faculty research

Research: Prehistoric humans formed sophisticated social networks to minimize inbreeding

Artist's impression of an Upper Paleothic burial from Sunghir, Russia, issued by Cambridge University, credit Libor Balak, Anthropark

A paleolithic burial site in Russia has provided evidence that prehistoric humans formed complex mating networks to avoid inbreeding.

A new study examined genetic information from the remains of modern humans who lived during the early part of the Upper Palaeolithic, a period when modern humans from Africa first colonized western Eurasia, eventually displacing the Neanderthals who lived there before.

The humans buried at the site in Sunghir, Russia were no more closely related than first cousins. The findings suggest that they deliberately sought partners beyond their immediate family, and that they were probably connected to a wider network of groups from within which mates were chosen.

The work was carried out a research team led by the University of Cambridge (U.K.) and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and including SMU archaeologist David J. Meltzer, whose expertise includes the First People in the Americas. Their findings are reported in “Ancient genomes show social and reproductive behavior of early Upper Paleolithic foragers,” published in the Oct. 5, 2017 issue of Science.

The researchers’ work demonstrate that by at least 34,000 years ago, human hunter-gatherer groups had developed sophisticated social and mating networks that minimized inbreeding. The authors also hint that the early development of more complex mating systems may at least partly explain why modern humans proved successful while other, rival species, such as Neanderthals, did not. More ancient genomic information from both early humans and Neanderthals is needed to test this idea.

The human fossils buried at Sunghir are a unique source of information about early modern human societies of western Eurasia. Sunghir preserves two contemporaneous burials – that of an adult man, and that of two children buried together and which includes the symbolically modified remains of another adult.

To the researchers’ surprise, however, these individuals were not closely related in genetic terms; at the very most, they were second cousins. This is true even for the two children who were buried head-to-head in the same grave.

“What this means is that people in the Upper Palaeolithic, who were living in tiny groups, understood the importance of avoiding inbreeding,” said Eske Willerslev, a professor at St. John’s College and the University of Copenhagen, who was senior author on the study. “The data that we have suggest that it was being purposely avoided. This means that they must have developed a system for this purpose. If the small hunter and gathering bands were mixing at random, we would see much greater evidence of inbreeding than we have here.”

— University of Cambridge, SMU

> Read the full story from the SMU Research blog

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 chemist Alex Lippert receives 2017 NSF CAREER Award

Alex LippertSMU chemist Alex Lippert has received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, expected to total $611,000 over five years, to fund his research into alternative internal imaging techniques.

NSF CAREER Awards are given to tenure-track faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research in American colleges and universities.

Lippert, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Science, is an organic chemist and adviser to four doctoral students and five undergraduates who assist in his research. Lippert’s team develops synthetic organic compounds that glow in reaction to certain conditions. For example, when injected into a mouse’s tumor, the compounds luminesce in response to the cancer’s pH and oxygen levels. Place that mouse in a sealed dark box with a sensitive CCD camera that can detect low levels of light, and images can be captured of the light emanating from the mouse’s tumor.

“We are developing chemiluminescent imaging agents, which basically amounts to a specialized type of glow-stick chemistry,” Lippert says. “We can use this method to image the insides of animals, kind of like an MRI, but much cheaper and easier to do.”

Lippert says the nearest-term application of the technique might be in high-volume pre-clinical animal imaging, but eventually the technique could be applied to provide low-cost internal imaging in the developing world, or less costly imaging in the developed world.

But first, there are still a few ways the technique can be improved, and that’s where Lippert says the grant will come in handy.

“In preliminary studies, we needed to directly inject the compound into the tumor to see the chemistry in the tumor,” Lippert says. “One thing that’s funded by this grant is intravenous injection capability, where you inject a test subject and let the agent distribute through the body, then activate it in the tumor to see it light up.”

Another challenge the team will use the grant to explore is making a compound that varies by color instead of glow intensity when reacting to cancer cells. This will make it easier to read images, which can sometimes be buried under several layers of tissue, making the intensity of the glow difficult to interpret.

“We’re applying the method to tumors now, but you could use similar designs for other types of tissues,” Lippert says. “The current compound reacts to oxygen levels and pH, which are important in cancer biology, but also present in other types of biology, so it can be more wide-ranging than just looking at cancer.”

“This grant is really critical to our ability to continue the research going forward,” Lippert adds. “This will support the reagents and supplies, student stipends, and strengthen our collaboration with UT Southwestern Medical Center. Having that funding secure for five years is really nice because we can now focus our attention on the actual science instead of writing grants. It’s a huge step forward in our research progress.”

Lippert joined SMU in 2012. He was a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Berkeley, from 2009-12, earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008 and earned a bachelor’s in science at the California Institute of Technology in 2003.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” NSF is the funding source for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities.

— Kenny Ryan

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

Four distinguished SMU scholars named 2017 Ford Research Fellows

Four outstanding SMU professors were honored for their scholarship and research with 2017 Ford Research Fellowships. The awards were presented during the Board of Trustees meeting Thursday, May 4.

This year’s recipients are Stephanie Al Otaiba, Teaching and Learning, Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development; Jeffrey Kahn, Dedman School of Law; Zhong Lu, Earth Sciences, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences; and Bruce Marshall, Perkins School of Theology.

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.

Stephanie Al Otaiba is the Patsy and Ray Caldwell Centennial Chair in Teaching and Learning in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development. Her research interests include school-based literacy interventions, response to intervention, learning disabilities, diverse learners, and teacher training. She has published more than 110 journal articles and book chapters and has also developed reading curricular materials. Her research has been supported by several federally funded grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and Office of Special Education Programs, and from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Jeffrey Kahn is a professor in Dedman School of Law whose areas of expertise include U.S. constitutional law, administrative law, Russian law, human rights and counterterrorism. His latest research focuses on the right to travel and national security law; his most recent book, Mrs. Shipley’s Ghost: The Right to Travel and Terrorist Watchlists, critically examines the U.S. government’s no-fly list. Professor Kahn’s work on Russian law has been noted by name by the editors of The New York Times and published in various law reviews, as well as the peer-reviewed journals Post-Soviet Affairs and Review of Central and East European Law. Professor Kahn is a founding member of the Advisory Board of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Education Program and a Fellow of the John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies.

Zhong Lu is the Shuler-Foscue Endowed Chair and director of graduate studies in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. His geophysics research focuses on the use of satellite-borne radar to detect subtle changes in the earth’s surface preceding volcanic eruptions. He also researches volcano deformation, earthquake deformation mapping, fault geometry and modeling, and ground-water basin analysis. His work with InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar) includes underground nuclear explosion monitoring, landslide monitoring and water-level changes of wetlands. Professor Lu has been awarded more than $3 million in grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Geological Service, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Bruce Marshall is the Lehman Professor of Christian Doctrine in Perkins School of Theology. He ranks among the top scholars in the world who conduct research and write about the most enduring and debated of Christian beliefs – namely, the doctrine of the Trinity. His research and writing focus on this doctrine, as well as the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. He is also an expert on the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and has lectured widely throughout the United States and abroad on topics ranging from Trinitarian theology to Christology. Professor Marshall has written two books and more than 90 articles, book chapters, and reviews, and is a frequent speaker in both national and international venues.

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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