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Archive for February, 2012

UNL’s Swearer to help launch Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation

Monday, February 27th, 2012

This week, Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, will officially launch the Born This Way Foundation to promote tolerance and empowerment among youth. Susan Swearer, a UNL professor of school psychology and an anti-bullying expert, will be among a select group of scholars to help lead the kickoff event.

The pop icon’s new foundation tapped Swearer to lead one of five discussion topics during an all-day symposium on Feb. 29 as part of the foundation’s official opening event at Harvard University. Swearer will be the point person on discussions about putting research into action in the classroom to stem the effects of bullying.

“I’m incredibly honored to be a part of the official launch of the Born This Way Foundation,” Swearer said. “Lady Gaga’s voice reaches billions, and her ability to get anti-bullying messages out into the world is unparalleled. I and others involved are eager to do anything we can to help form and inform those messages.”

Lady Gaga’s representatives contacted Swearer, who co-directs the Bullying Research Network that promotes and assists international collaboration among bullying and peer victimization researchers, last summer in preparation for the foundation’s launch. She has consulted with and helped to create resources for them as the foundation has prepared to officially enter the national anti-bullying discussion. Swearer said throughout the process, she has been impressed with the singer’s involvement and engagement.

“This is much more than a celebrity giving lip service to a cause. (Lady Gaga) is thoughtfully, intellectually trying to solve the problem of bullying,” she said.

Swearer said she plans to lead discussions throughout the day about how to translate the latest research into anti-bullying action. Also, she will focus on what kind of anti-bullying curricula and programs exist for schools at all levels, where gaps exist and how to fill them, and what needs to be happening for schools to get access to effective anti-bullying curricula.

“We’ll take a good look at what barriers teachers, administrators and schools as a whole face in making this a priority,” she said.

Swearer has shared her expertise in a number of public forums. Last March, she was invited to the White House by the Obama administration to speak at and participate in a conference focused on finding solutions to the issue in conjunction with the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.

The Born This Way Foundation will host a kickoff event at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. Gaga will be joined by her mother and other guests during the official unveiling. The foundation has partnered with the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The California Endowment and The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard to explore the best ways to reach youth and “create a new culture of kindness, bravery, acceptance and empowerment,” according to the foundation’s official materials.

BTWF, a nonprofit charitable organization, will address issues like self-confidence, well-being, anti-bullying, mentoring and career development through research, education and advocacy. With a focus on digital mobilization to create positive change, BTWF will lead youth into a braver new society where each individual is accepted and loved as the person they were born to be.

Media coverage rolls in on prehistoric horse study

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Prehistoric Sifrhippus might’ve only been the size of a small house cat, but the little guy is having a big impact on the news this week. University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Ross Secord’s research into how a heated-up Earth some 56 million years ago affected the ancestor of modern horses is receiving wide media coverage. Below is a tally of some of the media appearances on the new work, which is published in the journal Science.

Various versions of the story — such as the versions written by the New York Times, Scientific American, LiveScience, UPI and AFP — have appeared in several hundred individual media outlets around the globe.

New York Times | Science MagazinePopular Science | US News & World Report | LiveScience | National Science Foundation | AFP | Daily Mail (UK) | Bloomberg | Omaha World-Herald | Yahoo! News | NewsCore | ABC (Spain) | Lincoln Journal Star |io9 | Scientific American | Die Presse (Austria) | Univision | TG Daily | SINC (Spain) | Figaro (France) | EarthSky | TIME | UPI

Evolution of earliest horses driven by climate change

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

When Sifrhippus, the earliest known horse, first appeared in the forests of North America more than 50 million years ago, it would not have been mistaken for a Clydesdale. It weighed in at around 12 pounds — and it was destined to get much smaller over the ensuing millennia.

Sifrhippus lived during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, a 175,000-year interval of time some 56 million years ago in which average global temperatures rose by about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, caused by the release of vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and oceans.

About a third of mammal species responded with significant reduction in size during the PETM, some by as much as one-half. Sifrhippus shrank by about 30 percent to the size of a small house cat (about 8.5 pounds) in the PETM’s first 130,000 years and then rebounded to about 15 pounds in the final 45,000 years of the PETM.

