Untangling the Trauma-Speech Connection

Sarah Hine Headshot

How does trauma link to speech and language disorders? Sarah Hine and a team of graduate researchers used their own experiences with vulnerable populations to guide speech pathology protocols.

Prior to pursuing her graduate degree in speech pathology at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, Sarah Hine, who graduated in May, worked with survivors of sex trafficking in India. Well before the COVID crisis curtailed international travel, Hine spent three years coordinating nonprofit efforts in the United States and India to help young girls who had escaped from brothels in Mumbai and Calcutta. She provided support to India-based organizations that guided the girls—mostly teens, some as young as 10—through the difficult process of psychological and physical healing.

As she befriended the young women, she observed that many struggled with communication. Some were essentially nonverbal, reluctant to engage with others and preferring to sit in a corner with their ear phones on. Others showed signs of cognitive deficits—seemingly slow to process conversation and refusing to make eye contact. None of those signs were by themselves surprising; reactions to chronic trauma manifest themselves in any number of ways. But Hine noticed a possible correlation between the extent of the abuse and the severity of their speech issues. “I started to realize that maybe there are some gradients depending on the type of trauma someone received or the length of exposure to a traumatic situation that might indicate impacts on language,” she said. But the available research on such links was small, and the guidelines for speech language pathologists even smaller.

As a graduate student, Hine helped to fill that gap. She drew from her personal experiences for a project in Associate Professor Adrienne Hancock’s research lab in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences. Hine was one of a group of students who investigated the intersection between language and complex psychosocial trauma. They looked at how trauma in vulnerable people—from survivors of sex trafficking to children in the foster care system—can manifest itself in speech and language disorders. Their research involved conducting literature reviews of past studies, examining clinical best practices and learning from other disciplines, such as social work, psychology and neuroscience. The goal, Hancock said, was “to inform ourselves and our clinical practices” and develop a resource guide for speech-language pathologists.

“We want to first educate ourselves on the effects of trauma across populations and then apply these learnings, providing a trauma-informed approach to all we serve.”
— Sarah Hine

Turning Experience Into Practice

Trauma-informed care, Hancock said, is playing an increasingly large role in education and healthcare—settings where most speech-language pathologists work. But guidelines for how to recognize the link between psychosocial trauma and speech disorders—along with recommendations for how to respond to them—are still in their infancy.

Hine and three other researchers—Caitlin McDonnell and Isabelle Nejedlik, both of whom also graduated in May, and second-year graduate student Madison Dull—approached Hancock with questions about how to do their clinical work with clients who had experienced psychosocial trauma. Like Hine, each had worked with vulnerable populations, including children with histories of abuse and neglect, veterans, refugees and incarcerated people. “We were all drawn to this work for different reasons but with the same end goal in mind,” Hine said. “We want to first educate ourselves on the effects of trauma across populations and then apply these learnings, providing a trauma-informed approach to all we serve.”

Main Photo: Inspired by her experiences working with survivors of sex-trafficking in India, Sarah Hine is helping devise a trauma-informed approach for speech-language pathologists.

Inside Autism

Research assistants Chynna Golding (left) and Samantha Metzger practice patient examinations in Rosenblau’s Developmental Social Neuroscience Lab.

Why do people with autism struggle with decision making? Psychology’s Gabriela Rosenblau is looking deep inside the brain for answers that may lead to improved treatments for autism and other disorders.

A friend who is new in town asks you for a restaurant recommendation. How do you decide where to send her? Maybe you know something about her dining preferences—Italian or Mexican, formal or casual. Or maybe you’ve shared a meal with her before. But your choice is also based on information you don’t even realize you’re considering: her age, social status, perhaps her culture. And if your friend returns with a bad review, when she asks­ again—if she asks again—you’ll adjust your expectations.

It’s a process called social learning, and it essentially explains how we learn from other people through their examples, and how we learn about others by observing our environment. Most of it is implicit—we are acquiring information without even knowing we are doing it. And we are continually updating our ideas with each new data point we collect.

But a person with autism finds this fundamental social mechanism nearly impossible to perform. “People with autism face unique challenges in social decision making,” explained Gabriela Rosenblau, an assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience in the Columbian College of Arts and Science’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “They have difficulty attaining the body of knowledge needed to judge a person’s preferences and then adjusting those preferences based on new information.”

But why exactly they struggle with social learning has never been definitively determined. Rosenblau is looking for behavioral and neurological answers to that puzzle. With two recent grants—$1.6 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and $500,000 from the Simons Foundation—she’s studying neural development in young people with autism to determine how they acquire and process social knowledge. Her work delves deeply into the brain with neuroimaging and eye-tracking technology, while she and her student researchers also lead young people through social learning tasks.

