do people understand and remember information, but they engage in narratives and in dialogues that help them consider their own lives and values and help them make choices that they can really commit to.

And then when they tell, in fact, speaking of the evidence, Nicci, when they tell other people about those aesthetic experiences and the health issues that they're considering, those people are even more likely and quick to change their health behaviors. There's a very interesting social learning phenomena that contributes to the value of the arts in public health.

Back to your question, we've been a bit behind in the public health sector in the United States. In our culture, we have a very professionalized arts context, right? You're an artist, or you're not, you pay to go and see the arts. I mean, that's a gross generalization because there's also a lot of art and creativity that happens every day in our homes and in our communities, but in comparison to some other cultures, we do separate the arts from the fabric of our daily lives, more than other places do. I think that in our health care and in our public health context, the arts are sometimes considered soft, right? The soft stuff.

In fact, about four years ago, we became a partner with ArtPlace America. They asked us to lead their arts and public health work. Our work was focused around creating a field of arts in public health and America, changing that paradigm in the United States. I thought it was going to be big, hard work. I often say, I thought it was going to be like pushing a big boulder up a hill. In fact, it was like chasing a boulder down a hill because the readiness and the sort of tipping point around understanding was so available and public health professionals and agencies have really stepped into this space. We're seeing a lot of enhanced understanding, activity and partnership across the public health and arts and culture sectors in the United States right now. And educational programs and conferences and symposium, research publications, just a lot of exciting things happening that really mark the development of a field and a discipline.

Nicci Brown: It sounds like we’re going to be seeing an increase in these types of programs being used to communicate issues surrounding health.

Jill Sonke: I’m optimistic that that’s true, Nicci, and I'm also really hopeful that we'll see that happening soon on our campus. We've just developed a partnership between the Center for Arts in Medicine, the College of Public Health and Health Professions, the College of Journalism, and UF Health Communications to launch a campus-based, arts-based health communication campaign for vaccinations. So, more news to come on that soon.

Nicci Brown: It's heartening and exciting to hear about that kind of progress. If people are listening and they want to learn more about the field guides and the program repository, how can they do that?

Jill Sonke: You can go to the CDC’s Vaccinate with Confidence page. There's a landing page for the field guides there. There's a link to our repository there as well. We will be creating a field guide specific to funding these sorts of partnerships and projects next. And on the CDC Foundation’s website, you can find the request for proposals for the funding opportunities.

And then on the Center for Arts in Medicine’s web page, you can again find the field guides, our beautiful repository of arts for vaccine confidence programs around the country is accessible there as well as a webinar that we hosted a few weeks ago in partnership with the CDC and the National Endowment for the Arts. It's a one hour webinar which focuses on the Atlanta arts pilot, and a few other really beautiful programs – an organization called Hip Hop Public Health. It looks also at what the state of California is doing with their creative corps program. They've got $15 million dedicated to arts for vaccine confidence programs and beautiful work in San Francisco. So, lots of ways to find examples and to find those resources.

Nicci Brown: Thank you so much for spending some time with us today and thank you for your work. We very much appreciate it.

Jill Sonke: Wonderful to talk with you, Nicci. Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida, where we are sharing stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators who are moving our state, our nation and our world forward through their innovations and discoveries. I'm your host, Nicci Brown and I hope you'll join me for our next story of innovation From Florida.

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September 21, 2021

Episode 2: UF researchers on quest to understand, prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease

More than 6 million people in the U.S. are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease and that number is expected to grow exponentially in coming decades. It’s a devastating illness, with far-reaching emotional, physical and financial impacts on individuals, caregivers and their families. At the University of Florida, researchers are searching for answers to what causes Alzheimer’s, how to diagnose it early and prevent or slow its development and for the most effective treatments. Host Nicci Brown talks about that work with Todd Golde, director of the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute; Malú Gámez Tansey, co-director of the Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease, and Adam Woods, associate director the Center for Cognitive Aging and Memory, about their Alzheimer’s disease research.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, a University of Florida podcast, where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding, and groundbreaking innovation is becoming reality on our campus.

I'm your host, Nicci Brown. And today I'm pleased to introduce you to three researchers at the University of Florida who are investigating ways to prevent and treat one of the most difficult health challenges of our time -- Alzheimer's disease. More than 6 million people in the U.S. are currently living with this disease and the impacts are far reaching.

This episode is airing on September 21st, World Alzheimer's Day, which is aimed at raising awareness and challenging stereotypes about the stigmas that surround this disease.

My guests are Todd Golde, director of the university's Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute. Malú Gámez Tansey, co-director of UF’s Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease and Adam Woods, associate director of UF’s Center for Cognitive Aging and Memory. Welcome to you all, and thanks for taking time to join us today. 

Adam Woods: Thank you.

Todd Golde: Thank you. 

Malú Tansey: Good to be here. 

Nicci Brown: So let's start with a foundational question, and I thought I would direct this to Dr. Golde. What is Alzheimer's disease? And is it inevitable? Is it an inevitable part of aging, will we all get it?

