graduate student research

Research: To spank or not to spank? SMU studies show research can change minds about corporal punishment

Some parents who spank their children believe it’s an effective form of discipline. But decades of studies have found that spanking is linked to short- and long-term child behavior problems.

Is there any way to get parents to change their minds and stop spanking? Child psychologist George Holden, a professor in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, wanted to see if parents’ positive views toward spanking could be reversed if they were made aware of the research.

Holden and three colleagues in the Department of Psychology used a simple, fast, inexpensive method to briefly expose subjects to short research summaries that detailed spanking’s negative impact. With Professor Alan Brown, Assistant Professor Austin Baldwin and graduate student Kathryn Croft Caderao, he carried out two studies: one with non-parents and one with parents. They found that attitudes were significantly altered.

“Parents spank with good intentions – they believe it will promote good behavior, and they don’t intend to harm the child. But research increasingly indicates that spanking is actually a harmful practice,” said Holden, lead author on the study. “These studies demonstrate that a brief exposure to research findings can reduce positive corporal punishment attitudes in parents and non-parents.”

The findings, “Research findings can change attitudes about corporal punishment,” have been published in the international journal Child Abuse & Neglect. The researchers believe the study is the first of its kind to find that brief exposure to spanking research can alter people’s views toward spanking. Previous studies in the field have relied on more intensive, time-consuming and costly methods to attempt to change attitudes toward spanking.

Research has found that parents who spank believe spanking can make children behave or respect them. That belief drives parental behavior, more so than their level of anger, the seriousness of the child’s misbehavior or the parent’s perceived intent of the child’s misbehavior.

In the first SMU study, the subjects were 118 non-parent college students divided into two groups: one that actively processed web-based information about spanking research; and one that passively read web summaries.

The summary consisted of several sentences describing the link between spanking and short- and long-term child behavior problems, including aggressive and delinquent acts, poor quality of parent-child relationships and an increased risk of child physical abuse.

The majority of the participants in the study, 74.6 percent, thought less favorably of spanking after reading the summary. Unexpectedly, the researchers said, attitude change was significant for both active and passive participants.

A second study replicated the first study, but with 263 parent participants, predominantly white mothers. The researchers suspected parents might be more resistant to change their attitudes. Parents already have established disciplinary practices, are more invested in their current practices and have sought advice from trusted individuals.

But the results indicated otherwise. After reading brief research statements on the web, 46.7 percent of the parents changed their attitudes and expressed less approval of spanking.

“If we can educate people about this issue of corporal punishment, these studies show that we can in a very quick way begin changing attitudes,” said Holden.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

SMU scientists celebrate Nobel Prize for Higgs discovery

Particle collision from the ATLAS ExperimentSMU’s experimental physics group played a pivotal role in discovering the Higgs boson — the particle that proves the theory for which two scientists have received the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences today awarded the Nobel Prize to theorists Peter W. Higgs and François Englert to recognize their work developing the theory of what is now known as the Higgs field, which gives elementary particles mass. U.S. scientists played a significant role in advancing the theory and in discovering the particle that proves the existence of the Higgs field, the Higgs boson.

The Nobel citation recognizes Higgs and Englert “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

“A scientist may test out a thousand different ideas over the course of a career. If you’re fortunate, you get to experiment with one that works,” says SMU physicist Ryszard Stroynowski, a principal investigator in the search for the Higgs boson. As the leader of an SMU Department of Physics team working on the experiment, Stroynowski served as U.S. coordinator for the ATLAS Experiment’s Liquid Argon Calorimeter, which measures energy from the particles created by proton collisions.

The University’s experimental physics group has been involved since 1994 and is a major contributor to the research, the heart of which is the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator on the border with Switzerland and France.

Preliminary discovery results were announced July 4, 2012 at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, near Geneva, Switzerland, and at the International Conference of High Energy Physics in Melbourne, Australia.

• Several contributors from SMU have made their mark on the project at various stages, including current Department of Physics faculty members Ryszard Stroynowski, Jingbo Ye, Robert Kehoe and Stephen Sekula. Faculty members Pavel Nadolsky and Fred Olness performed theoretical calculations used in various aspects of data analysis.

• University postdoctoral fellows on the ATLAS Experiment have included Julia Hoffmann, David Joffe, Ana Firan, Haleh Hadavand, Peter Renkel, Aidan Randle-Conde, Daniel Goldin and Sami Kama.

