The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Research News

Ethnically Diverse Research Identifies More Genetic Markers of Type 2 Diabetes-related Traits

Subhead: UMass Amherst epidemiologist serves as a leading researcher in global collaborationContact Name: Patty ShillingtonContact Phone: 305-606-9909Contact Email: pshillington@umass.eduMay 31, 2021

AMHERST, Mass. – By ensuring ethnic diversity in a largescale genetic study, an international team of researchers, including a University of Massachusetts Amherst genetic epidemiologist, has identified more regions of the genome linked to type 2 diabetes-related traits.

The findings, published May 31 in Nature Genetics, broaden the understanding of the biological basis of type 2 diabetes and demonstrate that expanding research into different ancestries yields better results. Ultimately the goal is to improve patient care worldwide by identifying genetic targets to treat the chronic metabolic disorder. Type 2 diabetes affects and sometimes debilitates more than 460 million adults worldwide, according to the International Diabetes Federation. About 1.5 million deaths were directly caused by diabetes in 2019, the World Health Organization reports.

Cassandra Spracklen, assistant professor of biostatistics and epidemiology in the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, is part of the international MAGIC collaboration. That group of more than 400 global academics conducted the genome-wide association meta-analysis, led by the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

“Our findings matter because we’re moving toward using genetic scores to weigh up a person’s risk of diabetes,” says Spracklen, one of the paper’s lead authors.

Up to now, some 88% of genomic research of this type has been conducted in white European-ancestry populations. “We know that scores developed exclusively in individuals of one ancestry don’t work well in people of a different ancestry,” Spracklen adds.

The team analyzed data across a wide range of cohorts, encompassing more than 280,000 people without diabetes. Researchers looked at glycemic traits, which are used to diagnose diabetes and monitor sugar and insulin levels in the blood.

The researchers incorporated 30 percent of the overall cohort with individuals of East Asian, Hispanic, African-American, South Asian and sub-Saharan African origin. By doing so, they discovered 24 more loci – or regions of the genome – linked to glycemic traits than if they had conducted the research in Europeans alone.

“Type 2 diabetes is an increasingly huge global health challenge– with most of the biggest increases occurring outside of Europe,” says Inês Barroso, professor of diabetes at the University of Exeter, who led the research. “While there are a lot of shared genetic factors between different countries and cultures, our research tells us that they do differ in ways that we need to understand. It’s critical to ensuring we can deliver a precision diabetes medicine approach that optimizes treatment and care for everyone.”

First author Ji Chen, a data science expert at the University of Exeter, adds: “Beyond the moral arguments for ensuring research is reflective of global populations, our work demonstrates that this approach generates better results.”

Though some loci were not detected in all ancestries, the team found it is useful to capture information about the glycemic trait in individual ancestries.

“This is important as increasingly healthcare is moving toward a more precise approach,” Spracklen says. “Failing to account for genetic variation according to ancestry will impact our ability to accurately diagnose diabetes.”

Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Ethnically Diverse Research Identifies More Genetic Markers of Type 2 Diabetes-related Traits Newsletter Headline: Ethnically Diverse Research Identifies More Genetic Markers of Type 2 Diabetes-related Traits Tag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

By ensuring ethnic diversity in a largescale genetic study, an international team of researchers, including a University of Massachusetts Amherst genetic epidemiologist, has identified more regions of the genome linked to type 2 diabetes-related traits.

Related Tags: Images: 

UMass Amherst Astronomer Reveals Never-Before-Seen Detail of Violent Energy at the Center of our Galaxy

Subhead: New image made using NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory hints at previously unknown interstellar energy source at the Milky Way centerContact Name: Daegan MillerContact Email: drmiller@umass.eduMay 27, 2021

AMHERST, Mass. – New research by University of Massachusetts Amherst astronomer Daniel Wang reveals, with unprecedented clarity, details of violent phenomena in the center of our galaxy. The images, published recently in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, document an X-ray thread, G0.17-0.41, which hints at a previously unknown interstellar mechanism that may govern the energy flow and potentially the evolution of the Milky Way.

“The galaxy is like an ecosystem,” says Wang, a professor in UMass Amherst’s astronomy department, whose findings are a result of more than two decades of research. “We know the centers of galaxies are where the action is and play an enormous role in their evolution.” And yet, whatever has happened in the center of our own galaxy is hard to study, despite its relative proximity to Earth, because, as Wang explains, it is obscured by a dense fog of gas and dust. Researchers simply can’t see the center, even with an instrument as powerful as the famous Hubble Space Telescope. Wang, however, has used a different telescope, NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which “sees” X-rays, rather than the rays of visible light that we perceive with our own eyes. These X-rays are capable of penetrating the obscuring fog—and the results are stunning.

Wang’s findings, which were supported by NASA, give the clearest picture yet of a pair of X-ray-emitting plumes that are emerging from the region near the massive black hole lying at the center of our galaxy. Even more intriguing is the discovery of an X-ray thread called G0.17-0.41, located near the southern plume. “This thread reveals a new phenomenon,” says Wang. “This is evidence of an ongoing magnetic field reconnection event.” The thread, writes Wang, probably represents “only the tip of the reconnection iceberg.”

A magnetic field reconnection event is what happens when two opposing magnetic fields are forced together and combine with one another, releasing an enormous amount of energy. “It’s a violent process,” says Wang, and is known to be responsible for such well-known phenomena as solar flares, which produce space weather powerful enough to disrupt power grids and communications systems here on Earth. They also produce the spectacular Northern Lights. Scientists now think that magnetic reconnection also occurs in interstellar space and tends to take place at the outer boundaries of the expanding plumes driven out of our galaxy’s center.

“What is the total amount of energy outflow at the center of the galaxy? How is it produced and transported? And how does it regulate the galactic ecosystem?” These, says Wang, are the fundamental questions whose answers will help to unlock the history of our galaxy. Though much work remains to be done, Wang’s new map points the way. For more information, including additional images and video, visit the Chandra X-Ray Observatory’s Galactic Center website.

Thumbnail: Image layout: Medium images in right columnGateway Headline: UMass Amherst Astronomer Reveals Never-Before-Seen Detail of Violent Energy at the Center of our GalaxyNewsletter Headline: UMass Amherst Astronomer Reveals Never-Before-Seen Detail of Violent Energy at the Center of our GalaxyTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

New research by UMass astronomer Daniel Wang reveals, with unprecedented clarity, details of violent phenomena in the center of our galaxy. The images, published recently in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, document an X-ray thread, G0.17-0.41, which hints at a previously unknown interstellar mechanism that may govern the energy flow and potentially the evolution of the Milky Way.

Related Tags: Images: 

New UMass Amherst Center for Employment Equity Report Explores Pregnancy Discrimination Charges in U.S Workplaces

Subhead: Analysis of over 26,000 EEOC and state agency filings between 2012-16 finds discriminating employers often fire employees the same day they learn she is pregnantContact Name: Jared SharpeContact Email: jsharpe@umass.edu May 26, 2021

AMHERST, Mass. – Following an analysis of all 26,656 pregnancy discrimination charges filed with the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state Fair Employment Practices Agencies (FEPAs) between 2012 and 2016, researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Employment Equity (CEE) have released the most comprehensive review of the issue of pregnancy discrimination in American history.

In their new report, “Pregnancy Discrimination at Work: An Analysis of Pregnancy Discrimination Charges,” published online on the CEE website, Carly McCann and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey detail their many findings about the positions in which discriminated women often find themselves, the industries and management dynamics most frequently responsible for discriminatory actions, and what – if any – compensation women receive when filing charges against such actions.

“Overall, our report reinforces that pregnancy discrimination remains a persistent problem for many women in their workplaces,” the researchers write. “Pregnancy discrimination is partially rooted in business practices and enduring cultural beliefs regarding women, and particularly pregnant women. Though there are legal structures in place intended to protect pregnant workers, it is important to consider whether these policies do enough.”

The researchers found that pregnancy discrimination is a unique form of workplace sex discrimination due to its speed. When discriminating employers learn that an employee is pregnant, she is often fired on the same day.

As with other forms of employer discrimination, the majority of women who experience workplace pregnancy discrimination do not file a formal discrimination charge. While approximately 5,300 pregnancy discrimination charges are filed each year, the researchers say that number represents only about 2% of overall pregnancy discrimination incidents.

Often, the accommodations sought by and withheld from pregnant women are minor; as survey data from the non-profit Childbird Connection shows, 71% of women who reported needing an accommodation simply required more frequent breaks, such as extra bathroom breaks. However, based on the researchers’ investigations, an estimated 250,000 women are denied such accommodations related to their pregnancies each year, which they say is likely a conservative estimate given that around 36% of women who reported needing an accommodation did not ask it from their employer.

Twenty-three percent of pregnancy discrimination charges produce some monetary benefit for the charging party, and 11% result in a required workplace-level change. Nearly 9-out-of-10 (89%) pregnancy charges do not lead to any required change in employer behavior or managerial practices. Only 8% of pregnancy discrimination charges lead to both a monetary benefit for the charging party and some negotiated change in workplace managerial practices.

Overall, charging parties who received monetary compensation for pregnancy charges were awarded $17,976 on average, with a median award of only $8,000.

The researchers found that the majority of pregnancy discrimination charges are filed in only a few industries – health care, retail, and accommodation and food services – these are all industries with high levels of female employment and many low wage employees. After accounting for the gender composition of industries, the pregnancy discrimination rate is, however, higher in male dominated industries such as transportation and warehousing, wholesale trade, utilities and manufacturing. Male dominated industries are less likely to employ a pregnant woman, but more likely to fire her when her pregnancy becomes known, the researchers conclude.