Todd Golde: Well, Alzheimer's disease is what we refer to clinically as a dementia. So it's a loss of your memory in higher cognitive function, and it's inexorably progressive. So it begins subtly with, for example, just a little bit of forgetfulness sometimes and sometimes it appears with loss of executive function, but more often the first symptom is a noticeable loss of your short-term memory. And then it proceeds to involve almost all your higher cognitive functions until eventually the person who is suffering from this disease ends up in an assisted living facility or incapacitated. And typically, they don't die per se of Alzheimer's disease, but they die from the consequences of Alzheimer's disease -- with getting an infection and being basically bedridden.

Within the brain, what happens is it's accumulation of a couple of proteins that we call amyloid and tau.There could be some other things going on as well, but to keep it simple, we'll leave it at that. And these actual pathologies, what we call plaques and tangles, plaques are amyloid and tau is in the tangles, were first described by Dr. Alzheimer --  who was German physician who saw the first person with this disease by looking at their brain back in the early 1900s. And so those are still what we study today.

The second part of the question is, is it inevitable? And the answer is absolutely not. What we know is there are people that live into their hundreds who are cognitively intact and when they die, their brains are free of these pathologies. So we know that there are people who don't get this disease, who age, cognitively successful agers as we call them or super brains.

And we're beginning to unravel some of the things that protect people from getting this. But nevertheless, as you pointed out in the introduction, it affects a large number of people and it affects a large number of the elderly population. About 1% over 60, by the time you're 85, depending on what numbers you believe, something like 25 to 50% of the population may have it. So it's pretty scary. So it's not that as you age, you have a pretty decent chance of getting this if you live long enough, and that's a scary proposition because most of us, nobody wants to lose their cognitive ability.

Nicci Brown: Right. So you mentioned that it's a form of dementia. How do you differentiate it between Alzheimer's and other diseases that could be categorized as dementia?

Todd Golde: Well so, luckily one of the major advances we've had over the last 20 years is development of biomarkers that enable us to actually detect these pathologies in living people. And initially they were imaging studies. And more recently, they're still not quite prime time so if you go to your doctor's office, you're not going to get these quite yet, but maybe in a few years. There are blood-based biomarkers that are pretty accurate. So if one goes back 20 years ago and even went to the most expert neurologist in the world, they could give you about an 80% accuracy in diagnosis. And the only way that we could truly know it back then was if somebody donated their brain and they were looked at at autopsy.

And so this is a really remarkable progress in some ways because even the best clinician will get it wrong occasionally. And that creates a lot of confusion about what to do. And there are a whole bunch of other things, that other 20%, is of late onset dementias are a big portion of it's what we call vascular dementia so it's a bunch of maybe little strokes and then there are a whole bunch of diseases with really long names that could be mistaken for Alzheimer's disease, like frontotemporal dementia with parkinsonism linked to chromosome 17, that really long name.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. It’s kind of a scary name, too. 

Todd Golde: Yeah.

Nicci Brown: So, you've all got different approaches to the disease, the study of the disease. It would be great to hear a little bit more about the description of your approaches and I guess how they differ with one another. So maybe, Malú, if you could share a little bit about your approach?

Malú Tansey: Sure. My group is very interested in understanding how your immune system either protects you or predisposes you to these age-related neurodegenerative diseases -- Alzheimer's, Parkinson's. We believe that a long time ago it was recognized that these diseases, if you look in the brains of people with dementia, you would see that there was inflammation there at end point in the autopsy. And it was thought that it was just a result of neurons had died. And there was inflammation because the professional vacuum cleaners in the brain had shown up to clean up the debris. But now we're understanding and recognizing that perhaps there are other processes that happen in life that may contribute to risk of these diseases, perhaps things that are genetic, underlying predispositions that may affect immune cells or glial cells in the brain that make them sluggish or not playing with a full deck.

There might be environmental factors such as lifestyle, diet, different things that contribute to that. And so we believe that inflammatory processes and dysfunction of the immune system may be part of what contributes, perhaps in midlife. And so if we can understand what those processes are and understand people at risk, we might be able to diagnose earlier. And if we think of the disease in a different light, we might be able to develop better therapies that use the power of the immune system to leverage new technologies, new therapies, much like the cancer field has done. And that is an area that, for instance, my colleague Todd Golde, here has used before and is using now, both in Alzheimer's and together with other colleagues here also in Parkinson's. And so we study both the role of the immune system in Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and some of the differences and similarities are teaching us a lot about that. 

Nicci Brown: It sounds like in part you're looking for some triggers as part of that research that you're doing.

Malú Tansey: Correct. Yes. Some underlying predisposition that might be genetic, some interplay with environmental triggers, lifestyle, maybe diet, exposures through what we call barrier sites, through the gut microbiome, through olfactory epithelium microbiome, lots of different ways that you interact with your environment, which are now well-recognized to present such triggers.

Nicci Brown: Thank you. And, Adam, your research?

