Margaret Allen

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

Research: New insight into a 19th-century fossil feud

In the late 1800s, a flurry of fossil speculation across the American West escalated into a high-profile national feud called the Bone Wars. Drawn into the spectacle were two scientists from the Lone Star State: geologist Robert T. Hill, now acclaimed as the Father of Texas Geology, and naturalist Jacob Boll, who made many of the state’s earliest fossil discoveries.

Hill and Boll had supporting roles in the Bone Wars through their work for one of the feud’s antagonists, Edward Drinker Cope, according to a new study by SMU’s Louis Jacobs, a vertebrate paleontologist in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College.

The study by Jacobs expands knowledge about Cope’s work with Hill and Boll. It also unveils new details about the Bone Wars in Texas that Jacobs deciphered from 13 letters written by Cope to Hill. Jacobs discovered the letters in an archive of Hill’s papers at SMU’s DeGolyer Library. The letters span seven years, from 1887 to 1894.

Hill, who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, not only provided Cope with fossils of interest but also shared geological information about fossil locales.

Boll, who was a paid collector for Cope — as was the practice at the time — supplied the well-known paleontologist with many fossils from Texas. More than 30 of the taxa ultimately named by Cope were fossils collected by Boll.

“Fossils collected by Boll and studied by Cope have become some of the most significant icons in paleontology,” said Jacobs, president of SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man. His study, “Jacob Boll, Robert T. Hill, and the Early History of Vertebrate Paleontology in Texas,” is published in the journal Historical Biology as part of the conference volume of the 12th International Symposium on Early Vertebrates/Lower Vertebrates.

Jacobs describes the late 1800s as a period of intense fossil collecting. The Bone Wars were financed and driven by Cope and his archenemy, Othniel Charles Marsh. The two were giants of paleontology whose public feud brought the discovery of dinosaur fossils to the forefront of the American psyche.

Over the course of nearly three decades, however, their competition evolved into a costly, self-destructive, vicious all-out war to see who could outdo the other. Despite their aggressive and sometimes unethical tactics to outwit one another and steal each other’s hired collectors, Cope and Marsh made major contributions to the field of paleontology, Jacobs said.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

Research: Do trade restrictions actually increase exporting?

Stock photo of a young woman shopping for electronic devicesImposing trade restrictions on parallel imports has the surprising effect of motivating a firm to export, according to a new study by economists Santanu Roy of SMU’s Dedman College and Kamal Saggi of Vanderbilt University.

Using game theory analysis, the economists found that diverse parallel importing policies among countries today make it possible to analyze for the first time how competition between firms and allowing or banning parallel imports can influence competition in foreign and domestic markets.

“Our research is the first to look at the consequence of strategic policy setting by governments in the context of competition in domestic and foreign markets,” said Roy, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Economics.

Most surprising among the findings, he said, is that imposing trade restrictions on parallel imports can actually motivate a firm to export – which can be the case when the market to which the firm is exporting is smaller than its own.

“So even though you are formally prohibiting the import of a product, you are actually promoting trade,” Roy said. “And that’s a new way of looking at this.”

Parallel importing occurs when a manufacturer exports its trademarked or patented products to a foreign market where demand, policies or price pressures require the goods be sold at a lower price. A third-party buyer purchases the low-priced goods and imports them back to the manufacturer’s home country, undercutting domestic prices.

The controversial practice has spawned gray market retail, where consumers buy high-value, brand-named goods at cut prices, such as electronics, video games, alcohol, books and pharmaceuticals.

Some advocates of free trade decry parallel importing, saying it infringes on manufacturers’ intellectual property rights accorded by copyright, patent and trademark laws. That, in turn, can discourage investment in new technology and products.

As a result, some countries allow parallel importing; others ban it. For example, parallel importing is allowed among the member countries of the European Union. It’s not permitted by the United States, although exceptions exist for many different products. Generally speaking, developed nations restrict parallel importing, while developing nations allow it.

The study by Roy and Saggi found there is no one-size-fits-all solution – neither a global ban nor a blanket endorsement. In fact, the authors found that policy diversity is working well because it takes into account important variables such as similarity or dissimilarity of markets, as well as competing products and government regulations.

“The only area where there may be need for intervention is where there may be major asymmetries between countries – where one country is very large and the other is very small,” Roy said.

Roy and Saggi report their findings in two articles: “Equilibrium Parallel Import Policies and International Market Structure,” a scenario in which there are quality differences in the products across countries, forthcoming in the Journal of International Economics; and “Strategic Competition and Optimal Parallel Import Policy,” a scenario in which there is asymmetrical protection of intellectual property, forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of Economics. The two economists were members of a development research group at the World Bank that researched parallel importing.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

Study: 64% of students willing to donate genetic material for science

Stock photo of DNA mapping and genetic research in a laboratoryA majority of college students is receptive to donating blood or other genetic material for scientific research, according to a new SMU study.

