Archive for 2016

Dr. Eric Nelson

History and memory: Making peace after religious conflict

In the spring of 1562, France erupted into the first of many religious wars between Protestants and Catholics.

Dr. Eric Nelson

Photo by Jesse Scheve

Throughout the better part of the next three decades, Protestants engaged in iconoclasm, or the destruction of religious images and relics, as they believed their reverence was a form of idolatry. In the process, they demolished a multitude of sites and artifacts sacred to Catholics.

But what happens after the dust settles?

“My real interest isn’t in the smashing of the relics. I think that story is pretty straightforward,” said Dr. Eric Nelson, professor of history at Missouri State University. “It’s what you do after something like that happens. I think that’s where the story can unlock a whole new set of ideas.”

History and memory, according to Nelson, are two very different ways of remembering the past. While the history of these battles illuminates the divide between Catholics and Protestants, the memory of what happened has the ability to reconcile differences between the two sides.

How does this happen? This is Nelson’s primary research question and has been at the root of his recently published monograph “The Legacy of Iconoclasm: Religious War and the Relic Landscape of Tours, Blois and Vendôme 1550-1750.”

“Once blood is shed over religious ideas, it’s very difficult to make peace,” said Nelson. “I’m interested in peacemaking after violent religious conflicts.”

Pillaged and plundered

Saint Francis of Paola, born around 1416, was the founder of the Minims, a Roman Catholic order of friars.

Francis, a renowned healer and miracle worker, spent much of his later life in Tours, France, where a Minim monastery would eventually be built. Francis died in 1507 and was later canonized by Leo X in 1519.

On April 2, 1562, Protestant forces captured the city of Tours, and on April 7, they seized the Minim monastery. During the looting, troops forced open Francis’ tomb and cremated his remains, destroying the precious relics of the order’s founder.

While this account of the events of the day is truthful and factual, it is very different from the story that Nelson had come to know.

Images of text from Minim monastery

Submitted by Dr. Eric Nelson

A saint and a martyr

Nelson, who has studied European religious history for over a decade, discovered stark differences between what he thought happened and what actually happened by visiting sites of iconoclasm in Europe and diving deep into the archives of Tours and the Vatican.

“After going back to the documents in the actual archive, I realized almost nothing about the Minim version of the story is actually true,” said Nelson. “But the story they came up with was much better than what actually happened.”

In their account of the burning of Francis’ remains, Minim historians assert that Protestants failed in their effort to weaken devotions to the saint. Instead of a victory for the forces of evil, the burning of his body represented God’s good will and favor toward the saint, allowing him to rise to the title of “martyr.”

Evil men, as one Minim historian concluded, became “the instruments for the honor and glory of our Saint.”

Peace through memory

Dr. Eric Nelson studying a text

Submitted by Dr. Eric Nelson

As Nelson compared notes between the two accounts, he discovered a profound intersection between history, memory and peacemaking.

“Francis’ grave was desecrated — his bones were burnt and spread to the winds,” said Nelson. “If the Minim had to stick to what actually happened, it’d be much harder to make peace. Instead, they focus on a much more positive point of view.”

As a member of the international Sixteenth Century Studies Society, Nelson’s discoveries are helping reshape the narrative of early modern French and European history, according to Dr. Amanda Eurich, professor of history at Western Washington University.

“His imaginative insights allow us to recapture the spiritual worlds of the past,” said Eurich. “It reminds us that the religious violence and iconoclasm wars not only marked the physical landscape of France, but also cultural memory for generations.”

“People think of history as a series of events that happens that you memorize and then there’s a test and you’re done. In reality, history’s a living thing. It’s always evolving. Every generation writes its own history.” – Dr. Eric Nelson

According to Nelson, this reimagining of history is powerful: “What people think happened is sometimes far more important than what actually happened. The real reality is the story they constructed — that’s the power of memory in peace making.”

Knowing how history evolves and is shaped by memory is paramount to today’s society, because religious violence is with us for the foreseeable future.

“We know how to get into religious wars just fine — we can start them really easily,” said Nelson. “It’s how you get out and make peace afterwards — that’s where the real lesson is learned.”

A turtle’s tale of survival

Few of us understand all that is entailed in a species becoming listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, though most believe conservation efforts for imperiled species are noble. Conducting research to aid the conservation of a species whose numbers have declined is often challenging precisely because of the difficulty in locating individuals. This can be especially true for animals that are secretive and therefore difficult to detect even in the best of circumstances.

Dr. Ligon reintroducing a turtle to a habitat

Submitted by Dr. Day Ligon

One such species is the alligator snapping turtle which, after decades of population declines, has been petitioned for federal listing as an endangered species three times. The most recent petition is currently under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These large turtles are of particular interest to Dr. Day Ligon, associate professor of biology at Missouri State University, who has published prolifically about them.

His specialty is reintroduction biology – a subset of conservation biology – that works to increase populations of animals by reintroducing them in their historic range to re-establish populations that can sustain themselves without human intervention.

Who’s to blame for this depressed number of alligator snapping turtles? According to Ligon, channelization of rivers and construction of dams have had huge impacts.

So, too, has people’s affinity for turtle meat. As other large species, such as sea turtles, were granted protection from commercial harvesting, pressure on alligator snapping turtles to fill this niche market increased. As a result, alligator snapping turtles were harvested at much higher rates than populations could sustain.

In practice, these and many other turtles are sensitive to even low harvest rates because they take so long to mature and begin reproducing. It can take decades for a population to recover from the removal of even a few large adults.

Close-up of alligator snapping turtle

Photo by Kevin White

Below the surface

Alligator snapping turtles, which are endemic to the southeastern United States, can solely be found in the rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

“They’re big, impressive, ugly-but-charismatic turtles that almost nobody ever sees, because they’re so highly aquatic. They probably spend less time on land or basking on logs than any other freshwater turtle species in the United States,” said Ligon.

Due to this aquatic nature, these turtles don’t move around dams easily. In the rivers that feed into the Gulf of Mexico, many dams exist, making it next to impossible for a population to become reestablished after it’s been cleared out. However, if the habitat is otherwise in good condition, animals reintroduced into these isolated river segments often can thrive.

Unfortunately, restoration ecology is becoming a more and more important discipline because habitats are not being preserved at an adequate rate.

Turtle hatchlings

Submitted by Dr. Day Ligon

Ligon, along with his graduate students, spend the summers at the Caney River on the Kansas and Oklahoma border and at Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery in southeastern Oklahoma – run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – studying the secret underwater lives of alligator snapping turtles. This progression of research projects, funded by more than half a million dollars since Ligon joined Missouri State’s faculty, continues to fill in gaps of knowledge, allowing for more informed conservation management decisions.

In 2002, Ligon joined forces with this fish hatchery, which at that time had 16 adult alligator snapping turtle in its captive breeding program. In 2008, they began releasing animals back into their natural environments. Now, they produce 500-600 hatchlings each year, keep them in captivity until they have grown and are less prone to predation, then release them into areas where the species has disappeared.

When the animals are released, Ligon and his team continue to gain information on critical research questions.

“We learn a lot about how many of them survive, how fast they grow and when they start reproducing,” said Ligon. “Once we start seeing reproduction, and then ultimately recruitment of new animals into the population that we didn’t put there, that will be the point at which we can really start saying with some confidence that it seems to be working.”

“If you see a snapping turtle crossing the road, it’s not an alligator snapping turtle — ever.” — Dr. Day Ligon

Dr. Ligon laying on ground holding a turtle in the air

Submitted by Dr. Day Ligon

According to Daren Riedle, Ligon’s collaborator and ecologist at the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, “Ligon’s research program is unique as it is one of the few that takes experimental approaches to addressing questions of physiological ecology, particularly reproductive biology, and makes it applicable to applied management of the species in the wild.”

Kerry Graves, manager of Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery, also notes Ligon’s unique approach to work.

“I don’t think Day wore shoes any of the first 10 or 12 years of our partnership. He was barefoot in all types of weather and on all types of terrain – including wading in the alligator snapper ponds. I was concerned about his brain and his toes until I got to know him,” said Graves.