Adam Woods: Yes. We're approaching Alzheimer's disease from a slightly different approach in that the work that we're doing in my lab and in our center is really targeted at the idea of preventing the onsets of dementia or Alzheimer's disease, or at least attempting to offset when you might develop these diseases. And so the approach we take very often involves evaluation of different types of novel interventions, and often very non-invasive interventions, that have the potential to alter the brain's function and improve the brain's function and potentially enhance some of those thinking and memory problems we see in later life. Now, the underlying concept for that is if we can change that trajectory of decline, and that's the trajectory of decline that we experience naturally as we get older. As we get older, even starting as early as our 20s, we see a slow decline in thinking and memory skills.

That decline gets much sharper in the sixth, seventh, eighth decade and beyond. If we can take that trajectory and move it up, recover some of that lost function, we have the potential of changing that trajectory towards future decline. Development of things like mild cognitive impairment, this stage before Alzheimer's disease or, ultimately and eventually, Alzheimer's disease.

As Todd had said very well, this is not something we feel like everyone is going to get. We feel like this is a preventable disease. So, our group isn't so much in the business of treating Alzheimer's directly. We're more in the domain of attempting to prevent the onset of Alzheimer's. And some examples of what we do are noninvasive interventions like cognitive training. Very often you hear these referred to as brain games, computerized games that are targeted towards enhancing certain domains of cognition that decline as we get older.

But we don't just do these brain games or cognitive training. We also pair that intervention, which has shown some exciting efficacy — in fact, a recent study showed, using 10-year follow-up data, about a 25% reduction in MCR, or mild cognitive impairment, conversion rate in adults who had done 10 to 15 hours of this training 10 years in the past. So there's real potential here for this concept of prevention or offsetting the onset of Alzheimer's disease. But we also pair it with forms of non-invasive brain stimulation, like transcranial direct current stimulation. So the application of this weak, electric current to the brain by placing electrodes on the scalp, you feel a tingling prickling sensation on the scalp. But the amazing thing about this technique is that it actually allows us to noninvasively stimulate the underlying brain tissue to facilitate the neuroplastic response of that tissue. 

And what that means is learning at the neural level. When you take something that facilitates learning at the neural level, and you pair it with another technique like cognitive training, which also facilitates learning at the neural level, you have this potential synergy to enhance the overall efficacy of these kinds of interventions. These are just a couple of the interventions we're looking at. We kind of pride ourselves on doing bench to bedside research, where we start to try to understand the mechanisms of these novel interventions, and then convert those interventions into actual clinical trials and potential clinical applications with the end goal being to create a series of accessible technologies that can be deployed in the community to help prevent Alzheimer's disease.

Todd Golde: As I said, I grew up in this, what we call the molecular age of Alzheimer's disease and was fortunate enough to be a somewhat naive MD-Ph.D student who helped to, I think, define causality in this disease. So taking, not doing genetics, but taking clues from genetics and understanding how they altered the biology to lead to Alzheimer's disease. And that really is the foundation, or was the underpinnings, of what we call the amyloid-cascade hypothesis of Alzheimer's disease, that the cumulation of this peptide we call amyloid in the brain triggers the complex disease. 

Over time, I've helped, I think, to guide and frame how anti-amyloid therapies might work or not. More recently, though, with this idea that we really need to turn our attention to the complexity and the brain organ failure that's contributing to Alzheimer's disease, we’ve begun to develop programs that are, for example, trying to target non-genetic factors that may promote risk. One that I'm particularly excited about is the impact of psychological stress and stress signaling pathways in Alzheimer's disease. And we've actually developed a therapeutic that impacts this pathway and, remarkably, it does amazing things to body physiology and we're still trying to figure out whether it will have effects in Alzheimer's disease, but we think this will end up, if we're lucky in the clinic someday, maybe not for Alzheimer's, but for something else.

And that's one of the things that's sort of exciting about doing the sciences. If you keep your mind open, you never know where it leads. But ultimately the last thing that I'd like to do is the idea of figuring out how we impact the disease in the symptomatic patient. And that means, I think a combinatorial approach, and this is going to be really hard, but we don't really have what we call a preclinical roadmap for even doing this. 

There's no way, there are very few examples of people taking a multi-modal therapy and showing, hey, even in our mouse models, which are models of the pathology, not necessarily models of the disease, that we could completely cure the disease in the mouse model. And so that's what we want to try to do. And it may, whether it's in Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia model, that's where we'd like to go. Because ultimately, again, if you're symptomatic, you want to feel better, think better and not decline. And in order to do that, we've really got to do better than what we're doing. And it's going to take a little different approach.

Nicci Brown: So we're really fortunate to have three leaders in your fields gathered around the table on the campus here at University of Florida, but how much interaction is there throughout the world between other countries and sharing of some of this research. And is that an impediment to you moving forward if there is not a lot of it?

Todd Golde: I think one of the wonderful things that's happened in science in general is that there has been a, especially in the preclinical space, even in the private sector — so pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology companies — there’s a much more willingness to exchange data before you get to a drug or an intervention or something that's going to make money. There's still the individual laboratories that don't want to get their work scooped by somebody else, so keep it relatively private. But I think everybody realizes that no single discovery or person will ever fully develop the cure. They might identify a target or some way to do it an intervention, but it's going to take an army to translate that into something that actually impacts human health. And so I think we've all been humbled by how hard this journey is to go from. In my own world of when I began doing research some 30 years ago in this space, we were driven by these amazing genetic discoveries that laid the underpinnings of understanding causality in Alzheimer's disease. 

