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Virtual reality brings cervical cancer surgery training to physicians

Too often, women in developing countries die of cervical cancer because there aren’t enough surgeons trained to perform a lifesaving surgery.

But a low-cost surgery simulation developed by a team of SMU, UNC School of Medicine and King’s College London researchers has the potential to change that.

Using widely available technology and Oculus Rift hardware—similar to what is used in popular games like “Lone Echo”—the team created a virtual reality simulation that mirrors what a surgeon would see in real life while performing a radical hysterectomy to remove a woman’s uterus and other parts of her womb.

So surgeons in developing countries can more easily get training on the procedure, potentially saving women’s lives, said Dr. Eric G. Bing, who co-authored a study on the simulation and is a global health professor at Southern Methodist University (SMU).

Watch SMU’s Lifesaving VR video to learn more.

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New Texas dinosaur identified by SMU scientists

Discovery suggests a nesting site for dinosaurs in early Cretaceous

Convolosaurus photo courtesy of the Perot Museum of Nature & Science.

DALLAS (SMU) – There’s a new Texas dinosaur on the books.

SMU postdoctoral fellow Kate Andrzejewski, with University paleontologists Dale Winkler and Louis Jacobs, have identified Convolosaurus marri from fossils collected at Proctor Lake, southwest of Fort Worth.

Remnants of several dinosaurs were first found at the Comanche County lake site in 1985, and most of the fossils had been stored for years in the Shuler Museum of Paleontology at SMU. But it wasn’t until Andrzejewski, Winkler and Jacobs examined the fossils more recently that the new dinosaur was identified.

Convolosaurus is an amazing discovery,” said Andrzejewski, whose findings were published in March in the journal PLOS ONE. “Not only because it represents a new dinosaur, but its discovery also provides unique insight into dinosaur behavior during the early Cretaceous.”

Convolosaurus marri is on view at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in the T. Boone Pickens Life Then and Now Hall as “Proctor Lake Ornithopod.” The newly identified dinosaur was named in honor of Ray H. Marr, an SMU alumnus who is president of Marr Oil & Gas LTD and a strong supporter of SMU students.

C. marri belongs to a family of herbivorous dinosaurs called ornithopods, which are known for their bird-like stance on two legs. C. marri is believed to have been an agile and fairly small creature.

“Later members of that group became much larger and would graze on all four legs earning them the nickname ‘the cows of the Cretaceous,’” Andrzejewski said.

Andrzejewski and Dale A. Winkler, senior research fellow for ISEM at SMU, and Louis L. Jacobs, professor emeritus of Earth Sciences at SMU, were able to look at fossils from 29 different individuals that were ultimately identified as C. marri. Because of the size distribution of the fossils, it is likely the dinosaurs were a mix of recently-hatched dinosaurs and older juveniles.

“This indicates individuals grouped together after hatching and may have flocked together for protection from predators, which is where this dinosaur got its name,” Andrezejewski said. “Convolosaurus means ‘flocking lizard.’”

The collection of C. marri fossils discovered together also indicate that these dinosaurs kept occupying the same spot over time.

However, almost all of the fossils found at this site represent Convolosaurus, with only one tooth belonging to a small carnivorous dinosaur and one skeleton of a small reptile, which is part of the same family as a crocodile.” 

Furthermore, none of the bones from Convolosaurus contain any indications that they were eaten or even scavenged upon,” Andrzejewski noted. “This suggests that this dinosaur found a safe haven and perhaps used it to raise their young and thrive in a world filled with challenges – from droughts to terrifying carnivorous dinosaurs.”

It has long been suspected that there was a “nesting site” at the place where the remnants of C. marri were found, although no eggshells have yet been found.

“The discovery of Convolosaurus certainly tells an interesting and incredible story of life during the early Cretaceous of Texas,” said Andrzejewski.

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Research: Migration restrictions limit long-term economic growth

SMU economist and colleagues use model to predict East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will become global productivity leaders

 DALLAS (SMU) – Relaxing migration restrictions globally could deliver a threefold increase in global GDP, according to prize-winning research by SMU economist Klaus Desmet. In contrast, areas like the United States and Europe that restrict migration will see productivity decline over the long term, according to a new economic model developed by Desmet and research colleagues.

“What we find is that the population-dense places, by virtue of having dense and large markets, will eventually start innovating. Once their productivity takes off, they will enter in a virtuous circle of innovation and density,” says Desmet, the Ruth and Kent Altshuler Centennial Interdisciplinary Professor of Economics.

“Many of today’s population-dense places are in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. With current migration restrictions prohibiting movement elsewhere, these will remain the densest places. Hence, eventually they will take off, and in the very long run, several centuries from now, they will become the world’s productivity leaders.

“This is already happening in some areas, such as China,” Desmet says. “In contrast, the U.S. and Europe will lose out. They can stop this reversal of fortune from happening by adopting freer migration policies.”

Desmet, David Krisztian Nagy and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg received the Robert E. Lucas Jr. Prize for this research, “The Geography of Development,” published in the Journal of Political Economy. The Lucas Prize is awarded biannually for the most interesting paper published in the Journal of Political Economy.

