New study shows that certain books can increase infant learning.

Parents and pediatricians know that reading to infants is a good thing, but new research shows reading books that clearly name and label people and objects is even better.

“When parents label people or characters with names, infants learn quite a bit,” says Lisa Scott, UF psychology professor, who co-authored the study published in Child Development with graduate student Arjun Iyer. Parents brought their babies to Scott’s Brain, Cognition, and Development Lab twice: once at six months old and again at age nine months. While in the lab, eye-tracking and electroencephalogram, or EEG, methods were used to measure attention and learning at both ages.

In between visits, parents were asked to read with their infants at home according to a schedule that included 10 minutes of parent–infant shared book reading every day for the first two weeks, every other day for the second two weeks and then continued to decrease until infants returned at nine months. Twenty-three families were randomly assigned storybooks. One set contained individual-level names, and the other contained category-level labels. Both sets of books were identical except for the labeling.

The individual-level books clearly identified and labeled all of the eight individuals, with names such as “Jamar,” “Boris,” and “Fiona.” The category-level books included two made-up labels (“hitchel,” “wadgen”) for all images. The infants whose parents read the individual-level names spent more time focusing on and paying attention to the images, and their brain activity clearly differentiated the individual characters after book reading. This was not found in either group at six months.

Scott has been studying how the specificity of labels affects infant learning and brain development since 2006. This study is the third in a series and was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The harmless eye-tracking and EEG results are consistent with her other studies showing that name specificity improves cognition in infants.

Says Scott, “Books with individual-level names may lead parents to talk to infants more, which is particularly important for the first year of life.”


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UF bullying expert puts her research to work in Miami-Dade schools.

“Boys will be boys” and “sticks and stones” don’t fly with UF Professor of Psychology Dorothy Espelage. As an expert on bullying, sexual harassment, and violence in schools, Espelage knows the truth: “Not all bullies are rejected outcasts; many bully not just because they can, but also because they want to. So, why are we not moving forward on bullying?”

For her part, Espelage is garnering national support to implement anti-bullying programs that work. Most recently, she is the principal investigator of a $1 million National Institute for Justice grant-funded project to create a 36-month pilot anti-violence program for school resource officers in Miami-Dade Public Schools, in collaboration with UF’s Lastinger Center for Learning. The program incorporates contemporary research in child development, bullying, and intervention techniques to offer a culturally competent, restorative approach to youth violence.

Restorative Problem Solving framework encourages dialogue among all parties rather than relying upon a juvenile-justice or delinquency system.

As a psychologist, Espelage studies bullying in the contexts of adolescent social navigation and school politics of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, and she concurs with other bullying experts that zero-tolerance policies are ineffective and also disproportionately affect minorities. “Let’s focus on prevention, not reaction,” she says. This approach requires an emphasis on program development rather than lobbying, as well as an acknowledgement that bullies aren’t just “kids being kids” and that there is a verifiable social–emotional environment in which some youth behave badly — and with a purpose. “My findings suggest that bullies are often motivated by sexist and homophobic attitudes,” says Espelage.

Moreover, many bullies are also victims of bullying. Espelage and her colleagues in the Lastinger Center are complementing the “trauma-informed” approach already used in Miami-Dade Public Schools to better respond to violent incidents with the “Restorative Problem Solving” framework. This approach encourages dialogue among all parties rather than relying upon a juvenile-justice or delinquency system, which research has shown to disproportionately punish students in marginalized groups.

Such social-emotional learning programs are a key part of Espelage’s activities and outreach. Bullying and harassment do not occur in a vacuum, Espelage says. Bullies are not merely unhappy kids who lash out at others, nor vicious predators who are beyond help. By examining and, perhaps, disrupting the bullying environment, anti-violence programs can actually produce results. The politically motivated “bully police” legislation, she says, does not.


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UF professor mentors high schoolers.

UF Professor of Astronomy Jian Ge wanted to give high school students a different summer camp experience: the opportunity to learn about astronomy with the help of UF’s 50-inch telescope at Mt. Lemmon Observatory in Arizona. This summer, he did just that, and in October, 14 students placed at the Siemens Foundation’s annual Competition in Math, Science & Technology.

