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UMass Amherst Expert Examines the Models of Political Troll Farms, Before They Potentially Target Western Democracies

Subhead: New NATO report explores the different constructs of “fake news” factories prevalent in the Philippines in an effort to prevent their global expansionContact Name: Jonathan Corpus OngContact Email: jcong@umass.eduDecember 6, 2019

AMHERST, Mass. – A new report published by the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence examines the four models of “fake news” factories employed in the political battlegrounds of the Philippines in an effort to understand this social media phenomenon as the trolls stand ready to export their services to a more global clientele, with the potential to disrupt and influence western democratic elections.

The main aim of the report, according to co-author Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of global digital media in the department of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is to shed light on the variety of work arrangements of digital political trolling that have continued to “hide in plain sight” – industries and political players that have been complicit to fake news production as normalized and financially lucrative work.

“The typical troll in the Philippines is not the sad nerdy guy living in his parents’ basement, but the savvy entrepreneur hyping their digital skills and seeking both political and corporate clients,” Ong says. “This kind of troll does not need to hide in the dark web or a black market; this troll is employed in the politician's in-house team, or a PR firm or a digital marketing company.”

Ong and co-author Jason Cabañes, associate professor at De La Salle University Manila, found four organizational models of disinformation production, including three models they personally observed in their research: the in-house staff model, the advertising and public relations model and the clickbait model. The fourth model of disinformation production they examine is the state-sponsored model.

“The emergence of four disinformation work models across the spectrum of the politics-profit mix powerfully signals that fake news production is becoming ever more entrenched into the very fiber of contemporary politics,” Ong and Cabañes write.

“Confident veterans of political campaigning, chiefs of staff usually lead by example in the inhouse staff model,” they write. “The chiefs expect their staff to take on this additional trollwork, regardless of their official designation and without extra pay.”

In the advertising and public relations model, politicians and/or their private donors outsource trolling jobs to disinformation consultants for hire. In the shadows of their legitimate corporate and celebrity campaigns, they assemble a team of political disinformation producers who work together in disinformation campaigns on a per project basis.

“The most politically agnostic and commercially driven model of digital disinformation production is the clickbait model,” they write. “In the Philippines, the clickbait model is best exemplified by the case of Twinmark Media Enterprises, whose 220 Facebook pages, 73 Facebook accounts, and 29 Instagram accounts were shut down in a high-profile platform takedown right before the 2019 election season. Twinmark Enterprises’ revenue from Facebook and Google’s advertising technologies could have earned the company as much as approximately EUR 7M (PHP 400M) in four years of operations. In other words, clickbait websites are so profitable from ad tech alone that political pundits and influencers are happy to cash in from sharing their emotionally appealing but factually misleading stories.”

Finally, the authors examine the state-sponsored model and its techniques of formal intimidation and digital bullying that “lead to silencing, self-censorship and chilling effects among dissenters and the public at large.”

The authors found that reportage in the Philippines describes the state-sponsored propaganda model as assuming “intentionality from the president himself to intimidate and harass his critics. This involves him deploying the fake news label in tirades against mainstream media. His outbursts are usually a response to their unsavory reports of the government and his policies, most notably the war on drugs. His message is taken forward by his so-called ‘keyboard army,’ consisting of hyper-partisan political pundits, social media influencers and fans.”

The authors conclude by suggesting a process-oriented response to these digital misinformation campaigners, which includes increasing communication about the threat of the trolls, a push for legal reforms including campaign transparency, the enabling of fact-checking between social media platforms and media and academics, increasing transparency in the operations of social media platforms and enacting industry standards and mechanisms in the digital workplace that reward professional and ethical practice.

“Whether driven by political or commercial imperatives, the political chiefs of staff, advertising and PR consultants, and technopreneurs have come to normalize, professionalize and rationalize disinformation work,” Ong and Cabañes write in the report. “This has enabled them to downplay the political and moral consequences of what they do. This, in turn, has made it easy for them to carry on with fashioning themselves as nothing less than pioneering explorers shaping the frontierlands of digital politics. This could very well be feeding their desire to take the next step and go global.”

The production of the report was managed by Sebastian Bay, senior expert of the Technical and Scientific Development Branch at NATO StratCom Centre of Excellence Riga, Latvia, who presented the report at a launch event of various studies of digital disinformation on Dec. 6 in Riga. The complete study, “Four Work Models of Political Trolling in the Philippines,” is available at https://stratcomcoe.org/four-work-models-political-trolling-philippines.

Release Number: 137-20Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: UMass Amherst Expert Examines the Models of Political Troll Farms, Before They Potentially Target Western DemocraciesNewsletter Headline: UMass Amherst Expert Examines the Models of Political Troll Farms, Before They Potentially Target Western DemocraciesTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

 A new report published by the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence examines the four models of “fake news” factories employed in the political battlegrounds of the Philippines in an effort to understand this social media phenomenon as the trolls stand ready to export their services to a more global clientele, with the potential to disrupt and influence western democratic elections.

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Evaluating a Smart Tutor that Coaches Young Math Students

December 5, 2019

The U.S. Department of Education recently funded a four-year, $1.18 million efficacy study of MathSpring, a research-­based, game-like intelligent math tutor developed by research professor Beverly Woolf inthe College of Information and Computer Sciencesand her long-time collaborator Ivon Arroyo, now anassociate professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The institutions will share fundingand focus on teachers and their classrooms in Massachusetts.

Woolf and Arroyo designed the program to provide a personalized approach to mathematical learning. MathSpring tracks and responds not only to a student’s performance, but their motivation and emotional state. It supports them through animated learning companions that can be tailored to the individual. The companions become active when the system detects emotional states like boredom and frustration. They offer advice, help and messages designed to inspire confidence and resilience.

As Woolf explains, “Emotion is a key factor in learning and often the driving force behind whether or not a student will succeed. Digital teaching systems like MathSpring provide new ways to address these issues, including how to tailor interventions to support student self-regulationand how to encourage students to feel more positive about their learning experience.”

Arroyo says, “Our research with MathSpring shows that the use of affective digital characters that act as learning companions reducefrustration and increases subject interest in general, but especially for girls, students with disabilities and low-performing students. Encouraging these students is important because success in mathematics and science strongly predicts long-term wellbeing and economic welfare.”

Woolf, an award-winning designer of software tutors, was named a Presidential Innovation Fellow by President Barack Obama in 2013 in recognition of her leadership in combiningartificial intelligence, computer network technology and multimedia features in digitaltutoring software for teaching mathematics according to individual student needs.

Arroyo, who plans to return to campus as anassociate professor in January, 2020, specializes in computer science, learning science and educational and cognitive psychology. Her expertise is in the design of newtechnologies for learning and assessment for K-12 students studying mathematics.

With the new support, Woolf and Arroyo will evaluate the effectiveness of the program in partnership with Mingyu Feng, a senior research associate at WestEd, a research agency that works with education communities to promote excellence and achieve equity in learning. They hope results will provide additionalinsights into the waysintelligent technologies can improve K-12 mathematical learning, and may help to improve student engagement with the subject.

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The U.S. Department of Education recently funded a four-year, $1.18 million efficacy study of MathSpring, a research-­based, game-like intelligent math tutor developed by research professor Beverly Woolf inthe College of Information and Computer Sciencesand her long-time collaborator Ivon Arroyo, now anassociate professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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Study Pinpoints Barriers to Preventive Care for People at High Risk for HIV

Subhead: UMass Amherst psychologist studied veterans’ access to protective medication Contact Name: Avy SkolnikContact Phone: 413-559-5458Contact Email: askolnik@umass.eduDecember 1, 2019

AMHERST, Mass. – Many high-risk people eligible for medication to prevent HIV infection face barriers to obtaining a prescription, according to research by University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologist Avy Skolnik.