“I feel strongly that we can use these results to understand neural development and how the brain underlies complex decision making in a social context—while also improving treatment of autism and other disorders,” Rosenblau said.

“We can use these results to understand neural development and how the brain underlies complex decision making…while also improving treatment of autism.”
— Gabriela Rosenblau

Decisions and Predictions

Since joining GW as a postdoctoral student in 2016, Rosenblau has specialized in understanding decision making from both a social context and the underlying brain mechanisms. Much of her research revolves around studying brain development to determine how disorders such as autism hinder decision making. In the restaurant scenario, for example, most people draw on their implicit knowledge of a person’s likes. If their recommendation falls flat, they adjust it according to the other person’s preferences—a process known as the “prediction error.”

But people with autism struggle with the prediction error. Instead, Rosenblau said, they use their own preferences to predict other people’s likes, dislikes and behavior. “If I know someone dislikes apples, I won’t recommend a similar fruit, say, a peach. But if a person with autism likes peaches himself, he will continue to recommend peaches.”

Rosenblau believes that, during adolescence, the brain of a person with autism encodes its own preference more strongly than others. Through her ongoing projects with young people, Rosenblau and her team are examining different areas of the brain. For the youngest participants, they are focusing on the prefrontal cortex, the region most associated with complex cognitive behavior like personality expression and decision making. For older children, they are targeting the cerebellum, which has traditionally been associated with motor function but is now considered crucial to social development. Rosenblau believes the cerebellum may hold the keys to the prediction error. “The cerebellum is a kind of a blueprint for action, a blueprint for learning,” Rosenblau said.

For her research, Rosenblau collaborates with colleagues in the GW Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute, the GW School of Nursing and scholars within her own department, including Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Sarah Shomstein. Senior biology major and research assistant Samantha Metzger said the information they have compiled by guiding young people through exercises has built a foundation for their ongoing work. “These families came in voluntarily to encourage our research so that one day it would help people with autism gain better resources,” she said. “We’re the scientists, but they’re the heroes.”

Main photo: Chynna Golding (left), a student research assistant in Rosenblau’s lab, demonstrates how to fit a volunteer for an EEG cap at the GW Autism and Neurodevelopmental Institute.

Researchers Follow Social Distancing’s Path

Professor of Geography Michael Mann sitting in front of his computer

Two CCAS projects are tracing the progress and limits of social distancing. Geography’s Michael Mann is constructing a distancing data map while Psychology’s Gabriela Rosenblau is charting COVID beliefs and behavior.

Two Columbian College scholars are separately embarking on research projects that test the reaches of social distancing—from geo-spatially mapping its progress in Washington, D.C., neighborhoods to examining how people’s COVID opinions affect their behavior.

While both projects are still in their early stages, Associate Professor of Geography Michael Mann and Assistant Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Gabriela Rosenblau are hopeful their findings will help public health officials determine the effectiveness of social distancing strategies and chart the direction of future COVID safety measures.

“Everyone in the scientific community is looking for something they can do to help out,” Mann said. “I’m trying to fill gaps for policymakers and health officials and whomever else can make use of [social distancing] data.”

Mapping Neighborhood Patterns

An expert in spatial event modeling, Mann has forecasted wildfires in California and droughts in Ethiopia. Now he is using GPS data to create a block-by-block map of the Washington, D.C., region, pinpointing social distancing behavior. By charting people’s locations—essentially, who is staying at home and who is not—Mann is collecting information on the degrees to which individuals within neighborhoods are following distancing guidelines. Once completed, the model will be able to detect patterns by comparing real-time information—such as the number of hours people are away from home—to social distancing metrics.

For his project, Mann is filtering massive amounts of commercial GPS data, anonymized location information compiled by the private firm SafeGraph from mobile devices and made available to academics and researchers for public health-related studies as part of a data-sharing agreement. Mann is designing an online dashboard for viewing and analyzing the data. Through the dashboard, he is hoping local and regional policymakers will be able to easily target areas requiring greater social distancing education. He plans to share his information with colleagues across the university, including those in economics and public health who might benefit from the data. “I think there are faculty who will want to take a deep dive into the factors that are driving behavioral patterns—whether economic or cultural or something else,” he said.

Tracking Optimism Bias

Assistant Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Gabriela Rosenblau
Assistant Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Gabriela Rosenblau

Rosenblau is in the midst of an international survey on decision making during the COVID crisis. Along with colleagues from the Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Hamburg, Germany, and the University of California, San Francisco, she is focusing on whether optimism bias—our belief in the probability of becoming infected—influences behavior like complying with social distancing guidelines.

