Research

Research: Rare inscription names mysterious Etruscan goddess

Greg Warden with Etruscan steleArchaeologists translating a very rare inscription have discovered the name of a goddess in a sacred text that is possibly the longest such Etruscan inscription ever discovered on stone.

The discovery indicates that Uni – a divinity of fertility and possibly a mother goddess at this particular place – may have been the titular deity worshipped at the sanctuary of Poggio Colla, a key settlement in Italy for the ancient Etruscan civilization.

“We can at this point affirm that this discovery is one of the most important Etruscan discoveries of the last few decades,” said SMU professor emeritus Gregory Warden. The University is the main sponsor of the archaeological dig.

“It’s a discovery that will provide not only valuable information about the nature of sacred practices at Poggio Colla, but also fundamental data for understanding the concepts and rituals of the Etruscans, as well as their writing and perhaps their language.”

Scientists discovered the ancient stone slab embedded as part of a temple wall at the Poggio Colla dig, where many other Etruscan objects have been found, including a ceramic fragment with the earliest birth scene in European art. That object reinforces the interpretation of a fertility cult at Poggio Colla, Warden said.

Poggia Colla steleNow Etruscan language experts are studying the 500-pound stele to translate the text. It’s very rare to identify the god or goddess worshipped at an Etruscan sanctuary.

“The location of its discovery – a place where prestigious offerings were made – and the possible presence in the inscription of the name of Uni, as well as the care of the drafting of the text, which brings to mind the work of a stone carver who faithfully followed a model transmitted by a careful and educated scribe, suggest that the document had a dedicatory character,” said Adriano Maggiani, formerly professor at the University of Venice and one of the scholars working to decipher the inscription.

“It is also possible that it expresses the laws of the sanctuary — a series of prescriptions related to ceremonies that would have taken place there, perhaps in connection with an altar or some other sacred space,” said Warden, co-director and principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project that made the discovery.

Warden said it will be easier to speak with more certainty once the archaeologists are able to completely reconstruct the text, which consists of as many as 120 characters or more.

While archaeologists understand how Etruscan grammar works, and know some of its words and alphabet, they expect to discover new words never seen before – particularly since this discovery is not a funerary text. Permanent Etruscan inscriptions are rare, as Etruscans typically used linen cloth books or wax tablets. The texts that have been preserved are quite short and are from graves.

Besides being possibly the longest Etruscan inscription on stone, it is also one of the three longest sacred texts to date. The sandstone slab, which dates to the 6th century BCE and is nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide, was discovered in the final stages of two decades of digging at Mugello Valley, which is northeast of Florence in north central Italy.

Other objects unearthed in the past 20 years have shed light on Etruscan worship, beliefs, gifts to divinities, and discoveries related to the daily lives of elites and non-elites, including workshops, kilns, pottery and homes. The material helps document ritual activity from the 7th century to the 2nd century BCE.

— Margaret Allen

> Read the full story and see more images at SMUResearch.com

SMU announces five 2016 Ford Research Fellows

SMU Ford Research Fellows, 2016

Meghan Ryan, Ali Beskok, Frederick Chang, Jodi Cooley-Sekula and Mark Chancey (with SMU Provost Steven Currall) were honored as SMU’s 2016 Ford Research Fellows during the Board of Trustees meeting in May. Photo: SMU/Hillsman S. Jackson

Five distinguished SMU professors received awards for their scholarship and support for their research when there were named 2016 Ford Research Fellows during the Board of Trustees meeting Thursday, May 5.

This year’s recipients are Ali Beskok, Mechanical Engineering, Lyle School of Engineering; Mark Chancey, Religious Studies, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences; Frederick Chang, Computer Science and Engineering, Lyle School of Engineering; Jodi Cooley-Sekula, Physics, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences; and Meghan Ryan, Dedman School of Law.

Established in 2002 through a $1 million pledge from trustee Gerald J. Ford, the fellowships help SMU retain and reward outstanding scholars. Each recipient receives a cash prize for research support during the year.

(more…)

Student achievement in the spotlight during SMU Engaged Learning Week, Feb. 8-12, 2016

SMU Engaged Learning Symposium program - photo by Clayton T. SmithSMU’s Engaged Learning Week expands its schedule for 2016 and features a growing undergraduate presence at the University’s annual Research Day as well as presentations from McNair Scholars and Summer Research Fellows.

This year’s event takes place Feb. 8-12 and will help students learn more about expanding their education outside the classroom, from undergraduate research and community service to professional internships and creative projects.

The week begins Monday, Feb. 8 with presentations by graduating Engaged Learning Fellows in Community Service and Internships at 12:30 p.m., followed by a Creative Projects panel at 3 p.m., both in the Hughes-Trigg Student Center Forum.

