Archive for August, 2014

Economics professors look for value in the night sky

Some see romance. Others see the future. But rarely do people see the night sky the way these Missouri State researchers do – in dollar signs.

In a time where the importance of outsourced goods is the topic of most economic discussions, the night sky has not had its due as an economic resource. That’s an issue economics professors Dr. Terrel Gallaway and Dr. David Mitchell hope to address.

Gallaway and Mitchell, along with professor Dr. Reed Olsen, have spent six years researching the question: what really is the overall economic value of the night sky? Assessing the value and importance of the night sky could mean millions more dollars for tourism industries and other key areas.

Mitchell and Gallaway

Gallaway and Mitchell, along with professor Dr. Reed Olsen, have spent six years researching the question: what really is the overall economic value of the night sky?

Today, the wonder of a clear night sky is threatened by the careless use of artificial light. Research shows about 25 percent of electricity that is produced in the U.S. is used for lighting and an estimated 30 percent of that is wasted as light pollution—about $25-30 billion dollars a year. The two Missouri State economics professors are looking to determine how much Americans are willing to do to address this dilemma.

The team conducted numerous surveys that ask average citizens questions like “how much do you think the night sky is worth?” and “how much would you pay to travel to this certain place?” in order to obtain an estimated value of dark night skies.

“Tourism turns out to be one of the most important industries concerning the night sky,” said Gallaway. “Typically national parks have something they are trying to protect, and what they are trying to protect is dark night skies.”

Gallaway and Mitchell focused their research on western national parks and areas like the Colorado plateau, where the sky is more pristine and there are more protected areas to incorporate in their research. This area of the U.S. brings in millions of dollars each year for travel and tourism and has huge potential because of its protected lands and views of the night sky.

“The night sky impacts wildlife, different types of flowers and trees and even migration,” said Mitchell. “If not protected, you’re in essence destroying half of the environment.”

StarsAlong with the natural effects of the night sky, Gallaway and Mitchell have identified some health issues caused by the lack of it. Light often tricks the body into staying awake even if rest is needed, opening the door for major physical and mental issues to occur.

“It’s not just aesthetics,” Mitchell said. “The lack of an adequate sleep can lead to obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and even cancer.”

According to Mitchell, there is immense documentation that states when people don’t get good sleep at night, it interferes with their hormones. “In women, this could mean higher incidences of breast cancer,” said Mitchell. Other chronic conditions that could occur include diabetes, migraines and hypertension.

Though these health problems are preventable, determining the monetary value of the night sky may be a complicated task to accomplish. However, Gallaway and Mitchell don’t mind leading the way.

This research yielded the first grant the economic professors received from the National Park Service for this trail-blazing research. Although there have been studies  conducted concerning the conservation of America’s natural resources, little to no research has been done focusing primarily on night skies.

“Within the social sciences, especially with economics, there hasn’t been very much research done on this topic at all,” said Gallaway, “which sort of makes us the pioneers in this field.”

Picking the right literature to counter aliteracy

Imagine entering a restaurant and being unable to read the menu. Or looking at a ballot on Election Day and not knowing which issue was being put forth. That is the startling scenario for one out of seven adults in the United States.

Illiteracy is a concern for Dr. Sabrina A. Brinson, who advocates for learning those skills early and reinforcing often. But she is equally concerned about the plague of aliteracy – a term used to describe having the ability to read but lacking the desire and motivation.

Brinson is a Diversity Fellow and a professor of childhood education and family studies at Missouri State, and part of her response to this problem was the establishment of Boys Booked on Barbershops and Girls Booked on Beautyshops in 2004. These are community-based programs set up in neighborhoods and communities all over the United States. Professional organizations – currently more than 20 of them nationwide – partner with Brinson and locate a barbershop, beautyshop or other community location to establish a reading nook.

BooksDon’t clean out your garage to donate books to this great cause, though.

She researches the demographics of the shops, communities, patrons and asks pointed questions about the abilities of children who visit the shop. She stays up to date with all the latest literature for children ages 1-18 and tailors the reading nook recommendation to the specific shop’s needs – all of this in hopes of making the books more engaging and interesting to the children and families who read while they’re waiting.

“How do I know it works? One of the most reinforcing things is that children want to take the books with them,” said Brinson.

While these nooks could be in any community the professional organizations wanted to sponsor, they often show up in more diverse communities. This fits right in with her three main research focus areas: diversity, multiculturalism and social justice with an emphasis in African American studies; culturally responsive literature; and the social, emotional and moral development of children.

