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SMU student to share innovative texting app at SXSW Red Bull Launch Institute

Users earn rewards with the “Just Drive” app designed to prevent distracted driving.

Neha Husein gripped her steering wheel as her car jolted forward, hit from behind on one of Dallas’ busiest and most dangerous freeways. Shaken, but not injured, the high school senior surveyed the significant damage to her car. The cause of the crash? The driver behind her was texting while driving.

The 2014 collision was the SMU junior’s inspiration to develop a solution to stop drivers from texting while driving, a practice that killed 455 Texans and played a role in 109,660 crashes in Texas in 2016. Her smart-phone app, “Just Drive,” awards points to drivers who lock their phones while driving. Those points can then be redeemed for coupons or free food, drinks or merchandise.

Husein is one of six college entrepreneurs selected to participate March 10 in the Red Bull Launch Institute at Austin’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival. She will meet with industry leaders and other entrepreneurs to further develop and amplify her project. The institute is scheduled from 3 to 6:30 p.m. at Palazzo Lavaca, 1614 Lavaca St., Austin.

She’s not being judgmental. Everyone has texted while driving, Husein says.

“We are used to multitasking, and sitting in traffic gets boring,” she says.

But the marketing and human rights major believes positive reinforcement can change behavior. Rewards are motivating to millennials like Husein. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, drivers age 16 to 34 are most likely to text while driving, but Husein is betting the app will appeal to all ages.

“Expecting incentives is a generational thing, but it’s a human thing too,” she says. “People enjoy rewards.”

Husein first presented “Just Drive” at SMU’s October 2017 Big Ideas pitch contest. She won $1,000 for her 90-second pitch and used it to create a wireframe app mock-up. The Big Ideas pitch contest is part of SMU’s Engaged Learning program, a campus wide initiative designed to enhance student learning by connecting a personal passion to academic learning and turning it into a personal project. Faculty mentorship is a key part of the Engaged Learning program.

Husein’s mentor, SMU law professor Keith Robinson, is a specialist in patent, intellectual property and technology law and co-directs the Tsai Center for Law, Science and Innovation in SMU’s Dedman School of Law. He also teaches a class to law students on designing legal apps.

“I like people who show initiative and are willing to bet on themselves,” says Robinson, who meets weekly with Husein to discuss intellectual property issues and trademark application. “Neha has developed an app for a relatable problem, one that can save lives.”

Husein is a Carrollton, Texas, native who grew up with an entrepreneur mindset. She remembers manning a toy cash register alongside her father at his convenience store. He was on hand in February 2018 to see his daughter present her business plan at the second stage of SMU’s Big Ideas competition – and win $5,000 in start-up funds.

“Just Drive is a perfect combination of my interests in human rights and marketing,” Husein says. “It combines business with a philanthropic cause.”

She plans to launch the “Just Drive” app in September, 2018. — Nancy George, SMU

Culture, Society & Family Learning & Education Mind & Brain Researcher news SMU In The News

Texas Tribune: The Q&A — Dr. Jill Allor, Simmons School

In this week’s Q&A, The Texas Tribune interviews Jill Allor, professor of teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University.

Texas Tribune reporter Sanya Monsoor interviewed SMU education expert Jill Allor, professor of Teaching and Learning in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development for a Q&A about kids with disabilities and struggling readers.

A former special education teacher, Allor’s research is school-based and focuses on reading acquisition for students with and without disabilities, including students with learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities.

She is principal investigator on the federally-funded research grant “Project Intensity: The Development of a Supplemental Literacy Program Designed to Provide Extensive Practice with Multiple-Criteria Text for Students with Intellectual Disabilities” from the Institute of Education Sciences.

The grant’s purpose is to develop carefully designed texts and application lessons to provide students who are struggling to learn to read, particularly those with intellectual disabilities.

Allor was awarded the 2000 Award for Outstanding Research by the Council on Learning Disabilities.