And most people in the field thought we'd have something in the clinic that was working 10, 12, 15 years later. And we're still waiting. And so it's been pretty humbling, I think, for everybody in the field to see how hard this disease is to tackle and we realize we're not going to do it alone, and it's going to take a team effort. And we have a great team of collaborators at the University of Florida who, everybody has individual excellence, but we are all elevated by challenging and working with each other.

Nicci Brown: Anything to add Malú or Adam?

Malú Tansey: Yeah, I would add that Todd is right, the ability now to set up pre-competitive spaces that sometimes foundations like the Alzheimer's Association does to bring in pharma and biotech to set up partnerships with academia, and many of us have them, to move forward with tools to de-risk projects because sometimes we're experts in one thing and they're experts in another. And so it's that team science and that collaboration that has really changed, I think, in the last 10, 15 years since I've been certainly at the mid-professor level and that has meant a lot. You have to be careful because you don't want to become anybody's testing ground. It teaches them a lot and it teaches academics a lot. So it's a very important part of what we do.

Todd Golde: Actually, one of the things that I was involved with was called a grant from the Accelerating Medicines Partnership at the NIH. So this was from the director's office and it was designed to create this preclinical data warehouse, where we were required as part of the funding agreement to, as soon as we generated the data and quality controlled it — and this was large scale ohmic data, so things like how are genes changing in the brain, how are the proteins changing in the brain? What are in the blood? And I mean, on thousands of individuals with Alzheimer's disease or thousands of brains, and this was beyond what any single lab could do, but the point was, it all went up and was accessible to researchers across the world as soon as we felt that the data was of sufficient quality, before publication.

And I think that's a really nice way to think about that's how we need to do science, especially if it's publicly funded. I mean, it's to get the data out there and so the best minds in the world could work on this really tough problem and try to bring something to patients that might actually work.

Malú Tansey: And that became very important in COVID because people were working from home and you could not get to the lab, but you could data mine.

Adam Woods: Yeah. It wasn't that long ago that science was a silo game where you became the individual that did the one thing, and you only did this thing and no one else should ever do this thing because you do that. And then we, over the last 10 to 15 years have really evolved into this concept of team science and team science is great at the local level, around different institutions, but what we're talking about in terms of Alzheimer's disease and other major diseases is a world scale of science. Not just the local team, not just the teams across universities, and efforts to share data, efforts to build worldwide partnerships, which there are a number of models for and there are, in fact, a number of foundations and other agencies working to facilitate this. We've had some experience with the McKnight Brain Research Foundation, facilitating multi-site studies to really understand what does the successful ager look like so we can create new intervention targets to bring us to that goal state.

So there's no one answer to the question, but what we do know is that it is a worldwide scale that will be required with many great minds, not just those around the table or at the University of Florida, although we've got a good start here to really go after this and find that solution, as Todd said, we thought we would have many years ago already.

Todd Golde: The other thing I like to say is ultimately science is the art of reproducibility. And something that makes the headlines and then never gets reproduced really isn't helpful to the field. And when you have large groups of teams working on it, it generally leads to a higher degree of reproducibility and not leading the field down rabbit holes and wasting time trying to pursue an observation that was made in a single lab and then is poorly reproduced outside of that laboratory, even though it sounded really exciting and that still happens, but it tends to be figured out a lot quicker. And so we don't go down dead-end roads. We tend to stay on the path that we think is likely to lead us to things more easily.

Nicci Brown: What are some of the impediments that really challenge you right now?

Todd Golde: Well, I think the biggest one that happened is we can't do true therapeutic discovery, not non-pharmacologic interventions, without pharmaceutical partners. We just don't have the infrastructure and the cost. Those trials cost somewhere between $1.5 and $2 billion at a minimum. That's a guesstimate. So you could imagine that there's a big gap between the kind of funding that's been remarkably increased in the Alzheimer's space over the last five years, recognizing that it was sorely underfunded relative to the unmet medical need and the huge societal, personal and economic tolls it was taking.

So that's likely been right-sized finally after 20-some odd years, but that's still not enough to really change or say we don't need the private sector to help us. We need them.

And so I think that's one of the challenges and just getting the sufficient data to make that investment is challenging because a private sector looks at this and goes, "We put a lot of money in and we haven't gotten a return. So why do I want to gamble this huge investment for something that so far the track record isn't good for probability of success." Thankfully, some companies, not all, some have abandoned this, but some companies are still working very closely with academics and still have quite a bit of internal funding to make sure that this is still going on. 

And let's hope that doesn't change because it'll be not a good thing. There was a real retraction when some drugs failed in the around 2010 and many pharmaceutical companies basically stopped doing research on neurodegenerative diseases. They said it's too hard. And slowly they regained and rejoined. But academics really haven't lost steam, but I think the real bright spot is the public advocacy groups and people like the Alzheimer's Association and American Federation for Aging Research, increased I think it's almost a five-fold increase in NIH funding for Alzheimer's disease and related dementias that we've seen over the last six years. And that's bringing new people in the field, new ideas and it's enabling.