Scientists have assumed that rising temperatures or high concentrations of carbon dioxide primarily caused the phenomenon in mammals during this period, and new research led by Ross Secord of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Jonathan Bloch of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville offers new evidence of the cause-and-effect relationship between temperature and body size. Their findings also offer clues to what might happen to animals in the near future from global warming.

In a paper to be published in the Feb. 24 issue of the international journal Science, Secord, Bloch and colleagues used measurements and geochemical composition of fossil mammal teeth to document a progressive decrease in Sifrhippus‘ body size that correlates very closely to temperature change over a 130,000-year span.

Bloch, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said multiple trails led to the discovery.

One was the fossils themselves, recovered from the Cabin Fork area of the southern Bighorn Basin near Worland, Wyo. Stephen Chester, then an undergraduate student at Florida, now an anthropology Ph.D. candidate at Yale and a co-author on the paper, had the task of measuring the horses’ teeth. What he found when he plotted them through time caught Bloch and Secord by surprise.

“He pointed out that the first horses in the section were much larger than those later on,” Bloch recalled. “I thought something had to be wrong, but he was right — and the pattern became more robust as we collected more fossils.”

A postdoctoral researcher in Bloch’s lab for the first year of the project, Secord performed the geochemical analysis of the oxygen isotopes in the teeth. What he found provided an even bigger surprise.

“It was absolutely startling when Ross pulled up the first oxygen isotope data,” Bloch said. “We looked at the curve and we realized that it was exactly the same pattern that we were seeing with the horse body size.

“For the first time, going back into deep time — going back tens of millions of years — we were able to show that indeed temperature was causing essentially a one-to-one shift in body size within this lineage of horse. Because it’s over a long enough time, you can argue very strongly that what you’re looking at is natural selection and evolution — that it’s actually corresponding to the shift in temperature and driving the evolution of these horses.”

Secord, who came to UNL in 2008 as an assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Nebraska State Museum, said the finding raises important questions about how plants and animals will respond to rapid change in the not-too-distant future.

“This has implications, potentially, for what we might expect to see over the next century or two, at least with some of the climate models that are predicting that we will see warming of as much as 4 degrees Centigrade (7 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next 100 years,” he said.

Those predictions are based largely on the 40 percent increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (from 280 to 392 parts per million) since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century.

Ornithologists, Secord said, have already started to notice that there may be a decrease in body size among birds.

“One of the issues here is that warming (during the PETM) happened much slower, over 10,000 to 20,000 years to get 10 degrees hotter, whereas now we’re expecting it to happen over a century or two,” Secord said. “So there’s a big difference in scale and one of the questions is, ‘Are we going to see the same kind of response?’ Are animals going to be able to keep up and readjust their body sizes over the next couple of centuries?”

Increased temperatures are not the only change animals will have to adapt to, Secord said. Greenhouse experiments show that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide lowers the nutritional content of plants, which he said could have been a secondary driver of dwarfism during the PETM.

Other co-authors on the paper are Doug M. Boyer of Brooklyn College, Aaron R. Wood of the Florida Museum of Natural History, Scott L. Wing of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Mary J. Kraus of the University of Colorado-Boulder, Francesca A. McInerny of Northwestern University, and John Krigbaum of the University of Florida.

The research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, with additional support from UNL.

Increasingly, children’s books are where the wild things aren’t

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Was your favorite childhood book crawling with wild animals and set in places like jungles or deep forests? Or did it take place inside a house or in a city, with few if any untamed creatures in sight?

A new study has found that over the last several decades, nature has increasingly taken a back seat in award-winning children’s picture books — and suggests this sobering trend is consistent with a growing isolation from the natural world.

A group of researchers led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociology professor emeritus J. Allen Williams Jr. reviewed the winners and honor books receiving the prestigious Caldecott Medal from the award’s inception in 1938 through 2008. In total, they examined nearly 8,100 images contained in nearly 300 books. Caldecott awardees are the children’s books judged by the American Library Association to have the best illustrations in a given year.