The students formed several teams who worked with Ge’s research group over the summer. Ge, the creator of the KeckET planet-hunting and the latest planet survey tools, has been sharing his knowledge with high schools since 2010 and guided four students to Siemens over the past two years. Now, through the astronomy summer research camp, that number jumped to 14 — and all of them won. “Nationally, a total of about 400 high school students won this competition,” says Ge. “About 3 percent came from my single Science Talent Training Program.”

Ge has led budding astronomers to not only Siemens, but also top universities. “Sixteen graduated high school students are attending top-tier colleges, such as Yale, MIT, Caltech, Duke, and of course UF,” he says.

Ge mentors the campers even beyond the summer, guiding them through further research at Mt. Lemmon and elsewhere. They learn the basics of astronomical imaging and spectroscopy, especially as it applies to discovering new worlds, of which Ge has found two planets, 16 brown dwarfs, and 400 binary systems. However, Ge sets aside time from his busy schedule to keep nurturing young scientific minds. He hopes to secure a private endowment to support Science Talent Training Program fellowships for graduate students and postdocs. “I want to make this outreach program a permanent program at UF to help train young generations in science talents,” he says.

Postscript: Two of Ge’s summer scholars, Bill Zhu from California and Carrie Li from New Jersey, were named 2018 Regeneron Science Talent Search Scholars based on research papers written for Ge’s group. Another, Brian Wu, in 2017 gave a TEDxJacksonville
talk on Oct. 20, 2018.

To learn how you can support the Science Talent Training Program, contact the Liberal Arts and Sciences Office of Advancement at 352-294-1971 or alumni@clas.ufl.edu.


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A Compelling Advocate

Even during his childhood, Chip Kunde ’87 had a love of politics, government, and history. “But little kids don’t think about becoming lobbyists when they grow up,” he says. “Actually, I wanted to be an architect, then I realized it required math.”

Chip Kunde urges students to be involved outside of the classroom. Joshua Mills

“The business touches government frequently, and it’s my job to make sure we have folks we can talk to when we have an issue that needs to be addressed.”

For the last 25 years, Kunde has worked in governmental relations, lobbying for the food and restaurant industry. Since April 2015, he’s been at Sysco Corporation, where he is the Vice President for Governmental Relations in Washington, D.C. “I’ve lobbied at the state level, at the national level. I’ve done work internationally,” he says. “All are different because of different processes and cultures. This work is perfect for me.”

Some of the issues Kunde negotiates include transportation, trade, tariffs, and taxes. “Many aspects of our business are regulated by the local, state, and federal government — everything from the trucks we drive, the employees we have, the buildings we operate,” he says. “The business touches government frequently, and it’s my job to make sure we have folks we can talk to when we have an issue that needs to be addressed.”

As an advocate for Sysco, it is Kunde’s responsibility to position himself as a knowledge partner to deal with ever-changing legislation. “The really neat thing about it is that there is not any one day that is exactly the same as the day before,” he says. He may spend days researching a piece of legislation, only to come to Congress and discover that the issue has been completely upended or dissolved. “There are definitely times that we may not see eye-to-eye on an issue, or you are dealing with a very emotional issue,” he says. His personal strategy for resolving conflict is “finding the way to ‘yes.’”

Maintaining balance and alacrity in policy negotiations requires Kunde to be both an apt communicator and conciliator. He credits UF with serving as a “launching pad” for his career. In addition to majoring in political science and government, he also actively participated in student government and Phi Kappa Psi.

Kunde says communication skills hold the utmost importance. “Also, get involved in organizations outside of your field,” he says. “What I do is about issues, but it’s really about relationships. Learning the skills to develop relationships and being able to engage one-on-one in groups is important to becoming a compelling advocate.”


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Global Citizen

Nicole Wang ’21 just completed her first semester at UF and is committed to the pre-med track, even though she knows it’s not going to be easy. “During our preview session, we were asked how many people wanted to be doctors, and half of the room raised their hand. It was very intimidating,” she says. “But if I am going to spend so much time doing one thing, I want it to be something I completely love. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else but being in the medical field. I am extremely passionate about it and women’s health.” She is correct in her estimation — each year, 2,000 incoming freshmen indicate that they want to be pre-med, and only 425 to 450 actually matriculate to medical school.

