University of Florida Homepage

Plastic debris in our oceans poses a major threat to marine wildlife, especially for sea turtles, who often mistake plastic for food.

Previously it was thought that sea turtles see plastics and visually mistake them for prey like jellyfish, but new research in the journal Current Biology co-authored by courtesy faculty member JOSEPH PFALLER at the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research provides startling new evidence for how another sense is leading sea turtles astray.

“Our study shows that sea turtles may be attracted to plastic not only by the way it looks but also by the way it smells,” Pfaller said. “When plastics drift in the sea, they develop a community of bacteria, algae and small animals on their surface that gives off odors that turtles seem to like. This could attract sea turtles into an ‘olfactory trap’ — sometimes fatally.”

This process of microbes, algae, plants and small animals accruing on wet surfaces is known as biofouling.

Previous research by Pfaller’s co-author Matthew Savoca of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station found that airborne odorants used by marine predators to locate good places to find food also emanate from marine-conditioned or biofouled plastic debris. After this discovery, the team wondered what this could mean for the endangered sea turtle.

To find out, the researchers enlisted 15 young, captive-reared loggerhead sea turtles. They delivered a series of airborne odorants through a pipe in an experimental arena and recorded their reactions on video. The odors they tested included deionized water and clean plastic as controls along with the turtle’s food, which contains fish and shrimp meal and biofouled plastic.

Surprisingly, the behavioral studies found that sea turtles responded to biofouled plastic in the same way they responded to their food. Compared to control odors, the turtles kept their nares (nasal openings) out of the water more than three times longer to get a good whiff.

“We were surprised that turtles responded to odors from biofouled plastic with the same intensity as their food,” Pfaller said. “We expected them to respond to both to a greater extent than the control treatments, but the turtles know the smell of their food since they’ve been smelling and eating it in captivity for 5 months. I expected their responses to food to be stronger.”

Pfaller notes that further study is needed to better understand what chemicals were emitted from the plastics that piqued the turtles’ interest and how waterborne odorants might come into play. But the new findings show that plastics of all kinds will present problems for sea turtles and other marine animals.

“The plastic problem is increasing, and our findings suggest that it is also more complex than previously thought,” he said.

Read the full study here

Biology professor Emily Sessa receives NASA grant to understand why ferns bounced back after a mass extinction

The last great extinction event occurred 66 million years ago when the K-Pg asteroid smashed into the planet, dramatically changing our world. The dinosaurs were lost, forests were leveled and four out of five species of plant went extinct in areas close to the impact site.

And yet, from the ashes of the impact, the first life to recolonize these areas were the ferns. Known as the “fern spore spike,” this occurrence has been seen in smaller-scale extinction events like the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, where fern species recovered much more quickly than other organisms. Amazingly, the resiliency of ferns has never been thoroughly investigated — until now.

Biology professor Emily Sessa

In November 2019, biology professor and Principal Investigator of the Sessa Lab at UF Emily Sessa received a grant from NASA to answer this intriguing question.

Sessa will lead an all-female research team that consists of Jacquelyn Gill from the University of Maine, Jarmila Pittermann from the University of California Santa Cruz, Ellen Currano from the University of Wyoming and Regan Dunn from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. The project was awarded nearly $1.2 million by NASA’s Exobiology program, which seeks to “understand the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the Universe.”

“Ferns play critical roles in many of Earth’s ecosystems, and they are remarkably resilient plants,” Sessa said.

“The fern spore spike was first recognized in the 1970s as a puzzling and striking feature of the planet’s geological record, and it is surprising that no research before now has been directed at trying to dissect and understand what the spike means for modern plant diversity and Earth’s recovery from the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs.”

It’s Sessa and her team’s goal to better understand both the specific species of ferns that created the spike and the plant communities that developed after the mass extinction.

Unraveling this ancient mystery could also provide us with important information as we face an uncertain environmental future.

“Plants form the basis of all food webs and all energy production on earth,” Sessa said, “so understanding how they respond to massive change and environmental catastrophe will help us make predictions about how modern ecosystems might respond to environmental change now and in the future.”

To learn more about Sessa and her work, click here.

Astrophysicist studies black hole collisions and neutron star mergers

When IMRE BARTOS first became interested in researching gravitational waves in 2004, his college professors advised against it. Since Albert Einstein theorized about their existence in 1915, no one had actually observed gravitational waves, ripples in space time caused by major cosmic events such as black hole collisions. The field was considered a dead end.

That continued to be true for another decade — until September 14, 2015, when, using an algorithm designed at UF, an international team of researchers detected gravitational waves emanating from the collision of two black holes over a billion light years from Earth. Arriving a century after Einstein’s prediction, the discovery shocked Bartos, then at Columbia University.

“It took me several days to fathom this was real,” Bartos said. Thankfully, he had ignored his skeptical professors’ advice and focused his research on an area of study that was about to blossom. That research eventually brought him to UF, where he became an assistant professor in 2017.

Gambling on this exciting field has continued to pay off for Bartos: The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced Wednesday that Bartos is the recipient of the 2020 Sloan Research Fellowship. The two-year Fellowship, which comes with an award of $150,000, recognizes researchers for “distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field.”

For Bartos, the Fellowship is an indication that the scientific community values not only his own research but the study of gravitational waves at large.

“It is very reassuring,” he said. “This award means the community has trust in me to use these resources to find exciting new cosmic events.”

The research fellowship, which is not tied to a specific project, affords him flexibility to pursue the latest discoveries in his field.

“Especially in a field that is very new with many interesting opportunities, it is critical to focus on the most pressing, riskier questions that may be arising very quickly,” Bartos said. “In a five-year period, there have been a number of complete pivots in the direction of the field.”

Five years after the very first detection of gravitational waves, researchers are now identifying one black hole collision a week. Bartos estimates that in two years, the rate will be one per day. In addition to black hole collisions, Bartos dedicates much of his research to the study of neutron star mergers, which produced the reserves of gold, platinum, uranium and many other heavy elements found on Earth.

“We’re starting to discover things that are changing how we think about the universe,” he said.

There are few better places to pursue this research than UF, one of the key institutions in the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) collaboration that has been behind the field’s major discoveries. At UF, Bartos said he has access to expert collaborators, advanced instrumentation, a supportive research environment and elite students.

While his areas of interest might seem remote to us on Earth, Bartos believes that cosmic events offer insight into fundamental laws of nature in ways that can’t be observed terrestrially. For example, while physicists have made new discoveries using particle accelerators, black holes can accelerate particles up to more than a billion times faster.