Those barriers include knowledge gaps and attitudinal roadblocks among providers and systems, and the placement of responsibility on the patient to request the service – even though it’s typically the role of health care providers to educate patients about preventive care, such as flu shots and cancer screenings.

“This study points to a need for better HIV preventive care,” says Skolnik, lead author of the study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine and staff psychologist for University Health Services. “Placing the burden on the patient is not quality care.”

For HIV-negative people, a single pill a day can reduce the risk of acquiring HIV by 99%, according to the National Institutes of Health. Skolnik points out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 1.2 million people at risk for HIV could benefit from taking preventive medication known as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), but less than 6% are accessing it.

Along with colleagues from the Bedford VA Medical Center, Boston University, Case Western University, the VA Boston Healthcare System and the Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Skolnik conducted a targeted medical records review during his post-doctoral work at VA Bedford. The researchers wanted to explore possible barriers, in addition to financial, that would help explain the “modest” use of the PrEP pill.

In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration approved PrEP, which consists of emtricitabine/tenofovir, two antiretroviral drugs that are among those used to treat HIV infections. HIV is transmitted mainly through sex or sharing needles for intravenous drug injections.

Veterans constituted an ideal study group because in 2013 the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) agreed to cover the cost of PrEP, allowing researchers to study barriers beyond the financial issues that people with commercial insurance limits may face.

In a retrospective chart review, Skolnik and colleagues mined the medical records of 161 veterans who received PrEP at one of 90 low-, medium- or high-prescribing sites across the country. Some 97% were men whose primary HIV risk factor was having male sexual partners. Skolnik detected “implicit homophobic undertones” in some of the provider notes, such as, “Patient admits to same sex sexual relationship” and “I am not comfortable prescribing for this purpose.”

Other highlights of the findings:

  • Patients initiated 94% of PrEP conversations, and 35% experienced delays in receiving PrEP ranging from six weeks to 16 months. “We thought that was striking,” Skolnik says. “Patients had to initiate the self-disclosure involved and also have that conversation multiple times. We don’t expect any other patient to have that level of persistence for any other preventive service.”
     
  • Barriers to access were identified in more than 70% of cases. They included knowledge gaps about PrEP or the VHA system related to PrEP, confusion or disagreement about which provider (primary care or specialist) should prescribe PrEP and attitudes or stigma associated with PrEP.
     
  • Married heterosexuals in monogamous relationships were least likely to experience access barriers.

“The medication isn’t the solution for every patient,” Skolnik says, “but there are barriers to access that should be addressed.”

The study’s recommendations can be applied in other health care settings because the access barriers to PrEP identified inside the VHA are likely to exist in other health care delivery arenas, as well, Skolnik points out.

“These findings can inform targeted approaches that are needed to improve PrEP access to those at risk for HIV infection,” the study concludes.

Release Number: 136-20Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Study Pinpoints Barriers to Preventive Care for People at High Risk for HIVNewsletter Headline: Study Pinpoints Barriers to Preventive Care for People at High Risk for HIVTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

Many high-risk people eligible for medication to prevent HIV infection face barriers to obtaining a prescription, according to research by UMass psychologist Avy Skolnik.

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Scientific Glassblowing Lab Expands Open Hours

November 27, 2019

 

Staffed by veteran master glassblower Sally Prasch, the campus’s recently re-opened scientific glassblowing lab is now open two days per week to provide high quality, affordably priced standard and non-standard items, glassware modifications, repairs and custom designs for instructional and research needs. Prasch works closely with campus researchers, lab managers and others to design, fabricate and repair specialty glass and scientific instruments.

A central core facility managed by College of Natural Sciences executive director of operations Patti Cromack, the lab is open to the campus community in the basement of the Lederle lowrise from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m on Thursdays and Fridays for basic services and to accept orders for special projects. Prasch says she welcomes walk-ins.

“I keep some tubing and parts in stock to help with routine repair and replacement and to keep turnaround time to a minimum,” she notes. She has experience with all types of glass including borosilicate, quartz, aluminosilicate and soft glass. The glassblowing lab is fully equipped with annealing ovens, glass lathes, a diamond saw, lapping wheel and a variety of torches.

“Many major universities have scientific glassblowing labs today that offer personal consultation, design and manufacture of special pieces as well as stocking commonly used items. This is really a necessity in today’s research environment,” Prasch adds. “Without glass, they are not going to be able to conduct their experiments. And many researchers can’t buy what they need out of a catalog.”

Further, many labs cannot afford the time and expense involved in sending a piece away for repair. In one recent case, Prasch saved a campus lab hundreds of dollars in replacement cost by repairing a one-of-a-kind object. “We can save them time and money while making sure their glassware is vacuum-safe, for example,” she says. Chemistry labs, in particular, often put glassware through tortuous extremes.

Prasch learned glassblowing as a teen-ager in Nebraska, after which she went on to earn three degrees in various artistic and science-related aspects of the craft. She holds a B.A. degree in fine art glass and ceramics from the University of Kansas, and in 1985 received her certificate in scientific glass technology from Salem College in New Jersey, followed by a degree from there in applied science. In 1986 she came to UMass Amherst as a scientific glassblower and glass instructor for chemistry and physics graduate students.

Prasch has been a member of the American Scientific Glassblowers Society and has participated in seminars on such subjects as vacuum technology, quartz technology and glass sealing. She has taught glass workshops at Urban Glass in New York City, at the Niijima Glass School in Japan, Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, and elsewhere in California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Turkey and Sweden. In addition to staffing the campus scientific glassblowing lab, she is the owner of her own artistic glass shop in Montague.

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Staffed by veteran master glassblower Sally Prasch, the campus’s recently re-opened scientific glassblowing lab is now open two days per week to provide high quality, affordably priced standard and non-standard items, glassware modifications, repairs and custom designs for instructional and research needs. 

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UMass Amherst Engineer on International Research Team Developing New Tools for Reducing Drug Dosage Used to Treat HIV

Subhead: Seeking Minimum Drug Levels to Reduce Side EffectsContact Name: Tingyi “Leo” LiuContact Phone: 413/577-0927Contact Email: leoliu@umass.eduNovember 25, 2019

AMHERST, Mass. – An international team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and universities in China and Singapore, is using artificial intelligence to develop a system that minimizes the dosage of drugs used to treat human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as a way to reduce side effects. The findings are published in the journal Advanced Therapeutics.

The team includes Tingyi “Leo” Liu, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UMass Amherst. Liu is head of the Interdisciplinary Interface Engineering Laboratory (Inter²EngrLAB) in the College of Engineering.

Liu and the team say antiretroviral therapy (ART), using a combination of drugs, is a mainstay in treating HIV infection and making it a controllable chronic illness. He also says an HIV patient is traditionally administered the same ART regimen for life, even after his/her viral load has been reduced by several orders of magnitude from the initial viral load.

Because the drugs used to control the disease have side effects, dose reduction is an important goal once the level of HIV is reduced and patient health is stabilized. Traditional dosing regimens can result in side effects that range from mild to severe, including kidney damage. Studies have shown that more than half of the patients discontinued one or more of the drugs because of the side effects.Previously, dose reduction has only been explored in a trial‐and‐error manner, Liu says.

Using artificial intelligence (AI), the team has discovered that the drug and dose inputs can be linked to the output of viral load reduction through a simple mathematical relationship depicted as a parabolic response surface (PRS), Liu says.

