Research

Research: SMU-led fossil study finds carbon dioxide link to global warming 22 million years ago

Fossil leaves from Ethiopia

Variations in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide affect carbon fixation during photosynthesis and can be measured on a preserved fossil leaf like this one from Ethiopia.

Fossil leaves from Africa have resolved a prehistoric climate puzzle — and also confirm the link between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global warming.

Research until now has produced a variety of results and conflicting data that have cast doubt on the link between high carbon dioxide levels and climate change for a time interval about 22 million years ago.

But a new study has found the link does indeed exist for that prehistoric time period, say SMU researchers. The finding will help scientists understand how recent and future increases in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide may impact the future of our planet, they add.

The discovery comes from new biochemical analyses of fossil leaves from plants that grew on Earth 27 million years ago and 22 million years ago, said geologist Tekie Tesfamichael, an SMU postdoctoral fellow in Earth Sciences and a lead scientist on the research.

The new analyses confirm research about modern climate — that global temperatures rise and fall with increases and decreases in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere — but in this case even in prehistoric times, according to the SMU-led international research team.

Carbon dioxide is a gas that is normally present in the Earth’s atmosphere, even millions of years ago. It’s dubbed a greenhouse gas because greater concentrations cause the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere to rise, as happens in a greenhouse with lots of sunlight.

Recently greenhouse gas increases have caused global warming, which is melting glaciers, sparking extreme weather variability and causing sea levels to rise.

The new SMU discovery that carbon dioxide behaved in the same manner millions of years ago that it does today has significant implications for the future. The finding suggests the pairing of carbon dioxide and global warming that is seen today also holds true for the future if carbon dioxide levels continue to rise as they have been, said Tesfamichael.

“The more we understand about the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and global temperature in the past, the more we can plan for changes ahead,” said Tesfamichael.

“Previous work reported a variety of results and conflicting data about carbon dioxide concentrations at the two intervals of time that we studied,” he said. “But tighter control on the age of our fossils helped us to address whether or not atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration corresponded to warming — which itself is independently well-documented in geochemical studies of marine fossils in ocean sediments.”

The researchers reported their findings in Geology, the scientific journal of the Geological Society of America. The article is “Settling the issue of ‘decoupling’ between atmospheric carbon dioxide and global temperature: [CO2]atm reconstructions across the warming Paleogene-Neogene divide.”

Co-authors from the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College are professors Bonnie Jacobs, an expert in paleobotany and paleoclimate, and Neil J. Tabor, an expert in sedimentology and sedimentary geochemistry. Other co-authors are Lauren Michel, Tennessee Technological University; Ellen Currano, University of Wyoming; Mulugeta Feseha, Addis Ababa University; Richard Barclay, Smithsonian Institution; John Kappelman, University of Texas; and Mark Schmitz, Boise State University.

— Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog: smuresearch.com

President Turner outlines SMU’s new direction in research at Dallas Fed

SMU Economic Impact ReportSMU President R. Gerald Turner had a clear message for a group of business and civic leaders gathered at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas: The return on investment in SMU made by Dallas leaders more than 100 years ago continues to be strong.

In a Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 update on SMU’s economic impact, Turner outlined the growth in reputation for all seven of the University’s degree-granting schools, including the creation of more than a dozen centers and institutes addressing issues like education, criminal justice reform and international business. Most notably, he said, SMU is transforming into a new era of teaching and research fueled by a powerful digital infrastructure.

The University now offers 13 graduate programs in data science and is powered by ManeFrame II, among the top 20 supercomputers in North American higher education. In addition, SMU partners with organizations such as the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, AT&T, Raytheon, Big Thought, Harvard and MIT.

President Turner also emphasized that SMU’s high-speed supercomputer is accessible with no waiting to students, faculty and research partners outside SMU – and that a University that can complete data analysis in any discipline faster, without long wait times for access, has an advantage.

The five-year investment of $85 million in high speed computing, data science curriculum and planned Gerald J. Ford Research Center has an additional strategic purpose: It can deliver more bang for the research buck than a comparable investment in additional wet labs for handling chemicals and biological matter. The University aims to generate $100 million a year in research, Turner said, and the infusion of data science into research across disciplines – combined with important work accomplished in University wet labs – will help SMU get there.