Researchers looked at whether images depicted a natural environment, such as a jungle or a forest; a built environment, such as a house, a school or an office; or something in-between, such as a mowed lawn. They also noted whether any animals were in the pictures — and if so, if those creatures were wild, domesticated or took on human qualities.

Their results, Williams said, visibly exhibited a steady decline in illustrations of natural environments and animals, as well as humans’ interactions with both. Meanwhile, images of built environments became much more common.

“I am concerned that this lack of contact may result in caring less about the natural world, less empathy for what is happening to other species and less understanding of many significant environmental problems,” Williams said.

Overall, built environments were depicted in 58 percent of the images and were the major environment 45 percent of the time, while natural environments were present in 46 percent of the images and were the major environment 32 percent of the time. But recent trend lines were discouraging: Latter decades showed an obvious shift away from nature — while built and natural environments were almost equally likely to be shown from the late 1930s until the 1960s, cities and towns and the indoors started to increase in books in the mid-1970s while fewer and fewer books pictured the natural environment.

During the seven decades included in the study, more people have lived in and around built environments, so researchers said they were not surprised such images would be prominent. But “what we find in these books … is not a consistent proportional balance of built and natural environments, but a significant and steady increase of built environments,” the authors wrote. “Natural environments have all but disappeared.”

While the study was limited to Caldecott awardees, researchers said the findings are important because the award leads to strong sales and the honorees are featured in schools and libraries. Caldecott winners also can influence tastes for children’s literature more generally.

The study does not say that increasing isolation from the natural world influenced the content trends, but it does hint that the steady increase in built environments and the simultaneous decline in natural environments and wild animals are consistent with that isolation.

“This does not mean, of course, that environmentalism is not an important part of American culture, but it does suggest that the current generation of young children listening to the stories and looking at the images in children’s books are not being socialized, at least through this source, toward greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it,” the authors wrote.

The study’s findings are published in the journal Sociological Inquiry and was co-authored by UNL sociologist Philip Schwadel and Christopher Podeschi of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania; Nathan Palmer of Georgia Southern University; and Deanna Meyler, now with the Omaha, Neb.-based firm Bozell. Podeschi, Palmer and Meyler are former UNL students.

Contact: J. Allen Williams Jr., or 402-472-9376

Coverage: New York Times USA TODAY | Psychology Today | | The Globe and Mail (Canada) | GOOD Magazine | Mother Nature Network | Wall Street Journal |

Scientific American delves into UNL’s ‘positive psy-cap’ research

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

In the last two weeks, Ingrid Wickelgren at Scientific American has been focusing on UNL research that looks at developing, maintaining and increasing one’s positive psychological capital. Check out Ingrid’s well-done work if you’re interested in finding out how to improve your outlook — and your work life, as well:

What you need to succeed — and how to find out if you have it (2/8/12): “Whether you succeed at work may depend on many factors—intelligence, empathy, self-control, talent and persistence, to name a few. But one determinant may outweigh many of these: how you perceive those around you. New research from UNL suggests that your own ability to get things done—not to mention your success in non-work relationships—is highly correlated with how you see others. Are your coworkers capable and kind, or are they, dare I say, incompetent jerks?” Link to article

Success in seven short steps (2/14/12): “Although individuals vary in how much of this motivational firepower they possess, the amount is not fixed. You can boost your psychological capital—and the key is changing your habits. Simply deciding to improve your outlook won’t work. Instead, people need to cultivate a positive mindset through rituals and goals, say University of Nebraska management scholars Fred Luthans and Peter Harms. Here’s how.”

Thomas book named 2012 Lincoln Prize Finalist

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

William Thomas, professor and chair of the Department of History and John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities, has been named a finalist for the 2012 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize for his book “The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America.” The Lincoln Prize is the top book prize in Civil War studies and is awarded by Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Six finalists were chosen from 116 nominations.

The honor is generally given to books that focus specifically on Lincoln or the Civil War soldier — the last four winners have been Lincoln biographies. Thomas’ book is an outgrowth of the “Railroads and the Making of Modern America” digital archive project. The book illuminates the critical impact of railroad construction, railroad management and the boost railroads provided to regional development during and after the Civil War era.

