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SMU 2015 research efforts broadly noted in a variety of ways for world-changing impact

SMU scientists and their research have a global reach that is frequently noted, beyond peer publications and media mentions.

By Margaret Allen
SMU News & Communications

It was a good year for SMU faculty and student research efforts. Here is a small sampling of public and published acknowledgements during 2015:

Simmons, Diego Roman, SMU, education

Hot topic merits open access
Taylor & Francis, publisher of the online journal Environmental Education Research, lifted its subscription-only requirement to meet demand for an article on how climate change is taught to middle-schoolers in California.

Co-author of the research was Diego Román, assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.

Román’s research revealed that California textbooks are teaching sixth graders that climate change is a controversial debate stemming from differing opinions, rather than a scientific conclusion based on rigorous scientific evidence.

The article, “Textbooks of doubt: Using systemic functional analysis to explore the framing of climate change in middle-school science textbooks,” published in September. The finding generated such strong interest that Taylor & Francis opened access to the article.


Research makes the cover of Biochemistry
Drugs important in the battle against cancer were tested in a virtual lab by SMU biology professors to see how they would behave in the human cell.

A computer-generated composite image of the simulation made the Dec. 15 cover of the journal Biochemistry.

Scientific articles about discoveries from the simulation were also published in the peer review journals Biochemistry and in Pharmacology Research & Perspectives.

The researchers tested the drugs by simulating their interaction in a computer-generated model of one of the cell’s key molecular pumps — the protein P-glycoprotein, or P-gp. Outcomes of interest were then tested in the Wise-Vogel wet lab.

The ongoing research is the work of biochemists John Wise, associate professor, and Pia Vogel, professor and director of the SMU Center for Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery in Dedman College. Assisting them were a team of SMU graduate and undergraduate students.

The researchers developed the model to overcome the problem of relying on traditional static images for the structure of P-gp. The simulation makes it possible for researchers to dock nearly any drug in the protein and see how it behaves, then test those of interest in an actual lab.

To date, the researchers have run millions of compounds through the pump and have discovered some that are promising for development into pharmaceutical drugs to battle cancer.

Click here to read more about the research.

SMU, Simpson Rowe, sexual assault, video

Strong interest in research on sexual victimization
Teen girls were less likely to report being sexually victimized after learning to assertively resist unwanted sexual overtures and after practicing resistance in a realistic virtual environment, according to three professors from the SMU Department of Psychology.

The finding was reported in Behavior Therapy. The article was one of the psychology journal’s most heavily shared and mentioned articles across social media, blogs and news outlets during 2015, the publisher announced.

The study was the work of Dedman College faculty Lorelei Simpson Rowe, associate professor and Psychology Department graduate program co-director; Ernest Jouriles, professor; and Renee McDonald, SMU associate dean for research and academic affairs.

The journal’s publisher, Elsevier, temporarily has lifted its subscription requirement on the article, “Reducing Sexual Victimization Among Adolescent Girls: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Trial of My Voice, My Choice,” and has opened it to free access for three months.

Click here to read more about the research.

Consumers assume bigger price equals better quality
Even when competing firms can credibly disclose the positive attributes of their products to buyers, they may not do so.

Instead, they find it more lucrative to “signal” quality through the prices they charge, typically working on the assumption that shoppers think a high price indicates high quality. The resulting high prices hurt buyers, and may create a case for mandatory disclosure of quality through public policy.

That was a finding of the research of Dedman College’s Santanu Roy, professor, Department of Economics. Roy’s article about the research was published in February in one of the blue-ribbon journals, and the oldest, in the field, The Economic Journal.

Published by the U.K.’s Royal Economic Society, The Economic Journal is one of the founding journals of modern economics. The journal issued a media briefing about the paper, “Competition, Disclosure and Signaling,” typically reserved for academic papers of broad public interest.

The Journal of Physical Chemistry A

Chemistry research group edits special issue
Chemistry professors Dieter Cremer and Elfi Kraka, who lead SMU’s Computational and Theoretical Chemistry Group, were guest editors of a special issue of the prestigious Journal of Physical Chemistry. The issue published in March.

