The Iron Man of UF has won again. Professor of Chemistry George Christou, known for his research in nano-magnets, has received the SEC Faculty Achievement Award for his accomplishments. The Southeastern Conference, an athletic association comprising 14 academic institutions, has honored one faculty member from each institution for the past six years. This year, they surprised Christou with the award in his classroom — an appropriate place, considering Christou’s numerous honors for his teaching excellence.

George Christou holds model of molecule

George Christou in his office with a molecule model Bernard Brzezinski/UF Photography

Previously, Christou, who serves as the Drago Chair of Chemistry, was named UF’s Teacher-Scholar of the Year for 2015–2016. Christou has also been appointed to the Academy of Distinguished Teaching Scholars, an honorary organization of exceptional professors and the advisory board to the Provost’s Office.

Christou has received international acclaim for his discovery of single-molecule magnets and metal-oxo clusters—microscopic, long-lasting substances with applications to medical, computing, and industrial technologies. The United Kingdom’s Royal Society of Chemistry awarded Christou the 2016 Nyholm Prize for Inorganic Chemistry for his pioneering work. Christou was also one of only two Florida chemists named as a fellow of the American Chemical Society for 2016.

Study findings could aid in interrupting transmission chains and reducing severe illness

The majority of dengue virus infections appear to happen very close to home and are transmitted from the same family of mosquitoes, suggests new research led by the University of Florida and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The findings, published in the March 24 issue of Science, offer new insights into the spread of dengue, which infects more than 300 million people each year, and other flaviviruses such as West Nile and Zika – think Wynwood, the Miami neighborhood hit hard by Zika last year — and how governments and individuals might put in place more targeted and more effective mosquito control programs.

For their study, the researchers genetically sequenced the viruses of 640 dengue infections that occurred in densely populated Bangkok, Thailand, between 1994 and 2010, then overlaid this information on a map showing where 17,291 people infected with the disease lived. Their results showed that in cases where people lived fewer than 200 meters apart — that is, in the same neighborhood — 60 percent of dengue cases resulted from the same transmission chain, meaning they stemmed from the same mosquito or family of mosquitoes.

In people who were separated by a wider distance of one to five kilometers, just 3 percent of cases came from the same transmission chain, said the study’s senior author, Derek A.T. Cummings, a professor of biology at UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute and an adjunct professor at the Bloomberg School.

“Our findings suggest that large urban centers provide a source of dengue [genetic] diversity that could possibly be dispersed to other areas of the country and world,” said Cummings.

However, in the areas of Bangkok with the highest population density, the researchers found less diversity than expected.

“This suggests that these areas might be where intense competition is occurring between dengue viruses,” Cummings added.

The researchers estimate that 160 separate chains of transmission co-circulate in Bangkok within a “dengue season,” which in Thailand is usually autumn. Across the city, they found that larger populations of humans support a larger diversity of dengue viruses.

While the related dengue viruses stay close to home in a single dengue season, the viruses eventually mix across the country by the next season. Despite the eventual cross-country mixing, the researchers say that the virus strains stayed mostly within the borders of the country, and they aren’t entirely sure why.

“We often think that pathogens don’t respect borders,” says first author Henrik Salje, PhD, from the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France. “While clearly there is a lot of human mobility between the countries in the region, it does not appear to be enough to connect their dengue epidemics.” This has important implications for the introduction of dengue vaccines, which are starting to be rolled out, as individual countries will have to rely on their own efforts to control the disease.

Forty percent of the world’s population is at risk of the virus, which is most common in Southeast Asia and the western Pacific islands and has been rapidly increasing in Latin America and the Caribbean. While most of the people who contract dengue survive with few or no symptoms, more than two million annually develop what can be a dangerous hemorrhagic fever, which kills more than 25,000 people each year — mostly children.

