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New Research Frontiers By Kurt Pfitzer

Research at Ursinus College is a dynamic and multifaceted endeavor that has led to advances in medical science, the relationships between people and nations, the materials we use in everyday life and in art, and much more. Students collaborate with faculty researchers throughout their four years at Ursinus. These opportunities allow Ursinus students to use state-of-the-art equipment in the lab, collaborate with students and faculty around the country, travel to other countries, and help professors publish the results of their research.

The following vignettes of selected faculty members illustrate the breadth of research at Ursinus and how our scholars investigate contemporary themes.

HIV: Understanding and Treating Neurodegenerative Disorders

The Scholars: Catherine van de Ruit, assistant professor of health and exercise physiology & Jennifer King, assistant professor of biology

The gap between the goals of a well-intentioned policy and its actual results can be dramatic, says Catherine van de Ruit.

Van de Ruit has studied HIV/AIDS in South Africa since 2002. Antiretroviral treatment only became widely available there in 2008, after having been rejected by former President Thabo Mbeki in favor of native remedies.

To fight HIV/AIDS, global health organizations have established programs in which patients receive care from unlicensed local community health workers (CHWs) instead of trained clinicians.

“The CHWs were touted as a model for health care delivery,” says van de Ruit, who described her findings this year in the journals Qualitative Health Research and Sociology of Development. “But when we asked CHWs about their actual experiences, we found that most were impoverished women. They were not paid, and they received very little supervision.

Catherine van de Ruit

“Both of these cases—Mbeki’s denial of antiretroviral treatment and the CHW program—come down to the same rationale: Economics usurps health care intentions.”

Van de Ruit and her students also study the incidence of medical error in American hospitals. They are analyzing interviews conducted from 2012-15 with more than 300 employees at 17 hospitals. There are parallels, she says, between American and South African healthcare.

“There’s a gap between the level of care mandated by the Affordable Care Act, for example, and what actually happens on the ground,” she says. “Once again, there are competing priorities between economic efficiency and providing quality health care.”

Medical researchers, says Jennifer King, know relatively little about the brain’s response to inflammation. This is especially true of microglial immune cells, the phagocytes that ingest pathogens, viruses and other foreign matter that enter the brain.

“These phagocytes act as the brain’s trash collectors,” says King. “Their proper functioning is critical to the brain’s ability to fight infective inflammation.”

Jennifer King

King studies the inflammatory protein mediators associated with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND) and other neurodegenerative diseases.

These mediators are different in each disease, says King, but all of them lead to the death of neurons, or the nerve cells in the brain, by first triggering the inflammation of microglial cells.

King’s students incubate microglial cells, treat them with inflammatory mediators and then use phagocytosis assays, immunofluorescence and immunoblotting techniques to measure their rate of phagocytosis.

In earlier studies of HIV and HAND, King found that the HIV protein causes a significant increase in two chemokines, which regulate cell migration and phagocytosis. Chemokines are a type of cytokine, or messenger molecule.

She and her students are now focusing on the cytoskeleton, which plays a key role in the stability and function of microglial cells, and in their motility, phagocytosis and immune response. The researchers hope to learn how inflammatory mediators affect the cytoskeletal structure of microglial cells, and whether changes in cytokine levels cause changes in phagocytosis.

King takes her students annually to professional conferences. This December, they will attend the yearly meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology.

Neuroscience: Going Beyond the Label

The Scholars: Carlita Favero, associate professor of biology and neuroscience & Jennifer Stevenson, associate professor of psychology

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) occur in an estimated 1 to 5 percent of pregnancies in the United States, says Carlita Favero. Heavy alcohol use can cause low birth weights and facial abnormalities in newborns. Moderate intake can lead to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other problems in older children.

Favero, a brain development specialist, studies the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on the thalamus, the part of the brain that transmits sensory and motor signals to the cerebral cortex. She is particularly interested in the prenatal formation of the pathways of neurons, axons and synapses that guide these signals.