In March, her team began conducting interviews with more than 8,000 people in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. Initially, their interviews revealed a strong optimism bias. “People estimate that negative events are less likely to happen to themselves than to a similar other person, while the opposite is true for positive events,” Rosenblau said.

The study will attempt to link an individual’s optimism to the likelihood of practicing social distancing or following hygiene recommendations. Through two additional surveys, Rosenblau and her research colleagues will assess if the biases change over the course of the pandemic. “It is possible that optimistic people will be more likely to spread COVID-19,” she said, “simply because they naïvely think they’re less likely to contract and transmit it compared to others.”

Main photo: Associate Professor of Geography Michael Mann

Study: Rampant Online Distrust of Health Expertise

system-level picture of online discourse

Online communities that distrust establishment health guidance are more effective than government health agencies at reaching and engaging audiences, according to a study by Physics’ Neil Johnson.

Communities on Facebook that distrust establishment health guidance are more effective than government health agencies and other reliable health groups at reaching and engaging “undecided” individuals, according to a first-of-its-kind study led by Columbian College of Arts and Sciences (CCAS) researchers and published in the journal Nature.

The researchers tracked the vaccine conversation among 100 million Facebook users during the height of the 2019 measles outbreak. The study and its “battleground” map reveal how distrust in establishment health guidance could spread and dominate online conversations over the next decade, potentially jeopardizing public health efforts to protect populations from COVID-19 and future pandemics through vaccinations.

Professor of Physics Neil Johnson and his CCAS research team, including Associate Professor of Political Science Yonatan Lupu, collaborated with scholars at the University of Miami, Michigan State University and Los Alamos National Laboratory to better understand how distrust in scientific expertise evolves online, especially related to vaccines.

“There is a new world war online surrounding trust in health expertise and science, particularly with misinformation about COVID-19, but also distrust in big pharmaceuticals and governments,” Johnson said. “Nobody knew what the field of battle looked like, though, so we set to find out.”

During the 2019 measles outbreak, the research team examined Facebook communities, totaling nearly 100 million users, which were active around the vaccine topic and which formed a highly dynamic, interconnected network across cities, countries, continents and languages. The team identified three camps comprising pro-vaccination communities, anti-vaccination communities and communities of undecided individuals such as parenting groups. Starting with one community, the researchers looked to find a second one that was strongly entangled with the original, and so on, to better understand how they interacted with each other.

“There is a new world war online surrounding trust in health expertise and science. . . . Nobody knew what the field of battle looked like, though, so we set to find out.”
— Neil Johnson

They discovered that, while there are fewer individuals with anti-vaccination sentiments on Facebook than with pro-vaccination sentiments, there are nearly three times the number of anti-vaccination communities on Facebook than pro-vaccination communities.

This allows anti-vaccination communities to become highly entangled with undecided communities, while pro-vaccination communities remain mostly peripheral. In addition, pro-vaccination communities that focused on countering larger anti-vaccination communities may be missing medium-sized ones growing under the radar.

The researchers also found anti-vaccination communities offer more diverse narratives around vaccines and other established health treatments—promoting safety concerns, conspiracy theories or individual choice, for example—that can appeal to more of Facebook’s approximately 3 billion users, thus increasing the chances of influencing individuals in undecided communities. Pro-vaccination communities, on the other hand, mostly offered monothematic messaging typically focused on the established public health benefits of vaccinations. The GW researchers noted that individuals in these undecided communities, far from being passive bystanders, were actively engaging with vaccine content.

“We thought we would see major public health entities and state-run health departments at the center of this online battle, but we found the opposite. They were fighting off to one side, in the wrong place,” Johnson said.

As scientists around the world scramble to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine, the spread of health disinformation and misinformation has important public health implications, especially on social media, which often serves as an amplifier and information equalizer.

In their study, the researchers proposed several different strategies to fight against online disinformation, including influencing the heterogeneity of individual communities to delay onset and decrease their growth and manipulating the links between communities in order to prevent the spread of negative views.

“Instead of playing whack-a-mole with a global network of communities that consume and produce (mis)information, public health agencies, social media platforms and governments can use a map like ours and an entirely new set of strategies to identify where the largest theaters of online activity are and engage and neutralize those communities peddling in misinformation so harmful to the public,” Johnson said.