“When people refer to diversity and culture, we tend to have tunnel vision,” said Brinson. Instead of diversity being synonymous with race and culture, it’s gender, socioeconomic status, religion, language, vernaculars, and so much more, according to Brinson.

In that vein, she looks at culturally responsive literature as a way to engage readers and improve literacy.

“It’s important for people of any culture to see positive reflections of themselves. But it’s also equally important for people to have views into the lives of others,” said Brinson.

One study Brinson conducted with teachers asked them to identify two books in their library that showcased a variety of multicultural and diverse characters as the main characters.

“Just two books – and they (the teachers in the study) couldn’t do it,” Brinson said. From that, she reasoned that the teachers were not incorporating diverse literature into their students’ studies, which could lead students to feel insignificant. “What it says to others – the ones who are represented in the story – it lulls them into a false sense of superiority,” added Brinson.

Dr. Sabrina A. Brinson

“How do I know it works? One of the most reinforcing things is that children want to take the books with them.,” – Dr. Sabrina A. Brinson

Bullying and stigmas

This sense of superiority can lead to horrific outcomes, like bullying. Brinson conducted research on females bullying males through interviews with 21-54 year old men who had been victimized in their younger years, often in the lunchroom and between classes.

“People are starting to say, ‘hey, our girls aren’t so sugary sweet and so nice,’” Brinson said. “Every single man I interviewed could recount those acts of bullying as if they’d happened yesterday.”

Through primarily mental abuse, the females gained control over the males they bullied, and the men recounted the emotional turmoil, the frustration of it being socially unacceptable to retaliate against a female, and the feeling of helplessness for fear that no one would believe them.

As part of a research team for positive behavior support, Brinson also helped establish a behavior change program at a Florida middle school for students in special education classrooms. The program – a self-monitoring program, which taught students how to stop themselves before they revert back into their disruptive behavior patterns  – was developed to reintegrate the students into general education classrooms and to overcome the stigma that is often associated with special education.

The era of RNA research

The possibility of curing fatal diseases, such as cancer, may be closer than we think.

Dr. Robert Delong, associate professor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University, and his group of students are interested in Ribonucleic Acids (RNA) targeting, a very rapidly developing field in science.

“One of the things we are particularly interested in is a new branch of science called RNA nanotechnology and therapeutics,” said Delong, who was recently elected as the associate editor of “Reviews in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology.”

Like DNA, RNA can be manipulated and designed to produce a variety of different nanostructures. RNA, however, is a more flexible structure that can fold into numerous complicated configurations.

Chemists all over the world are producing nanomaterials out of almost all of the different elements in the periodic table. The nanomaterials made out of each of the elements can be a completely different beast; physically, chemically and biologically.

“Each one of the nanomaterials is like a different animal at the zoo,” Delong said. “Whereas you might have to cage the tiger, we want to have the pink flamingos out stretching their necks because they’re beautiful birds.”

Dr. Robert Delong working in lab

Like DNA, RNA can be manipulated and designed to produce a variety of different nanostructures.

It’s possible that by combining nanomaterials with RNA, it provides a key to curing some cancer. Since these materials have never been created before in nature, scientists don’t know what they will do to life and life’s processes at the cellular and molecular levels.

“So the question now is, when the nanomaterials go into the cells, how do they affect the molecules, for example the many types of the RNA, within them?” said Delong. “How do they respond to the tiger versus the flamingo?”

A renewal grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute gives Delong and his team the means to test different nanoparticles on various cancer cells. In fact, Delong incorporates these types of experiments into his graduate and undergraduate level curriculum.

“We’re taking these different nanomaterials derived from the bio-elements and we’re sprinkling them on cancer cells and trying to figure out how the cancer cell responds,” Delong said.

There are roughly 100,000 different proteins in our body and one of the biggest questions in molecular biology is how nanomaterials affect proteins and RNA in our cells.

Experts are excited to think that these nanomaterials could lead to a new wave of drug development. They believe nanomaterials could have the potential to revolutionize drug discovery and drug delivery.

“Biotechnology, it constantly seeks to improve health and the human condition,” Delong said. “At the end of the day we want to create things that can help make a difference in the world.”

Communicating across an ever changing landscape

What do you communicate through body language? What do your text message choices say about you? How much influence do you hold in a conversation?

As a corporate trainer and executive coach for a variety of organizations, Dr. Shawn Wahl, head of the department of communication at Missouri State University, trained individuals how to listen, communicate their needs, persuade co-workers and bosses, motivate teams and navigate through difficult situations with customers and clients. With this knowledge, he’s written five books to improve communication skills. The latest book, “Communication and Culture in Your Life,” was published in spring 2014.