Favero’s articles have appeared in the Journal of Comparative Neurology, NeuroReport and Brain and Behavior. In 2017, an article written by 12 of her students was published in Impulse, a premier journal for undergraduate neuroscience research. Recently, Favero received a two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health.

In Favero’s lab, students stain slices of embryonic mouse brains with antibodies and examine them using confocal, fluorescent and optical microscopy. Their goal is to determine the number and distribution of the release factors, which guide the thalamic neurons that transmit sensory information to the cortex.

“The formation of these pathways, and the connections they make in the cortex, can be disrupted with even a moderate alcohol intake,” says Favero. “This can occur during the first, second or third trimester of pregnancy.”

Jennifer Stevenson, a cognitive neuroscientist, studies autism and measures the traits, positive and negative, that are associated with the disability and which can also occur in non-autistic people.

Carlita Favero (L) and Jennifer Stevenon (R)

Albert Einstein may have had autism, says Stevenson. Ditto Thomas Jefferson and possibly Nicola Tesla.

Stevenson and her students recruit subjects who are low and high in autistic traits including attention to detail, avoidance of social situations, and difficulty communicating.

In one project, subjects looked at 3D shapes that were folded out and rotated at different angles.

“We look at the subjects’ eye movements as they examined the shapes. How they look at the shapes, how often their eyes fixate on the corners of the shapes, depends on their gender and on the level of autistic traits they have.”

Stevenson has published articles in Autism, The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, PLOS (Public Library of Science) One, and Disability Studies Quarterly.

As an undergraduate student, she worked with autistic children. “Many were non-speaking,” she says, “while some were very fluent. Some were very social, some not much. They all interacted differently with me. I wanted to understand why all of these children, who had been given the same label, could be so different.”

The experience opened Stevenson’s eyes to the benefits of neurodiversity.

“Neurodiversity is a fact just like biological diversity. We tend to focus on the deficits of neurodiversity, not the strengths. But just because someone communicates with me in a way that I’m not used to doesn’t mean they don’t have something to offer.

“If we focus only on the negative, we lose sight of the positive. We need balance. In our research, we try to look at differences and strengths to understand both sides of the coin.”

New Economics: Incentives and Community Involvement

The Scholars: Olga Nicoara, assistant professor of business and economics, Ann Karreth, assistant professor of politics, and Johannes Karreth, assistant professor of politics and international relations

Top-down foreign aid programs are designed “by the West to fix the rest,” says Olga Nicoara, but developing nations benefit more from money and other assistance sent home to family and friends by countrymen working abroad.

These remittances are more effective than massive international aid programs, says Nicoara, “because private individuals know best how to get resources where they are needed and they have a greater incentive to do that.”

Nicoara makes this argument in a chapter she cowrote for the 2019 book Lessons on Foreign Aid and Economic Development: Micro and Macro Perspectives.

The positive influence of remittances on national economies is growing, says Nicoara, because the liberalization of the global economy allows people to move freely and to work, innovate and exploit economic opportunities in foreign countries. In Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, remittances now account for more than 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Nicoara also studies the cultural factors and traditions that have enabled some countries to achieve peaceful revolutions. In a 2018 article for the Baltic Journal of European Studies, she recounted the “Singing Revolution” of 1988 in which 80,000 Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians joined hands, sang folk songs and successfully demanded independence from the Soviet Union.

The centuries-old Estonian tradition of huge crowds gathering to sing, says Nicoara, helped reduce the costs of leading and organizing that are typical of large-scale revolutions.

In part, this was because the singing arena provided a focal point where people could meet spontaneously, in large numbers and with little need for advance publicity.

Apartheid, the government-enforced separation of the races in South Africa, ended in the early 1990s but its legacy still grips the country, says Ann Karreth.