Malú Tansey: I think another impediment has been really that perhaps we've thought about these diseases as very homogeneous and they're not. So the heterogeneity of the presentation of the diseases has been difficult. And without biomarkers until very recently, we just haven't been able to design a good trial. And a trial that's meaningful and that can inform a good Phase 2 trial. And so when you design a trial and you take all comers, your signal to noise ratio, you can't even test the hypothesis, right? And so it's very tough. And if you don't have good biomarkers to really know that whatever target you're shooting for in your trial that you've engaged with the target, as they say, that you've really hit it. If you don't have that, then it's really difficult to interpret negative results.

Todd Golde: The other thing I would add is that there's been a dilemma of treatment versus prevention and what the biomarker studies have really taught us as well as autopsy studies is that there's a long, silent phase to Alzheimer's disease. So pathologies begin to accumulate in your brain 20 to 25 years before you show symptoms. 

And so there's a disconnect. And I think a lot of the reasons you might ask, well, "Why is that?" Well that's because brain reserve and resilience, your brain could withstand a lot of damage before you start showing true cognitive impairment that falls out of the normal range. And yet if we track those people earlier, some of the tests that Adam does and my colleagues within the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, sort of cognitive stress tests, and you could begin to see that people even before they would be called symptomatic actually are having decline in function. It's just within the normal range. 

So you can't call it abnormal yet. But when you add that with the biomarkers and we get enough data now, maybe something will happen because we could say, hey, you're on the track to get the symptoms full blown, full minute Alzheimer's disease. Now we can intervene. But we're still in early days on proving that these biomarkers can serve as surrogates.

Nicci Brown: Alzheimer's is a terrifying disease, I think, for a lot of people. We've seen the effect that it has on our loved ones. And so we're all, a lot of us, thinking of things that we can do to try and prevent it. And I think, Malú, you mentioned earlier about people going down a path that can even be dangerous because they're so desperate to head this horrible disease off. What are some of the dangers that you think people need to be wary of?

Malú Tansey: Yeah. I mean, there's good reason to think just based on epidemiological studies, which really shouldn't draw any causation from them, that there are some associations between chronic inflammation during life and your risk for these diseases. That's just based on medical records. It's based on people with autoimmune disease that appear to have higher incidents. And if they're treated with blockbuster anti-inflammatory drugs that they have less incidents. But that's just an association and it's very tempting to infer causation on that. And then when you run the trials, the trials fail. Probably because it was too late to treat anybody with an anti-inflammatory at that point. So I think some of the dangers are that people may read those studies and say, "I'm going to take daily ibuprofen or daily whatever."

Unlike the daily baby aspirin that has been associated with reducing the risk for heart attack or whatever, that's not the case here. And so you could give yourself GI bleeding or something. And so that's a problem. Other things, we know that a good diet and exercise and sleep are good for you, just like they are for lowering your chances of cancer. And they're good for your cardiovascular health. But you don't want to go in and, say, buy a lot of expensive probiotics and prebiotics and spend your money on that because there's no good scientific data really linking any kind of disease modification or slowing down of any of these diseases with any of those things. Whether they may change your constipation or your GI health, that's a different story. They may do that. And if you feel better, that's great. But in terms of changing the disease itself, there's no good evidence of that yet.

Todd Golde: I would add that at a public health level and referring to the broader category of dementia, not Alzheimer's disease per se, there's pretty good data that says doing things in your mid-life, such as controlling your blood pressure, exercising, eating a Mediterranean diet, may have a benefit.

So, there is a genetic component to this, there are familial risks, and you could do everything right and still get it. But just like with general public health measures, doing things to take care of yourself do influence your cognitive health. Even educational attainment is associated with protection from Alzheimer's disease. And we don't really understand that per se. The only way I conceptualize it — and this is just conjecture — is that it's like having a fit brain, you could withstand a lot more insult before you show signs of . . . 

Malú Tansey: Mental reserve.

Adam Woods: Yeah. The cognitive reserve. And that's something that's education has been used as a surrogate marker for cognitive reserve and cognitive aging for a long time. And there is a protective value there, but I would like to circle back to this idea that we're getting at here. And it's a question I get asked constantly when I give community talks. And that's, "When should I start doing these things? When should I start with this physical exercise? When should I start with brain exercises and so forth, so on."

And my answer is always, "Do you have time right now?" Especially in the non-pharmacological, noninvasive space, many of these are accessible technologies that you can access today. Now we're still doing the science to provide definitive evidence of reducing Alzheimer's incidents and conversion of mild cognitive impairment. Once we obtain that data, it's something where, my hope is, we'll push into earlier and earlier ages where we're suggesting, "Hey, start exercising these systems."

