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Software developed by SMU stops ransomware attacks

Ransomware attacks have become more common since COVID-19 pandemic

DALLAS (SMU) – Engineers from SMU’s Darwin Deason Institute for Cybersecurity have developed software that detects ransomware attacks before attackers can inflict catastrophic damage.

Ransomware — a type of malware infection that causes important data files to be locked and prevents users from accessing their important data until the hacker is paid — is crippling cities and businesses all over the world, and the number of ransomware attacks have increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Attackers are also threatening to publicly release sensitive data if ransom isn’t paid. The FBI estimates that ransomware victims have paid hackers more than $140 million in the last six-and-a-half years.

Unlike existing methods, such as antivirus software or other intrusion detection systems, SMU’s new software works even if the ransomware is new and has not been used before.

SMU’s detection method is known as sensor-based ransomware detection because the software doesn’t rely on information from past ransomware infections to spot new ones on a computer. In contrast, existing technology needs signatures of past infections to do its job.

“With this software we are capable of detecting what’s called zero-day ransomware because it’s never been seen by the computer before,” said Mitch Thornton, executive director of the Deason Institute and professor of electrical and computer engineering in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering. “Right now, there’s little protection for zero-day ransomware, but this new software spots zero-day ransomware more than 95 percent of the time.”

The new software also can scan a computer for ransomware much faster than existing software, said Mike Taylor, lead creator of the software and a Ph.D. student at SMU.

“The results of testing this technique indicate that rogue encryption processes can be detected within a very small fraction of the time required to completely lock down all of a user’s sensitive data files,” Taylor noted. “So the technique
detects instances of ransomware very quickly and well before extensive damage occurs to the victim’s computer files.”

Southern Methodist University (SMU) has filed a patent application for this technique with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Lyle Engineering students Taylor, a cybersecurity Ph.D. student, and Kaitlin N. Smith, a recent electrical engineering Ph.D. graduate, created the software, along with Thornton.

New software enables existing sensors to detect ransomware

“Ransomware is malware that enters a victim’s computer system and silently encrypts its stored files. It then alerts the user that they must pay a ransom, typically in a non-traceable currency such as bitcoin, in order to receive the key to decrypt their files,” Thornton explained. “It also tells the victim that if they do not pay the ransom within a certain time period, the key for decryption will be destroyed and thus, they will lose their data.”

SMU’s software functions by searching for small, yet distinguishable changes in certain sensors that are found inside computers to detect when unauthorized encryptions are taking place.

When attackers encrypt files, certain circuits inside the computer have specific types of power surges as files are scrambled. Computer sensors that measure temperature, power consumption, voltage levels, and other characteristics can detect these specific types of surges, SMU researchers found.

The SMU software monitors the sensors to look for the characteristic surges. And when a suspicious surge is detected, the software immediately alerts the computer to suspend or terminate the ransomware infection from completing the encryption process.

Use of the computer’s own devices to spot ransomware “is completely different than anything else that’s out there,” Taylor said.

About the Darwin Deason Institute for Cybersecurity
The mission of The Deason Institute, which is part of SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, is to advance the science, policy, application and education of cyber security through basic and problem-driven, interdisciplinary research.

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

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Dallas Innovates: Gamers join scientific research to help end the COVID-19 threat

BALANCED Media|Technology and Complexity Gaming have launched a citizen science effort that will test drug compounds against coronavirus, helping SMU sift through possible treatments faster

Source: HEWMEN

DALLAS (SMU) – While medical professionals everywhere have been hard at work for months searching for a cure to the COVID-19 virus, an unlikely industry has emerged to join the fight: the video game community, Dallas Innovates’ Alex Edwards reports.

A new effort from BALANCED Media|Technology (BALANCED) and Complexity Gaming intends to garner spare computer processing power that could help find treatments for coronavirus. The two Dallas-based organizations are encouraging anyone that works with video games to donate to the citizen science/crowdsourcing initiative called #WeAreHEWMEN, Edwards explains.

The BALANCED’s HEWMAN app will use gamers’ processing power to go through more than 200,000 FDA medications and compounds, with help from SMU computational biologist John Wise. Using these 200,000 compounds, between 1.5 to 3 million virtual experiments will be run, simulating attempts to dock compounds to specific locations on the virus. By identifying the compounds with the highest probability of success at treating coronavirus, Wise, who works in SMU’s Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery, can test new treatments faster and therefore, potentially get a viable treatment to the market more quickly.

Read the story about this innovative collaboration here.

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

 

 

 

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New study by SMU professors details how homeless students are doing educationally in Houston ISD

DALLAS (SMU) – A new report by SMU professors Alexandra Pavlakis and Meredith Richards details how homeless students in Houston ISD are faring educationally.

SMU’s Simmons professors Alexandra Pavlakis and Meredith Richards look at research information with Kessa Roberts, post doctoral fellow.

Released by the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University, the report makes clear that homeless students are at an elevated risk of a range of adverse educational outcomes, and the findings also highlight the complexity of the relationship between homelessness and student outcomes. Pavlakis and Richards, who are both assistant professors at SMU’s Simmons School of Education & Human Development, looked at students who were homeless from 2012-13 to 2016-17, the years immediately preceding Hurricane Harvey.

Some of the key findings include:

  • Students experiencing homelessness were more likely to drop out of school than their matched, non-homeless peers.
  • Students who were homeless four and five years tended to have higher attendance than students who were homeless for shorter periods of time.
  • Unaccompanied youth had substantially lower attendance than accompanied homeless students, and less likely to pass the STAAR exams than accompanied homeless students.
  • Where students sleep matters. Attendance gaps were large for unsheltered students and students in motels.
  • Interestingly, homeless students tended to perform better on STAAR exams than their matched peers. This could hint at the potential value of educational supports and resources inherent in McKinney-Vento Act or provided at shelters or drop-in centers for homelessness. However, homeless students were also somewhat less likely to take STAAR tests—particularly in math.

Pavlakis and Richards also make recommendations on what the school district might consider to improve student outcomes. Simmons post doctoral fellow Kessa Roberts, Ph.D. assisted with the research. The Moody Foundation and SMU’s University Research Council supported the research. This is a long-term project for the researchers.

Click here for the report.

 

About Simmons School of Education & Human Development

The Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at SMU (Southern Methodist University) reflects the University’s vision of serving the most important educational needs of our city, region and nation, graduating students for successful careers in a variety of fields and providing educational opportunities beyond traditional degree programs. Recognized as a unique and transformative leader in education research, practice and policy, the School is committed to rigorous, research-driven programs that promote evidence-based, effective practices in education and human development.

 

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

 

 

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SMU Center for Family Counseling offers free remote services

DALLAS (SMU) – SMU’s Center for Family Counseling is now offering free telehealth counseling to anyone who needs it during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What started as a work-around to help the community during this period of mandatory social distancing has proved to be so successful that the center will continue offering remote counseling even after the staff returns to seeing patients in-person.

The clinic, associated with SMU’s Master’s in Counseling program, provides a variety of counseling services to adults, adolescents and children who are dealing with anxiety, depression, behavior difficulties, grief and loss, stress and parenting. Like many other businesses and clinics in Dallas, SMU’s Center for Family Counseling has temporarily closed its offices to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Clinic staff recognized, however, that because they were forced to close the clinic’s doors, there might be more people in need of mental health services related to isolation and other stay-at-home issues, said Clinic Director Terra Wagner.

“So we moved to offering services via Zoom,” Wagner said. “However, we plan to continue offering telehealth services, even when we return to seeing clients in person,” she said, explaining that they discovered they can serve more clients using a combination of telehealth and in-person appointments.

The Center for Family Counseling normally operates on a sliding scale fee system to accommodate low-income clients, with charges ranging from $5 to a maximum of $45 per session. All services will be free until further notice, Wagner said.

In addition to the telehealth counseling, five new remote support groups are also open for registration, free of charge: Adult Mindfulness Group, Adolescent Support Group, LGBTQ+ Parenting/Caregiver Support Group, LGBTQ+ Adolescent Support Group and LGBTQ+ Adult Support Group. These support groups started will meet via Zoom. Registration for all groups will remain open until groups end on May 7.

Counselors at the center are graduate students in the Master’s in Counseling program offered by SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. They have completed most of their coursework as well as clinical skills classes to prepare to work with clients under faculty supervision. The program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.

The clinic helps address the national shortage of mental health professionals by training counselors and providing affordable services. According to a spring 2019 report by Mental Health Dallas, the state of Texas is home to the second highest number of areas in the United States with a mental health professional shortage.

Earlier this year, SMU relocated the Center for Family Counseling from Plano to a new Dallas location in Expressway Tower, 6116 N. Central Expressway, Suite 410. Services are offered Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. To schedule an appointment, please call 214-768-6789. If the Center for Family Counseling can’t meet your needs, you will be referred to another provider.

 

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

 

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Cybersecurity matters more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic

DALLAS (SMU)  The coronavirus pandemic isn’t just a serious threat to people’s health. It’s also giving cybercriminals the perfect opportunity to access your computer and potentially steal sensitive information, warns an SMU cybersecurity expert. 
 
Mitch Thorntonexecutive director of the Deason Institute for Cyber Security in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, said there are a number of factors that make cybersecurity especially important during this virus pandemic. 
 
“People are going to be spending more time on the Internet because many of us have been asked to do work from home to keep the virus from spreading,” he said.
 
That means more opportunities for people to download dangerous software that was created by hackers, whether by fake emails that look like they came from work or by bogus ads for online shopping, Thornton said. Employees may also be less familiar with the online software that allow them to communicate with their co-workers from home, increasing the chances they may be tricked by a hacker. 
 
“People are also going to be interested in reading about the virus, learning about new advances and monitoring where the new cases are happening,” Thornton said. “So the adversaries are likely going to be targeting web pages and emails that offer that kind of content.”
 
For instance, he said, sending very sensational and possibly untrue new stories can be used to get people’s attention, distract them and prompt them to click on malicious links more quickly. “Imposter emails from authorities and medical personnel will likely also be more prevalent,” Thornton said.
 
Additionally, several coronavirus-related schemes have emerged to trick the public into downloading software they shouldn’t. But Thornton said there are ways you can keep your computer safe:
  • When you look for information online about the coronavirus, be sure that the sources are trusted. And be on the lookout for websites and emails that are designed to look like legitimate sources but are actually malicious. For example, a website may use a name, look or feel of a legitimate government agency, but have one letter off or a different color from the real website. 
  • Avoid giving personal information online unless you are very familiar with the website. Hackers may try to get your information by creating fake charities asking for donations for COVID-19.    
  • If you’re doing video conferencing for work, take a look at the background that will be appearing behind you. There may be private information that your webcam can pick out, and you can’t be sure who may be watching.  
 
About SMU
SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.
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Kids who blame themselves for mom’s sadness are more likely to face depression and anxiety

DALLAS (SMU) – “Even if she doesn’t say it, I know it’s my fault that my mother gets sad.” 

Kids who believe comments like this – assuming blame for their mom’s sadness or depression – are more likely to face depression and anxiety themselves, a new study led by SMU has found.

“Although mothers with higher levels of depressive symptoms face increased risk that their children will also experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, our study showed that this was not the case for all children,” said SMU family psychologist and lead author Chrystyna Kouros. “Rather, it was those children who felt they were to blame for their mother’s sadness or depression…that had higher levels of internalizing symptoms.”

In light of the findings, Kouros said it’s critical that parents and others who regularly interact with children pay close attention to the kinds of comments that kids make about their mom’s symptoms and to intervene if children incorrectly think that it’s their fault that their mom is depressed. Children who take on this blame can benefit from therapies and interventions that target negative thoughts, said Kouros, SMU associate professor of psychology.

Sharyl E. Wee and Chelsea N. Carson, graduate students at SMU, and Naomi Ekas, an associate professor of psychology at Texas Christian University, also contributed to the study, which was published in the Journal of Family Psychology. 

The study is based on surveys taken by 129 mothers and their children, who were recruited from the Dallas-Fort Worth community through schools, flyers and online advertisements. On average, children included in the study were 13 years old. 

Moms were asked to agree or disagree to 20 statements like “I could not shake off the blues” and “I lost interest in my usual activities” to assess if they had depressive symptoms, even if they had not actually been diagnosed with depression. Nearly 12 percent of the women surveyed were found to have potential clinical levels of depressive symptoms.

The moms were also asked to assess whether they felt their children had symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Kids, meanwhile, were asked to complete a total of four surveys to see if they were dealing with any anxiety or depression and whether they blamed themselves for any signs of depression in their mothers.

Kouros said there are two likely explanations for the linkage between mothers’ depressive symptoms and kids’ own mental health issues:

“If children blame themselves for their mothers’ depressive symptoms, then they may be more likely to brood about their mother’s symptoms. And we know from an extensive body of research that rumination over stressors – especially ones that are uncontrollable – is linked with depression and anxiety,” Kouros said. “Also, if children feel personally responsible for their mothers’ symptoms, they may try to ‘make it better’ and use ineffective coping strategies. This could lead to a sense of helplessness, failure, and low self-worth in the child, since ultimately the child was misattributing the cause of their mothers’ depressive symptoms.”

More studies are needed to see if depressed dads have the same effect on their children, Kouros said.

Many media outlets picked up the story, including KERA News, Moms, PsychCentral and The Federalist

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

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A year of surprising science from NASA’s InSight Mars Mission

A new understanding of Mars is beginning to emerge, thanks to the first year of NASA’s InSight lander mission. Findings described in a set of six papers published today reveal a planet alive with quakes, dust devils and strange magnetic pulses.

Five of the papers were published in Nature. An additional paper in Nature Communications details the InSight spacecraft’s landing site, a shallow crater nicknamed “Homestead hollow” in a region called Elysium Planitia.

InSight is the first mission dedicated to looking deep beneath the Martian surface. Among its science tools are a seismometer for detecting quakes, sensors for gauging wind and air pressure, a magnetometer, and a heat flow probe designed to take the planet’s temperature.

While the team continues to work on getting the probe into the Martian surface as intended, SMU planetary scientist and research assistant professor Matt Siegler is one of the scientists who will ultimately help determine what the measurements of the heat flow probe mean for the composition of the interior of Mars.

A cutaway view of Mars showing the Insight lander studying seismic activity. Credit: J.T. Keane/Nature Geoscience

Meanwhile, the ultra-sensitive seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), has enabled scientists to “hear” multiple trembling events from hundreds to thousands of miles away.

Seismic waves are affected by the materials they move through, giving scientists a way to study the composition of the planet’s inner structure. Mars can help the team better understand how all rocky planets, including Earth, first formed.

Underground

Mars trembles more often – but also more mildly – than expected. SEIS has found more than 450 seismic signals to date, the vast majority of which are probably quakes (as opposed to data noise created by environmental factors, like wind). The largest quake was about magnitude 4.0 in size – not quite large enough to travel down below the crust into the planet’s lower mantle and core. Those are “the juiciest parts of the apple” when it comes to studying the planet’s inner structure, said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at JPL.

Scientists are ready for more: It took months after InSight’s landing in November 2018 before they recorded the first seismic event. By the end of 2019, SEIS was detecting about two seismic signals a day, suggesting that InSight just happened to touch down at a particularly quiet time. Scientists still have their fingers crossed for “the Big One.”

Mars doesn’t have tectonic plates like Earth, but it does have volcanically active regions that can cause rumbles. A pair of quakes was strongly linked to one such region, Cerberus Fossae, where scientists see boulders that may have been shaken down cliffsides. Ancient floods there carved channels nearly 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) long. Lava flows then seeped into those channels within the past 10 million years – the blink of an eye in geologic time.

Some of these young lava flows show signs of having been fractured by quakes less than 2 million years ago. “It’s just about the youngest tectonic feature on the planet,” said planetary geologist Matt Golombek of JPL. “The fact that we’re seeing evidence of shaking in this region isn’t a surprise, but it’s very cool.”

At the Surface

Billions of years ago, Mars had a magnetic field. It is no longer present, but it left ghosts behind, magnetizing ancient rocks that are now between 200 feet (61 meters) to several miles below ground. InSight is equipped with a magnetometer – the first on the surface of Mars to detect magnetic signals.

The magnetometer has found that the signals at Homestead hollow are 10 times stronger than what was predicted based on data from orbiting spacecraft that study the area. The measurements of these orbiters are averaged over a couple of hundred miles, whereas InSight’s measurements are more local.

Because most surface rocks at InSight’s location are too young to have been magnetized by the planet’s former field, “this magnetism must be coming from ancient rocks underground,” said Catherine Johnson, a planetary scientist at the University of British Columbia and the Planetary Science Institute. “We’re combining these data with what we know from seismology and geology to understand the magnetized layers below InSight. How strong or deep would they have to be for us to detect this field?”

In addition, scientists are intrigued by how these signals change over time. The measurements vary by day and night; they also tend to pulse around midnight. Theories are still being formed as to what causes such changes, but one possibility is that they’re related to the solar wind interacting with the Martian atmosphere.

In the Wind

InSight measures wind speed, direction and air pressure nearly continuously, offering more data than previous landed missions. The spacecraft’s weather sensors have detected thousands of passing whirlwinds, which are called dust devils when they pick up grit and become visible. “This site has more whirlwinds than any other place we’ve landed on Mars while carrying weather sensors,” said Aymeric Spiga, an atmospheric scientist at Sorbonne University in Paris.

Despite all that activity and frequent imaging, InSight’s cameras have yet to see dust devils. But SEIS can feel these whirlwinds pulling on the surface like a giant vacuum cleaner. “Whirlwinds are perfect for subsurface seismic exploration,” said Philippe Lognonné of Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), principal investigator of SEIS.

Still to Come: The Core

InSight has two radios: one for regularly sending and receiving data, and a more powerful radio designed to measure the “wobble” of Mars as it spins. This X-band radio, also known as the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), can eventually reveal whether the planet’s core is solid or liquid. A solid core would cause Mars to wobble less than a liquid one would.

This first year of data is just a start. Watching over a full Martian year (two Earth years) will give scientists a much better idea of the size and speed of the planet’s wobble. – Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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If women scientists wore fake facial hair, would men take them more seriously?

DALLAS (SMU) – Bonnie Jacobs is a world-renowned paleobotanist at SMU (Southern Methodist University) who specializes in the plant fossil record and what it reveals about past communities, ecosystems and climate. Her work in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia has helped document the origins and evolution of Africa’s modern biomes, as well as shed light on the environmental context of human family origins.

But she felt she needed to don a mustache and a beard to make a point.

Dr. Alisa Winkler, Vertebrate paleontologist, Southern Methodist University. Above: Dr. Bonnie Jacobs, Paleobotanist, Southern Methodist University. Credit for both photographs: 2015 Kelsey Vance

So did Alisa Winkler, an anatomy professor at UT Southwestern who also conducts research on fossil rodents, rabbits and other ancient mammals at SMU.

A new exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History called the “The Bearded Lady Project,” is drawing attention to the sexism that female paleontologists still face in the pursuit of their careers. The exhibit features portraits of women engaged in paleontology research – many in difficult and remote locations – while wearing false beards or mustaches. The tongue-in-cheek question being asked through the exhibit is, “Would they have been granted more respect and credibility had they been men?”

You can read more about this exhibit in The Dallas Morning News here.

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

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New leaf fossils found in Ethiopia’s Mush Valley

DALLAS (SMU) – Leaf fossils from Ethiopia’s Mush Valley that date back nearly 22 million years have been found by SMU’s Earth Science professors Bonnie Jacobs and Neil J. Tabor and a dozen other international scientists.

The Mush Valley is the first site in Africa to produce an assemblage of some 2,400 leaves from that time interval, and the first to be studied using multiple lines of evidence, including associated microscopic fossils and chemical constituents, that tell us details about the ancient ecosystem.

Paleobotanical remains that an international team found in Ethiopia’s Mush Valley.

Scientists can use data from the study to answer fundamental questions, like what climate change may look like in the future. Specifically, climate scientists can take information from the study, along with other data, to test models used to estimate future global climate change.

“The past helps us to understand how ecological processes operate under conditions so different from now. It is like the Earth has done experiments for us,” said Jacobs, a world-renowned paleobotanist at SMU (Southern Methodist University).

In addition, using fossils to learn more about what Africa’s prehistoric ecosystems were like can provide context for events in the past, such as when a land bridge developed between Africa and Eurasia 24 million years ago or the environment for primate precursors to the human family.

The fossils found in this study span an interval of 60,000 years during the early Miocene Epoch, which began 23 million years ago. Ellen D. Currano, a paleoecologist at the University of Wyoming, was the lead author of the study.  It was published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

You can read more about the work that Jacobs, Currano and the international colleagues have been doing in the Mush Valley here.

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

 

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Smithsonian has extended Sea Monsters Unearthed exhibit one more year to 2021

DALLAS (SMU) – “Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas” was given an additional year at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It will now be on display until 2021.

The exhibit has been viewed by 6 million visitors since it opened last year, leading to Smithsonian granting a longer stay for the exhibit in the Washington, D.C. museum. It was originally supposed to leave next year. Smithsonian also asked for an additional exhibit window for “Sea Monsters Unearthed,” showcasing the international and interdisciplinary collaboration that went into discovering the fossils.