Workplaces also vary in their gender composition and their risk of producing pregnancy discrimination. The researchers found that establishments charged with pregnancy discrimination tend to have a smaller proportion of managers who are female.

“Generally, more male managers is associated with more pregnancy discrimination,” they write. “Thus, it appears that more women in management may be protective against pregnancy discrimination.”

“Existing federal law—the Pregnancy Discrimination Act—does not provide adequate coverage for pregnant workers and leaves pregnant workers vulnerable at work,” the researchers conclude. By contrast, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), passed in 30 states, but not yet at the federal level, could more directly address pregnancy discrimination. “PWFA laws provide important benefits to pregnant workers without significant costs for workers or employers. Passing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) is an important first step in closing the legal coverage gap between the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the 2008 Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act for pregnant workers and will expand the legal coverage available to women who experience pregnancy discrimination.”

The full report, interactive data visualizations and more information about the Center for Employment Equity, can be found here.

Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: New UMass Amherst Center for Employment Equity Report Explores Pregnancy Discrimination Charges in U.S WorkplacesNewsletter Headline: New UMass Amherst Center for Employment Equity Report Explores Pregnancy Discrimination Charges in U.S WorkplacesTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

Following an analysis of all 26,656 pregnancy discrimination charges filed with the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state Fair Employment Practices Agencies (FEPAs) between 2012 and 2016, researchers from the UMass Center for Employment Equity (CEE) have released the most comprehensive review of the issue of pregnancy discrimination in American history.

Related Tags: Images: 

New Study Finds Infants of Fathers Incarcerated During Gestation Were Associated with 58% to Over 200% Higher Odds of Adverse Outcomes Than Unexposed Births

Subhead: Births exposed to paternal jail incarceration during gestation were more likely to be born late preterm, low birthweight and require NICU admissionContact Name: Jared SharpeContact Email: jsharpe@umass.eduMay 24, 2021

AMHERST, Mass. – A new study of all live births and jail incarcerations in New York City from 2010-2016 has found that births exposed to paternal jail incarceration during gestation were associated with 58% to over 200% higher odds of adverse outcomes than unexposed births, including increased odds of late preterm birth, low birthweight, small for gestational age (SGA), and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) admission.

A team of researchers, including University of Massachusetts Amherst sociologist Youngmin Yi, used linked administrative records to examine associations between paternal jail incarceration and infant birth outcomes. They found a two-percentage point increase in the likelihoods of late preterm and low birth weight birth from a baseline prevalence of 6%, a one-percentage point increase in the likelihood of NICU admission from a baseline prevalence of 9%, and a less-than-one-percentage point increase in the likelihoods of SGA birth and a low Apgar (appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration) score off a baseline prevalence of 2% and 1%, respectively. The results of the study were published online by Maternal and Child Health Journal.

“The main takeaway from our analyses is that paternal incarceration, even at lower levels (i.e. jail) and with varying intensities and across racial/ethnic groups, appears to be strongly associated with increased likelihoods of birth outcomes and conditions that impact health in infancy and over the life course,” says Yi, an assistant professor of sociology at UMass Amherst and lead author of the new paper. “For example, even after accounting for an array of parental and contextual characteristics, we find that births to fathers incarcerated in jail during pregnancy or at birth have 39% greater odds of being low birthweight and 35% greater odds of being small for their gestational age.”

The estimated associations for paternal incarceration are 64-92% the magnitude of estimated associations for maternal smoking, according to the researchers, which they say suggests “that paternal incarceration is a strong, though more modest, risk factor for adverse infant health.”

“There is a growing evidence base of the broad and multifaceted consequences of our society’s response to crime on people who are incarcerated and those linked to them,” Yi says. “However, it has been limited by the challenges of bringing together data on both criminal legal system contact and health, particularly in investigations of wellbeing in early life. This cross-sector and interdisciplinary collaboration allowed us to explore the relationship between incarceration and health using new data on entire cohorts of births in New York City.”

Joining Yi in the study were Joseph Kennedy, Cynthia Chazotte, Mary Huynh and Yang Jiang of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and principal investigator Christopher Wildeman, professor of sociology at Duke University and the ROCKWOOL Foundation Research Unit.

Yi’s team linked administrative data from the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) and the New York City Bureau of Vital Statistics to create a child-level data set of all children born in NYC from January 1, 2010 through December 31, 2016. Of the 855,632 infants born between 2010-16, 3.8% (32,634) were linked to at least one parental jail record and 0.9%, or 7,299, were linked to at least one maternal or paternal jail record during pregnancy or at the time of birth. The analytic sample was restricted using five criteria, omitting births whose full gestational periods were not observed in the data, that were multiple births, without named birth fathers on the birth certificate, missing information for any outcome or covariate measures in the models or were exposed to maternal incarceration during gestation. The final analytic sample consisted of 627,118 births, or 73% of live births between 2010 and 2016 in NYC.

A newborn was identified as having been exposed to paternal incarceration if the father named on their birth record was linked to an NYC jail spell between 2010 and 2016 in the DOC records. In the analytic sample, fathers of 0.8% – or 5,032 – of births were incarcerated in an NYC jail at some point while the child was in utero.

The researchers explain in the paper that other studies have “focused exclusively on prisons or have been unable to differentiate between prison and jail incarceration, with little study of the consequences of paternal jail incarceration, although jail incarceration is far more common than imprisonment and tends to be shorter-term, with uniquely uncertain and volatile conditions of confinement that includes pretrial detention for many.” They note that “these distinctions between jail and prison incarceration mean that infant health may be differently associated with parental jail incarceration than parental imprisonment.”

Yi says, “Our findings further demonstrate the need to treat incarceration, both one’s own and that of others, as an important risk factor for health and health inequality in early life and over the life course.”

The complete article, “Paternal Jail Incarceration and Birth Outcomes: Evidence from New York City, 2010–2016,” is available from Maternal and Child Health Journal.

Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline:  New Study Finds Infants of Fathers Incarcerated During Gestation Were Associated with 58% to Over 200% Higher Odds of Adverse Outcomes Than Unexposed BirthsNewsletter Headline:  New Study Finds Infants of Fathers Incarcerated During Gestation Were Associated with 58% to Over 200% Higher Odds of Adverse Outcomes Than Unexposed BirthsTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

A new study of all live births and jail incarcerations in New York City from 2010-2016 has found that births exposed to paternal jail incarceration during gestation were associated with 58% to over 200% higher odds of adverse outcomes than unexposed births, including increased odds of late preterm birth, low birthweight, small for gestational age (SGA), and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) admission.

Related Tags: Images: 

New Recreational Fishing Technologies May Pose Risks to Fisheries, According to Study Co-Authored by UMass Amherst Researcher

Subhead: Scientists need to work closely with resource management agencies to assess impactsContact Name: Daegan MillerContact Email: drmiller@umass.eduMay 24, 2021

AMHERST, Mass. – New developments in recreational fishing technology—from the use of aerial drones and social media scouting reports to advances in hook design—are creating challenges for fisheries management and effective policy making, according to a new study co-authored by University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher Andy Danylchuk.

With the opening of the spring fishing season, millions of recreational fishing aficionados across North America are dusting off their tackleboxes, fitting together their rods, and heading to the bait and tackle shop to purchase the latest in fish-catching gear. But what impact does all that new technology have on the fish themselves?

“There are still so many unknowns,” says Andy Danylchuk, professor of fish conservation in the UMass Amherst department of environmental conservation, and co-author of a new paper that investigates the relationship between fishing technology and fish ecosystems. “There’s more attention paid to products we use with our pets than to what we use to try to catch fish in our streams, lakes and oceans.”

Fishing technology has come a long way since the days of hook and worm. Today one can buy battery-powered, artificial lures that wriggle like minnows and are slathered in fish-attracting scent. Underwater cameras and fish finders help anglers not only seek out their targets but also observe as fish either approach or reject the bait. Aerial drones scan for fish and even deliver lures to them. Social media helps pinpoint, in real time, what fish are biting where. Even the seemingly simple hook has been completely redesigned to better reel in the big one. And it’s not as if recreational fishing in streams, lakes, and in the ocean is a niche-activity—it is the second most popular leisure activity in North America, falling just behind gardening.

“From improvements in finding and catching fish, to emulating their natural prey and accessing previously inaccessible waters, to anglers sharing their exploits with others, technology is completely changing all aspects of recreational fishing,” says Steven Cooke, professor of fish ecology in Carleton University’s department of biology and the study’s lead author.

Without knowing what impact all this advanced technology has on the fish and their aquatic ecosystems, it has become difficult for fisheries managers to monitor the health of the fishery, and to ensure that the fishing experience is a positive one. “Recreational anglers have always been a strong voice for conservation,” says Danylchuk. “If something changes and they are no longer catching fish, they’re one of the first stakeholder groups to raise the alarm about possible environmental harms.” It turns out that what’s good for the fishing community is also good for the fish: more, and healthier fish means a more enjoyable, successful fishing experience.

What this means for the research and management community is that more attention needs to be paid to the effects of high-tech fishing equipment. “An important message here is that resource management agencies need to share their experiences and that scientists should more intensively study the impact of innovations in recreational fishing,” write the study’s authors. “If science can’t keep up in terms of evaluating the impacts of technological innovation to help inform management and policy,” says Danylchuk, “it can be really detrimental to the fish, which may ultimately mean fewer fish, and a worse fishing experience for anglers.”