This is especially true, says Karreth, of the Cape Town suburb of Hout Bay on South Africa’s southwest coast. Its three racial groups—Blacks, Whites and Coloreds, or biracial people—live in distinct enclaves and interact less with each other than do the races generally in South Africa.

Karreth studies Hout Bay’s community police, a group of volunteers who support and provide information to the South African Police Service (SAPS), the national police force. The volunteers play an important role, she says. South Africa has a high crime rate and SAPS, having been the enforcer for the unpopular apartheid regime, lacks legitimacy.

“After apartheid,” says Karreth, “the government had to decide how to police the country when people feared the police. Community policing was one of the solutions enacted.”

Karreth interviewed Hout Bay residents in 2015, during her third visit to South Africa. She found that Whites, the wealthiest of the three racial groups, participate most in community policing, with neighborhood watches and patrols. Blacks, the poorest group, participate less but have formed conflict-mediation committees. Coloreds seem “fatalistic” over drugs, unemployment and gangs, and participate the least.

Karreth says participation is hampered by resentments among the three groups and by South Africa’s two major political parties, the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance, which exploit racial tensions for political gain.

Syria, Congo, Yemen, South Sudan—the world’s civil wars have killed or displaced millions of people, but Johannes Karreth sees reason for optimism.

Karreth is coauthor of the 2018 book Incentivizing Peace: How International Organizations Can Help Prevent Civil Wars in Member Countries. The book argues that highly structured intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund can mediate conflicts peacefully if they have a presence in a country and can apply economic leverage.

“When highly structured IGOs are engaged in a country,” Karreth writes in a blog, “both governments and rebels can expect clear costs from escalating violence: it will lead to a disengagement of these IGOs and withdrawal of their staff, resources and other benefits.”

Karreth cites the history of East Timor, which was annexed militarily by Indonesia in 1975 but recognized by the United Nations as an independent country in 2002 following a 23-year civil war.

Ann Karreth (L), Johannes Karreth (R)

“Indonesia was very dependent on IGOs for development loans,” Karreth says. “The IGOs sent strong signals that escalation of the conflict with East Timor would have tremendous economic implications for the Indonesian government. So, the government held back militarily.

“By contrast, the IGOs had ceased operations in Syria before the outbreak of civil war in 2011, so their leverage was really limited. As a result, the Syrian government was able to respond very forcefully to the protesters.”

Karreth is also studying attitudes toward immigration in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in an effort to determine why people of different political persuasions respond differently to the growing numbers of immigrants.

The World of Materials

The Scholars: Casey Schwarz, assistant professor of physics and Deborah Barkun, chair of art and art history and director of museum studies

Chalcogenide glasses, which have a large nonlinear refractive index and wide infrared (IR) transmission window, are valued for their potential use as optical devices with applications in environmental monitoring, satellite imaging, medical imaging and firefighter lenses.

To make devices from chalcogenide glass, says Casey Schwarz, researchers typically use an expensive process called thermal deposition, where the bulk starting material is vaporized and subsequently condensed on a substrate to form the film.

Schwarz is seeking to develop photosensitive thin films of chalcogenide glass using a solution-based processing technique that requires no vaporization and is less expensive and more versatile than thermal deposition.

Solution-based processing, says Schwarz, like thermal deposition, would enable researchers to laser write precise patterns in the glass film. However, more unexplored and novel property-tailorable optical glass compositions could be made using solution-based processing.

“The thinner and more photosensitive the glass films are, and the more precise the patterns on the glass,” says Schwarz, “the better the chance we can make devices with increased and tunable potential applications. Our goal is to make devices in glasses that have as broad a range of transmission as possible, from the visible end of the spectrum into the infrared.”
Casey Schwarz (L), Deborah Barkun (R)

In Schwarz’s lab, students grind bulk glass into powder and dissolve the powder in a chemical to get a solution. They spin-coat this solution onto a substrate and place the substrate on a hot plate to evaporate the chemical. Their goal is to be the first research group to use lasers to etch patterns on novel compositions of solution-based chalcogenide glass with micro-level precision.