The exhibit showcases never-before-seen fossils from Angola that was made possible largely due to the work of SMU vertebrate paleontologist Louis Jacobs and his colleagues and undergraduates. SMU Emeritus Professor of Paleontology Louis Jacobs and his SMU colleague Michael Polcyn forged a partnership with collaborators in Angola, Portugal and the Netherlands to explore and excavate Angola’s rich fossil history, while laying the groundwork for returning the fossils to the West African nation. Back in Dallas, Jacobs and Polcyn, director of the University’s Digital Earth Sciences Lab, and research associate Diana Vineyard went to work over a period of 13 years with a small army of SMU students to prepare the fossils excavated by Projecto PaleoAngola. These students – including Myria Perez, a former paleontology student who is now a fossil preparator at the Perot Museum – worked in basement laboratories to painstakingly clean and preserve the fossils.

“Sea Monsters Unearthed” allows visitors to visually dive into the cool waters off the coast of West Africa as they existed millions of years ago when the continents of Africa and South America were drifting apart. It’s a unique opportunity to examine fossils of ancient marine reptiles and learn about the forces that continue to mold life both in out of the ocean.

After 2021, the exhibit will return to Angola. Learn more here.

 

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in seven degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

About the National Museum of Natural History

The National Museum of Natural History is connecting people everywhere with Earth’s unfolding story. The museum is one of the most visited natural history museums in the world with approximately 7 million annual visitors from the U.S. and around the world. Opened in 1910, the museum is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit the museum on its website and on Facebook and Twitter.

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SMU develops efficient methods to simulate how electromagnetic waves interact with devices

DALLAS (SMU) – It takes a tremendous amount of computer simulations to create a device like an MRI scanner that can image your brain by detecting electromagnetic waves propagating through tissue. The tricky part is figuring out how electromagnetic waves will react when they come in contact with the materials in the device.

SMU researchers have developed an algorithm that can be used in a wide range of fields – from biology and astronomy to military applications and telecommunications – to create equipment more efficiently and accurately.

Currently, it can take days or months to do simulations. And because of cost, there is a limit to the number of simulations typically done for these devices. SMU math researchers have revealed a way to do a faster algorithm for these simulations with the help of grants from the U.S. Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation.

“We can reduce the simulation time from one month to maybe one hour,” said lead researcher Wei Cai, Clements Chair of Applied Mathematics at SMU. “We have made a breakthrough in these algorithms.”

“This work will also help create a virtual laboratory for scientists to simulate and explore quantum dot solar cells, which could produce extremely small, efficient and lightweight solar military equipment,” said Dr. Joseph Myers, Army Research Office mathematical sciences division chief.

Dr. Bo Wang, a postdoctoral researcher at SMU (Southern Methodist University) and Wenzhong Zhang, a graduate student at the university, also contributed to this research. The study was published today by the SIAM Journal on Scientific Computing and can be viewed here. 

(From Left) Wei Cai, Dr. Bo Wang and Wenzhong Zhang. Credit: Photo courtesy of SMU (Southern Methodist University), Hillsman S. Jackson

The algorithm could have significant implications in a number of scientific fields.

“Electromagnetic waves exist as radiation of energies from charges and other quantum processes,” Cai explained.

They include things like radio waves, microwaves, light and X-rays. Electromagnetic waves are also the reason you can use a mobile phone to talk to someone in another state and why you can watch TV. In short, they’re everywhere.

An engineer or mathematician would be able to use the algorithm for a device whose job is to pick out a certain electromagnetic wave. For instance, she or he could potentially use it to design a solar light battery that lasts longer and is smaller than currently exists.

“To design a battery that is small in size, you need to optimize the material so that you can get the maximum conversion rate from the light energy to electricity,” Cai said. “An engineer could find that maximum conversion rate by going through simulations faster with this algorithm.”

Or the algorithm could help an engineer design a seismic monitor to predict earthquakes by tracking elastic waves in the earth, Cai noted.

“These are all waves, and our method applies for different kinds of waves,” he said. “There are a wide range of applications with what we have developed.”

Computer simulations map out how materials in a device like semiconductor materials will interact with light, in turn giving a sense of what a particular wave will do when it comes in contact with that device.

The manufacturing of many devices involving light interactions uses a fabrication process by layering material on top of each other in a lab, just like Legos. This is called layered media. Computer simulations then analyze the layered media using mathematical models to see how the material in question is interacting with light.

More Efficient, Less Expensive Way to Solve Helmholtz and Maxwell’s Equations

SMU researchers have found a more efficient and less expensive way to solve Helmholtz and Maxwell’s equations – difficult to solve but essential tools to predict the behavior of waves.

The problem of wave source and material interactions in the layer structure has been a very challenging one for the mathematicians and engineers for the last 30 years.

Professor Weng Cho Chew from Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue, a world leading expert on computational electromagnetics, said the problem “is notoriously difficult.”

Commenting on the work of Cai and his team, Chew said, “Their results show excellent convergence to small errors. I hope that their results will be widely adopted.”

The new algorithm modifies a mathematical method called the fast multipole method, or FMM, which was considered one of the top 10 algorithms in the 20th century.

To test the algorithm, Cai and the other researchers used SMU’s ManeFrame II – which is one of the fastest academic supercomputers in the nation – to run many different simulations.

Several outlets featured the news of the faster algorithm, including Breaking Defense, Primeur Magazine and the Army’s website.

 

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Drug oleandrin may be an effective new way to treat HTLV-1 virus, SMU study shows

An estimated 10 to 15 million people are infected with HTLV-1, which is a cousin of HIV

DALLAS (SMU) – A study led by SMU suggests that oleandrin – a drug derived from the Nerium oleander plant – could prevent the HTLV-1 virus from spreading by targeting a stage of the reproduction process that is not currently targeted by existing drugs.

That is significant because there is currently no cure or treatment for the virus – a lesser-known “cousin” of HIV that affects an estimated 10 to 15 million people worldwide.

“Our research findings suggest that oleandrin could possibly limit the transmission and spread of HTLV-1 by targeting a unique stage in the retroviral life cycle,” said Robert Harrod, associate professor and director of Graduate Studies in SMU’s Department of Biological Sciences. Harrod is a co-author of the study, published in the Journal of Antivirals & Antiretrovirals.

The human T-cell leukemia virus type-1, or HTLV-1, is a retrovirus that infects white blood cells known as T-cells and is usually transmitted in a similar manner to HIV-1 through a person’s blood or body fluid. Infected cells present within breast milk can also pass HTLV-1 from mother to infant through breastfeeding.

While HIV-1 kills the infected T-cells, HTLV-1 causes them to divide uncontrollably. This in turn can lead to the development of aggressive leukemia – a cancer of the white blood cells. People infected with HTLV-1 can also develop a progressive neurological disease known as HTLV-1-associated myelopathy/tropical spastic paraparesis (HAM/TSP), a progressive inflammatory disease of the nervous system that can affect one’s ability to walk and may cause serious symptoms leading to coma and even death.

Retrovirus particles copy themselves within infected cells by transcribing their RNA into DNA after entering a cell, a process called the retroviral life cycle. The more virus-infected cells that are produced, the worse symptoms can get for people who are infected with HTLV-1.

The two lead authors, Tetiana Bowley and Lacin Yapindi, are Ph.D graduate students who worked with Harrod in his lab. Aditi Malu, who also worked in Harrod’s lab, graduated from SMU with a PhD in May. Together with collaborator Jagan Sastry at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Dr. Robert Newman at Phoenix Biotechnology, Inc., SMU researchers found that the botanical compound called oleandrin successfully interrupted part of the infection cycle for HTLV-1.

“As has been shown for HIV-1, treatment with oleandrin did not affect the ability of infected cells to produce and release new virus particles. However, the particles that were produced were defective, meaning they contained less envelope glycoprotein on their surface,” Harrod said. “This impaired their ability to form virological synapses for effective cell-to-cell virus transmission.”  

A so-called “envelope,” which forms the outer coat of the HTLV-1 particle and binds to the receptors on the surface of target cells, must be present in order for a virus-infected cell to fuse with the membrane of an uninfected T-cell, allowing the virus to enter the cell and spread the disease. Without it, the HTLV-1 retrovirus can’t successfully be passed to other cells.

“Oleandrin is unique in its ability to block the incorporation of the envelope glycoprotein into mature virus particles as they’re exiting an infected cell,” Harrod said.

The hope is that oleandrin, or a similar drug that targets the same part of the retrovirus infection cycle, could potentially prevent HTLV-1 from causing progressively worse clinical symptoms in people with an immune-driven condition like HAM/TSP where the body’s immune system causes tissue damage due to the misrecognition of replicating virus particles.

“If a drug, such as oleandrin, could prevent the spread of HTLV-1 particles within an infected HAM/TSP patient, it may become possible to dampen the neuroinflammatory response to alleviate the symptoms of disease,” Harrod said.

Harrod called the findings “exciting” because oleandrin targets a different mechanism of fighting the virus – one that hasn’t been the focus of other antiviral drugs that attack specific steps in the retroviral infection cycle. Those drugs, called highly-active antiretroviral therapies or HAART for short, have not been shown to be effective with HTLV-1.

In the study, to demonstrate that purified oleandrin or an N. oleander extract could inhibit the formation of HTLV-1 virological synapses, SMU researchers in Harrod’s lab labeled an HTLV-1-infected virus-producing cell-line with green fluorescent protein (GFP), so these cells could be easily identified by their ‘green’ fluorescence under a microscope. These cells were then placed in the same culture well as healthy T-cells. T-cells that became infected with HTLV-1 were easy to spot because researchers could see a junction between the two cells and then a red fluorescent signal showing up in the newly-infected T-cell.

Phoenix Biotechnology provided the purified oleandrin and Nerium oleander plant extract used in the study.

Dallas Voice covered the news here, as well as D CEO Healthcare and Medical XPress.

 

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Wastewater leak in West Texas revealed by satellite radar imagery and sophisticated modeling

Leakage in Ken Regan field could have contaminated groundwater for livestock and irrigation between 2007 and 2011

DALLAS (SMU) – Geophysicists at SMU say that evidence of leak occurring in a West Texas wastewater disposal well between 2007 and 2011 should raise concerns about the current potential for contaminated groundwater and damage to surrounding infrastructure.

SMU geophysicist Zhong Lu and the rest of his team believe the leak happened at a wastewater disposal well in the Ken Regan field in northern Reeves County, which could have leaked toxic chemicals into the Rustler Aquifer. The same team of geophysicists at SMU has revealed that sinkholes are expanding and forming in West Texas at a startling rate.

a) Coverage of the ALOS PALSAR scenes used (white box). Black line shows the boundary of the Ken Regan field. Dark green line and light green line represent the boundaries of the Rustler Aquifer and Pecos Valley Aquifer in Texas, respectively. Red star represents the epicenter of the earthquake that occurred in May 2018. Blue circle represents the groundwater well for livestock drawing from the Rustler Aquifer in this area. Blue triangles are wells, which provide groundwater leveling records. (b) Vertical deformation (cm/yr) (in the red box in Fig. 1a) estimated from InSAR. Green circles with and without arrows indicate active injection/disposal wells in the Ken Regan field and oil production wells within 1.5 km from the deformation center during the research period, respectively. Purple circle represents the groundwater which provides groundwater quality records. Source: Zhong Lu

Wastewater is a byproduct of oil and gas production. Using a process called horizontal drilling, or “fracking,” companies pump vast quantities of water, sand and chemicals far down into the ground to help extract more natural gas and oil. With that gas and oil, however, come large amounts of wastewater that is injected deep into the earth through disposal wells.

Federal and state oil and gas regulations require wastewater to be disposed of at a deep depth, typically ranging from about 1,000 to 2,000 meters deep in this region, so it does not contaminate groundwater or drinking water. A small number of studies suggest that arsenic, benzene and other toxins potentially found in fracking fluids may pose serious risks to reproductive and development health.

Even though the leak is thought to have happened between 2007 and 2011, the finding is still potentially dangerous, said Weiyu Zheng, a Ph.D. student at SMU (Southern Methodist University) who led the research.

“The Rustler Aquifer, within the zone of the effective injection depth, is only used for irrigation and livestock but not drinking water due to high concentrations of dissolved solids. Wastewater leaked into this aquifer may possibly contaminate the freshwater sources,” Zheng explained.

“If I lived in this area, I would be a bit worried,” said Lu, professor of Shuler-Foscue Chair at SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences and the corresponding researcher of the findings.

He also noted that leaking wastewater can do massive damage to surrounding infrastructure. For example, oil and gas pipelines can be fractured or damaged beneath the surface, and the resulting heaving ground can damage roads and put drivers at risk.     

SMU geophysicists say satellite radar imagery indicates a leak in the nearby disposal well happened because of changes shown to be happening in the nearby Ken Regan field: a large section of ground, five football fields in diameter and about 230 feet from the well, was raised nearly 17 centimeters between 2007 and 2011. In the geology world, this is called an uplift, and it usually happens where parts of the earth have been forced upward by underground pressure.

Lu said the most likely explanation for that uplift is that leakage was happening at the nearby well.

“We suspect that the wastewater was accumulated at a very shallow depth, which is quite dramatically different from what the report data says about that well,” he said.

Only one wastewater disposal well is located in close proximity to the uplifted area of the Ken Regan field. The company that owns it reported the injection of 1,040 meters of wastewater deep into the disposal well in Ken Regan. That well is no longer active.

But a combination of satellite images and models done by SMU show that water was likely escaping at a shallower level than the well was drilled for.

And the study, which was published in the Nature publication Scientific Reports, estimates that about 57 percent of the injected wastewater went to this shallower depth. At that shallower depth, the wastewater–which typically contains salt water and chemicals–could have mixed in with groundwater from the nearby Rustler Aquifer. Drinking water doesn’t come from the Rustler Aquifer, which spans seven counties. But the aquifer does eventually flow into the Pecos River, which is a drinking source.

The scientists made the discovery of the leak after analyzing radar satellite images from January 2007 to March 2011. These images were captured by a read-out radar instrument called Phased Array type L-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (PALSAR) mounted on the Advanced Land Observing Satellite, which was run by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

With this technology called interferometric synthetic aperture radar, or InSAR for short, the satellite radar images allow scientists to detect changes that aren’t visible to the naked eye and that might otherwise go undetected. The satellite technology can capture ground deformation with a precision of sub-inches or better, at a spatial resolution of a few yards or better over thousands of miles, say the researchers.

Lu and his team also used data that oil and petroleum companies are required to report to the Railroad Commission of Texas (Texas RRC), as well as sophisticated hydrogeological models that mapped out the distribution and movement of water underground as well as rocks of the Earth’s crust.

“We utilized InSAR to detect the surface uplift and applied poroelastic finite element models to simulate displacement fields. The results indicate that the effective injection depth is much shallower than reported,” Zheng said. “The most reasonable explanation is that the well was experiencing leakage due to casing failures and/or sealing problem(s).”

“One issue is that the steel pipes can degrade as they age and/or wells may be inadequately managed. As a result, wastewater from failed parts can leak out,” said Jin-Woo Kim, research scientist with Lu’s SMU Radar Laboratory and a co-author of this study.

The combination of InSAR imagery and modeling done by SMU gave the scientists a clear picture of how the uplift area in Regan field developed.

Lu, who is world-renowned for leading scientists in using InSAR applications to detect surface changes, said these types of analysis are critical for the future of oil-producing West Texas.

“Our research that exploits remote sensing data and numerical models provides a clue as to understanding the subsurface hydrogeological process responding to the oil and gas activities. This kind of research can further be regarded as an indirect leakage monitoring method to supplement current infrequent leakage detection,” Zheng said.

“It’s very important to sustain the economy of the whole nation. But these operations require some checking to guarantee the operations are environmentally-compliant as well,” Lu said.

Co-author Dr. Syed Tabrez Ali from AIR-Worldwide in Boston also contributed to this study.

This research was sponsored by the NASA Earth Surface and Interior Program and the Schuler-Foscue endowment at SMU.

Previously, Kim and Lu used satellite radar imaging to find that two giant sinkholes near Wink, Texas—two counties over from the Ken Regan uplift—were likely just the tip of the iceberg of ground movement in West Texas. Indeed, they found evidence that large swaths of West Texas oil patch were heaving and sinking at alarming rates. Decades of oil production activities in West Texas appears to have destabilized localities in an area of about 4,000 square miles populated by small towns like Wink, roadways and a vast network of oil and gas pipelines and storage tanks.

Watch the WFAA Verify news segment. You can also hear a report on the study that was broadcast on Austin’s NPR KUT 90.5 below:

 

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NYT: Bickering more after kids?

DALLAS (SMU) – Feel like your fighting more with your spouse after having kids? 

That’s not surprising, given that you have new responsibilities to tackle and you’re probably not getting the sleep you need.

Stephanie Wilson, an SMU assistant psychology professor, told The New York Times that “that lack of sleep is one of the reasons couples spar.” Wilson has researched the relationship between sleep and marital conflict, and found that the worst case scenario for squabbling was when both partners were sleep deprived. If only one partner is exhausted, the bickering isn’t as bad, The NY Times’ Jessica Grose reported.

Read the article to find some great tips for avoiding a relationship apocalypse while you’re raising your children.

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

 

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What’s the effect of climate change on plants?

DALLAS (SMU) – Plants need CO2 to live. But we are emitting way too much for plants to absorb.

Bonnie Jacobs

Bonnie Jacobs, a professor of earth sciences at SMU (Southern Methodist University), made this point and others in a recent interview with “Healthy Living Healthy Planet Radio.” Jacobs, who is a noted expert in paleobotany, was asked to weigh in on what climate change might mean for plants in the near future.

By studying fossil plants, paleobotanists can not only better understand past climates, but they can also get a sense of what future climate change could look like.

Jacobs said the climate change we are seeing – precipitated by higher levels of greenhouse gases, especially CO2, emitted into our atmosphere from cars, power plants that burn fuels – will “definitely have a detrimental effect for some plants.”

In some parts of the world, that will be because drought will become more common as the temperature increases, making it harder for native plants to survive. In other parts of the world, it could be because rains become too heavy for plants to grow.

“Life finds ways to adapt.  And if a species cannot adapt, it will go extinct. This is kind of the natural way of the living world,” Jacobs notes. “The really big problem is that we have over 7.5 billion people on this planet right now, and we are living through a very drastic change because the change is happening so quickly with regard to climate.”

You can hear the interview here.

 

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Is it possible to change your personality? Yes, if you’re willing to do the work involved

DALLAS (SMU) – Want to be more outgoing?  Or less uptight?

In an interview with Fox4ward’s Dan Godwin, SMU psychology professor Nathan Hudson said that it is possible for people to change aspects of their personality.  But it will require some work on your part.

You can view the video here or on Hudson’s website. Forbes and Psychology Today also did a piece on the research.

 

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Historical data confirms recent increase in West Texas earthquakes

A new analysis of historical seismic data conducted by The University of Texas at Austin, SMU and other academies has found that earthquake activity in West Texas around Pecos has increased dramatically since 2009.

The study, published Nov. 4, 2019, in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, is important because it leverages old, unmined data to track seismic activity over nearly the past two decades – much further back than other studies— to show that activity has increased during the past decade in an area of the Permian Basin that is being heavily developed for oil and gas. Although researchers have generally thought that to be true, the statewide TexNet earthquake monitoring system has been gathering data since only 2017, making it impossible to definitely determine when the cluster of seismic activity around Pecos really began.

The researchers were able to extend the seismic record of the area by turning to the older TXAR system near Lajitas about 150 miles to the south. TXAR is an array of 10 seismographs installed in the 1990s by scientists at SMU (Southern Methodist University) to help track nuclear testing across the world, said lead author Cliff Frohlich, a senior research scientist emeritus at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG).

“Especially for these West Texas earthquakes, we would like to get some information about when they started,” Frohlich said. “I really saw this as a way to bridge the gap before TexNet.”

The TXAR system is some distance from Pecos, but Frohlich said the equipment is highly sensitive and that the area is remote and seismically very quiet, making the system perfect for picking up vibrations from explosions across the world or from earthquakes 150 miles away. Frohlich worked with Chris Hayward, director of SMU’s Geophysics Research Program, to create a method to derive the earthquake data from the international data TXAR collects and build an earthquake catalog for the Delaware Basin near Pecos from 2000 to 2017.

By analyzing data from 2000 to 2017, scientists were able to document more than 7,000 seismic events near Pecos that were determined by the team to be earthquakes. Data on these seismic events had to be manually reviewed to ensure they were in fact earthquakes and not a false detection. This was done by Frohlich and Julia Rosenblit, who was an SMU intern at the time.

Multiple events first started occurring in 2009, when 19 earthquakes of at least magnitude 1 were documented. The rate increased over time, with more than 1,600 earthquakes of magnitude 1 or greater in 2017. Most were so small that no one felt them.

The study shows a correlation between earthquake activity in the area and an increase in oil and gas activity but doesn’t make an effort to directly tie the two together as other studies have done.

“West Texas now has the highest seismicity rates in the state,” said Heather DeShon, study co-author and associate professor at SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences. “What remained uncertain is when the earthquakes actually started. This study addresses that.”

This study is the latest in a comprehensive effort to determine what is causing an increase in seismic activity in Texas and how oil and gas operations can be managed to minimize that human-induced element. The state approved the TexNet system in 2015, which is operated in tandem with research efforts by the Center for Integrated Seismicity Research (CISR).

Co-author Peter Hennings, who leads CISR and is a Senior Research Scientist at the UT Bureau of Economic Geology said that fundamental research like this latest study is vital when trying to unravel such a complicated problem.

“The obvious next step is exactly what the University of Texas is doing – conducting these careful studies on the relationship between earthquakes and their human and natural causes to build an integrated understanding,” Hennings said.