Thomas is a past recipient of the Lincoln Prize. In 2001, he won the prestigious honor along with fellow historians Edward Ayers and Anne Rubin for “The Valley of the Shadow” digital history project.

– Jean Ortiz Jones, University Communications

“Been Workin’ on the Railroad”: UNL’s Thomas in NYT

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Thousands of slaves worked on Southern railroads during the Civil War — and many of them used it as a means of escape. UNL historian Will Thomas, author of “The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War and the Making of Modern America,” crafted an excellent opinion piece for today’s online edition of The New York Times. Check it out.

UNL in the national news: January 2012

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

National media outlets featured and cited UNL sources on a number of topics in the past month. Appearances included:

The Chiara String Quartet, artists in residence at UNL, was featured in a Jan. 29 story from the Kansas City Star about their dedication to education and advocacy of new music.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, film studies, was interviewed for NPR’s All Things Considered on Jan. 15 about the art of the modern movie trailer. On Jan. 27, he was cited by about advance advertising in Hollywood, with a link to an installment of the video series Frame By Frame on movie trailers.

Mike Dodd, psychology, and Kevin Smith and John Hibbing, political science, had their research into the physiological and cognitive differences between the political left and the political right featured widely in January. Appearances included Discovery News, Wired, The Economist, Huffington Post, The Guardian (UK), the Telegraph (UK), and a four-minute video segment on BBC News.

Al Dutcher, School of Natural Resources, was quoted in a Reuters article on Jan. 30 about U.S. cattle herds being moved north in light of persistent southern drought.

Peter Harms, management, had his and Fred Luthans’ research into the measurement of implicit psychological capital featured in a number of outlets in mid-January, including the Discovery Channel, Business News Daily of New York,, and Yahoo! News.

The university’s Jan. 5 announcement it would save the Industrial Arts Building at Nebraska Innovation Campus resulted in coverage from The Associated Press that appeared in dozens of media outlets around the nation.

James Keen of the Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center was cited Jan. 23 in an Associated Press story about UNL leading a $25 million, multi-institution research project into E. coli bacteria.

Kirk Kluver, former assistant dean for admissions at the College of Law, was quoted in a Jan. 20 New York Times article about how athletics have become the public face of major research universities.

Chancellor Harvey Perlman was quoted Jan. 17 by USA TODAY about compensation for head football coaches amid economic struggles and shrinking state education budgets.x

Comments by former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly during his Jan. 23 appearance at UNL for The Peter J. Hoagland Integrity in Public Service Lecture made national news as speculation swirled about a replacement in Congress for Kelly’s wife, Gabrielle Giffords.

Kenneth Price, English and the director of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, was cited by The Chronicle of Higher Education on Jan. 7 on the moment when faculty members are likely to become engaged in the digital humanities.

Stephen Ramsay, history, was quoted in a Jan. 23 New York Times commentary from Stanley Fish on the digital humanities, in which he was referred to as “perhaps the most sophisticated theorist of the burgeoning field.”

Eric Thompson, economics and director of the Bureau of Business Research, was quoted in a national Associated Press article on Jan. 30 following the Bureau’s economic forecast for the state in 2012 and 2013.

Frans von der Dunk, space, cyber and telecommunications law, was quoted Jan. 17 by the Des Moines Register about international treaties banning the launching of a nuclear device into space to ward off threatening near-earth objects.

Mike Wagner, political science, was quoted Jan. 17 by the Washington Times about the possibility of former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey entering the 2012 Nebraska race. On Jan. 25, he was quoted by the New York Times on the same topic.

Matt Waite, journalism, appeared on the WNYC and NPR program On The Media on Jan. 13 to discuss the potential uses and challenges of using drones to gather news.

This is a monthly column featuring UNL faculty, administrators and staff in the national news. National media often work with University Communications to identify and connect with UNL sources for the purpose of including the university’s research, expertise and programming in published or broadcasted work.

Faculty, administration, student and staff appearances in the national media are logged at UNL In The News.

If you have additions to this list or suggestions for national news stories, contact Steve Smith at (402) 472-4226 or