In what appears to be the first study to gauge college students’ willingness to donate to a genetic biobank, the researchers surveyed 250 male and female undergraduate and graduate students.

Among those surveyed, 64 percent said they were willing to donate to a biobank, said study author Olivia Adolphson, an undergraduate psychology researcher in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. Students filled out a two-page survey with 18 questions designed to assess their willingness to participate in a biobank, an archive of blood and tissue samples donated by individuals for the purpose of genetic research.

“Overall I found that my sample was very willing to participate in a biobank,” said Adolphson. “The reasons cited were altruism — people want to help others — as well as to advance scientific research and to help find cures. The barriers were concerns about privacy, lack of time, lack of interest and lack of knowledge.”

Adolphson has been invited to present two posters on her study, “College Students’ Perceptions of Genetic Biobanking,” in April at the 33rd Annual Meeting and Scientific Sessions of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in New Orleans.

“This appears to be the first study to gauge college students’ willingness to donate to a genetic biobank,” said the study’s principal investigator, Georita Frierson, assistant professor and health behaviors expert in the Department of Psychology.

Of the students surveyed, 73 percent self-identified as white, while 27 percent self-identified as an ethnic minority. Before being given a description of a genetic biobank, 36 percent said they’d heard of the term. After being informed, 64 percent said they were willing to participate.

“Overall I found that the students who were more educated, the seniors, were more familiar with the concept of a biobank, and they were also more comfortable with it,” Adolphson said. “So we think education plays a role in acceptance.”

The research indicates that the medical community should do more to inform people about biobanks, Adolphson said.

“The biobank community needs to educate people. And they need to use simple language that isn’t intimidating, because lack of knowledge is a big barrier,” she said. “From this research we saw that younger people are going to be willing to participate, because they are open-minded about the concept of research.”

Adolphson’s research followed a larger study by Frierson, which surveyed 135 adult Dallas-area residents who also attended one of Frierson’s 28 focus groups on the subject of biobanks. That study found that 81 percent of the participants had never heard of biobanking. Before the educational focus groups, 64 percent said they would participate in a biobank. After focus groups, that number jumped to 90 percent, Frierson said.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

Study: English-language dominance marginalizes most EU citizens

Stock photo of a man's hand writing 'Do you speak English?' on a clear panelThe European Union has 27 member countries and 23 official languages, but its official business is carried out primarily in one language — English. Yet the striking findings of a new study show that barely a third of the EU’s 500 million citizens speak English.

What about the other two-thirds? They are linguistically disenfranchised, say the study’s authors.

For the EU’s non-English speakers, their native languages are of limited use in the EU’s political, legal, communal and business spheres, conclude economists Shlomo Weber of SMU and Victor Ginsburgh of the Free University of Brussels (ULB), the authors who conducted the study. Those who are disenfranchised have limited access to EU laws, rules, regulations and debates in the governing body — all of which may violate the basic principles of EU society, the researchers say.

“Language is the proxy for engagement. People identify strongly with their language, which is integral to culture and traditions,” Weber says. “Language is so explosive; language is so close to how you feel.”

Weber and Ginsburgh base their findings on a new methodology they developed to quantitatively evaluate both costs and benefits of government policies to either expand or reduce diversity. The method unifies previous approaches to measure language diversity’s impact, an area of growing interest to scholars of economics and other social sciences.

“With globalization, people feel like they’ve been left on the side of the road. If your culture, your rights, your past haven’t been respected, how can you feel like a full member of society?” says Weber. “It is a delicate balance. People must decide if they want to trade their languages to increase by a few percentage points the rate of economic growth.”

Beyond the EU, the Weber-Ginsburgh methodology can evaluate linguistic policies in other nations, too, including the United States. It builds on a body of earlier published research by Weber, Ginsburgh and other economists.

They report their findings and present the methodology in their new book, How Many Languages Do We Need? The Economics of Linguistic Diversity (Princeton University Press). The research is noted on the web site of the International Monetary Fund in a review by Henry Hitchings.

Previous researchers found that 90 percent of the EU’s official documents are drafted in English and later translated to other languages, often French and sometimes German. Previous research also has documented frustration among EU officials with the political entity’s multitude of languages, as members wonder whether they are being understood.