Turtles in observation containers

Photo by Kevin White

Reintroduction success

Scientists can determine the age of a tree by the rings in the trunk. Human age can be estimated by wrinkles, size, life experience, or, from a biologist’s perspective, by analyzing the telomeres of chromosomes. But determining the age of a turtle is complex. Their shells show growth rings (similar to those of trees) until they reach the age of sexual maturation, but after that initial growth period, their age is a mystery.

Dr. Ligon holding a turtle in his hand

Photo by Kevin White

“For young alligator snapping turtles, we can tell how old they are pretty precisely – within a year,” he said. “Growth just drops off precipitously as they start re-allocating energy to reproduction.”

The first hatchlings Ligon assisted with in 2002 are just now old enough to become reproductively active. Because of this, major impacts to populations may not be evident for another generation. In fact, noted Riedle, studying one population is a lifetime endeavor on the part of the researcher.

“The most gratifying portion of the research has been seeing these turtles reintegrated back into systems where they historically occurred, but from which they’ve been absent for decades,” he said. “To see them become reestablished and become a part of the overall aquatic community again is very, very rewarding to me.”

She studies swimming and scampering species

Under rocks and logs, in burrows and underwater, Dr. Alicia Mathis finds fascinating creatures to study. Mathis, head of the biology department at Missouri State University, focuses her research on the behaviors of tiny amphibians and fish, but also on the second largest salamander in the world, the hellbender, which is listed as an endangered species.

Although she sees the beauty in the way they move and communicate, so much of their lives are hidden from the average hiker. Sometimes these animals are hiding from predators, while other times, they only seem hidden due to their small size and cryptic colors: Terrestrial and stream salamanders are only the size of an earthworm.

So, to me, it’s incredible. I have to emphasize, we’re talking about an animal the size of an earthworm and yet they can do all of this incredible stuff.

Mathis argues that these species each are intricate and fascinating despite their size.

“We have all these ideas about the challenges animals encounter and how they have adapted to meet those challenges,” she said. In a natural habitat, these challenges include: avoiding predators, finding mates, dealing with competition, and locating good habitats and food. “What can animals do to increase their probability of survival and reproductive success? That’s really the bottom line as far as biology is concerned. Everything, from the way your cells work to the way ecosystems work boils down to this.”

Former graduate student Ben Dalton holding and observing a salamander

Photo by Jesse Scheve

Communicating like a terrestrial salamander

Even if you find these creatures a little creepy, Mathis says they can serve as a model for addressing questions about sensory behavior in other species, including humans.

In the field of behavioral ecology, or the study of how animal behavior evolves due to ecological changes, she delves deeply into aggression and territorial behavior, predation responses and pheromones. The methods of communication she’s seen are far more sophisticated and complex than people might assume.

Terrestrial salamanders, for instance, which abound in forests, are ideal for studying issues of competition and territoriality, according to Mathis. They defend territories, fight over patches of forest floor to maintain access to food sources and females guard their eggs.

Ben Dalton looks through dead leaves

Photo by Jesse Scheve

“It turns out that there’s some interesting social behavior going on. In some species where males and females form pair bonds, they pay attention to whether their partners have been cheating on them.”

Unlike a peacock that can flaunt its feathers or a frog that can croak its displeasure, these terrestrial salamanders don’t advertise themselves visually or vocally. Instead, they produce territorial pheromones like many mammals, and Mathis studies how these salamanders can communicate chemically only by olfactory cues.

She, in collaboration with former graduate student Ben Dalton, found that through these pheromones, the animals can discern whether the other animal is of their own species or a different species. They can also tell sex, whether the other animal is familiar to them and whether it’s from a neighboring or adjoining territory.

“Then we start getting into weird stuff, like they can tell what type of diet the other animal has been eating: high-quality or low-quality? They can tell whether the other animal is parasitized or not, which might tell them something about the condition of their opponent, and it might tell them if they should hang out with that other individual. Then they can differentiate and respond differently in each context.”

The study became the basis for Dalton’s thesis, as well as a conference presentation and an article in Chemoecology. Over the years, Mathis and her students have co-authored over 70 journal articles and book chapters, made over 100 conference presentations and received over $125,000 in external grant funding for her work.

Dr. Mathis supervises a student conducting research

Photo by Bob Linder

Lab and field

At Missouri State, many biology undergraduates and almost all graduate students perform research under the supervision of their advisers. Mathis enjoys exploring the answers to the research questions her students pose.

Though a microscope isn’t needed to study the responses of these animals, she and her graduate students have had to employ creative techniques to follow some of these animals in her studies.

A student looks for salamanders in an algae-filled water hole

Photo by Jesse Scheve

“We have done some field work, including snorkeling and following darter fish while using an apparatus to expose them to the chemical cues we introduced in the water, which was pretty cool,” she said. “And we’ve gotten verification that they were responding the way we’d seen them respond in the lab.”

While snorkeling through streams and ponds, digging past water table levels in streams that have run dry, and camping out next to the waterways to observe the nightly behaviors of these animals is exhilarating, most of the work takes place in a lab that simulates their natural habitats. Their practicality is a primary reason these animals are Mathis’ first choice subject in her 350 square foot lab.

“For some of them, their natural habitats include burrows, so being in a really small space is something they like,” she said. “They also adapt really well to the lab and show no signs of stress with people walking in front of the cages.”

Sound the alarm: Big discoveries

Her post-doc work led her to Canada, where she continued her chemical communication research, but she expanded it to learn more about interactions between predators and prey. More specifically, she looked at how chemical cues help stickleback and minnows (more appropriate research subjects for that region) survive predatory encounters. When minnow skin is scratched by a predator, it releases an alarm pheromone, which conveys to other animals that there’s an active predator in the area, causing the fish to flee, seek shelter or school tightly together.

“Clearly minnows that respond to that chemical are going to increase their likelihood of survival. But one of the most eye-opening discoveries from the study was that there could be cross-species responses,” she said. “It’s not only that minnows can respond to alarm cues from other minnows, but they could also respond to other really distantly related fish, like stickleback. They can respond across very large taxonomic divisions.”

At Missouri State, she and undergraduate student Michael Lampe demonstrated that terrestrial salamanders can respond to alarm cues from earthworms, which is significant since they have similar predators. And current graduate student Kelsey Anderson is looking at the responses of darters – little stream fish – to salamander alarm cues.

“It is not surprising when animals that are closely related intercept information from each other and respond appropriately. It’s a bit shocking, though, when animals that are very different from each other can interpret signals from each other,” she said. “The ability of animals to eavesdrop on signals sent by individuals in other species can be a great benefit by leading to increased survival in the face of predation.”

Close-up of a salamander on a leaf

Photo by Jesse Scheve

New questions

Though she started some of this work as early as her dissertation, she’s conducted follow-up studies using Ozarks species since she came to Missouri State in 1993. It’s a “treasure trove of salamanders,” she jokes.

At that point, she also decided to merge some of her previous interests and studies to understand how predation risk influences territorial behavior and answer this question: Does experiencing high risk of predation influence the way an animal defends its territory?

Dr. Mathis works with graduate student Sarah Heimbach

Photo by Bob Linder

This is the premise for more studies with graduate student Jenny Parsons. They found that individual salamanders in their own territories continued to defend their territories even upon predation risk, but salamanders in foreign territories became more submissive following exposure to a predation risk. A new student, Sara Heimbach, is continuing this research.

One study always leads to the next – innate curiosity is essential to being a scientist, said Mathis – so she then studied antipredator behavior in a pond breeding salamander, the ringed salamander, which is a species of conservation concern in Missouri.

The free-swimming larvae of the ringed salamander are just like tadpoles, and are in grave danger in the pond with major predators like birds, other salamanders, snakes and aquatic insects surrounding them. But how do these larvae recognize predators and survive until metamorphosis? Smell, said Mathis.

In addition to communication and territoriality, Mathis has also examined how these animals learn. For instance, how do they learn which animals pose a threat?