The Texas Tribune article, “The Q&A: Jill Allor,” published June 21, 2017.

Read the full story.


By Sanya Monsoor
Texas Tribune

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week’s subject:

Jill Allor is a professor with the Department of Teaching and Learning at Southern Methodist University. Her research focuses on reading and reading disabilities.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Tell me about the most important aspects of your research as it relates to kids with disabilities and struggling readers.

Jill Allor: One of the things that’s really interesting about kids with disabilities is the things we know that are effective for teaching kids in general are also effective for them.

The differences are in how explicit we need to be and how much repetition is needed. A child with a disability needs more intensive instruction — they need more practice and they need every step laid out very carefully.

Research shows if you start out with explicit instruction in kindergarten and first grade, you can address reading problems extremely early. You can prevent many problems and prevent some kids from even needing a diagnosis.

Trib+Edu: What are some of the biggest challenges in identifying and addressing these problems?

Allor: There are some kids that have average intelligence or better but yet struggle to learn how to read. We have a lot of research about what to do for them. They need explicit instruction and the primary problem is usually in the phonological areas. So focusing on phonics early and making that very explicit is critical.

The majority of the kids in special education have learning disabilities. But more recently, since 2005, my focus has been on students who have intellectual disabilities.

A student with a learning disability generally has an average IQ level but has an unexpected problem learning how to read. For a student with an intellectual disability, they’re going to have problems learning in all areas.

What we found in our research is all of the things that work for students who have a learning disability, who are struggling readers, also work for (students with an intellectual disability) but it needs to be even more explicit and more intensive.

Trip+Edu: How do you attain that intensive instruction?

Read the full story.

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SMU Guildhall and cancer researchers level up to tap human intuition of video gamers in quest to beat cancer

Massive computational power of online “Minecraft” gaming community bests supercomputers

Video gamers have the power to beat cancer, according to cancer researchers and video game developers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

SMU researchers and game developers 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 SMU Department of Biological Sciences, and Corey Clark, deputy director of research at SMU Guildhall, are leading the SMU assault on cancer in partnership with fans of the popular best-selling video game “Minecraft.”

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, also adjunct research associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. SMU Guildhall in March was named No. 1 among the Top 25 Top 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 SMU’s Dedman College. 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.

The research question in play
Vogel and Wise have narrowed a group of compounds that show promise for alleviating the problem of chemotherapy failure after repeated use. Each one of those compounds has 50 to 100 — or even more — characteristics that contribute to their efficacy.

“Corey’s contribution will hopefully tell us which dozen perhaps of these 100 characteristics are the important ones,” Vogel said. “Right now of those 100 characteristics, we don’t know which ones are good ones. We want to see if there’s a way with what we learn from Corey’s gaming system to then apply what we learn to millions of other compounds to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

James McCormick — a fifth year Ph.D. student in cellular molecular biology who earned his doctoral degree this spring and is a researcher with the Center for Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery — produced the data set for Clark and Guildhall.

Lauren Ammerman, a first-year Ph.D. student in cellular and molecular biology and also working in the Center for Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery, is taking up the computational part of the project.

Machines can learn from human problem solving
Crowdsourcing video gamers to solve real scientific problems is a growing practice.

Machine learning and algorithms by themselves don’t always find the best solution, Clark said. There are already examples of researchers who for years sought answers with machine learning, then switched to actual human gamers.

Gamers take unstructured data and attack it with human problem-solving skills to quickly find an answer.

“So we’re combining both,” Clark said. “We’re going to have both computers and humans trying to find relationships and clustering the data. Each of those human decisions will also be supplied as training input into a deep neural network that is learning the ‘human heuristic’ — the technique and processes humans are using to make their decisions.”

Gamers already have proven they can solve research problems that have stymied scientists, says Vogel. She cites the video game “Foldit” created by the University of Washington specifically to unlock the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme.