“Very often in science and in physics in particular we can learn more about what is really behind different phenomena by looking at extremes,” he said. “For that, we very often need to go beyond Earth and even beyond the Solar System.”

Reimagining the Humanities

Now in its second decade, the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere is bringing disciplines together to tackle grand-challenge questions

Reimagining the Humanities

Now in its second decade, the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere is bringing disciplines together to tackle grand-challenge questions

The humanities have a perception problem. Dogged by the recent sentiment that these disciplines favor ivory-tower indulgence over direct career paths, humanities scholars often feel the need to defend the value of their studies to the world. This won’t be the case for long. Today’s world faces unprecedented problems and questions — climate change, income inequality, racism and the role of technology in our lives — many of which can only be solved with help from the humanities.

At UF, the humanities find their home at the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere. The center celebrated the 10th anniversary of its launch in April 2019 and is looking ahead to initiatives that could break new ground for the humanities across the nation.

Thanks to a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the center has been able to create a unique program aimed at tackling today’s most urgent issues through the humanities. UF Intersections: Animating Conversations with the Humanities allows faculty, doctoral students and staff from all corners of the humanities to come together and gives undergraduate students the chance to consider the questions that will define their lives.

“There are these grand intractable problems facing our world that can only be addressed by combining multiple forms of knowledge,” SOPHIA KRZYS ACORD, associate director of the center, said.

Intersections addresses four grand-challenge questions formulated by professors — from disciplines spanning African American studies, classics, religion, history and more — who usually wouldn’t have an opportunity to work so closely together. Each UF Mellon Intersections Group is conducting research and designing a cluster of courses on the topic while also planning events like speaker series to give students an opportunity to learn beyond the confines of the classroom.

This setup is something new for the field. “Collaboration in the humanities is something that is not entirely clear — there’s not a blueprint like there is in the sciences,” said BARBARA MENNEL, the Robert and Margaret Rothman Chair in the Humanities and director of the center.

While the Intersections questions vary, each group has similar goals — to expose students to diverse perspectives as they take on real-world challenges. Read on to learn more about each Intersections Group and see how the humanities will play a crucial role in shaping our world.


Cover story Diaspora

People sitting at a table having a conversation
(Center)Barbara Mennel, the Robert and Margaret Rothman Chair in the Humanities and director of the center speaks with colleagues. (Courtesy of the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere)

Head and gavel

How Can We Engage Ethical Issues in Public Life?

If you feel like it’s harder than ever to talk with one another about the most pressing issues facing society, you’re not alone.

It’s a big reason why one Intersections Group is using ethical reflection to take on hot-button topics like climate change, the #MeToo movement and income inequality. As the country grows more politically divided, the Intersections Group on Ethics in the Public Sphere, led by religion professor ANNA PETERSON and philosophy professor JAIME AHLBERG, wants to inspire more constructive conversations — and, hopefully, encourage meaningful action in the process.

“Even when something is really polarized, you can find points of common ground,” Peterson said. “But you have to be clear about what values are at stake.”

Ethics Workshop
Intersections gives students the opportunity to hear from experts across disciplines. (Courtesy of the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere)

The approach has been on full display at the “ethics cafés” the group hosts on campus, where students are invited to discuss some of the most charged questions of the day. Asked what a just system of immigration in the United States would look like, more than 30 participants at a meeting followed a series of guidelines — stay on topic, don’t monopolize the conversation — as they sought points of agreement acknowledged what information they lacked and dug into the moral dimensions at play.

By calling attention to the ethical underpinnings of issues that dominate the news, this group hopes to make sometimes abstract philosophical, religious and moral questions feel urgent and relevant to students.

“Students want to learn about theory, but they also want to know how that stuff applies to their real lives,” Ahlberg said.

Peterson and Ahlberg have brought these questions to life in a class they teach on ethics in the public sphere, the idea for which formed the initial inspiration for the Intersections Group. Instead of lecturing, the professors try to create an environment where students come to their own conclusions through discussion, reflection and hands-on experience.

“STUDENTS WANT TO LEARN ABOUT THEORY, BUT THEY ALSO WANT TO KNOW HOW THAT STUFF APPLIES TO THEIR REAL LIVES.”

“People have to buy in and feel like they’re part of coming up with these answers,” Peterson said.

A class excursion to the Harn Museum of Art, for example, gave students a chance to explore the question of displaying the work of artists accused of sexual misconduct, as the museum grappled over a piece in its own collection by prominent painter and photographer Chuck Close.

The most heated class discussion came when the students were split into groups and given vastly different shares of candy, meant to represent strata of wealth — and then tasked with proposing a just economic system. ALARA GÜVENLI, an undergraduate student who took the course in spring, found the course made her more open to different points of view.

“Students can get stuck in their own bubbles where people agree with them,” she said. “But in the class, we all had to listen to each other — and a lot of people had opposing ideas.”

Peterson and Ahlberg also invited journalism librarian (and fellow Intersections Group member) APRIL HINES to the class for a presentation about finding reliable sources.

“Thinking well about complicated moral problems as they’re unfolding requires not just theorizing about values, but also knowing how to find and process empirical data,” Ahlberg said. “Good ethics needs good facts.”

A constructive conversation, though, isn’t an end unto itself: The goal, ultimately, is to encourage students to act to address the issues that matter most to them personally. Beginning in the spring 2020 semester, the Intersections Group will invite community organizations to campus for panel discussions to make students aware of the service and advocacy opportunities available in Gainesville.

The student body at a top-tier public university, Peterson said, presents an opportunity for the impact of this work to extend far beyond campus. “We have a diverse student body, and many first-generation college students,” Peterson said. “But these are also the people who go on to be the next professionals and leaders.”


Illustration of woman, necklace, and coin

How do Black and Latinx People Shape Global and Local Cultures, Politics and Economics

“Our students win when they are forced to stretch,” MANOUCHEKA CELESTE said.

A professor in the Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research and the African American Studies program, Celeste is also the convener for the Intersections Group on Global Blackness and Latinx Identity, which aims to help students broaden their worldview.

This group strives to answer a question far too often neglected in traditional curricula: How do Black and Latinx people shape our world?

To fill this gap, the Intersection Group has been working to expose students to histories and cultures they may not be familiar with through a mix of classroom experiences and events. “It’s about students really engaging with ideas and histories that they usually don’t encounter in other classes,” Celeste said.

“IT’S VERY EASY TO BE IN YOUR COMFORT ZONE AND TO BE WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE VERY SIMILAR TO YOU.”

