The Academic Minute The Academic Minute features researchers from colleges and universities around the world, keeping listeners abreast of what's new and exciting in the academy and of all the ways academic research contributes to solving the world's toughest problems and to serving the public good.

The Academic Minute

From Northeast Public Radio

The Academic Minute features researchers from colleges and universities around the world, keeping listeners abreast of what's new and exciting in the academy and of all the ways academic research contributes to solving the world's toughest problems and to serving the public good.

Most Recent Episodes

Mark West, University of North Carolina Charlotte – The Humanities and the STEM Discipline...

Can the humanities and the STEM disciplines overlap? Mark West, professor of English and chair of the department of English at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, describes a few examples where applying the techniques of both disciplines was beneficial. Mark I. West is a Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he has taught since 1984. In addition to performing administrative duties, he regularly teaches courses on children's and young adult literature. He has written or edited fifteen books, the most recent of which is Walt Disney, from Reader to Storyteller, which he co-edited with Kathy Merlock Jackson. His articles have appeared in various national publications, such as the New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, Americana, and British Heritage, as well as many academic journals. Before entering academia, he worked as an early childhood educator and professional puppeteer. The Humanities and the STEM Disciplines as Overlapping Circles https://academicminute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/12-10-18-UNC-Charlotte-The-Humanities-and-the-STEM-Discplines-as-Overlapping-Circles.mp3 Nearly every week there is an article proclaiming the demise of humanities departments at universities. These articles are usually framed within the context of a tectonic shift involving the STEM disciplines overtaking the humanities. This framework is fundamentally flawed. A more constructive framework is to think of the humanities and the STEM disciplines as overlapping circles on a Venn diagram. Many faculty members in the English department are deeply involved in science and technology in their scholarship, but their research projects also incorporate the insights associated with the humanities. For example, a literature professor is engaged in a scholarly project on a Romantic era autobiography titled The History of Mary Prince, which is the first autobiography of a black woman published in England. My colleague is interested in the fact that Prince spent ten years working in the salt ponds on Turks Island. In his research, he explores the geological importance, chemical qualities, and physiological effects of salt, and he applies this scientific research to Prince's life and writings. By combining the science of salt with the literary and historical analysis of Prince's text, he is producing scholarship that far richer than would have been the case if he had not incorporated science into his research. Another example involves the research of one of the department's linguists. An expert on language acquisition, this colleague draws on the science of brain development in toddlers in order to better understand their responses to nursery rhymes and picture books. As these examples demonstrate, the humanities and the STEM disciplines have a complementary relationship. So long as humanities departments do not isolate themselves in academic silos, they can still prosper in contemporary academia.

Mark West, University of North Carolina Charlotte – The Humanities and the STEM Discipline...

Siwei Lyu, University at Albany – Detecting DeepFake Videos

On University at Albany Week: To help detect a DeepFake video, looks at the eyes. Siwei Lyu, associate professor of computer science, discusses the battle against DeepFakes. Siwei Lyu is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science, College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is also the Director of Computer Vision and Machine Learning Lab (CVML) at UAlbany. Lyu's research interests include digital image forensics, computer vision, computational neuroscience and machine learning. Detecting DeepFake Videos https://academicminute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/12-07-18-Albany-Detecting-DeepFake-Videos.mp3 A new form of misinformation spread online early this year, called DeepFake vidoes, which use a type of machine-learning system known as a deep neural network, to synthesize images of a person's face, to create fake videos looking very realistic. Because of the potential impact of misuse, detecting deepfake videos becomes a pressing need. Our recent work has suggested a reliable method to distinguish real videos from deepfakes. We observed that subects in deepfake videos blink a lot less frequently in comparison to real people. This is because deepfake algorithms are obtained using images of faces that are available on the internet. Even for people who are photographed often, few images are available online showing their eyes closed. Not only are photos like that rare, but photographers don't usually publish images where the main subjects' eyes are shut. Without training images of people blinking, deepfake algorithms are less likely to create faces that blink normally. This gives us an inspiration to detect DeepFake videos. We developed a method to detect when the person in the video blinks, and use the detected blinking rate to determine if the face is from a live person. This method achieves an overall 95 percent detection rate currently. This is not the final word on detecting deepfakes. The competition between generating and detecting fake videos is analogous to a chess game. In particular, blinking can be added to DeepFake videos by including face images with closed eyes or using video sequences for training. While forgers are getting better at making deceptive videos, we, along with others in the research community will continue to find ways to detect them.