Born in Canada, Wang moved with her family to China when she was seven before relocating to the United States. She spends summers doing mission work in Brazil and has volunteered in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. She also regularly volunteered at Tampa General Hospital. She is fluent in Portuguese and speaks Spanish and French — and she accomplished all this before graduating from high school.

portrait of friendly young womanNicole Wang played with med kits when other girls played with dolls. Gigi Marino

“Coming to UF has been the best decision I’ve ever made. Shands is such a great teaching hospital, and the med school is competitive and amazing.”

Wang, who is half Chinese and half Brazilian, travels each summer to her mother’s home city, Porto Alegre, south of São Paulo. She says that she noticed conditions becoming worse, especially for poor children. “So, my mom and I found an orphanage to help,” she says. “We taught them hygiene and English. Knowing English is the way out of poverty for a lot of children.” When they travel, they bring suitcases filled with educational materials that they leave behind. Even after becoming a doctor, Wang intends to make philanthropy a part of her repertoire. “It has always been a part of my routine,” she says. “I can’t imagine my life without it.”

Wang has wanted to be a doctor since she was seven. She says that while most other girls her age were playing with Barbie dolls, she was playing with medical kits. “My mom would pretend to have an injury so I could fix her up,” she says.

Here in Gainesville, Wang volunteers for internal medicine at Shands Hospital. “Coming to UF has been the best decision I’ve ever made,” she says. “Shands is such a great teaching hospital, and the med school is competitive and amazing.” She also pledged Delta Zeta. “My high school graduating class had 56 people in it. UF is more like a little city than a school. Joining a sorority makes it smaller.”


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Filling in the Blanks

Imagine a puzzle that appears, at first glance, to be complete but actually has some missing pieces, and it’s not clear what those missing pieces are. Such is the challenge in understanding human environments — in their complexity, the empty spaces can be hard to fill, and even themselves might be unknown — the problem of identifiability. That’s where biostatistician Michael Daniels, professor and chair of the Department of Statistics, comes in. “Most data are incomplete, and if you don’t address the missing data properly, it leads to biases,” he says. Bias, the bête noire of statistical analysis, enters the scenario when scientists, even unwittingly, fill in the gaps themselves.

photo of smiling man against paneled wood wallMike Daniels says interdisciplinarity in statistics is necessary. Gigi Marino

“Statistics departments really need to be interdisciplinary. They can’t be purely mathematical statistics anymore.”

Working with research groups across UF and at other major universities, Daniels develops new methodologies to improve the validity of a causal relationship among variables, even if there are gaps in the data or issues with identifiability. He has recently returned to UF to serve a second time as chair after spending five years at the University of Texas at Austin. “At UF, it’s very exciting because there are so many opportunities to get involved in projects all over campus,” he says. “Statistics departments really need to be interdisciplinary. They can’t be purely mathematical statistics anymore.” His collaborative projects revolve around the medical field, for which data sets are especially subject to “missingness.” When there’s a problem, whether it’s hospital patient fall rates, HIV drug efficacy, or air pollution, there’s rarely a simple causation, let alone a simple solution. With fellow UF researchers, he collaborates on projects studying muscular dystrophy and weight management. With researchers at Brown, his alma mater, he is studying how to optimize HIV testing in Africa when a limited number of tests are available.

Daniels’ own work focuses more specifically on missingness. He is currently collaborating with researchers at Sweden’s Umeä University on a longitudinal study of the relationship between aging and cognitive ability, complicated by variables such as being widowed — or more generally, how all of life’s curveballs can be validly included in statistical analysis. Human lives can’t be randomized, says Daniels, and so his work revolves around causal methodologies that, applied to health sciences, don’t predict solely for treatment efficacy or the health outcome. Ideally, one could address both, and thus better tackle health problems.


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UF’s LitiGators win major national tournaments.

UF’s Mock Trial team, the LitiGators, celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2017 in grand style — by having its winningest year in the team’s history, placing in several regional meets. In only its second trip to nationals, the LitiGators placed 8th out of the 48 top teams at the American Mock Trial Association tournament in Los Angeles in April. The team’s coach, Associate Professor of Political Science Laura Sjoberg, says this young team has done impressively well. “The students are incredibly dedicated,” she says. “They spend 20 hours a week preparing.”