In this book, Wahl describes the importance of a global perspective – understanding language barriers, accounting for cultural social cues (like a lack of eye contact being a sign of respect or a sign of low self-confidence) and treating all people with dignity and respect.

“If we’re talking about international business, there are certain principles of cultural competency that we have to have. And cultural competency is directly related to human communication in terms of the choices we make as communicators,” Wahl said.

His expertise is directly relatable to students just entering the workforce as well as those he trains in corporate and non-profit settings, which has included major health care networks and oil and gas companies to name a few.

“The themes and titles of several of my book projects include the phrases ‘in your life’ and ‘excellence,’” he said. “How can you use human communication research to expand your family, your professional situation, and landing a good job?”

Dr. Shawn WahlEmoticons: the new nonverbal communication

In a world with more communication options than ever before, including Facebook, Twitter, text messages, Instagram, email and other social media avenues that pop up every day, Wahl explains that competent communication choices need to be stressed early and often. His book, “The Communication Age: Connecting and Engaging” released in 2013, looks at the qualities of good human communication over time and how to maintain those qualities when it’s being mediated through technological devices.

“Because we spend so much time looking at our smart phones, there are now some things that we do that serve as nonverbal communication within our text messages,” said Wahl. “Also, if we don’t respond to a text, time is communication. If we don’t respond right away, the recipient might get frustrated or wonder what happened.”

Traditional nonverbal cues include hand gestures, body language and eye contact, but when communication isn’t face-to-face, all of this can be lost. Physical visual cues like a frown or a smile, which are biological and immediate from birth, noted Wahl, are replicated in these new communication forms but need to be thought about carefully.

“Step back and think about it . . .  if I send an email or text message, there are still positive and negative reactions associated with my communication choices. Just like if you roll your eyes in a face-to-face interaction, you can do those in social media, too, but is it responsible?”

Wahl’s other book projects include “Nonverbal Communication for a Lifetime” (2014, second edition), “Business and Professional Communication: Keys for Workplace Excellence” (2014, second edition) and “Persuasion in Your Life” (2013).

Getting the juicy details

When you pop a grape into your mouth, you probably aren’t thinking about the DNA of the plant. You’re thinking about the flavor, color and juiciness. But if you grow grapes and begin to see a decline in the quantity or quality, you might need to investigate what is going on at the cellular level.

Grape leaf

According to Qiu, grapes host the largest number of viruses of any plant because it’s a perennial woody plant.

When a Missouri vineyard manager contacted Dr. Wenping Qiu in 2004 to express concerns about a disease plaguing his vineyard, Qiu speculated the decline was caused by a virus. Unable to find the link with known viruses after two years of testing, Qiu and his research team began utilizing a relatively new technology called RNA (Ribonucleic Acids) sequencing to decipher the sequences of small RNA fragments to piece together the viral genome.

It was in 2009 that Qiu, research professor in the William H. Darr School of Agriculture at Missouri State University, discovered the first DNA virus ever reported in grapevines, named the Grapevine vein clearing virus (GVCV). Though he was hopeful of a new discovery, he remained somewhat doubtful.

“We only found a small piece (of DNA),” said Qiu. “So my colleagues and I decided we have to find an entire genome of this virus before we can present the discovery to the public.” In 2011, after mapping out all 7,753 base pairs of DNA in the genome, they published their results.

Drawing a diagram, Qiu explained the complicated process of piecing together these fragments, designing primers from these fragments, sequencing them and searching for similar sequences in the gene bank. Using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, Qiu and others in his lab amplified the fragments out and repeated the process. They designed more primers, piece by piece, until the fragments overlapped and they knew the viral genome was circular.

“We sequenced thousands of those small fragments, and then we compared our fragment sequences with sequences in the gene bank. And then we found, ‘oh, this is new!’”

During the past 10 years, Qiu has been the principal investigator on numerous grants from the state and federal Department of Agriculture, leading to approximately $2 million in grant funding for his research. And all of that research stems from this interest in grapes.

But why grapes? According to Qiu, grapes host the largest number of viruses of any plant because it’s a perennial woody plant. Therefore, they are a great model for the progression and prevention of diseases. But DNA and RNA viruses multiply differently, so much research is still being conducted on how this virus multiplies and spreads over time.

“When a plant is infected by a virus, the plant tries to defend and protect itself against all types of viruses. It starts to cut the virus into small pieces. So in the infected plant cells, you can find the relics – or small pieces – of the virus genome.”