He says the team chose to work with three drugs approved and recommended by the World Health Organization that are used in combination to treat HIV-positive individuals. He says the goal was to determine a way to provide patients with a combined dosage of the drugs that is sufficient to maintain their health but low enough to reduce side effects.

“We needed to find a method to lower the dose to a minimum amount that won’t allow the HIV virus to come back, but also reduces the side effects,” Liu says.

Using a small group of patients, the research team used the new AI-PRS platform to study the impact of lowering the dosage of one of the drugs by about a third and found it kept the virus load steady and below the detectable limit. For the first time, the minimum drug dose was determined based on a rational and clinically-actionable approach rather than the conventional trial-and-error strategies. The team believes this shows that the new method can serve as a model for the long-term management of HIV, as well as other infectious diseases.

Liu also says this new method for setting dosing may be further refined so that ART can be developed for individuals to have their personalized regimen for treatment.

Besides UMass Amherst and UCLA, the other members of the research team come from Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, and the National University of Singapore.

In addition to his faculty appointment in the College of Engineering, Liu is affiliated with the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS), which combines deep and interdisciplinary expertise from 29 departments on the UMass Amherst campus to translate fundamental research into innovations that benefit humankind.

Release Number: 135-20Thumbnail: Image layout: Medium images in right columnGateway Headline: UMass Amherst Engineer on International Research Team Developing New Tools for Reducing Drug Dosage Used to Treat HIVNewsletter Headline: UMass Amherst Engineer on International Research Team Developing New Tools for Reducing Drug Dosage Used to Treat HIVTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

An international team of researchers from UMass, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and universities in China and Singapore, is using artificial intelligence to develop a system that minimizes the dosage of drugs used to treat human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as a way to reduce side effects. The findings are published in the journal Advanced Therapeutics.

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Ten UMass Amherst Researchers Recognized Among World’s Most Highly Cited Scientists

November 22, 2019

AMHERST, Mass. – Ten researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have been recognized for being among the world’s most highly cited researchers in 2019 by London-based Clarivate Analytics, owner of the Web of Science.

Now in its sixth year, the citation analysis identifies influential researchers as determined by their peers around the world. They have consistently won recognition in the form of high citation counts over a decade. These scientists are judged to be influential, and their citation records are seen as “a mark of exceptional impact,” the company says.

The ten UMass Amherst researchers recognized on the 2019 list are Catrine Tudor-Locke and Laura Vandenberg of the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, food scientists David Julian McClements, Eric Decker and Hang Xiao, microbiologist Kelly Nevin and Derek Lovley, materials scientist Thomas Russell and chemist Vincent Rotello in the College of Natural Sciences, and environmental chemist Baoshan Xing of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture.

The list, announced this week from the company’s United States office in Philadelphia, contains about 3,400 highly cited researchers in science and social science fields. The company says it “focuses on contemporary research achievement: Only highly cited papers in science and social science journals indexed in the Web of Science Core Collection during the 11-year period 2008-2018 were surveyed.”

Last year for the first time, Highly Cited Researchers introduced a new cross- field category to identify researchers with substantial influence across several fields during the data census period. The most recent list names 6,216 researchers, 3,725 of them in specific fields and 2,491 for cross-field performance. This is the second year that researchers with cross-field impact have been identified.

As the report’s editors point out, “There is no unique or universally agreed concept of what constitutes extraordinary research performance and elite status in the sciences and social sciences. Consequently, no quantitative indicators will reveal a list that satisfies all expectations or requirements. Moreover, a different basis or formula for selection would generate a different – though likely overlapping – list of names. Thus, the absence of a name on our list cannot be interpreted as inferior performance or stature in comparison to those selected.”

Release Number: 134-20Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Ten UMass Amherst Researchers Recognized Among World’s Most Highly Cited ScientistsNewsletter Headline: Ten UMass Amherst Researchers Recognized Among World’s Most Highly Cited ScientistsTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

Ten researchers at UMass have been recognized for being among the world’s most highly cited researchers in 2019 by London-based Clarivate Analytics,owner ofthe Web of Science.

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Survey Finds Most Teenagers in Legalized States See Marijuana Promotions on Social Media

Subhead: UMass Amherst researcher says more restrictions needed to protect teens Contact Name: Jennifer WhitehillContact Phone: 413-545-1923Contact Email: jmw@umass.eduNovember 21, 2019

AMHERST, Mass. – Despite restrictions on paid advertising cannabis on social media, most teenagers reported seeing marijuana marketing on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, according to a public health study authored by University of Massachusetts Amherst injury prevention researcher Jennifer Whitehill.

Some 94% of adolescents surveyed said they had been exposed to marijuana marketing either on social media, print media or on a billboard. Because cannabis is an illegal drug under federal law, federal restrictions prohibit or severely restrict cannabis companies from running ads, even in states where marijuana sales have been legalized for adults age 21 and over. Nationwide, as with alcohol, the sale of marijuana to anyone under age 21 is illegal. For both alcohol and marijuana marketing, additional state and federal advertising regulations exist, especially when a certain portion of the audience is under the age of 21. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram prohibit marijuana ads, but cannabis companies can develop a social media presence by establishing a business profile and sharing posts and tweets.

These are the latest findings from the first U.S. study to examine youth exposure to marijuana marketing in states that have legalized cannabis for adult recreational use. Whitehill and colleagues found that exposure to marijuana marketing on social media is not only widespread but also associated with recent use of marijuana by adolescents. For example, teens who reported seeing marijuana promotions on Instagram were more than twice as likely to have used marijuana in the past year, compared to youth who did not see such promotions.

The research, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, suggests that “current restrictions on social media content do not go far enough because it’s clearly making its way to youth,” says Whitehill, assistant professor of health promotion and policy in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences. Whitehill is part of the Cannabis Advertising and Social Media study team, led by Dr. Megan Moreno, professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. The investigative team also includes researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  

“Youth who can’t buy or use non-medical marijuana shouldn’t have to see these promotions, particularly on a platform like Instagram, whose audience is mostly youth,” Moreno says. A related study by the same team looking at social media engagement, rather than exposure, found that one in three youth in states with legal recreational marijuana engage with marijuana brands by following, liking or otherwise interacting with them. This social media engagement was linked to higher rates of marijuana use.

The investigators point out that “decades of research on alcohol and tobacco – other legal substances with abuse potential – show strong correlations between youth exposure to marketing and both earlier initiation and higher consumption among those already using.”

With retail cannabis shops already operating in seven states and the $10 billion-plus cannabis market expected to grow as more states follow suit, the impact of cannabis marketing – especially in the understudied social media arena – has crucial public health implications and requires further study, Whitehill says.

Using an online panel, the study surveyed 469 youth, ages 15 to 19, in California, Colorado, Nevada and Washington – four of the 11 states with legalized adult marijuana use. Participants were asked about their social media use, marijuana use and exposure to marijuana marketing. “First we found out what social media platforms they used, and then we asked, when you use this platform, do you see marijuana ads or promotions,” Whitehill explains.

Tellingly, more youth reported seeing marijuana promotions on social media than billboards. “Across marijuana users and nonusers, 73% said they had seen marijuana advertisements outdoors on billboards,” Whitehill says. “But the figure was even higher on social media, with 79% reporting exposure – even in a space where they are not supposed to be seeing cannabis marketing.”

The study was co-authored by Pamela Trangenstein of the University of North Carolina, David Jernigan of Boston University and Marina Jenkins of the University of Wisconsin.

The researchers conclude, “Current policies to help prevent exposure to cannabis marketing online are not effective. While larger, longitudinal studies about exposure to cannabis marketing on social media and onset of adolescent cannabis use are needed, states should consider adopting the most restrictive cannabis marketing policies feasible, combined with an accountability and enforcement infrastructure that will help protect the current generation of adolescents.” 
 