On Tuesday, Feb. 9, Engaged Learning, Big iDeas and Clinton Global Initiative University students host an open house and luncheon 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. in the Scholars’ Den, G11 Clements Hall. The event is open to the entire University community, and current EL Fellows and Big iDeas teams will discuss their projects and programs with visitors.

SMU Engaged Learning logo

On Research Day, Wednesday, Feb. 10 in the Hughes-Trigg Ballrooms, undergraduate researchers from the McNair Scholars and Summer Research Fellows will show their work at 9:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. Engaged Learning Fellows in Undergraduate Research will present at 11:45 a.m.

Thursday, Feb. 11 will see presentations from the Lyle School of Engineering’s Senior Design Teams from 1:30-4 p.m. in the Hughes-Trigg Forum.

The week wraps up Friday, Feb. 12 with Undergraduate Research panels at 9 a.m. and from noon-2:30 p.m., with a buffet lunch at 11:30 a.m., followed by presentations from Big iDeas teams at 12:45 p.m.

Find a full schedule at the SMU Engaged Learning Week homepage

SMU NCAR publishes white paper on measuring strength, effectiveness of culturally specific arts organizations

SMU’s National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) has released a white paper that examines the distinguishing characteristics of arts organizations that primarily serve Asian American, African American, and Hispanic/Latino communities.

Andrea Louie

Andrea Louie

The study is designed to provide insights, based on measurable data, about the operating contexts and unique challenges that these organizations face. Co-authored with Andrea Louie, executive director of the Asian American Arts Alliance, and Zenetta Drew, executive director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, the goal of the white paper is to provide a more nuanced understanding of culturally specific organizations and to help establish a more equitable measure of their performance.

> Read the NCAR white paper: “Does ‘Strong and Effective’ Look Different for Culturally Specific Arts Organizations?”

Zenetta Drew

Zenetta Drew

Inspired by the DeVos Institute’s 2015 publication “Diversity in the Arts: The Past, Present and Future of African American and Latino Museums, Dance Companies, and Theater Companies,” NCAR’s paper responds to two key aspects of the DeVos Institute’s findings: first, that arts organizations of color are in general smaller and “far less secure” than their mainstream counterparts; and second, that funders might see greater results by providing larger grants to a smaller number of “effective” organizations, rather than continuing to fund a larger number of organizations through smaller grants.

Based on its research, NCAR found that culturally specific arts organizations are not disproportionately smaller than their mainstream peers. Taking into account their sector and age, the data shows that they are generally younger and therefore at a different stage in their evolution than mainstream organizations.

NCAR argues that the funding model proposed by DeVos would be detrimental to the cultural ecology, as it could effectively reduce the overall number of smaller organizations and therefore diminish the level of diversity, dynamism, and innovation in the field. NCAR calls for a deeper understanding of culturally specific organizations before significantly altering or abandoning their funding.

NCAR Report“We recognize that culturally specific organizations have particular characteristics that should be understood for what they are, neither good nor bad nor a sign of ineffectiveness but simply a different starting point,” said Zannie Voss, NCAR director. “With this study, we want to reframe how we assess the performance of these organizations by identifying the differences in their operating contexts and by establishing a more precise framework of what expected performance should look like, rooted in evidence-based research.”

— Victoria Winkelman

> Read the full story from SMU News

Research: SMU study shows intensive (and immediate) intervention is crucial in helping struggling readers succeed

SMU reading researcher Stephanie Al Otaiba

SMU reading researcher Stephanie Al Otaiba

Instructors who give struggling readers intensive and immediate help will enjoy “significantly” improved learning outcomes over those who adhere to the traditional “fail first” model, according to a new study by SMU researchers.

The study found that reading skills improve very little when schools follow current standard practice of waiting for struggling readers to fail before providing them with additional help. In contrast, a dynamic intervention in which at-risk readers received the most intensive help immediately enabled these students to significantly outperform their peers who had to wait for additional help, says the study’s lead author, SMU’s Stephanie Al Otaiba.

“We studied how well struggling readers respond to generally effective standard protocols of intervention to help them improve. We found that how those interventions are provided within a school — how immediately they are provided — makes an important difference,” says Al Otaiba, professor of teaching and learning in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.

Proficient reading is critical, and early intervention is imperative, says co-author and academic skills measurement expert Paul Yovanoff, also a professor of teaching and learning in the Simmons School. About 40 percent of U.S. children in fourth grade do not read at a proficient level, Yovanoff adds.

“We’re not talking about a small group of children,” he says. “We’re talking about a large group. And the number is higher in urban areas and higher among minority students. How can these kids grow up and participate in society as moms and dads in the economy unless they’re literate? Reading is a bottleneck for their success in school and in life.”

A wait-to-fail system can be the unintended consequence of response to intervention as it’s currently practiced in U.S. schools, the researchers say. “If you have to wait a certain time to demonstrate that you need more help, then it’s a wait-to-fail system,” Yovanoff says. “Good teaching would collect frequent information about the student’s performance and adjust help appropriately.”

