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UNL expert alert: Supreme Court rules that human genes can’t be patented

June 13th, 2013

In a unanimous decision Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that human genes can’t be patented, a ruling with both immediate benefits for some breast and ovarian cancer patients and long-lasting repercussions for biotech research.

The decision represents a victory for cancer patients, researchers and geneticists who claimed that a single company’s patent raised costs, restricted research and sometimes forced women to have breasts or ovaries removed without sufficient facts or second opinions.

But the court held out a lifeline to Myriad Genetics, the company with an exclusive patent on the isolated form of genes that can foretell an increased genetic risk of cancer. The justices said it can patent a type of synthesized DNA that goes beyond extracting the genes from the body.

A. Christal Sheppard, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law, is a nationally recognized expert in patent and copyright law. She’s also a scientist, which gives her a unique perspective on the Myriad case.

She offers her informed opinion on the court’s ruling:

The public thinks the Myriad Supreme Court case is a win, but it is not. It’s a Band Aid on a cancer – not even close to ‘isolating’ the heart of the problem. The commercial value that the company is protecting and the public is objecting to is independent of the patent over the gene.

Synthetic genes representing the same information as the naturally occurring genes are still ownable. Naturally occurring versus synthetic is a ridiculous outdated distinction. The commercial value in the testing is independent of the patent over the gene.

The two major decisions from the courts about what should be eligible for patent ownership that have issued in the less than 35 days make nothing clearer – both only throw in more uncertainty.

It is long past time for Congress to step in and stop allowing the courts to determine public policy of what can be patented. Even the Court believes this. They stated “Concerns about reliance interests … are better directed to Congress.

Congress has not made a positive statement since the 1952 patent act on what should be eligible for the monopoly. Business is unhappy.  The public is unhappy.  But not in the ‘we’ve struck the right balance’ kind of way.

There is a better way for the court to have determined that genes are not patentable. Quite simply, genes aren’t new.  The law requires an invention to be new for it to be patented.   This is not a matter of what should be patentable but what meet the statutory requirements occurring to Congress since 1787 that require an ‘invention not be known before or used.’ ”

Reach A. Christal Sheppard, UNL assistant professor of law, at 402-472-1250 or asheppard3@unl.edu.

Sheppard

It’s official: CB3 gains final approval of postsecondary commission

March 14th, 2013

The Coordinating Commission on Postsecondary Education on March 14 gave final approval of the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior as an interdisciplinary research center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The center is a key component of an emerging collaboration between athletics and academics at UNL. Known as CB3, it will be located this summer in half of a 50,000-square-foot research area in the East Stadium addition to Memorial Stadium.

The vote by the commission was the final step in making the center official. The University of Nebraska Board of Regents also had given unanimous approval for the center in January.

“We are very pleased to have received the commission’s support and to know we have met all the requirements for its approval,” said Dennis Molfese, Mildred Francis Thompson Professor of Psychology at UNL and director of the center. “Now we can turn our attention toward final preparations for this cutting-edge center.”

CB3 will house a radiology unit and a state-of-the-art functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) magnet, which will enable faculty and students from a wide spectrum of disciplines to conduct research related to behavior and performance, including the study of concussions.

The center will integrate the disciplinary building blocks of genetics, neuroscience, physiology, affect/emotion, cognition, socio-political attitudes and behavior. Research includes areas ranging from the heritability of social attitudes to the neurological basis of human decision-making to the study and remediation of brain concussion in athletes.

CB3 will occupy space in the south half of the East Stadium addition, while the north half will be dedicated to the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab. The research facility also will provide shared space, including 48 laboratories and a common area large enough to accommodate 40 to 50 people.

The CCPE is a state constitutional agency whose mission is to promote sound policies for Nebraska’s state and community colleges and the University of Nebraska. The CCPE balances the best interests of taxpayers, students and Nebraska’s postsecondary institutions. The Coordinating Commission’s responsibilities include authorizing academic programs such as CB3.

The laboratory and office space in Memorial Stadium is on schedule to open this summer.