SMU seismologists have also been the lead or co-authors of a series of studies on Texas earthquakes. For instance, UT Austin and SMU found that earthquakes triggered by human activity have been happening in Texas since 1925, and they have been widespread throughout the state ever since. In addition, SMU research showed that many of the Dallas-Fort Worth earthquakes were triggered by increases in pore pressure–the pressure of groundwater trapped within tiny spaces inside rocks in the subsurface.

The Bureau of Economic Geology and UTIG are units of the UT Jackson School of Geosciences. Scientists from SMU, Portland State University, the University of Oklahoma and the French institute IFREMER also worked on the study.

Several outlets covered the new research, including The Weather Channel, The Dallas Morning News, Texas Tribune, Midland Reporter-Telegram, and Dallas Observer. – The University of Texas at Austin

 

 

 

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Dallas Morning News: SMU researcher, Garland students are using smartphones to monitor bridge safety

Brett Story

DALLAS (SMU) – Seems like smartphones can do everything these days. Add to that list gathering information on bridge’s structural health.

Brett Story, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, and students at Garland High School are using smartphones in passing cars to check if there are any cracks or uneven settling in the foundation of the Briarwood bridge, which crosses over Duck Creek in Garland.

The Dallas Morning News has more on this innovative research.

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Researchers unveil new volcanic eruption forecasting technique

Volcanic eruptions and their ash clouds pose a significant hazard to population centers and air travel, especially those that show few to no signs of unrest beforehand. Geologists are now using a technique traditionally used in weather and climate forecasting to develop new eruption forecasting models. By testing if the models are able to capture the likelihood of past eruptions, the researchers are making strides in the science of volcanic forecasting.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, examined the eruption history of the Okmok volcano in Alaska. In 2008, a large eruption produced an ash plume that extended approximately 1 mile into the sky over the Aleutian Islands – posing a significant hazard to aircraft engines along a route that transports roughly 50,000 people between Asia and North America each day, the researchers said.

“The 2008 eruption of Okmok came as a bit of surprise,” said University of Illinois graduate student and lead author Jack Albright. “After an eruption that occurred in 1997, there were periods of slight unrest, but very little seismicity or other eruption precursors. In order to develop better forecasting, it is crucial to understand volcanic eruptions that deviate from the norm.”

Geologists typically forecast eruptions by looking for established patterns of preeruption unrest such as earthquake activity, groundswell and gas release, the researchers said. Volcanoes like Okmok, however, don’t seem to follow these established patterns.

To build and test new models, the team utilized a statistical data analysis technique developed after World War II called Kalman filtering.

“The version of Kalman filtering that we used for our study was updated in 1996 and has continued to be used in weather and climate forecasting, as well as physical oceanography,” said U. of I. geology professor Patricia Gregg, a co-author of the study that included collaborators from SMU (Southern Methodist University) and Michigan State University. “We are the first group to use the updated method in volcanology, however, and it turns out that this technique works well for the unique unrest that led up to Okmok’s 2008 eruption.”

One of those unique attributes is the lack of increased seismicity before the eruption, the researchers said. In a typical preeruption sequence, it is hypothesized that the reservoir under the volcano stays the same size as it fills with magma and hot gases. That filling causes pressure in the chamber to increase and the surrounding rocks fracture and move, causing earthquakes.

“In the 2008 eruption, it appears that the magma chamber grew larger to accommodate the increasing pressure, so we did not see the precursor seismic activity we would expect,” Albright said. “By looking back in time with our models, or hindcasting, we can now observe that stress had been building up in the rocks around the chamber for weeks, and the growth of the magma system ultimately led to its failure and eruption.”

This type of backward and forward modeling allows researchers to watch a volcanic system evolve over time. “While we stopped our analysis after the 2008 eruption, we are now able to propagate this new model forward in time, bring it to present day, and forecast where Okmok volcano is heading next,” Gregg said.

The researchers posit that these models will continue to find other less-recognized eruption precursors, but acknowledge that every volcano is different and that the models must be tailored to fit each unique system.

The volcano forecasting technique used in this study was based on volcano deformation data from GPS and satellite radars. Geophysicist Zhong Lu, a professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU and a global expert in satellite radar imagery analysis, processed the satellite radar images and provided the volcano deformation maps for this research.

The U. of I. team is working in collaboration with researchers from Alaska Volcano Observatory and SMU to help build a stronger forecasting system for the Aleutian Islands area. The researchers received $541,921 in grant money from NASA for the work in early 2019.

Popular Mechanics, Sci Tech Daily and other outlets highlighted the study. — University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

 

 

 

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Why do birds migrate at night?

UT Southwestern Medical Center and SMU found migratory birds maximize how much light they get from their environment, so they can migrate even at night 

DALLAS (SMU) – It was a puzzle about birds.

Migratory birds are known to rely on Earth’s magnetic field to help them navigate the globe. And it was suspected that a protein called cryptochrome, which is sensitive to blue light, was making it possible for birds to do this.

Yet many of these animals are also known to migrate at night when there isn’t much light available. So it wasn’t clear how cryptochrome would function under these conditions in birds.

A new study led by UT Southwestern Medical Center in collaboration with SMU (Southern Methodist University), though, may have figured out the answer to that puzzle.

Researchers found that cryptochromes from migratory birds have evolved a mechanism that enhances their ability to respond to light, which can enable them to sense and respond to magnetic fields.

“We were able to show that the protein cryptochrome is extremely efficient at collecting and responding to low levels of light,” said SMU chemist Brian D. Zoltowski, who was one of the lead authors of a new study on the findings. “The result of this research is that we now understand how vertebrate cryptochromes can respond to very low light intensities and function under night time conditions.”

The study was published in the journal PNAS in September.

(From left) UT Southwestern Medical Center research specialist Yogarany Chelliah, Dr. Joseph Takahashi, and SMU’s Dr. Brian Zoltowski. Photo courtesy of Southern Methodist University, Kim Leeson.

Cryptochromes are found in both plants and animals and are responsible for circadian rhythms in various species. In birds, scientists were specifically focused on learning more about an unusual eye protein called CRY4, which is part of a class of cryptochromes.

The lab of Joseph Takahashi, a circadian rhythms expert at UT Southwestern Medical Center, worked with other UT Southwestern scientists to purify and solve the crystal structure of the protein – the first atomic structure of a photoactive cryptochrome molecule from a vertebrate. The lab of Brian Zoltowski, an expert in blue-light photoreceptors, studied the efficiency of the light-driven reactions –  identifying a pathway unique to CRY4 proteins that facilitates function under low light conditions.

“Although in plants and insects, cryptochromes are known to be photoactive, which means they react to sunlight. Among vertebrates much less is known, and the majority of vertebrate cryptochromes do not appear to be photoactive,” said Takahashi, chairman of neuroscience at UT Southwestern and an investigator with Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “This photosensitivity and the possibility that CRY4 is affected by the magnetic field make this specific cryptochrome a very interesting molecule.”

Researchers took a sample of the CRY4 from a pigeon and grew crystals of the protein. They then exposed the crystals to x-rays, making it possible for them to map out the location of all the atoms in the protein.

And while pigeons are not night-migratory songbirds, the sequences of their CRY4 proteins are very similar, the study noted.

“These structures allow us to visualize at the atomic scale how these proteins function and understand how they may use blue-light to sense magnetic fields,” said Zoltowski, associate professor of chemistry at SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences. “The new structures also provide the first atomic level detail of how these proteins work, opening the door for more detailed studies on cryptochromes in migratory organisms.”

In the study, researchers discovered unusual changes to key regions of the protein structure that can enhance their ability to collect light from their environment.

“Cryptochromes work by absorbing a photon of light, which causes an electron to move through a sequence of amino acids. These amino acids typically consist of a chain of 3 or 4 sites that act as a wire that electrons can flow through,” explained Zoltowski. “But in pigeons, it was identified that this chain may be extended to contain 5 sites.”

This mutation of the electron chain in pigeons makes cryptochrome less dependent on a bird’s environment having a lot of light for the protein to be activated.

“Birds have evolved a mechanism to enhance the efficiency. So even when there is very little light around, they have enough signal generated to migrate,” Zoltowski said.

Other co-authors of the study include UT Southwestern’s Yogarany Chelliah, Anushka Wickramaratne, Wei Xu, Ryan E. Hibbs and Carla B. Green; SMU’s Nischal Karki; Henrik Mouritsen from the University of Oldenburg; and Peter J. Hore and Lauren Jarocha from the University of Oxford.

 

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SMU paleontology grad named one of the AAAS IF/THEN ambassadors

The ambassadors are encouraged to share their stories of being women innovators, in hopes it inspires the next generation of women to get into science, technology, engineering and math [STEM]

Myria Perez ’18 and Louis Jacobs

DALLAS (SMU) – SMU (Southern Methodist University) graduate Myria Perez ’18 was one of 125 women innovators across the country who was selected to be an AAAS IF/THEN ambassador.

Their mission? To share their stories and serve as high-profile role models for girls, in hopes it leads to a new generation of women getting into science, technology, engineering and math [STEM].

“We firmly believe that if we support a woman in STEM, then she can change the world,” Lyda Hill, the founder of Lyda Hill Philanthropies, said in a statement. “The goal of IF/THEN is to shift the way our country — and the world — think about women in STEM and this requires changing the narratives about women STEM professionals and improving their visibility.”

Perez, who is now a fossil preparator at the Perot Museum, worked with paleontologist Louis Jacobs and others to unearth never-before-seen fossils from Angola. Those fossils are currently on display at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Learn more about Perez in this video, Myria Perez: Portrait of a Paleontologist. You can also read about the award she won in The Dallas Morning News article.

 

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How do we get so many different types of neurons in our brain?

New SMU study may provide insight on how our brains are able to produce so many different types of neurons, which control everything we do

DALLAS (SMU) – SMU (Southern Methodist University) researchers have discovered another layer of complexity in gene expression, which could help explain how we’re able to have so many billions of neurons in our brain.

Neurons are cells inside the brain and nervous system that are responsible for everything we do, think or feel. They use electrical impulses and chemical signals to send information between different areas of the brain, and between the brain and the rest of the nervous system, to tell our body what to do. Humans have approximately 86 billion neurons in the brain that direct us to do things like lift an arm or remember a name.

Yet only a few thousand genes are responsible for creating those neurons.

All cells in the human nervous system have the same genetic information. But ultimately, genes are turned “on” or “off” like a light switch to give neurons specific features and roles. Understanding the mechanism of how a gene is or is not turned on – the process known as gene expression – could help explain how so many neurons are developed in humans and other mammals.

 “Studies like this are showing how by unique combinations of specific genes, you can make different specific neurons,” said Adam D. Norris, co-author of the new study and Floyd B. James Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at SMU. “So down the road, this could help us explain: No. 1, how did our brain get this complex? And No. 2, how can we imitate nature and make whatever type of neurons we might be interested in following these rules?”

Scientists already have part of the gene expression puzzle figured out, as previous studies have shown that proteins called transcription factors play a key role in helping to turn specific genes on or off by binding to nearby DNA.

It is also known that a process called RNA splicing, which is controlled by RNA binding proteins, can add an additional layer of regulation to that neuron. Once a gene is turned on, different versions of the RNA molecule can be created by RNA splicing.

But before the SMU study was done, which was published in the journal eLife, it was not exactly clear what the logistics of creating that diversity was.

“Before this, scientists had mostly been focused on transcription factors, which is layer No. 1 of gene expression. That’s the layer that usually gets focused on as generating specific neuron types,” Norris said. “We’re adding that second layer and showing that [transcription factors and RNA binding proteins] have to be coordinated properly.

And Norris noted, “this was the first time where coordination of gene expression has been identified in a single neuron.”

The sad-1 gene, present in all of the worm’s 300 neurons (visualized by fluorescence), is spliced into different versions in different neurons. Neurons with one version fluoresce red, neurons with the other version fluoresce green, and yellow neurons in the bottom panel contain both versions.

Using a combination of old school and cutting-edge genetics techniques, researchers looked at how the RNA of a gene called sad-1, also found in humans, was spliced in individual neurons of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans. They found that sad-1 was turned on in all neurons, but sad-1 underwent different splicing patterns in different neuron types.

And while transcription factors were not shown to be directly participating in the RNA splicing for the sad-1 gene, they were activating genes that code for RNA binding proteins differently between different types of neurons. It is these RNA binding proteins that control RNA splicing.   

“Once that gene was turned on, these factors came in and subtly changed the content of that gene,” Norris said.

As a result, sad-1 was spliced according to neuron-specific patterns.

They also found that the coordinated regulation had different details in different neurons.

“Picture two different neurons wanting to reach the same goal. You can imagine they either go through the exact same path to get there or they take divergent paths. In this study, we’re showing that the answer so far is divergent paths,” said Norris. “Even in a single neuron, there are multiple different layers of gene expression that together make that neuron the unique neuron that it is.”

Norris used worm neurons because “unlike in humans, we know where every worm neuron is and what it should be up to. Therefore, we can very confidently know which genes are responsible for which neural process.

“The very specific details from this study will not apply to humans. But hopefully the principles involved will,” Norris explained. “From the last few decades of work in the worm nervous system, specific genes found to have a specific effect on the worm’s behavior were later shown to be responsible for the same types of things in human nerves.”

The lead author of the study was Morgan Thompson, a graduate student at SMU. Ryan Bixby, Robert Dalton, Alexa Vandenburg — all former or current students in SMU’s Biological Sciences department — also contributed to the study. In addition, John A. Calarco from the University of Toronto, Canada was a co-author.

 

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People transformed the world through land use by 3,000 years ago

Study sheds light on how the way our ancestors fed themselves changed our ecosystem

DALLAS (SMU) – Humans started making an impact on the global ecosystem through intensive farming much earlier than previously estimated, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

Evidence of the earliest domesticated plants and animals dates back to around 10,000 years ago. But findings from a team of more than 250 scientists, including two from SMU (Southern Methodist University), show that by 3,000 years ago our ancestors had dramatically changed the world to grow food.

“Our study shows in detail the progression from the origins of agriculture to its spread around the world,” said SMU anthropologist Mark D. McCoy. “It turns out that earth science models are probably too conservative, and intensive reshaping of the environment for food production was common by thousands of years before the onset of the kind of industrial scale farming we see today.

“That is important because over the time periods discussed, humans became the major force shaping ecosystems around the world,” McCoy said.

The new global assessment by the ArchaeoGLOBE Project also shows that scientists have previously underestimated the impact of early human land use.

Crowdsourcing the Map

Led by archeologist Lucas Stephens, a researcher affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, ArchaeoGLOBE used a crowdsourcing approach, inviting experts in ancient land use to contribute to a questionnaire on 146 regions (covering all continents except Antarctica) at ten historical time intervals to assess and integrate archaeological knowledge at a global scale. The result was a complete, though uneven, meta-analysis of global land use over time.

Significantly, the study also reveals that hunting and gathering was more varied and complex than originally thought, helping archeologists to recognize that foragers “may have initiated dramatic and sometimes irreversible environmental change.” Intensive forms of agriculture reported around the world included activities like clearing land, creating fields that were fixed on the landscape, raising large herds of animals, and putting increasing amounts of effort into growing food.

SMU anthropologist and ArchaeoGLOBE team member K. Ann Horsburgh notes the rise in agriculture and livestock is primarily due to growing populations needing to be fed.

Food production such as agriculture and pastoralism, when compared with foraging in the same environment, is linked to a faster population growth and can sustain higher population densities,” said Horsburgh.

Horsburgh, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, and McCoy, Associate Professor of Anthropology, provided information on land use in Africa and the remote islands of the Pacific, respectively. McCoy also brought his expertise in geospatial technology to study how people in the past inhabited and shaped the world around them, while Horsburgh brought her knowledge of ancient DNA to retrace the spread of domesticated animals.

Mapping Ancient Migrations

The map could provide new light on how the spread of farming and herding were linked to major migrations in human prehistory.

“This is first time that regional expertise on ancient land use has been synthesized on this scale,” Horsburgh said. “That matters because we know that although the shift from foraging to farming tends to be a ‘one-way’ transition, it did not progress the same way around the world. The details of how it did progress has shaped everything from our diets to the languages we speak today.”

Horsburgh went on to say, “What remains the topic of intense study is how much of the transition is food producers spreading and displacing foragers, and how much is it foragers adopting or marrying into food producing groups, or some other scenario. Most of this was done in the absence of written records, so it is up to anthropology to sort things out.”

The natural next step for this revised model of the spread of different types, and intensities, of land use is to compare them with human genetics and linguistics and integrate these findings into the big story of humanity,” said Horsburgh.

Several media outlet covered this research including The New York Times, Science and CNN.

 

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Corey Clark wins Tech Titans Award

DALLAS (SMU) – Corey Clark, SMU professor and chief technology officer of BALANCED Media | Technology, has won Tech Titans’ 2019 Technology Inventor Award.

The award recognizes the pioneering accomplishments a person, team or group has made to create breakthrough ideas or products that have advanced the disciplines of arts, education, energy, engineering, environment, medicine and/or science.

Corey Clark, PhD

Corey Clark, PhD, was selected as the recipient of the Technology Inventor Award because of the work he’s done to infuse human intelligence into machine learning. BALANCED Media | Technology’s HEWMEN platform combines the processing power of gaming computers with the intuition of gamers themselves to analyze medical imagery and processed data to help make cancer treatments more effective.

That technology was recently on display when former Dallas Cowboys’ champion Michael Irvin, Madden champion Drini (Complexity Gaming) and several others played a game for charity that Clark helped create using the HEWMEN platform. The game, called Omega Cluster, had each player act as a spaceship pilot who must warp from location to location gathering energy crystals before enemies’ lock onto their position and destroy their ship. But the process of collecting and sorting crystals was actually organizing by proxy a set of chemotherapeutic co-medications compounds that have been tested in the SMU Center for Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery’s laboratory. The game let players explore these compounds and identify what has allowed some to be successful in the lab testing while others have not.

In another project, Clark worked with SMU educators and designers and Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) to create an Indiana Jones-like game to help adults who weren’t able to read. That project won $1.5 million as a grand prize winner in the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE competition, as well as an additional $1 million achievement award for most effective app to help adult English language learners learn to read in the competition.

Clark is the deputy director of research at SMU Guildhall and an assistant professor of computer science at SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering.

He was given the award on Aug. 23 at the 2019 Tech Titans Gala in Plano, Texas. Tech Titans is the largest technology trade organization in Texas and each year, it recognizes outstanding technology companies and individuals in the North Texas area who have made significant contributions to their industries.

To learn more about the work Clark has been involved in, visit his Human and Machine Intelligence (HuMIn) Game Lab website.

 

About SMU

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SMU professor featured in APM Reports’ documentary, Students on the Move

“Every time a student moves schools they lose 4 to 6 months of academic learning.”

Alexandra Pavlakis

For many kids, staying focused on the school work they need to do is enough of a challenge. Add in the uncertainty and stress that can come when you don’t know if you’ll have a roof to sleep under.

As APM Reports, millions of children in the United States have unstable housing, and a growing body of research finds that repeatedly uprooted children are more likely to struggle in school and more likely to drop out. But there are ways to help them succeed.

APM Reports did a documentary focused on two groups of kids who often change addresses — homeless kids and children of migrant farmworkers — and explored efforts to help these students do well in school.

Alexandra Pavlakis, who has done several studies on student homelessness and poverty, was interviewed for the piece. Pavlakis is an Assistant Professor in Education Policy and Leadership at SMU’s Simmons School of Education & Human Development.

Go here to listen to APM Reports’ piece on “Students on the Move: Keeping uprooted kids in school.”

 

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Attackers could be listening to what you type

SMU researchers were able to detect what is typed with remarkable accuracy using just a smartphone

DALLAS (SMU) – You likely know to avoid suspicious emails to keep hackers from gleaning personal information from your computer. But a new study from SMU (Southern Methodist University) suggests that it’s possible to access your information in a much subtler way: by using a nearby smart phone to intercept the sound of your typing.

Researchers from SMU’s Darwin Deason Institute for Cybersecurity found that acoustic signals, or sound waves, produced when we type on a computer keyboard can successfully be picked up by a smartphone. The sounds intercepted by the phone can then be processed, allowing a skilled hacker to decipher which keys were struck and what they were typing.

The researchers were able to decode much of what was being typed using common keyboards and smartphones – even in a noisy conference room filled with the sounds of other people typing and having conversations.

“We were able to pick up what people are typing at a 41 percent word accuracy rate. And we can extend that out – above 41 percent – if we look at, say, the top 10 words of what we think it might be,” said Eric C. Larson, one of the two lead authors and an assistant professor in SMU Lyle School’s Department of Computer Science.

Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering faculty Eric Larson and Mitch Thornton discuss their research on the security of smartphones at SMU’s Darwin Deason Institute for Cybersecurity.

The study was published in the June edition of the journal Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies. Co-authors of the study are Tyler Giallanza, Travis Siems, Elena Sharp, Erik Gabrielsen and Ian Johnson – all current or former students at the Deason Institute.

It might take only a couple of seconds to obtain information on what you’re typing, noted lead author Mitch Thornton, director of SMU’s Deason Institute and professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“Based on what we found, I think smartphone makers are going to have to go back to the drawing board and make sure they are enhancing the privacy with which people have access to these sensors in a smartphone,” Larson said.