We always talk about exercising in the body. We rarely talk about exercising of the brain. Our research and research of many others around the world, demonstrate that there is significant value, whether it be educational attainment, whether it be different types of programs, behavioral interventions, or other approaches to exercise the system, because it is arguably one of, if not the most important, organs in the entire body. And so waiting until and at later disease state or what we still clinically call early Alzheimer's disease, we're not early in any fashion. There's a certain point where pathology can impact the system to a point of no return, where no matter what I can attempt to do, whether that be pharmaceutical, whether that be non-pharmaceutical, there's only so much gain I can get from these interventions.

So pushing our approach to this to earlier in life, whether that be midlife or otherwise — I mean, in reality, we talk about seeing cognitive aging effects in our 20s. You're in your mid-20s, it's as good as it's going to get. From there, we're going to start slowly declining. Well, in many disease processes, we look at when do you start declining and we intervene at that point. Unfortunately, in systems of cognition, we just ignore that until your sixth or seventh decade of life. And then we get concerned. So a shift in our thinking and our mindset relative to how we can intervene more effectively is going to be very important in moving forward with better prevention of these diseases. 

Todd Golde: But that also is in my research, really focused on the root causes of the amyloid pathology. And now more recently, the tau pathologies that we know are significant drivers of the degenerative process within the brain. But the earlier you go in the disease process in an asymptomatic individual, the safer your drug has to be. So we've lost some really good promising candidates because they turn out to have unacceptable side effects. And that bar for safety is higher today than it ever has been. The second thing is that those trials cost a huge amount of money. And depending on the modality you're using, if you're using a typical, what we call small molecule drugs, something like a statin, there's no guarantee of exclusivity for a pharmaceutical company.

If it takes 20 years to prove their drug worked, there are off patent by that point. And they probably will never regain their investment. In contrast, using something like a biologic, an antibody approach, they have exclusivity at least under current law. So they'll throw an antibody in there, even though it costs a lot more to treat people with an antibody. And it is really not a great public health solution even if it worked and typically involves an infusion or something, which is not convenient for a patient and, at least with the current antibodies, every month. So it's a real challenge. My thinking has actually changed a little bit and partly it's the recognition that you're late pathologically when you start to show symptoms.

You're actually beginning to have what I call now brain organ failure. And if we do not approach the symptomatic patient as somebody who has brain organ failure and try to make that system work better with a multi-pronged approach, be it a non-pharmacologic intervention, a mixture of things or what we sometimes call a magic shotgun drug, something that does a lot of things and has a number of actions that actually can restore function, I think we're going to struggle.

Because, at the end of the day, even if you have a disease-modifying drug, unless it's amazing and completely stops a disease in its track, an individual on a certain trajectory won't really know that they're not getting better, you're just slowing their decline. That's a tough one for a patient to stay on that regimen. They want to restore their memory and if you can't do that, it's going to be harder. So the field has turned away from simply trying to make the brain work better. And I think we need to turn our attention back to that. We have amazing what we call magic bullets — gene therapies or RNA vaccines or ways to more precisely and more safely target things.

And I think we need to be bolder here and try to change the way that we do these trials so that we're looking for bigger effects.

Adam Woods: Well. in leveraging off something Malú said and then Todd alluded to as well, this concept of precision and precision in medicine and the approach that we realize humanity is individual variability. We treat it like it's all the same when it comes to a treatment and intervention, we might slightly titrate the dose, maybe. But we know that that isn't the most effective approach. We know that we have to drive further into addressing just the milieu of individual variability. Each individual, each patient that walks in is completely unique. Their backgrounds, their premorbid medical history, genetic factors, yet there's a lot of information there. And it's really hard to parse that information into actionable items for intervention. 

I think one of the things we hope to do as we forge forward with newer technologies, like the AI and our artificial intelligence initiative at the University of Florida, is drive these technologies that are incredibly well-equipped to take this robust, deep, dense data and start to parse out actionable patterns and targets from what is ultimately the individual variability of the patient. Patient to patient.

And so we're not there yet, as was being said, we have to do better. We have to drive forward in terms of both our approach and our mindset and the technologies we apply, to really leverage these skills that cross multiple, multiple domains of expertise and pull that information together to titrate the approaches. As Todd was saying, we're going to have to take multifaceted approaches to addressing this disease. It's not going to be a one and done. It's not going to be the magical drug most likely. And so in that case, as you said very well Todd, we have to do better and we have to do more.

Todd Golde: I would also just on your individual variability, I'd like to call a little kudos to my colleague, Dr. Tansey, because she's been a real champion of diversity and inclusion in Alzheimer's disease and neurodegenerative disease research and women in science. In general, we do a really bad job of including diversity in our trials. What we should say is we know a heck of a lot about the natural history of Alzheimer's disease in Caucasians of Northern European descent. There's also lack of just diversity — socioeconomic and educational diversity. 

And that's partly because these trials are pretty challenging. If you agree to one of these, you're going to go through extensive neuropsychological batteries that last hours. You're going to strap yourself in an infusion chair for a few hours, you're going to get multiple radionucleotide PET scans, you're going to get multiple MRI scans. They might ask you to have a lumbar puncture. This is a big burden to place on somebody. And so it takes a lot of processing. We have a lot of people who are rightfully a little fearful of the medical system and we're seeing the consequences of that with some of the lack of vaccination rates and things in the country. 