The Computational and Theoretical research group, called CATCO for short, is a union of computational and theoretical chemistry scientists at SMU. Their focus is research in computational chemistry, educating and training graduate and undergraduate students, disseminating and explaining results of their research to the broader public, and programming computers for the calculation of molecules and molecular aggregates.

The special issue of Physical Chemistry included 40 contributions from participants of a four-day conference in Dallas in March 2014 that was hosted by CATCO. The 25th Austin Symposium drew 108 participants from 22 different countries who, combined, presented eight plenary talks, 60 lectures and about 40 posters.

CATCO presented its research with contributions from Cremer and Kraka, as well as Marek Freindorf, research assistant professor; Wenli Zou, visiting professor; Robert Kalescky, post-doctoral fellow; and graduate students Alan Humason, Thomas Sexton, Dani Setlawan and Vytor Oliveira.

There have been more than 75 graduate students and research associates working in the CATCO group, which originally was formed at the University of Cologne, Germany, before moving to SMU in 2009.


Vertebrate paleontology recognized with proclamation
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings proclaimed Oct. 11-17, 2015 Vertebrate Paleontology week in Dallas on behalf of the Dallas City Council.

The proclamation honored the 75th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, which was jointly hosted by SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College and the Perot Museum of Science and Nature. The conference drew to Dallas some 1,200 scientists from around the world.

Making research presentations or presenting research posters were: faculty members Bonnie Jacobs, Louis Jacobs, Michael Polcyn, Neil Tabor and Dale Winkler; adjunct research assistant professor Alisa Winkler; research staff member Kurt Ferguson; post-doctoral researchers T. Scott Myers and Lauren Michael; and graduate students Matthew Clemens, John Graf, Gary Johnson and Kate Andrzejewski.

The host committee co-chairs were Anthony Fiorillo, adjunct research professor; and Louis Jacobs, professor. Committee members included Polcyn; Christopher Strganac, graduate student; Diana Vineyard, research associate; and research professor Dale Winkler.

KERA radio reporter Kat Chow filed a report from the conference, explaining to listeners the science of vertebrate paleontology, which exposes the past, present and future of life on earth by studying fossils of animals that had backbones.

SMU earthquake scientists rock scientific journal

Modelled pressure changes caused by injection and production. (Nature Communications/SMU)
Modelled pressure changes caused by injection and production. (Nature Communications/SMU)

Findings by the SMU earthquake team reverberated across the nation with publication of their scientific article in the prestigious British interdisciplinary journal Nature, ranked as one of the world’s most cited scientific journals.

The article reported that the SMU-led seismology team found that high volumes of wastewater injection combined with saltwater extraction from natural gas wells is the most likely cause of unusually frequent earthquakes occurring in the Dallas-Fort Worth area near the small community of Azle.

The research was the work of Dedman College faculty Matthew Hornbach, associate professor of geophysics; Heather DeShon, associate professor of geophysics; Brian Stump, SMU Albritton Chair in Earth Sciences; Chris Hayward, research staff and director geophysics research program; and Beatrice Magnani, associate professor of geophysics.

The article, “Causal factors for seismicity near Azle, Texas,” published online in late April. Already the article has been downloaded nearly 6,000 times, and heavily shared on both social and conventional media. The article has achieved a ranking of 270, which puts it in the 99th percentile of 144,972 tracked articles of a similar age in all journals, and 98th percentile of 626 tracked articles of a similar age in Nature.

It has a very high impact factor for an article of its age,” said Robert Gregory, professor and chair, SMU Earth Sciences Department.

The scientific article also was entered into the record for public hearings both at the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas House Subcommittee on Seismic Activity.