Thumbnail: Image layout: Medium images in right columnGateway Headline: New Recreational Fishing Technologies May Pose Risks to Fisheries, According to Study Co-Authored by UMass Amherst ResearcherNewsletter Headline: New Recreational Fishing Technologies May Pose Risks to Fisheries, According to Study Co-Authored by UMass Amherst ResearcherTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

New developments in recreational fishing technology—from the use of aerial drones and social media scouting reports to advances in hook design—are creating challenges for fisheries management and effective policy making, according to a new study co-authored by UMass researcher Andy Danylchuk.

Related Tags: Images: 

Nine UMass Amherst Students Honored for Extraordinary Achievements

May 20, 2021

Nine outstanding undergraduates have received the fall 2020 Rising Researcher awards. The Rising Researcher program celebrates students who excel in research, scholarship or creative activity.

This year, persistent UMass Amherst undergraduates adapted to COVID-19 restrictions as they engaged in substantial research, exercised their creativity and elevated campus and the community. They found ways to thrive—they worked on campus when permitted and capitalized on remote research, learning, and volunteer opportunities

UMass honors these nine students for challenging their intellect, contributing to research, and exercising their exceptional creativity.

The fall 2021 Rising Researchers were:

  • Ali Abdel-Maksoud ’21, electrical engineering
  • Samantha Hano ’22, public health sciences and psychology, Commonwealth Honors College
  • Claire Healy ’21, political science, Commonwealth Honors College
  • Isabel Levin ’22, sociology, Commonwealth Honors College
  • Kathleen Loonie ’21, pre-veterinary sciences, Commonwealth Honors College
  • Eugenia Roberts ’21, biochemistry and molecular biology, Commonwealth Honors College
  • Nicholas Sbalbi ’22, chemical engineering, Commonwealth Honors College
  • Alan Simon ’21, interdisciplinary studies, University Without Walls
  • Solomon Siskind ’21, sport management and sociology

Read more about the 2021 Rising Researchers.

Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Nine UMass Amherst Students Honored for Extraordinary AchievementsNewsletter Headline: Nine UMass Amherst Students Honored for Extraordinary AchievementsTag Review: Tags have been reviewedNewsletter Teaser: 

Nine outstanding undergraduates have received the fall 2020 Rising Researcher awards. The Rising Researcher program celebrates students who excel in research, scholarship or creative activity.

Related Tags: Images: Gateway Thumbnail: 

Institute of Diversity Sciences Awards 2021 Grants

May 17, 2021

UMass Amherst’s Institute of Diversity Sciences (IDS) has just announced the winners of this year’s grant competition. The awards, of up to $12,000 each, have gone to three teams. One team will investigate the social effects of flooding, another team will explore digital citizenship and the third looks at the ethnic and racial disparities in nursing-home care for those with Alzheimer’s disease. The goal of the grants is to advance equity through multidisciplinary and socially-impactful STEM research and to provide mentored research experience for students.

Christian Guzman and Cielo Sharkus (both from civil and environmental engineering) along with Seda Salap-Ayça, Christine Hatch and Eve Vogel (geosciences) will investigate who is most vulnerable to flooding and post-flood hazards. “A flood’s consequences on a community,” the team writes, “depends not only on its geography, but on socio- economic status, cultural dynamics, and other features of community demographics.” The team plans to produce maps from US census data showing who is vulnerable to flooding, and then use those maps to quantitatively compare how residents living in the same municipality face different risks, depending on demographic differences. They will focus their efforts on Massachusetts.

Do new digital technologies increase public participation and equity in civic decision making? This is the question that Narges Mahyar, Ali Sarvghad (College of Information and Computer Sciences), Jane E. Fountain (political science), and Ethan Zuckerman (School of Public Policy) will pursue in their project. The team has developed two tools – a real-time community-sourcing tool called CommunityClick that allows for digital participation during community meetings, and a social network dedicated to town-specific issues – which they will deploy in Amherst and Holyoke. The team will analyze how these tools affect community participation, and whether or not they can help nurture more inclusive local government.

The final grant-winning team will examine why there is such an enormous disparity among those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia (ADRD) who use palliative care before their deaths. While 50% of white patients make use of palliative care, only 37% of those identifying as Hispanic and 34% of Black patients receive such end-of-life care. Ning Zhang (public health and health sciences) and Joohyun Chung (nursing) will quantify racial and ethnic disparities among a broad set of nursing home residents in Massachusetts with ADRD who are receiving palliative care. The team will also conduct and analyze interviews with healthcare providers at the largest hospice and palliative care provider in Massachusetts to gain their perspectives on racial and ethnic disparities in palliative care for nursing home residents with ADRD.

Director of IDS, Professor Nilanjana Buju Dasgupta says, “we are excited to see such high impact and wide-ranging multidisciplinary research projects to advance equity: Two that uncover inequalities – in health and as a result of climate change – and one that designs an innovative solution to get more voices around the table for decision-making in local government.”

During the academic year, IDS also hosts three monthly research-group seminars: on equity in learning and work, health and climate change, respectively. To join a research group or sign up for the IDS biannual E-Newsletter, email ids@umass.edu. IDS’s 2022 call for proposals will be made in the fall and due March 1, 2022. See the IDS website for more information.

Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Institute of Diversity Sciences Awards 2021 GrantsNewsletter Headline: Institute of Diversity Sciences Awards 2021 GrantsTag Review: Tags have been reviewedNewsletter Teaser: 

UMass Amherst’s Institute of Diversity Sciences has just announced the winners of this year’s grant competition. The awards, of up to $12,000 each, have gone to three teams.

Related Tags: Images: Gateway Thumbnail: 

Songbird Neurons for Advanced Cognition Mirror the Physiology of Mammalian Counterparts

Subhead: UMass Amherst research advances understanding of brain circuitsContact Name: Patty ShillingtonContact Phone: 305-606-9909Contact Email: pshillington@umass.eduMay 13, 2021

AMHERST, Mass. – University of Massachusetts Amherst neuroscientists examining genetically identified neurons in a songbird’s forebrain discovered a remarkable landscape of physiology, auditory coding and network roles that mirrored those in the brains of mammals.

The research, published May 13 in Current Biology, advances insight into the fundamental operation of complex brain circuits. It suggests that ancient cell types in the pallium – the outer regions of the brain that include cortex – most likely retained features over millions of years that are the building blocks for advanced cognition in birds and mammals.

“We as neuroscientists are catching on that birds can do sophisticated things and they have sophisticated circuits to do those things,” says behavioral neuroscientist Luke Remage-Healey, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences and senior author of the paper.

For the first time, the team of neuroscientists, including lead author Jeremy Spool, who worked as a National Institutes of Health (NIH) postdoctoral fellow in Remage-Healey’s lab, used viral optogenetics to define the molecular identities of excitatory and inhibitory cell types in zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata)and match them to their physiological properties.

“In the songbird community, we’ve had a hunch for a long time that when we record the electrical signatures of these two cell types, we say – ‘that’s a putative excitatory neuron, that’s a putative inhibitory neuron.’ Now we know that these features are grounded in molecular truth,” Remage-Healey says. “Without being able to pinpoint the cell types with these viruses, we wouldn’t be able to learn how the cell and network features bear resemblance to those in mammals, because the brain architectures are so different.”

The research team used viruses from a collection curated by co-author Yoko Yazaki-Sugiyama at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan to conduct viral optogenetic experiments in the brain. With optogenetics, the team used flashes of light to manipulate one cell type independent of the other. The team targeted excitatory vs. inhibitory neurons (using CaMKIIα and GAD1 promoters, respectively) in the zebra finch auditory pallium to test predictions based on the mammalian pallium.

“There’s so much work out there on the physiology of these different cell types in the mammalian cortex that we were able to line up a series of predictions about what features birds may or may not have,” Spool says.

The CaMKIIα and GAD1 populations in the songbird were distinct “in exactly the proportions you would expect from the mammalian brain,” Spool says. With the cell type populations isolated, the researchers then examined systematically whether each population would correspond to the physiology of their mammalian counterparts.

“As we kept moving forward, again and again these cell populations were acting as if they were essentially from the mammalian cortex in a lot of physiological ways,” Spool says.

Remage-Healey adds, “The correspondence between the cortex in mammals and what we’re pulling out with molecularly identified cell types in birds is pretty striking.”

In both birds and mammals, these neurons are thought to support advanced cognitive functions, such as memory, individual recognition and associative learning, Spool says.

Remage-Healey says the research, supported by NIH grants, helps delineate“the basic nuts and bolts ofhow the brain operates.” Knowing the nuts and bolts builds foundations necessary to develop breakthroughs that could lead to neurological interventions for brain disorders.

“This can help us figure out what brain diversity is out there by unpacking these circuits and the ways they can go awry,” Remage-Healey says.

Thumbnail: Image layout: Medium images in right columnGateway Headline:  Songbird Neurons for Advanced Cognition Mirror the Physiology of Mammalian CounterpartsNewsletter Headline:  Songbird Neurons for Advanced Cognition Mirror the Physiology of Mammalian CounterpartsTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

UMass neuroscientists examining genetically identified neurons in a songbird’s forebrain discovered a remarkable landscape of physiology, auditory coding and network roles that mirrored those in the brains of mammals.

Related Tags: Images: 

Novel Study from UMass Amherst Researchers Examines Urban Tree Planting Initiatives Across the United States

Subhead: Lack of institutionalization raises questions about long-term viabilityContact Name: Jared SharpeContact Email: jsharpe@umass.eduMay 10, 2021

AMHERST, Mass. – A first-of-its-kind nationwide survey of urban tree planting initiatives (TPIs) across municipal scales finds potential gaps in stewardship investments and institutionalization that raise questions about the programs’ long-term viability. In a study recently published online by the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, researchers led by Theodore Eisenman of the University of Massachusetts Amherst examined the traits that are typical of urban TPIs in the United States.