• SMU has awarded eight Ph.D. and seven M.S. degrees to students who performed advanced work on ATLAS, including Ryan Rios, Rozmin Daya, Renat Ishmukhametov, Tingting Cao, Kamile Dindar, Pavel Zarzhitsky and Azzedin Kasmi.

• Significant contributions to ATLAS have also been made by SMU faculty members in the Department of Physics’ Optoelectronics Lab, including Tiankuan Liu, Annie Xiang and Datao Gong.

“The discovery of the Higgs is a great achievement, confirming an idea that will require rewriting of the textbooks,” Stroynowski says. “But there is much more to be learned from the LHC and from ATLAS data in the next few years. We look forward to continuing this work.”

> Read the full story from SMU News

Research: SMU students discover two new supernovae

SMU graduate student researchers have discovered two new supernovae, and their observations of these massive exploding stars will help improve the astronomical “tape measure” that scientists use to calculate the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.

A supernova discovered Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 exploded about 450 million years ago, said Farley Ferrante, a graduate student in the Department of Physics who made the initial observation.

The exploding star is in a relatively empty portion of the sky labeled “anonymous” in the faint constellation Canes Venatici. Home to a handful of galaxies, Canes Venatici is near the constellation Ursa Major, best known for the Big Dipper.

A second supernova discovered Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012 exploded about 230 million years ago, said Ferrante, who made the initial observation. That exploding star is in one of the many galaxies of the Virgo constellation.

Both supernovae were spotted with the Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment’s robotic telescope ROTSE3b, which is now operated by SMU graduate students. ROTSE3b is at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of West Texas near Fort Davis.

The supernova that exploded about 450 million years ago is officially designated Supernova 2013X. It occurred when life on Earth consisted of creatures in the seas and oceans and along coastlines. Following naming conventions for supernovae, Supernova 2013X was nicknamed “Everest” by Govinda Dhungana, an SMU graduate student who participated in the discovery.

The supernova that exploded about 230 million years ago is officially designated Supernova 2012ha. The light from that explosion has been en route to Earth since the Triassic geologic period, when dinosaurs roamed the planet. “That’s fairly recent as these explosions go,” Ferrante said. Dhungana gave the nickname “Sherpa” to Supernova 2012ha.

Everest and Sherpa are two of about 200 supernovae discovered worldwide in a given year. Before telescopes, supernovae observations were rare — sometimes only several every few centuries, according to the scientists.

“Everest and Sherpa aren’t noteworthy for being the youngest, oldest, closest, furthest or biggest supernovae ever observed,” Ferrante said. “But both, like other supernovae of their kind, are important because they provide us with information for further science.”

Everest and Sherpa are Type 1a supernovae, the result of white dwarf explosions, said Robert Kehoe, physics professor and leader of the astronomy team in the Department of Physics.

The scientists explain that a white dwarf is a dying star that has burned up all its energy. It is about as massive as the Earth’s sun. Its core is about the size of the Earth. The core is dense, however, and one teaspoon of it weighs as much as Mount Everest, Kehoe said.

A white dwarf explodes if fusion restarts by tugging material from a nearby star, according to the scientists. The white dwarf grows to about one and a half times the size of the sun. Unable to support its weight, Kehoe said, collapse is rapid, fusion reignites and the white dwarf explodes. The result is a Type 1a supernova.

“We call these Type 1a supernovae standard candles,” Ferrante said. “Since Type 1a supernovae begin from this standard process, their intrinsic brightness is very similar. So they become a device by which scientists can measure cosmic distance. From Earth, we measure the light intensity of the exploded star. As star distances from Earth increase, their brilliance diminishes.”

While Sherpa is a standard Type 1a, Everest is peculiar. It exhibits the characteristics of a Type 1a called a 1991T, Ferrante said.

“Everest is the result of two white dwarfs that collide, then merge,” he said.

Like other Type 1a supernovae, Everest and Sherpa provide scientists with a tiny piece to the puzzle of one of the greatest mysteries of the universe: What is dark energy?

Every Type 1a supernova provides astronomers with indirect information about dark energy, which makes up 73 percent of the mass-energy in the universe. It’s theorized that dark energy explains the accelerating expansion of our universe at various epochs after the Big Bang.