RNA testingIn recent years, RNA sequencing has been grabbing attention in the scientific community – it can be used to discover new viruses in other plants, animals and even humans. Discoveries of new viruses allow scientists and doctors to learn about how the viruses cause diseases and spread.

Through study of the GVCV in an isolated environment – in the Springfield laboratory as well as on Missouri State’s Mountain Grove campus, which is home to the Fruit Experiment Station, the Center for Grapevine Biotechnology and Mountain Grove Cellars – Qiu hopes to learn all he can about how to prevent its spread as it is quite detrimental to grape production in a vineyard.

Students dig deep into Grapevine vein clearing virus

Plant science students at Missouri State have unparalleled opportunities under Qiu’s supervision, who has been honored with an endowed professorship in agriculture by President Clif Smart and his wife Gail. The Grapevine vein clearing virus (GVCV) is the focus of two intense studies: one study is trying to discern which grape varieties are resistant to this virus; another study being conducted by graduate students Michael Kovens, LeAnn Hubbert, Shae Honesty and Ru Dai focuses on the genome of a new strain of the virus recently discovered in a wild grapevine.

“It’s important to find which grape varieties are prone to the virus and which ones aren’t because any varieties found to be resistant or tolerant to GVCV can potentially be used in breeding to prevent infection in those varieties that are more susceptible,” said Kovens.

Kovens is passionate about this work because he has seen the decline in quality grape production, noting symptoms such as leaf rolling, translucent veins, and shortened internodes, which eventually kill the vines.

“This study is crucial as the quality and quantity of the wine able to be produced is negatively affected by the virus,” he added.

Dr. Qiu working with student

A study being conducted by graduate students Michael Kovens, LeAnn Hubbert, Shae Honesty and Ru Dai focuses on the genome of a new strain of the virus recently discovered in a wild grapevine.

Grape leavesWalking through wild grapevines

Missouri is known for its natural beauty and a wide variety of outdoor activities to enjoy. While out on a hike, you will likely stumble upon a bramble of wild grapevines.

“Wild grapes are everywhere in the Ozarks. Actually, in the 1870s, millions of cuttings of wild grapes were collected from Missouri and shipped to France to rescue their grape industry,” said Qiu.

While GVCV was first discovered in a cultivated, commercial vineyard, Qiu’s natural curiosity got him speculating about whether the virus might also be found in wild grapevines and what that would mean about the virus’ origin.

“We thought, maybe it is possible that this virus jumps from the wild grape species to the cultivated grapevines in the vineyard,” noted Qiu.

So he and his students collected samples of wild grapes and tested the virus on a particular wild grape species – Vitis rupestris. In one vine, GVCV was detected, which indicates it does exist in the wild. From there, Qiu and his research team sequenced the entire genome of the new strain and are now comparing its sequence to the one discovered in the cultivated grape varieties.

Hubert, another of Qiu’s students, accompanies him to Swan Creek to collect samples from Vitis rupestris to understand how it is transferred from one vine to another. One theory is that insects transfer the virus among wild vines.

A recent trip to Swan Creek found several vines showing symptoms of GVCV, so the team clips small vines, bags them with creek water and transports them to the laboratory. There they pot the plants, watch them grow and confirm if it has GVCV. Qiu noted, though, that the symptoms on the wild vines are consistent with those in the greenhouse, meaning they are most likely from the same virus.

Student working in labMapping the genome of Norton grapevine

Norton – the state grape of Missouri – makes a dry, deep red, full bodied table wine. It’s a hardy grape that survives despite temperature fluctuations and is naturally resistant to many diseases. Several years ago, Qiu and his colleagues at the State Fruit Experiment Station studied Norton’s resistance to one debilitating mold for grapes – powdery mildew. From there, they have expanded their research to begin mapping the genome of the Norton grapevine.

“When a fungal spore lands on the surface (of a Norton), it begins to germinate,” he explained. “But when it penetrates a plant cell wall, the Norton responds very quickly so that those cells that are attacked by fungal spores commit suicide – they just die.”

This hypersensitive response makes the Norton prepared for battle, ready to defend against outside agents.

“Indeed we found that the Norton naturally had high levels of these defense genes,” he said. “It’s a very fascinating phenomenon in grapes.”

Keeping an eye on grape research worldwide is important to Qiu. When he began mapping the Norton grapevine genome, he and the University came to a collaborative agreement with the French National Institute for Agriculture Research – an institution that was analyzing sequences of the Norton genome as well.

“We’ve collected the raw sequences of the Norton genome, and now we’re putting the puzzle together.” It’s a puzzle with millions of pieces, so mapping the entire genome of the Norton grapevine will take years, Qiu estimates. In comparison, the total length of the human genome is over 3 billion base pairs, which took the global scientific community 13 years to complete.