Researchers settle long-debated heritage question of “The Ancient One”

The skull of Kennewick Man and a sculpted bust by StudioEIS based on forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning. (Credit: Brittany Tatchell)
The skull of Kennewick Man and a sculpted bust by StudioEIS based on forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning. (Credit: Brittany Tatchell)

The research of Dedman College anthropologist and Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory David Meltzer played a role in settling the long-debated and highly controversial heritage of “Kennewick Man.”

Also known as “The Ancient One,” the 8,400-year-old male skeleton discovered in Washington state has been the subject of debate for nearly two decades. Argument over his ancestry has gained him notoriety in high-profile newspaper and magazine articles, as well as making him the subject of intense scholarly study.

Officially the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kennewick Man was discovered in 1996 and radiocarbon dated to 8500 years ago.

Because of his cranial shape and size he was declared not Native American but instead ‘Caucasoid,’ implying a very different population had once been in the Americas, one that was unrelated to contemporary Native Americans.

But Native Americans long have claimed Kennewick Man as theirs and had asked for repatriation of his remains for burial according to their customs.

Meltzer, collaborating with his geneticist colleague Eske Willerslev and his team at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, in June reported the results of their analysis of the DNA of Kennewick in the prestigious British journal Nature in the scientific paper “The ancestry and affiliations of Kennewick Man.”

The results were announced at a news conference, settling the question based on first-ever DNA evidence: Kennewick Man is Native American.

The announcement garnered national and international media attention, and propelled a new push to return the skeleton to a coalition of Columbia Basin tribes. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced the Bring the Ancient One Home Act of 2015 and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has offered state assistance for returning the remains to Native Tribes.

Science named the Kennewick work one of its nine runners-up in the highly esteemed magazine’s annual “Breakthrough of the Year” competition.

The research article has been viewed more than 60,000 times. It has achieved a ranking of 665, which puts it in the 99th percentile of 169,466 tracked articles of a similar age in all journals, and in the 94th percentile of 958 tracked articles of a similar age in Nature.

In “Kennewick Man: coming to closure,” an article in the December issue of Antiquity, a journal of Cambridge University Press, Meltzer noted that the DNA merely confirmed what the tribes had known all along: “We are him, he is us,” said one tribal spokesman. Meltzer concludes: “We presented the DNA evidence. The tribal members gave it meaning.”

Click here to read more about the research.

Prehistoric vacuum cleaner captures singular award

Paleontologists Louis L. Jacobs, SMU, and Anthony Fiorillo, Perot Museum, have identified a new species of marine mammal from bones recovered from Unalaska, an Aleutian island in the North Pacific. (Hillsman Jackson, SMU)
Paleontologists Louis L. Jacobs, SMU, and Anthony Fiorillo, Perot Museum, have identified a new species of marine mammal from bones recovered from Unalaska, an Aleutian island in the North Pacific. (Hillsman Jackson, SMU)

Science writer Laura Geggel with Live Science named a new species of extinct marine mammal identified by two SMU paleontologists among “The 10 Strangest Animal Discoveries of 2015.”

The new species, dubbed a prehistoric hoover by London’s Daily Mail online news site, was identified by SMU paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs, a professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, and paleontologist and SMU adjunct research professor Anthony Fiorillo, vice president of research and collections and chief curator at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Jacobs and Fiorillo co-authored a study about the identification of new fossils from the oddball creature Desmostylia, discovered in the same waters where the popular “Deadliest Catch” TV show is filmed. The hippo-like creature ate like a vacuum cleaner and is a new genus and species of the only order of marine mammals ever to go extinct — surviving a mere 23 million years.

Desmostylians, every single species combined, lived in an interval between 33 million and 10 million years ago. Their strange columnar teeth and odd style of eating don’t occur in any other animal, Jacobs said.

SMU campus hosted the world’s premier physicists

The SMU Department of Physics hosted the “23rd International Workshop on Deep Inelastic Scattering and Related Subjects” from April 27-May 1, 2015. Deep Inelastic Scattering is the process of probing the quantum particles that make up our universe.