Against that backdrop, the Weber-Ginsburgh analysis of the EU used official data from a routinely conducted EU survey of member states carried out in 2005 and later. The data came from answers to questions that included: What is your mother tongue? Which languages are you conversant in? How do you rate your fluency on a scale of very good, good or basic?

Weber and Ginsburgh found that of all the languages, English embraces the most EU citizens, followed by German second and French third. Yet those languages fall far short of including all people. Nearly two-thirds of EU citizens — 63 percent — don’t speak or understand English, while 75 percent don’t readily speak or understand German, and 80 percent don’t speak or understand French.

“English is spoken almost everywhere around the world,” the authors write, “but it is still far from being spoken by almost everyone.” At the same time, many non-native speakers of English feel the onslaught of that language’s global domination, a phenomenon that wasn’t generally foreseen and that evolved only within the past 60 years.

Weber and Ginsburgh discovered one EU age group that is less marginalized by English than other groups: youth ages 15 to 29. Fewer than half the young people – 43 percent – are disenfranchised, the researchers found.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

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: Study will look at stress in young women with aggressive breast cancer

Stock photo of breast cancer survivorsWhen an aggressive form of breast cancer strikes a young woman, what kind of stress, anxiety and other psychological and social challenges does she face?

That question hasn’t been answered in the published psychological cancer literature, but a new pilot study just launched is gathering data to change that, according to SMU psychologist Georita M. Frierson.

The two-year study will survey up to 60 women recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer that typically strikes younger women under 40, mostly African-American or Hispanic, or those who test positive for a mutation of the human gene that suppresses tumors, BRCA1.

The study is probing patients’ stress, anxiety and concerns about the psychological and social hurdles they face, said Frierson, principal investigator. SMU is collaborating on the Triple Negative study with the UT-Southwestern Simmons Cancer Center, a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.

Triple Negative patients face far different challenges than women with traditional hormonal-type breast cancer, whose psychological and social challenges have been widely examined in the published psychological cancer literature, Frierson said. Traditional hormonal-type patients are typically over age 50, in a later career phase, raising their families, and probably have peers who may be struggling with a chronic illness.

In contrast, a Triple Negative patient is young, maybe mid-career, may not have started a family, and her peers are largely healthy and active. Because Triple Negative is a very aggressive cancer, Triple Negative patients can have lower survival rates and higher recurrence rates, and the medical treatment is different from hormonal-type cancer, Frierson said. For example, while chemotherapy can be an effective treatment for the Triple Negative patient, it can lead to short-term menopause, which may or may not be reversible, she said.

The subtype is called Triple Negative because it tests negative for all three of the hormone receptors that fuel many types of breast cancer: estrogen, progesterone and human epidermal receptor 2. Some traditional breast cancer hormonal treatment therapy drugs, such as Tamoxifen, aren’t effective against Triple Negative Breast Cancer.

Health care providers, social workers and others can use the study data to develop programs to reduce and manage stressors in the lives of Triple Negative patients, Frierson said.

“We want to fill a gap that needs to be addressed,” she said. “The information from this pilot can help us develop programs and support groups to ease the burden on Triple Negative survivors. When we talk about breast cancer, many people think about the woman in her 50s. But these are young cancer survivors. Really understanding those differences is important.”

Written by Margaret Allen

> Get the full story at the SMU Research blog

Research Spotlight: Digital dino track a roadmap for saving at-risk natural history resources

Portable laser scanning technology allows researchers to tote their latest fossil discovery from the field to the lab in the form of lightweight digital data stored on a laptop. But sharing that data as a 3D model with others requires standard formats that are currently lacking, say SMU paleontologists.

University researchers used portable laser scanning technology to capture field data of a huge 110 million-year-old Texas dinosaur track and then create to scale an exact 3D facsimile. They share their protocol and findings with the public – as well as their downloadable 145-megabyte model – in the online scientific journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

The model duplicates an actual dinosaur footprint fossil that is slowly being destroyed by weathering because it’s on permanent outdoor display, says SMU paleontologist Thomas L. Adams, lead author of the scientific article. The researchers describe in the paper how they created the digital model and discuss the implications for digital archiving and preservation. Click here for the download link.

“This paper demonstrates the feasibility of using portable 3D laser scanners to capture field data and create high-resolution, interactive 3D models of at-risk natural history resources,” write the authors.

“3D digitizing technology provides a high-fidelity, low-cost means of producing facsimiles that can be used in a variety of ways,” they say, adding that the data can be stored in online museums for distribution to researchers, educators and the public.

SMU paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs is one of the coauthors on the article. “The protocol for distance scanning presented in this paper is a roadmap for establishing a virtual museum of fossil specimens from inaccessible corners across the globe,” Jacobs said.