“Dengue diversity across spatial and temporal scales: Local structure and the effect of host population size” was written by Henrik Salje, Justin Lessler, Irina Maljkovic Berry, Melanie Melendrez, Timothy Endy, Siripen Kalanayarooj, Atchareeya A-Nuegoonpipat, Sumalee Chanama, Somchai Sangkijporn, Chonticha Klungthong, Butsaya Thaisomboonsuk, Ananda Nisalak, Robert Gibbons, Sopon Iamsirithaworn, Louis Macareo, In-Kyu Yoon, Areerat Sangarsang, Richard Jarman and Derek Cummings. Collaborators were from the Institut Pasteur, Johns Hopkins University, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Upstate Medical University of New York, Queen Sirikit National Institute of Child Health, the National Institute of Health of Thailand, the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences, the Ministry of Public Health of Thailand, the International Vaccine Institute and the University of Florida.

The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (R01 AI102939-01A1 and R01AI114703-01), the National Science Foundation (BCS-1202983) and the Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System, a Division of the Armed Services Health Surveillance Health Center.

Every year since 1874, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science names its fellows for significant contributions to society and technology. In 2016, its 391 fellows included five UF faculty, three of whom are from the Department of Biology: Prof. John “Jack” Ewel, Prof. Alice Harmon, and Prof. Robert D. Holt.

 

Bob Holt standing with mountains behind him
Bob Holt at the Himalayas

Holt, Eminent Scholar and Arthur R. Marshall Jr. Chair in Ecology, specializes in conservation biology and evolutionary ecology. He recently joined a team of nine scientists who have made a call to action to directly address extinction threats and loss of biodiversity caused by climate change. Their paper, published Sept. 9, 2016 in Science, outlines how wildlife conservation efforts need to be tuned to climate science and how averting a global climate crisis can save wildlife. (See story on Holt in Ytori.)

Jack Ewel
Jack Ewel

Ewel, professor emeritus of biology, refers to himself as “unsuccessfully retired,” having continued to work with UF Biology graduate students and postdocs while running a pecan farm. A former forester whose interests turned from classic forestry to tropical ecology and the human use of trees, Ewel taught for over 20 years and is “pleased to still be affiliated with UF,” he says. Remarking on the fellowship, he says, “It’s a wonderful honor. When you’re retired, honors don’t exactly roll in over the door. It was very gratifying to receive that.”

Alice Harmon
Alice Harmon

Harmon, professor of biology and former chair of the Department (2009-2013) was recognized for her groundbreaking research on plants’ protein kinases and their physiological roles in calcium signaling. “I have wonderful colleagues and collaborators at UF and I’m proud to be a Gator!” says Harmon. She was also recognized for her services to several editorial boards in her field. “There is nothing better than to have your science recognized by your peers,” she says. “I am thrilled and honored to be named an AAAS fellow.”

Professor Leslie Elin Anderson investigates Nicaraguan politics.

Professor of Political Science Leslie Elin Anderson has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for her book project, Democratic Enclaves in Times of Trouble: The Politics of Resistance in Nicaragua. The fellowship is part of the NEH’s $16.3 million awarded in this grant cycle.

“I have been studying Nicaragua since the mid 1980s, and I watched democracy rise and develop out of the 1979 revolution.” The coup, organized by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), unseated President Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979 and ended the 46-year Somoza regime. The US financially supported the contras, an armed militia opposing the FSLN, but the Sandinistas continued to hold power until 1990, when they lost to pluralistic candidates. They regained power in 2006 and still retain power under President Daniel Ortega after presidential term limits were lifted and the threshold for election voting was lowered. “Now democracy is in decline and the nation is struggling to keep its democracy alive,” says Anderson.

Anderson’s book will examine the effects of the patchwork of pluralistic and rightist enclaves in Nicaragua throughout the Sandinista regime as a measure of how local democratic efforts intersect with regime-oriented leadership. “It feels absolutely breathtaking to have a major foundation like the NEH recognize my work and support it,” she says.

In October 2016, Dr. William H. Marquardt, Affiliate Professor of Anthropology and Curator of Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 73rd Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Athens, GA. The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to a senior scholar who has made significant and sustained contributions to southeastern archaeology during her or his career.
According to the SEAC, Marquardt qualified for the award by:

 

  • engaging the public with archaeology through outreach, educational, and tourism programs

 

  • showing an entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary spirit in academia
    mentoring young archaeologists and providing them with opportunities to present their work

 

  • seminal research on the Calusa of South Florida

 

Says Marquardt, “It is always nice to be recognized, but almost all of my work has been team-based, so the award is also for generations of students, colleagues, and volunteers who have added so much to my work.”