SMU Simulated a Noisy Conference Room, But Typing Could Still Be Intercepted

The researchers wanted to create a scenario that would mimic what might happen in real life. So they arranged several people in a conference room, talking to each other and taking notes on a laptop. Placed on the same table as their laptop or computer, were as many as eight mobile phones, kept anywhere from three inches to several feet feet away from the computer, Thornton said.

Study participants were not given a script of what to say when they were talking, and were allowed to use shorthand or full sentences when typing. They were also allowed to either correct typewritten errors or leave them, as they saw fit.

“We were looking at security holes that might exist when you have these ‘always-on’ sensing devices – that being your smartphone,” Larson said. “We wanted to understand if what you’re typing on your laptop, or any keyboard for that matter, could be sensed by just those mobile phones that are sitting on the same table.”

The answer was a definite, “Yes.”

But just how does it work?

“There are many kinds of sensors in smartphones that cause the phone to know its orientation and to detect when it is sitting still on a table or being carried in someone’s pocket. Some sensors require the user to give permission to turn them on, but many of them are always turned on,” Thornton explained. “We used sensors that are always turned on, so all we had to do was develop a new app that processed the sensor output to predict the key that was pressed by a typist.”

There are some caveats, though.

“An attacker would need to know the material type of the table,” Larson said, because different tables create different sound waves when you type.  For instance, a wooden table like the kind used in this study sounds different than someone typing on a metal tabletop.

Larson said, “An attacker would also need a way of knowing there are multiple phones on the table and how to sample from them.”

A successful interception of this sort could potentially be very scary, Thornton noted, because “there’s no way to know if you’re being hacked this way.”

The Deason Institute is part of SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, and its mission is to to advance the science, policy, application and education of cyber security through basic and problem-driven, interdisciplinary research.

Many media outlets covered the story, including The Dallas Morning News, Forbes and BBC.

 

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SMU professor David J. Meltzer talks about the first people in the New World with MeatEater

DALLAS (SMU) – Imagine being one of the first Ice Age people in the New World and seeing a rattlesnake for the first time. Or encountering a plant you’d never seen before and wondering if it is a food source or something that could poison you.

Professor David J. Meltzer from SMU (Southern Methodist University) talks about that and much more on a podcast with MeatEater’s host Steven Rinella.

The podcast can be listened to here.

Meltzer is an anthropologist at SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences, and he has done extensive research on the first peoples who settled in the New World. For instance, he was just part of a groundbreaking study, which found a previously unknown group of people who lived there during the last Ice Age.

 

About SMU

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New map outlines seismic faults across DFW region

Study by SMU, UT Austin and Stanford scientists rates faults for potential earthquakes; Faults under DFW urban area viewed as lower quake hazard

 

DALLAS (SMU) – Scientists from SMU, The University of Texas at Austin and Stanford University found that the majority of faults underlying the Fort Worth Basin are as sensitive to forces that could cause them to slip as those that have hosted earthquakes in the past.

 

The new study, published July 23rd by the journal Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA), provides the most comprehensive fault information for the region to date. 

 

Fault slip potential modeling explores two scenarios: a model based on subsurface stress on the faults prior to high-volume wastewater injection and a model of those forces reflecting increase in fluid pressure due to injection.

 

A simplified version of the fault map created by the team of researchers. The map includes faults that are visible at the surface (green) and faults that are underground (black). The solid line indicates underground faults that researchers were able to map at a high resolution. The dotted line indicates faults that were mapped at a medium resolution. According to the research, in the presence of wastewater injection activity, the majority of the faults in the area are as susceptible to slipping as those faults that have already produced earthquakes. The map also marks earthquake locations and waste-water injection well locations and amounts. Credit: UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology

None of the faults shown to have the highest potential for an earthquake are located in the most populous Dallas-Fort Worth urban area or in the areas where there are currently many wastewater disposal wells.

 

Yet, the study also found that the majority of faults underlying the Fort Worth Basin are as sensitive to forces that could cause them to slip and cause an earthquake as those that have hosted earthquakes in recent years.

 

Though the majority of the faults identified on this map have not produced an earthquake, understanding why some faults have slipped and others with similar fault slip potential have not continues to be researched, said SMU seismologist and study co-author Heather DeShon, who has been the lead investigator of a series of other studies exploring the cause of the North Texas earthquakes.

Earthquakes were virtually unheard of in North Texas until slightly more than a decade ago. But more than 200 earthquakes have occurred in the region since late 2008, ranging in magnitude from 1.6 to 4.0. A series of studies have linked these events to the disposal of wastewater from oil and gas operations by injecting it deep into the earth at high volumes, triggering “dead” faults nearby.

A total of 251 faults have been identified in the Fort Worth Basin, but the researchers suspect that more exist that haven’t been identified. 

The study found that the faults remained relatively stable if they were left undisturbed. However, wastewater injection sharply increased the chances of these faults slipping, if they weren’t managed properly.

 

“That means the whole system of faults is sensitive,” said the lead author of the study Peter L. Hennings, a research scientist from UT Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology and the principal investigator at the Center for Integrated Seismicity Research (CISR). 

DeShon said the new study provides fundamental information regarding earthquake hazard to the Dallas-Fort Worth region.

 

“The SMU earthquake catalog and the Texas Seismic Network catalog provide necessary earthquake data for understanding faults active in Texas right now,” she said. “This study provides key information to allow the public, cities, state and federal governments and industry to understand potential hazard and design effective public policies, regulations and mitigation strategies.”

“Industrial activities can increase the probability of triggering earthquakes before they would happen naturally, but there are steps we can take to reduce that probability,” added co-author Jens-Erik Lund Snee, a doctoral student at Stanford University.

 

Earthquake rates, like wastewater injection volumes, have decreased significantly since a peak in 2012.  But as long as earthquakes occur, earthquake hazard remains. Dallas-Fort Worth remains the highest risk region for earthquakes in Texas because of population density.

Even after the earthquakes died away, North Texas residents have wondered about the region’s vulnerability to future earthquakes – especially since no map was available to pinpoint the existence of all known faults in the region.  The new data, while still incomplete, benefited from information gleaned from newly released reflection seismic data held by oil and gas companies, reanalysis of publicly available well logs, and geologic outcrop information.

U of T at Austin and Stanford University provided the fault data and calculated fault slip potential. SMU, meanwhile, has been tracking seismic activity — which measures when the earth shakes —since people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area felt the first tremors near DFW International Airport in 2008. A catalog of all those tremors was recently published in June in the journal BSSA.

SMU seismologists have also been the lead or co-authors of a series of studies on the North Texas earthquakes. SMU research showed that many of the Dallas-Fort Worth earthquakes were triggered by increases in pore pressure — the pressure of groundwater trapped within tiny spaces inside rocks in the subsurface. An independent study done by SMU’s seismologist Beatrice Magnani found that wastewater injection reactivated dormant faults near Dallas that had been dormant for the last 300 million years.  

DeShon said any future plan to mine for oil or natural gas in Fort Worth basin should be done with an understanding that the basin contains several faults that are highly-sensitive to pore-pressure changes. The study noted that rates of injection dropped sharply in the Fort Worth basin, but the practice still continues. Most of the injection that has taken place has been concentrated in the Johnson, Tarrant, and Parker counties, near areas of continued seismic activity.  

“The largest earthquake the Dallas-Fort Worth region experienced was a magnitude 4 in 2015” DeShon said. “The U.S. Geological Survey and Red Cross provide practical preparedness advice for your home and work places. Just as we prepare for tornado season in north Texas, it remains important for us to have a plan for experiencing earthquake shaking.”

Many outlets covered the news:

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Texas’ strategic goal for students’ debt burden shows potential promise and pitfalls

SMU professor found black and Latinx college graduates had some of the highest debt-to-income ratios 

DALLAS (SMU) –College students in Texas who graduated from public universities with a bachelor’s degree had, on average, student loan debts that equaled 74 percent of what they earned in their first-year wages, according to a new study from SMU (Southern Methodist University). 

The study, which looked at students who started college between 2004 and 2008, also shows that black and Latinx students are predicted to borrow larger amounts of college debt than white students compared to what they’ll make in their first job. 

The findings suggest that if public universities try to meet the goals of a Texas initiative designed to increase attainment and reduce student debt burdens, the institutions may inadvertently be discouraged from educating historically underserved students.

Dominique Baker

“Even when controlling for prior income, parental education, choice of major and the time it took to get their degree, historically underserved students are predicted to have higher debt-to-income ratios,” said Dominique J. Baker, author of the study and assistant professor of education policy at SMU’s Simmons School of Education & Human Development. “This means that any sanctions associated with a policy like the ‘strategic goal’ in Texas would likely punish state institutions simply for educating students who are predicted to have higher debt-to-income ratios.”    

Baker’s study is the first to investigate the debt-to-income ratio in Texas since the state created the 60x30TX strategic plan. The plan calls for increased completion of undergraduate programs in shorter periods of time, as well as efforts to keep undergraduate student debt at or below 60 percent of first-year wages by 2030. 

Baker’s study only focuses on students who earned a bachelor’s degree. The 60x30TX plan also includes students who earn a credential or associate’s degree who have smaller debt-to-income ratios than bachelor’s degree recipients.  

The findings, which were recently published in AERA Open, suggest that the state of Texas may find it difficult to maintain the 60 percent goal given the demographic and borrowing trends in the state.

On average, students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree after attending a public university had an average $25,794 of undergraduate loan debt. That number jumped to $33,255 when loans held by parents were also included. 

Yet, students earned approximately $34,132 during their first year after earning a degree, meaning that the average student’s debt-to-income was 74 percent, according to the study. If you factor in the amount that parents took out in loans for their child’s college education, the average debt-to-income ratio was closer to 92 percent. 

In addition, the study found that black students, on average, borrowed $7,214 more than their white peers, while Latinx students borrowed $453 more. 

The state of Texas has emphasized that debt-to-income ratios at certain institutions will not be held to the 60 percent threshold. However, conversations have begun that explore attaching sanctions to individual institution’s debt-to-income ratio. 

The study highlights that this could be concerning as the public universities that were shown to have the highest median debt burdens in Texas were Prairie View A&M University, Texas Southern University, Stephen F. Austin State University, Texas A&M University – Commerce and the University of North Texas at Dallas. Many of these colleges also have higher-than-average rates of Latinx and black student enrollment, Baker noted. 

“So it would be inequitable to sanction institutions solely for serving certain student populations,” Baker said.

The study was based on data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Workforce Commission. Baker merged information from both sources to determine students’ debt-to-income ratios.  

Only four-year college students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree and worked full-time in the year immediately following graduation in Texas were included. The 40,000 students who were part of the study started undergraduate college between 2004 and 2008.

Baker said that the Texas goal of keeping the debt-to-income ratio at 60 percent or less for undergraduates is admirable. But she warned that any state looking to adopt such a model should be cautious about penalizing public universities that routinely fail to meet that target for its students because those colleges have more racial minorities, like a historically-black college.    

“Future research needs to be conducted on incorporating measures of affordability in state accountability structures in ways that do not penalize underserved student populations,” she said.

Student debt has become a key issue in the 2020 presidential campaign, as college tuition continues to rise and borrowers nationwide owe a total of $1.5 trillion in federal student loan debt. Concern over students’ ability to repay undergraduate debt led to the creation of goal 4 of the 60x30TX strategic plan, which was developed by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The Dallas Morning News wrote about the study here.

 

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SMU’s ‘Titans in a Jar’ could answer key questions ahead of NASA’s space exploration

NASA headed to Saturn’s ‘Titan’ moon in 2026 to look for signs of past or present life 

DALLAS (SMU) – Researchers from Southern Methodist University (SMU) could help determine if Saturn’s icy moon – Titan – has ever been home to life long before NASA completes an exploratory visit to its surface by a drone helicopter.

This illustration shows NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander approaching a site on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Credits: NASA/JHU-APL

NASA announced in late June that its “Dragonfly” mission would launch toward Saturn’s largest moon in 2026, expecting to arrive in 2034. The goal of the mission is to use a rotorcraft to visit dozens of promising locations on Titan to investigate the chemistry, atmospheric and surface properties that could lead to life.

SMU was awarded a $195,000 grant, also in June, to reproduce what is happening on Titan in a laboratory setting. The project, funded by the Houston-based Welch Foundation, will be led by Tom Runčevski, an assistant professor of chemistry in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. SMU graduate student Christina McConville was also awarded a fellowship by the Texas Space Grant Consortium to help with the project.

Before the rotorcraft lands on Titan, chemists from SMU will be recreating the conditions on Titan in multiple glass cylinders — each the size of a needle top — so they can learn about what kind of chemical structures could form on Titan’s surface. The knowledge on these structures can ultimately help assess the possibility of life on Titan — whether in the past, present or future.

Scientists have long considered Titan to be very similar to pre-biotic Earth, even though it is a frigid world much farther from the sun than our planet. Titan is the only moon in the solar system to have a dense atmosphere like Earth, and is also the only world other than Earth to have standing bodies of liquids, including lakes, rivers and seas, on its surface. In addition, NASA scientists believe Titan may have a subsurface ocean of water.

“Titan is a hostile place, with lakes and seas of liquid methane, and rains and storms of methane. The storms carry organic molecules produced in the atmosphere to the surface, and at the surface conditions, only methane, ethane and propane are liquids. All other organic molecules are in their solid form – or, as we would call them on Earth, minerals,” Runčevski explained.

“We are interested in the chemical composition and crystal structure of these organic minerals, because it is believed that minerals played a key role in the origins of life on Earth,” he said. “Hence, our research may help assess these possibilities for strange “methanogenic” Titanean life.”

Runčevski added that any information that they get about the structure of Titan’s upper layer crust, which is made of organic minerals, could prove very useful to NASA’s Dragonfly mission.

In order to create these “Titans in a jar” at SMU, Runčevski said they will use information about the conditions on Titan that were obtained during the mission Cassini-Huygens, which ended two years ago.

“We can recreate this world step by step in a cylinder made of glass,” he said. “First, we will introduce water, which freezes into ice. Second, we will top that layer of ice with ethane that liquidizes as a ‘lake.’ Then we will fill the remaining cylinder with nitrogen.”

After that, they can introduce different molecules into the system, mimicking the rainfall. Lastly, they will “dry” the lakes by slightly raising the temperature and produce the surface of the moon. The cylinder that this moon will be created inside is specifically designed, so that multiple state-of-the-art experiments can be done and they can learn from the structure of the real Titan. Large parts of these experiments will be performed at research facilities that provide modern synchrotron and neutron radiation, such as Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and the National Institute and Technology in Maryland.

Several media outlets have covered the news, including:

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Inside Higher Ed: The truth about bias response teams is more complex than often thought

DALLAS (SMU) – Are bias response teams political correctness police on college campuses? Or are they a quick fix for dealing with prejudice and bias?

In an opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed, a team of professors, including Southern Methodist University’s S. Kiersten Ferguson, argues that the truth is more complex.

They note that bias response teams — which handle reports of incidents that may involve prejudice from students, faculty or staff — are well-intentioned but often lack sufficient resources and time to carry out their charges. And they often get caught in the middle of demands from two different groups, neither of which they are typically able to fully satisfy.

Read the story here.

EXCERPT:

By Ryan A. Miller, Tonia Guida, Stella Smith, S. Kiersten Ferguson and Elizabeth Medina   

Inside Higher Ed

“University of Michigan brings back the Soviet Union with its bias response team,” the conservative-libertarian website The College Fix announced last spring. Similar headlines have warned that such teams punish free speech and are the latest example of political correctness run amok in higher education.

Claims that bias response teams function as the thought police on campuses are false. The truth about these teams is more complex, and less nefarious, than headlines acknowledge. Through our research, including an article we published in The Review of Higher Education, we’ve sought to understand the purpose and functions of bias response teams from the perspectives of administrators who run them at 19 colleges throughout the nation.

Misconceptions about bias response teams abound. What do these teams generally do? They:

  • Receive reports of incidents that may involve prejudice from students, faculty and staff;
  • Reach out and seek to support those who file reports;
  • Engage those who were the subjects of reports in voluntary, educational conversations; and
  • Monitor trends in the campus climate to inform educational efforts.

They also refer incidents that go beyond the scope of the team’s purview — crucially, those that involve institutional policy violations or criminal acts — to the professionals on the campus who are already designated to handle them, such as student conduct offices or campus police.

What do bias response teams not do? In the vast majority of cases, they do not have the power to discipline or sanction any campus community member. Bias response teams generally adopt a nonregulatory approach. They do not shut down free speech or charge into classrooms to stop offensive statements from faculty members or students. A federal judge in the University of Michigan case brought by Speech First affirmed as much, remarking “The university considers this voluntary and the student has no obligation to come in.”

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New power generation technology using waste heat from geothermal plants tested by SMU

The Geothermal Laboratory at Southern Methodist University (SMU) has just completed a research project that aims to use ultra-low-grade heat (150 °F to 250 °F) normally discarded by geothermal facilities to generate additional electricity. A central component of this project was the proprietary bottoming cycle technology of PwrCor, Inc., an advanced technology company that focuses on renewable energy solutions for Waste-to-Heat Power, Geothermal, and Solar markets.

Maria Richards

SMU’s Geothermal Laboratory, which is a research facility devoted to broadening the understanding and use of geothermal energy, compiled information such as ambient air temperature, injection temperature, and injection flow rate to quantify the total thermal energy within the spent geothermal fluids already being produced, but not utilized, by 31 of 73 U.S.-based geothermal sites for which data was available. What they found was that roughly 427 MWe can be generated from the spent geothermal fluids of currently existing facilities. This represents about 15% of the capacity of the sites looked at in the study.

“Geothermal energy is the work-horse of green power production.  Unlike various others, it operates 24/7, is suitable for baseload power supply, occupies a small footprint, and is designed to last,” noted Maria Richards, Geothermal Lab Coordinator for the Geothermal Laboratory. “PwrCor is working to improve the efficiency of our geothermal power infrastructure, and we commend their efforts.”

PwrCor is currently working with companies in the fuel cell and reciprocating engines industries, but they are also involved in initiatives in geothermal, oil and gas, and solar thermal. Their technology that allows for the cost-effective conversion of low-grade and ultra-low-grade heat to mechanical power and electricity could be revolutionary for businesses that could convert wasted heat to additional electrical power.

Joe Batir, a research geologist for the Geothermal Laboratory at SMU, said, “There is a great deal of heat being underutilized in geothermal power generating facilities around the United States.  Technology that can convert even a small portion of this underutilized heat into additional power has the potential of bringing major benefits to both geothermal power producers and to the environment.”– Globe News Wire and SMU

SMU’s research was featured in Think Geoenergy.

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Long exposure to protein inhibitor may be the key to more effective chemotherapy for treatment-resistant cancers, SMU finds

SMU researchers find success in treating drug-resistant prostate cancer cells in the lab

DALLAS (SMU) – Researchers at SMU’s Center for Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery (CD4) have succeeded in lab testing the use of chemotherapy with a specific protein inhibitor so that the chemotherapeutic medication is better absorbed by drug-resistant cancer cells without harming healthy cells. The approach could pave the way for a more effective way to treat cancers that are resistant to treatment.

A mix of drugs is frequently used to shrink cancer tumors or keep tumor cells from spreading to other parts of the body. But chemotherapy is so toxic that the mix often kills healthy cells, too, causing dreadful side effects for cancer patients. And eventually, many cancers learn how to resist chemotherapy, making it less effective over time.

“When multidrug resistance evolves, this leaves the patient with a very poor prognosis for survival and the oncologist with few, if any, effective tools, such as chemotherapy medicines, to treat what is very likely an aggressive and/or metastatic cancer at this point,” said John Wise, associate professor in the SMU Department of Biological Sciences and co-author of a study on the findings published Friday in PLOS One.

Much of the research led by CD4 director Pia Vogel and Wise is centered on a class of proteins called ABC transporters, a key factor in why many cancers resist chemotherapy.

Long exposure to P-gp inhibitor and chemotherapy decreased cancer cell survival, as assessed by colony formation. Credit: SMU

“These transporters are defensive proteins and are normally very, very good for us. They protect us from toxic chemicals by literally pumping them out of the cell, almost like a sump pump removes water from one’s cellar,” Vogel said.

But when someone has cancer, these proteins do more harm than good.

“One protein, P-glycoprotein, can pump nearly all chemotherapeutics out of the cancer cell, thereby making the cancer resistant to many drugs and untreatable,” Wise noted.

For this reason, SMU researchers tested the combination of using an inhibitor that temporarily shuts down P-glycoprotein’s ability to remove drugs from the cancer cells along with chemotherapeutics on prostate cancer cells grown in the lab, which have been shown to be resistant to multiple chemotherapeutic drugs.

The SMU team was able to show that if inhibitors of P-glycoprotein are used during and after the multidrug resistant cancer cells have been exposed to the chemotherapy drugs, then the cancer cells become much more sensitive to the chemotherapeutics.

The recipe for success was giving cancer cells a dose of both chemotherapy drugs and the P-gp inhibitor for two hours. Researchers then washed the prostate cancer cells to get rid of any residual chemotherapy drugs before giving the cells another dose of just P-gp inhibitor for 22 hours, lead author and SMU Ph.D. doctoral candidate Amila K. Nanayakkara explained.

Pia Vogel and John Wise

Prostate cancer cells that were given this treatment were shown to retain chemotherapy drugs at a much higher level compared to cancer cells not treated with the P-glycoprotein inhibitor. And after about 24 hours, much fewer of these cancer cells survived in this treatment compared to the cells which had not seen the inhibitor.