Siwei Lyu, University at Albany – Detecting DeepFake Videos

Igor Lednev, University at Albany – Scanning Blood Spatters at Crime Scenes

On University at Albany Week: Save time at the crime scene, catch more criminals. Igor Lednev, professor of chemistry, explores a faster way to gather details for law enforcement. Dr. Igor Lednev is a chemistry professor in the University at Albany's College of Arts and Sciences and is affiliated with The RNA Institute. Lednev's research focuses on the development and application of novel laser spectroscopy for biomedical and forensics applications. He has co-authored over 120 publications in peer-reviewed journals. Lednev graduated from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Russian Federation, receiving his Ph.D. degree in 1983. Then Dr. Lednev worked at the Institute of Chemical Physics, Russian Academy of Sciences, as a group leader till 1994. Since Perestroika, Dr. Lednev had been a visiting researcher at the University of York with Prof. Ronald Hester. He also worked as an academic visitor in Japan and Canada, and as a research professor at the University of Pittsburgh with Prof. Sanford Asher. Dr. Lednev joined the University at Albany faculty in 2002. His current research is focused on the development and application of novel laser spectroscopy for biomedical and forensic applications. Dr. Lednev was selected recently to serve as an advisory member of the Interagency Working Group, White House Subcommittee on Forensic Science, National Science and Technology Council. Dr. Lednev is a recipient of the Research Innovation Award; he has been interviewed for press coverage over dozen times during 2009-20010 by the leading science agencies including C&E News and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Scanning Blood Spatters at Crime Scenes https://academicminute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/12-06-18-Albany-Scanning-Blood-Spatters-at-Crime-Scenes.mp3 Imagine how much time crime scene investigators could save if they were able to scan a blood splatter and instantly know if it belongs to a male or female, the approximate age of the individual, their ethnicity and how long ago the stain was deposited – all without time-consuming DNA analysis. My students and I have spent the last decade developing a laser-based technology to do just that. The patented technology relies on Raman spectroscopy, which measures the intensity of laser light scattered by a biological stain. No two samples will produce the same Raman spectra, making the measurements unique, almost like a fingerprint. The process is also nondestructive, allowing for the preservation of the material for future analysis. Through our research, we have found that the Rama spectra of bloodstains, and dry traces of other body fluids including semen, sweat and vaginal fluid, coupled with advanced statistics, can tell us many clues about the person who left it behind, with high accuracy. We are currently in the process of developing a portable "point-and-shoot" Raman spectroscopy scanner. The next step is to get this into the hands of law enforcement. We are working with the New York State Police Crime laboratory to make the technology practical and believe it could be used at crime scenes within 5 years.

Igor Lednev, University at Albany – Scanning Blood Spatters at Crime Scenes

Tolga Soyata, University at Albany – Improving Brain-Computer Interfaces

Tolga Soyata, Ph.D. Photo by Carlo de Jesus On University at Albany Week: Communication is always key. Tolga Soyata, associate professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering, discusses how to better communication for those who can't speak or type. Tolga Soyata is an associate professor in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at University at Albany, SUNY. He joined the faculty in the Department of Computer Engineering as an associate professor in 2016. He was formerly at the University at Rochester, where he was an assistant professor-research. His teaching interests include CMOS VLSI ASIC Design, FPGA-based High Performance Data Processing System Design, and GPU Parallel Programming. His research interests include Cyber Physical Systems, Digital Health, and GPU-based high-performance computing. Improving Brain-Computer Interfaces https://academicminute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/12-06-18-Albany-Scanning-Blood-Spatters-at-Crime-Scenes.mp3 Electroencephalography, or EEG, systems capture brain signals from a person's scalp through a device that is worn on their head. These signals are related to the brain activity during when a person is thinking or performing an actual physical activity. A Brain-Computer Interface, or BCI, is a system that processes these signals using a computer, which can allow a patient to communicate with the outside world through just thinking. A BCI Speller is a machine that lets a patient spell words one character at a time using a screen and an EEG hat. The patient is not required to type or speak while using this system; so, a BCI Speller can be used as a communication device for a patient who lost their motor skills, for example, after a stroke. While useful, BCI Spellers suffer from speed and accuracy issues. The speed at which a person can type using a BCI speller is generally only a few words per minute. Additionally, because of the high noise content in EEG signals, the accuracy at which the computer identifies the characters is typically 70 percent. This makes the BCI spellers impractical for many patients and causes frustration when the computer identifies the letters wrong. Most of the existing BCI Speller algorithms were developed when the computational power was not so abundant a decade ago, or even earlier. However, by using today's Graphics Processing Units (GPUs), a system can incorporate a near-super-computer power. In my research, I leverage this very fact to build a completely new type of BCI Speller that is far more accurate and can reach near real-time speed using a new generation of algorithms and hardware. My research can help patients with certain neurological diseases by understanding their operational pathways on the brain and formulating a BCI-based cure for them.