Schwarz and her students also conduct research using scanning electron microscopy and other advanced characterization techniques with collaborators at the University of Central Florida.

Deborah Barkun is interested in another seemingly fragile material—spider silk. But it’s not fragile at all. The tensile strength of spider silk is enduring, and Barkun is drawn to three artists (Christine Borland, Nina Katchadourian and Tomas Saraceno) who co-opt the artistry of the spider’s web.

“These artists build complicated relationships with spiders,” says Barkun, “from intentionally exploiting them and aestheticizing their work, to allowing them to work while still intervening.”

She was drawn to the unique “collaboration” between artist and arachnid thanks to her research interest in artist collectives. Barkun’s earlier scholarship studied an art collective that galvanized around HIV/AIDS, which led her to theorize models of collaborative or collective work. Her most recent publication is about the work of an Irish collective—half/angel—and a piece it created in 2005 called “The Knitting Map.” The work will be exhibited at Ursinus’s Berman Museum during the summer of 2021.

The prior research “gave me a certain interest in textile,” she says. “The work I’m doing now [with spider silk] is an outgrowth of collectives and textiles—the silk is the textile medium and method of working is one that can’t fairly be called a collaboration because a spider is an unwitting maker in this equation.”

Barkun stresses the interdisciplinarity of not only the project, but the artists’ work. Although often perceived as discrete, art and science have long been connected, she says, as these artists utilize scientific (as well as historic and literary) research and methodology to realize their work.

From mythology to horror movies, Barkun has studied every facet and fascination of spiders, which she says, “do something that human beings for eons have regarded as miraculous and have tried to emulate in their textiles and in their weaving.”

Social Interactions: Social Media and Freudenfreude

The Scholars: Lynne Edwards, professor of media and communication studies and Catherine Chambliss, professor of psychology

Lynne Edwards and her colleague, April Edwards (no relation), a former computer science professor at Ursinus now with the U.S. Naval Academy, develop machine learning techniques to detect cyberbullying and predation as it occurs. Their work has been funded by the National Science Foundation.

Cyber predators, says Lynne Edwards, use the Internet or social media to lure minors for sex, with offers of gifts and friendship and sometimes with blackmail. Cyberbullies use the same technologies and smartphones to harass, embarrass and harm their targets.

The two researchers have worked with data from Perverted Justice Foundation Inc., which transcribes conversations between cyber predators and activists posing as teens and posts the transcripts online. They also use data collected from youths’ cellphones to analyze bullying and non-bullying communications. From all of this data, Ursinus students develop algorithms that recognize the difference between innocent, bullying or predatory conversations. The goal is to alert social media users to danger from conversations with possible predators and bullies in order to shut down the abuse.

“When it comes to cyber predation, our algorithms recognize that if a predator asks a kid for age, sex, location (asl), or says, ‘Don’t tell your parents,’ you know they’re on the path to an event,” Edwards says.

In another project exploring diversity in cyberbullying, Edwards and her colleague have found that there are racial, gender and cultural differences in the ways that different groups experience cyberbullying.

The two researchers have started a company called E-2 Unlimited Technologies, which helps companies ensure that cyberbullying is not occurring on company websites used for online discussions.

Catherine Chambliss has had a lifelong interest in the balance between human beings’ capacity for caring and their capacity for competition.

“When someone else succeeds,” she says, “the caring part of you wants to celebrate that person’s success. The competitive part of you feels threatened and depressed. This is a constant struggle.”

In her 2016 book, Empathy Rules, Chambliss coined a new term—freudenfreude—to describe the joy people take in the successes of others. The word is the flip side of schadenfreude, or the pleasure we feel over others’ misfortunes.

Based on empirical studies that were later replicated by researchers in Europe, Chambliss found that depression is often associated with low levels of freudenfreude and high levels of schadenfreude. This phenomenon, she concluded, becomes self-reinforcing, depleting our resources for enjoying others’ successes and causing us to lose friends.