— Written by Kim Cobb

> Read more from SMU News

> Visit the website: smu.edu/datapowered

Simmons School researchers receive $2.5 million NSF grant to develop math-skills assessment system

Lindsey Perry and Leanne Ketterlin Geller

Lindsey Perry and Leanne Ketterlin Geller

SMU researchers have received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to target the ongoing struggle of U.S. elementary and high school students with math.

The new four-year grant, to the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, is led by SMU K-12 math education experts Leanne Ketterlin Geller and Lindsey Perry. They will conduct research and develop an assessment system comprised of two universal screening tools to measure mathematical reasoning skills for grades K–2.

When it comes to the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, research shows that U.S. students continue at a disadvantage all the way through high school and entering college. The NSF grant provides “an opportunity to develop an assessment system that can help teachers support students at the earliest, and arguably one of the most critical, phases of a child’s mathematical development,” said Ketterlin Geller, a professor in the Simmons School and principal investigator for the grant developing the “Measures of Mathematical Reasoning Skills” system.

Teachers and schools will use the assessment system to screen students and determine who is at risk for difficulty in early mathematics, including students with disabilities. The measures also will help provide important information about the intensity of support needed for a given student.

Few assessments are currently available to measure the critical math concepts taught during those early school years, Ketterlin Geller says. “Providing teachers with data to understand how a child processes these concepts can have a long-term impact on students’ success not only in advanced math like algebra, but also success in STEM fields, such as chemistry, biology, geology and engineering.”

— Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

Research: SMU scientists help solve the mystery of climate and leaf size

Conifer needlesWhy is a banana leaf a million times bigger than a common heather leaf? Why are leaves generally much larger in tropical jungles than in temperate forests and deserts? The textbooks say it’s a balance between water availability and overheating – but researchers have found that it’s not that simple.

SMU paleobotanist Bonnie F. Jacobs has contributed work to a major new study that provides scientists with a new tool for understanding both ancient and future climate by looking at the size of plant leaves.

The study, published in the Sept. 1, 2017 issue of Science, was led by Associate Professor Ian Wright from Macquarie University, Australia. The study’s findings reveal that in much of the world the key factor limiting the size of a plant’s leaves is the temperature at night and the risk of frost damage to leaves.

Jacobs said the implications of the study are significant for enabling scientists to either predict modern leaf size in the distant future, or to understand the climate for a locality as it may have been in the past.

“This research provides scientists with another tool for predicting future changes in vegetation, given climate change, and for describing ancient climate given fossil leaves,” said Jacobs, a professor in SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Now we can reliably use this as another way to look at future climate models for a specific location and predict the size of plant leaves,” she said. “Or, if we’re trying to understand what the climate was for a prehistoric site tens of millions of years ago, we can look at the plant fossils discovered in that location and describe what the climate most likely was at that time.”

Wright, Jacobs and 15 colleagues from Australia, the U.K., Canada, Argentina, the United States, Estonia, Spain and China analyzed leaves from more than 7,600 species, then pooled and analyzed the data with new theory to create a series of equations that can predict the maximum viable leaf size anywhere in the world based on the risk of daytime overheating and night-time freezing.

The researchers will use these findings to create more accurate vegetation models. This will be used by governments to predict how vegetation will change locally and globally under climate change, and to plan for adaptation.

“The conventional explanation was that water availability and overheating were the two major limits to leaf size. But the data didn’t fit,” says Wright. “For example the tropics are both wet and hot, and leaves in cooler parts of the world are unlikely to overheat.”

“Our team worked both ends of the problem – observation and theory,” he says. “We used big data – measurements made on tens of thousands of leaves. By sampling across all continents, climate zones and plant types we were able to show that simple ‘rules’ seemingly operate across the world’s plant species, rules that were not apparent from previous, more limited analyses.”

Jacobs contributed an extensive leaf database she compiled about 20 years ago, funded by a National Science Foundation grant. She analyzed the leaf characteristics of 880 species of modern tropical African plants, which occurred in various combinations among 30 plant communities. Jacobs measured leaves of the plant specimens at the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium, one of the largest archives of pressed dried plant specimens from around the world.

She looked at all aspects of leaf shape and climate, ranging from seasonal and annual rainfall and temperature for each locale, as well as leaf shape, size, tip, base, among others. Using statistical analyses to plot the variables, she found the most prominent relationship between leaf shape and climate was that size increases with rainfall amount. Wet sites had species with larger leaves than dry sites.