“We’ve deduced from what we’ve seen in a couple of different species that they’re actually learning from each other – so social learning. And we’ve got a couple of studies that show they can learn while they’re still embryos,” she said. “These eggs are basically bathed in information; many smells are surrounding them. We had one experiment that showed that if you housed the eggs in water that predators have been in, the larvae spent more time hiding in vegetation once they hatch than if they weren’t exposed to cues from predators while they were embryos.”

Dr. Alicia Mathis

Photo by Bob Linder

Environmental impacts

When studying chemical communication in these animals, the naked human eye usually can’t see the emitted pheromone. However, for one salamander species in particular, the hellbender, it’s a dramatic frothy white secretion.

Missouri is the only state to call both currently recognized subspecies of hellbenders home, and Mathis has been researching them since 1997. In the last few decades, though, the population of hellbenders in Missouri has declined more than 75 percent.

“When you see these animals and how fabulous they are and how they deal with regular challenges, and then you see environmental challenges being layered on top of that, it’s a huge concern. You have to wonder how long they can continue dealing with these new challenges. It has quite significantly impacted the way I study animal behavior.”

Agricultural runoff and pollution are just two of the concerns for waterways, and Mathis found that hellbenders are great models for environmental studies not only due to their practicality, but also their pickiness for the perfect environment. She noted hellbenders require fast-flowing, cool, clear water to get the proper amount of oxygen, so they serve as an indicator for environmental health and subsequently, public health.

“Biology – it’s very complex in the way that every detail has to work together to produce an outcome, and that’s what interested me in the first place,” she said.

My work is the kind of thing that people generally have some kind of familiarity with because it’s covered on nature documentaries, and people love that stuff!

Dr. S. Brahnam

A mother – and a computer – can differentiate a baby’s cry

As you ask a hologram in an airport for directions, chat with a bot on a computer, or even ask Siri for your schedule, there’s no denying technology is changing the world. Dr. S. Brahnam is at the forefront of some of these developments.

Brahnam, a professor of computer information systems at Missouri State University, has multiple interests in the field of technology. She collaborates on many of these projects with Dr. Loris Nanni from the Università di Bologna in Italy – a collaborator she has never met face-to-face.

One of her many research projects was to develop the machine learning algorithm called the Infant Classification of Pain Expressions. ICOPE was designed to recognize distressed facial expressions in neonatal babies, and it was the first of its kind. Infants at Mercy hospital were photographed while they were experiencing a number of benign nonpain stressors and an acute pain stimulus (the heel lance needed for the state-mandated blood exam).

“Are they in pain or not? You can’t tell because they cry all the time,” joked Brahnam. Furrowed brows and certain mouth or eye shapes can be tell-tale signs, but this system helps to identify pain even if nurses are busy or face blind.

Now she’s preparing to look deeper with the use of video equipment which will not only see the expressions but will measure heart rate, respiration rate or even changes in pixel colors to enhance the ability to classify pain expressions.

Cry with pain
Series of baby facial expressions showing crying due to pain
Cry without pain
Series of baby facial expressions showing crying with no associated pain

The expressions in these photos were used to help Brahnam develop the Infant Classification of Pain Expressions (ICOPE) system. Infants at Mercy hospital were photographed while they were experiencing a number of benign nonpain stressors and an acute pain stimulus. Photos provided by S. Brahnam.

Technology can be art

Dr. Brahnam looks at a skull

Photo by Bob Linder

As a former artist, Brahnam has always been interested in faces and expressions, so when she went back to school, her dissertation actually was to build an artificial artist. In order to do so, she had to train a computer to recognize specific traits and teach it to see people like human beings see people.

First, she developed a dataset of faces that people judged according to a set of traits, and then trained machines to recognize people that looked trustworthy versus untrustworthy, dominate versus submissive, and so on.

“I used facial recognition technology to classify faces according to people’s impressions of faces. I then produced an algorithm to generate from this model novel faces that were calculated to produce specific impressions on people. Artists do something similar when they draw people,” she said. “In this research I was able to show that it was possible for machines to see the social meanings of a person’s physical appearance and reproduce it – something a chatbot might want to do. People adjust their appearances for different occasions. Why not chatbots?” This is a technology Brahnam calls smart embodiment.

But how do you teach a computer?

It all starts with building an algorithm, a training set and a testing set. You begin by showing the computer something from the training set – handwritten letters, for example. The system will guess based on the information pre-programmed in the algorithm. If incorrect, adjustments are made until it can guess correctly. According to Brahnam, the testing set is used to see how well the computer can extrapolate information or how well it can learn when given something new.

“We now live in a world of lots of data – huge stock piles of data. Our brains have not evolved in a big data environment. We can’t handle lots of different data and this is where machines can be very good.”

A ‘cathedral of classifiers’

While processing lots of big data isn’t a human’s forte, Brahnam noted that we are more capable of distinguishing patterns than machines, especially in noisy environments, “because we have this evolutionary history behind us.” Infants and toddlers, she explained, find recognizable patterns, shapes and letters even in a cluster of clutter.

Much of her work deals with developing and improving multi-classifier systems that have many different learning algorithms working together on lots of different data. For example, to detect cancer, there could be a machine with many classifiers running simultaneously, each individually responsible for analyzing demographics, imagery, laboratory readings or instrumental readings. Putting the analyses together, a doctor could get a full picture of whether cancer was present.

“If we have gigantic systems working together, we think that we can make a general purpose classifier system, at least for certain classes of problems. That’s another thing that we are working really hard on: this gothic cathedral of classifiers.”

One way that a multiclassifier system works is for different classifiers to look at different aspects of a problem or data set. The different conclusions are then averaged for a final decision. The story of the blind men and the elephant illustrates the value of this approach. Some people touch the tusk of an elephant and say, “Hmm. It’s made out of stone.” Another person touches the tail and says, “No, it’s fluffy. I think this is the end of a drapery.” Another person hits the legs and says, “This is definitely a tree trunk.” That would be kind of like the classifier systems. Each one is getting different information that if you combine the total picture, you might get an elephant.

Winding road that led to destiny

Is there a more haunting question than ‘What if?’ In Bruce West’s life, he wonders what if he hadn’t turned right onto Business Route 61 one day in 1994. West, a professor of art and design, was on a road trip through rural Mississippi during his sabbatical and wanted to capture the essence of life in the south. That small detour through Vicksburg led him to his inspiration for an 18 year photography project that you might call destiny. He never made it past Margaret’s Grocery. This is the subject of his photographic series and book, “The True Gospel Preached Here.”

Bruce West

In his book, “The True Gospel Preached Here,” Bruce West shares the story of one couple who shared their lives with many.

To his students, he always likens the camera to a magic carpet, which could lead you on a wonderful journey of discovery. And when he found this run down grocery store turned roadside attraction – and school bus turned chapel – he was captivated.

“I wanted to show that to be poor isn’t a crime and that economically disadvantaged people can lead fulfilled and inspired lives, even more fulfilled than rich folks. That certainly was the case with the Reverend H.D. Dennis. He created his own universe that people all over the world came to visit. That was pretty amazing.”

Seeing the world through a new lens

For approximately 20 years prior to his excursion to the south, West had been gaining recognition, exhibiting gorgeous black and white landscape work and housing collections in museums from the Midwest to Verona, Italy. This project was a literal departure from that in just about every way. These characters – the Reverend and Margaret – were as colorful as the folk art palace they had decorated all around them with banal baubles, beads, hair ties and trinkets.

"Mrs. Margaret Dennis Rest in Grocery"

“Mrs. Margaret Dennis Rest in Grocery” 2008. Photo by Bruce West

Margaret’s Grocery, which sold kitchen staples to the surrounding community, was overtaken by the decoration that the Reverend created there. He claimed they were visions from God, and the signs, altars, installations and bus were a ploy to pique curiosity so he could attract visitors to share the gospel.

“If God is in the details, West makes sure to leave nothing unseen here through his sacred photographic language, helping us feel near-scriptural depth through the explicitness of the particular.” — From the forward of “The True Gospel Preached Here”

Experiencing the septuagenarians’ passion for evangelism and art changed this passerby into a member of the family for the Dennises’ final 18 years on Earth.