“We need to prepare students to handle diversity,” said co-convener MARGARITA VARGAS-BETANCOURT, a librarian in the Latin American and Caribbean Special Collections. “Even students from underrepresented groups need to appreciate their cultural heritage.”

The Intersection Group’s year-long lecture series has brought speakers from varied backgrounds, including Nadève Ménard from the Université d’État d’Haïti, who examined Haiti’s complex linguistic landscape, and Aisha Durham from the University of South Florida, who discussed how artists like Erykah Badu and Missy Elliot are inviting us to reimagine hip-hop feminism.

Speaker giving presentation
(Courtesy of the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere)

For students from underrepresented groups, Celeste points to the power of seeing speakers and instructors who look like them and can speak to a shared life experience. “Students are hungry to see themselves represented and to talk about their experiences,” she said. “It makes them feel better about where they are at UF and also gives them a chance to imagine who they can be once they leave here.”

As the makeup of the country continues to become more diverse, this Intersections Group’s courses and events serve as an important touchpoint for a wide range of students.

“We want to explore in this time and era general aspects of immigration, of the diaspora of these groups to the U.S. but also the migration of these groups to Florida,” Vargas-Betancourt said.

In a globalized economy, students from all backgrounds need to know that after graduation they won’t necessarily be working with people who look exactly like them or who have had the same life experiences.

“It’s very easy to be in your comfort zone and to be with people who are very similar to you,” Vargas-Betancourt said. “It is challenging to be with people who are different from you.”

This Intersections Group offers complex experiences and encourages students to think broadly, finding connections across groups. These experiences can have a huge impact on not only their professional lives, but in their role as citizens of a rapidly changing world. “That’s how we equip all our students to go out in the world and do better, because they’re not shocked by reality,” Celeste said.


Illustration of computer chip and cracked pottery

How do Technologies Influence Our Lives, Then and Now?

Students in the Intersections Group on Imagineering and the Technosphere will soon find themselves playing a board game — of sorts. At the start of the spring 2020 semester, they’ll receive a “game board,” essentially a satellite image of UF’s campus. This image will be broken down into grids, with several areas highlighted — Turlington Rock, Century Tower and a sculpture on display at the Harn Museum of Art are a few examples.

Students will then visit each location and, through their mobile devices, learn about items or buildings they have walked past a hundred times but likely never stopped to consider too deeply before.

What was the Century Tower used for in the past? How is it currently employed? And how might it be used in the future?

“As human beings we understand something better when we can see and touch it,” said ELENI BOZIA, the convener for this Intersections Group and an Assistant Professor of Classics and Digital Humanities. “We’re trying to help the students grasp ideas.”

The ultimate goal of the game is to give students firsthand experience on how we use technology to alter ourselves and our physical world.

Barnputis virtual presentation
The Intersections Group on Imagineering and the Technosphere challenges students to reconsider “technology” and the history of what surrounds them. (Courtesy of the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere)

The group’s definition of technology, though, encompasses far more than the latest iPhone. While their work does cover the impact of “literal technology” like mobile devices, computers and cars, it also dives into what Bozia calls “cultural technology.” Cultural technologies consist of constructs like language, art, politics and religious traditions — all created by humans, just like literal technologies. Together, these combine to help us define and organize our lives.

At the heart of this Intersections Group is the desire to show students that we are all more connected across cultures and even time than we think.

For example, when students play the “UF Quest Game,” they’ll stop by the Harn Museum of Art to take a look at a 17th century Korean bodhisattva sculpture and be compelled to consider the piece on a variety of levels.

What technology was used to make it? What purpose did it serve? What does it mean to them, the students, sitting in front of them here in Florida, thousands of miles away from where it was originally created, hundreds of years later?

“WE CAN OPEN THE STUDENTS TO THE IDEA THAT THIS IS EVERYBODY’S WORLD OUT THERE.”

Bozia and the fellow professors who make up this Intersections Group hope to uncover what the lessons of past inventions can teach us about how to address the problems facing humanity today — especially when we consider our current rapid rate of technological advances.

“I want to show the students a sense of continuation,” Bozia said, pointing out that the labels we put on life and history are often arbitrary. Ultimately, Intersections on Imagineering and the Technosphere hopes to show that more connects us than divides us. “We can open the students to the idea that this is everybody’s world out there,” Bozia said.


UF Quest Game

After students visit a location on the UF Quest Game board, they’ll receive a 3D-printed model of that location’s most identifiable trademark. These models will then be placed on the board until all pieces have been collected.


Illustration of statue head and male head along with chains and police tape

What Would the World Look Like Without Mass Incarceration?

After years of skyrocketing detention rates made the U.S. prison population the largest in the world, the country’s decision makers have begun exploring ways to address mass incarceration. But despite the newfound attention to the issue, the Intersections Group on Mass Incarceration believes the conversation has been far too narrow. The team members aren’t just looking for ways to reduce prison populations, but to envision a society where justice doesn’t revolve around prison in the first place.

“A lot has been written about how we came to expand the prison system and develop the contemporary crisis of mass incarceration,” said English professor JODI SCHORB, the group’s convener. “But what’s next? That’s the bigger question. We have to transform how we think about those behind bars, who many think of as disposable and out of sight.”

The group believes there’s no single right way to address the issue. As an English professor, Schorb has explored the topic by teaching courses on convict writing and prison literature. A social scientist, meanwhile, will come at the issue another way — as will someone who has actually been incarcerated.

“Answering the question depends on researchers, activists and visionaries,” Schorb said. “You can’t undo the global entanglement of mass incarceration through policy changes alone. We have to imagine alternatives that don’t exist yet.”

But bringing together those invested in this issue from different disciplines and walks of life isn’t so easy. The resources provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have allowed the team to further a conversation that might have remained fragmented.

“WE HAVE TO TRANSFORM HOW WE THINK ABOUT THOSE BEHIND BARS, WHO MANY THINK OF AS DISPOSABLE AND OUT OF SIGHT.”

To truly have an impact, the Intersections Group knows that it needs to involve those most immediately affected by mass incarceration.

They’ve put a major emphasis on elevating the community work being done off-campus — and in Gainesville, there’s no shortage of it, with organizations like the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding and the Legal Empowerment Advocacy Hub making local strides.

“We are all tangled up in mass incarceration in different ways, but we often fail to see it and how it negatively impacts our communities,” said STEPHANIE BIRCH, UF’s African American Studies librarian and the group’s co-convener.

Engaging undergraduates on this topic demands a variety of approaches, in part because students’ experiences vary so drastically.