UNL in the national news: February 2013

March 4th, 2013
National media outlets featured and cited UNL sources on a number of topics in the past month. Appearances included:
Wheeler Winston Dixon, film studies, was quoted extensively throughout February on a variety of topics, including the Academy Awards. Appearances included a half-hour discussion on Film Buff’s Forecast with Paul Harris on Triple R Radio in Melbourne, Australia on Feb. 16; a live-chat panel for Canada.com on Feb. 22; in Patheos.com on Feb. 14; in PBS NewsHour on Feb. 24; and in the Christian Science Monitor on Feb. 24.
http://go.unl.edu/dh8
http://go.unl.edu/47h
http://go.unl.edu/2di
http://go.unl.edu/h3i
Gwendolyn Foster, film studies, was quoted Feb. 25 by The Christian Science Monitor about the surprises in this year’s telecast of the Academy Awards.
http://go.unl.edu/nqp
Brian Fuchs, climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, was quoted in the New York Times on Feb. 22 about the lack of snowpack in the west and what it might portend for the summer drought. He and other Drought Center climatologists were quoted regularly in February in outlets ranging from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to The Associated Press to United Press International to USA TODAY.
http://go.unl.edu/svo
http://go.unl.edu/4bi
http://go.unl.edu/u7a
http://go.unl.edu/ggg
http://go.unl.edu/vwf
Bridget Goosby, sociology, had her research into the pathways from childhood conditions to adult health outcomes featured by a number of media outlets in late February, including Yahoo! News, Psych Central and Science Daily.
http://go.unl.edu/mym
http://go.unl.edu/8ni
Richard Graham, University Libraries, had his 2011 anthology “Government Issue: Comics for the People” cited in a Feb. 28 Reason Magazine article on how the government turned comic books into propaganda.
http://go.unl.edu/93d
Ronnie Green, IANR vice chancellor, and Ron Yoder, IANR associate vice chancellor, were quoted in a Feb. 15 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education featuring IANR’s new plan to hire 36 new tenure-track faculty.
http://go.unl.edu/avm
John Hibbing, political science, was quoted by CNN on Feb. 2, the day Nebraska Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy abruptly stepped down, about what the resignation meant for the upcoming governor’s race.
http://go.unl.edu/in7
Jinsong Huang, mechanical and materials engineering, had his research into producing efficient, affordable, flexible solar energy materials featured Feb. 22 by the National Science Foundation’s Discovery News.
http://go.unl.edu/ses
Matthew Jockers, English, had his text-mining-of-books research featured Feb. 3 by the Sunday Times of London. Later in the month, the Associated Press wrote about his leadership of a new research collaboration with private company BookLamp to text-mine data from 20th century books. The story ran in dozens of media outlets around the country.
http://go.unl.edu/kmc
http://go.unl.edu/3zn
Allan McCutcheon, survey research and methodology, was quoted in an Associated Press article on Feb. 23 about how polls are used to predict elections, in advance of an event at the UNL Great Plains Art Museum. The story appeared in dozens of media outlets around the country.
http://go.unl.edu/0jo
David Moshman, educational psychology, published an opinion column about anti-censorship resources for educators Feb. 8 in the Huffington Post.
http://go.unl.edu/nu8
Eric Thompson, economics, was quoted by The Associated Press in early February after Nebraska economic forecasters predicted modest economic growth in 2013. The story appeared in dozens of media outlets around the country.
http://go.unl.edu/wxh
Matthew Waite, journalism, was quoted regularly in February as national debate over the role of domestic drones began to heat up. Appearances included the Christian Science Monitor, CNN, Fast Company and US News & World Report.
http://go.unl.edu/smu
http://go.unl.edu/kch
http://go.unl.edu/t0f
http://go.unl.edu/bu2
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 http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/
If you have additions to this list or suggestions for national news stories, contact Steve Smith at 402-472-4226 or ssmith13@unl.edu.

UNL professor leads collaboration to open 300 years of books for data analysis

February 20th, 2013

In the 19th century, Britain was the world’s superpower, boasting a global empire of 10 million square miles and 400 million royal subjects. And British authors of the era reflected this supremacy, peppering prose with words of command and certainty — ones like always, never and forever.

At the same time in Ireland, writers echoed a different perspective in their books. With the Irish under the thumb of British rule, the nation’s scribes frequently used words that displayed inability or frustration — ones like almost, nearly or perhaps.

Matthew Jockers knows this to be a fact because it bears out in his computer-generated data: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor of English has combined computer programming with digital text-mining to produce deep thematic, stylistic analyses in 19th-century literary works. He calls the data-driven process macroanalysis, and it’s opening up new methods for literary theorists to study classic literature.

“But what we don’t know is what happens after the turn of the 20th century,” Jockers said. “The 20th century, as we know, is when the British Empire deteriorates and the Irish gain independence. So do each country’s authors remain as they were in the previous century? Or if they do begin to change their approach, in what ways do they go about it? That’s the kind of question we can address — with access to proper data, that is.”

Now, thanks to an exclusive agreement between UNL and private company BookLamp, Jockers and research collaborators from several U.S. universities have the tools to begin uncovering the answers to that question — and many others. This new research collaboration will ultimately allow scholars to access and analyze book data from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

BookLamp uses digital tools to compare books by theme and writing style, suggesting other books a reader might like based on how closely they match previous reads. To power their algorithm, BookLamp works with publishers across the industry to analyze thousands of titles in its Book Genome Project, which it launched in 2003.

“We can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at the writings that have been published over the years as a whole, at a scale that’s been difficult to do in the past,” said Aaron Stanton, CEO of BookLamp. “We’re not providing access to data for individual books, but instead information that can help answer larger questions about changes in society over time.”

Jockers, who also is a fellow in UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, said that in scholarly circles, the arrangement signifies a big step forward: For years, digital researchers have had a difficult time gaining access to the results of digitally text-mined books from the 20th century, thanks to copyright and access issues. While BookLamp will not directly provide scholars with book texts or book-level data, it does provide corpus-level “anonymized” data that allows researchers to ask questions about key thematic and stylistic structures.

An example may be to query how often female writers used keywords related to traditionally male professions in the 1920s compared with, say, the 1980s, to track the changes in women’s literary roles over time, researchers said.

“Nearly everyone who does this kind of work focuses on the 19th century, because that’s all that’s been available in the digital format, outside of copyright,” Jockers said. “So unfortunately, we’ve been kind of stuck in time for a while. But this arrangement will help us clear that hurdle and we’ll be able to look more deeply into more modern works.”

Jockers leads the collaboration with digital literary scholars at Stanford University’s Literary Lab as well as Arizona State University. It starts with a two-year project involving data from BookLamp, as well as data from 18th- and 19th-century novels already compiled in Stanford’s Literary Lab.

Organizers have dubbed the effort the “Unfolding the Novel” project. Ultimately, they will consolidate 300 years of high-level book data to study long-term literary trends and patterns.