“Every year I kept going back, and it was always different. I started to realize that this was something really important because there aren’t going to be people like this anymore – people who devote their lives fully to the spiritual and the aesthetic.”

"Alter, Inside Bus/Church"

“Alter, Inside Bus/Church” 2007. Photo by Bruce West

As West grew closer to the couple, they began corresponding, and he began to get more deliberate in what and how he captured their lives on film. He foresaw the possibility of a book that respectfully depicted the work of the Dennises, but he knew his work also told a story of race, age, religion and class.

“It was such a privileged experience because, eventually, they called me their white son.”

"Rev H.D. Dennis Points to God"

“Rev H.D. Dennis Points to God” 2006. Photo by Bruce West

Faith focus

Cheekily, West calls himself a lapsed Catholic, but in all seriousness, he attributes his spirituality as the tie that binds all of his projects together. From showing the majesty of a landscape, to portraying the Dennises as they ‘practiced living perfect for God,’ to looking at religious strife in a series on the The Troubles in Northern Ireland, his photography exposes a longing for the divine.

"True Gospel Preached Here"

“True Gospel Preached Here” 2007. Photo by Bruce West

“One of the benefits with film was I’d have to wait until I got it processed. It gave me a distance from it. Sometimes it could be years and I’d come back and say, ‘oh this is the real surprising one.’” — Bruce West

Though the constant underlying theme might be faith, he is always challenging himself to explore it in a new way. For his latest endeavor, The Small Town Project, he has left the comforts of film and moved to digital. This former East Coaster is trolling around small towns in Missouri to learn more about the state and the humanity of its inhabitants.

“If you’re a scientist you’re trying to learn something new about the world. The same thing with photography. I always approach it from that point of view. Also, as you’re doing that, you’re learning about yourself.”

Dr. Alana R. Kozlowski

Music restores harmony in the lives of those with aphasia

Imagine you have suffered a serious stroke. You are unable to speak or follow a conversation. Since you cannot use language to connect with your family and friends, you become frustrated and depressed.

Dr. Alana Kozlowski talking to groupAlthough you identify yourself as the head of a household, now you are the recipient of care. Your spouse or child has assumed the role of care-provider, which may be a new role as well. The relationships in your family are feeling unbalanced because the power status has changed.

Dr. Alana Kozlowski, Missouri State University communication sciences and disorders assistant professor, studies people with an acquired communication disorder called aphasia. She has been working to develop a way for those with aphasia to have a rewarding, relaxing activity in an environment where those who struggle with verbalization are back on equal footing with those who care for them.

At the same time, she wanted to provide her graduate students with an opportunity to conduct qualitative research. So the Canada native started a community music-making group. She chose this activity because aphasia is caused by an injury to the left hemisphere of the brain, the area that controls language. The right hemisphere controls response to the components of music – melody, harmony and pitch. Participants in the music-making group could hum, tap, sing, or “just be among friends.” No prior musical experience was necessary.

Instead of focusing on what people with aphasia cannot do, Kozlowski and her graduate students are emphasizing what those who struggle with verbalization can do and they are building on those strengths. They are currently using a tool developed by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the Quality of Communication Life Scale, to determine if participating in the music-making sessions has helped people with aphasia gain confidence in their communication abilities and/or living with their communication disorder.

Two women looking over a page of lyrics

Will people with aphasia be willing to engage socially and feel better about it because of this shared successful experience?

Finding the words again

Group of people singing and playing instruments

Someone who entered the room would see 15 people singing “Amazing Grace” and never guess that six of them would not be able to make a simple request such as asking for salt.

Before coming to MSU in 2010, Kozlowski worked for 15 years with individuals with aphasia in rehabilitation and acute-care settings, where her long-range goal often included helping clients “get their words back.” Although she found this type of speech-language therapy “incredibly rewarding,” Kozlowski began to consider what quality of life she could shape for an individual that would be reasonable and patient-driven.

“Often my goal as a speech-language pathologist was to help clients effectively and efficiently express their wants and needs. However, I began to question whether having a shared social experience with or without words may be equally important. Maybe a shared social experience was more important than words to a 75-year-old who had been married 50 years,” she mused.

During the 2015-16 academic year, a small group of people with aphasia and their caregivers joined “team Koz” twice a month to make music in a room at the Springfield-Greene County Library Center. Someone who entered the room would see 15 people singing “Amazing Grace” and never guess that six of them would not be able to make a simple request such as asking for salt.

Embracing the challenge

Harpist Clara Keller

Clara Keller, graduate student and harpist, addresses the group.

Harpist Clara Keller, a music therapist from Poughkeepsie, New York, who is pursuing a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from MSU, accompanied the singers. “I learned how powerful music is as a tool for language and social interaction when speech is lost,” she noted.

A participant whose wife experienced a stroke said she looks forward to the music-making sessions. “In our circles there are not any other people with aphasia,” he stated. “She doesn’t feel like she stands out here. Music comes out when words don’t.” The caregiver for a man who was a popular jazz musician prior to his stroke added that singing in the group enabled him to make friends and gave her an activity to do with him that allowed her to share what he was feeling at the moment.

The students’ research indicated the caregivers did not view the additional time commitment as a burden if it made their persons with aphasia feel integrated into a group and happier. The most surprising finding, Kozlowski said, was that the individuals with aphasia preferred to sing songs with words rather than songs without words, regardless of the difficulty of the song, and preferred to sing rather than play an instrument.

During the first round of sessions Kozlowski and her students validated the value of the sing-alongs in building camaraderie and providing a stress-free opportunity for those with aphasia to successfully communicate with their caregivers. The students presented their research at the Missouri Speech-Language-Hearing Association Convention in April 2016.

“People keep coming back to sing,” Kozlowski added with a smile. “We’re having fun. Can we capture why? Will people with aphasia be willing to engage socially and feel better about it because of this shared successful experience? If so, why would they not get the same positive experience in the store or in church?”

Dr. Erin Buchanan

Answering big questions through statistics

You’ve survived a major catastrophe. While the world you know - including your home, familiar places and potentially your loved ones - have been washed away in this natural disaster, you remain. How do you cope? How do you look at the world? What actions do you take to get your shattered life back together? This ability to bounce back is your resiliency.

Resiliency testing is just one example of many research projects Dr. Erin Buchanan, associate professor of psychology at Missouri State University, has published in recent years. She collaborates with undergraduate and graduate students in her statistics lab as well as with a clinical psychologist at University of Mississippi, Dr. Stefan Schulenberg, on many projects regarding the meaning in life.

“How does meaning in life affect negative life outcomes? That’s the big, broad question. Then we narrow it down to, how does a scale work in predicting negative life outcomes? Does it work the same way for everyone?” said Buchanan. “By negative life outcomes, we mean depression, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, drinking – those sorts of things.”

Clinical people say this a lot, “The right therapy for the right patient at the right time,” or something to that effect. Computer-adaptive testing is built on that. “The right question for the right person at the right time.”

Adding technology to the equation

Buchanan’s role in research projects is to develop scales, test the scales to see if they measure what was intended, and to analyze the variance across demographics. Currently, she and her students are in the midst of testing 47 unique scales with students in introduction to psychology classes. She also collects results through MTURK, Amazon’s answer to incentivized testing.

As a daughter of two computer programmers, she said she felt like the black sheep entering the field of psychology, until she realized that as an experimental psychologist focusing on quantitative analysis, she spent much of her time programming, too – in approximately 12 different languages.

“I’ve always been good at math. I knew I never wanted to work directly in a helping profession. That was never my goal,” she said with a laugh.

Just the way you phrase things can change whether a respondent will say yes or no. Just because it’s culturally relevant.

One of the most prominent projects for Buchanan is to develop a computer-adaptive test. This test starts with an average score, but depending on how a respondent answers, the following questions may be more positive or negative, or might increase or decrease in difficulty.

“Social desirability can come into play, where people will go, ‘Oh, you want me to say positive things,’ or you end up with all happy or all negative answers, and you don’t get anything in the middle,” she explained. “We’re trying to statistically stretch the scale out so we might be able to better predict the negative-life outcomes that come with that.”