When the same tests were performed on normal noncancerous cells, “there was no sign of extra toxicity to the healthy cells using this method,” Wise added.

One issue, though, is how to duplicate this method in a patient’s body. “Once you’ve taken a chemotherapy drug, it’s not easy to remove it after just two hours,” said co-author Vogel, a professor in the SMU Department of Biological Sciences.

Still, the researchers argued that it is worth further research, because there are currently few options for cancer patients once their disease becomes resistant to multiple chemotherapies.

“Our paper shows these remarkable effects when the inhibitor is present during, and importantly, after exposure to chemotherapeutic,” Wise said. “And while ‘washing’ is not feasible in humans, the kidneys and other organs are in a sense doing the washing step for a patient. These organs are washing the chemotherapy from the bloodstream and therefore, out of cancer cells. So in that way, we think our preliminary cell culture studies may be translatable at least in principle to animals and people.”

News MedicalDallas Innovates and others wrote about the new research.

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The Dallas Morning News: HMS, Australia team up to solve a global health challenge

DALLAS (SMU) – Southern Methodist University (SMU) has teamed up with Texas-based HMS, the Digital Health CRC (Cooperative Research Centre) and Stanford University to tackle some of the world’s most significant health challenges using ‘big data.’ Dallas Morning News’ business reporter Melissa Repko covered the news on the collaboration, which was announced on Tuesday.

There are two key health care challenges that the coalition is looking to address: the global opioid epidemic and the high rates of avoidable hospital readmissions. The first research project conducted by Stanford University students will tackle the opioid crisis. The second project—led by Daniel Heitjan, Chair of Statistical Science at SMU—will focus on preventable hospital readmissions, which is when patients unexpectedly return to a hospital within 30 days of an earlier hospital stay.

As Repko reported, HMS is providing a key piece of the puzzle: A massive database of more than 2 million patients that researchers can use to find patterns and flag people who are at risk. Researchers will use the Medicaid claims data that HMS clients agree to share. It will be stripped of personal details such as names and addresses that could identify a patient.

Created last year by the Australian government with a seven-year grant, the Digital Health CRC is comprised of more than 80 businesses, universities and health technology providers. Its goal, working with HMS, SMU and Stanford University, is to develop and test digital health solutions that will solve “a vexing problem for both the U.S. and Australia: Health care costs that are skyrocketing, even as outcomes lag behind,” Repko wrote.

Victor Pantano, chief executive of Digital Health CRC, said the immensity and significance of the project reminds him of the Apollo space program. He lives in Canberra, the Australian capital. It’s near a former NASA tracking station called Honeysuckle Creek. The tracking station — a collaboration between scientists in the U.S. and Australia — received and relayed to the world the first images of astronaut Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

 

Researchers from the two countries are partnering again to explore “one of the most exciting frontiers in the modern age: the use of big data and digital technologies to deliver better health systems and better health outcomes into the future,” he said.

Read the Dallas Morning News article here.  

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Is blinded review enough? How gendered outcomes arise even under anonymous evaluation, SMU study shows

DALLAS (SMU) – Even when a scientist’s gender wasn’t revealed, female scientists got a lower score than males for grant proposals they submitted for review, according to a working paper led by Southern Methodist University professor Julian Kolev.

The study found that female scientists were more likely to use narrower, more topic-specific language than male applicants for grant research proposals they sent to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Men, on the other hand, tended to use less precise terms, which reviewers gave higher scores for.

The findings suggest that different communication styles are a key driver of the gender score gap, Kolev told Science Magazine in a recent interview.

“Broad words are something that reviewers and evaluators may be swayed by, but they’re not really reflecting a truly valuable underlying idea,” said Kolev, an assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business and the lead author of the study. It’s “more about style and presentation than the underlying substance.”

Read more about the study in two recent articles done by Science and Nature.

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Project Support program makes its way to Sweden

DALLAS (SMU) – Project Support, an intervention program designed to help improve the parent-child relationship and mental health outcomes for children in families in which intimate partner violence has occurred, is being implemented through social services agencies across Sweden. After a multi-year study, the National Swedish Health Technology Assessment in 2018 designated Project Support, originally developed by SMU Department of Psychology professors Renee McDonald and Ernest Jouriles, as one of two programs with a sufficient evidence base for helping children in domestically violent families.

“Project Support has been demonstrated to ameliorate child adjustment problems and improve family functioning,” says Dr. McDonald. “The program has been evaluated in the U.S. with support from the National Institute of Mental Health and we are delighted that it is now being adopted and utilized in Sweden.”

Project Support is an intensive, one-on-one program in which mental health service providers meet with families weekly in their homes for up to 6 months. During that time, parents are taught specific skills, including how to pay attention and play with their children, how to listen and comfort them, how to offer praise and positive attention, how to give appropriate instructions, and how to respond to misbehavior. Service providers also provide mothers with emotional support and help them access needed materials and resources through community agencies, such as food banks.

McDonald and Jouriles launched Project Support in the United States in 1996 to address the mental health problems of maltreated children and children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse. Those factors in childhood often lead to considerable problems for children later in life, such as substance abuse, interpersonal violence and criminal activity, say the SMU psychologists.

Both federal and state databases list Project Support as an intervention for children in violent families that is supported by research evidence.

Researchers funded by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, worked with Drs. McDonald and Jouriles to adapt and evaluate the feasibility of providing Project Support to families receiving assistance from the Swedish child welfare agencies.

In early April, SMU hosted six of the original cohort of service providers in Uppsala, Sweden, who were trained to provide Project Support, so that they can share their experiences with Project Support and learn more about programs and services in the U.S. for families in which violence occurs. They visited SMU’s Family Research Center, the Dallas Children’s Advocacy CenterThe Family Place, and Momentous Institute.

U.S. child welfare agencies received more than 4 million reports of child abuse and neglect involving more than 7 million children in 2017, the most recent year data is available, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported. Approximately 13 percent of children in the U.S. are exposed to severe acts of inter-parent violence.

In Sweden, approximately 5 percent of that nation’s children are exposed to severe acts of inter-parent violence, according to Swedish statistics. 

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SMU physicist Jodi Cooley receives the 2019 Klopsteg Memorial Lecture Award

DALLAS (SMU) – SMU physicist Jodi Cooley has been named the 2019 Klopsteg Memorial Lecture Award recipient.

The award, given by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), recognizes educators who have made notable and creative contributions to the teaching of physics. Cooley was honored in July during the AAPT Summer Meeting in Provo, Utah.

Past recipients of the award include well-known physicists such as Michio Kaku, Lisa Randall and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Cooley, who joined Southern Methodist University in 2009, is an associate professor of experimental particle physics in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences who opens her research lab to undergraduates. She has organized a campus rock hunt on Dark Matter Day, analyzed an action film or brought out a Slinky to make physics real for her students. When she delivered the featured address at SMU’s 2012 Honors Convocation, Cooley spoke about the value of failure.

Cooley’s current research interest is to improve our understanding of the universe by deciphering the nature of dark matter.

She and her colleagues operated sophisticated detectors in the Soudan Underground Laboratory in Minnesota from 2003 to 2015. The Department of Energy and National Science Foundation is now funding construction of an even deeper location, SNOLAB in Canada, to improve the search of dark matter. Cooley will be one of the researchers at SNOLAB, using detectors that can distinguish between elusive dark matter particles and background particles that mimic dark matter interactions.

Cooley is a principal investigator on the SuperCDMS dark matter experiment and was a principal investigator for the AARM collaboration, which aimed to develop integrative tools for underground science. She has won numerous awards for her research including being named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2018. She also received an Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation and the Ralph E. Powe Jr. Faculty Enhancement Award from the Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

About SMU

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SMU student wins prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Ophelie Herve

DALLAS (SMU)—A Southern Methodist University (SMU) graduate is one of the recipients of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program. 

Ophelie Herve, who is a first-year master’s student in Mechanical Engineering, will receive a three-year stipend of $34,000 to do research of her choosing and $12,000 to pay for her tuition and fees.

She was one of 2,050 students nationwide who was chosen to be a fellow this year. Past fellows include many Nobel Prize winners, Google founder Sergey Brin and the former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

Born in France and raised in Austin, Herve said she plans to use the money to research how to create a prosthetic leg for amputees that it is controlled by their voluntary muscle contractions, so that the leg moves with the same precision as a natural human leg.

“This research has the potential to have a broader impact by improving rehabilitative efforts in the medical field, enhancing injury prevention, and optimizing performance in the athletic industry,” she said.

Herve and her research are featured in an SMU video at https://youtu.be/qEPqvmV9ysE.

Herve said receiving an NSF fellow position has been a tremendous honor. “It is amazing to see that the door has been opened wide to pursue my passion,” she added.

Herve will graduate from SMU in 2019 with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering with a concentration in dynamics and controls.  After that, she said she plans to continue her education under Dario Villarreal, the director of the NeuroMechatronics Lab at SMU, topursue a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with a biomechatronics specialization.

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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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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.”

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Alcohol use may increase among Hispanic Americans as they become more ‘Americanized’

SMU professor Priscilla Lui and co-author find that ‘Americanization’ of alcohol use affects women more than men

DALLAS (SMU) – Higher rates of alcohol use and drinking consequences are found among Hispanic American adolescents and adults who are more “Americanized,” according to a new study authored by Southern Methodist University (SMU) professor Priscilla Lui and her colleague, Byron Zamboanga, at Smith College.

Using scientific research accumulated over the past 40 years, Lui and Zamboanga analyzed data from over 68,000 Hispanic Americans – including first-generation immigrants and native-born individuals. Lui’s research has found that people in this group who are more “Americanized” are more likely to:

  • be drinkers,
  • consume alcohol at greater intensity,
  • experience more negative consequences associated with alcohol use, and
  • affect women more than men.

Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in the United States.  Similar results were found in the Asian ethnic group, which is the fastest-growing U.S. ethnic group.  Those who are considered acculturated or “Americanized” tend to have adapted to the political, cultural, or communal influences in the mainstream America, and assimilated to its customs and institutions.

“This research means that, for Asian and Hispanic men, being more ‘Americanized’ may not be associated with substantial changes in their drinking behaviors and consequences,” said Lui. “For Asian and Hispanic women, however, cumulative data show that there’s something about the American way of life that may be making them more likely to drink, and drink more intensely and hazardously.”

According to Lui, existing research has suggested two theories: “Either people are socialized to adopt more permissive and favorable drinking culture in the U.S., or their experiences with cultural stresses, such as the pressure to become ‘American’ or racial discrimination, are making people use alcohol to cope.”

Lui is currently conducting further studies to better test these two theories, and to understand risk and protective factors of alcohol use.

Associations between alcohol use and the acculturation process are a focus of Lui’s research in her Acculturation, Diversity, and Psychopathology Team (ADAPT), where she is the principal investigator.  Lui is an assistant professor in the Psychology Department in the Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences at SMU.

The study, “A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis of the Associations between Acculturation and Alcohol Use Outcomes among Hispanic Americans,” is published in the October issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The study by Lui and Zamboanga are being published just as new research from the medical journal, The BMJ, revealed that more Americans, particularly young people, are dying from liver disease and cirrhosis as a result of alcohol consumption.

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NIH Funds Collaborative Study of Cognitive Impairment in Older Asthma Patients

Led by SMU psychologist and UTSW psychiatrist, Dallas Asthma Brain and Cognition Study will use brain scans to explore relationship between inflammatory lung disease and brain function in older adults

DALLAS (SMU) – SMU psychologist Thomas Ritz and UT Southwestern Medical Center psychiatrist Sherwood Brown will lead a $2.6 million study funded over four years by the National Institutes of Health to explore the apparent connection between asthma and diminished cognitive function in middle-to-late-age adults.

The World Health Organization estimates that 235 million people suffer from asthma worldwide.

The study will build on the work Brown and Ritz have accomplished with a core group of researchers over a period of eight years. Their pilot data, gleaned from brain imaging and analysis of chemical changes, indicates that neurons in the hippocampus of young-to-middle-age adults with asthma are not as healthy as those in the control group without asthma. The hippocampus is that portion of the brain that controls long-term memory and spatial navigation.

“In our early study, we found that there were differences between healthy control participants and young-to-middle-age asthma patients in that the latter showed a slightly lower performance in cognitive tasks,” Ritz said. “We wonder how that looks in older age. When you have asthma for a lifetime, the burden of the disease may accumulate.”

The early findings also led his group to wonder if the impact on cognition is related to the severity of the disease.

“This all makes sense, but no one has looked specifically at how that relates to brain structure,” Ritz said.  “With this grant we will look at structures – the neurons and axons, the white and gray matter of the brain, how thick they are in various places. We look at what kind of chemicals have been accumulating, which are the byproducts of neural activity. We want to know how various areas of the brain function during cognitive tasks.”

The four-year project will allow researchers to study a sample of up to 200 participants who are between the ages of 40-69. In addition to Ritz and Brown, the research group includes Denise C. Park, director of research for the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas; Changho Choi, professor of radiology at UTSW; David Khan, professor of internal medicine at UTSW; Alicia E. Meuret, professor of clinical psychology at SMU, and David Rosenfield, associate professor of psychology at SMU.  SMU graduate students working on the grant are Juliet Kroll and Hannah Nordberg.

“This is how neuroimaging works today – it is a team sport,” Ritz said. “You cannot do it on your own. You have to strike up collaborations with various disciplines.  It’s very exciting because it is stimulating and interesting to collaborate with colleagues in different areas.”

The study, scheduled to run through May 31, 2022, will allow the research team to examine several possible factors that may impact cognition in people with asthma.

“Is it lack of oxygen?  That’s a very good question,” Ritz said. “But it cannot be the full story.  Real lack of oxygen only happens in severe asthma attacks and in most cases, people having an asthma attack are still well saturated with oxygen.

Carbon dioxide levels are often too low in asthma patients – but it is uncertain whether that is a .”

Another possibility, he said, is that the problems with disrupted sleep experienced by many people with asthma might relate to cognitive function.

“Just imagine you how you perform after lack of sleep,” Ritz said. “In the long run, we know sleep is important to the health of our brain. If over a lifetime you’ve had interruptions in sleep, it may impact your neural health.”

This research is being supported by the National Heart, Lung, And Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health under grant number 1R01HL142775-01.

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New Smithsonian Exhibit Reflects the Passion of SMU Professor and an Army of Student Fossil Hounds

Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas opens Nov. 9 at National Museum of Natural History

DALLAS (SMU October 15, 2018) – Once the exhibit opens, “Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas” will allow visitors to visually dive into the cool waters off the coast of West Africa as they existed millions of years ago when the continents of Africa and South America were drifting apart. It’s a unique opportunity to examine fossils of ancient marine reptiles and learn about the forces that continue to mold life both in out of the ocean.

But the back story is just as fascinating: SMU Emeritus Professor of Paleontology Louis Jacobs and his SMU colleague Michael Polcyn forged a partnership with collaborators in Angola, Portugal and the Netherlands to explore and excavate Angola’s rich fossil history, while laying the groundwork for returning the fossils to the West African nation. Back in Dallas Jacobs and Polcyn, director of the University’s Digital Earth Sciences Lab, and research associate Diana Vineyard went to work over a period of 13 years with a small army of SMU students to prepare the fossils excavated by Projecto PaleoAngola.

The result is a dynamic exhibit opening Nov. 9 in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History featuring large vertebrate marine reptiles from the Cretaceous Period — mosasaurs, marine turtles and plesiosaurs. This exhibit will mark the first time Angolan fossils of colossal Cretaceous marine reptiles will be on public display.

“It turns out that Angola is the best place on the surface of the earth to see the rocks that reflect and show the opening of the South Atlantic and the split between South America and Africa,” Jacobs said. But the war of independence in Angola that began in 1961 and ended (after civil war) in 2002 effectively prevented scientists from working this rich fossil zone for nearly 40 years after continental drift and plate tectonics became accepted scientific theory.

When Jacobs and the team arrived to begin digging on the coast of Angola in 2005, they were first on the scene to record this fascinating record of sea life that existed as the South Atlantic Ocean grew between two drifting continents.

SMU students did the important, time-consuming lab work

Over the past 13 years, the fossils were shipped back to Dallas, where over 100 undergraduate students have worked in basement laboratories to painstakingly clean and preserve the fossils. Some were paleontology students, most were not – but they seem to share an appreciation for their unique role in sharing new knowledge.

“Getting fossils out of rocks is a time consuming, labor-intensive operation,” Jacobs said. “But every time a student removes a grain of sand off a fossil, they have the excitement of seeing ancient life that no one else in the world has ever seen. On top of that, these fossils are going on exhibit at the Smithsonian and then back to their own homeland. That gives our students an opportunity that they simply could not get anywhere else. And what’s not to like about that?”

The Smithsonian exhibit, made possible by the Sant Ocean Hall Endowment fund, will immerse visitors in a marine environment from the Cretaceous Period, which began about 145 million years ago and ended about 66 million years ago. It features lively animations and vivid paleoart murals of life beneath the waves courtesy of natural history artist (and longtime Jacobs collaborator) Karen Carr. The exhibit brings to life 11 authentic fossils from Angola’s ancient seas, full-size fossil reconstructions of a mosasaur and a marine turtle, as well as 3-D scanned replicas of mosasaur skulls. Photomurals and video vignettes will take visitors to field sites along Angola’s modern rugged coast, where Projecto PaleoAngola scientists unearthed the fossil remains from this lost world.

“Because of our planet’s ever-shifting geology, Angola’s coastal cliffs contain the fossil remains of marine creatures from the prehistoric South Atlantic,” said Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History. “We are honored by the generosity of the Angolan people for sharing a window into this part of the Earth’s unfolding story with our visitors.”

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in seven degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world. For more information, visit SMU on its website and on Facebook and Twitter.

About the National Museum of Natural History

The National Museum of Natural History is connecting people everywhere with Earth’s unfolding story. The museum is one of the most visited natural history museums in the world with approximately 7 million annual visitors from the U.S. and around the world. Opened in 1910, the museum is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit the museum on its website and on Facebook and Twitter.

In the words of smu students and graduates who sorted, cleaned and preserved fossils for Projecto Paleoangola

Pictured (L to R): Yasmin Jackson, Tania Doblado Speck, Harrison Schumann and Evan Snyder

Evan Snyder (SMU 2019)

“This experience allowed me to work on a project far bigger than myself. Exhibits just like this one excited me as a young child and led to my study of science. I’d love to think that my work will have the same impact on kids today. Working on this project also taught me how to work on challenging and stressful tasks with the right balance of confidence and care to meet deadlines with quality work.”

Yasmin Jackson (SMU 2019)

“I was able to go to the Smithsonian for the first time through this project. I really liked being able to see all of the different exhibits that are currently in the museum and imagine what our exhibit will be like in the midst of all of it.”

Harrison Schuman (SMU 2019)

“Dr. Jacobs is an inspiring individual to be around. Despite being a world-class expert in paleontology, he made himself very approachable and was always personally invested in all of the students working on the project. This kind of attitude encourages students like me to pursue careers in science.”

Alexandra Lippas (SMU 2011)

“It is because of Dr. Jacobs that I was able to be a part of this project. He encouraged students from other branches of science to work on this study. I think it demonstrates that different perspectives can lead to great discovery.”

Connor Flynn (SMU 2014)

“My time in the lab will be a source of stories for years to come and a point of pride for a lifetime. Its lessons in patience, care and passion for the labor will never be forgotten. Dr. Jacobs’ words ‘There’s nothing so broken you can’t fix it,’ carried me through more lab accidents than i care to admit — both at SMU and beyond.”

Jennifer Welch (SMU 2019)

“Dr. Jacobs is so incredibly smart, I could point out any part of the vertebrae and he would tell me what it’s for, why it was there, how that impacted the life of the animal and the stories that told about the land where the animal lived.”

Stephen Tyler Armstrong (SMU 2012)

“As an engineering major, this project exposed me to areas of research and career paths I would otherwise not encountered. It was really interesting to work so closely with those conducting the research to learn about a subject outside of my realm.”

For more information about undergraduate students working in SMU’s earth sciences labs.

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Letting kids shape how they learn algebra

SMU math educator Candace Walkington will use a $1 million NSF grant to help expand tool that allows kids to create and solve algebra problems related to their own interests.

Read more about Professor Walkington’s research in this Forbes article.

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SMU Engineering Profs Receive NSF Grant to Build Multi-Dimensional Drone Communication Framework

DALLAS (SMU) – Faculty and students in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering will use an $849,839 grant from the National Science Foundation to improve unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) communications, with the potential to enable the next wave of drone applications ranging from delivery of consumer goods to supporting autonomous combat and search and rescue efforts.

The award to Joseph Camp and Dinesh Rajan in the Electrical Engineering Department begins funding their work Oct. 1, 2018 and will extend through Sept. 30, 2021. The objective is to build infrastructure for Multi-Dimensional Drone Communications Infrastructure (MuDDI) to address research issues related to three-dimensional (3-D) connectivity, distributed antennas across a drone swarm and 3-D swarm formations that optimize the transmission to intended receivers.

MuDDI will allow the SMU team to rent and equip indoor space relatively close to campus for repeatable experimentation.  “This will allow us to run our experiments in a controlled environment with the ability to precisely measure the wireless transmission characteristics,” Camp said.