Tolga Soyata, University at Albany – Improving Brain-Computer Interfaces

Wendy Turner, University at Albany – Understanding Why Anthrax Outbreaks Occur

On University at Albany Week: Why are some anthrax outbreaks worse than others? Wendy Turner, assistant professor of biological sciences, looks at the factors that may lead to worse outbreaks. Wendy Turner is an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University at Albany. She runs the Turner Lab, which conducts research into the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases with a focus on environmentally-transmitted and vector-borne parasites and pathogens. Turner was awarded $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation for a four-year project to study anthrax transmission among African wildlife. Understanding Why Anthrax Outbreaks Occur https://academicminute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/12-04-18-Albany-Understanding-Why-Anthrax-Outbreaks-Occur.mp3 Anthrax, often known as an agent of bioterrorism, in its natural form is an ancient and deadly bacterial disease of herbivorous animals. One mystery about anthrax is why outbreaks are so different across the planet. In some areas outbreaks occur annually with few cases, while in other areas explosive outbreaks occur with decades or longer in between. Because of its lifecycle—with short bursts of growth within a host followed by long dormant periods in soil as spores—Bacillus anthracis is a slowly evolving pathogen. In fact, isolates of B. anthracis from across the world are around 99.95% similar. Therefore, when it comes to understanding why anthrax has such different dynamics among locations, the pathogen tends to be treated as a constant, and the source of variation attributed to the uniqueness of the environment or the locally available host species. My previous research on anthrax has shed light on which transmission pathways, host behaviors, and species drive anthrax dynamics in an ecosystem in Namibia. Now, my research group is comparing anthrax transmission dynamics in two ecosystems in southern Africa. Etosha National Park, Namibia and Kruger National Park, South Africa, share many of the same potential host species, and yet are very different in their anthrax outbreaks, and are representative of anthrax variation observed globally. Our recent work indicates that the pathogen's genetic diversity does change significantly over time in one location, but not the other; a finding that conflicts with expectations. We will conduct field and laboratory experiments, and observe host species in both ecosystems, in order to discover if the root cause of differences in anthrax can be attributed to specific ecological or evolutionary interactions. Understanding the triggers of anthrax outbreaks among locations would facilitate the development of predictive tools to improve our risk management in affected areas.

Wendy Turner, University at Albany – Understanding Why Anthrax Outbreaks Occur

Mariya Zheleva, University at Albany – Radio Spectrum

Mariya Zheleva On University at Albany Week: Is the radio spectrum a finite resource? Mariya Zheleva, assistant professor in the department of computer science, explores this question. Dr. Mariya Zheleva is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at University at Albany SUNY. Prior to joining the tenure-track faculty in 2016, she was a visiting assistant professor at the University. Mariya's research interest is in the intersection of wireless networks and Information and Communication Technology for Development. She has done work on small local cellular networks, Dynamic Spectrum Access, spectrum management and sensing and network performance and characterization. Radio Spectrum https://academicminute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/12-03-18-Albany-Radio-Spectrum.mp3 Did you know that the radio spectrum is a precious natural resource, which helps us get electronically connected through our mobile and wireless networks? We increasingly hear that spectrum supply is short, driving up the prices for wireless services. Unlike coal or oil, which when exhausted are really hard to renew, the radio spectrum is instantly renewable. As soon as one device is done using it another device can jump right on. Like time, the spectrum is wasted every moment it is not used. However, our governance regards spectrum as a finite resource, exclusively allocating radio frequencies to technologies and operators. This creates artificial spectrum scarcity, whereby some bands, such as terrestrial television, are rarely used, while others are overloaded. Thus, we are not really in a shortage of radio spectrum, we simply need to stop thinking about it as a finite resource and begin using it more effectively. This requires our devices to become much smarter in how they pick when and where in the spectrum to operate. They need to constantly measure, characterize and make informed, autonomous decisions. This is hard because it requires extra hardware, power, and computation, which has to be introduced in a way that does not interfere with users' regular interaction with mobile networks. Our research at the UbiNET Lab designs new signal features and algorithms that enable lightweight sensing and characterization of spectrum use in the vicinity of a device. We discovered signal representations that help us mine transmitter's behavior and technology even from weak signals. We feed these features in algorithms to support devices' decision making, improve wireless security and inform next-generation spectrum policy.