Growing and selling healthy grapes

Worldwide more than 5,000 grape varieties exist; however, in Missouri, about a dozen of popular varieties thrive. At the Mountain Grove campus, several vineyards boast grapes like Norton, Traminette, Chardonel, Chambourcin, Cayuga White, Vidal Blanc and Vignoles. These grapes are harvested each August to begin the winemaking process for Missouri State’s Mountain Grove Cellars to bottle and sell, but the vines have a greater purpose. Qiu is busy testing these grape varieties for presence of viruses – and virus-tested vines are being sold to vineyards with assurance of good health.

Grape plants

“We all want to learn more about new viruses. By studying this virus, we can develop some strategies for preventing this virus from spreading.” – Dr. Wenping Qiu

“Those seven grape varieties were tested and found to be free of 16 grape viruses. Those 16 grape viruses are serious viruses that affect grape production,” he said. “So when we sell these to grape growers or nurseries, at least they know those mother plants can be propagated free of these 16 grape viruses.”

A current project in Qiu’s laboratory is testing the resistance of a grapevine to viruses. How do they do it? First they test the grapevine to make sure it is healthy and free of any virus. Then, they graft the viruses onto the vines to see if these vines are able to support the viruses.

“This is something we are doing right now,” said Qiu. They hope to see that these vines are resistant, and then investigate the genetic basis for this resistance. “We all want to learn more about new viruses. By studying this virus, we can develop some strategies for preventing this virus from spreading.”

Making music in his mind

Music is a form of storytelling, even when there are no words. For composer Dr. Michael F. Murray, his most intriguing projects have been inspired by his passion for poetry.

Sheet music“There might be images or moods or characters that are suggested by the poetry, and I try to reflect that in the music I write,” said Murray. His piece “Tempest Fantasy,” on the CD “Spellbound” which was released by Navona in 2013 was recorded by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra based in Olomouc, Czech Republic. But its original iteration was vocal music Murray composed for a Missouri State production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

“I took a lot of the melodies I had written for that and transferred that to the string orchestra. So even though ‘Tempest Fantasy’ was not a vocal piece, it was the beginning for the orchestra piece.”

Murray composes all the time – sometimes taking four months on one piece – and plans to have an all vocal music CD released in early 2015. It will include pieces for solo voice accompanied by various orchestral and chamber instrumental combinations. Through New Music USA, he hopes to gain funding to assist in the travel costs associated with recording in the Czech Republic in summer 2014.

But he knows he’s one of the lucky ones.

“The biggest challenge for the composer is to get their music performed. This is especially true with orchestra. New music is not performed often,” said Murray. Many local and regional symphonies perform only one piece by a living composer during the course of a year. Instead, they tend to select primarily standard classical pieces from well-established composers. “There is not a lot of opportunity. To get performances of those types of pieces is very difficult.”

Orchestra in Prague

“The biggest challenge for the composer is to get their music performed. This is especially true with orchestra.” — Dr. Michael F. Murray

In his composition lessons, he critiques, gives suggestions, lends encouragement and talks about technical aspects of the music the students are writing. As with most writing, he says to “write what you know” – in this case, write for the instruments you’re most familiar – but the experience with the recording company, orchestra,  producer, conductor and the licensing company proves invaluable to his students, too.

“That goes far beyond putting notes on a page and analyzing what it will sound like. All of the interaction I gained from a professional standpoint –  from how to work with people and see that process all the way through to the end – is something I share with my students,” Murray said.

Perfect harmony: uniting feeling with fundamentals

Starting in elementary school, he began learning the trumpet and guitar, and by high school he was a bass guitarist in several rock bands. He’s also a trained singer and pianist. In college, he became interested in composition and changed his major from computer science to follow that passion of music.

To compose well, though, you must understand theory, Murray noted. And his other area of interest is in musical theory. In 2013, he published a new theory textbook, “Essential Materials of Music Theory” (Linus Publications), for music majors.

“It’s designed to go beyond fundamentals like how to read and write basic music,” he explained. “In it, there is harmony, melody, form. We talk a lot about musical form and its analysis.”

Training the next Olympians

In the health and athletics world, the word train means to practice in order to improve. But in the world of Special Olympics athletes, it means so much more, thanks to a group of students and faculty from Missouri State University. This interdisciplinary group from kinesiology, special education, dietetics, graphic design and computer science developed TRAIN, Testing Recreation Activities and Improving Nutrition, in 2009 and 2010.