And in the 20th century, those patterns explode into a multitude of modern genres and open up a swarm of new research questions, Jockers said.

With the BookLamp-provided summary metadata, researchers could query information from a range of years — the 1950s, for example — and learn how many times a particular word was used in any of the new genres of the time, from detective stories to romance to science fiction. The text-mined results would shed new, data-supported light upon the various themes and styles authors employed in that decade.

One of the project’s initial queries will be to examine the words and stylistic elements that best allow scholars to distinguish between male and female writers, Jockers said. For example, in the 19th century, male authors were far more likely to use male pronouns than female ones. This indicates their stories were more masculine than those written by women authors, who used male and female pronouns more evenly during the same period.

“We’re interested to learn what happens to this tendency in the 20th century,” he said. “This is, after all, the period of liberalization, so the theory would be that women would begin writing more female-centered work. And, if these movements had any effects on the males, we should start to see a greater attention to the other gender in works by 20th-century men, as well. It will be interesting to see.”

The work of understanding and organizing data from 100 years of literature is long and difficult, Jockers said, much less 300 years of literature. But he said he thinks that he and his collaborators are inaugurating a game-changing, information-rich era of literary scholarship.

“The potential uses of this information are huge,” he said. “BookLamp has been a spectacular partner in the effort; they are genuinely interested in many of the same questions we are, and they are passionate in the pursuit of knowledge.

“The possibilities are practically endless.”

Contact: Matthew Jockers, assistant professor of English, 402-472-1896 or mjockers@unl.edu.

Expert alert: UNL’s Thimmesch on proposed state tax changes

February 7th, 2013

In January, Gov. Dave Heineman proposed big changes to the state’s tax system, including the the elimination of the state’s corporate and personal income taxes. Other proposals would eliminate corporate taxes and make more limited changes to income taxes. Adam Thimmesch, assistant professor of law at the University of Nebraska College of Law, studies constitutional limitations imposed on state taxing power and instructs students on the structure and content of the tax system. As debate on the topic begins, we asked Prof. Thimmesch to analyze the proposals and provide us some food for thought.

Governor proposes dramatic changes to state tax system

In his State of the State address on Jan. 15, Gov. Heineman proposed sweeping changes to the Nebraska state tax system. One proposal would completely eliminate the state’s corporate and personal income taxes, while an alternative proposal would eliminate the corporate income tax but make more limited changes to the personal income tax. Both proposals include modifications to the state’s sales tax laws that are intended to offset the lost revenue from the income-tax reductions. The Governor should be applauded for putting tax reform at the forefront of this legislative session. With any major tax reform, however, many issues need to be considered. A few of those issues are discussed below.

Revenue Neutrality

The Governor has indicated that he wants his proposal to be revenue-neutral—meaning that the net taxes collected by the state after the modifications would be the same as they are today. The state’s income taxes currently raise approximately $2.4 billion, and, to achieve revenue neutrality, the Governor has proposed eliminating certain tax exemptions contained in the state’s sales tax laws. The particular exemptions that would be eliminated have been the focus of much of the early discussion regarding the Governor’s proposal. However, regardless of the specific exemptions ultimately revoked, it is assured that the proposal would result in certain Nebraskans paying less in state taxes and certain Nebraskans paying more in state taxes. How that burden would be allocated cannot be certain at this time, but we must be mindful of that factor.  Any sales tax increase will impact both the constituencies that are directly paying the new tax and others who will be indirectly impacted by that tax.

For example, the Governor’s proposal focuses on sales tax exemptions for manufacturers, agriculture, medical equipment and medicine, and purchases by exempt organizations (charities, churches, etc.). It is easy for people who are not in those industries to perceive that those tax increases will not impact themselves.  However, a sales tax increase on those organizations and industries would also impact their investors, employees, customers and the people that they serve—all of whom may be fellow Nebraskans. Like an income tax, the cost of a sales tax ultimately must be borne by some individual. Someone must pay for revenue neutrality. Thus, if the Governor’s proposal is enacted, it is clear that certain Nebraskans will end up paying more in state taxes even though they would be relieved of an income tax burden.

Distributional Effects of any Changes

One particularly sensitive aspect of the Governor’s proposal is how the additional sales tax burden would be allocated among Nebraskans of different income levels.  Of the state’s three major taxes (income taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes), only the income tax is a progressive tax. The state sales and property taxes, alternatively, are generally regressive.  (A progressive tax is a tax that consumes a higher percentage of a person’s income as his or her income increases. A regressive tax is a tax that consumes a higher percentage of a person’s income as his or her income decreases.) If the state is going to shift its tax burden away from income taxes and more heavily onto the sales tax, the tax system will likely become more regressive. When considering fundamental tax reform, then, we should be aware of the distributional effects of any changes and determine whether we are comfortable with those changes. We need to fund government with revenue some way. The question is how we want that burden distributed among our population. Do we want a state where lower-income residents pay a higher percentage of each paycheck in state taxes than do higher-income residents? Or do we not care about regressivity as long as those with higher incomes send more aggregate tax dollars to Lincoln than those with lower incomes?

Structural Impacts of any Changes

Eliminating the state’s income taxes would cause a systematic change to how we fund our government here in Nebraska. That proposal leads to several questions about the overall structure of our tax system.

First, are there benefits from having an income tax?