The project will include:

  • Building a programmable drone platform that can dynamically switch across multiple antennas with various positions and orientations on the drone that increase signal from a particular drone to direct transmissions across the extremes of physical dimensions.
  • Experimental analysis of the various channel feedback mechanisms that have been identified but have yet to be evaluated on drones with in-flight vibrations and mobility patterns and various swarm formations.
  • Constructing and incorporating large-scale antenna arrays over the surface of the ceiling and surrounding walls in the test facility to capture various multiple-input/multiple-output (MIMO) transmission patterns of a single drone seeking 3-D connectivity, distributed drone swarm creating various formations, and a massive-MIMO ground station.
  • Integrating a massive-MIMO control station that can direct transmissions to, and track the mobility of, in-flight systems enabling research on the various beam widths and multi-user beam patterns that may be simultaneously allocated among large antenna arrays.

“When you start to think about drones, the communication issues are not 2D anymore – they are 3D,” Camp said. “When we built a drone platform at SMU in Taos last summer, we put the antennas on top of the drone so they wouldn’t interfere with landing gear. What we then found out was when the drone got to a certain height, it could only communicate from side-to-side, not directly below it.”

 

“When drones are required to talk to other drones, the communication, by definition, can be in any direction at any point in time,” Camp said. “We make the assumption that radios are expensive in terms of power, weight, and cost and that a switching mechanism from these radios to a greater number of antennas could significantly lower the resource consumption of a drone communications platform. In addition, if carefully designed, multiple drones could team to form a large antenna array to improve communication range.”

The research being directed by Camp and Rajan could have far-reaching applications for the future of UAV communications, including increasing Internet connectivity during natural disasters as well as commercial and military applications, all of which require coordination of multiple entities across various altitudes, from in-flight to ground-based stations. Potential applications also include deploying WiFi in underserved, low-income neighborhoods.

A warehouse in close proximity to campus currently is being outfitted to the specific dimensions required for faculty and students to analyze data and applications for this project. In addition, interested students can join Camp each June at SMU’s campus in Taos, NM, where he teaches an “Introduction to Drone Communications” class where students learn the fundamentals of experimentation research for the purposes of
design novel measurement studies for drone communications.

Camp is an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Engineering in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering. He joined the SMU faculty in 2009 after receiving his Ph.D. in ECE from Rice University. He received the National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2012.

Rajan is Cecil and Ida Green Endowed Professor of Engineering. He has served as professor and chair of the Electrical Engineering Department in the Lyle School, and received an NSF CAREER Award in 2006. He joined SMU in 2002 and earned his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from Rice University.

About SMU

SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls approximately 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools.

About the Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering

SMU’s Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering, founded in 1925, is one of the oldest engineering schools in the Southwest. The school offers eight undergraduate and 29 graduate programs, including master’s and doctoral degrees, through the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Computer Science and Engineering; Electrical Engineering; Engineering Management, Information, and Systems; and Mechanical Engineering. Lyle students participate in programs in the unique Deason Innovation Gym, providing the tools and space to work on immersion design projects and competitions to accelerate leadership development and the framework for innovation; the Hart Center for Engineering Leadership, helping students develop nontechnical skills to prepare them for leadership in diverse technical fields; the Caruth Institute for Engineering Education, developing new methodologies for incorporating engineering education into K-12 schools; and the Hunter and Stephanie Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity, combining technological innovation with business expertise to address global poverty.

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Native Bison Hunters Amplified Climate Impacts on North American Prairie Fires

Study shows hunter-gatherers used active burning to improve grazing, drive bison, long before arrival of Columbus

Blackfeet Burning Crow Buffalo Range, painting by Charles Marion Russell, 1905.
Blackfeet Burning Crow Buffalo Range, painting by Charles Marion Russell, 1905.

DALLAS (SMU) – Native American communities actively managed North American prairies for centuries before Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World, according to a new study led by Southern Methodist University (SMU) archaeologist Christopher I. Roos.

Fire was an important indigenous tool for shaping North American ecosystems, but the relative importance of indigenous burning versus climate on fire patterns remains controversial in scientific communities. The new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), documents the use of fire to manipulate bison herds in the northern Great Plains. Contrary to popular thinking, burning by indigenous hunters combined with climate variability to amplify the effects of climate on prairie fire patterns.

The relative importance of climate and human activities in shaping fire patterns is often debated and has implications for how we approach fire management today.

“While there is little doubt that climate plays an important top-down role in shaping fire patterns, it is far less clear whether human activities – including active burning – can override those climate influences,” said Roos. “Too often, if scientists see strong correlations between fire activity and climate, the role of humans is discounted.”

Anthropologists and historians have documented a wide variety of fire uses by Native peoples in the Americas but fire scientists have also documented strong fire-climate relationships spanning more than 10,000 years.

“People often think that hunter-gatherers lived lightly on the land,” said Kacy L. Hollenback, an anthropologist at SMU and co-author of the study. “Too often we assume that hunter-gatherers were passive in their interaction with their environment. On the Great Plains and elsewhere, foragers were active managers shaping the composition, structure, and productivity of their environments. This history of management has important implications for contemporary relationships between Native American and First Nations peoples and their home landscapes – of which they were ecosystem engineers.”

Working in partnership with the Blackfeet Tribe in northern Montana, Roos and colleagues combined landscape archaeology and geoarchaeology to document changes in prairie fire activity in close spatial relationship to stones piled in formations up to a mile long that were used to drive herds of bison off of cliffs to be harvested en masse. These features are known as drivelines.

“We surveyed the uplands for stone features that delineate drivelines within which bison herds would be funneled towards a jump,” said anthropologist María Nieves Zedeño of the University of Arizona, co-author of the study. “By radiocarbon dating prairie fire charcoal deposits from the landscape near the drivelines, we were able to reconstruct periods of unusually high fire activity that are spatially associated with the drivelines,” says Roos.

The overlap between peak periods of driveline use (ca. 900-1650 CE) and prairie fire activity (ca. 1100-1650 CE) suggests that fire was an important tool in the hunting strategy involving the drivelines. Roos and colleagues suggest that fire was used to freshen up the prairie near the mouth of the drivelines to attract herds of bison, who prefer to graze recently burned areas. Episodes of high fire activity also correspond to wet climate episodes, when climate would have produced abundant grass fuel for prairie fires.

The absence of deposits indicating high prairie fire activity before or after the period of driveline use, even though comparable wet climate episodes occurred, suggests that anthropogenic burning by Native hunters amplified the climate signal in prairie fire patterns during the period of intensive bison hunting.

“We need to consider that humans and climate have more complicated and interacting influences on historical fire patterns,” said Roos. “Moreover, we need to acknowledge that hunter-gatherers can be active influences in their environments, particularly through their use of fire as a landscape tool. We expect that future studies of human/climate/fire interactions will further document the complexity of these relationships. Understanding that complexity may prove important as we try to navigate the complex wildfire problems we face today.”

About SMU

SMU is a nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in seven degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

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Prehistoric puzzle settled: carbon dioxide link to global warming 22 million years ago

The modern link between high carbon dioxide levels and climate change didn’t appear to hold true for a time interval about 22 million years ago; but now a new study has found the link does indeed exist.

Fossil leaves from Africa have resolved a prehistoric climate puzzle — and also confirm the link between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global warming.

Research until now has produced a variety of results and conflicting data that have cast doubt on the link between high carbon dioxide levels and climate change for a time interval about 22 million years ago.

But a new study has found the link does indeed exist for that prehistoric time period, say researchers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

The finding will help scientists understand how recent and future increases in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide may impact the future of our planet, say the SMU researchers.

The discovery comes from new biochemical analyses of fossil leaves from plants that grew on Earth 27 million years ago and 22 million years ago, said geologist Tekie Tesfamichael, lead scientist on the research.

The new analyses confirm research about modern climate — that global temperatures rise and fall with increases and decreases in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere — but in this case even in prehistoric times, according to the SMU-led international research team.

Carbon dioxide is a gas that is normally present in the Earth’s atmosphere, even millions of years ago. It’s dubbed a greenhouse gas because greater concentrations cause the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere to rise, as happens in a greenhouse with lots of sunlight.

Recently greenhouse gas increases have caused global warming, which is melting glaciers, sparking extreme weather variability and causing sea levels to rise.

The new SMU discovery that carbon dioxide behaved in the same manner millions of years ago that it does today has significant implications for the future. The finding suggests the pairing of carbon dioxide and global warming that is seen today also holds true for the future if carbon dioxide levels continue to rise as they have been, said Tesfamichael.

“The more we understand about the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and global temperature in the past, the more we can plan for changes ahead,” said Tesfamichael, an SMU postdoctoral fellow in Earth Sciences.

“Previous work reported a variety of results and conflicting data about carbon dioxide concentrations at the two intervals of time that we studied,” he said. “But tighter control on the age of our fossils helped us to address whether or not atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration corresponded to warming — which itself is independently well-documented in geochemical studies of marine fossils in ocean sediments.”

The researchers reported their findings in Geology, the scientific journal of the Geological Society of America. The article is “Settling the issue of ‘decoupling’ between atmospheric carbon dioxide and global temperature: [CO2]atm reconstructions across the warming Paleogene-Neogene divide.”

Co-authors from the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College are professors Bonnie Jacobs, an expert in paleobotany and paleoclimate, and Neil J. Tabor, an expert in sedimentology and sedimentary geochemistry.

Other co-authors are Lauren Michel, Tennessee Technological University; Ellen Currano, University of Wyoming; Mulugeta Feseha, Addis Ababa University; Richard Barclay, Smithsonian Institution; John Kappelman, University of Texas; and Mark Schmitz, Boise State University.

Discovery of rare, well-preserved fossil leaves enables finding
The findings were possible thanks to the rare discovery of two sites with extraordinarily well-preserved fossil leaves of flowering plants from the Ethiopian Highlands of eastern Africa.

Such well-preserved fossil leaves are a rarity, Tesfamichael said.

“Finding two sites with great preservation in the same geographic region from two important time intervals was very fortunate, as this enabled us to address the question we had about the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and global temperatures,” he said.

Scientists know that variations in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide affect carbon fixation in leaves during photosynthesis. This causes leaves to develop anatomical and physiological changes such as the frequency and size of stomata — the pores on the surface of a leaf through which carbon passes.

Scientists can measure those attributes, among others, in fossil leaves, so that leaf fossils can be used as proxies for Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide history.

The sites producing the leaves for the SMU study were discovered separately in years past, but major fossil collections were produced through field work coordinated by the SMU research team and their co-authors, who have been collaborating on this project for several years.

The work has had funding from the National Science Foundation, The National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, the SMU Ford Fellowship Program, SMU Research Council, the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man, and the Dallas Paleontological Society Frank Crane Scholarship.

The fossils are housed permanently in the collections at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. Institutional and governmental support came from the National Museum of Ethiopia, the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, and Addis Ababa University.

Previous studies firmly established a temperature difference
One of the sites dates to the late Oligocene Epoch, and the other to the early Miocene.

Previous studies that measured ocean temperatures from around the world for the two intervals have firmly established a temperature difference on Earth between the two times, with one much warmer than the other. So the SMU study sought to measure the levels of carbon dioxide for the two time periods.

For the SMU analyses, fossil leaves of a single species were collected from the 27 million-year-old late Oligocene site. The leaves had been deposited during prehistoric times in the area of Chilga in northwest Ethiopia most likely at a river bank. The Earth’s climate during the late Oligocene may have been somewhat warmer than today, although glaciers were forming on Antarctica. The SMU study found carbon dioxide levels, on average, around 390 parts per million, about what it is on Earth today.

Fossil leaves of the 22 million-year-old species from the early Miocene were collected from ancient lake deposits, now a rock called shale, from the modern-day Mush Valley in central Ethiopia. The early Miocene climate at that time was warmer than the late Oligocene and likewise the SMU study found higher carbon dioxide levels. Atmospheric carbon dioxide was about 870 parts per million, double what it is on Earth today.

The SMU study confirmed a relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature during the late Oligocene and early Miocene.

Paleoclimate data can help predict our planet’s future climate
While carbon dioxide isn’t the only factor affecting Earth’s climate or global mean temperature, it is widely considered by scientists among the most significant. Much is known about climate change and global warming, but questions still remain.

“One of those is ‘What’s the sensitivity of the Earth’s temperature to carbon dioxide concentration? Is it very sensitive? Is it not so sensitive?’ Estimating temperature and carbon dioxide concentrations for times in the past can help find the answer to that question,” Jacobs said. “There’s a lot of work on paleoclimate in general, but not as much on the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature.”

The finding is an important one.

“The amount of temperature change during this interval is approximately within the range of the temperature change that is estimated from climate models for our next century given a doubling of carbon dioxide concentration since the industrial revolution,” Jacobs said.

With the new model reaffirming the prehistoric relationship, scientists can look now at related questions, said climate change scientist Lauren Michel, who worked on the study as a post-doctoral researcher at SMU.

“Answering questions about the rate of change and which factors changed first, for example, will ultimately give a clearer picture of the Earth’s climate change patterns,” Michel said. “I think it is valuable to understand the relationship of greenhouse gases and climate factors represented in the rock record so we can have a better idea of what we can expect in the future and how we can prepare for that.”

SMU study confirms relationship that previous methods overlooked
Previous studies found little to no correlation between temperature and carbon dioxide for the late Oligocene and early Miocene. That has puzzled paleoclimate researchers for at least a decade.

“We have a good test-case scenario with these well-preserved plants from both time slices, where we know one time slice, with higher levels of carbon dioxide, was a warmer climate globally than the other,” Tesfamichael said.

“It’s been a puzzle as to why the previous methods found no relationship, or an inverse correlation,” he said. “We think it’s for lack of the well-dated proxy — such as our fossil leaves from two precise times in the same region — which deliver a reliable answer. Or, perhaps the models themselves needed improvement.”

Previous studies used methodologies that differed from the SMU study, although all methods (proxies) incorporate some aspects of what is known about living organisms and how they interact with atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Some studies rely on biochemical modeling of the relationship between single-celled marine fossils and atmospheric carbon dioxide, and others rely on the relationship between stomata and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration observed in the living relatives of particular fossil plant species.

“Each method has its assumptions,” said Tesfamichael. “We will see if our results hold up with further studies of this time interval using the same methodology we used.” — Margaret Allen, SMU

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Prehistoric humans formed complex mating networks to avoid inbreeding

A new study has sequenced the genomes of individuals from an ancient burial site in Russia and discovered that they were, at most, first cousins, indicating that they had developed sexual partnerships beyond their immediate social and family group.

A new study has identified when humans transitioned from simple systems designed to minimize inbreeding to more complex ones suitable for hunter-gatherer societies.

The study findings are reported in the journal Science and demonstrate that, by at least 34,000 years ago, human hunter-gatherer groups had developed sophisticated social and mating networks that minimized inbreeding.

The 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 results suggest that people 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, thus avoiding inbreeding.

The research was carried out by an international team of academics, led by the University of Cambridge, U.K., and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. The team included SMU archaeologist David J. Meltzer, whose expertise includes the First People in the Americas.

The researchers sequenced the genomes of four individuals from Sunghir, a famous Upper Palaeolithic site in Russia, which was inhabited about 34,000 years ago.

The article, “Ancient genomes show social and reproductive behavior of early Upper Paleolithic foragers,” is published in the Oct. 5, 2017 issue of Science.

Complex mating systems may partly explain modern human survival
Among recent hunter-gatherers, the exchange of mates between groups is embedded into a cultural system of rules, ceremonies and rituals. The symbolism, complexity and time invested in the extraordinarily rich objects and jewellery found in the Sunghir burials, as well as the burials themselves, suggest that these early human societies symbolically marked major events in the life of individuals and their community in ways that foreshadow modern rituals and ceremonies — birth, marriage, death, shared ancestry, shared cultures.

The study’s 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.”

Early human societies changed ancestral mating system
The small family bands were likely interconnected within larger networks, facilitating the exchange of peoples between bands in order to maintain diversity, said Martin Sikora, a professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.

Most non-human primate societies are organized around single-sex kin (matrilines or patrilines), where one of the sexes remains resident and the other migrates to another group, thus minimizing inbreeding. At some point, early human societies changed the ancestral mating system into one in which a large number of the individuals that form small resident/foraging units are non-kin, where the relations among units that exchange mating partners are formalized through complex cultural systems.

In at least one Neanderthal case, an individual from the Altai Mountains who died about 50,000 years ago, inbreeding was not avoided, suggesting that the modern human cultural systems that allows to decouple the size of the resident community from the danger of inbreeding was not in place. This leads the researchers to speculate that an early, systematic approach to preventing inbreeding may have helped modern humans to thrive in relation to with other hominins.

This should be treated with caution, however.

“We don’t know why the Altai Neanderthal groups were inbred,” Sikora said. “Maybe they were isolated and that was the only option; or maybe they really did fail to develop a network of connections. We will need more genomic data of diverse Neanderthal populations to be sure.”

Upper Palaeolithic human groups sustained very small group sizes
The researchers were able to sequence the complete genomes of all four individuals found within the two graves at Sunghir. These data were compared with information on both modern and ancient human genomes from across the world.

They found that the four individuals studied were genetically no closer than second cousins, while the adult femur filled with red ochre found in the youngsters’ grave would have belonged to an individual no closer than great-great grandfather of the boys. “This goes against what many would have predicted,” Willerslev said. “I think many researchers had assumed that the people of Sunghir were very closely related, especially the two youngsters from the same grave.”

The people at Sunghir may have been part of a network similar to that of modern day hunter-gatherers, such as Aboriginal Australians and some historical Native American societies. Like their Upper Palaeolithic ancestors, these societies lived in fairly small groups of some 25 people, but they were also connected to a larger community of perhaps 200 people, within which there were rules governing with whom individuals can form partnerships.

“The results from Sunghir show that Upper Palaeolithic human groups could sustain very small group sizes by embedding them in a wide social network of other groups maintained by sophisticated cultural systems,” said Marta Mirazón Lahr, a professor at the University of Cambridge.

Willerslev also highlights a possible link with the unusual sophistication of the ornaments and cultural objects found at Sunghir. Such band-specific cultural expressions may have been used to signal who are “we” versus who are “they,” and thus a means of reinforcing a shared identity built on marriage exchange across foraging units. The number and sophistication of personal ornaments and artefacts found at Sunghir are exceptional even among other modern human burials, and not found among Neanderthals and other hominins.

“The ornamentation is incredible and there is no evidence of anything like that with other hominins,” Willerslev added. “When you put the evidence together, it seems to be telling us about the really big questions: what made these people who they were as a species, and who we are as a result.”

Ancient genomics throw light on aspects of social life
These results show the power of ancient genomics to throw light on aspects of social life among early humans, and pave the way for further studies to explore variation in social and demographic strategies in prehistoric socieities.

“Much of human evolution is about changes in our social and cultural behavior, and the impact this has had on our success as a species. This study takes us a step further toward pinpointing when and why the things that make humans unique evolved,” said Robert Foley, a professor at the University of Cambridge.

Meltzer is Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory in the SMU Department of Anthropology in Dedman College. As a scientist who studies how people first came to inhabit North America, Meltzer in 2009 was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in recognition for his achievements in original scientific research. In 2013 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. — University of Cambridge, SMU

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$2.5 million NSF grant gives teachers a math assessment tool to help students

New assessment tool for teachers to measure math reasoning skills can drive effort to intervene early in ongoing struggles of U.S. elementary and high school students

A $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to researchers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, targets the ongoing struggle of U.S. elementary and high school students with math.

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 four-year NSF 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.

“This is 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 said.

“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,” she said.

Early math a better predictor of future learning
A 2015 Mathematics National Assessment of Education Progress report found that only 40 percent of U.S. fourth-grade students were classified as proficient or advanced, and those numbers have not improved between 2009 and 2015. In fact, the geometry scale of the fourth-grade mathematics report was significantly lower in 2015 than in 2009.

Early mathematics is a better and more powerful predictor of future learning, including reading and mathematics achievement, compared to early reading ability or other factors such as attention skills, according to one 2007 study on school readiness.

Research also has found that students’ early mathematics knowledge is a more powerful predictor of their future socioeconomic status at age 42 than their family’s socioeconomic status as children.

Early mathematics comprises numerous skills. However, number sense — the ability to work with numbers flexibly — in addition to spatial sense — the ability to understand the complexity of one’s environment — are consistently identified as two of the main components that should be emphasized in early mathematics standards and instruction, say the SMU researchers.

The Measures of Mathematical Reasoning Skills system will contain tests for both numeric relational reasoning and spatial reasoning.

Universal screening tools focused on these topics do not yet exist
“I’m passionate about this research because students who can reason spatially and relationally with numbers are better equipped for future mathematics courses, STEM degrees and STEM careers,” said Perry, whose doctoral dissertation for her Ph.D. from SMU in 2016 specifically focused on those two mathematical constructs.

“While these are very foundational and predictive constructs, these reasoning skills have typically not been emphasized at these grade levels, and universal screening tools focused on these topics do not yet exist,” said Perry, who is co-principal investigator.

“Since intervention in the early elementary grades can significantly improve mathematics achievement, it is critical that K-2 teachers have access to high-quality screening tools to help them with their intervention efforts,” she said. “We feel that the Measures of Mathematical Reasoning Skills system can really make a difference for K-2 teachers as they prepare the next generation of STEM leaders.”

The four-year project, Measuring Early Mathematical Reasoning Skills: Developing Tests of Numeric Relational Reasoning and Spatial Reasoning, started Sept. 15, 2017. It employs an iterative research design for developing formative assessments, a process that Ketterlin Geller has devoted much of her 20-year career to.