Release Number: 133-20Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Survey Finds Most Teenagers in Legalized States See Marijuana Promotions on Social MediaNewsletter Headline: Survey Finds Most Teenagers in Legalized States See Marijuana Promotions on Social MediaTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

Despite restrictions on paid advertising cannabis on social media, most teenagers reported seeing marijuana marketing on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, according to a public health study authored by injury prevention researcher Jennifer Whitehill.

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New Machine Learning Algorithms Offer Safety and Fairness Guarantees

Subhead: UMass Amherst and Stanford team designs new framework for fairer, safer algorithmsContact Name: Philip ThomasContact Phone: 413-545-1158Contact Email: pthomas@cs.umass.eduNovember 20, 2019

AMHERST, Mass. – Seventy years ago, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov imagined a world where robots would serve humans in countless ways, and he equipped them with built-in safeguards ­now known as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, to prevent them, among other goals, from ever harming a person.

Guaranteeing safe and fair machine behavior is still an issue today, says machine learning researcher and lead author Philip Thomas at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “When someone applies a machine learning algorithm, it’s hard to control its behavior,” he points out. This risks undesirable outcomes from algorithms that direct everything from self-driving vehicles to insulin pumps to criminal sentencing, say he and co-authors.

Writing in Science, Thomas and his colleagues Yuriy Brun, Andrew Barto and graduate student Stephen Giguere at UMass Amherst, Bruno Castro da Silva at the Federal University of Rio Grande del Sol, Brazil, and Emma Brunskill at Stanford University this week introduce a new framework for designing machine learning algorithms that make it easier for users of the algorithm to specify safety and fairness constraints.

“We call algorithms created with our new framework ‘Seldonian’ after Asimov’s character Hari Seldon,” Thomas explains. “If I use a Seldonian algorithm for diabetes treatment, I can specify that undesirable behavior means dangerously low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. I can say to the machine, ‘while you’re trying to improve the controller in the insulin pump, don’t make changes that would increase the frequency of hypoglycemia.’ Most algorithms don’t give you a way to put this type of constraint on behavior; it wasn’t included in early designs.”

“But making it easier to ensure fairness and avoid harm is becoming increasingly important as machine learning algorithms impact our lives more and more,” he says.

However, “a recent paper listed 21 different definitions of fairness in machine learning. It’s important that we allow the user to select the definition that is appropriate for their intended application,” he adds. “The interface that comes with a Seldonian algorithm allows the user to do just this: to define what ‘undesirable behavior’ means for their application.”

In Asimov’s Foundation series, Seldon is in the same universe as his Robot series. Thomas explains, “Everything has fallen apart, the galactic empire is collapsing, partly because the Three Laws of Robotics require certainty. With that level of safety required, robots are paralyzed with indecision because they cannot act with certainty and guarantee that no human will be harmed by their actions.”

Seldon proposes fixing this by turning to reasoning probabilistically about safety. “That’s a good fit to what we’re doing, Thomas says. The new approach he and colleagues provide allows for probabilistic constraints and requires the algorithm to specify ways the user can tell it what to constrain. He says, “The framework is a tool for the machine learning researcher. It guides them toward creating algorithms that are easier for users to apply responsibly to real-world problems.”

To test the new framework, they applied it to predict grade point averages in a data set of 43,000 students in Brazil by creating a Seldonian algorithm with constraints. It successfully avoided several types of undesirable gender bias. In another test, they show how an algorithm could improve the controller in an insulin pump while guaranteeing that it would not increase the frequency of hypoglycemia.

Thomas says, “We believe there’s massive room for improvement in this area. Even with our algorithms made of simple components, we obtained impressive results. We hope that machine learning researchers will go on to develop new and more sophisticated algorithms using our framework, which can be used responsibly for applications where machine learning used to be considered too risky. It’s a call to other researchers to conduct research in this space.”

Release Number: 131-20Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: New Machine Learning Algorithms Offer Safety and Fairness GuaranteesNewsletter Headline: New Machine Learning Algorithms Offer Safety and Fairness GuaranteesTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

Writing in “Science,” Philip Thomas, assitant professor in the College of Information and Computer Sciences, and his team of reasearchers, this week introduced a new framework for designing machine learning algorithms that make it easier for users of the algorithm to specify safety and fairness constraints.

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Campus Team Awarded NSF Grant to Develop Tool to Aid Workers

November 20, 2019

A campus team led by research professor Beverly Woolf of the College of Information and Computer Science (CICS) recently received a one-year, $838,722 grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Convergence Accelerator program to support their project to create a tool for workers to analyze their profiles and skills and identify training and education to aid their career paths.

Faculty team members in addition to Woolf are Andrew Lan and Shlomo Zilberstein, CICS, Tom Juravich, sociology, Andrew Cohen, psychological and brain sciences, and Ina Ganguli, economics. For this project, they will develop algorithms and software to help companies and workers be successful in an evolving workplace. 

Among other components, they will analyze anonymized data about workers’ skills, education and career path, plus information about job postings for open positions and about job seekers, in collaborations with Connecticut-based Stanley Black & Decker, the world’s largest tool manufacturer, the City of Holyoke and MassHire Holyoke. One goal is to create a tool where job seekers input their skills, interests, work experience, education and other information and receive a skill assessment, recommendations about job opportunities and suggestions for future training and education.

As Woolf explains, “Technology and automation can lead to greater inequality among people and increased demands on workers. This NSF project will gather extensive data on workers, develop an infrastructure for data analysis and support a deeper understanding of changes in the workforce based on advances in technology.”

Lan, CICS assistant professor adds, “Prior work mostly studied the problem of matching workers to jobs based on their current skill set but the impact of upskilling and lifelong learning efforts have not been looked at.”

Shlomo Zilberstein, CICS professor and associate dean of research and engagement notes that the researchers are committed to creating an equitable system, by focusing on fairness and equity at every stage of development. “There are always unforeseen ways in which a system like this could end up being unfair. Fairness has many flavors – there is no one box to check to make something fair. The way to avoid that is to give equitability a lot of thought at every step. ”

Commenting on fairness and artificial intelligence (AI), he adds, “AI is not a technology that creates or solves problems by itself. It all depends on how you apply it – if you apply it one way it can create problems, and if you apply it another way it can solve problems. We want to be part of the solution.” Woolf agrees that the team takes pride in how this work fits in with the CICS “computing for the common good” effort.

NSF’s Convergence Accelerator program supports multidisciplinary research teams to work on projects that will help companies apply big data in ways that enhance the lives of workers. Over 40 awards totaling $39 million were given to teams across the country who will focus on open knowledge networks to pool many types of information and AI to connect workers with jobs of the future and innovative approaches to support workers seeking to upscale their skills.

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A campus team led by research professor Beverly Woolf of the College of Information and Computer Science recently received a one-year, $838,722 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator program to support their project to create a tool for workers to analyze their profiles and skills and identify training and education to aid their career paths.

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Chen Receives NSF Grant to Support Computing Cluster

November 20, 2019

To support a broadly shared Graphic Processing Unit (GPU)-enabled high-performance computing cluster for the Institute for Applied Sciences (IALS), computational biophysicist Jianhan Chen, chemistry and biochemistry and molecular biology, with others, recently was awarded a two-year, $415,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will fill what Chen calls “a critical need” for enabling computation-intensive research activities on campus.