Main photo: The first system-level picture of nearly 100 million individuals expressing vaccine views among Facebook’s 3 billion users across 37 countries, continents and languages

For Chimps, Salt and Pepper Hair Not a Marker of Old Age

Chimpanzee with grey hairs around its chin looking off into the distance

Graying hair isn’t necessarily a sign that chimpanzees are growing older. Researchers from the CCAS Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology found variations in how our closest ape relatives experience pigment loss.

Silver strands and graying hair are signs of aging in humans, but things aren’t so simple for our closest ape relatives—the chimpanzee. A study by researchers at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’ Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology (CASHP) finds that graying hair is not indicative of a chimpanzee’s age.

This research calls into question the significance of the graying phenotype in wild non-human species. While graying is among the most salient traits a chimpanzee has—the world’s most famous chimpanzee was named David Greybeard—there is significant pigmentation variation among individuals. Graying occurs until a chimpanzee reaches midlife and then plateaus as they continue to age, said Elizabeth Tapanes, a PhD candidate in hominid paleobiology and lead author of a paper published in PLOS ONE.

“With humans, the pattern is pretty linear, and it’s progressive. You gray more as you age. With chimps that’s really not the pattern we found at all,” Tapanes said. “Chimps reach this point where they’re just a little salt and peppery, but they’re never fully gray so you can’t use it as a marker to age them.”

Brenda Bradley, associate professor of anthropology, is the senior author on the paper. The research dates back to an observation Bradley made while visiting a field site in Uganda in 2015. As she was learning the names of various wild chimpanzees, she found herself making assumptions about how old they were based on their pigmentation. On-site researchers told her that chimps did not go gray the same way humans do. Bradley was curious to learn if that observation could be quantified.

Researchers from the GW Primate Genomics Laboratory, which Bradley directs, gathered photos of two subspecies of wild and captive chimpanzees from their collaborators in the field to test this observation. Students visually examined photos of the primates, evaluated how much visible gray hair they had and rated them accordingly. The researchers then analyzed that data, comparing it to the age of the individual chimpanzees at the time the photos were taken.

The researchers hypothesize there could be several reasons why chimpanzees did not evolve graying hair patterns similar to humans. Their signature dark pigmentation might be critical for thermoregulation or helping individuals identify one another.

There has been little previous research on pigmentation loss in chimpanzees or any wild mammals, Bradley said. Most existing research on human graying is oriented around the cosmetic industry and clinical dermatology.

“There’s a lot of work done on trying to understand physiology and maybe how to override it,” Bradley said, “but very little work done on an evolutionary framework for why…this seems to be so prevalent in humans.”

The lab plans to build on their findings by looking at the pattern of gene expression in individual chimpanzee hairs. This will help determine whether changes are taking place at the genetic level that match changes the eye can see. Bradley’s lab has one of the largest collections of chimpanzee DNA samples in the country, which includes genetic material from more than 900 chimpanzees and more than 90 primate species.

CASHP faculty and student researchers contribute to the global understanding of chimpanzees and primates. Through various labs, investigators’ research areas include studying the evolution of social behavior in the chimpanzees and bonobos, as well as the evolution of primate brain structure. They also lead on-the-ground projects at the Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania. Bradley’s lab is also examining color vision and hair variation in lemurs.

— Kristen Mitchell

Main Photo: There is significant individual variation in how chimpanzees, like this one at Gombe National Park, experience pigment loss. (Photo: Ian C. Gilby)

Break Down: How Wood Decay Drives Carbon Cycle

fungi decay

In the lab and in the field, Biology’s Amy Zanne and a team of researchers are linking wood decomposition rates among fungi to a better understanding of the global carbon cycle and its effect on climate change.

Through a combination of lab and field experiments, Associate Professor of Biology Amy Zanne and a team of researchers have developed a better understanding of the factors accounting for different wood decomposition rates among fungi. Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveal how deciphering fungal trait variation can improve the predictive ability of early and mid-stage wood decay, a key driver of the global carbon cycle.

“Fungi are largely hidden players. We know they are critical for cycling carbon but it has been difficult to determine the effects of different decomposers in causing fast or slow decomposition,” Zanne said. ”As we identify who fungal decomposers are in rotting logs and what allows a particular species to affect these rates, we can better predict carbon cycling around the globe under current and future climates.”

As the main decomposers of litter and wood, fungi play an important role in the global carbon cycle—the process that helps regulate the planet’s global temperature and climate by controlling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While current Earth system models represent little of the functional variation in microbial groups, fungi differ greatly in their decomposing ability. Zanne and her fellow researchers set out to find which traits best explain fungal decomposition ability to help improve the current models.