The new article, which follows an exponential bloom of interest in TPIs over the past decade, presents findings from a survey of 41 TPIs, reporting on six themes: background, dates and goals, public awareness, funding and governance, planting and stewardship. The survey’s respondents identified over 115 traits that distinguish TPIs from typical urban tree planting activity, suggesting that TPIs are a discrete form of urban forestry and urban greening.

“Over two-thirds of TPIs have funding separate from traditional urban forestry, and nearly half of TPIs funds are sourced outside of municipal budgets,” report Eisenman and his colleagues. “This suggests that TPIs are successful at raising money to enhance urban tree planting, but lack of institutionalization and traditional infrastructure financing raises questions about long-term viability.”

Eisenman, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at UMass Amherst, was joined in the study by former student Tamsin Flanders and Richard Harper, extension associate professor of environmental conservation at UMass Amherst, as well as Richard Hauer at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Katherine Lieberknecht of the University of Texas at Austin.

They found that TPIs are good at mobilizing political and financial resources for program launch, tree purchasing and planting, but their findings suggest underinvestment in stewardship activities such as watering and long-term maintenance, and a need for greater investment in the social infrastructure that undergirds green infrastructure.

“A range of civil society actors are engaged in public awareness and project launch, but only three stakeholder groups (forestry/parks departments and private citizens) and two stakeholders (forestry and parks departments) are very or moderately engaged in stewardship activities such as watering and technical tree maintenance, respectively,” they write. “These distinctions are also reflected in the allocation of funds: some two-thirds of TPI financing is dedicated to upfront activities such tree purchasing (49%) and planting (18%), while stewardship activities such as watering and maintenance only account for 5% and 7%, respectively.”

In addition to providing a baseline of data for TPIs at this moment in time, the authors lay out an agenda for further research and practice. This includes more community participation in the up-front goal setting process of TPIs, increased research to determine if TPIs are meeting their intended goals and greater scholarly attention to mid- and small-sized municipalities, which are where most people live.

The complete article, “Traits of a bloom: a nationwide survey of U.S. urban tree planting initiatives (TPIs),” is available for free online via Eisenman’s Scholarworks page.

Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Novel Study from UMass Amherst Researchers Examines Urban Tree Planting Initiatives Across the United StatesNewsletter Headline: Novel Study from UMass Amherst Researchers Examines Urban Tree Planting Initiatives Across the United StatesTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

 A first-of-its-kind nationwide survey of urban tree planting initiatives (TPIs) across municipal scales finds potential gaps in stewardship investments and institutionalization that raise questions about the programs’ long-term viability. In a study recently published online by the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, researchers led by Theodore Eisenman at UMass examined the traits that are typical of urban TPIs in the United States.

Related Tags: Images: 

Research Breakthrough in the Fight Against Cancer

Subhead: Team of UMass Amherst researchers unveils the latest advance in targeted delivery of therapeutic proteinsContact Name: Daegan MillerContact Email: drmiller@umass.eduMay 6, 2021

AMHERST, Mass. – A team of researchers at the Center for Bioactive Delivery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences has engineered a nanoparticle that has the potential to revolutionize disease treatment, including for cancer. This new research, which appears today in Angewandte Chemie, combines two different approaches to more precisely and effectively deliver treatment to the specific cells affected by cancer.

Two of the most promising new treatments involve delivery of cancer-fighting drugs via biologics or antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs). Each has its own advantages and limitations. Biologics, such as protein-based drugs, can directly substitute for a malfunctioning protein in cells. As a result, they have less serious side effects than those associated with traditional chemotherapy. But, because of their large size, they are unable to get into specific cells. ADCs, on the other hand, are able to target specific malignant cells with microdoses of therapeutic drugs, but the antibodies can only carry a limited drug cargo. Since the drugs are more toxic than biologics, increasing the dose of ADCs increases the risk of harmful side effects.

“What our team has done,” explains Khushboo Singh, a graduate student in the chemistry department and one of the study’s lead authors, “is to combine the advantages of biologics and ADCs and address their weaknesses. It is a new platform for cancer therapy.”

The team’s approach depends on a nanoparticle the team engineered called a “protein-antibody conjugate,” or PAC. “Imagine that the antibodies in PACs are the address on an envelope,” adds Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan, distinguished professor in chemistry and interim head of biomedical engineering at UMass, “and that the cancer-fighting protein is the contents of that envelope. The PAC allows us to deliver the envelope with its protected treatment to the correct address. So, safer drugs are delivered to the right cell—the result would be a treatment with fewer side effects”

At the heart of the PAC is a “polymer brush,” a nanoparticle that the team engineered. This brush does two things. First, it is studded with antibodies that are capable of locating individual cancerous cells. Next, the brush has to both hold a sizable cargo of biologics but also keep that dose intact. The team found that their nanoparticle could carry four times the therapeutic dose of a typical ADC, and, through a variety of techniques, could be increased many times over.

While the UMass team’s research represents a major milestone in cancer research, their findings are also widely applicable, and “open many new opportunities in biomedicine, extending far beyond cancer to all sorts of genetic diseases, or really any abnormality that occurs inside a human cell,” says Bin Liu, one of the papers lead authors and a graduate student in the UMass chemistry department at the time of the research.

“Among the implications,” says Thayumanavan, “perhaps the most exciting part is that this opens the door to develop cures for certain cancers that have been long considered undruggable or incurable” The team’s research is currently being tested in models beyond a petri-dish.

Thumbnail: Image layout: Medium images in right columnGateway Headline: Research Breakthrough in the Fight Against CancerNewsletter Headline: Research Breakthrough in the Fight Against CancerTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

A team of researchers at the Center for Bioactive Delivery at the UMass Institute for Applied Life Sciences has engineered a nanoparticle that has the potential to revolutionize disease treatment, including for cancer. This new research, which appears today in Angewandte Chemie, combines two different approaches to more precisely and effectively deliver treatment to the specific cells affected by cancer.

Related Tags: Images: 

New Modeling of the Antarctic Ice Sheet Shows Rapid and Unstoppable Sea Level Rise if Paris Agreement Targets Overshot

Subhead: Study led by UMass Amherst’s Rob DeConto is the first to use physics-based model of ice sheet to test Paris Agreement targets Contact Name: Daegan MillerContact Email: drmiller@umass.eduMay 5, 2021

AMHERST, Mass. – The world is currently on track to exceed three degrees Celsius of global warming, and new research led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Rob DeConto, co-director of the School of Earth & Sustainability, shows that such a scenario would drastically accelerate the pace of sea-level rise by 2100. If the rate of global warming continues on its current trajectory, we will reach a tipping point by 2060, past which these consequences would be “irreversible on multi-century timescales.”

The new paper, published today in Nature, models the impact of several different warming scenarios on the Antarctic Ice Sheet, including the Paris Agreement target of two degrees Celsius of warming, an aspirational 1.5 degree scenario, and our current course which, if not altered, will yield three or more degrees of warming. If the more optimistic 1.5 and 2 degree Paris Agreement temperature targets are achieved, the Antarctic Ice Sheet would contribute between 6 and 11 centimeters of sea level rise by 2100. But if the current course toward 3 degrees is maintained, the model points to a major jump in melting. Unless ambitious action to rein in warming begins by 2060, no human intervention, including geoengineering, would be able to stop 17 to 21 centimeters of sea-level rise from Antarctic ice melt alone by 2100. The implications of exceeding Paris Agreement warming targets become even more stark on longer timescales. Antarctica contributes about 1 meter of sea level rise by 2300 if warming is limited to 2 degrees or less, but reaches globally catastrophic levels of 10 meters or more under a more extreme warming scenario with no mitigation of greenhouse-gas emissions.

DeConto and colleagues’ research shows the very architecture of the Antarctic Ice Sheet itself plays a key role in ice loss. Ice flows slowly downhill, and the Antarctic Ice Sheet naturally creeps into the ocean, where it begins to melt. What keeps that ocean-bound ice flowing slowly is a ring of buttressing ice shelves, which float in the ocean but hold back the upstream glacial ice by scraping on shallow sea-floor features. Those buttressing ice shelves act both as dams that keep the sheet from sliding rapidly into the ocean, and as supports that keep the edges of the ice sheet from collapsing.

But as warming increases, the ice shelves thin and become more fragile. Meltwater on their surfaces can deepen crevasses and cause them to disintegrate entirely. This not only lets the ice sheet flow toward the warming ocean more quickly, it allows the exposed edges of the ice sheet to break off or “calve” into the ocean, adding to sea level rises. These processes of melting and ice shelf loss, followed by faster glacial flow and rapid calving are seen on Greenland today, but they haven’t become widespread on the colder Antarctic ice sheet — at least not yet. DeConto points out that “if the world continues to warm, the huge glaciers on Antarctica might begin behaving like their smaller counterparts on Greenland, which would be disastrous in terms of sea level rise.” The authors of the study, which was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation and the NASA Sea Level Change Science Team, write that missing Paris Agreement temperature targets and allowing extensive loss of the buttressing ice shelves “represents a possible tipping point in Antarctica’s future.”