“Every exploding star observed allows astronomers to more precisely calibrate the increasing speed at which our universe is expanding,” Ferrante said. “The older the explosion, the farther away, the closer it was to the Big Bang and the better it helps us understand dark energy.”

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read more from the SMU Research blog

Students show their work for 2013 SMU Research Day Feb. 27

Researchers in the labSMU graduate students, as well as select undergraduates, from a wide variety of disciplines will share their work today as part of the University’s 2013 Research Day. All SMU faculty, staff members and students are invited to visit the Hughes-Trigg Student Center Ballrooms from 2-4:30 p.m Wednesday, Feb. 27, to meet the student researchers and discuss their results. Refreshments will be served.

Find a list of this year’s participants at SMU News
Visit SMU Graduate Studies online

Research: SMU paleontologist identifies new Texas fossil species

A new species of coelacanth fish has been discovered in Texas. Pieces of tiny fossil skull found in Fort Worth have been identified as 100 million-year-old coelacanth bones, according to SMU paleontologist John Graf.

The coelacanth has one of the longest lineages — 400 million years — of any animal. It is the fish most closely related to vertebrates, including humans.

The SMU specimen is the first coelacanth in Texas from the Cretaceous, said Graf, who identified the fossil. The Cretaceous geologic period extended from 146 million years ago to 66 million years ago.

Graf named the new coelacanth species Reidus hilli. It is now the youngest coelacanth identified in the Lone Star State, a distinction previously belonging to a 200 million-year-old coelacanth from the TriassicReidus hilli is also the first coelacanth ever identified from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Coelacanth fossils have been found on every continent except Antarctica. Few have been found in Texas, said Graf, a paleontology graduate student in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences of SMU’s Dedman College.

The coelacanth has eluded extinction for 400 million years. Scientists estimate it reached its maximum diversity during the Triassic. The fish was thought to have gone extinct about 70 million years ago. However, the fish rose to fame in 1938 after live specimens were caught off the coast of Africa. Today coelacanths can be found swimming in the depths of the Indian Ocean.

“These animals have one of the longest lineages of any vertebrates that we know,” Graf said.

The SMU specimen demonstrates there was greater diversity among coelacanths during the Cretaceous than previously known.

“What makes the coelacanth interesting is that they are literally the closest living fish to all the vertebrates that are living on land,” he said. “They share the most recent common ancestor with all of terrestrial vertebrates.”

Coelacanths have boney support in their fins, which is the predecessor to true limbs. “Boney support in the fins allows a marine vertebrate to lift itself upright off the sea floor,” Graf said, “which would eventually lead to animals being able to come up on land.”

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

Tune In: Sharing new knowledge at SMU Research Day 2012

SMU graduate students — and a limited number of undergraduates — presented results of research they have been working on at SMU at the 2012 Graduate Student Research Day. Sponsored by SMU’s Office of Research and Graduate Studies, the event gives participants opportunities to network with students in different programs, to present their work in formats they will use as professionals, and to share the outstanding research being done at the University.

Revisit a few of the nearly 90 presentations in this video by Eva Parks of SMU News. Click the YouTube screen to view, or click this link to watch SMU’s 2012 Research Day video in a new window.

The Guildhall at SMU joins elite Intel university research group

The Guildhall at SMU has received a $50,000 grant from Intel Corporation’s Visual Computing Academic Program for research scholarship funding. SMU students will conduct studies to expand upon applied research pursued within the Intel Science and Technology Centers for Visual Computing (ISTC-VC) and other Intel-supported visual computing academic research.

“We are thrilled to be a part of Intel’s Visual Computing Academic Program and working with the ISTC-VC,” says Peter Raad, founder and executive director of The Guildhall at SMU. “Our Master’s students are creating new worlds through interactive video game development here at SMU. This funding will help us collaborate with Intel and other universities to reach new levels of realism and expand the practical uses for visual computing.”

Intel’s Visual Computing Academic Program was established to accelerate the development of tools and techniques for interactive rendering on highly parallel architectures. The program encourages collaboration between Intel product development teams and elite academic research programs.

“We are excited about the opportunity to work more closely with The Guildhall going forward,” said Intel’s Randi Rost, manager of the Visual Computing Academic Program. “Through this relationship, we will be able to harden, optimize, and polish visual computing research results and incorporate them in game environments. This will provide value to students at the Guildhall, to our visual computing research collaborators, to Intel product development and enabling teams, and ultimately to consumers who use Intel platforms.”