You could imagine the hurdles to try to get more diverse enrollees in these trials. I'll give a shout out, mostly to my colleagues in South Florida. I lead the NIH-funded 1Florida Alzheimer's Disease Research Center [ADRC]. It's a consortium of universities and institutions throughout Florida. We were refunded for another five-year cycle. But in that first period, we had the highest percentage of Hispanic/Latino participants of any ADRC in the country, out of the 30 networks. And it wasn't that high of a burden or hurdle because most of those did not have very many Hispanic enrollees. And they would lose them when they would enroll them. And we were actually able to retain them and continue to follow them for many years. And now our colleagues at the University of Miami are actually doing a great job of bringing in African-American participants. 

So we probably will end up with one of the more diverse research participants in our Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. And it's not me. It's my colleagues, Drs. Ranjan Duara, David Loewenstein, Rosie Curiel and Melissa Armstrong, who were really leading that clinical effort. And I'm sort of the ringleader. But it's really remarkable to see, and you don't really understand how bad we've been until you look at the data and go, okay, we have 5,000 brain scans on people with Alzheimer's disease and 100 from African-Americans and 125 from Hispanics. It's not quite that bad, but it's close.

Malú Tansey: That's exactly right. We know very little about how dementia affects people of color. Not just because of the demographics, but just lifestyle and access to care. And it's a complex picture. And then getting them enrolled in trials is very difficult because of cultural differences and outreach and things like that. But I do agree with Todd, I think the University of Florida does a remarkable job. I think Emory does a really good job as well. They have a really good ADRC that does outreach, Whitney Wharton out there, Allan Levey, they do a lot of African-American populations, they'd go into the churches and they seek them out. But yes, there's a lot that we need to do better to understand the effect of diverse genetic background.

Adam Woods: And in my mindset, because I'm leading four clinical trials at present and have worked on numerous clinical trials over the years, when you see a trial finish and it's five, six, 10% in minoritized participants, that is a failure of science because that is doing science for the majority and not science for everyone. And so we have to do more. And then here we work very hard. I mean, we just finished the enrollment in a Phase 3 trial and across the University of Arizona and University of Florida main campus we ended with 16% minoritized participants. And while our data safety monitoring board and others were really excited by this, I was disappointed. I wanted 25% and we invested heavily — we paid for transportation for every single participant from point-to-point at every time, provided remuneration that was appropriate for the study, provided any kind of accessibility issues and tried to address them one-on-one.

We had full-time recruiters, out in the community, that are in the churches, at these events in the community, literally every weekend, every day they happen, and that's literally what we have to continue doing. We have to do more because we can't continue having these drug trials finish to where it's not representative of the U.S. population. That is a failure.

Nicci Brown: Resources, websites people can go to?

Todd Golde: So just for some local information, there's some data on the research that's going on at the University of Florida that's updated at the McKnight Brain Institute. So

Nicci Brown: Our brains helping yours?

Todd Golde: And there's also a website for our 1Florida Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. And then I think one of the better websites on the larger scale is the national Alzheimer's Association website that really lays out in lay language the disease, its impact and how you could go to get — we didn't talk about things like caregiver burden and other kinds of things. And caring for a loved one with this disorder is a huge burden and a real challenge. And there are resources and links to support groups, ways to manage that, et cetera. So I think the national Alzheimer's Association website is probably the one that I would most strongly recommend if you just want to figure out how you're going to cope with this disease.

Adam Woods: And then probably the CTRND [Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease] website.

Nicci Brown: The CTRND website, yeah.

Adam Woods: And Center for Cognitive Aging and Memory website would make sense to include that as well. 

Nicci Brown: Yeah.

Todd Golde: Well, and a final one would be there's And so if somebody does want to enroll in trials, and if they're hearing that someplace besides the state of Florida, these are run nationally and there are many sites and one could look at trials in your area. Pretty much if you are running a clinical trial, whether it's non-pharmacological or pharmacologic, it has to go on that site now.

Adam Woods: And I get emails all the time from people who have gone on or, and they'll reach out and say, "Hi, I'm at this location, are you running a site here? I'd like to participate in your trial?" And so it is a resource that people use to find trials that may fit. We have local research registries and other things of that nature, but would probably be a nice one to add in.

Nicci Brown: So we've spent a good amount of time and I think we've barely scratched the surface because there is so much to talk about, but for our listeners, are there any things that you would say they should be on the lookout for in the next few years, any breakthroughs that you might see coming or developments that we should be on the lookout for?

Todd Golde: Well, I think it's a really exciting time. There is a renewed interest in pharmaceutical companies, and I think whether you think this new drug [Adulhelm] worked or not, at least for some people, this will mean that there is a path to getting some financial reward for investing in therapeutic development in this space.

And so I think that will bring about a continued investment in the pharmaceutical sector. But we were beginning to unravel the complex biology of this disease in ways that I think we wouldn't have really anticipated a few years ago. And I think that with the novel technologies around, be it RNA vaccines, I'm not sure if that's applicable to Alzheimer's disease, but somebody might find it, there are gene therapies, there's an ability to more rapidly identify novel traditional small molecule drugs or make new antibodies.