Her Africa database was added to those of many other scientists who have compiled similar data for other localities around the world.

— Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

Research: New detector for neutrino research represents next frontier in particle physics

 

SMU is one of more than 100 institutions from around the world building hardware for the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) – a massive international experiment that could change our understanding of the universe.

Construction for the particle detector will take years and scientists expect to begin taking data in the middle of the next decade, said SMU physicist Thomas E. Coan, a professor in the SMU Department of Physics and a researcher on the experiment. The groundbreaking ceremony was held Friday, July 21, 2017 at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota.

The LBNF will house the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. Called DUNE for short, it will be built and operated by a group of roughly 1,000 scientists and engineers from 30 countries, including Coan.

When complete, LBNF/DUNE will be the largest experiment ever built in the United States to study the properties of the mysterious particles, which could help explain more about how the universe works and why matter exists at all.

“DUNE is designed to investigate a broad swath of the properties of neutrinos, one of the universe’s most abundant but still mysterious electrically neutral particles,” Coan said.

The experiment seeks to understand strange phenomena like neutrinos changing identities — called “oscillation” — in mid-flight and the behavioral differences between a neutrino an its anti-neutrino sibling, Coan said.

“A crisp understanding of neutrinos holds promise for understanding why any matter survived annihilation with antimatter from the Big Bang to form the people, planets and stars we see today,” Coan said. “DUNE is also able to probe whether or not the humble proton, found in all atoms of the universe, is actually unstable and ultimately destined to eventually decay away. It even has sensitivity to undertanding how stars explode into supernovae by studying the neutrinos that stream out from them during the explosion.”

— Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

SMU, LIFT team in semifinals for $7 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE

 

An SMU and Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) team has been named one of eight semifinalists advancing in the $7 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by Dollar General Literacy Foundation. The XPRIZE is a global competition that challenges teams to develop mobile applications designed to increase literacy skills in adult learners.

> Learn more about the semifinalists at the Adult Literacy XPRIZE website

SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development and Guildhall graduate video game development program are working with LIFT to design an engaging, puzzle-solving smartphone game app to help adults develop literacy skills. The SMU and LIFT team, People ForWords, is one of 109 teams who entered the competition in 2016.

Drawing upon the education experts at SMU’s Simmons School, game developers at Guildhall and adult literacy experts at LIFT, the team developed Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis. In the game, players become archaeologists hunting for relics from the imagined once-great civilization of Atlantis. By deciphering the forgotten language of Atlantis, players develop and strengthen their own reading skills. The game targets English- and Spanish-speaking adults.

> Learn more about the Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis team at PeopleForWords.org

Students at LIFT, a North Texas nonprofit adult literacy provider, have tested and provided key insights for the game during its development. According to LIFT, one in five adults in North Texas cannot read, a key factor in poverty. Dallas has the fourth highest concentration of poverty in the nation, with a 41 percent increase from 2000 to 2014.

Testing of the eight semifinalists’ literacy software begins in mid-July with 12,000 adults who read English at a third grade level or lower. Selection of up to five finalists will depend on results of post-game testing to evaluate literacy gains among test subjects. Finalists will be named in May 2018, and the winner will be named in 2019.

> See the full story at SMU News

> Download the Codex: The Lost Words Of Atlantis app for Android at Google Play

Check out the Codex gameplay with this gallery of screen captures:

Dallas Fed, SMU and consortium to establish new Federal Statistical Research Data Center

Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Dallas FedSMU is part of a consortium of institutions, led by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and the University of Texas-Dallas, who will partner with the U.S. Census Bureau to establish the Dallas-Fort Worth Federal Statistical Research Data Center.

The new center is the result of an extensive grant application process involving contributions from each consortium member and a review by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Census Bureau. One of several planned Federal Statistical Research Data Center locations across the country, the center will be housed at the Dallas Fed and will provide approved researchers with secure access to restricted micro-level data.

“The establishment of this center is the culmination of two years’ worth of effort on the part of the Bank and consortium to bring this important new research facility to North Texas,” said Dallas Fed President Rob Kaplan. “Our role in this project aligns well with the Bank’s strategic priorities of serving as a thought leader in policy-related research and being a leading citizen in the communities we serve.”