“Having our faculty and students recognized by Intel as key contributors to the future of visual computing is very gratifying.  It will also allow us to collaborate with other great minds at Intel and other universities,” Raad adds.  “We hope to be announcing winners of this year’s research scholarships and their projects soon.”

In this video, James Ohlen, creative director of BioWare Austin, takes a moment at Comic Con 2011 to praise Guildhall alumni involved in the making of the smash hit online game Star Wars: The Old Republic. Click the YouTube screen to view, or click this link to open the James Ohlen video in a new windowvideo

> Visit The Guildhall at SMU online

Students put best work forward during 2012 Research Day Feb. 10

Graduate students present their research during SMU's 2011 Research DayMore than 80 SMU graduate students (and a select number of undergraduates) from a wide variety of disciplines will present their best work today as part of the University’s 2012 Research Day. All SMU faculty, staff members and students are encouraged to visit the Hughes-Trigg Student Center Ballrooms from 2-4:30 p.m Friday, Feb. 10, to meet the student researchers and discuss their results.

> Learn more about this year’s projects from SMU News
> Visit SMU Graduate Studies online

Research Spotlight: Does public insurance provide better care?

In the fierce national debate over a new federal law that requires all Americans to have health insurance, it’s widely assumed that private health insurance can do a better job than the public insurance funded by the U.S. government.

But a first-of-its-kind analysis of newly available government data found just the opposite when it comes to infants covered by insurance.

Among the insured, infants in low-income families are better off under the nation’s government-funded public health insurance than infants covered by private insurance, says SMU economist Manan Roy, the study’s author.

The finding is surprising, says Roy, because the popular belief is that private health insurance always provides better coverage. Roy’s analysis, however, found public health insurance is a better option — and not only for low-income infants.

“Public health insurance gets a lot of bad press,” says Roy. “But for infants who are covered by health insurance, the government-funded insurance appears to be more efficient than private health insurance — and can actually provide better care at a lower cost.

“Private health insurance plans vary widely,” Roy says. “Many don’t include basic services. So infants on more affordable plans may not be covered for immunizations, prescription drugs, for vision or dental care, or even basic preventive care.”

The U.S. doesn’t have a system of universal health insurance. But the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Obama on March 23, 2010, requires all Americans to have health insurance. The act also expands government-paid free or low-cost Medicaid insurance to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

SMU Ph.D. candidate and Adjunct Professor of Economics Manan Roy

“Given the study’s surprising outcome, it’s likely that the impact of national reforms to bring more children under public health insurance will substantially improve the health of infants who are in the worst health to begin with,” says Roy (pictured right). “It’s likely to also help infants who aren’t low-income.”

Roy presented her study, “How Well Does the U.S. Government Provide Health Insurance?” at the 2011 Western Economic Association International conference in San Diego. She is a Ph.D. student and an adjunct professor of economics in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

A large body of previous research has established that insured infants are healthier than uninsured infants. Roy’s study appears to be the first of its kind to look only at insured infants to determine which kind of insurance has the most impact on infant health — private or public.

Roy found:

  • Infants covered by public insurance are mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those under Medicaid and its sister program — CHIP — come mostly from lower-income families. Their parents — usually black and Hispanic — are more likely to be unmarried, younger and less educated. Economists refer to this statistical phenomenon — when a group consists primarily of people with specific characteristics — as strong positive or negative selection. In the case of public health insurance, strong negative selection is at work because it draws people who are poor and disadvantaged.
  • Infants on public health insurance are slightly less healthy than infants on private insurance. On average they had a lower five-minute Apgar score and shorter gestation age compared to privately insured infants. They were less likely to have a normal birth weight and normal Apgar score range, and were less likely to be born near term.
  • Infants covered by private health insurance are mostly from white or Asian families and are generally more advantaged. They are from higher-income families, with older parents who are usually married and more educated. Their mothers weigh less than those of infants on public insurance. This demonstrates strong positive selection of wealthier families into private health insurance.
  • Roy then compared the effect of public insurance on infant health in relation to private health insurance. To do that, she used an established statistical methodology that allows economists to factor negative or positive selection into the type of insurance. In comparing public vs. private insurance — allowing for strong negative selection into public health care — a different picture emerged.