Answers divided by race

In the early 2000s, the south suffered two major disasters. After Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, Schulenberg, director of the Clinical-Disaster Research Center at Ole Miss, contracted with Buchanan to test the resiliency of the people of the area.

“I hear this a lot from clinical students, ‘Why do I need statistics? I just want to help people.’ My answer is, ‘Because you have to be able to read these articles and understand the implications the variations in responses people make.'”

“We have a primary focus in disaster mental health and a secondary focus in positive psychology,” said Schulenberg. “Dr. Buchanan has been a tremendous asset to our team for a number of years incorporating sophisticated statistical analyses.”

The resiliency scales were found to be valid and effective, but analysis showed differences between white and black respondents.

“While we end up with the same overall score, white participants were much more likely to have a real short spread of scores. They would only pick the middle, while the black participants would pick the entire range,” she said. “If you’re black in Mississippi you’re much more likely to be one or two steps below socioeconomically. Obviously that’s going to matter for resiliency, right? We were trying to argue that the effects weren’t due to innate resiliency of people, but more due to circumstance.”

Previous research had shown that culture-fairness plays a part in standard and computer-adaptive testing, sometimes resulting in artificial differences because respondents inferred something into the question that might not have been intended. Similarly, Buchanan noted that black people from an early age learn a different dynamic of power and authority, causing differences in way they may perform on tests. So, word selection is key – whether it’s a test about your resiliency or a statewide mandated comprehension test, the testing agent desires representative results.

Buchanan’s two favorite scientists: Chien-Shiung Wu – she developed Cobalt-60 for the atom bomb, so she was part of the Manhattan Project. Alan Turing – he was a mathematical genius that solved so many issues, and actually only got the money to build those giant decoding machines by accident. He also created the first artificial intelligence test. They still use his code: the Turing test.

Dr. Victor Matthews

An everyday life of Biblical proportions

On May 22, 2011, a devastating E5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri. Dr. Victor Matthews, dean of the College of Humanities and Public Affairs and professor of religious studies, visited the town only a few days after the storm destroyed much of the town. A Joplin native, Matthews wanted to see what had become of his childhood home.

“The house I grew up in and every school I went to was destroyed,” said Matthews. “Much of me went away in the sky, and yet I was able to go back down there and identify what was remaining of the structure that was my childhood home.”

Matthews took a picture of the ruins and uses it in class as a way of talking about how space is still present in our memories. This speaks to his area of expertise: the history and culture of the Biblical era. Though physical remains may be few, the everyday lives of the people from this time can be better understood by studying the stories and artifacts that they left behind.

‘What the devil are they doing?’

How do we learn more about the ancient world? This is one of Matthews’ research questions. He says it’s important to understand that we tend to filter everything through our modern scope.

“We are trying to find out what the devil they were doing. Unfortunately, this often means applying our modern viewpoint and totally skewing the whole thing.”

Biblical narratives, like most stories, assume that the audience shares a defined set of social understandings or customs. When we don’t know what these customs are, we must use several different methods to try to discover them.

“I have made good use of modern research and analytical methods in the social sciences —sociology, anthropology, psychology, communications — to evaluate the ‘human moments’ in the narratives,” said Matthews. “For example, when I examined the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, I looked for the social cues in the story: clothing, marriage status, power relationships, gender, speech patterns and the physical placement of the characters.”

Matthews applied these methods when writing and researching his most recent publication, the fourth edition of “The Cultural World of the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to Manners and Customs.” It is one of 17 books he has authored, and he has published numerous articles on the subject as well.

Putting together a large puzzle

“When we say cultural world, what it basically says to people is that we’re going to talk about everyday life. What did they eat? What did they wear? How did they celebrate? What were their burial practices? What kind of weapons did they use?” he said. “All kinds of topics like that.”

There are several ways we can learn the answers to questions like these: written records, including the Biblical text and extrabiblical documents; physical remains such as tomb paintings and grave goods, garbage heaps, and the ruins of buildings, which are studied by archaeologists; and the study of both modern and ancient cultures via analogy.

“Reconstruction of the world of ancient Israel is like putting together a large puzzle,” said Matthews. “Some of what I included in the book came from my own travels in the Middle East, some from basic research and discussion with colleagues, and some from studying how other authors shaped their treatment of the subject.”

Talking about talking: analyzing conversations

Matthews, who has been a Biblical scholar for more than 30 years, has also recently focused on the conversations that occur in these Biblical narratives and what they can tell us about the characters and their daily lives.

“There is a lot of conversational analysis in communications, sociology, anthropology and psychology,” said Matthews. “I got interested in seeing how the different disciplines analyzed conversation, but, of course, what I’m working with is text. I have narratives with embedded dialogue.”

“It allowed me to develop a richer understanding about the setting of the story, the human drama associated with a childless widow, the importance of clothing as a social marker and the role that place—physical location—holds in determining how humans interact.” (Matthews on studying the human moments in narratives.)

Matthews studied the way these disciplines researched conversations, which mostly consisted of analyzing live conversations. He applied many of the techniques and concepts they used to the narratives he was studying and was able to discover previously unknown contexts. His book, “More Than Meets the Ear: Discovering the Hidden Contexts of Old Testament Conversations,” was published in 2008 and led to a journal article in 2014, “Choreographing Embedded Dialogue in Biblical Narratives.”

Matthews graduated from Missouri State in 1972 with a bachelor of arts degree in history, and received his masters and doctorate in Near Eastern and Judaic studies from Brandeis University in 1973 and 1977 respectively. He has spent most of his career focused on the historical aspects of religious studies, and looks forward to continuing his studies on ancient Biblical culture and writing about what daily life was like thousands of years ago.

Dr. Adam Wanekaya

Small particles, big impact? Exploring how nanomaterials decompose

These days, "nanomaterials" — extremely tiny materials — are found in many consumer goods.

Silver, known for antibacterial and anti-odor properties, may be in everything from athletic wear to cutting boards. Zinc oxide, which prevents sun damage, has been used in sunscreen and woven into fabric for clothing. Carpet may be treated with nanoscale materials that prevents it from absorbing spills. Carbon-based nanomaterials are found in cell phones and televisions.

One thing is sure: The trend of nanotechnology means we are all more likely to buy goods with these tiny particles, and, later, dispose of these products.

What’s less certain is the affect of these nanomaterials on the environment as these goods decompose in landfills.

“I wanted to do research with undergraduate students, not just students studying for a PhD. Here are Missouri State, some of my best research has been done by undergraduates.” — Dr. Adam Wanekaya

Dr. Adam Wanekaya, associate professor of chemistry, has researched nanomaterials since his days as a doctoral student in the early 2000s.

For the last three years, he has been leading a project with undergraduate and graduate students at Missouri State who are studying how nanomaterials age in an accelerated weathering chamber. The research shows how these particles will react in conditions similar to those they would experience outdoors.

“What is the fate of those particles after three, 10, 20 years? We want to make sure they don’t contribute to diseases such as leukemia, or cause harm to plants, animals or the environment,” Wanekaya said. “Some of us recall how asbestos was previously thought to be a wonder material, only to later realize it was the cause of many deadly diseases.”

African collaborations

Dr. Adam Wanekaya

Photo by Jesse Scheve

Dr. Adam Wanekaya is originally from Kenya, and came to the U.S. for doctoral studies. He started working at Missouri State in 2006. He is currently part of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program, which encourages collaboration between scholars from Africa who now live in Canada or the U.S. and scholars who currently live in Africa.

Wanekaya traveled to a university in Nigeria for six weeks in 2015. One scientist he met there, who works with solar cells, came to Missouri State in January 2016 and planned to stay for six months to engage in research on campus.

A collection of glass chemistry flasks hanging on a drying rack

Photo by Jesse Scheve

Creating conditions that mimic the outdoors

At least once a week, senior Molly Duszynski heads into a chemistry lab at Temple Hall.

First, she attaches carbon nanotubes to glass slides.

Next, she takes the slides to an accelerated weathering tester, where they fit into holders designed for them.