Some other Games With A Purpose, as they’re called, have produced similar results. Humans outperform computers when it comes to tasks in the computational process that are particularly suited to the human intellect.

“With ‘Foldit,’ researchers worked on a problem for 15 years using machine learning techniques and were unable to find a solution,” Clark said. “Once they created the game, 57,000 players found a solution in three weeks.”

Modifying the “Minecraft” game and embedding research data inside
Gamers will access the research problem using the version of “Minecraft” they purchased, then install a “mod” or “plugin” — gamer jargon for modifying game code to expand a game’s possibilities — that incorporates SMUs research problem and was developed in accordance with “Minecraft” terms of service. Players will be fully aware of their role in the research, including ultimately leaderboards that show where players rank toward analyzing the data set in the research problem.

SMU is partnering with leaders in the large “Minecraft” modding community to develop a functioning mod by the end of 2017. The game will be heavily tested before release to the public the second quarter of 2018, Clark said.

The SMU “Minecraft” mod will incorporate a data processing and distributed computing platform from game technology company Balanced Media Technology (BMT), McKinney, Texas. BMT’s HEWMEN software platform executes machine-learning algorithms coupled with human guided interactions. It will integrate Wise and Vogel’s research directly into the SMU “Minecraft” mod.

SMU Guildhall will provide the interface enabling modders to develop their own custom game mechanic that visualizes and interacts with the research problem data within the “Minecraft” game environment. Guildhall research is funded in part by Balanced Media Technology.

“We expect to have over 25,000 people continuously online during our testing period,” Clark said. “That should probably double the computing power of the supercomputer here.”

That many players and that much computing power is a massive resource attacking the research problem, Wise said.

“The SMU computational system has 8,000 computer cores. Even if I had all of ManeFrame to myself, that’s still less computing and brainpower than the gaming community,” he said. “Here we’ve got more than 25,000 different brains at once. So even if 24,000 don’t find an answer, there are maybe 1,000 geniuses playing ‘Minecraft’ that may find a solution. This is the most creative thing I’ve heard in a long time.” — Margaret Allen, SMU

Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Researcher news SMU In The News

NPR: A Tiny Spot In Mouse Brains May Explain How Breathing Calms The Mind

SMU psychology professor Alicia Merit was interviewed by NPR as an expert outside source on a new study about calming the mind.

Public radio network NPR interviewed SMU clinical psychologist Alicia Meuret for her expertise on breathing as it relates to fear and anxiety.

The NPR article, “A Tiny Spot In Mouse Brains May Explain How Breathing Calms The Mind,” published March 30, 2017.

Meuret is director of the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at SMU, with expertise in discussing the differences between fear and anxiety and when each is helpful and adaptive and when they are harmful and interfere with our lives.

An associate professor in the Clinical Psychology Division of the SMU Department of Psychology, Meuret received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Hamburg based on her doctoral work conducted at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. She completed postdoctoral fellowships at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University and the Affective Neuroscience Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

Her research program focuses on novel treatment approaches for anxiety and mood disorders, biomarkers in anxiety disorders and chronic disease, fear extinction mechanisms of exposure therapy, and mediators and moderators in individuals with affective dysregulations, including non-suicidal self-injury.

The article “A Tiny Spot In Mouse Brains May Explain How Breathing Calms The Mind,” cites new findings from Meuret’s research, which found patients undergoing exposure therapy for anxiety fared better when sessions were held in the morning when levels of the helpful natural hormone cortisone are higher in the brain.

Read the full story.


By Jessica Boddy

Take a deep breath in through your nose, and slowly let it out through your mouth. Do you feel calmer?

Controlled breathing like this can combat anxiety, panic attacks and depression. It’s one reason so many people experience tranquility after meditation or a pranayama yoga class. How exactly the brain associates slow breathing with calmness and quick breathing with nervousness, though, has been a mystery. Now, researchers say they’ve found the link, at least in mice.