The state’s income taxes are certainly complex and impose costs on persons and organizations doing business in Nebraska. Eliminating those taxes would thus reduce compliance costs and out-of-pocket tax expenditures (ignoring, for the moment, the potential increased sales taxes paid by Nebraskans). Those are laudable goals, and economists and our legislators should analyze the likelihood of success for the Governor’s proposal on those metrics. However, regardless of those perceived benefits, we must recognize that the income tax does play a significant role in our current tax system. Two benefits are particularly of note.

First, having an income tax offers a broader base of taxation in the state, which gives it more flexibility in times of fiscal troubles. Eliminating the income tax would put more pressure on the legislature to fund the state by raising sales taxes. That may be a difficult task in recessionary times when consumer spending is down and the legislature otherwise wants to encourage spending. Second, income taxes help to offset the general regressivity in our current tax system. (This point is addressed more fully above.) Care should be given to determining how the additional sales tax burdens from the Governor’s proposal would be allocated among Nebraskans of different income groups and how that allocation reflects how we want to raise revenue in the state.

Second, is our sales tax system healthy enough to shoulder the burden?

Eliminating the income tax in favor of higher sales taxes would place greater emphasis on the proper functioning of our state sales tax. Therefore, another factor to consider is the overall health of our sales tax system and whether it is well designed to shoulder that burden. Our state sales tax was enacted in 1967. At that time, the economy was centered on the sale of tangible goods, and our sales tax system reflects that history. Currently, the Nebraska sales tax applies to the sale of goods and some services, but it does not apply to all services. This is one instance where the sales tax picks “winners and losers,” something that the Governor has specifically said that he wants to address with his reform proposal.  If we are going to be serious about reforming our tax system, and we are going to rely more heavily on sales tax, it makes sense to consider shoring up this structural deficiency. The state should also consider what actions it will take to protect its sales tax base from online retailers who do not collect and remit the state’s sales tax and from increased sales of digital products. Modernizing those aspects of our sales tax system could help the Governor to achieve his goal of revenue neutrality without wholesale eliminations of sales tax exemptions that have adequate normative support.

On the latter point, it is worth noting that most of the exemptions currently contained in the Nebraska sales tax laws are consistent with what tax experts would label an “ideal” sales tax and with the sales taxes enacted in other states. Elimination of those exemptions would thus cause our sales tax to diverge from those models. Consequently, in addition to the other issues discussed herein, our legislators must consider whether they desire to further diverge from an ideal sales tax system (and a system that provides exemptions like our neighboring states) to fund an income tax reduction.

Finally, should state property taxes be included in these changes?

Property taxes are largely a local matter.  However, state funding has an enormous impact on state and local governments and the taxes that must be collected via property taxation.  Any reform discussion should also include a discussion of the role of property taxes in Nebraskans’ overall tax burdens.

Conclusion

The coming weeks and months will undoubtedly see significant discussion regarding the Governor’s tax proposal. Much of that discussion will focus on the impacts of removing sales tax exemptions for certain industries or products, but a range of other issues should be also considered. Principally:

  • Who will ultimately bear the burden of higher sales taxes to fund the elimination of the corporate and personal income taxes?
  • Do we care about the regressivity of our tax system?
  • Should the sales tax be modified to become more modern and comprehensive rather than just eliminating exemptions (which may be normatively justified and allowed in other states)?
  • Should property tax reform be included in the discussion?
  • Should income tax reform, rather than elimination, be considered?

Contact: Adam Thimmesch, assistant professor of law, 402-472-4332, athimmesch2@unl.edu

UNL in the national news, January 2013

February 6th, 2013

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

Grace Bauer, English, was quoted Jan. 9 by TIME about the selection of Richard Blanco as President Obama’s inaugural poet.
http://go.unl.edu/pf8

Charlyne Berens, associate dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, was sought out regularly in early January following the nomination of former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Berens, Hagel’s biographer, wrote columns for TIME and Foreign Policy and was quoted by numerous outlets including The Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times and many others.
http://go.unl.edu/s8p
http://go.unl.edu/hzn
http://go.unl.edu/rx9
http://go.unl.edu/2qv

Wheeler Winston Dixon, film studies, was quoted Jan. 11 by Reuters about the persistence of horror films despite violent national tragedies. On Jan. 10, he participated in an online chat for Postmedia News of Canada on the year’s Oscar nominations.
http://go.unl.edu/d7p

Beth Burkstrand-Reid, law, was quoted Jan. 22 by Scripps-Howard News Service about the legacy of Roe v. Wade on its 40th anniversary.
http://go.unl.edu/d86

Lisa Kort-Butler, sociology, had her research into the content and messages of superhero cartoons featured in USA TODAY, the Today Show, Fox News, Canada.com and a number of other media outlets in early January.
http://go.unl.edu/5gq
http://go.unl.edu/0ea

James LeSueur, history, was quoted Jan. 17 by Bloomberg News on the geopolitical ramifications of a hostage crisis in Algeria.
http://go.unl.edu/rx6

Adam Liska, biological systems engineering, spoke Jan. 16 with NPR News about land use and whether Midwest land could support new biofuel refineries.
http://go.unl.edu/fd0

Richard Moberly, law, did a Q&A on Jan. 14 on the complexities of the Obama administration’s whistleblower policies.
http://go.unl.edu/7as

David Moshman, educational psychology, wrote a Jan. 6 column for The Huffington Post about the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding schools and intellectual freedom.
http://go.unl.edu/k9r