Thumbnail: Image layout: Medium images in right columnGateway Headline: New Modeling of the Antarctic Ice Sheet Shows Rapid and Unstoppable Sea Level Rise if Paris Agreement Targets OvershotNewsletter Headline: New Modeling of the Antarctic Ice Sheet Shows Rapid and Unstoppable Sea Level Rise if Paris Agreement Targets OvershotTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

The world is currently on track to exceed three degrees Celsius of global warming, and new research led by UMass Amherst’s Rob DeConto, co-director of the School of Earth & Sustainability, shows that such a scenario would drastically accelerate the pace of sea-level rise by 2100. If the rate of global warming continues on its current trajectory, we will reach a tipping point by 2060, past which these consequences would be “irreversible on multi-century timescales.”

Related Tags: Images: 

Can Cancer Cells Help Cure Paralysis and Reverse Brain Damage?

Subhead: UMass Amherst biomedical engineer awarded NIH Trailblazer grant to advance promising researchContact Name: Patty ShillingtonContact Phone: 305-606-9909Contact Email: pshillington@umass.eduMay 4, 2021

AMHERST, Mass. – Imagine harnessing the proliferating power of cancer cells to treat spinal cord injuries and restore function following brain damage. It’s an idea that University of Massachusetts Amherst biomedical engineer Chase Cornelison has been exploring in recent years.

Cornelison’s research has been deemed so promising that he has earned a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Trailblazer Award. The three-year, $400,000 grant for new and early-stage investigators supports research of high interest to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Engineering and for which no or minimal preliminary data exists.

Spinal cord and brain injuries are so devastating, often causing lifelong paralysis and disability, because unlike cells in other organs, neural cells do not recover or regenerate.

“If you get a neural injury, that injury doesn’t heal over time,” says Cornelison, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering. “One of the major reasons is because the tissue and the cells in the tissue stay inflammatory forever. We’re looking at remodeling the cells in that tissue and turning them toward pro-growth instead of toward inflammation.”

In his lab at the UMass Institute for Applied Life Sciences, Cornelison is merging two areas of his expertise. As a graduate student, he developed materials from nervous tissue for spinal cord regeneration. Then as a post-doc, he very intentionally focused on brain cancer.

“I was interested in learning new ways to modulate or modify the immune response,” he says. “And I realized one of the best ways was cancer. That’s why I gravitated toward cancer as a post-doc.”

Retraining neural cells to suppress inflammation and promote repair could potentially reverse the damage caused by spinal cord and brain injuries and diseases, including paralysis, Cornelison theorizes. To develop new therapeutic strategies, he studies the microenvironment where cancer cells meet and train other cells to aid tumor growth.

“That’s why tumors keep growing,” he explains. “We’re looking at how the cancer cells are interacting with the neural cells and trying to identify some of the signals passed to those cells so we can reengineer those signals as implantable material to try to regrow an injured spinal cord or injured brain tissue.”

Cornelison’s aim is to build three-dimensional “scaffolds” from elements of cancer that his team can engineer as matrices. Two specific elements are the molecules that the tumors secrete into the environment and the sugars on the cancer cell surface, both of which may be involved in changing the behavior of other, non-cancer cells.

“We are not implanting a tumor into the nervous tissue so there is not any risk of promoting tumor growth,” Cornelison says. “We are isolating only specific factors that would be made by the tumor and we are taking them out of the context of cancer and basically purifying them. We’re using those purified molecules, which are no longer associated with the cancer.”

Thumbnail: Image layout: Medium images in right columnGateway Headline: Can Cancer Cells Help Cure Paralysis and Reverse Brain Damage?Newsletter Headline: Can Cancer Cells Help Cure Paralysis and Reverse Brain Damage?Tag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

Imagine harnessing the proliferating power of cancer cells to treat spinal cord injuries and restore function following brain damage. It’s an idea that UMass biomedical engineer Chase Cornelison has been exploring in recent years.

Related Tags: Images: 

Unraveling the Secrets of Neutron Stars

April 29, 2021

Neutron stars, the collapsed cores of dying massive stars, are one of the universe’s mysteries. With the exception of black holes, neutron stars are the smallest and densest things in existence. Thus, any insight into the nature of neutron stars helps illuminate the raw mechanics of the universe, but like black holes, they are difficult to observe directly.

However, new research recently published in “Physical Review Letters,” to which Krishna Kumar, Gluckstern Professor of Physics, and his research group contributed, found some of the stars’ secrets here on earth – in a lump of lead.

The international research team, known as PREx, which consists of over 90 scientists from 30 institutions, conducted their experiments at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia. The team noted that lead is a neutron-rich material – it has 126 neutrons to its 82 protons. These neutrons surround the protons, forming a “skin” that “bulges out beyond the protons in a heavy nucleus,” like lead’s, Kumar says. The question is why: why does the neutron skin bulge? By how much? And why does it matter?

The PREx team is the first to observe this neutron skin using electron-scattering techniques, which involved an enormous machine called the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF). The facility shot a beam of electrons, whose spin was alternated 240 times per second, along a mile-long accelerator into a thin sheet of cryogenically cooled lead. “On average over the entire run, we knew where the right- and left-hand beams were, relative to each other, within a width of 10 atoms,” says Kumar, achieving the “sharpness” required to differentiate between the volumes occupied by neutrons compared to protons in the lead nucleus.

What they discovered is that the neutron skin is about .28 millionths of a nanometer thick – nearly twice as thick as previously theorized. While only a fraction of a millionth of a nanometer might not seem like much at all, the implications are already sending waves through the physics world, in part because they relate to earlier astrophysical observations begun in 2017, when the global astronomy community trained dozens of telescopes on a pair of neutron stars that had collapsed into one another. This cataclysmic event, first discovered by the gravitational wave detector known as LIGO, was direct evidence that neutron star mergers are a significant source for the synthesis of heavy elements in the universe. LIGO’s data provided new information on the nuclear equation of state.

Milliseconds before the final merger, the two neutron stars were so close together that they deformed into “teardrops.” What Kumar calls the “tidal deformability” of the neutron stars is affected by dense matter characteristics similar to the neutron skin in the nucleus of lead – a linkage made possible by the nuclear equation of state. “The same nuclear equation of state that governs the neutron skin of the lead nucleus impacts the bulk properties of neutron stars,” Kumar says.

Though the PREx team only released its research results this week, the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, is already planning follow-up experiments.

Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Unraveling the Secrets of Neutron StarsNewsletter Headline: Unraveling the Secrets of Neutron StarsTag Review: Tags have been reviewedNewsletter Teaser: 

New research recently published in “Physical Review Letters,” to which Krishna Kumar, Gluckstern Professor of Physics, and his research group contributed, has found some of the stars’ secrets here on earth – in a lump of lead.

Related Tags: Images: Gateway Thumbnail: 

UMass Amherst-led Team Awarded $3M Grant to Decarbonize Computing

Subhead: CarbonFirst collaboration, led by UMass Amherst’s Prashant Shenoy, aims for zero-carbon computingContact Name: Daegan MillerContact Email: drmiller@umass.eduApril 28, 2021

AMHERST Mass. – One of the recent revolutions in computing has been the advent of cloud-based platforms, which handle everything from music and video streaming to crunching enormous amounts of data for scientific research. Cloud infrastructure, used by companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others, is growing exponentially, and demands an ever-increasing amount of energy, and any serious attempt to grapple with global climate change will therefore have to address computing’s carbon footprint, says a University of Massachusetts expert leading a team to work on the issue.

A multi-university team of researchers, led by Prashant Shenoy, distinguished professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), will be tackling this challenge thanks to a $3 million grant jointly administered by the National Science Foundation and VMware, a private technology cloud-computing company.

Part of the answer to achieving zero carbon computing is in moving to renewable sources of energy, but, says Shenoy, “the great challenge of renewables is that the sun doesn’t shine all the time in every place, nor does the wind always blow, but computing happens 24/7. How do we get renewable energy from where it is being made to where it is needed by computing tasks?” The CarbonFirst team includes UMass researchers Ramesh Sitaraman, Mohammad Hajiesmaili, and David Irwin, as well as collaborators from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and California Institute of Technology.

The project builds over a decade of research in carbon-aware computing at UMass, which has emerged as a global leader in this area. “UMass is really unique globally in the concentration of people it has working at the intersection of computing and sustainability, which, as this project demonstrates, is becoming an increasingly important topic in both industry and society. This concentration of expertise enables us to do `big’ things at UMass that just aren’t possible at many other places.” says Irwin.

The team envisions building a self-powered, decentralized network of computing hardware, solar batteries, and free cooling hubs that are widely distributed. This is a reversal of the dominant trend in cloud computing, which concentrates computing centers, and energy needs, at only a few locations. Such distributed cloud and edge computing is much more easily able to leverage local renewable energy sources.

“This new grant builds on UMass Amherst’s already impressive research record in sustainable computing, drawing on the expertise of researchers with considerable experience in this critically important area of computer science,” says Laura Haas, dean of CICS. “Their work to find new methods for making cloud computing more energy-efficient is a perfect example of our college’s vision of ‘Computing for the Common Good.’”

The team also plans to “virtualize the energy system,” which means designing software that can monitor its own energy needs and carbon emissions. If the energy needs at a specific location exceed local renewable energy sources, computing applications can seamlessly move to another site that has surplus renewable energy. And since the massive, energy-intensive cloud computing centers will be around for years to come, the team will be engineering digital carbon-capping policies, that track applications’ use of traditional grid-based carbon emissions and restricts energy to renewable sources after reaching the cap.

The team will demonstrate their concept at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, and the fruits of the team’s research will be made publicly available. “We are going to put out the source code and the data sets, so that others can leverage our findings,” says Shenoy.