“Fungi are largely hidden players. We know they are critical for cycling carbon but it has been difficult to determine the effects of different decomposers in causing fast or slow decomposition.”
— Amy Zanne

They found that the hyphal extension rate—or fungal growth rate—is the strongest single predictor of fungal-mediated wood decomposition. The decomposing ability of fungi varies along a spectrum: Slow-growing, stress-tolerant fungi are poor decomposers; fast-growing, highly competitive fungi have fast decomposition rates. The slow growing fungi are more likely to exist in drier forests with high precipitation seasonality. In contrast, the fast-growing fungi tend to be found in more favorable environments and decompose wood more quickly, regardless of the local microclimate.

“Fungi differ massively in how quickly they decompose wood, releasing carbon back into the ecosystem. Our study identifies different fungal traits that explain this variation, which has great potential to improve predictions of the carbon cycle in forests,” said lead author Nicky Lustenhouwer, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Their findings show that the same processes that determine where a fungus lives—its ability to displace other fungi and survive in stressful environments—closely aligns with its decomposition ability. “This connection allows us to translate an ecological mechanism into broad-scale patterns in microbial decomposition rates, helping to address a key uncertainty in earth system models,” said co-author Daniel Maynard, a postdoctoral researcher at Crowther Lab, ETH Zurich.

Main photo: The rate of fungi decay experiment conducted by Associate Professor of Biology Amy Zanne and a team of researchers is shedding light on the global carbon cycle.

Gamma Bursts Light Brightest Cosmic Blast

GRB 190114C

Physics’ Chryssa Kouveliotou, Alexander van der Horst and an international team of astrophysicists observed a gamma-ray burst release the highest energy of light ever detected—a trillion times more energetic than visible light.

Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the cosmos. These explosive events last a fraction of a second to several minutes and emit the same amount of gamma rays as all the stars in the universe combined. Such extreme amounts of energy can only be released during catastrophic events like the death of a very massive star, or the merging of two compact stars, and are accompanied by an afterglow of light over a broad range of energies that fades with time.

It has been decades since the discovery of the first gamma-ray burst, yet some of their fundamental traits remain unclear. An international team of researchers, including Professor of Physics Chryssa Kouveliotou and Assistant Professor of Physics Alexander van der Horst, have taken the next step in understanding the physical processes at work during these events. The researchers observed a gamma-ray burst with an afterglow that featured the highest energy photons—a trillion times more energetic than visible light—ever detected in a burst.

“This very high energy emission had been previously predicted in theoretical studies but never before directly observed,” van der Horst explained.

“This very high energy emission had been previously predicted in theoretical studies but never before directly observed.”
— Alexander van der Horst

In early 2019, researchers detected a burst labeled GRB 190114C. The discovery triggered an extensive campaign of observations across the electromagnetic spectrum using more than 20 observatories and instruments around the world. This collaborative effort allowed an international team to gather an unprecedented level of information about GRB 190114C, capturing the evolution of the gamma-ray burst afterglow emission across 17 orders of magnitude in energy.

“After over 45 years of observing GRBs, we just confirmed the existence of yet another unknown component in their afterglows, which increases the gamma-ray burst overall energy budget dramatically,” Kouveliotou said.

As part of the joint efforts, van der Horst and Kouveliotou were part of a subteam responsible for tracking the emission of radio waves in the afterglow of GRB 190114C. The team used the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa to record the emission, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to very high energy gamma rays.

“MeerKAT is a radio observatory with very good sensitivity,” van der Horst said. “It is a great facility to observe this kind of event. Our team is carrying out a multi-year program to observe many more gamma-ray bursts and other cosmic explosions in the coming years.”

GRB 190114C is unique in that researchers were able to observe photons with teraelectronvolt (TeV) energies for the first time in its afterglow emission. Using the MAGIC Collaboration telescopes in La Palma, Spain, researchers noticed this emission of TeV photons was 100 times more intense than the brightest known steady source at TeV energies, the Crab Nebula. As expected though, this very high energy emission quickly faded in about half an hour after the event onset, while the afterglow emission in other parts of the spectrum persisted for much longer.

The researchers noted that the shape of the observed spectrum of afterglow light was indicative of an emission process called inverse Compton emission. This event supports the possibility that inverse Compton emission is commonly produced in gamma-ray bursts.

“MAGIC, the TeV photon detector in La Palma, Spain, opened up a new window for research on gamma-ray bursts,” Kouveliotou said. “We are looking forward to understanding their physics and true energy release in gamma-ray bursts with more detections in the future.”

Main photo: GRB 190114C, located about 4.5 billion light-years away in the constellation Fornax.