 

Read more about Marquardt and his accomplishments on Exposure.

UF researchers uncover surprising patterns with the spread of the great flu of 1918

In 1918, an unusually deadly flu swept the world, claiming 50 to 100 million lives in a pandemic often called the Spanish flu. Kyra Grantz, a research assistant in UF’s Department of Biology and Emerging Pathogens Institute, hopes to help prevent such an outbreak from happening again. With Derek Cummings, professor of biology, she has studied how sociodemographic markers and urban infrastructure affected the spread of the flu in Chicago in that terrifying year.

The Spanish flu, so-named because of disproportionate press coverage of its incidence in Spain, is the ancestor of all influenza (H1N1) epidemics since. Its direct descendant is swine flu, which is less deadly than the 1918 strain. While typical flu mortality is 0.1 percent, the 1918 rate skyrocketed up to 20 percent in some areas. The phenomenon has been a topic of fascination for researchers who aim to discover how and why the Spanish flu was so devastating. “It’s a pet project for a lot of us,” said Grantz, whose examination of the 1918 pandemic revolves around potential health disparities that exacerbated the flu’s effects. Grantz uses regression analysis on flu mortality and sociodemographic data by census tract to determine spatiotemporal clustering, which can elucidate why some areas in Chicago were worse affected. Using 100-year-old data collected by the US Census and the Chicago Department of Health that include maps of Chicago with point locations given for reported flu and pneumonia-related deaths, she’s found that mortality rates increased with illiteracy and unemployment and decreased with homeownership. Analyzing the coincidence of these variables with the point data allows her to identify the spatiotemporal clusters of flu cases; for example, the study found that within 200 meters, death from flu infection was 1.2 times more likely to be accompanied by a second death within the week, and within 100 meters, coinciding deaths were 1.3 times more likely. This subtle but importance difference suggests that neighborhood-level outbreaks are a vulnerable point in disease control.

 

young woman standing in archway Kyra Grantz Evan Barton

“This really small, really simple — not even alive, depending on who you talk to — molecule affects almost 400 million people per year.”

Grantz received her BA in Biology at the University of Chicago, where she had focused on lab-based research in microbiology and bacterial genetics. Then, she took an epidemiology course that introduced her to virology at the population level, which she realized offers “more ability to make a large-scale impact.” She explains that understanding patterns of transmission is essential to developing effective prevention and control techniques.

“There’s something fundamental — and more fun — in studying what you can directly observe. It’s more tangible,” she said. Before graduation, she cold-emailed a couple of experts in epidemiology and connected with Cummings. They both arrived at UF in August 2015 and began working on a series of research projects that use statistical and mathematical modeling to monitor and predict the spread of contemporary epidemics such as Zika and dengue, as well as historical events such as the 1918 pandemic. “There is something really fascinating to bacteria and viruses in particular,” said Grantz, explaining how she got hooked on epidemiology. For example, dengue is “this really small, really simple — not even alive, depending on who you talk to — molecule that affects almost 400 million people per year. That’s a fascinating phenomenon. There’s not really a better word for it.” As a budding scientist, she was struck by “the idea of being able to build things up from the bottom and something larger from that.” Indeed, her paper, which develops an epidemiological model from 100-year-old public health data, well reflects this philosophy.

Their research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Nov. 21, 2016.

Read more about Grantz and Cummings’ work in Ytori.

UF political science professors are a major resource for media.

UF political science professors Daniel A. Smith and Michael McDonald have been featured as voting experts in nearly 60 news outlets — international, national, and regional — during the 2016 presidential campaign. Quoted directly or indirectly on a weekly, and recently daily, basis, the two have become a UF tag-team on all things Election 2016.