“UMass Amherst has an extraordinary track-record of research and leadership in renewable energy, climate science and sustainability across multiple departments and colleges,” says Sanjay Raman, dean of the UMass college of engineering. “Recently, we have launched the Energy Transition Institute, focused on transforming our energy systems while also promoting the socioeconomic equity of communities. The important work of Prashant and his team perfectly complements and builds on these ongoing efforts.”

Thumbnail: Image layout: Medium images in right columnGateway Headline: UMass Amherst-led Team Awarded $3M Grant to Decarbonize ComputingNewsletter Headline: UMass Amherst-led Team Awarded $3M Grant to Decarbonize ComputingTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

One of the recent revolutions in computing has been the advent of cloud-based platforms, which handle everything from music and video streaming to crunching enormous amounts of data for scientific research. Cloud infrastructure, used by companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others, is growing exponentially, and demands an ever-increasing amount of energy, and any serious attempt to grapple with global climate change will therefore have to address computing’s carbon footprint, says a UMass expert leading a team to work on the issue.

Related Tags: Images: 

Nature Provides Inspiration for Breakthrough in Self-Regulating Materials

Subhead: Research conducted at UMass Amherst documents a new platform for interactive soft materials Contact Name: Daegan MillerContact Email: drmiller@umass.eduApril 26, 2021

AMHERST Mass. – Scientists have long sought to invent materials that can respond to the external world in predictable, self-regulating ways. Now, new research conducted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences brings us one step closer to that goal. For their inspiration, the scientists looked to nature.

Lampreys swimming, horses walking, and insects flying: each of these behaviors is made possible by a network of oscillators—mechanisms that produce a repetitive motion, such as wriggling a tail, taking a stride, or flapping a wing. What’s more, these natural oscillators can respond to their environment in predictable ways. In response to different signals, they can rapidly change speed, switch between different modes, or stop changing altogether. “The question,” says Hyunki Kim, the paper’s co-lead author, along with Boston University’s Subramanian Sundaram, a recent recipient of a Ph.D. in polymer science and engineering from UMass Amherst, “is can we make soft materials, such as plastics, polymers, and nanocomposite structures, that can respond in the same way?” The answer, as the team documents, is a definitive yes.

One of the key difficulties that the team solved was in getting a series of oscillators to work in unison with each other, a prerequisite for coordinated, predictable movement. “We have developed a new platform where we can control with remarkable precision the coupling of oscillators,” says Ryan Hayward, James and Catherine Patten Endowed Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, and one of the paper’s co-authors. That platform relies on yet another natural force, known as the Marangoni effect, which is a phenomenon that describes the movement of solids along the interface between two fluids driven by changes in surface tension. A classic, real-world example of the Marangoni effect happens every time you wash the dishes. When you squirt dish soap into a pan filled with water on whose surface is evenly sprinkled with the crumbs from your dinner, you can watch as the crumbs flee to the edges of the pan once the soap hits the water. This is because the soap changes the surface tension of the water, and the crumbs are pulled away from areas of low, soapy surface tension, towards the edges of the pan where the surface tension remains high.

“It all comes down to understanding the role of interfaces and the profound impact of combining polymeric and metallic materials into composite structures,” says Todd Emrick, co-author and professor in polymer science and engineering at UMass. Instead of soapy water and pans, the team used hydrogel nanocomposite disks made up of polymer gels and nanoparticles of gold, which were sensitive to changes in light and temperature. The result was that the team was able to engineer a diverse array of oscillators that could move in unison with each other and respond predictably to changes in light and temperature. “We can now engineer complex coupled behavior that responds to external stimuli,” says Kim.

The team’s research was supported by the Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation.

Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Nature Provides Inspiration for Breakthrough in Self-Regulating MaterialsNewsletter Headline: Nature Provides Inspiration for Breakthrough in Self-Regulating MaterialsTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

Scientists have long sought to invent materials that can respond to the external world in predictable, self-regulating ways. Now, new research conducted at UMass and appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences brings us one step closer to that goal. For their inspiration, the scientists looked to nature.

Related Tags: Images: 

New UMass Amherst / WCVB Poll Finds Majority Approval of Biden’s First 100 Days, While One-Third of Americans Still See His Presidency as Illegitimate

Subhead: The president receives high marks on his handling of the COVID vaccine rollout and overseeing the economic rebound, while concerns exist over gun violence and immigration at the Mexican borderContact Name: Jared SharpeContact Email: jsharpe@umass.eduApril 26, 2021

Topline results and crosstabs for the poll can be found at www.umass.edu/poll

AMHERST, Mass. – While President Joe Biden receives overall majority approval for his performance during his first 100 days in office, a new nationwide University of Massachusetts Amherst / WCVB poll released today also found that fully one-third of Americans continue to view his presidency as illegitimate.

The new poll of 1,000 respondents conducted April 21-23 found that 51% approve of how Biden has been doing his job, while 44% disapprove of his overall performance. Respondents’ views of his job trend toward the extremes of the scale, with 29% strongly approving and 36% strongly disapproving of his performance, while only 22% somewhat approve and 8% somewhat disapprove. Just 6% of the poll’s respondents were unsure of his performance.

Majorities of most voter demographics said Biden had met or exceeded their expectations over his first 100 days, with approximately 60% or more of almost all categories of voters saying that their expectations have been met. Even one-third of Republicans (32%) admitted that Biden had met or exceeded their expectations, although 68% said he had fallen short.

“Maybe Americans prefer reliable vanilla right now,” says Raymond La Raja, professor of political science at UMass Amherst and associate director of the poll. “Biden’s top qualities are that he is ‘compassionate,’ with 43% saying so, and ‘competent,’ with 40% saying so. At the same time just 28% of voters find him ‘uplifting.’ When asked to describe Biden in one word, most say he is ‘good.’ That’s not a colorful description, but it shows a level of satisfaction with him even if voters don’t find him inspiring, and I’m guessing the Biden Administration is okay with this kind of report card on the president.”

“While the majority of the public approves of the job that President Biden is doing, the picture is not as rosy for him when assessing his handling of the crisis at the Mexican border or the spate of gun violence plaguing the U.S.,” says Tatishe Nteta, associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst and director of the poll.

Asked about the situation at the Mexican border, a plurality of the poll’s respondents – 44% – said Biden has not handled the issue well at all, while an additional 19% said he has not handled it too well. Only 27% said he has handled the border issue somewhat well or very well. Similarly, 56% said he has not handled the issue of gun violence in the U.S. well – including 36% who say he has not handled it well at all – as opposed to only 31% who said he has handled the issue well.

“In the midst of an unprecedented number of mass shootings in the United States, respondents across demographic and political groups give the president low marks for his handling of gun violence in the country,” Nteta says.

Biden’s handling of the economy and the rollout of COVID vaccines receives much higher numbers though.

“While on the campaign trail, Joe Biden pledged to tackle the COVID-19 crisis head on if elected president,” Nteta says. “Two-hundred million vaccine doses later, Americans are clearly satisfied with his performance as two-thirds of respondents believe that President Biden has handled the rollout and distribution of the vaccines well, with a whopping 42% saying that he has handled the rollout very well.

“The nation has recognized Biden’s initial success in ‘building back’ the economy, as well, with 50% of Americans saying they believe that he has handled the economy well in his first 100 days,” he adds. The poll found that 79% said the overall state of the national economy was fair or better, up from 68% in a national UMass Poll conducted in October 2020.

“The major criticisms of Biden’s presidency among political and media elites – that he is boring, uninspiring and conventional – may actually be his primary sources of strength among the public,” adds Jesse Rhodes, professor of political science at UMass Amherst and associate director of the poll. “Having been exhausted, if not traumatized, by the endless drama of the Trump presidency, many Americans may appreciate a president whose primary virtues, in their view, are competence and compassion.”

Biden’s Legitimacy

Disturbingly, one-third of the poll’s respondents believe that Biden’s victory last November was not legitimate, with nearly one-quarter (24%) saying that it was “definitely” not legitimate. “While some have painted the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement as on the fringes of American politics, our results suggest that large portions of the American public continue to question whether Joe Biden is the duly elected president of the United States,” Nteta says.

“A basic principle of democracy is acknowledging the electoral victory of a rival party,” says La Raja. “On this score, American democracy is fraying. An astounding three-in-four Republicans believe that Biden’s victory in the presidential election is not legitimate. This is surely an alarm bell. It has been triggered by polarized politics and Republican officials who have stoked the myth that the election was corrupt. Research shows partisan voters follow the cues of their leaders. Without truth telling from the top, these citizens will continue to doubt Biden’s legitimacy as president.”

“Partisanship and ideology are predictable sources of opposing attitudes toward Biden and the legitimacy of his election,” Rhodes says. “Perhaps more troubling is the reality that the nation is racially divided on these questions, as well, with whites much less likely to support Biden (44%) or accept the legitimacy of his election (54%) than African Americans (74% / 83%), Latinx (59% / 69%) or Asian Americans (75% / 84%). To an almost unprecedented extent, racial identity has become a primary fault line in attitudes toward the president. This is not a good sign for our democracy.”

“Polarization has killed the presidential honeymoon,” says Alexander Theodoridis, associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst and associate director of the poll. “Biden has made it a point to be less inflammatory and is, by virtue of who he is and his political style, a much less divisive figure than his predecessor. That hardly seems to have made a dent in the partisan wall dividing us. Indeed, only 15% of Americans believe relations between Republicans and Democrats have improved under Biden and, all these months later, fewer than one-in-five Republicans say that Biden's victory in 2020 was legitimate. Two-thirds of partisans believe the other side to be ‘evil.’ Given this political context, though not historically, Biden’s approval ratings should be considered solid.”