Meet the NSF Student Research Fellows

Hands around a whiteboard with doodles and the words "Search," "Analysis," "WWW" and "Data"

Seven CCAS doctoral students received National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, an award that recognizes excellence in science, math, engineering and social science fields. Their research interests include global conflict resolution, unsolvable” math problems and diversity in termites and fish.

From biologists following fish to political scientists tracking dark money, seven Columbian College of Arts and Sciences (CCAS) doctoral students were among winners of the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship this past year.

The country’s oldest nationwide fellowship program, the award recognizes “outstanding” graduate students in the science, mathematics, engineering and social science fields. Each of the 2,000 fellows selected annually receive three-year stipends of $34,000 along with a $12,000 education allowance for tuition and fees. Past recipients have included 42 Nobel laureates, more than 450 National Academy of Sciences members and leaders across government, industry and academia.

“We are extremely proud of these doctoral students, who are taking their passion for discovery to new levels through their research,” said CCAS Interim Dean Paul Wahlbeck. “To receive this fellowship—one of the top markers of exceptional scholarship in the field—speaks volumes about the caliber of our students.”

Read more about these CCAS Fellows and their research:

Dario Verta, Mathematics

Dario Verta Headshot

Even to his fellow mathematicians, fourth-year PhD student Dario Verta has trouble explaining the scribbles and loops he scrawls across whiteboards, iPads and sometimes his bathroom mirror.

Verta draws geometric forms twisted into impossible shapes—theoretical objects that only exist in the nonexistent fourth dimension. They include Klein bottles (containers that fold in on themselves so they technically have no inside or outside) and Möbius strips (one-sided closed-curves). And while they may baffle anyone unfamiliar with mathematical topology, his calculations have implications for string theory, quantum physics and scientists studying gravity, black holes and the fabric of the universe. “We are looking at unsolvable problems,” Verta said.

Verta was converted to theoretical mathematics in a seminar with Professor of Mathematics Valentina S. Harizanov. As an NSF fellow, he’ll continue drawing reality-defying figures—but in computer code instead of on his mirrors. “They say mathematicians use grants for paper and pencils,” he joked. “But we actually spend it on computers.”

Allyson Evans, Biological Sciences

Allyson Evans Headshot

For second-year PhD student Allyson Evans, the weirder the fish, the better. She studies the kind of animals you don’t find in children’s fish tanks: hingemouths with giant snouts in their foreheads; elephantfish that generate electric shocks; and zebrafish with bizarre anatomical structures that connect their ears to their bladders.

“Fish are incredibly diverse—the most diverse vertebrates of all—and they have endlessly [interesting] abnormalities,” she said.

Evans’ research traces odd fish features for clues to morphology mysteries. Working in Professor of Biology Patricia Hernandez’s lab, she has access to anomalies like small-jawed butterflyfishes and wide-gilled paddlefishes. Using CT scanning technology, she will also study collections from the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History.

Evans’ research has implications across fields from ocean ecology to human economies. For example, she noted, zebrafish anatomy studies have led to research on infant cranial deformities. “Fish diversity directly affects lives,” she said.

Ahmed Kodouda, Political Science

Ahmed Kodouda Headshot

Ahmed Kodouda emigrated from war-torn Sudan to the United States at age 11. But the third-year doctoral student has frequently returned to Africa, working with NGOs on conflict resolution. “I grew up where civil war was the norm,” he said.

As an NSF fellow, Kodouda will investigate why some rebel movements fragment while others remain stable. He is comparing two case studies: Eritrea, which forged a unified government after gaining its independence from Ethiopia in 1991; and South Sudan, where rebels in the 2011 break-away nation ended up fighting among themselves.

Based on his past studies, Kodouda theorizes that post-conflict splits hinge on different international support routes. Eritreans, for example, felt accountable to Diasporan citizens abroad who donated 2 percent of their income, he maintained. South Sudanese rebels received money from various governments, fostering corruption that splintered their forces. Fluent in Arabic, Kodouda will interview conflict veterans to try to better understand the success and failure of these movements. “My goal is to produce rigorous empirical research and accurately convey the story of these people,” he said.

Kristen Tuosto, Anthropology

Kristen Tuosto Headshot

When asked why she studies baboon bones in Kenya, fourth-year PhD student Kristen Tuosto goes back to her childhood in California. At 7, Tuosto was hit by a car outside her San Bernardino home. She was OK. In fact, she didn’t break a single bone. Later, her sister tripped over a bicycle—and broke her leg in two places.

“Since then, I’ve been fascinated by how some bones are different than others,” Tuosto said.