“People with intellectual disabilities often stick to the same things because they’re familiar; it’s part of their routine. TRAIN helps them to identify sports that they might be good at in Special Olympics,  something new to try, based on their skill sets and abilities,” said Natalie Allen, dietetics instructor and dietitian for Missouri State athletics. “I think that’s one of the neatest things about it. It helps people to branch out and tells them you might be really good at bowling, swimming or basketball, why don’t you give that a try?”

At Special Olympics games or recreational events for individuals with intellectual disabilities (like the ones hosted by Arc of the Ozarks), TRAIN is offered  to test abilities and introduce healthy eating and hydrating habits. It takes many groups of people to make it successful: exercise and movement science majors and physical education majors run the stations and often complete the physical activity (shuttle run or sit and reach for example) stations with the participant to make sure they understand what is expected; special education students escort and assist the athletes throughout the activities; dietetics students provide information on healthy eating and drinking habits (explaining what food would build muscle or provide energy). Computer science students designed the software that is used, while graphic design students designed the resource materials.

“To get a full profile, we take the data on the form and their assessments from the stations. Then it’s all entered into SNAPPER, the software program, and it prints out their areas of strength,” said Dr. Tamara Arthaud, head of the counseling, leadership and special education department at Missouri State.

Dr. Rebecca Woodard

“It’s wonderful. Students who have limited touch points with people with intellectual disabilities get to see them in their own culture. They get so see how they live life, and how they interact with friends.” — Dr. Rebecca Woodard

TRAIN is based on an assessment previously designed and administered by the Special Olympics called SHIP, which was very medically driven, according to Arthaud. Missouri State Alum Dave Lennox, vice president for leadership development and education at Special Olympics, Inc., recruited interns from Missouri State who then developed an assessment protocol called FIT, which later was revised into what TRAIN is today.

“This project was picked up by the Finish Line, and they provide all the materials for free,” added Arthaud. “Anyone who wants to do a TRAIN event in their community can contact the Special Olympics, and they will send them a kit with all of the information and all the materials needed. It’s nationwide now because the Finish Line is supporting it, and we are extremely proud that all of these materials were designed by interns from Missouri State.”

A winning experience for all

Everyone agrees the experience is a win-win for the faculty, students and participants. Dr. Rebecca Woodard, professor of kinesiology, requires TRAIN participation in many of her courses as her students need hands-on experience with adapted physical activity. In addition to that experience, though, she sees the interaction as a way of expanding students’ perspectives.

“It’s wonderful. Students who have limited touch points with people with intellectual disabilities get to see them in their own culture. They get so see how they live life, and how they interact with friends,” she said.

Looking beyond the surface to reveal our hidden past

Beauty may be skin deep, but like archaeology, it’s what lies beneath the surface that counts. That’s certainly true for Dr. Elizabeth Sobel, associate professor of anthropology at Missouri State University, who thinks the secrets of the past reveal a great deal about who we are today.

Gravestone of Henry McKinley

During the pre-Civil War period, Henry McKinley owned about 900 acres of land and held about 15 slaves. Sobel’s field work involved attempting to locate slave quarters at the site.

Growing up, Sobel enjoyed learning about history and the natural environment. “I have always been interested in the human past,” she said. “The field of anthropology, specifically the sub-field of archaeology, brought all my interests together. Archaeologists investigate the human past by studying the material remains of past human activity.”

Sobel, who recently co-authored several chapters in the book, “Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia” and has received several grants for work on the Trail of Tears, has long been excited about working on projects involving indigenous and marginalized social and ethnic groups.

Almost from the start of her career, Sobel was drawn to the study of indigenous Americans. “Some of my earliest experiences in that area occurred when I was in college, when I did an internship with the National Park Service at the Little Big Horn National Monument in Montana, where I got to know some Crow, Cheyenne and Lakota people.” During college, she also interned with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Nevada, in the homeland of Paiute people. These experiences helped her see the benefits of partnerships between archeologists and the descendants of people they study, a practice she has continued with her other projects.

Bringing out a people’s past in ways that haven’t been told completely, or honestly, is one way of bringing about greater equality today, according to Sobel.

“A broader interest I have is trying to help bring to light the heritage of traditionally marginalized social, ethnic and cultural groups – indigenous Americans, African Americans, uneducated immigrants, all of which is a broader movement in recent decades in anthropology, history and other fields. That is an area that is especially appealing to me because it has so much relevance to people today.”

Closer to campus, Sobel, along with graduate and undergraduate students, has been exploring these issues among Greene County pioneers. Part of this project involves the archaeology of two nearby sites – the Nathan Boone homestead in Ash Grove, Missouri, and the McKinley farm in Walnut Grove, Missouri.