Karl Reinhard, Earth and atmospheric sciences, had his and his students’ research into intestines featured on Jan. 28 by National Geographic News.
http://go.unl.edu/08j

Philip Schwadel, sociology, had his research into support for school prayer among various U.S. religious dominations over time featured by several outlets in early January, including U.S. News and World Report, Yahoo! News and NBC News.
http://go.unl.edu/hcb
http://go.unl.edu/p6p

Susan Swearer, school psychology, was quoted by a number of outlets in mid-January as part of her counseling role with Lady Gaga’s traveling Born Brave Bus Tour. Appearances included Q13 Fox News in Seattle and Rolling Stone.
http://go.unl.edu/u2d
http://go.unl.edu/twx

Matthew Waite, journalism, was quoted Jan. 13 by the New York Times in a column about guns, maps and data that disturb. On Jan. 15, the Times quoted him in a story about the New York State Legislature restricting access to gun permit data in the state.
http://go.unl.edu/78n
http://go.unl.edu/mde

Donald Wilhite, founding director of UNL’s National Drought Mitigation Center, appeared on C-SPAN on Jan. 16 as part of a panel discussion on the consequences of aridity and drought.
http://go.unl.edu/gig

This is a monthly column featuring UNL faculty 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 http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/

To offer suggestions regarding potential national news stories or sources at UNL, contact Steve Smith at ssmith13@unl.edu or 402-472-4226.

Catching up with: Abby Miller, ‘03

January 30th, 2013

Abby Miller, a 2003 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, has seen her acting career take flight with her portrayal of Ellen May on the critically acclaimed FX drama “Justified.” We checked in recently (as in, one day after her character narrowly escaped a permanent exit from the series) with Miller, a native of Clay Center who now calls Los Angeles home, for a quick chat about the show, her character’s future, and what we can expect next from the actress.

UNL News: What a wild season for your character so far on “Justified.” In Tuesday’s episode, it was looking like Ellen May was done for. So we’re glad she’s still kicking so we can continue to see your work on screen. But it’s got to be stressful working on a show where your, um, time could come at any moment, doesn’t it?

Abby Miller: Yeah….I don’t think there’s been a single episode where I haven’t worried about Ellen May’s safety. This one was super exciting to work on though because we knew the audience was truly gonna think ’she’s a goner.’ It was so much fun to play those happy moments. For example, the scene in the car with Colt, because you knew the audience was in on the secret: Ellen May was gonna die. But then she didn’t! And that made me happy. This show definitely keeps me on my toes.

UNLN: Can you give us any hints of what happens next with Ellen May? Or will we get you in trouble with your show? We don’t want you to get written out because of something we said …

AM: Ha…well…eek! I really can’t say much without spoilers. And I wouldn’t want to reveal too much, so you’ll just have to watch! One thing I can say, though, is Ellen May is alive. And … nope, that’s all I’ll say. She’s alive and … she’s alive.

UNLN: OK, you can’t blame us for trying, though, can you? You’ve appeared in some notable shows – Gilmore Girls, Mad Men – but is this role the most fun you’ve had as an actress? Why?

AM: This is the most fun I’ve ever had as an actress — because, well, this experience is unlike anything I’ve done before. I love the crew, the cast, all the directors and writers. I feel as though I’m part of the family on this set. And that’s such a gift. Also, Ellen May is a character in the truest sense of the word. I get to play with her accent, the way she moves. She doesn’t feel like me, you know? Like, I’m playing Abby every day. And that’s really fun and exciting.

UNLN: We’re also big fans of your musical work as one-half of the group Jen & Abby. We’ll still hear people talk about that awesome Nebraska Rep concert the two of you gave back in July 2011. Any plans to get the group back together in your spare time?

AM: Not at the moment, unfortunately. Jen is doing some touring in Asia right now with another project, and — well, you know, I’ve got “Justified.” Maybe someday, but not right now.

UNLN: Hey, when’s the next time you think you’ll make it back to Nebraska? We think maybe Ellen May should take that car she stole at the end of the last episode and just drive up here to the Cornhusker State.

AM: Ha! We’ll see about that. That would be fun to see, though, huh? But in all seriousness, I come back to Nebraska at least once a year to see my parents and the rest of my family. I haven’t been back to Lincoln in a couple years, though. Hopefully soon.

UNLN: Do you still keep in touch with the gang at Hixson-Lied?

AM: I do! I’ve known Paul Steger for years. A lot of my professors are still there, like Virginia Smith and Harris Smith … my friend Todd who works in the office. It’s great. Feels like coming home.

UNLN: What would you say to a theater student on campus today? Got any advice for the next generation of Husker actors and actresses?

AM: Probably the biggest advice I’ve got, in this present moment, is just to have fun. It’s really that simple. If you focus on having fun you’ll be more relaxed, which will lead to more play time, and then more choices. It’s like following the rule of improv “say yes”…plus, you’ll remember why you fell in love with performing in the first place. It should be fun. Always…your life and your livelihood will be so much easier. I promise you.

UNLN: It seems like the sky’s the limit for you, Abby. In what roles can we expect to see you turn up next?

AM: I honestly don’t know. I did some wonderful indie features this past year that should premiere soon. I’d love to continue focusing on character work. All of my biggest actor influences are character actors. So we’ll see! I’d love to venture outside of Ellen May’s world for a bit. Hopefully revisit her next season? We’ll see. I have to survive this one first. :)

UNL’s Swearer on the road with Gaga’s Born Brave Bus Tour

January 15th, 2013

University of Nebraska-Lincoln school psychology professor Susan Swearer is riding the bus to work this week.

