Monday, June 1, 2020

First-year students' stories of a pandemic: Study seeks data to help them flourish

The data gathered from student stories "may help us to create interventions to support students who may be struggling as they navigate disruptive and stressful events," says Emory psychologist Robyn Fivush.

By Carol Clark

The Silent Generation grew up dealing with the Great Depression and World War II. Now the first-year college students of Generation Z are coming of age amid climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The whole world was opening up to students that started college last fall,” says Robyn Fivush, an Emory professor of psychology and director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts. “They reached the threshold of adulthood. And then the pandemic hit, pulling the rug out from under them. What does it mean for their dreams of research, of travel, of what they want to do with their lives? It creates an even more uncertain future at a point when they were just starting to home in on their passions and form their adult identities.”

Emory University is one of five universities across the country collaborating on a study focused on narratives written by first-year college students from last fall about their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The longitudinal study will follow the students for a year or more to track their psychological well-being and academic performance. The goal of the study is to determine whether the self-narratives can predict better outcomes for the students, and to gather data for any interventions that may be needed to help students to have more rewarding and successful academic experiences.

Fivush, director of the Family Narratives Lab in Emory’s Department of Psychology, is a leader in the field of narrative identity — how we use stories to understand ourselves and to make sense of the world and our place within it. She launched the student narratives study in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri, the University of Utah and Western Washington University.

“I’ve become particularly interested in college-age individuals because it’s such an important time in the formation of identity,” Fivush says. “Even though the majority of Americans do not go away to college, the ones that do are living away from home for the first time, learning time management, how to feed themselves, how to interact with peers and how to make their own decisions.”

The researchers are recruiting students from all five of the universities now for the study. They hope to enroll between 600 and 1,000 participants to write two detailed narratives. The first narrative asks them to describe an event that best captures the challenges they have faced as a result of COVID-19. The second narrative focuses on an event that best captures what they have learned about themselves as a result of COVID-19.

Participants will also fill out questionnaires at the start of the study, and at periodic intervals during the course of it. The questions cover the participants’ living situations and their physical health. They also aim at assessing the participants’ levels of anxiety, stress and depression, whether they are flourishing, and whether they are experiencing positive personal growth and making academic progress.

The hypothesis is that more coherent, positive narratives will be predictive of better mental health, more effective identity processing and better academic progress. “The data may help us create interventions to support students who may be struggling as they navigate disruptive and stressful events,” Fivush says.

Students from lower-income families and first-generation college attendees were already more at risk for not making it to graduation so the fallout from the pandemic may be especially difficult for them to navigate, Fivush says. “If we don’t get some really deep data about what they are experiencing and how they are making decisions we are not going to be able to help them to stay the course and graduate,” she says. “It’s vital to understand and support them. Education remains the single most important path to upward mobility and for resolving inequalities.”

The researchers launched the study with available funds as a year-long project, and they will release useful data as it becomes available. They are currently writing grants to secure funding to extend the study for longer.

Fivush has served in administrative roles at Emory designed to create more integrated and reflective experiences for undergraduates. “I really enjoy administrative work because it’s a chance to think strategically about education and what it is that we’re trying to accomplish,” she says. “Emory is well-situated in terms of its resources and its commitment to the undergraduate experience. We are teaching the change agents and the leaders of tomorrow. The role we play as educators is critical for the future of the world.”

Generation Z, or those born from around the mid-1990s to early 2010s, now make up the largest segment of the population and are the first true “digital natives” — those who have never known the world without the Internet.

“Every college student has a smart phone and is continuously flooded with information,” Fivush says. “That has broken down and fractured shared social narratives. It may give you more leeway to create your own story. On the other hand, it makes the world more complicated, more ambiguous and uncertain. And all of those things can make the identity journey more challenging.”

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How family stories help children weather hard times
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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Behavioral studies in era of COVID-19 raise new concerns about diversity

"The digital divide is undoubtedly going to get worse during this pandemic," says Emory psychologist Stella Lourenco. "This is a huge problem for ensuring equal access to education and to work, not just for ensuring diversity in scientific research."

By Carol Clark

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating an ongoing trend in cognitive psychology to conduct human behavioral experiments online.

“The world has been growing increasingly digital for a while,” says Stella Lourenco, a developmental psychologist at Emory University. “The global pandemic has turbo charged the move towards virtual connection in most areas of life, including psychology research.”

While the Internet offers a powerful tool for collecting data during a time of social distancing, it also raises new concerns regarding the diversity of study participants. Trends in Cognitive Sciences published an opinion piece outlining these concerns, authored by Lourenco and Arber Tasimi, a developmental psychologist at Stanford University who will be joining the Emory faculty in August.