“Some undergrads don’t often think about how prison and mass incarceration impact them,” Schorb said. “Others feel this every day, firsthand, in their families, homes and communities.”

People listen to speaker give presentation on mass incarceration
Diverse speakers on pressing topics affecting our world today are a hallmark of the Intersections program. (Courtesy of the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere)

The Intersections Group has held roundtable discussions that invite undergraduate students from different majors to share their perspectives on and experiences with the U.S. prison system, and they’ve even asked the students directly for their visions of what society would look like without mass incarceration. The pervasiveness of the prison system means that the topics can be linked to so many other facets of society.

“One of the ways we make mass incarceration relevant to students is by connecting it to other issues they may be concerned about — gender, race, labor, immigration, the environment, medical care,” Birch said. However, many students are already interested — their fall keynote lecture drew undergraduates studying a wide array of fields including classics, health and human performance, sociology and business.

UF, Schorb said, is uniquely positioned to make a difference by increasing attention on this issue. Not only can its status as a hub of research and learning lead to better policy, but its students leave with the tools to make an impact.

“These students graduate and go out in to the world. They vote, they volunteer,” she said. “They will drive the conversation forward.”


Intersections Scholars

Undergraduate students who engage with one of the grand-challenge questions are named Intersections Scholars. Students receive this designation by taking three courses that address the grand-challenge question of their interest. This experience helps prepare them for a range of diverse careers through the program’s emphasis on critical thinking, research, creative problem-solving and intellectual curiosity.

Students at a table sit and work together to formulate a just system of immigration in the United States
About 30 students took part in an Intersections Ethics Cafe, where they worked together to formulate a just system of immigration in the United States. (Courtesy of the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere)

Want to learn more about the Intersections program, including course descriptions and upcoming events? Click here.


Fall 2019

Check out more stories from the Fall 2019 issue of Ytori magazine.

View Issue

With the help of digital technology, UF professor plans to bring the history of a devastated town to the present

By Scott Rogers

On September 29, 1896, the island of Atsena Otie Key was struck by a powerful hurricane. Located just off the coast of Cedar Key in the Gulf of Mexico, Atsena Otie Key was home to a world-renowned cedar mill and 50 families — until the resulting storm surge destroyed the mill, prompting a steady exodus from the island.

While devastating to industry in the area, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Just 54 years prior (and 26 years before the construction of the mill), the island, then serving as a U.S. Army headquarters, was struck by another hurricane. The damage was so severe that the government abandoned the post, considering it unsalvageable.

It raises the question: If there was recent evidence that a location was especially prone to strong hurricanes, why build a center of industry there? How could everyone forget so quickly?

This is an all-too-common problem that UF anthropologist and Hyatt and Cici Brown Professor of Florida Archaeology KENNETH E. SASSAMAN is trying to solve — with the help of some innovative technology.

An aerial view of Atsena Otie Key near Cedar Key, Florida. (Loretta Risley / Alamy Stock Photo)

A specialist in the Archaic (8,000 to 1,000 BC) and Woodland (1,000 BC to 1000 AD) periods of the American Southeast, Sassaman has always been interested in how he can use history as a tool to guide policy and decision-making in the present.

Specifically, Sassaman wondered if he could use a historical precedent to show how climate change might affect Florida. To find out, he dug into Florida’s history of indigenous coastal dwelling going back more than 13,000 years, when sea-level was down 80 meters and the Gulf Coast lay more than 200 kilometers from its current position.

Sassaman hoped to offer insights on how indigenous groups adapted over thousands of years to drastic environmental changes that resembled present-day issues.

Unfortunately, this early history presented one huge problem he couldn’t work around.

“No matter how I spin it, no matter what the narrative is, if it’s that old, it doesn’t resonate with the present,” he said. “It’s too foreign. And the further back in time we go, the less empathy and connection people have to it.”

“We turn storms into the boogeyman.”

While venting these frustrations to a colleague one day, Sassaman happened to share the tale of Atsena Otie Key. Riveted, his colleague pointed out that Sassaman had the answer right in front of him.

Here was a wealth of recent information, including oral histories from those that lived through the 1896 hurricane, that would feel much more immediate to a modern audience. Yet there was still a major issue Sassaman knew he would have to contend with: presentation. A book or exhibit on the island’s unique past just wouldn’t have the impact Sassaman knew he’d need to get his argument across.

“History is not always accessible to people outside of academia,” he said. “It doesn’t appeal to their emotions or their visceral sense of personal connection.”

To address this, Sassaman formed a partnership with Digital Heritage Interactive, a studio run by UF alumni that specializes in applying digital technologies to cultural resources, to create an interactive walkthrough of Atsena Otie Key. Sassaman ultimately hopes users will be able to navigate the town in virtual reality as it appeared in 1896, talk to real people who lived there before the hurricane and see the devastation the storm reaped for themselves.

“Part of this project is to make history sensory, emotional, personal and biographical,” Sassaman said. “It’s going to be the story of Velma Crevasse at age 11, living on Atsena Otie Key, waking up to the eye of the hurricane thinking the storm was over, only to turn around and see a wall of water approaching her and her house.”

UF anthropologist and Hyatt and Cici Brown Professor of Florida Archaeology Kenneth E. Sassaman.

The team is planning to have multiple time periods on the island built out, allowing viewers to move through different eras in a non-linear fashion to show how vulnerable this location was to storm surges and erosion. One minute a user could be in 1896, then suddenly jump to 1842, 1935 or 1950 — all years a hurricane struck the area.

“We turn storms into the boogeyman,” Sassaman explained, when, in reality, an at-risk area like Atsena Otie Key is what happens when a large storm and a human-made vulnerability crash into each other. Long before 1896, the cedar in the area had been overharvested, increasing the odds a storm surge could wreak havoc on the island. Sassaman hopes that being able to see the firsthand consequences of development in an area that has been destroyed by natural occurrences multiple times might encourage people to think harder before building in such an environment.

The drone used to scan Atsena Otie Key and operator Eben Broadbent. (Kenneth Sassaman)

His partner, Digital Heritage Interactive, is based in Orlando and run by two like-minded UF alumni with degrees in anthropology, DIANA GONZÁLEZ-TENNANT ’11, MA, and her husband EDWARD GONZÁLEZ-TENNANT ’11, PhD, who have previously developed digital walkthroughs of historic settlements. One of their previous projects, Rosewood, allowed users to explore an African American town in Florida that was destroyed during a 1923 race riot.