So I think there is hope. I think we need to learn from our failures or not complete successes. And I think the field's willing to do that. We've eaten enough humble pie that we can say, "Hey, we need to change the dialogue." And when we think of developing a therapy or an intervention, we need to align it with the stage of disease, be it even clinical or preclinical, where it's most likely to show an effect. These prevention studies that are going on, on people with genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease, that are really heroic efforts, mostly from the participants who are really probably doing this more likely for the next generation, rather than for themselves because the likelihood that they're going to receive a drug that will prevent them from getting Alzheimer's disease, as we go on I think is higher and higher, but in the early days, they're not getting optimal drugs, but we're learning about the natural history of Alzheimer's disease.

And that's ultimately how we're going to figure out how to prevent this disease is in those people initially. And then we're going to figure out ways to intervene better in people who have the symptomatic phase of the disease. I fully believe that, it's not going to be easy, but we're going to roll up our sleeves and get to it.

Nicci Brown: Anything to add from anyone?

Malú Tansey: Yeah. I think people should be on the lookout for acknowledgement that while it is a complex disease, we are getting a better handle on the biology. We are understanding how the gene and environment interactions in the immune system, how you respond to your triggers outside — stress, sleep, diet, all those things come together to dial up a dance card of your predispositions and your likelihood. And while you can't necessarily control your genetics right now, there's probably an opportunity to potentially do a lot of things about the other factors as soon as we find out more about them. I'm extremely excited about the potential for modulating the immune system to understand risk and lower those risks over a lifetime and develop new therapies.

Adam Woods: I don't have really much to add in that. I think my colleagues have said it very well. I think the one thing I would like to reiterate is the heroes in this aren't the scientists. It's not the clinicians. It is the participants, it’s the participants in all of these trials that come in day after day, and you talk to these participants and they say, "I know this probably isn't going to help me directly or maybe it'll help me a little, but if I can help move this forward, if I can help my children, my grandchildren" that to me, is the sign of a hero. And that's the people we're working with. Those are the people who are going to break the bow in this and move this forward. We're just going to be there to help them facilitate.

Todd Golde: Even those, I mean, much of what we learned beginning with Dr. Alzheimer and Dr. Oscar Fisher, who was a contemporary scientist, basically they looked at the post-mortem brain. And so we do have brain donation program here at the University of Florida and having access to brain tissue is a gift that is huge because we would be nowhere in this disease without the access to the human brain and understanding the proteins. In fact, it was in the 1980s that what I call Alzheimer's disease entered the molecular age. It wasn't until that. So, we had these descriptions of what went on in the brain and the clinical features.

But they purified the proteins that we still work on today, amyloid and tau, from the post-mortem human brain. And then both were linked in different ways to genetics of dementing disorders in the 1990s. And that really served as a framework for our modern understanding of this disease. Though, in some ways we also oversimplified it at that time. And as Adam said and Malú, there are so many factors that influence your cognitive trajectory. It's not just about amyloid and tau, and we need to embrace the complexity and move beyond that. 

Nicci Brown: Well, I want to acknowledge all those people who have participated, but also thank you all for your time this afternoon and also for your work and your research and that of your colleagues. 

Todd Golde: Glad to do this. It's important to get the message out there. And the only thing I'd add just at the end is that the increase in public support funding at the national level, and even the state of Florida level, has been tremendously important to what's happening at UF and across the country. And so one thing you could do, which doesn't involve participation in a trial, is to contact your representative or state Legislature, and just tell them how much you're concerned about Alzheimer's disease and continue to support it. And we're not going to do this without that, funding is key. And it sounds a little self-serving, but we've been paupers in the world of relative levels of funding to medical impact and that's changed. And we need to keep it that way in order for us to really move this from where we are to get the next one.

Malú Tansey: To the next generation too, really, I think it's important while we might have the resources and the ideas, the next generation of people in our labs that are already here, they have even better ideas than we do, hopefully. 

Adam Woods: Yeah, that's right. I mean, we're looking at a tripling of the population afflicted by Alzheimer's disease by 2050 and economically our health care infrastructure isn't well equipped to handle that level of care. And so what we're looking at now is trying to find solutions to address this now, not when it becomes a catastrophic level of economic impact. And so everyone has a role to play, whether that be participating in a study, participating in reaching out to representatives to help support future Alzheimer's funding. But at the end of the day, go Gators!

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for From Florida, a University of Florida podcast where we share the stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll join me for our next story of innovation from Florida.

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September 14, 2021

Episode 1: Trailer, Welcome to the From Florida podcast

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 


Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida.

I’m your host Nicci Brown and on each episode, I’ll be talking with UF faculty, researchers, students and administrators — thought leaders From Florida — who are moving our state, nation and the world forward.

The University of Florida is one of America’s leading public research universities, recognized for innovative discoveries and advances in a broad range of fields – from agriculture to artificial intelligence – for educational excellence and for our major role as an economic engine in our state. Our impact, though, extends around the globe. We have many stories to share. I hope you’ll join us.


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