“It has been really awesome to learn about carbon nanotubes and the overall process of real research.” — Molly Duszynski, biochemistry/microbiology double major

Now, the chamber is closed. It’s time for Duszynski to make decisions about what kind of conditions the slides will face. The chamber has UVA-340 bulbs, which provide the best possible simulation of sunlight. It is also attached to a tank that holds water free of minerals or impurities. She, Wanekaya or others on the project may adjust lighting, humidity, temperature and more to simulate sunlight, rain and dew. The chamber can create conditions for night, evening, afternoon or morning, or cycle through those.

In a few days or weeks, the machine can reproduce the decomposition that would occur in months or years outdoors.

Wanekaya’s team has chosen to mostly focus on conditions that are slightly hotter than normal, in order to see what the carbon nanotubes would do if they were in a landfill in a part of the country with high-intensity sunlight.

They chose carbon to study first.

“This is a good basic material because we can predict a bit about carbon’s behavior,” Wanekaya said. “We are starting with something more simple before we move on to something a bit more complex.”

Approximate conversion chart

There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for how many hours in a weathering chamber equals a time period in the outdoors, according to Q-Lab (the company that makes the QUV Weathering Tester used in MSU’s chemistry lab). That’s because the relationship between tester exposure and outdoor exposure has so many variables, such as geographic latitude of the exposure site, altitude, random variations in weather from year to year, etc. One recent graduate student in Wanekaya’s project, however, was using this approximate ratio: 2,100 hours of weathering tester exposure = About one year in the Florida sun

Chemistry formula written on a glass marker board

Photo by Jesse Scheve

Preliminary results, collaborative papers

Wanekaya says the research is yielding some preliminary results.

The team can see that the shapes of the carbon nanotubes change after treatment in the chamber. Before treatment, the nanotubes are more or less linear. After, they are coiled. Using various technologies, the team has shown there are other substantial differences between groups of control nanotubes, which are not subjected to tests, and nanotubes that have been aged.

“Now, we need to find out whether those changes are good, bad or neutral. That’s our next step,” Wanekaya said.

The team shared a tested group and a control group with colleagues in the Missouri State biology department. Those researchers exposed yeast, bacteria and other cells to both the control group and the aged group of nanotubes. They wanted to see if either group of nanotubes was potentially toxic to those materials.

One team found that treating yeast with either aged or control carbon nanotubes was significantly toxic to the yeast cells. Results of that study have been submitted for publication to the Journal of Nanoscience and Technology.

No significant differences were observed in bacteria and plants exposed to both the aged and control carbon nanotubes.

Wanekaya plans to keep working with these tiny particles.

“Nanomaterials are very exciting. They have novel properties that can be used for so many things.”

How small is nano?

In the International System of Units, the prefix “nano” means one-billionth. Therefore, one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. It’s difficult to imagine just how small that is, so here are some examples:

  • A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick
  • There are 25,400,000 nanometers in one inch
  • A human hair is approximately 80,000-100,000 nanometers wide
  • One nanometer is about as long as your fingernail grows in one second

Source: United States National Nanotechnology Initiative

Wanekaya’s other research interests

Dr. Adam Wanekaya is seeking many ways to use nanotechnology to benefit humans and the environment. He is involved in research regarding:

  • Cancer treatment (part of a team that received a grant from the National Institutes of Health)
  • Cancer detection
  • Detecting and removing toxins from the environment

For more about his work regarding cancer, see a past Mind’s Eye story about one of Wanekaya’s collaborators.

Rich Amberg

A working writer

As a young screenwriter, Richard Amberg had a great opportunity. He was pitching a project to a network executive who had "buying authority"— the ability to purchase his movie idea on the spot.

The pitch was going well; the executive was laughing and taking notes. But then she asked an unexpected question. Could he change the gender of one of the lead characters? A female lead would be more inclusive of the network’s demographics and provide a vehicle for one of its rising stars.

Amberg remembers that it wasn’t as simple as saying ‘yes.’ He had to quickly run through the plot, scanning for the “ripples that come from tossing that rock in that pond. I knew the story so well that I was able to do that in the moment. The fact that I was able to answer authoritatively about the specifics of how I’d adjust the story gave her the confidence to buy the project in the room.”

With that sale, Amberg earned membership in the Writers Guild of America, a life-changing milestone that resulted in larger contracts and meaningful benefits. The experience also affirmed an essential principle: that flexibility is the foundation of life as a working screenwriter.

Now, as the coordinator of Missouri State’s screenwriting programs in the department of media, journalism and film, Amberg helps emerging writers develop their skills and learn to navigate the industry.

Amberg’s creative activities keep his knowledge sharp. Since joining Missouri State in 2013, he has completed contracts with Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. He makes regular trips to Los Angeles, where he meets with contacts at film, TV and Web entertainment companies, including Nickelodeon, Amazon and Awesomeness TV. His work has been recognized with a number of awards, including Best of Competition in Faculty Scriptwriting at the Broadcast Education Association Festival of Media Arts.

Lessons from the industry

Amberg is straightforward with students about the industry’s unpredictability. Companies’ mandates shift; executives get reshuffled; different personalities respond to different types of material. And these all affect whether a writer’s work gets produced.

But Amberg also focuses on the constants, like the importance of developing a strong work ethic, mastering the fundamentals of story and – most importantly – understanding the writing process.

“I don’t want anyone to be in a situation where they find themselves staring at a blank screen,” he says. “I want them to know how to tell a character-based story that is held together by the tools of writing, not dependent on one idea. And if they get some great, awesome idea, they will be able to execute it. And if they get hired onto a project, they’ll know how to deliver the best version of someone else’s idea.”

Amberg also encourages humility and perspective. “Everyone in this business is working hard, and no one came to Los Angeles with the goal of making someone else’s dream come true. It’s important to be kind to other people and assume that everyone’s doing their best. And when the planets align and a project works, it’s great.”

Amberg often shares with students that when he first started out, he believed compliments indicated a meeting was going well. As he gained experience, he learned that questions, not compliments, are the true sign of a project that’s resonating. “When people are really interested in something, they want you to make changes,” he says.

This dynamic can feel bruising to creatives, who are sometimes considered overly protective of their work, and Amberg empathizes. “Screenwriting is unlike many other kinds of writing, where the writer is king,” he says. “But it’s important to remember that the executives you work with are smart, creative people, too. They’re tasked with thinking strategically about multi-million dollar projects. And their changes aren’t arbitrary; they just have more information about what they need.”

According to Amberg, the ability to collaborate and create a production-ready script is essential, not only for career success but for the strength of the story.

“You love your script,” he explains. “So you change it and adapt it to survive in the market – the same way you’d raise a child to survive in the world.”

Dr. Perkins talks with a group of students inside Foster Recreation Center

Fighting the past for a more active future

Runners sweating on the treadmills, weight lifters pumping iron, a general aura of sweat and activity: these are a usual part of the workout scene at Foster Recreation Center. But as assistant professor of kinesiology Dr. Amanda Perkins scanned the room during her workout, she noticed something else – she was the only African American woman in the room.

To Perkins, this wasn’t a surprise. She has spent much of her career analyzing underrepresented populations, such as African Americans and the elderly, in the areas of exercise and sports psychology.

“African American women are one of the least active segments of the population,” Perkins said. “In Springfield and on campus, we have a small African American population, so I want to know if they exercise, if they use the recreational facilities on campus and their perceptions about exercise and campus climate.”

Her experience at the Rec Center inspired her to begin researching exercise trends among female African American students at Missouri State with the ultimate goal of developing a new physical activity program designed to revolutionize exercise trends at Missouri State.

Dr. Perkins talks with two students on the basketball court inside Foster Recreation Center

Photo by Jesse Scheve

Researching the underrepresented

Perkins’ research into minority groups indicates that a population’s overall trend of activity exists due to a complex variety of external factors – such as community, education and environment – as well as internal factors. Her research into these factors helps her to understand the best methods for improving exercise trends for different groups of people.

“In kinesiology, we prescribe exercise just like a doctor proscribes medicine.”

“In kinesiology, we prescribe exercise just like a doctor proscribes medicine. Not everyone should be doing the exact same workout. The same strategies don’t work for everyone,” she said.

In the past, Perkins has investigated several possibilities that may explain why African American women are less active.