That’s normally not very big news — unless the mode of transportation is Lady Gaga’s Born Brave Bus, that is. And this week, the UNL professor is rolling with the bus alongside the U.S. leg of the pop icon’s current concert tour, which kicked off Monday evening in Tacoma, Wash.

Parked outside venues during Gaga’s new tour, the bus provides a space for 13- to 25-year-olds to learn more about local resources on anti-bullying, suicide prevention and mental health services.

BTWF co-founder Cynthia Germanotta (left) and Swearer on Monday.

Swearer, who co-directs the Bullying Research Network headquartered at UNL, was chosen to head the Research Advisory Board for Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation in October. In a Monday interview with Seattle FOX affiliate KCPQ, Swearer said that she hopes the bus tour can provide resources for and help reach struggling youths.

“Being brave is recognizing your strengths,” Swearer told KCPQ. “It’s about recognizing your limitations or things that you need to work on, knowing where to get help, helping others, bravery really encompasses not only your own self development, but being brave in terms of helping others who may need some support.”

Swearer also is tweeting about her experiences this week and sharing photos from the tour. The Born Brave Bus will continue to make stops across the country through the end of the Born This Way Ball tour in March.

Contact: Susan Swearer, professor of school psychology, sswearernapolitano2@unl.edu.

Study: Generational changes cause drop in school-prayer support

January 2nd, 2013

There’s a saying that goes, “as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in public schools.” At one time, that likely reflected a fairly uniform view about school prayer: that despite what federal law said about the practice, religious Americans by and large approved of it.

A new study, however, paints a more complicated picture of attitudes toward school prayer over the last four decades, finding sharp differences in school-prayer support between different generations and their religious denominations.

Forthcoming in the journal Sociological Forum, the study maps a general decline in advocacy for school prayer starting in the mid-1970s and accelerating as skeptical Baby Boomers became ascendant through the 1980s. According to the study’s findings, school-prayer support remains markedly lower today among Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants yet unwaveringly high among their evangelical counterparts.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist Philip Schwadel modeled data from the General Social Survey from 1974-2010 and created a measure for Americans’ support for prayer and reading of religious scripture in public schools over the decades. The results tracked the impact of religious affiliation and generational differences on the role of religion in public education, he said.

“Social and cultural changes have led to greater opposition to state-sanctioned prayer and reading religious materials in public schools among some segments of the population,” Schwadel said. “Specifically, there’s growing opposition among non-evangelicals but not evangelicals, and these changes manifest across generations.”

While these generational shifts have spurred changes among some denominations, evangelical Protestants have remained staunchly pro-school-prayer over the years, Schwadel said. As other religious denominations faced generationally influenced fluctuations on the topic, evangelicals persisted – more than 70 percent of evangelicals expressed support for school prayer, regardless of what generation they came from.

“What we see in these results is that there’s a very clear, unwavering perspective in the evangelical community on the role of prayer in public life,” he said. “While younger evangelicals seem to be more open to some issues, such as environmentalism, when it comes to key issues, they simply do not change across generations. There seem to be some bedrock issues they won’t budge on.”

There once was very little difference between Catholics and evangelical Protestants on the topic, particularly among those born in the early 1930s, Schwadel said. The findings also showed a relatively small difference in opinion between evangelicals and mainline Protestants for those born during that same time period.

But differences grew tremendously across generations – so that by the time those born in the 1960s and 1970s came of age, a large gap had emerged between evangelical Protestants and both mainline Protestants and Catholics.

Why? According to Schwadel’s findings, the drop was related to both “period effects” and “cohort effects” – the events of the times, highlighted by several high-profile court cases on the subject, likely began to affect opinions among people of a certain age; at the same time, the general disposition of the generation going through those times was playing a major factor.

The start of the time frame in the study – the mid-1970s – were a time of high levels of support for prayer in schools compared with the following three decades, Schwadel said; at the same time, Baby Boomers began to make up more of the population. Known for their skepticism for organized religion, the Boomers likely contributed to a consistent, decade-long drop in support of school prayer to a lower overall level that remains today.

Schwadel said he had anticipated the decline among mainline Protestants; however, he was surprised to see a parallel slide in support for school prayer among Catholics, who began the 1970s virtually tied in their level of approval with evangelicals.

One possible explanation, Schwadel said, is that over time, Catholics have become more “mainstreamed” than they were in the first half of the 20th century, when they either attended parochial schools or public schools that were predominantly Catholic. Their integration into public schools may have cut into their support for school prayer because that prayer was not exclusively Catholic, Schwadel said.

The study also found:

– Highly educated and younger respondents in the study were relatively unlikely to support prayer and reading scripture in public schools.

– African Americans and Southerners registered the highest levels of approval.

– Jewish respondents indicated the lowest levels of support, at 24 percent. Those who said they are unaffiliated with an organized religion were at 37 percent.

“These results are relevant to debates regarding the social impact of religious affiliation, generational differences and Americans’ views of the role of religion in the public sphere,” he said.

Contact: Philip Schwadel, associate professor of sociology, 402-472-6008, pschwadel2@unl.edu

UNL nets 300+ positive national news appearances in 2012

December 21st, 2012

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln made its way into national news headlines regularly in 2012. National media outlets, often working with the Office of University Communications, featured and cited UNL research and programming and sought out UNL faculty expertise on a wide range of topics.