Smith, Professor of Political Science and UF Research Foundation Professor, focuses on ballot issues, voting rights, and the impact that electoral institutions have on political participation across the American states. For the past 15 years, he has headed ElectionSmith, Inc., gathering data on voting and elections and serving as an expert on various lawsuits dealing with voting rights, gerrymandering, and ballot measures. For example, Smith worked with the ACLU of Florida and other voting rights groups to successfully extend the voter registration deadline in the state after Hurricane Matthew shut down most coastal communities during the final few days of registration.

photo of McDonald and Smith

Michael McDonald, left, and Daniel Smith

In light of the current election season’s emphasis on minority turnout, Smith’s data have been of great interest to a number of media outlets. During the early voting period in Florida, Smith’s data on Hispanic and African American turnout have been frequently cited. On occasion, a spin is put on his findings, suggesting that the data shows a clear win for the party of the journalist’s choice, but Smith is available to analyze and contextualize his findings and answer questions to slow the spin. Journalists from Politico, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and more have used Smith as an expert source. He is regularly quoted by The New York Times, with six different articles featuring him in the five weeks leading up to Election Day.

Smith’s data also include demographic trends, and because he’s tracked party affiliation, race and ethnicity, registration, and votes cast for every presidential election back to 2008, he’s able to show that Floridians aged 65 and up are still a powerful voting bloc, while Hispanics have dramatically shifted away from the GOP. His data are an excellent source for other political scientists, as well as journalists, attorneys, political consultants, and lobbyists to understand the sociopolitical shifts Florida’s electorate.

Associate Professor of Political Science Michael McDonald’s work focuses on voter turnout and redistricting’s effects on voter eligibility and access. His project includes the website ElectProject.org, which features data on these two realms, and DistrictBuilder, an open-source programming project to create web-based collaborative redistricting software, which supports the Public Mapping Project. Throughout the 2016 election season, McDonald has weighed in on the partisan primaries and early voting. He has been a featured expert in election coverage by television news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC and in newspapers such as The New York Times and USAToday, as well as NPR.

Having worked in exit polling, McDonald is well equipped to speak on public concerns about voter fraud and poll rigging, which he explains are both rare phenomena. He also reports daily on early voting and tracks it with notable moments in the campaign; speaking to the press, he slows the spin on how much a candidate’s latest gaffe or scandal changed voter convictions or spurred early voting. On election night, McDonald will be working with the Associated Press to call the election.

When they’re not teaching, researching, or speaking to the press, McDonald and Smith are active on Twitter, engaging in a national dialogue about voting issues. Twitter’s instant-sharing public forum has been become a social thermometer for hot-button issues of the past few years. The platform invigorates social and political discourse and, increasingly, serves as an outlet for academics to connect with the general public.

Smith and McDonald have established themselves as invaluable resources for informed media coverage of the 2016 election, affirming the University of Florida’s reputation as a relevant and diligent institution of higher learning.

Environment impact assessments are good for corporations and the planet.

For 16 years, the Emerging Pathogens Institute’s Burton Singer has tracked a little-known undercurrent of environmental regulation. Although many scientists and activists are rightfully concerned about the effects of corporate development in vulnerable areas, such development has an important benefit: required environmental impact assessments (EIAs). In the latest of a series of papers tracking EIAs, Singer and six other authors discuss the healthcare infrastructure that emerged from selected oil pipeline, mining, and hydropower projects. “We are not [just] observers,” says Singer, who co-authored the review paper published Oct. 24, 2016 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), culled from his and other experts’ experiences with these assessments.

Indeed, his team’s continued publicization of corporate responsibility and the benefits that can accrue from EIAs have helped resolve a historical weakness: lack of follow-up, especially if the affected communities aren’t involved in the process or privy to the final result. “Companies don’t publicize themselves,” explains Singer. Such reports on the social and environmental assessments have not only helped improve public opinion of corporations like Exxon Mobil and Newmont Mining, but also have kept them accountable. “Who’s responsible for holding company feet to the fire? We don’t have a clear answer,” he says. However, his team has stepped up to do just that, in lieu of an international, standardized review body.

Here’s how it works. In order to comply with lending requirements set forth in the Equator Principles, companies request researchers to examine the needs of local communities. More than 80 financial institutions have signed on to the Principles, which emerged from a 2003 consortium of banks led by Citigroup. The researchers must negotiate with farmers to determine optimum routing of a pipeline or mining property boundaries (and which farmers the corporations will need to compensate for lost revenue). Despite their name, EIAs are now incorporating health and social concerns as well, buoyed by new guidelines from the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association and the International Council of Mining and Metals. For example, consultants advise on program development to address any health risks that would be increased by the project. Thus, environmental consulting has become more interdisciplinary and academic, but shows great potential for growth, says Singer.