Although the UMass system has a traditional shared cluster housed at the Massachusetts Green High-performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) in Holyoke, Chen points out, the current cluster has “minimal GPU capacity” and the campus and IALS need dedicated GPU computing hardware to support their research communities. His co-principal investigators on the project are Erin Conlon, mathematics and statistics, Peng Bai, chemical engineering, Chungwen Liang, IALS director of computational modeling, and Matthew Moore, food science.

“When we put in the grant we solicited comments and surveyed the need from IALS and identified 30 labs that could use it,” Chen explains. “They testified to the need and committed to the cost share with NSF, which will come from IALS, the College of Natural Sciences, College of Engineering, central IT and the Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement. This is going to be a really unique entity on campus, and it will have far-reaching impact,” he predicts. “It will be busy from the get-go.”

“I think NSF saw how much need and support we have. I want to particularly highlight the important contributions of Chris Misra and John Griffin of IT,” he adds. “They have taken the leadership in providing technical support that’s absolutely critical to me and other principal investigators on campus. Without them and their excellent help, this will not work, period.”

The new cluster, once carefully built up by Griffin, Chen and his co-investigators, will be managed by the IALS Computational and Modeling Core to provide long-term stability for operation and management, serving 250 IALS-affiliated research labs across 27 departments and seven colleges. “The GPU facility offers high-speed single- and double-precision operations as well as extreme parallelism to enhance current activities that contribute to the open science movement,” project leaders state.

It will also contribute to efforts to integrate regional education, outreach, diversity and economic activities, as the GPU facilities will be made available to researchers through Internet2 links and regional computing partnerships at MGHPCC. The researchers predict that the new cluster “will most likely lead to new developments and discoveries including novel GPU-enabled modeling and simulation technologies that may elucidate molecular mechanism of drug delivery, computational design catalysts for renewable energy and chemical synthesis, advanced computational analysis tools for next generation informatics and big data, and improved understanding of risk and resistance to breast cancer.”

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To support a broadly shared Graphic Processing Unit-enabled high-performance computing cluster for the Institute for Applied Sciences, computational biophysicist Jianhan Chen, chemistry and biochemistry and molecular biology, with others, recently was awarded a two-year, $415,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

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Statistician Flaherty, Molecular Biologist Chien Join Forces

November 20, 2019

Patrick Flaherty, professor of mathematics and statistics, was recently awarded a three-year, $582,883 grant from the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences to better understand cellular protein homeostasis, the balance between protein creation and destruction. The dysregulation of protein homeostasis is one of the primary paths that allows diseases such as Alzheimer's, Huntington’s or Parkinson’s to develop.

Flaherty is an expert on statistical tools used to analyze large genomic data sets. He is collaborating on this award with Peter Chien, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, who is an expert on the highly regulated cellular cleanup system in which specialized proteins called proteases degrade damaged or no-longer-needed proteins – a system critical for protein homeostasis. They plan to develop new statistical and computational tools to analyze large-scale genetic experiments to catalog the essential components of this system, which Flaherty and Chien hope will lead to better understanding of pathways important for many human diseases.

As Flaherty explains, recent technological advances in such areas as deep DNA sequencing now allow researchers to piece together the genetic networks in complex cellular systems such as protein homeostasis that are essential to cellular function, and under what conditions – temperature, pH – those genetic networks are essential. Until now, identifying “conditionally essential networks” has been challenging for computational and statistical reasons, they point out.

Flaherty continues, “Understanding what genes in the biological cell are essential is akin to understanding what parts of a car are essential. Wetake out each piece of the car one-by-one and try to drive the car. If it runs just fine, then we say the part is inessential, butif the car won’t run without the part then we say it is essential.”

“What’s new here,” he adds, “is that we’re trying to drive the car in lots of different weather conditions. For example, we might find that the wind shield wipers are in essential on sunnydays, but turn out to be essential when it rains. In this analogy, we expect to be able to collect all of the fuel components into a group called the fuel system and all of the steering components into the steering system.”

Once characterized, conditionally essential networks can be used to identify biomarker combinations for diagnosis and treatment in humans or to identify regulatory networks in model organisms, the researchers say. Further, the tools Flaherty will develop will be generally useful for analyzing deep DNA sequencing data and experiments on other cellular networks and in other organisms.

Chien notes, “This project takes advantage of the amazing breadth of expertise here at UMass, the statistics expertise from Professor Flaherty is exactly the type of tools that are needed to understand the large amount of biological data coming from our systems-level experiments.”

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Patrick Flaherty, professor of mathematics and statistics, was recently awarded a three-year, $582,883 grant from the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences to better understand cellular protein homeostasis. He is collaborating on this award with Peter Chien, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, who is an expert on the cellular cleanup system.

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UMass Amherst Food Scientist Receives Nils Foss Award in Denmark

Subhead: Distinguished Professor globally respected for groundbreaking researchContact Name: David Julian McClementsContact Phone: 413-545-2275Contact Email: mcclements@foodsci.umass.eduNovember 18, 2019

AMHERST, Mass. – University of Massachusetts Amherst Distinguished Professor David Julian McClements was honored Monday in Hillerød, Denmark, with the 2019 Nils Foss Excellence Prize for his pioneering work in food design and nanotechnology.

The annual award, named after the late founder of FOSS, a multinational food tech company, was established in 2016 to recognize a globally respected scientist for innovative research that leads to “remarkable improvements” in the quality, safety, nutrition and sustainability of food.

The award includes a cash prize of 100,000 euros ($110,000), which McClements says he will use to move his research program into new directions. The funds will help support new equipment and resources, particularly in the area of future foods, such as plant-based foods, 3-D food printing and nano-enabled nutraceuticals.

“I am really honored to receive such a prestigious award,” says McClements, author of the new book, “Future Foods: How Modern Science Is Transforming the Way We Eat”  (Springer Nature, 2019). “It is an extremely exciting time to be a food scientist, and there are many innovative scientific and technological approaches being developed to tackle problems linked to the food supply, such as feeding a growing population, ensuring our food is safe, minimizing the harmful impact of the food production system on the environment, and improving human health and well-being.” 

A committee of academic and industry members selected McClements for the excellence award and Aarhus (Denmark) University assistant professor Qian Janice Wang for the Nils Foss Talent Prize for her research into the psychological aspects of flavor perception and food liking.

“This year’s winners have made significant contributions in food science and have brought some truly new ideas to the table,” says Per Falholt, committee chair. “It is crucial that we understand both the composition of foods and the drivers of the human flavor system in order to design a healthier future – at the nanoscale and through the senses.”

The Nils Foss Excellence Prize is the latest of many awards bestowed on McClements, who is among the world’s most highly cited researchers. Earlier this year, he received the Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) Nicolas Appert Award, a lifetime achievement recognition named after the French inventor known as the “father of canning.”

McClements’ research focuses on designing functional foods at the nanoscale that are fortified with nutraceuticals, vitamins, minerals or probiotics to address malnutrition, combat chronic disease and keep astronauts healthy in space. This requires understanding the physicochemical breakdown of foods within the gastrointestinal tract. 

The award committee emphasized that an important strength of McClements’ work is how it has been applied.

“Professor McClement’s research in functional foods has contributed to improved quality, safety, sustainability and healthiness of the food supply, and has served as a paradigm for many other researchers in the field,” a FOSS statement says. “Further, broad collaborations with the food industry has led to implemented research findings in practice.”

Release Number: 129-20Thumbnail: Image layout: Medium images in right columnGateway Headline: UMass Amherst Food Scientist Receives Nils Foss Award in DenmarkNewsletter Headline: UMass Amherst Food Scientist Receives Nils Foss Award in DenmarkTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

UMass Distinguished Professor David Julian McClements was honored Monday in Hillerød, Denmark, with the 2019 Nils Foss Excellence Prize for his pioneering work in food design and nanotechnology.