For instance, her research has shown that African Americans in general may have less opportunity for participating in sports and other physical activities that are primarily offered in white communities. This lack of opportunity for activity early on in life can lead to lifelong habits that require extra help and effort to change.

“Everyone deserves help,” Perkins said. “Groups of people that are not represented in research are unlikely to be getting that help.”

Dr. Perkins talks with a student working out on a resistance machine inside Foster Recreation Center

Photo by Jesse Scheve

Encouraging exercise to prevent disease

As a researcher, Perkins’ goal is to understand these psychological and social factors about physical activity, but she doesn’t stop there – her goal is also to change the statistics by breaking through the barriers with targeted interventions to help these women get out and get active.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2011, African American women were 80% more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white women.

According to Perkins, the importance of exercise can’t be overstated. She said a lack of physical activity can negatively affect a person’s health and lifespan in many ways, and it is troubling that an entire demographic group is at risk for insufficient physical activity.

“Exercise can prevent chronic disease, which is a fact a lot of people just aren’t aware of,” Perkins said. “I want to figure out what psychological factors influence sedentary behavior and what social or cultural factors lead to African Americans being less physically active and having a higher incidence of obesity and chronic diseases.”

Empowering a diverse campus to meet the needs of every individual

After collecting preliminary data about physical activities among female African American students, Perkins received a small cultural diversity grant from the Association of Applied Sport Psychology to further develop the study. She conducted focus groups to learn more about the perceived barriers to a workout regime, and most prominently she heard “lack of time” and “lack of motivation.” In her initial analysis of the responses, though, she also uncovered some findings more unique to the demographic, like difficulties with dealing with hair post workout and feeling socially isolated.

She hopes that by providing opportunities for some of the students most likely to have experienced obstacles to physical activity, she can contribute to a campus environment that is not just healthier, but also more inclusive of its diverse population so every individual can be empowered to meet his or her needs.

“I ask them: In a perfect world, what would an exercise program look like for you? Ultimately my goal is to help get students moving. I want to get them now in college so they’ll continue to be active as adults after they graduate,” she said. “If I can figure out what barriers prevent them from exercise, I can help them find a program they can stick with so that they can live healthier lives. It’s about finding what best fits the needs of the people you work with.”

Reesha Adamson

Rethinking education: How to engage students who have special needs

From the beginning, Reesha Adamson could sense her calling. She wanted to improve the lives of young people – those of elementary school age, especially – who have behavioral disorders such as oppositional behaviors, depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that manifest themselves in learning environments.

“Research shows that 20 percent of students have these disorders throughout their childhood. A lot of those things that go untreated and unhelped get worse as students get older,” said Adamson, an assistant professor of counseling, leadership and special education at Missouri State University. “It tends to be a high need.”

So she wondered about the possibilities. What if teachers knew how to better identify and help such students? What if those students knew how to seek help for themselves? And how might that bring about a better future for tomorrow’s leaders?

Identifying the problem

Adamson is working with local public schools to help a small section of students who struggle with following through on classroom engagement and aren’t learning at the same rate as their peers. Specifically, she wants to know what systems, supports, and interventions can be placed in schools to support teacher training and student outcomes.

Such students may have educational behavioral disorders, which differs from medical behavioral disorders. The question is whether the disorder affects performance in the classroom.

“It isn’t because they aren’t capable,” Adamson said. “It’s because they aren’t able to sit in class and sustain until the class ends.”

What happens then, Adamson explained, is a cyclical issue in which entire classes fall behind as teachers reteach the same content to try to catch those students up.

Using a single case design, her research focuses on like groups of students to find direct relationships between interventions and how teachers’ and students’ behaviors change on days when data are collected.

Getting teachers to think like movie stars

However, the answer doesn’t lie in addressing behavioral concerns with the students alone, Adamson noted. Focus on adjusting the behavior of the teachers from an entertainment angle, and better engagement will follow.

“We know the key to students being successful is having dynamic teachers,” she said. “The biggest impact on students staying in school and having good outcomes is school engagement, which comes from making a connection with the school.

“As teachers, we’d better be the best actors there are. Every day that we’re teaching a class, we’re putting on a performance. We’re trying to draw students in as the crowd so they walk away, remember the lesson, and want to tell everybody about it.”

Behavior management is also the top reason teachers leave the profession, Adamson said, noting that training the teachers and getting students to become engaged could change a child’s trajectory.

“Kids who have emotional and behavioral disorders have worse post-secondary outcomes such as not going to college, not getting jobs and going to prison,” she said. “They’re starting out on this horrible track. It’s our job to find out what we can do to help improve this process for them.”

“I think as a nation, we need to support students who have mental illnesses and people who have mental health issues in general. Those kids who have behavioral disorders really struggle understanding the context of school because it’s so different from their lives and environments they’ve been in.” — Reesha Adamson

The long-term benefits

Starting students on a better track also includes helping them manage their mental health care as adults. This is key as children reach 16 years of age and may think they don’t need help anymore.

“People stop receiving services because they look around the waiting room and say, ‘I don’t look like that person over there. I don’t need this help,’” she said. “So we have this falling out when they stop losing this care. Our goal is to get them to continue that care to give them strategies for success after high school.”

Keri Franklin

Transforming student writing in the Ozarks

How does a person become a writer? How does a teacher teach writing rather than assign it? How can a school-university partnership make an impact on improving student writing in high schools?

Keri Franklin conversing with colleaguesThose are the research questions Dr. Keri Franklin hopes to answer.

Franklin’s work has led to the establishment of the Center for Writing in College, Career and Community, an endeavor that seeks to support improving student writing for all students, and especially those teachers and students working in rural schools. This new center is the home to the Ozarks Writing Project.

OWP is supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Missouri Department of Higher Education.

Franklin, Missouri State University’s director of assessment and associate professor of English, is the founding director of OWP, which provides professional development to thousands of area teachers across disciplines —such as science, math, social studies, and career technical educators.

“Teachers have expertise to share and few opportunities to share it outside of the classroom,” she said. “The OWP model focuses on bringing teachers together to teach each other and research their own work.”

Over the last decade, Franklin has secured $1.3 million in grants to carry out the organization’s mission: to impact student writing outcomes as well as teachers’ beliefs and practices.

“I love getting community partners together and seeing people achieve and grow. To create a network that could go on without me — that’s bigger than me — I’m really proud of that.”

Measuring student improvement

Keri Franklin speaking with a group of peopleFranklin’s most recent research study was in partnership with National Writing Project and funded by the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

She was one of 12 site directors chosen for the grant, which resulted in more than $600,000 in funding for OWP’s College-Ready Writers Program, a partnership between Missouri State and the Monett, Laquey, Branson and Richland school districts.

The study focused on improving academic writing in grades 7 through 10, supporting rural educators in teaching academic writing, specifically argument writing, and working with school districts to sustain the work beyond the grant period.

The results are promising.

Ultimately, CRWP had a positive, statistically significant effect on the four attributes of student argument writing—content, structure, stance, and conventions—measured by the National Writing Project’s Analytic Writing Continuum for Source-Based Argument. In particular, CRWP students demonstrated greater proficiency in the quality of reasoning and use of evidence in their writing.

Students of a Laquey, Missouri, teacher who participated in that program saw a 17 percent jump in scores on the state test in one year.

“These kinds of gains and partnerships are years in the making, and they are the result of a cadre of teacher-consultants in school districts around southern Missouri who are committed to the teaching of writing,” Franklin said.

Keri Franklin giving a presentation

Leading the way

OWP began as a satellite site in 2005 with 10 teachers from elementary, middle, high school and community colleges, including Franklin who was pursuing a PhD in English education. In 2008, with multiple support letters from teachers and school districts, OWP became a full National Writing Project site — one of nearly 200 located at universities across the United States.

Since starting at Missouri State, Franklin’s research areas have grown to include the impact of professional development on writing outcomes, digital writing and writing assessment.

While she continues that research, she faces her next challenge head-on: to bring the transformational experience of professional development to teachers in rural and high-needs schools for free.