“Atsena Otie Key and similar projects provide an engaging and interactive method for communicating two things with the public,” Edward said. “The first is an accurate picture of the incredible heritage resources located on the island. Second, the virtual reconstruction reveals the growing danger climate change poses for such resources. Once these resources are gone, they’re lost forever. This project lets us retrieve them from the dustbin of history.”

“The hope is to incite discussions about climate change, both past and present,” Diana said. “What made Atsena Otie Key vulnerable was not that the storm wiped it out, but that the storm drove industry away — that’s why the town no longer exists.”

“Part of this project is to make history sensory, emotional, personal
and biographical.”

While this project is still in its early stages, some important early steps have already been completed. To re-create Atsena Otie Key, Sassaman and team began by working with the GatorEye Unmanned Flying Laboratory (GatorEye UFL), a drone program run by the Spatial Ecology and Conservation Lab at UF. GatorEye UFL scanned the island, uncovering the original foundations of buildings and allowing the team to match up what remains with historic maps of the town. This high-resolution mapping managed to accomplish in 40 minutes what previously might have taken Sassaman months.

A 3d projection of Way Key/Cedar Key. (Image courtesy of Asa Randall)

From here, Sassaman’s team will move forward with building out the digital re-creation of the island over these various time periods. The plan is to house the initial digital headset that will allow users to navigate the town in the Cedar Key Historical Society’s museum, while remote users will be able to access a website to experience the walkthrough themselves.

Sassaman sees the potential for expanding the team’s use of technology to make this re-creation of Atsena Otie Key even more interactive, with an augmented reality version of the town built out so that visitors to the island can actually walk around and see what used to be there by just holding up their mobile devices.

While this augmented reality stage is still a while off, the creativity and willingness to engage with the public in such an innovate manner speaks to how important Sassaman feels this history is to our present times.

“History is the archive of human experiences that we use to shape our perception of where we are and where we’re going,” Sassaman said. “We need to mobilize these experiences and make them available — now.”

Click here to read more stories from this issue of Ytori.

Award-winning professor has a productive partnership — and friendly rivalry — with TA-turned-colleague

By Andrew Doerfler

At the college’s Evening of Excellence in April, then-acting economics chair THOMAS KNIGHT presented a faculty award to his friend and mentor MARK RUSH. Knight hasn’t heard the end of it since.

Rush, an economics professor who has racked up more than 30 teaching awards since coming to UF in 1982, passes up no opportunity bring up his colleague’s flattering remarks. “The college was incredibly generous to give me that award — and so foolish. Thomas knows what it’s done for my ego,” Rush said.

“I’m paying the real price here,” Knight, a lecturer at UF since 2014, replied.

Beneath their repartee is a steadfast working relationship that began when Knight served as Rush’s teaching assistant while a PhD student. Today, they’re united by a common cause: teaching introductory economics courses to classes that exceed 1,000 students, most of whom watch the lectures online. While they bounce ideas off each other, the two also compete to out-score each other on student evaluations. Adding yet another layer to their relationship, Knight was recently appointed to a full term as department chair, effectively making him Rush’s “boss.”

Their massive audiences have meant that the two are often recognized on campus. In a joint interview, Rush and Knight talked about engaging students in large online classes, their local fame and what motivates them as teachers.

How do you engage students in such large classes, with most of them watching online?

Thomas Knight: From a content perspective, I don’t think it’s any different. My goal is to replicate the small section, face-to-face environment the best I can — to deliver the same high-quality, rigorous course.

Mark Rush: I don’t treat it any differently, either. I’m always begging the students for questions. Sometimes I’ve got to buy a question with a quarter. Thomas will never let me submit that as an expense request.

TK: Everyone needs a reason to hate their boss, Mark.

My husband (Horticultural Sciences Lecturer Gerardo Nuñez) teaches a lot of online courses, and he goes out of his way to be very poised and professional. I take the opposite approach: I go out of my way to use silly and self-deprecating examples, to make students feel they can relate to the material.

MR: If you can make the courses more humorous, the students are more likely to watch the courses, and if they watch the courses, they’re going to be learning.

Does teaching about a third of all incoming freshmen give you any extra sense of responsibility?

TK: We really go out of our way to connect students at UF with resources beyond economics: the career center, study abroad, master’s programs and entrepreneurship. We can bring in visitors to give short presentations to a huge audience, and both of us take huge advantage of that.

MR: If you teach these big classes, there are thousands of people who know who you are. It means you have to behave in public.

For four or five years my classes were on Cox cable, and everyone knew who I was. I was once in Sam’s Club — at the time I was in my mid-40s — and a woman significantly older than I was came running up and started hugging me and telling me that I was her favorite show on TV. I did not know this was my target audience.

Thomas, you’ve called Mark a mentor. What have you learned from him?

TK: I’ll say this: If you told any new PhD on the job market that they would be expected to teach 2,500 students in a large introductory class, they would be praying to get another offer. But after being Mark’s head grader, it never crossed my mind that this would be a problem.

MR: We were fortunate to be able to hire Thomas for these large classes. Frankly, that’s rebounded to my harm because he and I have competed twice for teaching awards, and he’s won both.

What motivates you to go above and beyond when it comes to teaching?

MR: For me, it’s comparably easy to make the class good or bad. And if I make it good, it frees up more time, because the chair doesn’t come by and yell at me.

I think it’s intrinsic in one’s personality. You could say, “Thomas, be a bad teacher,” and it’d be very difficult for him. You’d probably have to pay him something to make him into a bad teacher.

TK: We also both view the students as humans, who are paying a lot of money to go to college. They’re making some sacrifices to be here. Delivering a low-quality education seems like a pretty crappy thing to do them.

Mark, what was your reaction to winning the faculty award at the Evening of Excellence?

MR: I was very surprised and gratified. At first, I was dismayed because Thomas was going to be accompanying me. But then I learned he had to say nice things about me.

Click here to read more stories from this issue of Ytori.

Evening of Excellence honoree Laura Guyer established an essential program

By Scott Rogers

“The healthcare professions need what we teach here in liberal arts and sciences,” LAURA GUYER said. She should know.

A professor in the Center for Gender, Sexualities and Women’s Studies Research, Guyer has experience working in the private healthcare sector, public health and academic settings like here at UF.

“Every 10 years my phone has rung with an offer to do something a little different,” she said.

One of these rings brought Guyer back to UF in 2011 after initially working within the university’s Food Science and Human Nutrition Department from 1989 to 1999. Between her two stints at UF, Guyer was employed at a regional health education center and served in healthcare leadership roles throughout the state.