The key is a smattering of about 175 neurons in a part of the brain the researchers call the breathing pacemaker, which is a cluster of nearly 3,000 neurons that sit in the brainstem and control autonomic breathing. Through their research is in mice, the researchers found that those 175 neurons are the communication highway between the breathing pacemaker and the part of the brain responsible for attention, arousal and panic. So breathing rate could directly affect feeling calm or anxious, and vice versa.

If that mouse pathway works the same way in humans, it would explain why we get so chilled out after slowing down our breathing. […]

[…] Alicia Meuret, an associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University who also wasn’t involved in the study, wasn’t sure if what the authors described as calm mouse behavior could be described as such. “It’s hard to determine what calm behavior is [in mice],” Meuret says. “We can see their behavior, but we don’t know what effect the loss of neurons has on their emotions.”

Banzett echoed that concern, noting the authors inferred emotion because “they equate the increase in grooming behavior with the emotional state of calmness.”

Read the full story.

Culture, Society & Family Health & Medicine Learning & Education Mind & Brain Researcher news SMU In The News

KERA News: Teens In Low-Income Families Get HPV Vaccine If Parents Persuade Themselves Of Benefits

In the first study of its kind, self-persuasion software on an iPad motivated low-income parents to want to protect their teens against the cancer-causing Human Papillomavirus.

Journalist Justin Martin with KERA public radio news covered the research of SMU psychology professor Austin S. Baldwin, a principal investigator on the research.

KERA’s article, “Teens In Low-Income Families Get HPV Vaccine If Parents Persuade Themselves Of Benefits,” aired April 12, 2017.

The SMU study found that low-income parents will decide to have their teens vaccinated against the sexually transmitted cancer-causing virus if the parents persuade themselves of the protective benefits.

The study’s subjects — almost all moms — were taking their teens and pre-teens to a safety-net pediatric clinic for medical care. It’s the first to look at changing parents’ behavior through self-persuasion using English- and Spanish-language materials.

A very common virus, HPV infects nearly one in four people in the United States, including teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control. HPV infection can cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers in females; penile cancer in males; and anal cancer, back of the throat cancer and genital warts in both genders, the CDC says.

The CDC recommends a series of two shots of the vaccine for 11- to 14-year-olds to build effectiveness in advance of sexual activity. For 15- to 26-year-olds, they are advised to get three doses over the course of eight months, says the CDC.

Currently, about 60% of adolescent girls and 40% of adolescent boys get the first dose of the HPV vaccine. After that, about 20% of each group fail to follow through with the second dose, Baldwin said.

Listen to the KERA radio interview with Justin Martin.


Guilt, social pressure and even a doctor’s recommendation aren’t enough to motivate low-income families to vaccinate their teenagers for Human Papillomavirus (HPV), according to research from Southern Methodist University.

But a follow-up study from SMU finds that if parents persuade themselves of the benefits of the vaccinations, more teenagers in low-income families receive protection from the sexually transmitted, cancer-causing virus.

Austin Baldwin, a professor of psychology at SMU, led the research.

What the study tells us about poverty: HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that is the primary cause of a variety of cancers. There’s been a vaccine developed in the last 10 years, 12 years that’s now approved. At times, those who are underinsured or uninsured don’t have this same level of access to it. Both here locally as well as nationally [among] folks who are poor, who are uninsured, we see clear disparities across a variety of health outcomes including cancer, including cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine is potentially a very effective means to address some of those health disparities.

How the study was conducted: We recruited parents of adolescents who get their pediatric care at Parkland clinic, and they participated in an iPad app that we developed. It provides them with some basic information about HPV and about the vaccine. It then prompts them with a number of questions to think about why getting the vaccine may be important, and then it prompts them to generate their own reasons for why they would get the vaccine. Most of the parents who had not previously given thought to or were undecided about the vaccine reported that they had decided to get their adolescent vaccinated.

Listen to the KERA radio interview with Justin Martin.