Congress and the Supreme Court

In addition to their views on the president, the poll also asked respondents about how they believe Congress and the Supreme Court are doing their respective jobs. Only three-in-ten respondents approve of the job being done by Congress, as opposed to twice as many (59%) who disapprove.

“Congress is actually experiencing a high-water approval in the past 10 years, at least among Democratic voters,” La Raja says. “Right now, 30% of Americans approve of the job they are doing, which includes 51% of Democrats, but just 12% of Republicans. The bump may not seem like much, but this bastion of representative democracy has had ratings in the basement, ranging mostly between 15-20% since 2010.”

“What really stands out are the very soft approval numbers for the Supreme Court, with fully 43% disapproving of the institution,” Rhodes says of the highest court in the land, of whose job 42% approve. “This likely reflects many Americans’ frustration with the politicization and polarization of the Court over the last few decades, as well as the uproar over controversial appointments – particularly that of Brett Kavanaugh – during the Trump presidency. Substantial disapproval of the Court may provide energy for reform of that institution in the coming years.”

“Even with a record three female members of the Supreme Court, women (39%) surprisingly rate the performance of the Supreme Court more negatively then men (46%),” Nteta adds.

Overall, less than one-third (31%) of the poll’s respondents said things in the country are generally going in the right direction, with 54% saying things are on the wrong track.

Methodology

This University of Massachusetts Amherst / WCVB Poll of 1,000 respondents nationwide was conducted April 21-23 by YouGov. YouGov interviewed 1,151 respondents who were then matched down to a sample of 1,000 to produce the final dataset. The respondents were matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, race and education. The frame was constructed by stratified sampling from the full 2018 American Community Survey (ACS) one-year sample with selection within strata by weighted sampling with replacements, using the person weights on the public use file.

The matched cases were weighted to the sampling frame using propensity scores. The matched cases and the frame were combined and a logistic regression was estimated for inclusion in the frame. The propensity score function included age, gender, race/ethnicity, years of education, and region. The propensity scores were grouped into deciles of the estimated propensity score in the frame and post-stratified according to these deciles.

The weights were then post-stratified on 2016 Presidential vote choice, and a four-way stratification of gender, age (4-categories), race (4-categories) and education (4-categories) to produce the final weight.

The margin of error within this poll is 3.4%.

Topline results and crosstabs for the poll can be found at www.umass.edu/poll

Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: New UMass Amherst / WCVB Poll Finds Majority Approval of Biden’s First 100 Days, While One-Third of Americans Still See His Presidency as IllegitimateNewsletter Headline: New UMass Amherst / WCVB Poll Finds Majority Approval of Biden’s First 100 Days, While One-Third of Americans Still See His Presidency as IllegitimateTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

While President Joe Biden receives overall majority approval for his performance during his first 100 days in office, a new nationwide UMass Amherst / WCVB poll released today also found that fully one-third of Americans continue to view his presidency as illegitimate.

Related Tags: Images: 

Nearly 70% of Americans Find Chauvin Murder Verdict Justified & Plurality Calls for Maximum Sentencing, According to New UMass Amherst / WCVB Poll

Subhead: Poll also finds majority support for many police reform measures and doubts among Trump voters over the fairness of Chauvin’s trial and the justification of its outcomeContact Name: Jared SharpeContact Email: sharpe@umass.eduApril 24, 2021

Results of a new nationwide University of Massachusetts Amherst / WCVB poll released today show that a wide majority of Americans polled in the days immediately following the Derek Chauvin trial believe that the guilty verdict against the former Minneapolis police officer in the murder of George Floyd was justified and that he received a fair trial. A plurality of the poll’s respondents also believes an appropriate sentence for Chauvin would be the maximum length he faces – 40 years in prison.

The national poll of 1,000 respondents, conducted April 21-23, found that nearly 70% believe his verdict was justified, with 55% saying that it was “definitely” justified. When asked if Chauvin received a fair trial, 60% replied that he had, while 22% said that he had not.

“In a nation rife with divisions over race, class, generation and gender, there is a surprising agreement on the issue of whether Chauvin’s verdict was justified,” says Tatishe Nteta, associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst and director of the poll. 

“Race profoundly influenced perceptions of the trial and verdict, with African Americans, Latinx, and Asian Americans much more likely to perceive them as fair than whites,” says Jesse Rhodes, professor of political science at UMass Amherst and associate director of the poll. “At the same time, it is notable that a solid majority of whites (56%) supported the verdict. In a nation with such a troubled racial history and present, it is extremely rare – and perhaps unprecedented – that a majority of whites support the conviction of a white police officer for the murder of a Black man.”

Asked about the total sentence Chauvin should receive, a plurality of 30% believes that he should face the maximum of 40 years, while 11% replied he should be imprisoned for 31-39 years and 17% each felt that he should receive 11-20 and 21-23 years, respectively. Twenty percent of respondents said Chauvin should serve only 1-10 years in prison, and 4% said he should not face any prison time whatsoever.

“While the minimum sentence for second-degree murder conviction is 12.5 years in the state of Minnesota, a plurality of Americans want to see Chauvin receive the maximum sentence of 40 years in prison for the murder of George Floyd,” says Nteta. 

Nearly half of Trump voters, however, believe Chauvin should receive little or no sentence after being found guilty on all three of the charges he faced in Floyd’s killing. Forty percent of Trump voters say Chauvin should receive just 1-10 years, while 9% say he should never have to enter prison. Nearly half of Trump voters – 48% – also believe Chauvin did not receive a fair trial, and 38% do not believe the guilty verdict was justified.

“There is some irony in both Democrats’ and Republicans’ attitudes toward how Chauvin should be sentenced,” Rhodes says. “While Democrats tend to be critical of mass incarceration and lengthy sentences, when it comes to sentencing Chauvin a strong majority prefers a sentence of 30 years or more. Republicans, typically proponents of harsher sentences for serious crimes such as murder, tend to prefer a lighter sentence in this case. It seems clear that, for both Democrats and Republicans, attitudes toward sentencing Chauvin have much more to do with the political and racial dimensions of the case than with more general principles related to criminal sentencing.” 

Police Reform

The poll also surveyed respondents’ views on various police reform measures that have been raised over recent years. Reducing funding for state and local police departments to instead spend money on social services – the basis for calls to “defund the police” – continues to face more opposition (45%) than support (38%), while 1-in-6 (17%) respondents are still unsure or non-committal on the issue.

“Defunding the police is not a winning issue for most Americans,” Nteta says, “but it does garner widespread support among members of the Democratic coalition as young people, progressives, the highly educated, and people of color all express support for this change in funding local and state police departments.”

Other measures surveyed all received strong support from the poll’s respondents, however. Majorities support restricting the ability of police officers from deactivating their body camera (71%), banning the use of chokeholds by police officers (62%) and allowing citizens to sue individual police officers that are accused of the excessive use of physical force or misconduct (59%), while a plurality supports banning the use of military grade equipment and weaponry by state and local police departments (48%).

“While there is meaningful variation across specific policy proposals and opinion differs among Americans from different parties and racial or ethnic groups, there appears to be substantial overall public appetite for reforming policing in this country,” says Alexander Theodoridis, associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst and associate director of the poll.

“Given the lack of body camera footage in a number of fatal incidents involving the police, it is no surprise that close to three-quarters of Americans support restricting officers from turning off their body cameras,” Nteta adds.

“Chauvin’s trial and conviction seem to be altering Americans’ attitudes toward police reform, with many Americans supporting major changes to policing,” says Rhodes. “While Americans don’t want to reduce funding for police, large majorities want to end practices such as chokeholds and the deactivation of body cameras. We also seem to be reaching a tipping point where many Americans are open to banning the use of military grade equipment and weapons by police. These findings suggest that major police reforms may be possible in many states, and possibly at the federal level as well.”

Methodology

This University of Massachusetts Amherst / WCVB Poll of 1,000 respondents nationwide was conducted April 21-23 by YouGov. YouGov interviewed 1,151 respondents who were then matched down to a sample of 1,000 to produce the final dataset. The respondents were matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, race and education. The frame was constructed by stratified sampling from the full 2018 American Community Survey (ACS) one-year sample with selection within strata by weighted sampling with replacements, using the person weights on the public use file.

The matched cases were weighted to the sampling frame using propensity scores. The matched cases and the frame were combined and a logistic regression was estimated for inclusion in the frame. The propensity score function included age, gender, race/ethnicity, years of education, and region. The propensity scores were grouped into deciles of the estimated propensity score in the frame and post-stratified according to these deciles.

The weights were then post-stratified on 2016 Presidential vote choice, and a four-way stratification of gender, age (4-categories), race (4-categories) and education (4-categories) to produce the final weight.

The margin of error within this poll is 3.4%.

Topline results and crosstabsThumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Nearly 70% of Americans Find Chauvin Murder Verdict Justified & Plurality Calls for Maximum Sentencing, According to New UMass Amherst / WCVB PollNewsletter Headline: Nearly 70% of Americans Find Chauvin Murder Verdict Justified & Plurality Calls for Maximum Sentencing, According to New UMass Amherst / WCVB PollTag Review: Tags have been reviewedNewsletter Teaser: 

The national poll of 1,000 respondents, conducted April 21-23, found that nearly 70% believe his verdict was justified, with 55% saying that it was “definitely” justified. When asked if Chauvin received a fair trial, 60% replied that he had, while 22% said that he had not.

Related Tags: Images: Gateway Thumbnail: 

New Moms Wellness Study Recruiting Participants

April 23, 2021

Researchers at UMass Amherst are looking for breastfeeding moms to participate in a study focused on understanding how eating fruits and vegetables affects breast cancer risk.