Her curiosity led her to Kenya’s primate graveyards with Associate Professor of Anthropology Shannon McFarlin, an expert on bone histology. As an NSF fellow, Tuosto will examine the skeletons of baboons who survived droughts at an early age. She will investigate how malnutrition from ravaged plant supplies affected their bone growth. Her research may directly relate to poor nutrition and bone health in human children “I used to think humans were so unique. But we are not,” she said. “It’s not a stretch to say baboons can tell us a lot about people.”

Elizabeth Meehan, Political Science

Elizabeth Meehan Headshot

As an undergraduate researching transparency in public policy, Elizabeth Meehan successfully uncovered data on government malfeasance. But when she turned her attention to finding the hidden powers behind shell corporations and big business deals, she was shocked by the layers of secrecy she encountered. “These people really do not want you to know their names,” said the fourth-year PhD student.

As an NSF fellow, Meehan will be exposing beneficial ownerships—people who secretly reap the profits of businesses without being listed as their actual owners. The system can be a money laundering shield and a haven for concealing terrorist funds.

With the guidance of Assistant Professors of Political Science David Szakonyi and Henry Farrell, Meehan is examining European Union laws regulating beneficial ownership while collecting data on how the legal loopholes benefit tax evasion schemes. “This is about economic inequality,” she said, “because when the super-rich hide their wealth, it deflates national tax revenues, which the rest of us have to make up.”

Rebecca Clement, Biological Sciences

Rebecca Clement Headshot

Even for a self-described “bug person” who studied dragonflies as an undergraduate, Rebecca Clement didn’t initially feel comfortable with termites. When Associate Professor of Biology Amy Zanne recruited the fourth-year PhD student for a project on wood decomposition in Australia, “I was turned off by working with termites,” Clement said.

Now Clement is a full-fledge termite convert. She’s not only a fount of termite trivia—she’s quick to point out that only 80 of 3,000 termite species actually snack on houses—she’s also shifted her research focus to the vital role termites play in breaking down trees into nutrients for soil microbes, plants and animals. “If it weren’t for termites, we’d be sitting in huge piles of dead wood,” Clement said.

For her NSF research, Clement hopes to continue exploring termite diversity in Australia, home to almost 300 species. In five sites, she’ll track termites through deserts, grasslands and rainforests, documenting how their threatened extinction would dramatically impact the environment.

Rachel Nelson, Anthropology

Rachel Nelson Headshot

As a research intern at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, second-year PhD student Rachel Nelson gained first-hand experience observing humankind’s closest living relative—chimpanzees. A primatology researcher, she had long been fascinated by the complex social lives and intellectual abilities of chimps. Interacting with primates, she was continually struck by their genetic and behavioral similarities to humans.

For her NSF fellowship, Nelson will study lactating chimpanzees. Human women are more likely to be dehydrated during lactation, Nelson noted, but that same condition has never been explored in chimpanzees and other primates. Nelson will collect behavioral and dietary data to see if lactating chimps are consuming more water in response to dehydration. “Understanding how chimpanzees are affected by the lactation burden and the extent to which they can compensate behaviorally has the potential to transform our understanding of the same in early human ancestors,” she said.

Research Grants Open Doors to Discovery

two people working in a lab with one in the foreground looking into a microscope

This past year, CCAS faculty were awarded major grants from top research organizations to propel new discoveries. From measuring greenhouse gasses and looking deep into the sun to improving HIV-prevention among young Black men, scholars are forging pathways of knowledge.

Over the past academic year, Columbian College of Arts and Science faculty received a significant number of grant awards to support innovative research across the disciplines. The grants helped them further groundbreaking projects in green chemistry, astrophysics, speech perception, the treatment of brain disorders and much more. The following are recent major awards of $200,000 and above:

Lynne E. Bernstein (Speech, Language & Hearing Sciences): $494,500 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for speech perception training on advanced scoring and feedback models.

Lisa Bowleg (Psychology): $449,500 from NIH to address multi-level intersectional stigma and improve HIV-prevention among young black gay bisexual men.

Stephen Boyes (Chemistry): $390,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program on advancing chemistry research by integrating green chemistry and science policy; and $287,200 from NSF to study chain growth polycondensation via substituent effects for the synthesis of functional rigid rod polymer brushes.

David Braun (Anthropology): $305,900 from NSF to research the past and present human-environment dynamics in the Turkana Basin, Kenya.

Christopher Brick (History): $546,600 from the National Endowment for the Humanities and $385,460 from the National Archives and Records Administration in support of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers project.

Dante Chinni (Media & Public Affairs): $400,000 from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation for a project on understanding the geography of deaths of despair.

Thomas D. Cook (Public Policy and Public Administration): $1.17 million from NSF to conduct experiments investigating bias in research.