It is a feat that looks likely for OWP, an organization on the forefront of shaping what the future of writing education will look like in the U.S.

Bukola Oyeniyi

Eye to eye or eye for an eye

"No one thinks of himself as a terrorist. Not even members of Boko Haram," said Dr. Bukola Oyeniyi, assistant professor of history at Missouri State University.

Dr. Oyeniyi teaching in classroomOyeniyi has spent the last 10 years researching the roots of terrorism in West Africa. Looking at the Latin root “terrorem,” which means to instill great fear or dread, and “terrere,” which means to fill with fear or to frighten, he defined terrorism to include individual, group and state activities.

“The definition is always what others do to us. It’s always going to be a guy or group on the other side of the street,” he said.

Although approximately 50 such agitators or groups exist in West Africa, Oyeniyi has written and presented extensively on Boko Haram, which has garnered much attention from the media since it was assembled in the early 2000s. According to Oyeniyi, this group is easier to study than most since the founder Muhammed Yusuf recorded sermons and distributed them widely in the form of CDs, DVDs and leaflets in the early 2000s.

“There are people who will come out boldly to address the public in the form of open air preaching. What are they agitating for? Their belief system,” Oyeniyi stated.

The initial sermons are contraband now, but founding members of Boko Haram can serve as a lead for Oyeniyi. These ex-members offer insights into what drives the agitators to don the suicide vest. Moreover, these former members also could bridge the gap to begin peaceful negotiations.

As a social historian, Oyeniyi looks for patterns within the movements of specific groups and traces the roots of the conflict. Tracing the trends, he is able to build a profile of what an agitator group looks like and what the likely outcomes could be. He begins to postulate: What are they really fighting for? How are they getting their training? Who are their allies? Who funds them? Then, he and his collaborators create suggestions and form conclusions that the government can work with to address the root of the issue.

As much as possible, I want to see a world where we are all free. Free to express our anger against established institutions and individuals and also free to be corrected. So I long to see a Nigeria that is peaceful. I consider this my own way of contributing to it by exposing what is going on.

Dr. Oyeniyi with studentsGreed versus grievance

What he has to say might shock you. He understands Boko Haram’s complaints.

“They are requesting something, part of which includes the fact that the nation-state is, as it is, not properly governed,” said Oyeniyi. “So they have social grievances, and they have also what I call greed.”

Their grievances are at least, in part, related to a religious struggle as old as time. Two categories of Muslims abound in Nigeria: those who believe the Quran is not open to interpretation and want to see Sharia law enforced as the indisputable law of Nigeria; and those who see the Quran as open for interpretation and therefore welcome innovations, like Western education. In Nigeria, the second category is the majority.

If you eliminate Boko Haram today, you still have 49 other groups to deal with. It should not be about eliminating a group or set of groups, but looking at the causes.

One of the primary reasons behind the formation of the Boko Haram – which means Western education is a taboo – was the removal of innovations from Islam. Since the colonial period, there is no dearth of groups crusading against this, and these groups unite in their belief that other Muslims, especially those in power, are corrupt. Since 2000, Boko Haram has engaged in heated ideological and doctrinal debates with other Muslims, who found the group’s teachings unwelcoming to progress and sought state intervention to rein the group in.

Dr. Oyeniyi teachingIn addition to ideological disparity, socioeconomic issues like abject poverty, endemic corruption and unemployment are driving Nigerians to desperately rise up against the state. Police brutality and excessive and misuse of military force also contribute to these social grievances, as evidenced by the fact that the initial targets of Boko Haram was the police, not civilians.

“The state itself needs to understand at what point human rights kick in. Boko Haram may be a terrorist group, but they also have fundamental rights that must be respected. We must recognize this if we’re going to fight and win against Boko Haram,” said Oyeniyi. “As things are, the government has failed to realize that dissatisfaction in the eyes of man will almost always force him to take radical actions.”

In summer 2015, Oyeniyi traveled to his homeland of Nigeria to collect documents Boko Haram released before they decided to go underground. Now, he will translate and make them available in the form of a book. By doing so, he hopes to gain further insight into what genuine concerns stand behind the rhetoric.

Dr. Dennis Hickey

Taiwan: Where politics, history and geography collide

Imagine a civil war broke out in the United States. After many years of fighting, one side retreated to New Jersey, and claimed it was the legitimate American government—not the government in Washington. If the rest of the world acted as though New Jersey had authority to do so, residents of the other states would think the world had gone mad, right?

Dr. Dennis Hickey

According to Dr. Dennis Hickey, distinguished professor of political science and director of the graduate program in global studies at Missouri State University, that’s essentially what happened between China and Taiwan in 1949. For decades, Taiwan was recognized as the sole government for all of China, wherein they even held the UN seat for China, until 1971.

The People’s Republic of China (mainland China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) don’t agree on how this all transpired, and Hickey said this remains the biggest hurdle in Sino-American relations to this day. It’s fascinating and frustrating, and it’s what has driven his research for the past 30 years.

“Taiwan is no longer a dictatorship; it’s a multi-party democracy, which is great for American interests because we support democracy,” said Hickey. “It’s also a potential problem because not everyone agrees that Taiwan should remain as the Republic of China. There are some people who never want to unify with the mainland, which could reignite the Chinese civil war and involve the United States.”

If he could devise a perfect solution for the situation, he’d have them “agree to disagree” and postpone any decision for 50 years.

As an adolescent, Hickey became interested in East Asia: His father, as well as many of his friends’ fathers, had fought the Japanese in World War II, and he watched the Vietnam War unfold on the nightly news.

Policy relevance

Because China is so important– home to more than 1.3 billion people and the world’s second largest economy – Hickey strives for policy relevance in his research to give U.S. officials options to prevent a conflict with China.

He has advised heads of state in Taiwan and in the United States, even testifying before a U.S. Congressional Commission created to monitor America’s relationship with China. His credibility with other academics, the media and government officials rests on the fact that he looks at each issue objectively.

For example, recently he was asked to conduct research on a dispute over several small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. He searched documents, interviewed officials, presented his findings and published an article in a top tier journal.

“In the East China Sea, these islands have three different names depending on where you are. They’re really little specks, but there’s oil and gas underneath them. They’re claimed by China, Taiwan and Japan. China and Taiwan both believe that Japan stole these islands during the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895, and they want them back,” said Hickey. The Japanese government formally nationalized the islands in 2012, “sparking the largest anti-Japanese riots in that realm of the world since WWII,” he added.

“Now when I visit Taiwan, I can change planes in Beijing. Why is that a big deal? Well, until recently, you couldn’t get from one side to the other directly because of the political problems. Now, there are millions of tourists from the mainland. They go and take pictures at the presidential palace and the flag. They can’t fly that flag in the mainland.”

Recent improvements

Within Taiwan, there are disagreements about whether Taiwan should be an independent country or remain as the Republic of China. Chen Shui-bian, who served as president from 2000-08, tried to promote independence, and Hickey noted that this movement eventually served to improve relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China.

“I think Chen scared the mainland. That’s when they got a little bit more reasonable instead of just bullying Taiwan,” he said. “They’re talking now, they’ve got direct trade and travel, and they’ve signed 21 major agreements in the last seven years.”

Asian brush painting

Many times, he collaborates on publications with current and former students who continually offer fresh perspective. In fact, it’s the thought-provoking questions from his graduate students that occasionally inspire his research in the first place.

Agree to disagree

Traveling to and from Asia to be part of this policy discussion for more than three decades, Hickey has established trusting relationships with people on both sides, though he jokes that a little suspicion arises from some mainland Chinese contacts. But are they against his work?

“Not at all. They know I do not support Taiwan independence. There is a Chinese government in Taipei and a Chinese government in Beijing. They are okay with that,” he said.

When he began this research in graduate school, the economic and political systems in both China and Taiwan were quite different.

“The two sides have moved closer economically, but not politically,” he observed. This is the primary reason he thinks the dispute should be shelved for 50 years.

“They should sign a peace agreement and agree to disagree what it means to be China and ratchet down any potential problems,” he said. “It’s their own internal affair. We shouldn’t be pushing them to unify or separate – just don’t let them start World War III.”