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Asking If Behavior Can Be Changed on Climate Crisis

Subhead: UMass Amherst, UPenn research suggests invoking moral obligation may helpContact Name: Hanne M. WatkinsContact Phone: 413-545-2383Contact Email: jlathrop@umass.eduNovember 19, 2019

AMHERST, Mass. – One of the more complex problems facing social psychologists today is whether any intervention can move people to change their behavior about climate change and protecting the environment for the sake of future generations.

Now researchers Hanne Melgård Watkins at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Geoffrey Goodwin at the University of Pennsylvania report after their recent experiments that an intergenerational reciprocity approach ­– asking people to reflect on sacrifices made in the past by others for their benefit today – may generate gratitude and a sense of moral obligation to people in the future.

Details of their studies exploring this are online today in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

As Watkins says, “The question is how to motivate people to care for future generations. Other researchers have shown that reciprocity can be a powerful motivator. If someone does something for my benefit, that creates a sense of obligation to reciprocate, but if I can’t reciprocate directly for some reason, I might instead try to “pay it forward.” In our experiments, we tried to take that idea and scale it up to get people to feel a moral obligation to future generations by having them reflect on what people in previous generations had done for them.”

She adds that intergenerational reciprocity research has shown that this approach can work, at least with people playing games. “If the last participant in a game paid their winnings forward, people are more likely to do the same for those coming along after them.”

Overall, Watkins and Goodwin, who conducted this study while Watkins was at UPenn, state that “our studies revealed that such reflection – on sacrifices made by past generations – predicts and causes a heightened sense of moral obligation towards future generations, mediated by gratitude. However there are also some downsides, for example, feelings of unworthiness, and perceptions of obligation do not substantially affect pro-environmental attitudes or motivations.”

Further, “while reflecting on past generations’ sacrifice can generate a sense of intergenerational obligation, it is limited in the extent to which it can increase pro-environmental concern.” Watkins adds, “Feeling is one thing, actually doing is another.”

With climate change, the researchers note that they had chosen a rather broad topic “more distant and diffuse” than some others investigated in previous studies on intergenerational reciprocity. Thus their survey asked respondents to reflect on past sacrifices made by their families or others during the fairly clear sacrifices made such as in the Great Depression, World War II, or by parents who scrimped and saved to put children through college; “big sacrifices that cannot be directly reciprocated,” Watkins notes.

For this work, she and Goodwin conducted five experimental online studies where at least 200 participants and sometimes as many as 500, were asked to write reflections on either sacrifices made by past generations or, for the control condition, to write on fashion choices made by past generations. Subjects were Americans, half male, half female and though the sample was “not representative but a fairly well varied population,” Watkins points out. At least one of the five studies was a replication of the first survey.

They found that when people had reflected on past sacrifices they were more likely to report feeling a sense of moral obligation to future generations. “We then asked whether they’d be willing to pay a higher tax or make other actual sacrifices in their daily lives to help future generations deal with climate change,” Watkins notes. “In this we found no effect,” but there was a strong correlation between a sense of moral obligation to future generations and willingness to sacrifice. “This correlation may exist without any intervention,” she adds.

Finally, Watkins reports that in a mini-meta-analysis of their five experiments, they did observe a small but significant effect on willingness to make sacrifices for the environment after reflecting on others’ past sacrifices.

“It’s nice that this might make a difference, but it’s not clear whether it’s large enough to use, to implement as an intervention,” she points out. “We feel it is valuable to have explored the question, but if you want action on climate change you might be better served by trying something else. Maybe contact your local representative.”

Release Number: 127-19Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Asking If Behavior Can Be Changed on Climate CrisisNewsletter Headline: Asking If Behavior Can Be Changed on Climate CrisisTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

One of the more complex problems facing social psychologists today is whether any intervention can move people to change their behavior about climate change and protecting the environment for the sake of future generations.

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VIDEO: The Science of Sweat

November 14, 2019

 

Andrew Best, a doctoral student in the department of anthropology, is trying to figure out why some people sweat more than others. Best’s research is focused on sweat gland density. He aims to see if the density is related to where people grew up, and if it affects the body’s ability to cool itself.

To find out if sweat gland density is related to the environment, Best recruited volunteers from differing childhood climate backgrounds and geographies. He’s measuring sweat gland density in six locations on the body using a method called pilocarpine iontophoresis, which stimulates the glands to produce sweat. A layer of silicone material is applied in which sweat droplets leave an impression, which allows Best to account for density.

To determine the relationship between sweat gland density and the body’s ability to regulate heat, Best had 20 endurance athletes ride stationary bikes for an hour inside a metabolic chamber. This allows him to measure the amount of heat produced by the body and how much heat is removed by sweating. He also records sweat gland density using the pilocarpine iontophoresis method.

For his work, the Leakey Foundation’s Board of Trustees awarded Best with one of 35 research grants.

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Andrew Best, a doctoral student in the department of anthropology, is trying to figure out why some people sweat more than others. Best’s research is focused on sweat gland density. He aims to see if the density is related to where people grew up, and if it affects the body’s ability to cool itself.

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Computer Science-Math-Engineering Team Forms New NSF Institute

November 12, 2019

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a collaborative team led by Andrew McGregor, computer science, a three-year, $1.5 million grant to furtherdevelop the foundations of data science in a project that will create NSF’s national TRIPODS Institute for Theoretical Foundations of Data Science.

Also part of the executive committee with McGregor are Markos Katsoulakis and Patrick Flaherty of mathematics and statistics, plus Barna Saha and Arya Mazumdar, both on leave this year from the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS).

In addition to the executive committee, a team of senior researchers includes Justin Domke, Marco Duarte, Akshay Krishnamurthy, Anna Liu, Andrew McCallum, Cameron Musco, Luc Rey-Bellet, Dan Sheldon and Ileana Streinu.

McGregor says, “This team will help strengthen ties between the institute and the mathematics, computer science and electrical engineering departments here on campus. The fact that Ileana and Dan have positions at Smith and Mt. Holyoke also will give us the opportunity to also engage undergraduates at those colleges.”

Another aspect of the TRIPODS project will be to organize summer schools, speaker series, talks by experts in related technical areas and workshops for faculty researchers in other disciplines who want to learn how big data can help them. “In the next three years we might notice more of our colleagues attending data science workshops on campus,” McGregor notes.

Unlike the “practical outcomes” focus of some big data initiatives, the focus of TRIPODS is more on theoretical, mathematical and foundational aspects of data science, McGregor says. For example, practical data scientists “know that their methods typically work in practice,” he says, “but we don’t necessarily know why, or whether they’re consistent and reliable. In order to know the why and how, you need to mathematically analyze them. You need to show that the algorithm’s estimates will always in fact give an answer that is within a certain percentage of the true answer.”

Thus the TRIPODS team will mathematically prove attributes of a given algorithm such as running time, accuracy and scalability.

Data sets in the sciences, such as genetics and physics, are growing larger every year, McGregor points out. For example, a personalized medical device may generate data continuously, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, over a year or longer. “By the time you reach 10 years it will be overwhelming,” he says.

He adds, “In statistics the more data you get, the more accurate you can be, but in computer science the more data you get, the longer it will take you to process. That’s one reason you need computer scientists and mathematicians working together. When you double the size of the input, we need to know if the algorithm takes twice as long, four times as long or 100 times as long? That’s important.”

The award is part of the foundation’s $17.7 million support for 12 Transdisciplinary Research in Principles of Data Science (TRIPODS) projects, which will bring together the statistics, mathematics and theoretical computer science communities at 14 institutions in 11 states to promote long-term research and training activities in data science that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries.