“It came up in every interview that I did … it was a major selling point for me … About an eighth of my class at Harvard has some Mock Trial experience.”

Each year, the students work with 200 pages of the same case material. This year’s mock topic is an attempted murder from online dating. Team members play both attorneys and witnesses. “The witness will have an affidavit but no specifics, so the students get to create the characters,” says Sjoberg. “The individual can play up or down the flaws in the affidavit and mold the character. It’s like Dungeons and Dragons for the courtroom.”

Matthew Solomon ’18 is applying to law school and plans to become a lawyer. “Being a member of the UF Mock Trial team has prepared me more than I could ever properly explain. This organization teaches you fundamental lawyering skills: how to think abstractly and analytically about problems, how to write and speak with purpose and brevity, and how to ‘think like a lawyer.’ Being able to analyze evidence and possessing an advanced understanding of the intricacies of trial advocacy allow former Mock Trial competitors to excel in law school and beyond,” he says. “Members of the Mock Trial attend some of the most prestigious law schools in America and become members of legal journals, law school trial teams, and law school moot court teams.”

Brian Kitchen ’15, a second-year law student at Harvard, says, “Aside from GPA and LSAT, Mock Trial is one of the biggest predictors of law school admittance,” he says. “It gives you an easy way to demonstrate genuine interest and to pivot back to a selling point on your résumé. It came up in every interview that I did, and I’d say it was a major selling point for me. So, from just a logistics standpoint, it’s very advantageous. About an eighth of my class at Harvard has some Mock Trial experience.”

To support Mock Trial, contact the Office of Advancement at 352-294-1971 or alumni@clas.ufl.edu.


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This geographer does it all.

Nick Dowhaniuk PhD’21 has a shaded illustration of the Virunga Mountains, a chain of volcanoes in East Africa, tattooed on his forearm. “Ever since I went to Africa, I fell in love with it,” he says. He once lived at the base of the mountains and got the tattoo to remind himself of his second home even while stuck at a computer in an office an ocean away, he says.

“One thing I love about photography is I can give people a global sense, break down some misconceptions about sub-Saharan Africa, and tell stories that aren’t as easily told with just words.”

 

young man beams as he hangs from a round structure with a sign reading "Uganda" and "Equator"
Nick Dowhaniuk’s dissertation research is on Ugandans’ access to healthcare.

 

Pursuing both a PhD in geography and a Master of Health Science degree at UF means that Dowhaniuk indeed does quite a bit of office work, but he is no stranger to adventure. A National Geographic Explorer, Dowhaniuk studies the sociocultural and spatial effects of oil development in Uganda, as well as conservation issues there and in South Africa. His dissertation research on Ugandans’ access to healthcare serves his career goal of founding an NGO devoted to community-based health intervention.

“Having a statistics background has really helped me to work on a bunch of different projects,” he explains. His passion for a diversity of projects centers on his deep love for Africa, and “a big school like UF just fit my crazy interests going everywhere,” he says with a laugh.

He began with a BA in geography at the University of New Hampshire, adding a minor in intercultural communication for good measure, then continued at UNH for a master’s in environmental conservation and a graduate certificate in statistics. There, he met his adviser and mentor Joel Hartter ’07, who introduced him to both his Uganda work and the NatGeo Explorer program. Dowhaniuk says. “It wasn’t until I got involved on the Uganda project that I saw what I wanted to do. When I find something interesting, I gravitate toward it and see what happens.”

Recently, Dowhaniuk participated in NatGeo’s “Sciencetelling Bootcamp,” a weeklong intensive program designed to help researchers engage the public with their findings. As a self-taught photographer, Dowhaniuk embraced the opportunity, and he recently joined documentary filmmaker Dan McCabe on a hike through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, studying the fallout of the 2002 eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in the context of civil strife. “One thing I love about photography is I can give people a global sense, break down some misconceptions about sub-Saharan Africa, and tell stories that aren’t as easily told with just words,” he says.

 


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