The full-resolution, three-dimensional digital model of the 24-by-16-inch Texas footprint is one of the first to archive an at-risk fossil, the SMU paleontologists say. They propose the term “digitype” for such facsimiles, writing in their article “High Resolution Three-Dimensional Laser-scanning of the type specimen of Eubrontes (?) Glenrosensis Shuler, 1935, from the Comanchean (Lower Cretaeous) of Texas: Implications for digital archiving and preservation.”

Laser scanning is superior to other methods commonly used to create a model because the procedure is noninvasive and doesn’t harm the original fossil, the authors say. Traditional molding and casting procedures, such as rubber or silicon molds, can damage specimens.

But the paleontologists call for development of standard formats to help ensure data accessibility. “Currently there is no single 3D format that is universally portable and accepted by all software manufacturers and researchers,” the authors write.

SMU’s digital model archives a fossil that is significant within the scientific world as a type specimen – one in which the original fossil description is used to identify future specimens. The fossil also has cultural importance in Texas. The track is a favorite from well-known, fossil-rich Dinosaur Valley State Park, where the iconic footprint draws tourists.

The footprint was left by a large three-toed, bipedal, meat-eating dinosaur, most likely the theropod Acrocanthosaurus. The dinosaur probably left the footprint as it walked the shoreline of an ancient shallow sea that once immersed Texas, Adams said. The track was described and named in 1935 as Eubrontes (?) glenrosensis. Tracks are named separately from the dinosaur thought to have made them, he explained.

“Since we can’t say with absolute certainty they were made by a specific dinosaur, footprints are considered unique fossils and given their own scientific name,” Adams said.

The fossilized footprint, preserved in limestone, was dug up in the 1930s from the bed of the Paluxy River in north central Texas about an hour’s drive southwest of Dallas. In 1933 it was put on prominent permanent display in Glen Rose, Texas, embedded in the stone base of a community bandstand on the courthouse square.

The footprint already shows visible damage from erosion, and eventually it will be destroyed by gravity and exposure to the elements, Adams said. The 3D model provides a baseline from which to measure future deterioration, he said.

Besides Adams and Jacobs, other co-authors on the article are paleontologists Christopher Strganac and Michael J. Polcyn in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU.

The research was funded by the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man at SMU. – Margaret Allen

> Find more information, photos and links at the SMU Research blog

Research Spotlight: New hope for Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s

Sukanta Kamila, Edward R. Biehl and Haribabu Ankati of SMUInvestigators at SMU and The University of Texas at Dallas have discovered a family of small molecules that shows promise in protecting brain cells against nerve-degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, which afflict millions.

Dallas-based startup EncephRx, Inc. was granted the worldwide license to the jointly owned compounds. A biotechnology and therapeutics company, EncephRx will develop drug therapies based on the new class of compounds as a pharmaceutical for preventing nerve-cell damage, delaying onset of degenerative nerve disease and improving symptoms.

Treatments currently in use don’t stop or reverse degenerative nerve diseases, but instead only alleviate symptoms, sometimes with severe side effects. If proved effective and nontoxic in humans, EncephRx’s small-molecule pharmaceuticals would be the first therapeutic tools able to stop affected brain cells from dying.

“Our compounds protect against neurodegeneration in mice,” said synthetic organic chemist Edward R. Biehl, the <a href="SMU Department of Chemistry professor who led development of the compounds at SMU. “Given successful development of the compounds into drug therapies, they would serve as an effective treatment for patients with degenerative brain diseases.”

EncephRx initially will focus its development and testing efforts toward Huntington’s disease and potentially will have medications ready for human trials in two years, said Aaron Heifetz, CEO at EncephRx.

Biehl developed the compounds in collaboration with UT-Dallas biology professor Santosh R. D’Mello, whose laboratory has been studying the process of neurodegeneration for several years.

“Additional research needs to be done, but these compounds have the potential for stopping or slowing the relentless loss of brain cells in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” said D’Mello, professor of molecular and cell biology at UT-Dallas, with a joint appointment in the School of Brain and Behavioral Science. “The protective effect that they display in tissue culture and animal models of neurodegenerative disease provides strong evidence of their promise as drugs to treat neurodegenerative disorders.”

Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s are disorders of the central nervous system marked by abnormal and excessive loss of neurons in a part of the mid-brain, say the researchers.

The diseases steadily erode motor skills, including speech and the ability to walk, cause tremors, slowed movement, stooped posture, memory loss and mood and behavior problems.

The risk of developing a degenerative nerve disease increases with age. These diseases affect more than 5 million Americans.