The work focused on spatial layout of the sites, the buildings and other structures, as well as graveyards. Sobel’s group, with the assistance of Dr. Kevin Mickus, MSU professor of geology, used ground penetrating radar to reveal underground items, including several graves that were hidden by time. Some of those interred were likely slaves, and buried with them, some of the history of African Americans in southwest Missouri.

Dr. Elizabeth Sobel

“Looking at the trajectories of McKinley family members, as well as of people who were slaves under McKinley, and their descendants gives us insight into race relations and African American heritage in this region.” – Dr. Elizabeth Sobel

Although southwest Missouri did not have large slave populations, there were some slave owners. One of the larger operations in the area was the McKinley farm, where Sobel conducted her 2013 archaeological field school. During the pre-Civil War period, Henry McKinley owned about 900 acres of land and held about 15 slaves. Sobel’s field work involved attempting to locate slave quarters at the site. Because there is not much of a written record from an African American perspective from that era, archeological evidence can yield unique information about slaves’ daily lives.

While she hoped to find evidence of slave quarters at the McKinley site, she and her students were unable to do so. “It was somewhat disappointing, but not unexpected,” Sobel said. “Slavery did not occur on a large scale in southwest Missouri. Sometimes owners and slaves would live together. Or, owners would initially build a small, basic structure for themselves, and later move into a larger house while using the earlier structure as slave housing.” Buildings often had minimal foundations and were made of wood, according to Sobel, and re-used for many purposes thereafter, so little or nothing remains from the original structure as archaeological evidence.

Nonetheless, by combining what written records exist from the antebellum period, along with oral history and artifacts gathered from these and other archaeological sites, researchers can provide a clearer picture about the lives of African Americans as well as Euroamericans during this period.

“Looking at the trajectories of McKinley family members, as well as of people who were slaves under McKinley, and their descendants gives us insight into race relations and African American heritage in this region.”

Couple joins forces to reveal Pixar’s hidden messages

Imagine you’re munching on popcorn with your kids watching the latest animated movie, and you continue to be amazed by the spectacular visuals, musical cues and overall entertainment value. But according to Drs. Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam, Missouri State professors in the department of English, you should be focused on the messages within the films that viewers often overlook. In fact, the married couple and parents of two has spent the last two years researching those messages held within Pixar films, specifically those involving boys and masculinity.


Cast of Characters:
Large, masculine, athletic hero
Various others who admire the hero

On the one hand, the Pixar films are quite progressive and portray men as warm and fatherly, but they often vacillate between this family-man persona and a hyper-masculine male representing a “boys don’t cry” attitude.

Boys playing with toys

“The project started in the car,” said Wooden. “We were on a road trip and listening to “Cars” on the DVD player for the nine hundredth time. We started talking about the way the characters treated each other and the way the film represented winners and losers.”

Having two little boys has given Wooden and Gillam great opportunities to examine the messages in the films, as well as their children’s immediate reactions to it. One example Gillam noted is one of Pixar’s more recent films, “Monsters University,” which shows Mike Wazowski getting bullied for his small stature throughout the film. Eventually, Wazowski learns to accept his role in society rather than fight against predetermined stereotypes.

“What kind of message is that to send to kids?” asked Wooden. “If you have the misfortune to not be born in the right kind of male body, you may as well get used to life as a loser. Try to learn to be happy in your second place — or lower — status, because your options here are find complacency in your ‘lesser than’ status or get really angry, like the lemons did in “Cars 2,” and become punished for an alternative, oppositional form of masculinity.”

Lack of big muscles and broad shoulders isn’t the only thing that Pixar views negatively. Creativity and inventiveness aren’t always a positive trait when it comes to the films, and they are often associated with villainous behavior.

“Take Sid Phillips in “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 3” — he’s a rambunctious, but probably really bright, kid and he’s not doing anything wrong per se,” said Gillam. “He’s taking toys apart and things like that, but the very concept of the movie is that human beings don’t know toys have a kind of life outside being an inanimate object. So in taking heads off and blowing stuff up, Sid is just a kid playing rough.”


Cast of Characters:
Various other movie goers

Wooden and Gillam see numerous opportunities in the films to break these negative stereotypes. Pixar is a powerhouse for establishing social norms, and if applied in a positive manner, these stereotypes could easily be changed or even dismissed entirely, they noted.

“They’ve got incredible influence over establishing, affirming and maintaining cultural norms for kids,” said Wooden. “They’re not the only ones obviously — all society contributes to establishing how kids see the world — but they are a big, powerful, ideological force. Besides, it’s animation. There’s opportunity and potential to rewrite some of these scripts. They don’t have to make Sid the hero of the film, but they could make Sid anything.”