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a collaborative team led by Andrew McGregor, computer science, a three-year, $1.5 million grant to furtherdevelop the foundations of data science in a project that will create NSF’s national TRIPODS Institute for Theoretical Foundations of Data Science.

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Scientists’ Panel Urges More, and More Vigorous Prevention of Sexual Harassment and Bias in Labs

Subhead: Large panel, including UMass Amherst diversity researcher, urges tougher actionContact Name: Nilanjana DasguptaContact Phone: 413-545-0049Contact Email: dasgupta@psych.umass.eduNovember 8, 2019

AMHERST, Mass. – Today a diverse group of scientists including Nilanjana Dasgupta, professor of social psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the campus’s director of faculty equity and inclusion, report their findings and recommendations on how institutions and funding agencies can address and prevent sexual harassment and gender bias in the STEM workforce. Details of their suggested “specific, potentially high-impact policy changes” appear in the current issue of Science.

The 23 authors, who met last December in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., issued their recommendations in response to a 2018 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). It highlighted how sexual harassment of women intersects with gender harassment and unconscious bias in academic sciences, engineering and medicine.

One of their first suggestions is to treat sexual harassment “in a manner parallel to scientific misconduct,” as did the NAS. They also urge that investigators be required to disclose harassment findings and settlements to funding agencies and potential employers, and that mechanisms be put in place to protect victims’ careers.

Dasgupta sees today’s Science paper as a call to action that follows up on the NAS report.She points out, “I think the solutions to sexual harassment and gender bias problems cannot solely rest with individual actors and their good intentions. There have to be structural solutions, policies, procedures, incentives to be fair and checks in the system to ensure that the solutions are working as intended.”

First author and Nobel laureate Carol Greider, director of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, says, “The report really lays out the continuum of behaviors that drive people out of science.”

Gender diversity in STEM has been a persistent issue in academia, adds Jason Sheltzer, a Cold Spring Harbor laboratory fellow and co-organizer of the summit. His research has shown that women were underrepresented in research labs where the principal investigator had won a Nobel Prize or been elected to the NAS, and for independent fellowships. “We’re at this junction point where there is overwhelming evidence describing the barriers that women can face in STEM careers, and there is much less data about what the best way to address it is.”

Other recommendations by the panel include requiring transparency in start-up packages, salaries and internal grant funding and fostering work/life balance through family-friendly policies, with special efforts to advance women’s careers using mentorship and other approaches to avoid unconscious bias in grants, promotions, awards and tenure.

This last point is supported by Dasgupta’s own research, which has shown that having same-gender peer mentors who are successful in science and engineering preserve first-year undergraduate women’s confidence, persistence and retention in STEM significantly more than when they had no mentors. “Remarkably, these benefits endure at graduation, several years after the mentoring relationships have ended,” she notes.

Greider adds, “I've been a department chair at Johns Hopkins for 17 years and I saw that mentoring and mentoring style aren’t really the things that are rewarded in terms of promotion and advancement. Those behaviors are really an impediment to women in science.” She also says it’s important to promote a variety of points of view. “If you always have people that have the same view testing out hypotheses, you’ll be stuck in your own bubble and won’t be able to advance the science.”

Shelzer notes that every member of the Cold Spring group is worried about budding scientists who don’t get a chance to become professional scientists. To have the most impact, he adds, policies need to be strictly implemented from top-down and from large funding agencies to institutions. “If the NIH says if you sexually harassed someone, you lose a grant. That has a huge impact.”

Dasgupta adds, “In order to create inclusive professional environments for women in science and prevent their disillusioned departure, we need funding agencies like the NIH, NSF and HHMI, universities, and professional societies to hold people accountable for unethical harassment in a transparent way, no matter who they are.”

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Today a diverse group of scientists including Nilanjana Dasgupta, professor of social psychology at UMass and the campus’s director of faculty equity and inclusion, report their findings and recommendations on how institutions and funding agencies can address and prevent sexual harassment and gender bias in the STEM workforce. Details of their suggested “specific, potentially high-impact policy changes” appear in the current issue of Science.

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Reports Update Impacts of Plainridge Park Casino

Subhead: UMass Amherst SEIGMA research team points to job creation and economic benefits with no increase in problem gambling, but ‘type’ of patron may be changingContact Name: Rachel VolbergContact Phone: 413-545-6700Contact Email: rvolberg@schoolph.umass.eduNovember 7, 2019

AMHERST, Mass. – The Plainridge Park Casino has created job opportunities for the unemployed and underemployed, among other economic benefits, without an increase in problem gambling, according to University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers from the Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA) study.

Three new reports, which are part of the most in-depth and comprehensive investigation ever undertaken into the impact of introducing casino gambling, were presented Thursday to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in Plainville. The first report on the social and economic impacts from 2013 to 2018 found largely positive effects from the state’s only slot parlor. The SEIGMA team summarized some of the findings in two fact sheets on traffic and public health impacts.

No change in the rate of problem gambling was detected, likely due to a pre-existing high rate of gambling by Plainville-area residents at nearby casinos in Rhode Island and Connecticut, in operation since the early 1990s.

Researchers also discussed results from a survey of the slot parlor’s new employees in 2017-2018 and released an economic impact report covering the slot parlor’s first four years of operation.

With two larger, resort casinos now open — MGM Springfield in August 2018 and Encore Boston Harbor in June 2019 — understanding the dynamic nature of the casino industry’s economic impacts is especially important, says Tom Peake, lead author of the economic impact report and senior research analyst at the UMass Donahue Institute, a part of SEIGMA.

“Projections of employment, vendor spending, and state and local revenue were important considerations when the Commonwealth chose to award gaming licenses to the casino operators. That’s why it’s so important that the SEIGMA project studies and makes this information available to the public – how are the casinos actually performing given the dynamic gaming market of the Northeast?”

Plainridge Park revenues rose 6.25 percent in the three years it was operating as the sole casino in the state, from about $160 million in fiscal 2016 to $170 million in fiscal 2018. In fiscal 2019, after the opening of MGM Springfield, revenues dropped slightly to $169 million.

The number of Plainridge Park Casino visitors has decreased each fiscal year, though the average gross gaming revenue per patron has increased by 27 percent, driving the rise in revenues. “While the economic impacts of Plainridge Park Casino to date are clearly positive, it is somewhat concerning to see an increase in spending per patron because it suggests that a smaller number of individuals are spending more,” says Rachel Volberg, principal investigator of the SEIGMA study and research professor in the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences. “If this increase in spending is affecting patrons’ ability to meet other financial obligations, it would suggest the need to raise awareness about the importance of keeping gambling entertaining and not spending more than one can afford.” 

According to the employment report, almost half of respondents said they had previously been unemployed or employed part time. About 75 percent of respondents said they had less than a bachelor’s degree.

“Analyzing casino employment is critical to understanding whether casino employment can be a pathway to economic stability and prosperity for workers,” says lead author Andrew Hall, senior research analyst at the UMass Donahue Institute. “We are investigating these impacts across the state, especially among the most marginalized sectors of the population. The new employee survey gives us insight into casino employees’ experience on the ground: why they’re seeking employment in this new field, what types of walks of life employees come from, their aspirations and how casino employment fits into their career goals, and their interest in training and career advancement.”

Most of Plainridge Park’s employees live near the casino – “so that’s money people living in Massachusetts are spending in Massachusetts,” Volberg says.

Executive Summary: The Economic Impacts of Plainridge Park Casino

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The Plainridge Park Casino has created job opportunities for the unemployed and underemployed, among other economic benefits, without an increase in problem gambling, according to UMass researchers from the Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA) study.