Michael Doering (Physics): $360,000 from NSF to study resonant few-body systems from the lattice.

Sylvain Guiriec (Physics): $236,000 from NASA-Goddard for a project on high-energy space instrumentation for sun observation.

Oleg Kargaltsev (Physics): $266,500 from NASA-Goddard to research the multiwavelength identification of galactic high-energy sources.

Jakub Kostal (Chemistry): $706,800 from NSF to investigate the use of chemical photodegradation in pesticide design.

Arnaud Martin (Biology): $672,800 from NSF to perform precise genome editing procedures on lepidopteran insects, an order that includes butterflies and moths.

J. Houston Miller (Chemistry): $501,800 from Mesa Photonics and the Department of Energy (DoE) for a project on vertical profiling of greenhouse gasses.

Gabriela Rosenblau (Psychological & Brain Sciences): $1.6 million from NIH for modeling social and non-social learning in autism.

Frank Sesno (Media & Public Affairs): $200,000 from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to support the Project for Media and National Security.

Chet Sherwood (Anthropology): $429,100 from NSF to study comparative age-related dynamics of primate brain epigenetics.

Sarah Shomstein (Psychology): $655,000 from NSF to investigate the guidance of attention by task-irrelevant information.

Michael Wagner (Chemistry): $748,800 from DoE for a project on the conversion of coal to li-ion battery grade potato graphite.

Note: Dollar figures are rounded to the nearest thousand.

Must Reads: Explore the CCAS Faculty Bookshelf

Stack of books on a table with one open book

A sampling of new books by Columbian College faculty include thought-provoking titles on animal research ethics, America’s greatest authors, an expedition to the Holy Land and a new perspective on the traditional Thanksgiving story.

This Land is Their Land Book Cover

This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving

Professor of History David J. Silverman retells the story of the first Thanksgiving with this new perspective on the Plymouth colony’s founding events. Working with American Indian communities and scholars, his research sheds new light on the fraught history of the Wampanoag and their uneasy alliance with the Pilgrims. This unsettling past reveals why some modern Native people hold a Day of Mourning instead of Thanksgiving, a holiday which, Silverman argues, celebrates a myth of colonialism and white proprietorship of the United States. As the 400th anniversary marking that harvest meal in the New World approaches, Silverman sparks an important dialogue about America’s past.

Digging Up Armageddon Book Cover

Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon

In 1925, a team of archaeologists journeyed to the Holy Land to excavate the ancient city of Megiddo—the site of Armageddon in the New Testament—which the Bible says was fortified by King Solomon. In this account of their findings, Professor of Classics and Anthropology Eric H. Cline brings to life one of the most important expeditions ever undertaken. Drawing on a trove of the team’s writings and correspondences spanning more than three decades, he gives readers an insider’s perspective on the debates over what was uncovered at Megiddo, the infighting that roiled the expedition and the stunning discoveries that transformed our understanding of the ancient world.

Out of Stock Book Cover

Out of Stock: The Warehouse in the History of Capitalism

Dara Orenstein, associate professor of American studies, delivers an ambitious account of the most underappreciated site in American commerce and industry: the warehouse. She traces the progression from the 19th century’s bonded warehouses to today’s foreign-trade zones, dissecting why warehouses have supplanted factories in the age of Amazon and Walmart and are now the most pivotal spaces of global capitalism. Drawing from cultural geography, history and political economy, she demonstrates the centrality of warehouses for corporations, workers, cities and empires.

Principles of Animal Research Ethics Book Cover

Principles of Animal Research Ethics

When is the use of animals in biomedical research justified—and when does it go too far? What is the trade-off between scientific experiments that may harm animal subjects—and the possibility of breakthrough treatments for diseases like cancer and HIV? Elton Professor of Philosophy David DeGrazia tackles these and other questions in this groundbreaking framework of general principles for animal research ethics. He addresses moral requirements pertaining to societal benefit—a critical consideration in justifying the harming of animals in research—and features commentaries by eminent figures in animal research.

This Might Convulsion Book Cover

“This Mighty Convulsion”: Whitman and Melville Write the Civil War

Christopher Sten, professor of English and American literature, edited this first-ever collection of essays devoted to the Civil War writings of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, arguably the most important writers of the war and among the handful of America’s greatest authors. Whitman and Melville both influenced each other’s works and disagreed over troubling questions of casualties, complications and the anxieties of the war. This volume not only enhances critical appreciation of the writers’ skill and sophistication, but also illustrates how Whitman and Melville went beyond memorializing the war and foresaw its cultural and political legacy.