Evan Clark

Gillam and Wooden’s first book, “Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age,” was released in April 2014. The book details their research into Pixar’s portrayals of masculinity over the years, and they hope that it calls attention to an often overlooked issue in today’s society.

“Somebody had to be the first person to complain about the Disney princesses’ stifling representation of women, right?” said Wooden. “A parallel conversation for boys hasn’t started, but we’re trying to start it…so people become aware of what they are watching and what their kids are watching.”

Psychology study takes unique look at visual learning

You’re driving on the Interstate with traffic all around you. In tiny increments of time, you are cognitively aware: That’s a red Accord. That’s a blue Camry. That’s a semi.

You don’t have to pay conscious attention for minutes to identify each and every vehicle. This is because of past experiences: With repetition of events, such as observing types of automobiles you see frequently, there is an increase in familiarity. As a result, there is a decrease in neural activity regarding these automobiles and your conscious attention is directed elsewhere.

But wait — a DeLoreanwith a flux capacitor has moved next to you. It catches your attention … and in all likelihood, you take longer looks at the DeLorean and your heart rate decreases.

To psychologists, these looks and this change in heart rate are physiological signs that you are having a “response to novelty” and are actively encoding new information. If you saw the DeLorean regularly, it would be what they call a “habitual experience.” Your visual attention to the car would decrease, and changes in your heart rate would not occur.

Dr. D. Wayne Mitchell

Dr. D. Wayne Mitchell, associate professor of psychology at Missouri State, is in the first phases of a three-year study to examine visual scanning patterns, and associated heart-rate changes, in both infants and adults.

Psychology professor starting a study on visual scanning, changes in heart rate

How quickly a person habituates to experiences is tied to physical and mental development.

Babies who are 2 to 3 months old may look at a new object for as long as eight minutes, learning its visual characteristics. In just a few more months, if they develop normally, they scan the object more exhaustively and quickly.

As an infant pays visual attention to a new object, his or her heart rate tends to decrease. How much it decreases, it is argued, reflects how much information is learned about the new object.

At-risk populations — for example, individuals with mental retardation, attention deficit disorder or schizophrenia, and infants with developmental delays — tend to visually scan new objects differently than normal individuals. The at-risk individuals may continue to take longer looks and may never fully habituate to some experiences. Autistic children, for example, do not look at faces the way others do — they tend to avoid looking at emotion centers such as eyes, noses and mouths, which are the areas of the face most individuals scan first.

Dr. D. Wayne Mitchell, associate professor of psychology at Missouri State, is in the first phases of a three-year study to examine visual scanning patterns, and associated heart-rate changes, in both infants and adults.

He hopes the research leads to new ways to detect developmental problems in infancy or early childhood, then to the creation of new intervention methods to improve visual learning. Hopefully, the findings will prevent developmental delays in at-risk infants and young children.

Eye-tracking technology leads to exceptional amounts of data

Mitchell and his students place research participants in front of an apparatus called a Tobii eye tracker. Tobii looks like a regular computer monitor, but it’s really collecting a gold mine of visual data. The participant is also attached to electrodes via a separate computer and laboratory system. These record and monitor heart rate.

Next, the participant is shown a series of black-and-white images on the Tobii screen.

“We try to develop stimuli that are something you’ve never seen before,” Mitchell said. He and his students design abstract shapes, make line drawings of animals and modify photos of faces.

Toddler visual testing

“The more we can understand developmental and individual differences in visual learning and scanning, the better we can develop appropriate interventions to help those infants and young children with learning deficits.” — Dr. D. Wayne Mitchell

Tobii’s software compiles information about where the participant has looked, how many times they looked there, how long they looked and how rapidly they responded to different areas of the image. Researchers can then compare visual patterns created by those with and without developmental delays or disabilities.

“This gives us more data than we could even hope to get elsewhere,” said Bret Eschman, an experimental psychology graduate student. “It gathers so much information so quickly.”

This data is unique to Missouri State: Although the Tobii is increasing in popularity among researchers, it appears few are using it to study early visual development. Mitchell said he doesn’t know of any other infant researchers who are investigating both visual scanning and changes in heart-rate data at the same time.

Mitchell’s study started in January. He hopes to test at least 200 to 300 participants, ranging from ages 4 months to adult.

“The more we can understand developmental and individual differences in visual learning and scanning,” he said, “the better we can develop appropriate interventions to help those infants and young children with learning deficits.”