Most existing research has focused on the short-run effects of liberalizing migration restrictions, Desmet says.

“Our research is taking into account the long-run effects,” Desmet says. “Initially, when migrants arrive, there are adjustment and integration costs, and the benefits may be elusive. In the longer run, however, migrants contribute tremendously to productivity and innovation. Unfortunately, the current debate on migration is hopelessly focused on very short-run issues, and completely fails to take into account its long-run importance.”

The costs of limiting migration will be difficult to see over the next ten to 20 years, Desmet says. “But the world is slowly moving in the direction of a productivity reversal.”

To conduct the migration research, the team developed an economic model that looks at economic growth on a global scale, but at a fine level of geographic resolution, using income, population, land-use, roads, railroads, rivers and ocean data for the entire globe, Desmet says.

“What is innovative about the model is that it gives predictions, not just for the localities directly impacted by a particular shock, but also for the rest of the world.”

The researchers tested the model by running it backwards, 150 years in the past, then compared the predictions to actual data. They found the model compared well with actual events, lending credibility to its ability to predict the future.

For the migration study, the model predicted several centuries into the future, critical for studying migration in particular, Desmet says.

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SMU’s faculty and students join forces as co-creators of knowledge that spans the arts, sciences, engineering, business and the humanities. Students become hands-on contributors to significant discoveries. In collaboration with industry, nonprofit organizations and other institutions, our researchers forge paths to results that can be applied ethically on a local, national and global scale. Powered by the vast potential of data science and high-speed computing, they unlock new insights about critical problems. SMU researchers shape these discoveries into economic opportunities, stronger communities and a better world.

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New psychological study: Teaching people to experience and recognize joy

DALLAS (SMU) – Researchers at SMU and UCLA are enrolling subjects for a five-year study of a treatment for a psychological condition known as anhedonia – the inability to find pleasure in any aspect of life. A grant of approximately $4 million from the National Institute of Mental Health will allow professors Alicia Meuret and Thomas Ritz at SMU and Michelle G. Craske at UCLA to study the effectiveness of their treatment in 168 people suffering from this very specific symptom.

Professor Alicia Meuret
Professor Alicia Meuret

“The goal of this novel therapeutic approach is to train people to develop psychological muscle memory – to learn again how to experience joy and identify that experience when it occurs,” said Meuret, professor of psychology and director of SMU’s Anxiety and Depression Research Center. “Anhedonia is an aspect of depression, but it also is a symptom that really reaches across psychiatric and non-psychiatric disorders. It’s the absence or the lack of experiencing rewards.”

People suffering from depression often report feeling down or blue, loss of appetite and having difficulty sleeping or concentrating, all described generally as “negative affect.” Meuret explained that there is another other side to depression – the reduction of all that is positive. This reveals itself in someone who says he or she is not especially anxious or depressed, but nothing gives them joy anymore.

“They don’t feel motivated to do anything, and when they do things that formerly gave them pleasure, they just don’t enjoy them anymore,” Meuret said. “We call that a deficit in the reward system – a reduction to reward sensitivity.”

Historically, treatments for affective disorders such as anxiety and depression have been aimed at reducing negative affect, Meuret said.  Over the next five years, Meuret, Ritz and Craske will treat 168 people using a type of cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at teaching people to seek out and recognize the positive aspects of life – increasing their sensitivity to reward. They will compare their results with a more traditional approach of treating the negative affect side of their problems.

Professor Thomas Ritz
Professor Thomas Ritz

The monitoring of treatment success will include simple biomarkers of enjoyment. “The heart beats faster in joy, something that has been shown to be absent in anhedonia,” said Ritz, an SMU professor of psychology who specializes in studying the relationship between biology and psychology in affective disorders and chronic disease. Other measures will capture immune activity, which is important as an indicator of long-term health.

Clinical psychology graduate students working on the project are Juliet Kroll, Divya Kumar, Natalie Tunnell, Anni Hasration, Andres Roques and Rebecca Kim, a recent SMU alumna, who will coordinate the day-to-day administration of the project.

Those interested in participating in the study may phone Rebecca Kim at 214-768-2188 or fill out the pre-screen form here.

The NIMH-funded study will follow the training framework of an SMU-UCLA pilot study conducted from 2014-2018:

  • The first half of the treatments are targeted at changing behavior, using strategies where the patient learns to seek out pleasant activities that they have previously enjoyed. Scheduled “homework” records that they list their mood before and after the activity, savoring the pleasurable moments in these activities. When resuming a session, the patient recalls the activity as if experiencing it in real time, such as, “I see Amy. I feel a connection with her. We walk on the street, and I can see the leaves changing.”
  • Cognitive training provides exercises that identify the positive aspects of various activities, taking responsibility for those activities and imagining what they would feel like.
  • The last module is compassion training, helping the patient to again learn to share love and kindness with another person, cultivating gratitude and generosity and learning to generate and savor positive feelings in the moment.

“Rather than saying to our patients, ‘Let me help you feel less bad,’ we are saying, ‘Let me help you re-learn how to feel good,” Meuret said.  “It’s very rewarding as a researcher psychologist that these patients can feel again – feel something positive.  I think there’s nothing worse than losing this sense of reward.”