Lynne Edwards (L), Catherine Chambliss (R)

After working with people with severe mental illness, Chambliss and her students concluded that empathy promotes mental health. They developed the inter-personality mutuality training system, based on two positive behaviors for which Chambliss invented words.

“Shoy means sharing another person’s joy,” she says. “Braggitude means that when you talk about your accomplishments, tuck in an expression of gratitude. If you’re celebrating having passed an organic chemistry test, thank your roommate for keeping the room quiet to help you study. And if someone is telling you about their success, ask them how they did it.”

“You build freudenfreude when you establish nurturing relationships with other people.”

Chambliss readily shares her own successes. Three of her five books have had multiple student coauthors, including Empathy Rules with 14.

Technology: AI for All Ages

The Scholars: Kara McShane, assistant professor of English and Alvin Grissom II, assistant professor of computer science

Kara McShane, a medievalist, specializes in understudied authors, including “that greatest of all writers in the Middle Ages—anonymous.” Her current focus is Destruction of Jerusalem, or Titus and Vespasian, an anonymous poem of 5,161 lines composed in late 14th- or early 15th-century England. The work has drawn scant attention from scholars and its last edition was published in 1905.

Only 12 copies of the original manuscript survive. McShane has traveled to where they are housed—Oxford, the British Library, Yale and Rochester—and used an open-source collation software to transcribe and compare the poem’s various versions, which, having been handwritten, contain variations, mistakes and misspellings.

The poem retells the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by Roman soldiers around 70 A.D. The poet takes liberties with history and betrays the prejudices of his medieval contemporaries. The poem’s Roman soldiers are Christians who act like medieval knights, its Jews are malevolent actors, and the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus is secretly Christian.

“Aesthetically speaking,” says McShane, “this is not great poetry. It is not beautiful like Chaucer. It’s only recently that scholars have looked at texts like this to see what early cultures produced, what their values and interests were, and whether we have inherited some of the unpalatable values like the ones this poem promotes.”

McShane and Alvin Grissom II are using machine learning to shed new light on the works of John Gower, an English poet and friend of Chaucer. Machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence (AI), enables a computer to identify key words, patterns and relationships in a massive quantity of data, such as a novel, in a few seconds.

“Gower is seen by editors today as stodgy, conservative and boring,” says McShane. “Alvin and I are hoping machine learning can help us open his texts and see if they surprise us.”

Grissom, a computational linguist who speaks and reads Japanese, was one of the first researchers to apply machine learning to the simultaneous translation of human languages.

“My focus was on language topology and sentence structure,” he says. “German and Japanese both have a subject-object-verb structure. This requires you to wait for the end of a sentence to translate it or develop a creative way of predicting how the sentence will end.”

Last year, in a collaboration with researchers from the University of Maryland and the University of Massachusetts, Grissom tackled the problem of adversarial machine learning, in which neural models are tricked by malicious input.

“We tried to figure out the specific pathologies of these models and how we could mitigate them.”

A paper by Grissom’s group, “Pathologies of Neural Models Make Interpretations Difficult,” was published in the Proceedings of the 2018 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP) and has already received more than 20 citations.

Kara McShane (left) and Alvin Grissom. Photo: Jeff Fusco.

More recently, Grissom’s group created a dataset, available online for download, that allows researchers to analyze prejudicial language used by announcers of American football games. They described this project in a paper published in the Proceedings of the 2019 Conference on EMNLP.

After transcribing and cataloguing decades of football game broadcasts, Grissom and his collaborators developed a machine learning algorithm to analyze the texts. Their results aligned with previous findings by social scientists.

“We found that sportscasters tended to emphasize the physical attributes and abilities of black players while they were more inclined to describe white players’ mental acuity. This is a microcosm of the kind of descriptions you see throughout society.”