Ketterlin Geller is Texas Instruments Endowed Chair in Education and director of Research in Mathematics Education in SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development. She is also a Fellow with the Caruth Institute for Engineering Education in the Lyle School of Engineering.

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Slate: Making the Perfect Sprinter More Perfect

How Usain Bolt could have run even faster.

Slate online magazine journalist Adam Willis covered the research of SMU biomechanics expert Peter Weyand and his colleagues Andrew Udofa and Laurence Ryan for a story about the world’s fastest sprinter, Usain Bolt, and whether he could possibly run even faster with different form.

The article, “Making the Perfect Sprinter More Perfect,” published Aug. 4, 2017.

Weyand, who leads the SMU Locomotor Performance Laboratory, is an expert on human locomotion and the mechanics of running. In his most recently published research, Weyand was part of a team that developed a concise approach to understanding the mechanics of human running. The research has immediate application for running performance, injury prevention, rehab and the individualized design of running shoes, orthotics and prostheses. Called the two-mass model, the work integrates classic physics and human anatomy to link the motion of individual runners to their patterns of force application on the ground — during jogging, sprinting and at all speeds in between.

His lab also reported in June that world champion sprinter Usain Bolt may have an asymmetrical running gait. While not noticeable to the naked eye, Bolt’s potential asymmetry emerged after the researchers dissected race video to assess his pattern of ground-force application — literally how hard and fast each foot hits the ground. To do so they measured the “impulse” for each foot.

Udofa presented the findings at the 35th International Conference on Biomechanics in Sport in Cologne, Germany. His presentation, “Ground Reaction Forces During Competitive Track Events: A Motion Based Assessment Method,” was delivered June 18.

The analysis thus far suggests that Bolt’s mechanics may vary between his left leg to his right. The existence of an unexpected and potentially significant asymmetry in the fastest human runner ever would help scientists better understand the basis of maximal running speeds. Running experts generally assume asymmetry impairs performance and slows runners down.

Udofa has said the observations raise the immediate scientific question of whether a lack of symmetry represents a personal mechanical optimization that makes Bolt the fastest sprinter ever or exists for reasons yet to be identified.

Weyand also has been widely interviewed in years past on the controversy surrounding double-amputee South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Weyand co-led a team of scientists who are experts in biomechanics and physiology in conducting experiments on Pistorius and the mechanics of his racing ability.

Weyand, who is Glenn Simmons Professor of Applied Physiology and professor of biomechanics in the Department of Applied Physiology & Wellness in SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education & Human Development, is director of the Locomotor Lab.

The researchers described the two-mass model earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Biology in their article, “A general relationship links gait mechanics and running ground reaction forces.” It’s available at bitly, http://bit.ly/2jKUCSq.

Read the full story.

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By Adam Willis
Slate

Usain Bolt is the only person to win both the 100 and 200 meters at three Olympic games. He is also the only person to do this at two Olympic games. Bolt has broken five individual outdoor track and field world records, three of them his own. He has run three of the five fastest 100-meter races and four of the six fastest 200-meter races in history. As Bolt gets set for the World Athletics Championships in London, the final meet of his beyond-illustrious career, we should be grateful for all the memorable moments the world’s fastest man has given us. We should also be ingrates and ask: Could he have run faster?

Bolt has an uncanny knack for making the incredibly difficult look easy—like Muhammad Ali coming off the ropes, like Westley fencing with his left hand, like James Joyce writing Ulysses from Paris. It’s only natural to wonder, then, if he could have done more. His midrace celebrations, his apparent aversion for practice and affinity for parties, his less than sensible diet—he reportedly ate 1,000 Chicken McNuggets in 10 days during the Beijing Olympics—all suggest history’s greatest sprinter might’ve had a little bit more in the tank.

After Bolt breezed to a 9.69 world record in the 100 meters at the 2008 Olympics, jogging and chest thumping across the finish line just days before his 22nd birthday, his coach Glen Mills made headlines with his claim that Bolt would have hit 9.52, at worst, if he had just run through the line. Scientists took on the task of projecting the time that might have been, with most concluding that 9.52 was, at best, a slight exaggeration. Bolt, though, made that claim look less sensational when he tore through his own world records at the world championships in Berlin a year later, posting 9.58 in the 100 and 19.19 in the 200. Still, Bolt would never reach the 9.52 that Mills estimated, nor, for that matter, the 9.4 that he himself predicted. He would never best those world records that he set in Berlin, when he was not yet 23 years old.

“We haven’t seen the 2009 Bolt since 2009,” says Peter Weyand, the director of the Locomotor Performance Laboratory at Southern Methodist University and a leading expert on the science of sprinting. When I asked Weyand about Bolt’s early peak, he told me that, although 22 or 23 is not an unusual age for a sprinter to top out, he would have predicted more after Bolt’s 2009 performances.

While recent research from Weyand’s lab concluded that Bolt’s stride is abnormally asymmetric, Weyand says it’s unlikely this asymmetry held Bolt back in any way. He does point, however, to several aspects of Bolt’s form that are considered unorthodox and potentially suboptimal.

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Dallas Innovates: SMU, UTA Scientists To Help Unlock Mystery of Neutrinos

A massive particle detector a mile underground is the key to unlocking the secrets of a beam of neutrinos that will be shot beneath the Earth from Chicago to South Dakota.

Reporter Lance Murray with Dallas Innovates reported on the research of biochemistry professors Thomas E. Coan in the SMU Department of Physics.

Coan is one of about 1,000 scientists around the world collaborating on DUNE — a massive particle detector being built a mile underground in South Dakota to unlock the mysteries of neutrino particles.

The research is funded by the by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science in conjunction with CERN and international partners from 30 countries.

SMU is one of more than 100 institutions from around the world building hardware for the massive international experiment that may change our understanding of the universe. Construction will take years and scientists expect to begin taking data in the middle of the next decade, said Coan.

The Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) will house the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. When complete, LBNF/DUNE will be the largest experiment ever built in the United States to study the properties of the mysterious particles called neutrinos.

The Dallas Innovates article, “SMU, UTA Scientists To Help Unlock Mystery of Neutrinos,” published July 28, 2017.

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By Lance Murray
Dallas Innovates

Construction of a huge particle detector in South Dakota could lead to a change in how we understand the universe, and scientists from the University of Texas at Arlington and Southern Methodist University in Dallas will play roles in helping to unlock the mystery of neutrinos.

Ground was broken a mile underground recently at the Sanford Underground Research Facility at the Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, South Dakota for the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) that will house the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE).

SMU physicist Thomas E. Coan, and UTA Physics professors Jonathan Asaadi and Jaehoon Yu will be among scientists from more than 100 institutions around the world who will be involved in the experiment.

DUNE will be constructed and operated at the mine site by a group of about 1,000 scientists and engineers from 30 nations.

The Homestake Mine was the location where neutrinos were discovered by Raymond Davis Jr. in 1962. It was the the largest and deepest gold mine in North America until its closure in 2002.

LBNF/DUNE will be the biggest experiment ever built in the U.S. to study the properties of neutrinos, one of the fundamental particles that make up the universe.

“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 in the release.

These puzzling particles are similar to electrons, but they have one huge difference — they don’t carry an electrical charge. Neutrinos come in three types: the electron neutrino, the muon, and the tau.

What is the experiment’s goal? Coan said it seeks to understand strange phenomena such as neutrinos changing identities in mid-flight — known as “oscillation” — as well as the behavioral differences between a neutrino and its anti-neutrino sibling.

“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 in the release. “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 understanding how stars explode into supernovae by studying the neutrinos that stream out from them during the explosion.”

Coan also is involved in another massive particle detector in northern Minnesota knows as NOvA, where he is a principal investigator.

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Dallas Fed, SMU and consortium to establish new Federal Statistical Research Data Center

The center will advance scientific knowledge, improve data quality and inform policy in fields ranging from the social, behavioral and economic sciences to health professions, urban planning and engineering.

A consortium of institutions led by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and the University of Texas at Dallas will partner with the U.S. Census Bureau to establish the Dallas-Fort Worth Federal Statistical Research Data Center.

The DFW 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 and UT Dallas, the consortium includes UT Arlington, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Southern Methodist University, 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.

“There is significant demand in the region for this center,” said Di. “Since researchers need to be physically present to access the data, housing the center at the Dallas Fed will provide excellent security, easy accessibility and collaboration opportunities to a large research community.”

The new data center will encourage greater use of federal statistical data among faculty, researchers and graduate students in the many diverse research institutions in the DFW area, including traditional universities and health institutions. It will also provide access to West Texas and the Panhandle, as well as parts of Oklahoma. In addition, two major airports in the area provide convenient gateways for researchers in the region as well as nationally.

The research data center program is administered by the Census Bureau’s Center for Economic Studies. More information about the FSRDCs is available at https://www.census.gov/fsrdc. — Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas

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D CEO: Why You Need to Know Suku Nair

The director of the new AT&T Center for Virtualization at SMU will drive crucial technical research and help create a knowledgeable North Texas employee base.

D Magazine’s D CEO profiled longtime SMU faculty member Suku Nair, a professor in the SMU Department of Computer Science and Engineering in the Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering.

Nair has been named director of the AT&T Center for Virtualization at SMU. He is an internationally recognized authority on cyber security and reliable computing and communication, and founding director of the HACNet (High Assurance Computing and Networking) Lab at SMU.

AT&T and SMU in December 2016 announced the two would collaborate in a unique new research center that would deliver solutions to critical industry needs, educate the next generation of virtualized network technology experts and support Dallas’ emergence as a global information technology hub.

A $2.5 million contribution from AT&T to SMU endows the AT&T Center for Virtualization and funds its research to support the fast, reliable cloud-based telecommunications necessary for global connectivity.

Nair said at the time of the announcement that “AT&T is a leader in providing connectivity for a wide variety of resources, both on and off the cloud, requiring deployment of hundreds of thousands of complex, expensive routers. The cost comes down and the system becomes more agile and efficient if the routers can be simplified by putting the intelligence that makes them work on the cloud.”

Through the AT&T Center for Virtualization, students will leave SMU not just with textbook knowledge, but with knowledge earned through hands-on research carried out in partnership with industry. Equally important, the center will be a critical resource in Dallas as the city continues to evolve as a global information technology hub.

Read the full story.

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By Danielle Abril
D CEO

Because he will spearhead technical research that could become essential to doing business in the future. He also will help provide North Texas companies with a technologically well-versed talent pool.

As director of the new AT&T Center for Virtualization at Southern Methodist University, Nair, 53, will be at the center of understanding some of tomorrow’s biggest technology challenges. And, with a $2.5 million endowment from AT&T, his center’s research will help companies across industries migrate from hardware and launch software- and cloud-based systems to increase efficiency, accessibility, and reliability.

Nair plans to work side by side at the center with companies like AT&T, which aims to commission research as it seeks out solutions to create stronger global connectivity. If all goes as expected at the new venture, Dallas could emerge as a hub for information technology, heavy with talent, companies, and research.

“This is going to be a forum for universities, industries, and government to come and freely exchange ideas,” Nair says, adding that “everyone” is dealing now with virtualization issues in business. “We have the track record, and we are in the right place and the right time.”

Nair has been working at SMU since 1990, when he joined the university as a professor in computer science and engineering. The Illinois transplant quickly recognized Dallas-Fort Worth’s robust business environment and knew he wanted to play an integral role in research for some of the largest local firms.

The Telecom Corridor in Richardson was alive and well back then, and Nair was able to land his first research contract with Alcatel in 1993. He also helped SMU launch its cybersecurity program, which has since received nearly $10 million in endowments and funding. Over the years Nair has generated several million dollars in research for companies. “Sometimes they’ll have some technology problems they want to solve,” says Nair, who brings his SMU students into the process of researching possible solutions. “It’s a very cost-effective means of doing research, and it trains students to be hired.”

The AT&T research center will be located in the Gerald J. Ford Research Building, which will be built at SMU with help of a $15 million endowment from Gerald J. Ford, Kelli O. Ford, and The Gerald J. Ford Family Foundation. The timing and location for the building, which will highlight the center on the ground floor, is still being determined. The center currently operates out of temporary space at SMU’s east campus, across from U.S. Highway 75. Nair expects the center to attract companies from the region, state, and beyond, as it delves into a topic with broad appeal and an increasingly more powerful impact.

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New York Times: Blade Runner Tests Limits of Prosthetics, Years After Oscar Pistorius

Track-and-field rules regarding athletes with prosthetic limbs remain gray, even nonexistent.

The New York Times reporter Filip Bondy interviewed SMU biomechanics expert Peter Weyand of the SMU Locomotor Laboratory, for a story about Hunter Woodhall, an 18-year-old athlete with prosthetic limbs competing against top scholastic stars in the United States.

Weyand, who is Glenn Simmons Professor of Applied Physiology and professor of biomechanics in the Department of Applied Physiology and Wellness in SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, is director of the Locomotor Lab.

An expert on human locomotion and the mechanics of running, Weyand has been widely interviewed about the controversy surrounding double-amputee South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Controversy has swirled around the sprinter over whether his light-weight, carbon-fiber prosthetic “Cheetah” legs give him a competitive advantage.

Weyand helped lead a team of scientists who are experts in biomechanics and physiology in conducting experiments on Pistorius and the mechanics of his racing ability.

For his most recently published research, Weyand was part of a team that developed a concise approach to understanding the mechanics of human running. The research has immediate application for running performance, injury prevention, rehab and the individualized design of running shoes, orthotics and prostheses. The work integrates classic physics and human anatomy to link the motion of individual runners to their patterns of force application on the ground — during jogging, sprinting and at all speeds in between.

The New York Times article, “Blade Runner Tests Limits of Prosthetics, Years After Oscar Pistorius,” published March 13, 2017.

Read the full story.

EXCERPT:

By Filip Bondy
The New York Times

A decade after Oscar Pistorius caused track-and-field officials to re-examine their rules regarding the use of prosthetic limbs at the Olympics, a high school amputee is running in open competition on similar carbon-fiber blades. And once again, guidelines are gray, even nonexistent.

The athlete, Hunter Woodhall, 18, from Syracuse, Utah, is at the Armory track in Manhattan to run in an invitational, 400-meter heat on Saturday at the New Balance Nationals Indoor, competing against the top scholastic stars in the country.

One of the youngest competitors at the Rio Paralympics, Woodhall won silver in the 200-meter competition at 21.12 seconds and bronze in the 400 with a personal-best 46.70. He also appeared to capture gold while anchoring the 4×100 relay, but the United States team was disqualified over an exchange violation on an earlier leg.

Amid these successes, background grumbling appears to have increased in connection with his eligibility for open competitions.

Woodhall has such a winsome personality, it is impossible to imagine anyone complaining to his face about anything. The meet directors are thrilled to have him participate. But there are no hard-and-fast rules regarding the eligibility of bladed runners at scholastic or collegiate levels, and the scientific debate has never been fully settled about whether the prosthetics offer a competitor some unfair advantage.

“When something different comes along, people want an answer,” Woodall said. He added that “staying away’’ from the whole debate might be the best alternative.

“Fighting this war is not going to go anywhere,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m not a scientist, they’re not a scientist, we’re not going to come to a consensus. I just put in the work.”

A decade ago, long before he was convicted in the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, Pistorius was effectively banned from open competition by the International Association of Athletics Federations. The group in 2007 prohibited any device that “incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage.”

After further testing at Sport University Cologne, in Germany, on behalf of the I.A.A.F., a report concluded that Pistorius’s legs were using 25 percent less energy than those of “able-bodied” runners. He was declared ineligible for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

That ban was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, after further testing at Rice University resulted in a paper for the Journal of Applied Physiology contending that Pistorius was “mechanically dissimilar” to competitors racing on legs, moving his body differently.

Even the scientists involved in the Rice study could not come to complete agreement, however. According to a report in Scientific American, Peter Weyand, a physiologist at Southern Methodist University, believed Pistorius had a mechanical edge. A biomechanics expert, Rodger Kram from the University of Colorado, contended that Pistorius’s artificial limbs created as many problems as advantages.

The court ruled that the testing in Cologne had not factored in the disadvantages of Pistorius’s motion around a curve, or his problems at the start of a race. (These are also the elements of every competition that present the greatest challenges to Woodhall.) Pistorius was eventually selected to participate for South Africa in the 2012 Olympics in London.

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New study connects running motion to ground force, provides patterns for any runner

New approach simplifies the physics of running, enabling scientists to predict ground force patterns; applies to rehab, shoe design and athletic performance.

Researchers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, have developed a concise approach to understanding the mechanics of human running. The research has immediate application for running performance, injury prevention, rehab and the individualized design of running shoes, orthotics and prostheses. The work integrates classic physics and human anatomy to link the motion of individual runners to their patterns of force application on the ground – during jogging, sprinting and at all speeds in between.

Researchers at Southern Methodist University in Dallas have developed a concise new explanation for the basic mechanics involved in human running.

The approach offers direct insight into the determinants of running performance and injuries, and could enable the use of individualized gait patterns to optimize the design of shoes, orthoses and prostheses according to biomechanics experts Kenneth Clark , Laurence Ryan and Peter Weyand, who authored the new study.

The ground force-time patterns determine the body’s motion coming out of each step and therefore directly determine running performance. The impact portion of the pattern is also believed to be a critical factor for running injuries.

“The human body is mechanically complex, but our new study indicates that the pattern of force on the ground can be accurately understood from the motion of just two body parts,” said Clark, first author on the study and currently an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

“The foot and the lower leg stop abruptly upon impact, and the rest of the body above the knee moves in a characteristic way,” Clark said. “This new simplified approach makes it possible to predict the entire pattern of force on the ground — from impact to toe-off — with very basic motion data.”

This new “two-mass model” from the SMU investigators substantially reduces the complexity of existing scientific explanations of the physics of running.

Existing explanations have generally relied upon relatively elaborate “multi-mass spring models” to explain the physics of running, but this approach is known to have significant limitations. These complex models were developed to evaluate rear-foot impacts at jogging speeds and only predict the early portion of the force pattern. In addition, they are less clearly linked to the human body itself. They typically divide the body into four or more masses and include numerous other variables that are hard to link to the actual parts of a human body.

The SMU model offers new insight by providing concise, accurate predictions of the ground force vs. time patterns throughout each instant of the contact period. It does so regardless of limb mechanics, foot-strike type and running speed.

“Our model inputs are limited to contact time on the ground, time in the air, and the motion of the ankle or lower limb. From three basic stride variables we are able to predict the full pattern of ground-force application,” said Ryan, who is a physicist and research engineer at SMU’s Locomotor Performance Laboratory.

“The approach opens up inexpensive ways to predict the ground reaction forces and tissue loading rates. Runners and other athletes can know the answer to the critical functional question of how they are contacting and applying force to the ground.” added Ryan.

Current methods for assessing patterns of ground force application require expensive in-ground force platforms or force treadmills. Additionally, the links between the motions of an athlete’s body parts and ground forces have previously been difficult to reduce to basic and accurate explanations.

The researchers describe their new two-mass model of the physics of running in the article, “A general relationship links gait mechanics and running ground reaction forces,” published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

“From both a running performance and injury risk standpoint, many investigations over the last 15 years have focused on the link between limb motion and force application,” said Weyand, who is the director of SMU’s Locomotor Performance Laboratory. “We’re excited that this research can shed light on this basic relationship.”

Overall force-time pattern is the sum of two parts
Traditional scientific explanations of foot-ground forces have utilized different types of spring and mass models ranging from complex to very simple. However, the existing models have not been able to fully account for all of the variation present in the force-time patterns of different runners — particularly at speeds faster than jogging. Consequently, a comprehensive basis for assessing performance differences, injury risks and general running mechanics has not been previously available.

The SMU researchers explain that the basic concept of the new approach is relatively simple — a runner’s pattern of force application on the ground is due to the motion of two parts of the body: the lower portion of the leg that is contacting the ground, and the sum total of the rest of the body.

The force contributions of the two body parts are each predicted from their largely independent, respective motions during the foot-ground contact period. The two force contributions are then combined to predict the overall pattern. The final prediction relies only upon classical physics and a characteristic link between the force and motion for the two body parts.

New approach can be applied accurately and inexpensively
The application of the two-mass approach is direct and immediate.

“Scientists, clinicians and performance specialists can directly apply the new information using the predictive approach provided in the manuscript,” Clark said. “The new science is well-suited to assessing patterns of ground-force application by athletes on running tracks and in performance training centers.”

These capabilities have not been possible previously, much less in the inexpensive and accurate manner that the new approach allows for with existing technology.

“The only requirement is a quality high-speed camera or decent motion sensor and our force-motion algorithms,” Clark said. “It’s conceivable that even shoe stores would benefit by implementing basic treadmill assessments to guide footwear selection from customer’s gait mechanics using the approach.”

A critical breakthrough for the SMU researchers was recognition that the mass contribution of the lower leg did not vary for heel vs. forefoot strikes and was directly quantifiable. Their efforts lead them to recognize the initial force contribution results from the quick stopping of the lower part of the leg — the shin, ankle and foot — which all come down and stop together when the foot hits the ground.

Olympic sprinters were a clue to discovery
The SMU team discovered a general way to quantify the impact forces from the large impacts observed from Olympic-caliber sprinters. Like heel strikers, the patterns of Olympic sprinters exhibit a sharp rising edge peak that results from an abrupt deceleration of the foot and lower leg. However, sprinters accomplish this with forefoot impacts rather than the heel-first landing that most joggers use.