What drew Guyer back to campus? The chance to lead the development of the new Health Disparities in Society (HDS) minor and to help the next generation of healthcare professionals provide better care to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, economic class or education level. Since the program’s launch in 2011, it has become one of the fastest growing and most popular programs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences by focusing on this crucial need. Guyer was recognized earlier this year at the college’s annual Evening of Excellence for her role as a faculty member and leader of this minor.

Inequality in healthcare is not a new issue. In 1985, the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services convened a Task Force on Black and Minority Health to determine why minorities in particular experienced higher rates of disability, disease and death than white patients.

Laura Guyer credits the passion of the diverse student body enrolled in the HDS minor with its quick growth and success.

Although there has been increased awareness on health disparities in recent years, this issue still plagues the field. Guyer noted that you can see this at play in a startling statistic — according to a 2016 Johns Hopkins study, medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. behind heart disease and cancer.

While it can be hard to disentangle what causes a medical error, Guyer said that many of these can be traced back to the failure to communicate with a patient, whether due to implicit biases or simply lacking the skill to do so effectively.

“If your physician isn’t communicating clearly from a cultural or language perspective, or perhaps you are a person who doesn’t read exceptionally well, how are you going to follow your doctors’ instructions at home?” Guyer said.

“Healthcare is changing,” she explained, noting that the United States is switching from a fee-based model to one that focuses on quality of care first. This switch demands the expertise and skills found in the social and behavioral sciences — skills that are critical to helping healthcare professionals better understand people and their differences.

For the students enrolled in the HDS minor, these skills offer a leg up when it comes to getting into medical school. They have a deeper understanding of the differences between patients and what it takes to provide exceptional care, Guyer said.

The minor also attracts a diverse student body. Each semester, up to 50–60 percent of its students speak another language, with Guyer cataloging up to 83 different languages spoken by the minor’s undergraduates over the course of the program’s existence.

Guyer feels strongly about undergraduates receiving this kind of exposure to other cultures and lifestyles before they go to medical school. The HDS minor, she believes, lays the foundation for a more inclusive, sensitive and overall better healthcare system.

“The reason I’m so passionate about undergraduate students is because of the place in life, the developmental milestones that are being reached during the undergraduate years,” she said. “You become an independent person and identify where you fit in the world.”

The students not only have opportunities in the classroom, but they’re also immersed in the volunteer community. “I get the students out of the classroom because they need to see what this information means and how it’s valuable,” she said.

The minor receives support from a variety of community organizations dedicated to helping the next generation of healthcare professionals provide the care the public needs.

“Every semester, 37 safety net clinics, nonprofit health organizations, city government and state agencies mentor 55-60 undergraduate students,” Guyer said. “I greatly value those who give so generously to our students. The minor could not be successful without their generous input and support.”

Guyer was recognized at this year’s Evening of Excellence for her pivotal role in developing and guiding this minor. Introducing Guyer to the stage, BONNIE MORADI, Director of the Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research, explained just how impressive this achievement is.

“Not only is HDS the fastest-growing minor in the college,” she said, “but it also is the only undergraduate academic program nationwide that introduces pre-professional students to the issues of health disparities, social determinants of health, cultural competence, health literacy and advocacy.”

Despite the praise she’s received since her return to UF, Guyer still has a hard time believing that she received this honor. “I’m still so stunned by the award,” she said. “There is no greater honor than to be recognized by your peers.”

Guyer, though, remains committed to her ultimate goal of improving healthcare for everyone. “I’m trying to build a better doctor, a better nurse,” she said. With this minor in place, she’s well on her way.

Click here to read more stories from this issue of Ytori.

Educators take to the battlefields for a firsthand historical experience

By Sean Adams

Working as a historian keeps me in climate-controlled atmospheres — air-conditioned classrooms, comfortable offices, academic panels in staid hotel conference rooms and carefully maintained archives. In the summer of 2018, however, I purposely ventured out into the blast furnace that is western Florida and southern Alabama to see history firsthand, taking 36 teachers of elementary, middle and high school with me, plus a colleague.

The reason for this venture was a joint workshop by the Florida Humanities Council and the Alabama Humanities Foundation titled “The Civil War in the American South.” For the past five years, I’ve led teacher workshops that combine lectures and field trips to the site of the 1864 Battle of Olustee at Fort Clinch and the haunting slave cabins at Kingsley Plantation in Fernandina Beach.

The idea is to put teachers in the places where history happened so they can bring that experience back to their classrooms, where students might gain a new perspective on the past.

History professor Sean Adams speaks with educators during their historical tour through Florida and southern Alabama. (Keith Simmons)

It’s one thing to read about the historical significance of these sites and quite another to put yourself behind the thick masonry walls at Fort Clinch, or to see the way that the white plastered slave cabins at Kingsley form a semicircle around the big house once occupied by Zephaniah and Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley. While no visit can do justice to understanding Zephaniah’s relationship with Anna, his African American wife, the plantation grounds offer an excellent example of the architecture of slavery.

Thanks to a generous gift from the HTR Foundation (an organization devoted to preserving American Civil War sites), we were able to bring teachers to Civil War sites around Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida. Professor Lonnie Burnett, a Civil War historian, dean and associate provost at the University of Mobile, co-hosted this venture. Joined by teachers from Florida and Alabama, we began our exploration of the region in earnest with a trip to Fort Pickens, just south of Pensacola.

To get to Fort Pickens, we took a bus from downtown to Santa Rosa Island and landed at Pensacola Beach. As we passed the condos and rental houses that haunt every Florida shore, the dive bars and beachside attractions became scarce. Urban sprawl was replaced by barren, sandy dunes, and we wound our way to Fort Pickens on the far western edge of the barrier island.

“There is something about being in these locations where the history we teach actually happens.”

The fort is a historical park now, so the guns are silent, but when the park ranger described the process of loading and firing each piece so that a constant barrage could be maintained, we easily imagined the heat, noise and turmoil of battle. When you’re deep inside the casement wall next to a massive artillery piece, it’s hard not to think about the tough job of the Union soldiers that lived and worked there. These men labored in a deafening furnace in 1861 — their ears bled from the explosions and most were severely concussed from the shockwaves.

A half century later, the teachers and I felt a connection to them. From atop the wall you can see the immense distance between Fort Pickens and Pensacola. Although Union and Confederate batteries launched salvo after salvo at each other in the early days of the conflict, few shells reached their targets. More fish than men were hurt in the opening battle of Florida’s Civil War. We came away from the visit with a pretty clear understanding of why Fort Pickens was not considered a choice assignment for the Union Army in the 1860s.