Mariya Zheleva, University at Albany – Radio Spectrum

Alexandra Kosiba, University of Vermont – The Rebound of the Red Spruce

The red spruce is coming back to the Northeastern United States. Alexandra Kosiba, researcher in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natual Resources at the University of Vermont, explores why these trees have made a rebound after years of decline. Alexandra Kosiba is a forest ecologist and dendrochronologist who specializes in understanding tree response to environmental change. She has worked with the Forest Ecosystem Monitoring Cooperative over the years, first as a graduate student studying tree growth in the FEMCs long-term study site at Mt. Mansfield and as a part-time staff member to author the annual reports. She currently coordinates FEMC projects across the region. The Rebound of the Red Spruce https://academicminute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/11-30-18-Vermont-The-Rebound-of-the-Red-Spruce.mp3 For most of the 20th century, acid rain was a serious environmental threat, and it effected no tree more severely than red spruce. Scientists intensively studied red spruce, ultimately testifying to Congress about this issue. As a result, the Clean Air Act and subsequent amendments were enacted to reduce sulfur and nitrogen pollution that are precursors to acid rain. Now, decades later and following continued monitoring, we are seeing evidence of a recovery for red spruce trees across the Northeast. Using dendrochronology (the study of tree rings), my co-authors and I examined growth from 658 trees spanning five states. We found that more than 75% of red spruce trees and 90% of plots exhibited growth recovery following decades of declines due to acid rain. We assessed the relationship between red spruce growth and factors that may influence growth such as tree and plot characteristics, and climate and environmental variables. Our results showed that during peak acid deposition, red spruce growth was low. While this relationship continued to persist even after regulations were enacted, by the early to mid 2000s we saw a recovery in red spruce growth. These results suggest that environmental regulations can have the positive impacts for which they are intended – although recovery can be slow. Our work also indicated that red spruce are responding positively to recent changes in the climate, specifically longer growing seasons and warmer winters. While this may be favorable for red spruce, it is not beneficial for all tree species, and it is likely that these positive benefits will not persist for long. We don't yet understand how much change red spruce, and other trees in the Northeast, will be able to tolerate in a warmer future.

Alexandra Kosiba, University of Vermont – The Rebound of the Red Spruce

Loren Toussaint, Luther College – Forgiveness

Want to reduce your stress? Try forgiveness. Loren Toussaint, professor of psychology at Luther College, explains how forgiving yourself and others can lead to a more harmonious life. Toussaint earned his Ph.D. in 1998. After his postdoctoral trainee experience at the University of Michigan, he served as an assistant professor at Idaho State University for three years (2001–4). "I taught undergraduates and graduate students in masters and Ph.D. programs and I loved it. But it was Idaho, not Iowa." Toussaint acknowledges that his postdoctoral experience took an additional two years to complete after an already long Ph.D. program of study. Upon reflection, he feels it was well worth it. "It was during that time that I found my passion and learned about the kind of scholar I wanted to become," he says. "I had good mentors in graduate school and as a postdoctoral fellow. They were invaluable to me and prepared me well for a career as a professor. I continue to write and talk with them regularly." The take-home message for students is, don't hurry through your training. "Take your time, invest in the experience, and forge lifelong relationships with your teachers and mentors," he says. "It cost me two years of earnings to do my post-doc, but it has paid annual dividends, so-to-speak, ever since. Invest early and heavily in experiences and relationships that will yield career-long returns." Forgiveness https://academicminute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/11-29-18-Luther-Forgiveness.mp3 We are often hurt by other people and just as frequently we return the favor. Forgiveness of others and oneself both involve reducing negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors and instead promoting the positive variety at yourself or another offender. This doesn't imply condoning, denying, or excusing wrongdoing, and it may or may not involve making up with someone or getting justice. But it is worthwhile. Forgiveness of others and oneself can have remarkable benefits. For instance, we have found that forgiving others was directly related to less stress and symptoms of mental and physical illness. We also found that the most forgiving individuals didn't show the usual association between stress and worse mental health. Similarly, in another recent study we found that the most self-forgiving individuals did not show the usual association between hostility and worse cognitive function. Both types of forgiveness are directly linked to health and buffer the effects of stress on health, and both likely help us feel better by helping us cope with common interpersonal stress and conflict. When learning of the benefits of forgiving others and oneself, it's common to want to learn how to become a more forgiving person. We've found that prayer, mediation, and journaling are good ways of promoting forgiveness, but developing empathy for others and self-compassion are also important. Educational forgiveness programs too are effective in increasing forgiveness of others and oneself, and these programs also have health benefits. It really is true that learning to forgive can help improve the life you live.