The center will advance scientific knowledge, improve data quality and inform policy in fields spanning the social, behavioral and economic sciences and the health professions, and extending to urban planning, and engineering. The cutting-edge research opportunities afforded by the center will raise the profile of participating institutions and assist in attracting and retaining top research talent to the region.

“This is a very positive demonstration of how the major universities and institutions in the DFW area, along with West Texas, can work together to both increase quality research as well as strengthen the ties between consortium members,” said Kurt Beron, professor of economics at UT-Dallas, who played a leading role in the grant application process and will help coordinate the consortium.

In addition to the Dallas Fed, UT-Dallas and SMU, the consortium includes UT-Arlington, UT-Southwestern Medical Center, Texas Tech University, University of North Texas, Texas Christian University and the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council Foundation.

The DFW center is expected to open in early 2018. Wenhua Di, senior research economist at the Dallas Fed, will serve as executive director of the center.

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

Research: Gamers join researchers in the fight against cancer

John Wise, Pia Vogel and Corey Clark

SMU researchers (l-r) John Wise, Pia Vogel and Corey Clark are tapping the power of an online gaming community to fight cancer. Photo: Hillsman S. Jackson

The massive computational power of an online gaming community has even more clout than supercomputers in the fight against cancer, according to SMU biochemical researchers and video game developers. The two groups are partnering with the world’s vast network of gamers in hopes of discovering a new cancer-fighting drug.

Biochemistry professors Pia Vogel and John Wise in the Department of Biological Sciences and Corey Clark, deputy director of research at SMU Guildhall, are leading the University’s assault on cancer in partnership with fans of the best-selling video game Minecraft.

With 122 million copies of the game sold worldwide and more than 55 million active players each month as of February 2017, Vogel and Wise expect deep inroads in their quest to narrow the search for chemical compounds that improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs.

“Crowdsourcing as well as computational power may help us narrow down our search and give us better chances at selecting a drug that will be successful,” said Vogel. “And gamers can take pride in knowing they’ve helped find answers to an important medical problem.”

Up to now, Wise and Vogel have tapped the high-performance computing power of SMU’s Maneframe, one of the most powerful academic supercomputers in the nation. With ManeFrame, Wise and Vogel have sorted through millions of compounds that have the potential to work. Now, the biochemists say, it’s time to take that research to the next level — crowdsourced computing.

A network of gamers can crunch massive amounts of data during routine gameplay by pairing two powerful weapons: the best of human intuition combined with the massive computing power of networked gaming machine processors.

Taking their research to the gaming community will more than double the amount of machine processing power attacking their research problem.

“With the distributed computing of the actual game clients, we can theoretically have much more computing power than even the supercomputer here at SMU,” said Clark, who is also an adjunct research associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. In March, SMU Guildhall was named No. 1 among the world’s Top 25 Graduate Schools for Video Game Design by The Princeton Review.

“If we take a small percentage of the computing power from 25,000 gamers playing our mod we can match ManeFrame’s 120 teraflops of processing power,” Clark said. “Integrating with the Minecraft community should allow us to double the computing power of that supercomputer.”

Even more importantly, the gaming community adds another important component — human intuition.

Wise believes there’s a lot of brainpower eager to be tapped in the gaming community. And human brains, when tackling a problem or faced with a challenge, can make creative and intuitive leaps that machines can’t.

“What if we learn things that we never would have learned any other way? And even if it doesn’t work it’s still a good idea and the kids will still get their endorphin kicks playing the game,” Wise said. “It also raises awareness of the research. Gamers will be saying ‘Mom, don’t tell me to go to bed, I’m doing scientific research.’”

The Vogel and Wise research labs are part of the Center for Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery (CD4) in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. The center’s mission is a novel multi-disciplinary focus for scientific research targeting medically important problems in human health. Their research is funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.

— Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

Research: SMU study finds helicopter parenting harms boys and girls in different ways

Students Studying in Fondren Library CenterSMU researchers have found surprising gender differences in how college students react to misguided parenting. Their findings on the impact of helicopter parenting and fostering independence have been reported in a new article, “Helicopter Parenting, Autonomy Support, and College Students’ Mental Health and Well-being: The Moderating Role of Sex and Ethnicity,” in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

Measuring both helicopter parenting as well as autonomy support — fostering independence — was important for the researchers to study, said family dynamics expert Chrystyna Kouros, SMU assistant professor of psychology and an author on the study.