Fort Pickens was among the Civil War sites where professor Sean Adams led a team of educators for a firsthand look at history. (Ralph T. Webb)

The following day, we took a walking tour of downtown Mobile, where the monuments to the city’s Mardi Gras traditions outnumber those to its Civil War past. Cars and trucks rumble down the same street where white Alabamans once celebrated the news that their state had seceded. Few structtures from that era remain, save some grand houses and churches. The modern city has overshadowed 19th century Mobile, and yet a glimpse of an old wooden balcony or a tall and weathered window pane reminds you that not every piece of the city’s history gave way to concrete and asphalt.

A visit to Historic Blakeley State Park on the east coast of the Mobile River delta capped off the workshop. At one point Blakeley sought to surpass its neighbor to the west, Mobile, as the premier city in South Alabama. In the early 1820s, Blakeley’s 4,000 or so residents could boast that they nearly doubled Mobile in size, and their deep-water port brought a consistent level of commerce. Yellow fever took its toll on the city, though, and eventually it became an abandoned ghost town.

A map of Pensacola Bay, home to Fort Pickens, the first site Adams and his group stopped at on their workshop.

Today, Blakeley is a state park, and the enthusiastic staff there is just beginning to embark on a reconstruction of its history. The town site itself is almost empty: Generations of thrifty Alabamans descended upon the depopulated buildings for free construction materials. The poor boomtown is now scattered in pieces across the region. Nature has reclaimed Blakeley — for now.

During the Civil War, however, the city’s fortunes were briefly revived as Confederates fortified Blakeley with 4,000 soldiers and extensive earthworks to protect the Mobile River. Fort Blakeley, like Fort Pickens, offers a great example of the significance of historical places. The Confederate lines are still visible, and the park has reconstructed some of the fortifications to look as they did during the 1860s.

The cheval de frise at Fort Blakeley, one of the sites visited by Adams and the group of educators, was used as an anti-cavalry device.(Courtesy of Historic Blakeley State Park)

The teachers and I marched up to the edge of the earthworks on a hot and muggy afternoon. It was probably cooler on April 9, 1865, when the 16,000 Union soldiers charged with capturing Fort Blakeley encountered its fortifications, but their immense task was still evident. Beginning about a thousand yards from the Confederate troops, Union forces first encountered roughly cut branches laid out to snag clothes and impede movement. They then passed between rows of sharpened sticks and slogged through water-filled trenches. After that, Confederate troops rolled out the cheval de frise — a defensive anti-cavalry device consisting of sharpened sticks radiating out from heavy logs — to further impede the Union forces. All the while, Confederate rifles and cannons raked the advance from behind thick walls of wood and earth.

We had a tame version of that advance in 2018, but after walking among these various impediments, we marveled at the courage of the average soldiers in 1865. And the fact that this battle took place on the same day as the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at Appomattox offers a somber reminder of the scope and severity of the Civil War. There’s really no substitute for seeing the spaces where history happened, and although it took some imagination and a great deal of sunscreen, the teachers and I saw the Civil War come alive in Florida and Alabama this summer.

“There is something about being in these locations where the history we teach actually happens,” one teacher wrote to us, “that makes it even more relevant to us and eventually our students.”

Photos and videos can’t re-create the stifling heat and humidity we faced in our various hikes, but we hope they can spark an interest in the past for a new generation of Floridians. To accomplish that, I’m more than happy to venture out from my everyday air-conditioned life as a professor at UF.

Sean Adams is the Hyatt and Cici Brown Professor of History at the University of Florida. He is the author of several books and specializes in the history of American capitalism and the history of energy.

Click here to read more stories from this issue of Ytori.

The annual Evening of Excellence shines a spotlight on those who make the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences an essential part of the University of Florida. This year’s ceremony was held on April 12, 2019, at the Florida Museum of Natural History and celebrated the staff members, faculty, students, alumni and others who best exemplify the values inherent in a liberal arts and sciences education. Keep reading to learn more about all of our winners.

Liberal Arts and Sciences Partner Award: Disney Conservation Fund

The Disney Conservation Fund received the Partner Award for their long-term support of UF’s Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research to help save endangered sea turtles. Disney selected UF as one of only seven global organizations receiving these larger impact-focused “Saving Wildlife” grants. The goal is to increase awareness of threats to these species on a large scale and has provided more than $1 million in funding for the center to develop new research, community strategies and other conservation solutions to help protect  the world’s sea turtles, and to provide additional collaboration with Disney conservation staff.

“We recognize and appreciate Disney’s understanding of the urgency of not only preserving but also bringing back populations of sea turtles,” said Karen Bjorndal, Department of Biology professor and Director of the Archie Carr Center. “Those of us who have spent our lives trying to save these animals are grateful.”

Superior Staff Award: Marisa Gates

Research Administrator Marisa Gates was recognized for her outstanding work supporting the CLAS Research Office. “Whenever she serves a person through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Research Office, Marisa assures them it will be okay and that she will help them handle whatever might come along,” said Beth Eslick, Director of the CLAS Research Office.

Faculty Achievement Award: Mark Rush and Laura Guyer

Two faculty members were honored this year for their distinguished achievement in research, teaching and service. To learn more about Mark Rush, click here. To read about Laura Guyer, click here.

Volunteer of the Year: Linda Fischer Wells, Political Science ’61

Linda Fischer Wells ’61 was honored for her work as the chair of the Department of Religion’s Advisory Board.

Student Excellence Award: Emma Leone, Daniel Ally and Sujaya Rajguru

The three students recognized at this year’s event embody the spirit of a liberal arts and sciences education.

Emma Leone ’19 dual-majored in linguistics and psychology on a pre-med track. Along with receiving multiple scholarships, she volunteers at Shands Hospital and the Dance Alive National Ballet and Pofahl Studios, where she teaches dancers of all ages.

Daniel Ally ’19 majored in physics and mathematics and serves as the President of the UF chapter of the Society of Physics Students. He is known for going out of his way to help fellow students; in the spring 2019 semester, he was the main organizer behind the Women in Science Day Fair.

Sujaya Rajguru ’19 majored in history, served as a fellow in the Bob Graham Center and participated in a leadership role in the UF Band. As an intern at the Matheson History Museum, she was a researcher for an exhibit on the history of desegregation in Alachua County schools, which resulted in Rajguru publishing an article in The Gainesville Sun.