Those eligible to participate should live within 35 miles of Amherst, be pregnant or have given birth within the last five weeks and are breastfeeding or plan to breastfeed.

No face-to face meetings are required and participants do not need to leave their homes.

For more information, call 413 545-1037, email newmomswellness@umass.edu or visit the study website.

Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: New Moms Wellness Study Recruiting ParticipantsNewsletter Headline: New Moms Wellness Study Recruiting ParticipantsTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

Researchers in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences are looking for breastfeeding moms to participate in a study focused on understanding how eating fruits and vegetables affects breast cancer risk.

Related Tags: Images: Gateway Thumbnail: 

Salad or Cheeseburger? New Research Finds that Our Co-workers Shape our Food Choices

Subhead: People in our social networks influence the food we eat – both healthy and unhealthy – according to a large study of hospital employeesContact Name: Jared SharpeContact Email: jsharpe@umass.eduApril 23, 2021

The foods people buy at a workplace cafeteria may not always be chosen to satisfy an individual craving or taste for a particular food. A new study by researchers, including sociologist Mark Pachucki at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has found that when co-workers are eating together, individuals are more likely to select foods that are as healthy—or unhealthy—as the food selections on their fellow employees’ trays. 

“We found that individuals tend to mirror the food choices of others in their social circles, which may explain one way obesity spreads through social networks,” says Douglas Levy, an investigator at the Mongan Institute Health Policy Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and first author of the new paper, which was published online in Nature Human Behaviour. Levy, Pachucki and their co-investigators discovered that individuals’ eating patterns can be shaped even by casual acquaintances, evidence that corroborates several multi-decade observational studies showing the influence of people’s social ties on weight gain, alcohol consumption and eating behavior.

Previous research on social influence upon food choice had been primarily limited to highly controlled settings like studies of college students eating a single meal together, making it difficult to generalize findings to other age groups and to real-world environments. The new study examined the cumulative social influence of food choices among approximately 6,000 MGH employees of diverse ages and socioeconomic status as they ate at the hospital system’s seven cafeterias over two years. The healthfulness of employees’ food purchases was determined using the hospital cafeterias’ “traffic light” labeling system designating all food and beverages as green (healthy), yellow (less healthy) or red (unhealthy).

MGH employees may use their ID cards to pay at the hospitals’ cafeterias, which allowed the researchers to collect data on individuals’ specific food purchases, and when and where they purchased the food. The researchers inferred the participants’ social networks by examining how many minutes apart two people made food purchases, how often those two people ate at the same time over many weeks, and whether two people visited a different cafeteria at the same time. “Two people who make purchases within two minutes of each other, for example, are more likely to know each other than those who make purchases 30 minutes apart,” says Levy. And to validate the social network model, the researchers surveyed more than 1,000 employees, asking them to confirm the names of the people the investigators had identified as their dining partners.

“A novel aspect of our study was to combine complementary types of data and to borrow tools from social network analysis to examine how the eating behaviors of a large group of employees were socially connected over a long period of time,” says Pachucki, associate professor of sociology at the Computational Social Science Institute at UMass Amherst.

Based on cross-sectional and longitudinal assessments of three million encounters between pairs of employees making cafeteria purchases together, the researchers found that food purchases by people who were connected to each other were consistently more alike than they were different. “The effect size was a bit stronger for healthy foods than for unhealthy foods,” says Levy, who is also an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

A key component of the research was to determine whether social networks truly influence eating behavior, or whether people with similar lifestyles and food preferences are more likely to become friends and eat together, a phenomenon known as homophily. “We controlled for characteristics that people had in common and analyzed the data from numerous perspectives, consistently finding results that supported social influence rather than homophily explanations,” says Levy.

Why do people who are socially connected choose similar foods? Peer pressure is one explanation. “People may change their behavior to cement the relationship with someone in their social circle,” says Levy. Co-workers may also implicitly or explicitly give each other license to choose unhealthy foods or exert pressure to make a healthier choice.

The study’s findings have several broader implications for public health interventions to prevent obesity. One option may be to target pairs of people making food choices and offer two-for-one sales on salads and other healthful foods but no discounts on cheeseburgers. Another approach might be to have an influential person in a particular social circle model more healthful food choices, which will affect others in the network. The research also demonstrates to policymakers that an intervention that improves healthy eating in a particular group will also be of value to individuals socially connected to that group.

“As we emerge from the pandemic and transition back to in-person work, we have an opportunity to eat together in a more healthful way than we did before,” says Pachucki. “If your eating habits shape how your co-workers eat—even just a little—then changing your food choices for the better might benefit your co-workers as well.”

Joining Pachucki and Levy in the research were A. James O’Malley, professor of biostatistics at the Dartmouth Institute and the department of biomedical data science at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and Dr. Anne Thorndike, MD, an investigator in the division of general internal medicine at MGH and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

The complete paper, “Social connections and the healthfulness of food choices in an employee population,” can be found online at Nature Human Behaviour. Major funding for the research was provided by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

"Social connections and the healthfulness of food choices in an employee population"Thumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Salad or Cheeseburger? New Research Finds that Our Co-workers Shape our Food ChoicesNewsletter Headline: Salad or Cheeseburger? New Research Finds that Our Co-workers Shape our Food ChoicesTag Review: Tags have been reviewedNewsletter Teaser: 

The foods people buy at a workplace cafeteria may not always be chosen to satisfy an individual craving or taste for a particular food. A new study by researchers, including UMass Amherst sociologist Mark Pachucki, has found that when co-workers are eating together, individuals are more likely to select foods that are as healthy—or unhealthy—as the food selections on their fellow employees’ trays.

Related Tags: Images: Gateway Thumbnail: 

Serious Play: Tablet-based Video Games May Help People With Mild Cognitive Impairment

Subhead: UMass Amherst researcher awarded NIH grant to measure effects of mobile game-playingContact Name: Patty ShillingtonContact Email: pshillington@umass.eduApril 22, 2021

A University of Massachusetts Amherst biomedical informatician will use a $436,836 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore the use of “serious games” played independently on computer tablets to improve brain function in older people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Sunghoon Ivan Lee, assistant professor in the College of Information and Computer Sciences, aims to develop a human-centered platform that can motivate patients to stick to a therapeutic regimen of mobile game-playing at home on their own. Neuro-World, a collection of six games developed by Lee’s industrial partner in South Korea, Woorisoft, is designed to stimulate working, or short-term, memory and selective attention. 

People with MCI experience cognitive decline beyond what’s expected from normal aging, but not severe enough to significantly interfere with their daily activities. “There aren’t many solutions to stimulate cognitive ability in people with cognitive disabilities, especially in their homes, outside clinical settings,” says Lee, whose research focuses on designing and implementing mobile-health (mHealth) technologies that address the practical needs of people with motor or cognitive impairments.

The goals of therapeutic treatments for MCI are to slow down the progression of the disease and lessen the impact of symptoms, preferably with non-pharmacological interventions like serious games because they are low cost, noninvasive, safe and without adverse side effects.

Lee’s work addresses a key challenge of serious games in healthcare – developing a system that doesn’t require substantial involvement of trained caregivers and clinicians to oversee and motivate patients to follow the game protocol. Lee was introduced to Neuro-World by Hee-Tae Jung, a former post-doctoral researcher Lee had supervised at UMass Amherst. “I was intrigued by the Neuro-World concept and the science behind it,” Lee says.

In a small, pilot study with stroke survivors to validate the efficacy of the system, Lee, Jung and colleagues found that Neuro-World games were capable not only of improving patients’ cognitive function but predicting the expected improvement, based on an analysis of their game performance. 

“We hope that knowing playing games can improve their cognitive function can further motivate patients to play more games,” Lee says. 

Using the NIH funding, researchers at UMass Amherst, University of Montreal and Rutgers will conduct a study with 50 people diagnosed with MCI. Half will be asked to play the video games for 30 minutes twice a week for 12 weeks. The other half will not play the Neuro-World games. Both groups will also receive conventional therapy.

In addition to evaluating the ability of game-playing to improve cognitive function, researchers also aim to develop machine learning-based algorithms to predict cognitive function from the game performance. Finally, Lee and colleagues will conduct in-depth interviews with participants to understand their experiences with the games. They will use that information to optimize the system’s design in an effort to maximize patients’ participation with the game-based training.  

“We thought people with MCI would be the population that could really benefit from serious games – before they move into a more serious condition like dementia or Alzheimer’s,” Lee says. 

He hopes the study will advance the research and expand the options for effective, safe and low-cost mHealth therapies for people with cognitive impairments.

“We believe that outcomes of this project will open a new door leading to previously unexplored datasets and understanding of patient-technology interactions to promote positive behavior changes to enable self-administered, serious game-based cognitive training,” Lee says. “And that can form the basis of a wide range of future investigations of hemiparesis rehabilitation and personalized disease management.”

Effectiveness of a Serious Game for Cognitive Training in Chronic Stroke Survivors with Mild-to-Moderate Cognitive ImpairmentThumbnail: Image layout: Small images in right columnGateway Headline: Serious Play: Tablet-based Video Games May Help People With Mild Cognitive ImpairmentNewsletter Headline: Serious Play: Tablet-based Video Games May Help People With Mild Cognitive ImpairmentTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser: 

UMass Amherst biomedical informatician Sunghoon Ivan Lee will use a $436,836 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore the use of “serious games” played independently on computer tablets to improve brain function in older people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Related Tags: Images: Gateway Thumbnail: 

Pages