“Just because mom and dad aren’t helicopter parents doesn’t necessarily mean they are supporting their young adult in making his or her own choices,” Kouros said. “The parent may be uninvolved, so we also wanted to know if parents are actually encouraging their student to be independent and make their own choices.”

The researchers found that young women are negatively affected by helicopter parenting, while young men suffer when parents don’t encourage independence.

“The sex difference was surprising,” said Kouros, an expert in adolescent depression. “In Western culture in particular, boys are socialized more to be independent, assertive and take charge, while girls are more socialized toward relationships, caring for others, and being expressive and compliant. Our findings showed that a lack of autonomy support — failure to encourage independence — was more problematic for males, but didn’t affect the well-being of females. Conversely, helicopter parenting — parents who are overinvolved — proved problematic for girls, but not boys.”

The study is unique in measuring the well-being of college students, said Kouros, director of SMU’s Family Health and Development Lab. The tendency in research on parenting has been to focus on the mental health of younger children.

“When researchers do focus on college students they tend to ask about academic performance, and whether students are engaged in school. But there haven’t been as many studies that look at mental health or well-being in relation to helicopter parenting,” she said.

Unlike children subjected to psychological control, in which parents try to instill guilt in their child, children of helicopter parents report a very close bond with their parents. Helicopter parents “hover” out of concern for their child, not from malicious intent, she said.

What helicopter parents don’t realize is that despite their good intentions to help their child, it actually does harm, said Naomi Ekas, a co-author on the study and assistant professor of psychology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

“They’re not allowing their child to become independent or learn problem-solving on their own, nor to test out and develop effective coping strategies,” Ekas said.

Young men that reported more autonomy support, measured stronger well-being in the form of less social anxiety and fewer depressive symptoms.

For young women, helicopter parenting predicted lower psychological well-being. They were less optimistic, felt less satisfaction with accomplishments, and were not looking forward to things with enjoyment, nor feeling hopeful. In contrast, lacking autonomy support wasn’t related to negative outcomes in females.

“The take-away is we have to adjust our parenting as our kids get older,” said Kouros. “Being involved with our child is really important. But we have to adapt how we are involved as they are growing up, particularly going off to college.”

Other co-authors on the study are Romilyn Kiriaki and Megan Sunderland, SMU Department of Psychology, and Megan M. Pruitt, Texas Christian University. The study was funded by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at UT-Austin.

— Margaret Allen

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

Research: Hunting down cancer-causing viruses that hide from the immune system

Robert L. Harrod, Biology Lab ResearchSMU virologist and cancer researcher Robert L. Harrod has been awarded a $436,500 grant from the National Cancer Institute to further his lab’s research into how certain viruses cause cancers in humans.

Under two previous NCI grants, Harrod’s lab discovered that the human T-cell leukemia virus type-1, HTLV-1, and high-risk subtype human papillomaviruses, HPVs, share a common mechanism that plays a key role in allowing cancers to develop. Now the lab will search for the biological mechanism — a molecular target — to intervene to block establishment and progression of virus-induced cancers. The hope is to ultimately develop a chemotherapy drug to block the growth of those tumor cells in patients.

“The general theme of our lab is understanding the key molecular events involved in how the viruses allow cancer to develop,” said Harrod, an associate professor in SMU’s Department of Biological Sciences whose research focuses on understanding the molecular basis of viral initiation of cancer formation.

While HTLV-1 and HPV are unrelated transforming viruses and lead to very different types of cancers, they’ve evolved a similar mechanism to cooperate with genes that cause cancer in different cell types. The lab discovered that the two viruses tap a common protein that cooperates with cellular genes to help the viruses hide from the immune system.

That common protein, the p30 protein of HTLV-1, binds to a different protein in the cell, p53, which normally has the job of suppressing cancerous growth or tumor development. Instead, however, p30 manages to subvert p53’s tumor suppressor functions, which in turn activates pro-survival pathways for the virus.

From there, the virus can hide inside the infected cell for two to three decades while evading host immune-surveillance pathways. As the cell divides, the virus divides and replicates. Then ultimately the deregulation of gene expression by viral encoded products causes cancer to develop.

“They are essentially using a similar mechanism, p30, to deregulate those pathways from their normal tumor-suppressing function,” Harrod said.

— Margaret Allen

> Read more about Rob Harrod’s research at SMUResearch.com

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