Horizon Award: Syed Balkhi, Anthropology ’11

Syed Balkhi was honored for his work supporting the Beyond120 program. At the age of 7, Balkhi started his first business in Pakistan. His entrepreneurial spirit has continued to this day, with his business OptinMonster ranking seventh in 2019’s Gator100, a list of the 100 fastest growing Gator-led companies. “We are inspired by Syed’s determination, passion, and entrepreneurial spirit as a student and beyond,” Kathryn Clark ’19 said.

Outstanding Alumna: Rhonda Holt, Computer and Information Science ’86

This award honors an alumna or alumnus who has made significant contributions to their field while exemplifying the breadth and depth of a liberal arts and sciences degree. Rhonda Holt, Vice President for Software Development and Operations at PBS, was honored this year for her long and distinguished career as a business and technology executive at a variety of organizations.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Tom Elligett, Mathematics ’75

Tom Elligett was recognized for providing both financial support and advocacy for the college. A partner at Buell & Elligett in Tampa, he is an appellate and trial lawyer who has participated in more than 500 appeals in the last 40 years. As an alumnus, he has given to the Dean’s Fund for Excellence every year since 1982, consistently supporting the greatest needs of the college.

From left, Dean David Richardson, Majorie Turnbull and David Mica.

Civic Champion: The Honorable Marjorie Turnbull, Political Science ’62

Marjorie Turnbull was honored for her dedication to serving the people of Florida since her graduation from UF. She began her political career in the Florida House of Representatives and has had a distinguished public career as a Leon County Commissioner, the Executive Director of Tallahassee Community College and a board member of many nonprofit organizations.

Lasting Legacy Award: Herb ’55 and Catherine Yardley ’56

Herb and Catherine Yardley were recognized for their decades of providing support to the college. Catherine, who passed away in 2018 and was honored posthumously at the ceremony, captured the Yardley’s commitment to education in her quote engraved in the Plaza of the Americas — “The first step to a good life is a good education. It is here for you.”

The Yardleys have invested in diverse areas across the college including the Speech and Debate Team, the Bob Graham Center, Student Affairs and outdoor spaces on campus. The Yardley Garden outside of Ustler and Farrior halls is just one example of how the Yardleys have improved the campus grounds by providing students and faculty with space for relaxation and contemplation.

“I’ve known the Yardleys for years and I am continually amazed by their generosity and vision, particularly in curating and encouraging creative and beautiful spaces on UF’s campus,” said Carter Boydstun, retired senior philanthropic advisor at UF and inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award honoree.

Click here to read more stories from this issue of Ytori.

UF linguist studies why we bicker with those closest to us

By Andrew Doerfler

At a typical Thanksgiving dinner, you can expect to find a few hallmarks: A golden brown roast turkey, globs of cranberry sauce and, of course, plenty of squabbling among family members.

Professor of Linguistics DIANA BOXER has put those holiday quarrels to good use in a new study focused on bickering. To collect data for the paper, students in her sociolinguistics course received an unusual assignment: Before they set off for Thanksgiving break in 2016, Boxer instructed them to take notes when they noticed anyone bickering — and when they participated in bickering themselves.

Bickering, by the Numbers

After repeating the assignment over the following semester’s spring break, Boxer ended up with 100 transcripts that detailed roommates spatting about unwashed dishes, siblings at odds over directions while driving, parents chiding their children for laziness and much more.

Bickering is usually defined as small, petty quarreling over trivial matters, but Boxer wanted to understand these arguments on a deeper level. The recorded exchanges offer a window into how these disputes crop up and play out between family members, romantic partners and close friends.

The subject of bickering is well within Boxer’s area of expertise: She often studies negative speech behaviors, previously taking on nagging, complaining, commiserating and boasting. By identifying the attributes that define each of these behaviors, she hopes to help people recognize them and head them off in their own lives.

“We can’t control much about what’s going on in the world around us,” she said. “But we can control what’s going on in our immediate environment by not participating in negative speech behaviors.”

Bickering, while usually short-lived and not very serious in the short-term, can end up eroding relationships when it accumulates.

“Over time, bickering can make people feel like a family member is a negative person who’s always picking on them,” Boxer said. “If we build more harmonious relationships we can be happier people.”

The Dance of Negotiation

In addition to analyzing her students’ field notes from their breaks, Boxer conducted a series of open-ended interviews with couples, pairs of coworkers and other subjects about their experiences with bickering. The aim of both parts of the study was to find what makes bickering distinct from similarly negative behaviors like complaining and arguing.

The resulting article was published in a special issue of the Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict, co-edited by Boxer, that focused specifically on conflict in close personal relationships. In the paper, Boxer determines that bickering relies on “close social distance” — the participants need to know each other well enough that they abandon the niceties that hold back snide remarks.

“You don’t usually bicker with someone you don’t know very well because you’re trying to build solidarity,” she said. “But with family members you don’t bother to do that dance of negotiation, that back and forth to establish a relationship. I’m advocating that we should.”

The study, which Boxer co-authored with graduate student JOSEPH RADICE, also identified common subjects that people bicker over (disputes over “household concerns,” such as cleaning the kitchen, made up over half of the examples), which relationships are most prone to bickering (perhaps unsurprisingly, romantic partners dominated at 38 percent), and the speech behaviors involved in bickering (accusations abounded, initiating 30 percent of the examples).

Boxer found that bickering has no benefits, as opposed to complaining, which can build solidarity among people in shared circumstances. People use bickering to air out “minor disagreements about relatively trivial topics,” the study concludes, but, unlike arguing, it “rarely escalates into verbal or physical violence.”

Conflict Begins at Home

So why study a type of conflict that is, by its very definition, trivial? While bickering might be insignificant on its own, minor conflicts in our close personal relationships set patterns for larger disputes throughout our lives.

“Conflict begins at home,” Boxer said. “If we are learning to be conflictive people with our families, that can translate into other spheres of life.”

Increasingly, she said, major conflicts with wide-ranging consequences — wars between nations, urgent political clashes or societal tensions — take precedence in research over studies about more intimate conflicts. Boxer thinks we shouldn’t overlook the small stuff.

“Family conflict has always interested me, and very little has been done about it,” she said.

The lack of such work motivated her to propose the special issue of the Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict, which featured several articles about family conflict.

Not being a psychologist, Boxer is hesitant to give others advice about how to avoid bickering — but she hopes her findings offer researchers in other disciplines a starting point to build upon. She has already found the research useful in her own life. “With everything I study,” she said, “I learn what I shouldn’t do.”

Click here to read more stories from this issue of Ytori.