“The results showed that it’s possible to attribute the entire detrimental effect of public health insurance to the negative selection that draws less healthy infants into public health insurance,” Roy says.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

Research Spotlight: CERN scientists close in on Higgs boson

An event showing four muons (red tracks) from a proton-proton collision in ATLAS. This event is consistent with two Z particles decaying into two muons each. Such events are produced by Standard Model processes without Higgs particles. They are also a possible signature for Higgs particle production, but many events must be analyzed together in order to tell if there is a Higgs signal. (Image courtesy of CERN.)

In a giant game of hide and seek, physicists say there are indications they finally may have found evidence of the long sought after fundamental particle called the Higgs boson.

Researchers at Switzerland-based CERN, the largest high-energy physics experiment in the world, have been seeking the Higgs boson since it was theorized in the 1960s. The so-called “God” particle is believed to play a fundamental role in solving the important mystery of why matter has mass.

Thousands of scientists from around the world seek evidence of the Higgs particle through experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The researchers analyze a flood of electronic data streaming from the breakup of speeding protons colliding in the massive particle accelerator. Scientists on Tuesday announced in a seminar held at CERN that they’ve found hints of the Higgs.

SMU physicist Ryszard Stroynowski“Now we have a strong indication, but not yet a confirmation, of a discovery,” said SMU physicist Ryszard Stroynowski (left), the leader of SMU’s team of scientists working on the experiment.

Theorists have predicted that some subatomic particles gain mass by interacting with other particles called Higgs bosons. The Higgs boson is the only undiscovered part of the Standard Model of physics, which describes the basic building blocks of matter and their interactions.

Higgs bosons, if they exist, are short-lived and can decay in many different ways. Just as a vending machine might return the same amount of change using different combinations of coins, the Higgs can decay into different combinations of particles. Discovery relies on observing statistically significant excesses of the particles into which they decay rather than observing the Higgs itself.

“If indeed we are able to confirm sighting of the Higgs in the months ahead, this clearly focuses our future studies,” said Stroynowski, a professor in the SMU Department of Physics. “Now by the middle of next year we’ll know for sure if this particle exists and we can begin to study its properties. This is a very big step in the understanding of particle physics.”

Besides Stroynowski, the SMU team of researchers includes three other Physics Department faculty: Jingbo YeRobert Kehoe and Stephen Sekula, six postdoctoral fellows and five graduate students. Main contributions to the new analysis of the data were made by postdoctoral researcher Julia Hoffman and graduate student Ryan Rios.

Others in the department who have contributed include former postdoctoral fellow David Joffe, now an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University, graduate students Renat Ishmukhametov and Rozmin Daya and theoretical faculty Fredrick Olness and Pavel Nadolsky.

Stroynowski, Hoffman, and Rios are among the more than 70 scientists whose work directly contributed to the conference papers reporting the findings, said Olness, a professor and chairman of the SMU Department of Physics. While thousands of scientists worldwide participated directly and indirectly in the experiments, SMU is one of only a few U.S. universities whose scientists are named among the 70 researchers directly cited on one of the three conference papers.

“SMU’s role in the LHC experiments provides our students a chance to participate in pioneering discoveries,” Olness said. “SMU students helped build the ATLAS detector, they were in the control room when the experiment started up, and they contributed to the analysis. The results presented today are historic, and they will help shape our view of the matter and forces that comprise our universe; SMU students have played a role in this achievement.”

SMU's Ryszard Stroynowski and Ryan Rios

In Fondren Science Building, physicist and SMU Physics Professor Ryszard Stroynowski and physics graduate student Ryan Rios discuss the Higgs boson after viewing a CERN web cast Tuesday announcing evidence of the Higgs. (Photo by Hillsman S. Jackson.)

Discovering the type of Higgs boson predicted in the Standard Model would confirm a theory first put forward in the 1960s.

“This year, the LHC has come roaring into the front of the hunt for the Higgs boson and may be poised to either identify it, or refute its existence, in the coming months,” said Kehoe, associate professor in the SMU Department of Physics. “As I like to tell my students learning modern physics, ‘You still live in a world in which we do not know for sure the mechanism breaking the symmetry between electromagnetic and weak interactions. That world may be soon to change forever. We may soon see a truly new thing.’”

– Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

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