From what ground squirrels’ hibernation can teach humans about medical science to how family and social dynamics drive sex trafficking in India, the breadth of Nebraska researchers’ expertise was on impressive display on Nov. 4.
Eight University of Nebraska–Lincoln faculty presented five-minute talks via Zoom about their work during the Faculty Research and Creative Activity Slam, part of this week’s Nebraska Research Days activities. An archived video will be made available.
And in keeping with the nationwide election week drama, there was a nail-biting vote to determine the winner, as Rochelle Dalla and Andre Maciel tied for the win. Both eschewed a runoff vote and agreed to split the $1,000 in prize money, surely a sign that election competitors can find a way to heal the divide.
Dalla, professor of child, youth and family studies, discussed her research into family-based sex trafficking in India, which included her first trip to Mumbai in 2012, which she described as such an emotionally draining experience that it left her swearing she’d never return. She’s been back nine times since. There, she has put her longtime interest in marginalized women to work in understanding what drives sex trafficking. Even as sex work passes through generations, she was impressed that “many of these women were incredibly protective and proud of their own children.” Family-based sex trafficking is seen as a means of survival for “untouchables” in the caste system who are discriminated against and marginalized.
Dalla said it’s important to focus not on the families forced, coerced or sold into this existence but on the political, economic and social systems that limit their options and lay the foundation for it.
“We are not that different from the women who’ve participated in my research. We share with them strengths, resilience and willingness to sacrifice for our families. We especially share a desire for our children to have better lives than we have had and do what is necessary … to make that happen.”
The other winner, Maciel, assistant professor of marketing, discussed his research into stories of David versus Goliath in marketing. That includes the producer side, where access to capital can differ widely between large firms and small and medium firms, and the consumer side, where racial minorities are sometimes treated as potential criminals.
“Within this landscape of inequality, I researched the little guy — the challenger, the marginalized” — and how they can contest inequality. “In other words, I studied David-versus-Goliath kinds of situations as they happen in the marketplace.”
Maciel cited two projects. In one, he studied the craft brewing industry and how smaller companies could thrive by creating networks to promote themselves to consumers, media and lawmakers. Maciel also researched how members of minority groups are made to feel unwelcome in stores. It’s not enough for businesses to label themselves as welcoming or safe places. They must commit to providing jobs to people from marginalized groups, he said.
The slam was moderated by Nathan Meier, assistant vice chancellor for research, and Jocelyn Bosley, assistant director for education and outreach at the Nebraska Materials Research Science and Engineering Center. Other presenters included:
Sergio Wals, associate professor of political science and ethnic studies, presenting “Building Bridges towards Immigration Reform in the United States.” Contrary to the gridlock in Washington, D.C., Wals said, surveys of American citizens find strong support for both border security and a path to citizenship for immigrants already in the country illegally. Also notable is that many Mexicans who come to America illegally want to be here only temporarily for work, not permanently.
“Politicians here on both sides of the aisle have spent a decade-and-a-half arguing about a path to citizenship that does not seem to be a must,” Wals said. “What we really need is a strong and efficient guest-worker program.
“There is overlap to produce compromise.”
Matt Andrews, director of the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research program and professor in the School of Natural Resources, presented “Medical Innovations Based on Hibernation in Nebraska Ground Squirrels.” Few people give this critter much attention beyond its role as a garden and field pest and Bill Murray’s adversary in “Caddyshack,” Andrews said. But its remarkable hibernation process provides important research fodder to improve human lives.
When ground squirrels hibernate, they undergo biochemical and physiological changes that would not be survivable for most mammals, including drastic drops in body temperature and heart rate. Understanding this process “can give rise to things that can be potential therapies, like a therapy for (profound bleeding) that we’ve developed in my laboratory,” Andrews said.
The Department of Defense is funding this research as a potential battlefield treatment for injured soldiers. Another potential application of Andrews’ research is organ preservation for transplants.
Charles Nwaizu, assistant professor of practice of food science and technology, presented “Speaking One Language in Food Making.” Food safety regulations are very complex, especially for a workforce that is becoming more diverse, with many employees being non-native speakers of English. Nwaizu is working with a professor in graphic design to develop new ways to explain food-safety regulations that work across traditional communication barriers. The result: one-page documents that use images, icons and other visual cues “that everybody can understand … a particular language in the food industry.”
Bonita Sharif, associate professor of computer science and engineering, presented “Empowering Empirical Software Engineering with Gaze Tracking.” Sharif is using eye-tracking technology to study how software engineers work in both academic and industrial settings, with the goal of helping train and retain developers.
“It is important to understand how developers work for several reasons. First, the last time I checked, software developers were humans, too, so it only makes sense to study their behavior and cognitive aspects such as working memory and attention span with respect to building software,” she said. “Second, the more we know about the work process of developers, the better we can support them with evidence-based tools to help them in the process.
“And third … we all know that the world runs on software.”
Sharif envisions a future “where everyone will have access to an eye tracker, just like we have a mouse.”
Ted Dawson, assistant professor of practice of German, modern languages and literatures, presented “German in Nebraska: Beer, Pretzels and Anti-Racism.” Dawson said many of his students have a German heritage. But asked to expand, most students share only “vague stories about some letters in the attic or a family recipe for pretzels.”
In fact, Dawson said, the German American heritage has an anti-racism angle from about 100 years ago, as the German-language press was staunchly opposed to racist violence of the time, partly because German Americans had been victims of discrimination and ethnic violence during World War I. Knowledge of that history faded as the German-speaking culture in Nebraska collapsed.
Dawson’s research explores how teaching German today might be a way to recover and rekindle this anti-racist tradition, looking at historically German-speaking communities in Nebraska “to understand how their experience with race can speak to problems of our moment.”
“German American history in Nebraska is not just about beer and pretzels. It’s about a history of race and ethnicity in our state,” Dawson said.
Wayne Riekhof, associate professor of biological sciences, presented “Hey, You Smell Nice … Wanna Swap Nutrients? How Microbes Communicate with Each Other to Connect, Cooperate and Succeed.” Bacteria, fungi and algae “can live together and talk to each other so that they coordinate their activities to do things that none of them could do alone,” he said.
“Each of them specializes in making one thing or harvesting one thing. And in fact, they set up a little economic system where they trade with each other,” Riekhof said. “But the big question is: How do they coordinate their activities? How do they come together and know that they’re next to someone who has something that they want or need something that they have?”
The answer appears to be something called quorum sensing, which enables them to detect each other in the environment and interact accordingly. They secrete small molecules — quorum-sensing mediators — to “introduce” themselves to each other.
Think of these secretions as little “Hello, my name is …” cards, Riekhof said.