As noted by the CERN Courier — the news magazine of the CERN Laboratory in Geneva, which hosts the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest science experiment — more than 250 scientists from 30 countries presented more than 200 talks on a multitude of subjects relevant to experimental and theoretical research. SMU physicists presented at the conference.

The SMU organizing committee was led by Fred Olness, professor and chair of the SMU Department of Physics in Dedman College, who also gave opening and closing remarks at the conference. The committee consisted of other SMU faculty, including Jodi Cooley, associate professor; Simon Dalley, senior lecturer; Robert Kehoe, professor; Pavel Nadolsky, associate professor, who also presented progress on experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider; Randy Scalise, senior lecturer; and Stephen Sekula, associate professor.

Sekula also organized a series of short talks for the public about physics and the big questions that face us as we try to understand our universe.

Click here to read more about the research.

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SMU contributes fossils, expertise to new Perot Museum in ongoing scientific collaboration

From dinosaurs to sea turtles, and from technical assistance to advisory roles, SMU faculty and students, the SMU Shuler Museum, and the SMU Innovation Gymnasium have teamed with the nation’s new premier museum of nature and science in Dallas

Fossils on loan by SMU to the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science include those of animals from an ancient sea that once covered Dallas.

The fossils represent a slice of SMU’s scientific collaboration with the Perot Museum and its predecessor, the Dallas Museum of Natural History.

Items from SMU’s scientists include a 35-foot skeletal cast of the African dinosaur Malawisaurus standing sentry in the spacious glass lobby of the Perot, which opened Dec. 1 near downtown Dallas.

“The new museum building itself is an icon, but it’s also a statement by the city about taking the advances of science to the public,” said vertebrate paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs, an SMU Earth Sciences professor, who serves on the Perot Museum’s Advisory Board and Collections Committee.

Jacobs, who was ad interim director of the Dallas Museum of Natural History in 1999, led the team that discovered Malawisaurus in Africa. He provided the cast to the museum.

A 35-foot skeletal cast of the African dinosaur Malawisaurus, discovered by a team led by SMU paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs, is on display at the Perot Museum. (Image: Rich Tate, Alford Media)

“Here at SMU we train students and create new knowledge. The museum’s mission is to take the stories of science out to the general public so they can be used,” said Jacobs. “Anthony Fiorillo, Perot Museum Curator of Earth Sciences, is a world-class scientist with whom we work. We have a junction between the mission, training and knowledge we have here, infused into and enhanced by what the museum does. That’s why the museum is important to SMU and that’s why SMU is important to the museum.”

Fossils on loan are from the collection of the Shuler Museum of Paleontology in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences. SMU scientists provided technical expertise for exhibits and serve on the Perot Museum’s advisory committees.

Also on exhibit from SMU is a miniature unmanned autonomous helicopter designed for fighting fires that was built by SMU engineering students.

Herbivorous dinosaur is exhibited with ancient Texas plant fossils
Shuler Museum fossils can be viewed in the T. Boone Pickens Life Then and Now Hall. They include an unnamed 113 million-year-old herbivorous dinosaur discovered in 1985 at Proctor Lake southwest of Stephenville, Texas.

For perspective on that exhibit’s paleoenvironment in Texas at the time, SMU paleobotanist Bonnie F. Jacobs provided fossil wood, fossil cones, fossil leaves and images of microscopic pollen grains from the Shuler Museum. The fossils provided information used to create a model of an extinct tree to accompany the exhibit.

Fossil cones and leaves discovered in Hood County are from an extinct ancient tree, says SMU paleobotanist Bonnie F. Jacobs. (Image: SMU)

Plant fossils inform scientists of the ecological setting in which dinosaurs lived and died, said Bonnie Jacobs, an SMU associate professor in the Huffington Department. Her collaboration with the Perot’s Fiorillo, who also is an adjunct research professor of paleoecology in the SMU Earth sciences department, includes fossil plants from Alaska.

“Understanding past climate and climate change will help us understand what may happen in the future,” she said. Bonnie Jacobs is featured in a Perot Museum Career Inspirations video that is part of the permanent exhibit and also advised on the text of some exhibits.