The study, initiated in 2011, followed 522 first-grade public school students for three years through third grade. At the start of the study, the children were young beginning readers with the poorest initial reading skills, who were struggling and at risk for developing reading disabilities.

“We contrasted the multi-tier model with what we call a dynamic model, where we gave kids with the weakest initial skills the strongest intervention right away,” Al Otaiba says. “The kids in the dynamic system outperformed the kids who got help later.”

The researchers followed up on the students in third grade, and found that those that had received the immediate intensive intervention continued to outperform the children who had to wait, Al Otaiba says.

The research was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health. The study’s co-author is Jeanne Wanzek of the Florida Center for Reading Research, Florida State University.

The researchers reported the findings in their article “Response to Intervention” in the European Scientific Journal.

— Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research website

Research: Computer model of key protein helps predict how cancer drugs will work

Drugs important in the battle against cancer behaved according to predictions when tested in a computer-generated model of P-glycoprotein, one of the cell’s key molecular pumps.

The new model allows researchers to dock nearly any drug in the P-gp protein and see how it will actually behave in P-gp’s pump, said Associate Professor John G. Wise, lead author on the journal article announcing the advancement and a faculty member in SMU’s Department of Biological Sciences, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

SMU biologists developed the computer generated model to overcome the problem of relying on only static images for the structure of P-gp. The protein is the cellular pump that protects cells by pumping out toxins.

But that’s a problem when P-gp targets chemotherapy drugs as toxic, preventing chemo from killing cancer cells. Scientists are searching for ways to inhibit P-gp’s pumping action.

“The value of this fundamental research is that it generates dynamic mechanisms that let us understand something in biochemistry, in biology,” Wise said. “And by understanding P-gp in such detail, we can now think of ways to better and more specifically inhibit it.”

The SMU researchers tested Tariquidar, a new P-gp inhibitor still in clinical trials. Inhibitors offer hope for stopping P-gp’s rejection of chemotherapeutics by stalling the protein’s pumping action. Pharmacology researchers disagree, however, on where exactly Tariquidar binds in P-gp.

When run through the SMU model, Tariquidar behaved as expected: It wasn’t effectively pumped from the cell and the researchers observed that it prefers to bind high in the protein.

“Now we have more details on how Tariquidar inhibits P-gp, where it inhibits and what it’s actually binding to,” Wise said.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

Four named 2015 SMU Ford Research Fellows

SMU Ford Research Fellows 2015

Ping (Peggy) Gui, Robert Howell, Lisa Siraganian and Nathan Cortez were named SMU’s 2015 Ford Research Fellows during the University’s Board of Trustees meeting in May.

Four distinguished SMU professors were named 2015 Ford Research Fellows during the Board of Trustees meeting Thursday, May 7.

This year’s recipients are Nathan Cortez, Dedman School of Law; Ping (Peggy) Gui, Electrical Engineering, Lyle School of Engineering; Robert Howell, Philosophy, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences; and Lisa Siraganian, English, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

Established in 2002 through a $1 million pledge from trustee Gerald J. Ford, the fellowships help SMU retain and reward outstanding scholars. Each recipient receives a cash prize for research support during the year.

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SMU geothermal scientist Maria Richards named 2016 president-elect of the Geothermal Resources Council

Maria Richards, SMU Geothermal LaboratoryMaria Richards, coordinator of the SMU Geothermal Laboratory in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, has been named president-elect of the Geothermal Resources Council. She will become the 26th president of the global energy organization beginning in 2017, and the first woman president in its history.

Richards has been at the forefront of SMU’s geothermal energy research for more than a decade, and the University’s mapping of North American geothermal resources is considered the baseline for U.S. geothermal energy exploration. SMU’s Conference on Geothermal Energy in Oil and Gas fields, which Richards directs, is pioneering the transition of oil and gas fields to electricity-producing systems by harnessing waste heat and fluids.

“The Geothermal Resources Council is a tremendous forum for expanding ideas about geothermal exploration and technology related to this commonly overlooked source of energy provided by the Earth,” Richards said. “It’s a great opportunity for educating people about an energy source that covers the whole gamut – from producing electricity for industries, to reducing our electricity consumption with direct-use applications, to even cooling our homes.”

“This also is a unique occasion for me to encourage and mentor young women to participate in the sciences throughout their careers and get involved in leadership roles,” she added.

SMU’s seventh international geothermal energy conference and workshop is scheduled for May 18-20, 2015, on the Dallas campus. Designed to reach a broad audience, from the service industry to reservoir engineers, “Power Plays: Geothermal Energy in Oil and Gas Fields,” is an opportunity for oil and gas industry professionals to connect with the geothermal and waste-heat industries to build momentum. The conference is a platform for networking with attendees from all aspects of project development. Presentations will highlight reservoir topics from flare gas usage to induced seismicity and will address new exploration opportunities, including offshore sites in the eastern United States.