However, the role of government should not be understated, cautions Singer. “These companies are not in the business of improving living standards, but doing so is good PR for them. Governments have to take this into their own hands.” In his paper on the Chad–Cameroon pipeline project cited in the PNAS review, Singer discussed the difference in the project’s execution in both nations. The corrupt Chad government could have used oil revenue to support schools and other public infrastructure, but they didn’t, he says; the effects of the pipeline’s impact assessments were better in Cameroon.

Singer adds that guidance for a standard, unbiased impact assessment process might come from an unexpected source: the June 2015 papal encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si’. Considering the saliency of the Roman Catholic Church in many low- to middle-income nations where oil and mining projects happen, the Pope’s call to address anthropocentric climate change and reject human dominion theology may be a useful framework to weigh the benefits and risks of development. If this framework was properly implemented, it could support a consistent, international progress for comprehensive environmental, social, and health impact assessments (ESHIAs), says the paper.

Singer has worked with a consistent group of researchers throughout this project. Many of them connected with Singer when he taught at Princeton. He says his former postdocs and PhD students have grown into directors of research institutes, professors at Ivy League schools, and other prestigious positions. As for Singer, he also serves as adjunct professor with UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute and as a consultant with NewFields Inc., an Atlanta-based environmental consulting firm.

UF’s Nancy Rose Hunt Receives Major Book Award for Congo History

Nancy Rose Hunt, UF professor of history and African studies, has received the Martin A. Klein Award honoring the best histories of Africa. The American Historical Association will present the award to Hunt in January 2017 during their 131st Annual Meeting.

A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo, published this year by Duke University Press, focuses on the effects of colonial rule of the Congo on social, reproductive, and mental health and introduces into the literature the healing cults that were formed in response. Hunt discusses the Belgian Congo’s postwar push for development and the injustice it layered in the infrastructure, such as through the siting of an infertility clinic where a penal colony and an abuse-laced factory stood. She explores the rise of dreamscape songs and expressive dance among the Congolese healing from the wounds left by King Leopold’s rule, challenging the typical catastrophe narrative of the Belgian Congo in favor of an ethnography of its people’s recovery from violence. Also a filmmaker and visual anthropologist, Hunt fuses her creative sense with her background as an archivist to produce A Nervous State, a well-crafted and enlightening medical history of the Congo in the early-to-mid 20th century.

Hunt’s previous accolades include the Herskovits Book Prize for her first book, A Colonial Lexicon: Of Birth Work, Medicalization, and Mobility in the Congo (Duke, 1999), and numerous fellowships for archival and ethnographic research in Africa and Europe.

Robert Walker of the Center for Latin American Studies and international team receive award to study effects of neoliberal policy on Mexican farming practices and their impact on deforestation.

UF’s Department of Geography and Center for Latin American Studies have received a major award from the National Science Foundation to study shifting agricultural practices in a globalized Mexico and their impact on deforestation. The $375,000 award from the Geography and Spatial Sciences program will fund a project titled “International Trade Agreements, Globalization, Land Change, and Agricultural Food Networks.”

The research, to be conducted in Mexico, investigates links between spatial shifts in that country’s forest biomes and neoliberal reforms associated with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT; precursor to the World Trade Organization) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The project will be led by Dr. Robert Walker, of the UF Center for Latin American Studies and Geography, in collaboration with Co-PI Yankuic Galvan-Miyoshi, a postdoctoral researcher at UF. Economic geographer Dr. Barney Warf, from the University of Kansas, will also participate.

The research involves a large-scale, three-year survey of Mexican feedlots to ascertain the spatial reconfiguration of maize and beef commodity chains stemming from shifts in trade policy and globalization. It will then determine the extent to which changing commodity chains explain regional patterns of forest loss and regeneration across Mexico as a whole.

The project involves an international team of researchers, including agronomist Dr. Ema Maldonado from Universidade Autonoma de Chapingo (Estado de Mexico), soil scientist Dr. Marta Astier from Universidade Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), and environmental scientist Dr. Omar Masera, who directs UNAM’s Bioenergy Laboratory.