“The world of the past is a test case for global climate models, which are computer driven,” she said. “If we can reconstruct climates of the ancient Earth accurately, then we can create better models of what may happen in the future.”

Understanding paleoclimate through fossil soils is the expertise of Neil Tabor, an SMU associate professor in the Earth Sciences Department whose Perot Museum video discusses ancient soils, environments and the biggest extinction event in Earth’s history.

Fossils date from period when D/FW was covered by ancient sea
The plant fossils are from the geologic period called the Cretaceous, from 146 million years ago to 66 million years ago. They were discovered at the prolific Jones Ranch fossil beds southwest of Fort Worth in Hood County.

At that time, the Jones Ranch — famous as the discovery site of Paluxysaurus jonesi, the state dinosaur of Texas — was not far inland from the muddy coastal shore of a vast shallow sea that a dozen years later would divide North America.

Giant fossil sea turtles were discovered in northeast Texas in 2006 by a 5-year-old girl, Preston Smith. SMU paleontologist Diana Vineyard identified the giant turtles as Toxochelys. (Image: SMU)

Other SMU fossils on loan also date from that period. They include sea turtles, as well as mosasaurs, which were ancient sea lizards that evolved flippers and streamlined bodies for life in the sea.

Stunning examples of fossil sea turtles were discovered in 2006 by a 5 year-old girl, Preston Smith, during a family outing along the North Sulphur River near Ladonia in northeast Texas. The turtles were stacked one on top of the other as if caught in sudden death 80 million years ago.

Diana Vineyard, director of administration and research associate at SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man, identified the turtles as Toxochelys while an SMU graduate student.

Also on loan from the Shuler Museum, and also identified by Vineyard, are 110-million-year-old sea turtles from the Early Cretaceous of Texas, discovered near Granbury. They represent early specimens in the transition of turtles from land and shallow marine animals to fully developed sea turtles, Vineyard said.

Exhibit includes mosasaur named for the city of Dallas

A Perot Museum exhibit includes a giant fossil sea turtle discovered in northeast Texas in 2006 by a 5-year-old girl. SMU paleontologist Diana Vineyard identified the giant turtles as Toxochelys. (Image: SMU)

Michael Polcyn, director of SMU’s Digital Earth Sciences Laboratory, put his expertise to work providing technical assistance for the museum’s Ocean Dallas marine reptile exhibit.

An expert in mosasaurs, Polcyn created digital reconstructions of Dallasaurus, named for the city of Dallas, and physically reconstructed the skeletons of Dallasaurus and another mosasaur, Tethysaurus, for the exhibit.

“The Ocean Dallas exhibit was a great opportunity to showcase the extraordinary story that the rocks in the Dallas area tell us about life in the deep past,” said Polcyn, whose mosasaur fieldwork extends from the United States to Angola.

“It was a great experience working with the museum’s creative and technical professionals on this project,” Polcyn said, “but it should be mentioned that many of the fossils in the exhibit were found by interested citizens walking the local creeks and rivers in search of these beasts, and it is they who deserve tremendous credit for bringing these finds to the public.”

Polcyn, who also is featured in a Perot Museum Career Inspirations video, created a skull reconstruction of the Perot Museum’s duck-billed dinosaur Protohadros, named by former SMU doctoral student Jason Head.

Other SMU fossils include dino footprint, croc egg and giant ammonite

The ammonite Parapuzosia, more than 3 feet in diameter and discovered in Dallas County, is on loan from SMU’s Shuler Museum to the Perot Museum.

SMU vertebrate paleontologist Dale A. Winkler, SMU research professor and director of the Shuler Museum, said other fossils on loan include:

  • a rare 110 million-year-old crocodile egg discovered with specimens of the crocodile Pachycheilosuchus trinquei west of Glen Rose. Pachycheilosuchus trinquei was named by Jack Rogers, a former SMU student. Rogers also found and identified the egg.
  • an ammonite, Parapuzosia, more than 3 feet in diameter and discovered in Dallas County.