More than 310 positive national media appearances, which translated into thousands of news headlines and articles in media outlets across the nation and globe, were registered last year. In 2011, UNL had just over 200 appearances; in 2010 it logged roughly 155.

The following highlights of national news placements and appearances for UNL in the past year. This collection is maintained by University Communications and includes print, broadcast and online media. It was assembled throughout the year with the assistance of multiple information sources, including Universal Information Services.

To look back on complete lists of media appearances for each month of 2012, click on the links at the end of this post.

Innovation, discovery, impact and reputation

Innovation Campus continued to create headlines in 2012. The university’s January announcement on saving the Industrial Arts Building resulted in Associated Press coverage that appeared in dozens of media outlets around the nation; in February, director Dan Duncan was quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education in an article that examined how universities and developers find common ground on campus building projects; and a November announcement of a new collaboration between NIC and ConAgra Foods received wide coverage, including from The Associated Press.

A UNL archaeological team led by professor of art and art history Michael Hoff unearthed a massive Roman mosaic in southern Turkey in summer 2012. In September, the work was featured in dozens of national media outlets including The History Channel, Der Spiegel (Germany), The New York Times, The Associated Press, United Press International, The Christian Science Monitor, The Daily Mail (UK), The Register (UK) and NBC News.

In late February, Ross Secord, assistant professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, had his research into how prehistoric global warming affected the evolution of equine ancestor sifrhippus covered by scores of media around the world. Highlights included articles in The New York Times, TIME, Scientific American, Science Magazine, Popular Science, US News & World Report, Reuters and Bloomberg News. The article was translated into dozens of languages and appeared in media outlets across the globe.

Susan Swearer, professor of school psychology, helped launch Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation in February – which led to coverage from The Associated Press, Slate and Yahoo! News, The San Jose Mercury News, The Huffington Post and many others. In March, she appeared on “Anderson,” a daytime syndicated talk show hosted by Anderson Cooper, to discuss anti-bullying efforts. The Associated Press also featured her in October after she was named chairwoman of the Born This Way Foundation’s new Research and Advisory Board.

In April, the latest addition to UNL’s digital Civil War Washington project – hundreds of newly digitized compensation petitions submitted by District of Columbia slave owners after the city declared slaves free in early 1862 – was featured by several media outlets including The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Washington Post. The stories coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Washington, D.C., Compensated Emancipation Act. The project was headed by Kenneth Winkle, professor of history; Kenneth Price, professor of English; Susan Lawrence, associate professor of history; and Elizabeth Lorang, research assistant professor of English.

The New York Daily News featured Kwame Dawes, professor of English and editor of Prairie Schooner, in July in a story about the newly formed African Poetry Book Series. Dawes also was a daily contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy weblog during the 2012 Olympic Games, posting daily poems about each day’s developments in London.

UNL’s High-Energy Physics Team – including Ken Bloom, Dan Claes, Aaron Dominguez, Ilya Kravchenko, Greg Snow and others – received recognition from a number of media outlets in July as scientists around the world hailed the “discovery” of the long-sought Higgs Boson particle. Bloom, who live-blogged the event for the weblog Quantum Diaries, also was mentioned a column in The Courier and Mail of Brisbane, Australia.

The University of Nebraska Press was featured in an April story in The New York Times about its well-earned national reputation for publishing high-quality baseball books.

Reliable expert sources for national media

As an historic, fast-moving drought took hold across the United States in 2012, climatologists Mark Svoboda, Brian Fuchs and Michael Hayes of UNL’s National Drought Mitigation Center regularly lended their expertise to print, online and broadcast journalists from around the world. Highlights included regular appearances in USA TODAY, the New York Times, BBC News, CBS News, ABC News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS NewsHour, US News & World Report, NPR, Bloomberg News and The Associated Press.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies, was often cited by national media on issues surrounding the motion picture industry, both past and present. He was interviewed for NPR’s All Things Considered about the art of the modern movie trailer, was cited by Slate about advance advertising in Hollywood, by E! Online about Hollywood’s recent fascination with fairy tales, by the Boston Globe on celebrities facing public-relations crises and by Gannett News Service on the hallmarks of Quentin Tarantino’s films, among other appearances.

Matt Waite, professor of practice of journalism, appeared regularly in the news as the rise of drone journalism spurred questions about journalistic ethics and privacy. Appearances included the NPR program On The Media, The Associated Press, The Australian Broacasting Corporation, the Kojo Nnamdi Show (Washington DC), The Washington Times, American Public Media’s Marketplace, The Times of London (UK), the Daily Mail (UK), The Globalist (Italy), The Guardian (UK), and NBC News.

Christal Sheppard, assistant professor of law, was often quoted this year on issues of patent law, highlighted by interviews in The Wall Street Journal about Apple Inc.’s legal victory over Samsung in a much-watched patent case and by The Dow Jones Newswire about the International Trade Commission’s finding that Apple did not violate Google’s patents. The Journal also tapped her for comment in December after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a preliminary ruling against Apple’s “pinch-to-zoom” patent.

The so-called “fiscal cliff” discussions in Washington prompted journalists to seek out Seth Giertz, assistant professor of economics, for insight. In late November, Giertz penned an op-ed on the fiscal cliff, policy uncertainty and tax reform for The Hill; a week later, he appeared in an ABC News story about the notion of eliminating the charitable deduction and what it might mean to universities.