One member of a class of heterocyclic organic compounds, the synthetic chemicals developed and tested by SMU and UT Dallas scientists, was shown to be highly protective of neurons in tissue culture models and effective against neurodegeneration in animal models.

The most promising lead compound, designated HSB-13, was tested in Huntington’s disease animal models. It not only reduced degeneration in a part of the forebrain but also improved behavioral performance while proving nontoxic. The compound also was efficacious in a commonly used fly model of Alzheimer’s disease.

“These preliminary tests demonstrated that the compound was an extremely potent neuroprotective agent,” Biehl said.

The findings were published in the article “Identification of novel 1,4-benzoxazine compounds that are protective in tissue culture and in vivo models of neurodegeneration,” which appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience Research. The National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded the project.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read more from the SMU Research blog

Above, SMU chemists Ed Biehl, center, Sukanta Kamila (right) and Haribabu Ankati (left). Photo by Hillsman Jackson, SMU.

Research Spotlight: Why women now dominate the veterinary field

Woman vet with horseWomen now dominate the field of veterinary medicine – the result of a nearly 40-year trend that is likely to repeat itself in the fields of medicine and law.

That’s the conclusion of a new study that found three factors that appear to be driving the change: the 1972 federal amendment that outlaws discrimination against female students; male applicants to graduate schools who may be deterred by a growing number of women enrolling; and the increasing number of women earning Bachelor’s degrees in numbers that far exceed those of male graduates, says sociologist Anne Lincoln.

SMU sociologist Anne LincolnAn assistant professor of sociology in SMU’s Dedman College, Lincoln (right) is an expert on how occupations transition from being either male- or female-dominated. Her study is the first of its kind to analyze the feminization of veterinary medicine from the perspective of examining the pool of applicant data to U.S. veterinary medical colleges from 1975 to 1995, Lincoln said.

As of 2010, the veterinary profession is about 50 percent men and 50 percent women, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, while enrollment in veterinary medical colleges is about 80 percent women.

Conventional occupational research identifies a flip in the gender make-up of a profession by looking at the number of men and women who get hired into that profession, Lincoln said. The current study broke with that convention and instead measured the number of male and female applicants to veterinary medical colleges.

By quantifying the number of men and women attempting to enter veterinary medical colleges the study could determine whether feminization is caused by gender bias in the acceptance process. Lincoln found no evidence of acceptance bias.

“There was really only one variable where I found an effect, and that was the proportion of women already enrolled in vet med schools,” Lincoln said. “So perhaps a young male student says he’s going to visit a veterinary medical school, and when he sees a classroom with a lot of women he changes his choice of graduate school. That’s what the findings indicate.”

The study puts to rest the long-held notion that men are more concerned than women about the cost of tuition and salaries when choosing a professional field, according to Lincoln.

“There’s always been this notion for any field that feminizes that women don’t care about salaries because they have a husband’s earnings to fall back on,” Lincoln said. “But this study found that men and women are equally affected by tuition and salaries, and that what’s really driving feminization of the field is what I call ‘preemptive flight’ – men not applying because of women’s increasing enrollment. Also, fewer men than women are graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, so they aren’t applying because they don’t have the prerequisites.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics reports that for the academic year 1980-81, the number of men and women earning Bachelor’s degrees was about the same, around 460,000. From that year on, however, the number of women earning a Bachelor’s increased much faster than the number of men. For 2009-10, 811,000 women earned Bachelor’s degrees, compared to 562,000 men.

In addition, veterinary medicine began to shift after the 1972 passage of Title IX, the federal amendment that prohibits discrimination against female students. The amendment forever altered the way vet med colleges responded to female applicants, Lincoln said.

“I found that after 1972, when the barriers to entry were dropped, women began enrolling in larger numbers,” Lincoln said. “Male applicants dropped sharply after 1976, the first year that applicant statistics were collected.

“That’s why this study is really pushing the boundaries,” Lincoln added. “This is an occupation that is changing even as I analyze it, so I can watch it as it’s changing. Indications are that it will continue to shift even further toward women, beyond the current 50-50.”

The same phenomenon likely will be seen in coming years in the male-dominated fields of medicine and law, given the increasing numbers of women now entering those fields.

“We can use veterinary medicine as a predictor of what is going to happen in medicine and law,” Lincoln said. “It may take 27 years for medicine and law to become gender-integrated. The pharmacist profession earlier experienced this ‘occupational jostling.’ It takes decades for a profession to feminize because an occupation that is mostly male is going to have generational turnover as the more senior practitioners retire.”

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full article and find more links at the SMU Research blog

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