Find information and registration for SMU’s 2015 Geothermal Energy Conference: smu.edu/geothermal

Richards’ projects at SMU’s Geothermal Laboratory vary from computer-generated temperature-depth maps for Google.org to on-site geothermal exploration of the volcanic islands in the Northern Mariana Islands. Along with Cathy Chickering Pace, Richards coordinates the SMU Node of the National Geothermal Data System funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Richards has previously served on the Geothermal Resources Council Board of Directors and was chair of the Outreach Committee in 2011-12. She is also a Named Director of the 2015 Board for the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association (TREIA).

Richards holds an M.S. degree in physical geography from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a B.S. in environmental geography from Michigan State University.

Written by Kimberly Cobb

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

Research: Whale fossil provides key to unlock date of East Africa’s mysterious uplift

A 17 million-year-old Turkana ziphiid beaked whale fossil from the Great Rift Valley, East AfricaPaleontologists have used a fossil from the most precisely dated beaked whale in the world to pinpoint for the first time a date when East Africa’s mysterious elevation began.

The 17 million-year-old fossil is from the Ziphiidae family. It was discovered 740 kilometers inland at a elevation of 620 meters in modern Kenya’s harsh desert region and is the only stranded whale ever found so far inland on the African continent, said SMU vertebrate paleontologist Louis Jacobs.

Uplift associated with the Great Rift Valley of East Africa and the environmental changes it produced have puzzled scientists for decades because the timing and starting elevation have been poorly constrained. Determining ancient land elevation is very difficult, but the whale provides one near sea level.

“It’s rare to get a paleo-elevation,” Jacobs said, noting only one other in East Africa, determined from a lava flow.

At the time the whale was alive, it would have been swimming far inland up a river with a low gradient ranging from 24 to 37 meters over more than 600 to 900 kilometers, said Jacobs. He is co-author of a study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that provides the first constraint on the start of uplift of East African terrain from near sea level.

“The whale was stranded up river at a time when east Africa was at sea level and was covered with forest and jungle,” Jacobs said. “As that part of the continent rose up, that caused the climate to become drier and drier. So over millions of years, forest gave way to grasslands. Primates evolved to adapt to grasslands and dry country. And that’s when – in human evolution – the primates started to walk upright.”

Identified as a Turkana ziphiid, the whale would have lived in the open ocean, like its modern beaked cousins. Ziphiids, still one of the ocean’s top predators, are the deepest diving air-breathing mammals alive, plunging to nearly 10,000 feet to feed, primarily on squid.

In contrast to most whale fossils, which have been discovered in marine rocks, Kenya’s beached whale was found in river deposits, known as fluvial sediments, said Jacobs, a professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

The whale, probably disoriented, swam into the river and could not change its course, continuing well inland.

“You don’t usually find whales so far inland,” Jacobs said. “Many of the known beaked whale fossils are dredged by fishermen from the bottom of the sea.”

The beaked whale fossil was discovered in 1964 by J.G. Mead in what is now the Turkana region of northwest Kenya. Mead, an undergraduate student at Yale University at the time, made a career at the Smithsonian Institution, from which he recently retired. Over the years, the Kenya whale fossil went missing in storage.

Jacobs, who was at one time head of the Division of Paleontology for the National Museums of Kenya, spent 30 years trying to locate the fossil. His effort paid off in 2011, when he rediscovered it at Harvard University and returned it to the National Museums of Kenya.

The fossil is only a small portion of the whale, which Mead originally estimated was 7 meters long during its life. Mead unearthed the beak portion of the skull, 2.6 feet long and 1.8 feet wide, specifically the maxillae and premaxillae, the bones that form the upper jaw and palate.

The researchers reported their findings in “A 17-My-old whale constrains onset of uplift and climate change in east Africa” online at the PNAS web site. Besides Jacobs, other authors from SMU are Andrew Lin, Michael Polcyn, Dale Winkler and Matthew Clemens.

From other institutions, authors are Henry Wichura and Manfred R. Strecker, University of Potsdam, and Fredrick K. Manthi, National Museums of Kenya.

Funding for the research came from SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man and the SMU Engaged Learning program.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

Star students show their work on SMU Research Day, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015

Stock photo of lab workersSMU graduate students, and select undergraduates, from a wide variety of disciplines will share their work as part of the University’s 2015 Research Day. All SMU faculty, staff members and students are invited to visit the Hughes-Trigg Student Center Ballrooms from 2-5 p.m Wednesday, Feb. 25, to meet the student researchers and discuss their results.

Awards will be presented at the event’s end, and refreshments will be served throughout.

> See a list of participating student researchers and their projects from SMU News
Visit SMU Graduate Studies online

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