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Jedaidah Chilufya Receives International Peace Scholarship

November 7, 2019

Jedaidah Chilufya, a third-year Ph.D. student from Ndola, Zambia, who studies in professor Dong Wang’s biochemistry lab, was recently awarded an International Peace Scholarship for the 2019-20 academic year from the Iowa-based Philanthropic Educational Organization (P.E.O.). 

The P.E.O. Fund, established in 1949, provides scholarships for international women students for graduate study in the United States and Canada. The organization states that education is fundamental to world peace and understanding. 

Chilufya acknowledges that the award is very competitive and in fact last year she applied and did not get one, “so I was not sure if I should apply again,” she notes. “But Dr. Wang really encourages us to reach out and make these applications, and my lab mateswere very encouraging, too. I’m grateful for the attitude of encouragement and not competition in our lab.”

“When I got the award this year, I actually couldn’t believe it. It’s a great honor and privilege because so many apply. I feel honored and blessed. My family are not science people, but they always ask me, ‘How are your bacteria doing? How are your plants doing?’ My mom may not fully understand what I’m doing but she is really supportive.”

Chilufya says the fellowship will support her while she conducts her plant biology research with a focus on legume-bacteria interactions. She hopes someday this will contribute to her country’s agriculture needs when she returns to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital in southern Africa. “Farming contributes to a large part of the economy in Zambia,” she explains. “I want to help our farmers diversify their agricultural crops so that there is less reliance on corn, which is not sustainable because it requires large amounts of fertilizer and it’s not a good source of protein. This is important to food security.”

Specifically, Chilufya has been experimenting with legumes such as alfalfa and soybean which receive fixed nitrogen, a natural fertilizer, in their roots through their relationship with good soil bacteria called rhizobia. This nitrogen enriches the soil rather than depleting it and at the same time the legumes are a valuable food source for both animals and people. She hopes to collaborate with the University of Zambia, the Ministry of Agriculture and other universities to launch a government campaign against single-crop farming, to reduce reliance on corn and increase the use of legumes. 

This past summer the young scholar visited Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum where her advisor previously received an award as a visiting scholar, to collect legume root nodules, the special root structures where rhizobia reside and fix nitrogen. She hopes to identify rhizobia that have the potential to improve growth in agriculturally important legumes. 

“We’re trying to see if these rhizobia that normally associate with long-lived trees can interact with soybeansand boost their growth through better nitrogen fixation,” Chilufya explains.“I would like to contribute practical knowledge to the farmers, especially the women back home. Women do the most non-commercial farming for their families and I’d like to teach them best practices. We have a saying in Africa, if you educate a woman you educate the whole community.”

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Jedaidah Chilufya, a third-year Ph.D. student from Ndola, Zambia, who studies in professor Dong Wang’s biochemistry lab, was recently awarded an International Peace Scholarship for the 2019-20 academic year from the Iowa-based Philanthropic Educational Organization. 

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UMass Economist Arindrajit Dube Presents Report Supporting U.K. Plan to Increase National Living Wage

November 7, 2019

Arindrajit Dube, professor of economics, has completed and presented a review of the international evidence on the impacts of minimum wages and the implications for future minimum wage policy to end low pay in the United Kingdom.

Dube was appointed in March by then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond to undertake the review. The presentation of his findings comes after current Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid said in September the government would raise Britain’s minimum wage to two-thirds of median earnings, taking it to 10.50 pounds ($13.58) an hour.

Javid said he would increase the National Living Wage (NLW) to the new target by 2024, provided economic conditions allowed, and expand its reach to all workers over the age of 21. The current NLW applies only to those over the age of 25.

Dube’s research supports the plan, and he found that setting a floor on pay had a negligible effect on job creation.

“Based on the overall evidence - with a special emphasis on the recent, high quality, evaluations of the NLW and other more ambitious policies internationally - my report concludes that there is room for exploring a higher NLW in the UK up to two-thirds of the median wage, ” Dube told Reuters. “It will also be important to empirically evaluate and recalibrate any such ambitious policy based on new evidence down the road.”

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Arindrajit Dube, professor of economics, has completed and presented a review of the international evidence on the impacts of minimum wages and the implications for future minimum wage policy to end low pay in the United Kingdom. 

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How Sweet It Isn’t: Diminished Taste Function Affects Cancer Patients’ Appetite and Food Intake

Subhead: UMass Amherst sensory expert seeks strategies to help patients eat wellContact Name: Alissa NoldenContact Phone: 413-577-0113Contact Email: anolden@umass.eduNovember 6, 2019

AMHERST, Mass. – The simple pleasure of tasting and savoring food is “an important part of anyone’s daily life,” says University of Massachusetts Amherst sensory scientist Alissa Nolden. 

But for many cancer patients, this simple pleasure can be lost at least temporarily due to the disease itself or the side effects from treatment, such as chemotherapy. “It can be very isolating, on top of going through treatment,” says Nolden, an assistant professor of food science.

Nolden set out to review the literature about the impact of cancer patients’ sense of taste and smell on their “food behavior,” defined as any behavior that affects patients’ overall nutritional health, such as their desire to eat, food preferences and consumption. Nolden’s goal is to develop a better understanding of changes in taste and how that affects cancer patients’ ability to enjoy food and meet optimum nutritional needs during and after treatment.

Her review evaluated 11 studies published between 1982 and 2018 “that psychophysically measured taste and smell function and assessed some aspect of food behavior.” Nolden found a reduced taste function, particularly for sweet flavors, among people with cancer. And that diminished taste was associated with a reduced appetite; avoidance of certain foods, including meat; and a lower intake of calories and protein.

The paper – with co-authors from Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, where Nolden previously worked; the University of Queensland in Australia; the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre in Melbourne, Australia; and the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health in Australia – was published in nutrients, an open-access journal of human nutrition.

“People undergoing cancer treatment often report changes in taste or smell, but few studies have attempted to measure directly how this affects eating behavior,” Nolden says. “Self-reported taste function can be challenging to fully understand patients’ experiences. In terms of developing new foods or beverages that better suit their taste function and possible strategies or treatments, we need to know exactly what they’re experiencing.”

The studies she reviewed measured patients’ ability to perceive sweet, using sucrose; sour, using citric acid; bitter, using urea or quinine; salty, using sodium chloride; and in three of the studies, umami, using monosodium glutamate.

“…we learned that changes in sweet and, to a lesser extent, bitter perception were more common than changes to salt or sour perception in cancer patients, and that these changes in sweet taste perception were often tied to differences in food behaviors,” the authors write.

Although a significant number of people with cancer report differences in smell, “there wasn’t any study that showed a relationship between food behavior and smell function,” Nolden notes.

The paper points out that cancer treatment affects taste and smell in different ways. Oral surgery may damage chemosensory nerves, whereas chemotherapy is likely to disrupt taste bud renewal.

Further research is needed to measure sensory changes and understand their various mechanisms, Nolden says. Additional data may help scientists one day develop treatments to preserve taste bud renewal during chemotherapy and to create oral supplements that will taste better to patients.

“We have this growing amount of evidence, but in terms of pulling it all together it can be challenging because of the differences in how researchers evaluated taste, the type of cancer and the type of treatment,” Nolden says.

Release Number: 121-20Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: How Sweet It Isn’t: Diminished Taste Function Affects Cancer Patients’ Appetite and Food IntakeNewsletter Headline: How Sweet It Isn’t: Diminished Taste Function Affects Cancer Patients’ Appetite and Food IntakeTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

AMHERST, Mass. – The simple pleasure of tasting and savoring food is “an important part of anyone’s daily life,” says UMass sensory scientist Alissa Nolden.

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