In 2006, two SMU doctoral students assisted with excavation of the new species of dinosaur named for the museum’s namesakes, Margot and Ross Perot.

The dinosaur, Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum, was discovered by the Perot Museum’s Fiorillo and prepared by Perot Museum researcher Ronald Tykoski.

Using portable 3D laser technology, SMU scientists preserved electronically a rare 110 million-year-old fossilized dinosaur footprint from ichnospecies Eubrontes glenrosensis. The model is on display in the Perot Museum. (Image: SMU)

SMU doctoral student Christopher Strganac and former SMU doctoral student Thomas L. Adams helped dig Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum in Alaska. The only skeletal mount of its kind in the world, the 69 million-year-old skull is on display in the Life Then and Now Hall of the Perot Museum.

Also on view in the museum is a 3D cast of a dinosaur footprint that Adams and Strganac created from the laser scan of a 110 million-year-old fossilized dinosaur footprint, from ichnospecies Eubrontes glenrosensis, that was previously excavated and built into the wall of a bandstand at a Texas courthouse in the 1930s.

Another former SMU doctoral student highlighted among the exhibits is Yoshitsugu Kobayashi, who describes in a video the mentoring he received from the Perot’s Fiorillo while the two worked together in Alaska’s Denali National Park.

SMU’s Shuler Museum is named for Ellis W. Shuler, founder of the University’s geology department. Shuler was a driving force behind the precursor to the Perot Museum, the Dallas Museum of Natural History, established in 1936, said geologist James E. Brooks, SMU professor emeritus and SMU Provost emeritus. Brooks served on the Dallas Museum of Natural History’s board of directors from the 1980s until 2005.

Perot Museum presents a strong scientific face of Dallas
“Any first-rate city needs a strong public scientific face with which it’s identified,” Brooks said. “The Perot Museum is going to be that organization.”

Brooks was instrumental in the negotiations with Egypt that enabled the Dallas Museum of Natural History to bring Ramses the Great, its first major exhibit, to Dallas in 1989.

“Museums, in addition to educating children and the general public, also have the responsibility to generate new knowledge, because that makes the city a more intellectually vibrant place,” he said.

Brooks and Louis Jacobs serve on the Perot Museum’s Collections Committee, which serves in an advisory role to Perot Earth Sciences Curator Fiorillo. He and other SMU faculty and staff collaborate on field expeditions to Alaska and Mongolia.

SMU’s Innovation Gymasium contributes to Perot exhibit

Pegasus, an unmanned autonomous helicopter that can fight fires, was designed and built by Lyle Engineering students under Innovation Gymnasium Director Nathan Huntoon. (Image: SMU)

SMU’s Innovation Gymnasium is featured in an exhibit in the Texas Instruments Engineering and Innovation Hall at the Perot Museum, said Nathan R. Huntoon, director of the Innovation Gymnasium at the SMU Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering.

Central to the Engineering and Innovation Hall exhibit is an unmanned autonomous helicopter that can fight fires, built by SMU engineering students.

The Innovation Gym enables SMU students to hone their engineering and creative skills by working on real world, design challenges. Companies, researchers and non-profits all provide real challenges for the students to develop innovative solutions, often under intense time and financial pressure.

The firefighting helicopter featured in the new museum was the first such project.

Accompanying the helicopter is a video demonstration of the helicopter fighting simulated fires, as well as a touch-screen application with interviews of Huntoon and SMU students discussing engineering and innovation.

Huntoon has been a member of the Technology Committee and the Engineering and Innovation Committee for the Perot Museum.

James Quick, a professor of Earth sciences, as well as SMU’s associate vice president for research and dean of graduate studies, applauded the establishment of the Perot Museum, the result of decades of work by many people.

“Every great urban center should have an outstanding museum of nature and science to stimulate the imaginations of people of all ages and attract them to science,” Quick said. “The contribution the Perot Museum will make to North Texas cannot be overstated.” — Margaret Allen

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