Ari Kohen, associate professor of political science, appeared often in news outlets in 2012, often cited by prominent political bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast for his commentary at his popular weblog, Running Chicken. He was quoted in March by The Christian Science Monitor about why a good public apology is so difficult to find; in December, he was quoted in a Los Angeles Times column on the same topic.

Timothy Wei, dean of the College of Engineering, appeared in a video produced by NBC News and the National Science Foundation in conjunction with the 2012 Summer Olympics about fluid dynamics and the sport of swimming. The segment ran on dozens of NBC affiliate stations around the country. In July, he appeared in a Fox News story on the same topic.

William G. Thomas, professor of history, wrote a February New York Times opinion piece on the role of African-Americans in building railroads in the Civil War era. In October, he co-authored a column on humanities in the digital age for Inside Higher Ed. And in December, he and associate professor of history Patrick Jones appeared in a Chronicle of Higher Education feature article about the “History Harvest” digital history project they oversee at UNL.

Research and scholarly activity

Mike Dodd, assistant professor of psychology; and Kevin Smith and John Hibbing, professors of political science, had their research into the physiological and cognitive differences between the political left and the political right featured widely in January and February. Appearances included Discovery News, Wired, The Economist, Huffington Post, The Guardian (UK), the Telegraph (UK), and BBC News, CNN, The Daily, ABC News and the Huffington Post.

Matthew Jockers, assistant professor of English, had his unique text-mining method that plotted the hidden relationships between more than 3,500 18th- and 19th century novels featured by several media outlets in mid-August, including New Scientist, WIRED, NBC News and Smithsonian Magazine. He also co-authored an October opinion piece in Nature explaining why humanities scholars have pitched in to the Authors Guild vs. Google lawsuit.

UNL’s Bureau of Business Research, directed by assistant professor of economics Eric Thompson, appeared regularly in the national news in 2012. Its twice-annual economic forecasts for the region were the subject of stories by The Associated Press, and its annual State Entrepreneurship Index was featured in several media outlets, including The Boston Herald, Business News Daily (NY), The Oregonian, Mashable, Bloomberg Businessweek, CNBC, CNN, the Bismarck (ND) Tribune and the Union Leader (NH).

Ann Mari May, professor of economics, had her research on the gender gap in policy views among economists that she co-authored with Mary McGarvey featured in a number of national media outlets, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Wall Street Journal and USA TODAY.

J. Allen Williams Jr., professor emeritus of sociology, had his research analyzing the decline of the natural world and wild animals in children’s illustrated books featured in a number of outlets in February, including USA TODAY, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo! News, the Globe & Mail (Canada), GOOD Magazine and The Associated Press.

Michael Fromm, professor of agronomy and horticulture and Director of UNL’s Center for Biotechnology, had his and colleagues’ research into plants’ ability to remember drought featured by The Associated Press and United Press International. The work appeared in dozens of media outlets around the country.

Sarah Gervais, assistant professor of psychology, had her research into the differing cognitive processes our brains use to perceive men and women covered by several dozens of media outlets around the world in July and August, including NBC News, CBS News, Scientific American, the CBC (Canada), Forbes, The Daily Mail (UK), United Press International, Huffington Post and Jezebel.

Jason Head, assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences, was featured in an April 1 special on the Smithsonian Channel, “Titanoboa: Monster Snake.” Associated coverage appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, The International Business Times, USA TODAY and The Associated Press, among others.

Peter Harms, assistant professor of management, had his research into how narcissists tend to thrive in the context of job interviews widely covered by the media in April. Coverage included articles in Forbes, MSNBC, Nature, The Huffington Post and dozens of media outlets around the country.

Karl Reinhard, professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences, had his research into the link between ancient Natives’ diets and their modern susceptibility to diabetes featured by a number of national outlets in late July, including NBC News, The Huffington Post, Discovery News and The International Business Times.

Athletics, academics and the Big Ten

Chancellor Harvey Perlman appeared regularly in coverage this year on topics ranging from compensation for head football coaches, reform of the NCAA rulebook, the process to determine a new college football playoff, the addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten and the growing gap between the top five major football-playing conferences and other schools. His comments appeared in USA TODAY, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, ESPN.com, The Washington Post and The New York Times, among other national outlets.

Josephine Potuto, professor of law, appeared in a July story by Yahoo! Sports about potential NCAA punishment at Penn State. She also penned an op-ed for The Chronicle of Higher Education in reaction to the severe penalties handed down on Penn State by the NCAA.

Dennis Molfese, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, appeared in numerous media outlets in June when the The Big Ten Conference and the Ivy League, in conjunction with the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, announced it would engage in a cross-institutional research collaboration to study the effects of head injuries in sports.

Faculty, administration, student and staff appearances in the national media dating back to 2009 are logged at http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/. Ideas for potential national news stories can be sent to National News Editor Steve Smith at ssmith13@unl.edu or (402) 472-4226.

UNL’s national media appearances as they appeared by month, and links to associated stories, can be found at the following links:

January: http://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/todayatunl/981/5766

February: http://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/todayatunl/1079/6435

March: http://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/todayatunl/1172/7036

April: http://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/todayatunl/1268/7622

May: http://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/todayatunl/1339/7849

June: http://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/todayatunl/1417/8056

July: http://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/todayatunl/1462/8245

August: http://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/todayatunl/1568/8812

September: http://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/todayatunl/1676/9443

October: http://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/todayatunl/1783/10020

November: http://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/todayatunl/1876/10507