Loren Toussaint, Luther College – Forgiveness

Douglas McKechnie, United States Air Force Academy – Government and Social Media

The government is now a troll on social media. Douglas McKechnie, associate professor of law at the United States Air Force Academy, examines the new way we interact with our political leaders. Professor McKechnie is an Associate Professor of Law at the United States Air Force Academy. He is an award winning teacher and scholar who focuses on constitutional law and theory. He has appeared in local, national, and international media outlets discussing legal issues in the news. His scholarship, which explores the intersection between civil liberties and technology, has been featured in USA Today and citied by federal district and appellate court decisions. Government and Social Media https://academicminute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/11-28-18-Air-Force-Government-and-Social-Media.mp3 Americans have entered a new era regarding the way we interact with our government. Technology has removed the traditional temporal, geographical, logistical, and normative impediments that filtered the way our government and elected leaders communicate with us. We have entered an era where the government trolls its own citizens. It is now commonplace for the government, through elected officials, to intentionally use abusive language to sow discord or intimidate citizens via social media. While it might seem obvious that the First Amendment would prohibit the government from trolling us, the First Amendment does not regulate the content of the government's speech; it only prohibits the government from regulating our speech. Instead, the Supreme Court has suggested the democratic process is the most decisive way to stop the government from saying things with which we disagree. Perhaps, however, the democratic process is not the only remedy. Although the government and our elected leaders can speak for themselves, each of us has First Amendment protection from government efforts to chill our speech. In fact, if nothing else, the First Amendment protects citizens from government actions that seek to regulate the content of our speech. As a result, while the government is entitled to say what it likes, when the government uses social media in ways that are intended to do nothing more than coerce or intimidate citizens from articulating opposing viewpoints, the First Amendment can act as the bulwark. In those instances, the First Amendment must prohibit the government from intentionally using social media to discourage unwelcomed speech and compel preferred speech, just as it would with any other government regulation.

Douglas McKechnie, United States Air Force Academy – Government and Social Media

Sean Gerrity, Hostos Community College – Maroons

Not all enslaved people fled to the North. Sean Gerrity, assistant professor of English at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York, describes how some didn't need to go far to find freedom. Sean Gerrity received his Ph.D. in English with a Certificate in American Studies from The City University of New York's Graduate Center in 2017. Since then, he has worked as an Assistant Professor in the English department at CUNY's Hostos Community College in the Bronx. His research focuses on the intersections of race, slavery, freedom, and geography in US literature and the Atlantic world in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, with particular attention to maroons and marronage. He has published an article on marronage in the African American novel Blake; or, The Huts of America in the Fall 2018 issue of the peer-reviewed journal MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. The article was chosen as the "Editor's Choice" for the issue and is currently available for free through the MELUS page on the Oxford University Press website. His research into stories of maroons in the United States, particularly in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina, has been funded by a Lillian Gary Taylor Fellowship in American Literature at the University of Virginia, a Mellon-Reese Research Fellowship at the Virginia Historical Society, and various grants and fellowships from the CUNY Graduate Center and Hostos Community College. He has presented widely on his research at national conferences devoted to literary scholarship and interdisciplinary American Studies. He is currently at work on his first book project, titled A Canada in the South: Marronage, Freedom, and Geography in Antebellum American Literature. Maroons https://academicminute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/11-27-18-CUNY-Hostos-Maroons.mp3 When most Americans think about flight from slavery, they think about the Underground Railroad, and when they think about freedom from slavery, they think about reaching a "promised land" in the free Northern states. But this common story leaves out maroons: enslaved people who took flight from bondage and lived in remote places like swamps, woods, and mountains, still inside southern slaveholding states. In a practice that is way more common than realized, maroons never struck out for the North. In fact, many, many more enslaved people would participate in acts of marronage than would ever try, let alone successfully, to reach the North or Canada. Sometimes maroons fled slavery temporarily and returned after negotiating better treatment from slaveowners. Other times, maroons fled permanently, by themselves or in groups, and established a home—and a sense of freedom—in communities that often contained dwellings, farming plots, and defensive measures. Sometimes maroons lived completely cut off from the surrounding area, but most times they relied upon friends and family who were still enslaved to provide them with food, supplies, and information. Some maroons even constructed furnished underground hideouts to avoid detection. There are stories of maroons who were born and died deep in the swamps of the US South, never directly experiencing the horrors of slavery more familiar to plantation stories. Thinking of freedom in terms of the Underground Railroad or the Emancipation Proclamation is not enough. Rather, when we consider maroons, we find a different kind of freedom in places we would least expect it. Maroons denied their status as property and refused to leave states where slavery was the law of the land. They created a form of freedom for themselves that is based solely on their own agency and actions, a kind of freedom based on living within but being invisible to slaveholding society.

Sean Gerrity, Hostos Community College – Maroons

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