“The world-class sprinters gave us a big signal to figure out the critical determinants of the shape of the waveform,” said Weyand. “Without their big impact forces, we would probably have not been able to recognize that the ground-force patterns of all runners, regardless of their foot-strike mechanics and running speed, have two basic parts.”

When the researchers first began to analyze the seemingly complicated force waveform signals, they found that they were actually composed of two very simple overlapping waveforms, Ryan said.

“Our computer generated the best pattern predictions when the timing of the first waveform coincided with the high-speed video of the ankle stopping on impact. This was true to within a millisecond, every single time. And we did it hundreds of times,” he said. “So we knew we had a direct physical relationship between force and motion that provided a critical insight.”

New approach has potential to diagnose injury, rehab
The SMU team’s new concise waveforms potentially have diagnostic possibilities, Weyand said.

For example, a runner’s pre-injury waveforms could be compared to their post-injury and post-rehab waveforms.

“You could potentially identify the asymmetries of runners with tibial stress fractures, Achilles tendonitis or other injuries by comparing the force patterns of their injured and healthy legs,” he said.

And while medical images could suggest the injury has healed, their waveforms might tell a different story.

“The waveform patterns might show the athlete continues to run with less force on the injured limb. So it may offer an inexpensive diagnostic tool that was not previously available,” Weyand said.

Weyand is Glenn Simmons Professor of Applied Physiology and professor of biomechanics in the Department of Applied Physiology and Wellness in SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.

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D Magazine Dallas Innovates: SMU Students Taking Wireless Vehicle Tech to the Streets

Researchers at Southern Methodist University are putting many Smart Car/Smart City theories to real-world tests.

Reporter Dave Moore with Dallas Innovates covered the research of Khaled Abdelghany in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department of the SMU Lyle School of Engineering. Abdelghany is an associate professor and chair of the department.

His research focuses on advanced traffic management systems, intermodal transportation networks, airlines scheduling and irregular operations, and crowd dynamics. The article, “SMU Students Taking Wireless Vehicle Tech to the Streets,” published Jan. 18, 2017.

Read the full story.

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By Dave Moore
Dallas Innovates

In urban areas, trips by cars and trucks are often unpleasant (and all-too-familiar) adventures in avoiding accidents, potholes, construction zones, and other drivers.

Researchers at Southern Methodist University are developing technologies that allow vehicles, traffic signals, and even construction signs to share information, to reduce unwanted surprises and drama on roadways.

While what Khaled Abdelghany and his team of researchers is up to sounds incredibly complex (because it is), the net result might lead drivers to do something as simple as stopping for a cup of coffee instead of sitting in traffic caused by an accident.

“With the information we’ve been collecting, perhaps someday, you will receive a message in your car that says ‘There’s congestion ahead; why don’t you stop and get a Starbucks?’ ” said Abdelghany, an associate professor in SMU’s Lyle Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.

Abdelghany is working on the project with four students in his department, and is collaborating with Dinesh Rajan and Joseph Camp, who are professors in SMU’s Lyle Electrical Engineering Department.

RESOLVING URBAN PROBLEMS WITH SMART TECH
Their research is part of a larger initiative to resolve long-standing urban problems.

SMU, the University of Texas at Dallas, and the University of Texas at Arlington are taking part in a nationwide effort — called MetroLab Network — to solve lingering urban problems by pairing university researchers with cities and counties seeking solutions.

Launched by the White House in 2015, the MetroLab Network includes 34 cities, three counties, and 44 universities, organized into 30 regional city-university partnerships.

The Texas Research Alliance is coordinating research efforts locally. The resulting technology developed in North Texas is intended to be deployed at some point in Downtown Dallas’ West End, and, perhaps, scaled regionally or nationwide.

Abdelghany and his students chose to tackle the problem of traffic congestion for their MetroLab project in part because they had already been working on various iterations of the issue.

Over the past several years, Abdelghany has collected Dallas-area traffic data, for purposes of predicting future traffic jams, and to help develop strategies for routing traffic around tie-ups when they happen.

Read the full story.

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Fast Company: Why Higher Education Needs Design Thinking

Research professor Kate Canales believes design is crucial to disrupting higher education, and the timing has never been better.

Fast Company reporter Doreen Lorenzo interviewed Kate Canales, a research professor and the director of design and innovation programs at SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering.

Canales spoke to Lorenzo as part of Co.Design’s “Designing Women,” a series of interviews with inspiring women in the design industry. The interview published Dec. 7, 2016.

Canales oversees the popular Innovation Gymnasium and serves as Director of the new Master of Arts in Design & Innovation (MADI) program. She has a background in mechanical engineering, product design and design research. Much of her recent work focuses on building creative capacity inside organizations. She studies and teaches the ways we innovate on the basis of human needs and behavior, and is responsible for integrating empathy and creativity into the technical engineering curriculum. Kate teaches several design courses including Human-Centered Design and Building Creative Confidence.

She has worked as a designer and design researcher at IDEO and as a Creative Director at frog design, both internationally recognized leaders in the field of design and innovation.

Canales holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University. Her writing on human-centered design has appeared in GOOD magazine, The Atlantic, and The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science.

Read the full story.

EXCERPT:

By Doreen Lorenzo
Fast Company

Doreen Lorenzo: How did you end up where you are today? Did you go directly to academia or did you jump into design first?

Kate Canales: I started my early professional career at Ideo, right out of college. I grew up there over eight years. As a designer, Ideo is my hometown. Then after a couple of years working freelance, I joined frog design in Austin as a principal designer and then a creative director. In 2012 I joined SMU. Although that turn looks a little abrupt, in my heart it really made sense. I had been evolving to support work that did not just deliver great design to clients, but helped clients become more design-led. When SMU called and asked me to help them develop a design program, it was something that made a lot of sense to me. It felt like a natural progression.

Did you go to school for design?
My degree is in mechanical engineering, but I pursued a minor in studio art. Truly, I didn’t feel stirred by either one of those independently, but in the place where those two things overlapped I found a lot of fulfillment. That was design.My degree is in mechanical engineering, but I pursued a minor in studio art. Truly, I didn’t feel stirred by either one of those independently, but in the place where those two things overlapped I found a lot of fulfillment. That was design.

Let’s talk about this phenomenon that’s called design thinking. Why is it so important?
In our program at SMU, we’ve chosen to use the term human-centered design, which overlaps dramatically with what people mean when they say design thinking.

Design thinking emerged as a topic when we all started applying design methodology to problems that hadn’t traditionally presented themselves as design problems. For instance, using design as a problem-solving framework to understand how students might interact more effectively with online courses. That kind of problem might not have looked like a design problem previously. What we’ve learned is that design pairs really well with other ways of working.

Read the full story.

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Corporal punishment viewed as more acceptable and effective when referred to as spanking, study finds

Parents and nonparents alike buffer their views of physical discipline and rate it more common, acceptable and effective when it’s labeled with a more neutral, less violent word

Parents and nonparents alike feel better about corporal punishment when it’s called ‘spanking’ rather than ‘hitting’ or ‘beating,’ according to a new study by researchers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

Study participants judged identical acts of a child’s misbehavior and the corporal punishment that followed it, but rated the discipline as better or worse simply depending on the verb used to describe it.

Discipline acts referred to as spank and swat were ranked as more effective and acceptable than those referred to as slap, hit or beat.

The findings of the study indicate that people buffer negative views of corporal punishment by calling it by a more culturally acceptable label, said psychologist Alan Brown, psychology professor at SMU and lead author on the research.

“Our findings suggest that the way child-discipline is described may alter the action’s implied intensity or physical harm, and its consequences such as emotional upset,” Brown said. “Calling a response to misbehavior a ‘swat’ may imply higher prevalence of that response as well as make it seem more justifiable and valid — even if the actual punishment is the same as an act described more harshly.”

Participants in the study rated the acts after reading and responding to hypothetical scenarios in which a mom disciplined her misbehaving son. Spank rated highest for commonness, acceptability and effectiveness, while beat ranked the worst, he said.

“The labels that we give to our experiences can have a moderate to profound influence on how we interpret and remember these events,” Brown said. “We found that altering the verb used to describe an act of corporal punishment can change perception of its effectiveness and acceptance of it.”

One implication of the study is that public health interventions to eliminate corporal punishment should focus on changing the semantics of discipline to reduce or prevent violence, say the authors. They cite UNICEF’s 2014 recommendation that “There is a need to eliminate words which maintain ‘social norms that hide violence in plain sight.’”

The psychologists endorse replacing the verb spank with the verb assault, as suggested by other researchers in the field, which they say could change the perception of spanking and reduce its use.

Labels can buffer how actions are perceived
Research consistently has found that corporal punishment does emotional and developmental harm to children and fails to improve a child’s behavior over the long run.

“Our belief is that it is never OK to discipline a child by striking them, and that various terms commonly used to describe such actions can buffer how these actions are perceived,” Brown said. “Our research demonstrated that ratings of how common, acceptable and effective an act of corporal punishment appears to be is significantly influenced by the word used to describe it.”

Co-author on the study was psychologist George Holden, a noted expert on parenting, discipline and family violence and co-author on the research and a professor in the SMU Department of Psychology.

The findings were reported in the article “Spank, Slap, or Hit? How Labels Alter Perceptions of Child Discipline” published in the journal Psychology of Violence.

The other co-author on the research was Rose Ashraf, a graduate student in SMU’s Department of Psychology.

Holden is a founding steering committee member and current president of the U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children.

Study examined how different terms influence perceptions and actions
Participants were 191 nonparents and 481 parents.

The discipline scenarios were between a mom and her 5-year-old son. The mom and son varied with each scenario, which described a boy in eight acts of misbehavior: aggression, stealing, ignoring requests, deception, teasing, property destruction, animal cruelty and lying.

Study participants read each vignette of misbehavior, and the subsequent description of the mom’s response using a term commonly reflecting corporal punishment: spank, slap, swat, hit and beat.

The authors selected the labels from the most commonly used terms in the research literature for corporal punishment in American culture.

The hypothetical scenarios were brief and left context and details such as the seriousness of the transgression or the intentions of the misbehaving child to the respondents’ imaginations.

For example: “John continues to hit his sibling after his mother has asked him to stop. John’s mother ______ him.” The participants then rated the mother’s response on how common it was, how acceptable it was and how effective it was.

The purpose was to examine how differences in the terms influence perceptions of parental discipline, the authors said.

“Our study highlights the role of language in legitimizing violent parental behavior,” according to the authors in their article. “Altering the verb used to describe the same act of corporal punishment can have a substantial impact on how that parental response is evaluated, with some terms having a relative tempering effect (spank, swat) compared with others (hit, slap, beat).”

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Geohazard: Giant sinkholes near West Texas oil patch towns are growing — as new ones lurk

Satellite radar images reveal ground movement of infamous sinkholes near Wink, Texas; suggest the two existing holes are expanding, and new ones are forming as nearby subsidence occurs at an alarming rate.

Residents of Wink and neighboring Kermit have grown accustomed to the two giant sinkholes that sit between their small West Texas towns.

But now radar images taken of the sinkholes by an orbiting space satellite reveal big changes may be on the horizon.

A new study by geophysicists at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, finds the massive sinkholes are unstable, with the ground around them subsiding, suggesting the holes could pose a bigger hazard sometime in the future.

The two sinkholes — about a mile apart — appear to be expanding. Additionally, areas around the existing sinkholes are unstable, with large areas of subsidence detected via satellite radar remote sensing.

That leaves the possibility that new sinkholes, or one giant sinkhole, may form, said geophysicists and study co-authors Zhong Lu, professor, Shuler-Foscue Chair, and Jin-Woo Kim research scientist, in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU.

“This area is heavily populated with oil and gas production equipment and installations, hazardous liquid pipelines, as well as two communities. The intrusion of freshwater to underground can dissolve the interbedded salt layers and accelerate the sinkhole collapse,” said Kim, who leads the SMU geophysical team reporting the findings. “A collapse could be catastrophic. Following our study, we are collecting more high-resolution satellite data over the sinkholes and neighboring regions to monitor further development and collapse.”

Lu and Kim reported the findings in the scientific journal Remote Sensing, in the article “Ongoing deformation of sinkholes in Wink, Texas, observed by time-series Sentinel-1A SAR Interferometry.”

The research was supported by the U.S. Geological Survey Land Remote Sensing Program, the NASA Earth Surface & Interior Program, and the Shuler-Foscue Endowment at Southern Methodist University.

Unstable ground linked to rising, falling groundwater
The sinkholes were originally caused by the area’s prolific oil and gas extraction, which peaked from 1926 to 1964. Wink Sink No. 1, near the Hendricks oil well 10-A, opened in 1980. Wink Sink No. 2, near Gulf WS-8 supply well, opened 22 years later in 2002.

It appears the area’s unstable ground now is linked to changing groundwater levels and dissolving minerals, say the scientists. A deep-seated salt bed underlies the area, part of the massive oil-rich Permian Basin of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico.

With the new data, the SMU geophysicists found a high correlation between groundwater level in the underlying aquifer and further sinking of the surface area during the summer months, influenced by successive roof failures in underlying cavities.

Satellite images and groundwater records indicate that when groundwater levels rise, the ground lifts. But the presence of that same groundwater then speeds the dissolving of the underground salt, which then causes the ground surface to subside.

Everything’s bigger in Texas, and the Wink sinkholes are no exception
Officials have fenced off the two sinkholes near Wink, a town of about 940 people, and Kermit, a town of about 6,000 people. The giant holes are notable features on the area’s vast plains, which are dotted mostly with oil pump jacks, storage facilities, occasional brush and mesquite trees.

Based on modeling of satellite image datasets, SMU’s researchers report that Wink Sink No. 1, which is closer to the town of Kermit, appears to be the most unstable. The smaller hole of the two, it has grown to 361 feet (110 meters) across — the length of a football field.

“Even though Wink No. 1 collapsed in 1980, its neighboring areas are still subsiding,” say the authors, “and the sinkhole continues to expand.” An oval-shaped deformation circling the sinkhole measures three-tenths of a mile (500 meters) wide and is subsiding up to 1.6 inches (4 centimeters) a year.

Wink Sink No. 2, which is nine-tenths of a mile south of No. 1 and which sits closer to the town of Wink, is the larger of the sinkholes. It varies from 670 feet to 900 feet across.

Wink No. 2 is not experiencing as much subsidence as Wink No. 1. However, its eastern side is collapsing and eroding westward at a rate of up to 1.2 inches (3 centimeters) a year.

“Wink No. 2 exhibits depression associated with the ongoing expansion of the underground cavity,” the authors report.

Some ground that doesn’t even border the edges of the two sinkholes is also subsiding, the scientists observed. An area more than half a mile (1 kilometer) northeast of No. 2 sank at a rate of 1.6 inches (4 centimeters) in just four months.

Ground northeast of sinkholes is subsiding, suggesting new ones forming
The largest rate of ground subsidence is not at either sinkhole, but at an area about seven-tenths of a mile (1.2 kilometers) northeast of No. 2. Ground there is subsiding at a rate of more than 5 inches (13 centimeters) a year.

It’s aerial extent, the researchers report, has also enlarged over the past eight years when a previous survey was done.

“The enlarged deformation could be an alarming precursor to the potential future development of hazards in the vicinity,” said the authors.

Additionally, ground along a road traveled by oil field vehicles, about a quarter mile (400 meters) directly north of No. 2, is subsiding about 1.2 inches (3 centimeters) a year.

Ground’s movement detected with radar technique
The satellite radar datasets were collected over five months between April 2015 and August 2015. With them, the geophysicists observed both two-dimension east-west deformation of the sinkholes, as well as vertical deformation.

The SMU scientists used a technique called interferometric synthetic aperture radar, or InSAR for short, to detect changes that aren’t visible to the naked eye.

“From 435 miles above the Earth’s surface, this InSAR technique allows us to measure inch-level subsidence on the ground. This is a monumental human achievement, and scientists will not stop endeavoring to improve this technique for more precise measurements,” said Lu, who is world-renowned for leading scientists in InSAR applications. Lu is a member of the Science Definition Team for the dedicated U.S. and Indian NASA-ISRO InSAR mission, set for launch in 2020 to study hazards and global environmental change.

InSAR accesses a series of images captured by a read-out radar instrument mounted on the orbiting satellite Sentinel-1A. Sentinel-1A was launched in April 2014 as part of the European Union’s Copernicus program.

Simply put, Sentinel-1A bounces a radar signal off the earth, then records the signal as it bounces back, delivering measurements. The measurements allow geophysicists to determine the distance from the satellite to the ground, revealing how features on the Earth’s surface change over time.

“Sinkhole formation has previously been unpredictable, but satellite remote sensing provides a great means to detect the expansion of the current sinkholes and possible development of new sinkholes,” said Kim. “Monitoring the sinkholes and modeling the rate of change can help predict potential sinkhole development.”

Sentinel-1A data were obtained from Sentinels Scientific Data Hub – Copernicus. Groundwater well data came from the Texas Water Development Board. — Margaret Allen, SMU

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Wildfire on warming planet requires adaptive capacity at local, national, int’l scales

In some parts of the world, “fire adaptive communities” have learned to live compatibly with wildfire — in some cases for centuries or millennia.

Industrialized nations that view wildfire as the enemy have much to learn from people in some parts of the world who have learned to live compatibly with wildfire, says a team of fire research scientists.

The interdisciplinary team say there is much to be learned from these “fire-adaptive communities” and they are calling on policy makers to tap that knowledge, particularly in the wake of global warming.

Such a move is critical as climate change makes some landscapes where fire isn’t the norm even more prone to fire, say the scientists in a new report published in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

“We tend to treat modern fire problems as unique, and new to our planet,” said fire anthropologist Christopher Roos, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, lead author of the report. “As a result, we have missed the opportunity to recognize the successful properties of communities that have a high capacity to adapt to living in flammable landscapes — in some cases for centuries or millennia.“

One such society is the ethnically Basque communities in the French Western Pyrenees, who practice fire management to maintain seasonally flammable grassland, shrub and woodland patches for forage and grazing animals. But the practice is slowly being lost as young people leave farming.

Additionally, Aboriginal people in the grasslands of Western Australia use fire as part of their traditional hunting practices. Children begin burning at a very young age, and the everyday practice is passed down. These fires improve hunting successes but also reduce the impact of drought on the size and ecological severity of lightning fires.

Social institutions support individual benefits, preserve common good
Fire-adaptive communities have social institutions in place that support individual benefits from fire-maintained landscapes while preserving the common good, said Roos, whose fire research includes long-term archaeological and ecological partnerships with the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico.

“These institutions have been shaped by long-histories with wildfire, appropriate fire-use, and the development of social mechanisms to adjudicate conflicts of interest,” said Roos, an associate professor in the SMU Department of Anthropology. “There is a wealth of tried and tested information that should be considered in designing local fire management.”

The authors note that globally, a large number of people use fire as a tool to sustain livelihoods in ways that have been handed down across many generations. These include indigenous Australians and North Americans, South Asian forest dwellers, European farmers, and also hunters, farmers and herders in tropical savannahs.

Global Warming will likely bring new fire problems, more flammable landscapes
Global Warming will likely bring new fire problems, such as making some landscapes more flammable, Roos said. More effort will be required to balance conflicting fire management practices between adjacent cultures. Currently most fire-related research tends to be undertaken by physical or biological scientists from Europe, the United States and Australia. Often the research treats fire challenges as exclusively contemporary phenomena for which history is either absent or irrelevant.

“We need national policy that recognizes these dynamic challenges and that will support local solutions and traditional fire knowledge, while providing ways to disseminate scientific information about fire,” Roos said.

The authors point out that one of the greatest policy challenges of fire on a warming planet are the international consequences of smoke plumes and potential positive feedbacks on climate through carbon emissions. Most infamously, wildfire smoke plumes have had extraordinary health impacts during Southeast Asian “haze” events, which result in increased hospitalization and mortality in the region.

Not all fire is a disaster; we must learn to live with and manage fire
Carbon emissions from wildfires can be as much as 40 percent of fossil fuel emissions in any given year over the last decade. Although only deforestation fires and land conversion are a net carbon source to the atmosphere, the contribution of wildfires to global carbon emissions is non-trivial and should be a formal component of international climate dialogs.

“It is important to emphasize that not all fire is a disaster and we must learn how to both live with as well as manage fire,” said co-author Andrew Scott, earth sciences professor at Royal Holloway University of London.

The report, “Living on a flammable planet: interdisciplinary, cross-scalar and varied cultural lessons, prospects and challenges,” was published May 23, 2016 by The Royal Society, the U.K.’s independent scientific academy.

Authors call for holistic study of fire on Earth
The authors are from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Spain. The synthesis emerged from four days of international meetings sponsored by the Royal Society – the first of its kind for fire sciences.

The authors advocate for greater collaboration among researchers studying all aspects of fire.

Pyrogeography — the holistic study of fire on Earth , “may be one way to provide unity to the varied fire research programs across the globe,” the authors write.

“Fire researchers across disciplines from engineering, the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities need to develop a common language to create a holistic wildfire science,” said Roos. “The magnitude of the wildfire challenges we face on a warming planet will demand greater collaboration and integration across disciplines, but our job won’t be done unless we are also able to translate our research for policymakers, land managers, and the general public.”

Other co-authors on the scientific paper include Andrew C. Scott, Claire M. Belcher, William G. Chaloner, Jonathan Aylen, Rebecca Bliege Bird, Michael R. Coughlan, Bart R. Johnson, Fay H. Johnston, Julia McMorrow, Toddi Steelman, and the Fire and Mankind Discussion Group. — Southern Methodist University