The authors warn that as more research moves online, a growing lack of Internet access among low-income and minority communities may reduce the diversity of study samples, which would limit the ability to generalize scientific findings. As unemployment soars, more people may be forced to choose between paying their rent and buying food or paying for Internet service.

“The digital divide is undoubtedly going to get worse during this pandemic,” Lourenco says. “This is a huge problem for ensuring equal access to education and to work, not just for ensuring diversity in scientific research.”

In their opinion piece, Lourenco and Tasimi urge scientists and grant-funding agencies to join lobbying efforts for government subsidies for Internet service, and “perhaps even advocate for universal availability of Internet access, which is essential for living and operating in contemporary times.”

In some ways, the challenges to diversity presented by the pandemic are a new twist on an old problem, Lourenco says. In recent years, concerns were raised that participants in some in-person psychology studies were mainly college students who are younger than the general population and also tend to be better educated and from higher-income backgrounds and industrialized countries.

A move towards online experiments of human subjects, using crowdsourcing tools such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, was helping alleviate this problem. Online experiments can allow researchers to tap large numbers of participants in an efficient and cost-effective way. “With crowdsourcing tools, you can potentially reach adults from all over the United States, and in other countries, as long as they have Internet access,” Lourenco says.

Children present unique research challenges, Lourenco says, so studies involving them have remained largely in-person. For instance, children tend to grow restless more quickly than adults when they are asked to sit in front of a computer to perform tasks for experiments.

The pandemic, however, is driving more child development laboratories to go online for the first time, Lourenco notes. Platforms such as the Parent and Researcher Collaborative, an online crowdsourcing tool where labs can post studies for families to participate in, are providing infrastructure to support this trend.

As more studies go online, the pandemic is likely impacting Internet access among some groups. In the pre-pandemic era, even low-income people without home Internet might be able to visit a library, a coffee shop or even the parking lot of a restaurant with free wireless service to connect to high-speed Internet. The current situation makes those scenarios less likely to occur.

And the current situation may represent the start of “a new normal,” Lourenco and Tasimi write, “in which threats of disease may require long-term social distancing practices and may differentially impact those in low-income and minority communities.”

They recommend that researchers strive to provide temporary Internet connection to low-income participants, by purchasing mobile hotspots that could be mailed to them or dropped off at their homes. They also recommend that more scientific journals require authors to report detailed demographic information of study participants, whether the studies are conducted online or in person.

They further recommend considering the development of more mobile laboratories, equipped with personal protective equipment and disinfection protocols. Portable labs would allow off-site testing to reach participants in low-income and minority communities.

“I hope that the pressure that the pandemic puts on behavioral research will ultimately create positive changes in the field,” Lourenco says. “Ultimately, it highlights the need to become more sensitive about the demographics of participants involved in psychological studies and about any claims that are made about the generalization of data.”

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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Scientists identify chemicals in noxious weed that 'disarm' deadly bacteria

"Nature is the best chemist, hands down," says Emory ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave, shown with berries from the Brazilian peppertree. The plant is native to South America where traditional healers in the Amazon have used it as a treatment for skin infections. 

By Carol Clark

Scientists have identified specific compounds from the Brazilian peppertree — a weedy, invasive shrub in Florida — that reduce the virulence of antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria. Scientific Reports published the research, demonstrating that triterpenoid acids in the red berries of the plant “disarm” dangerous staph bacteria by blocking its ability to produce toxins.

The work was led by the lab of Cassandra Quave, an assistant professor in Emory University’s Center for the Study of Human Health and the Emory School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatology. The researchers’ laboratory experiments provide the first evidence that triterpenoid acids pack a punch against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA.

The Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolia), native to South America, is also abundant in Florida, where it forms dense thickets that crowd out native species. “It is a noxious weed that many people in Florida hate, for good reason,” Quave says. “But, at the same time, there is this rich lore about the Brazilian Peppertree in the Amazon, where traditional healers have used the plant for centuries to treat skin and soft tissue infections.”

Brazilian peppertree
Quave, a leader in the field of medical ethnobotany and a member of the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center, studies how indigenous people incorporate plants in healing practices to uncover promising candidates for new drugs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest public health challenges of our time.” Each year in the U.S., at least 2.8 million people get antibiotic-resistant infections, leading to more than 35,000 deaths.

“Even in the midst of the current viral pandemic of COVID-19, we can’t forget about the issue of antibiotic resistance,” Quave says. She notes that many COVID-19 patients are receiving antibiotics to deal with secondary infections brought on by their weakened conditions, raising concerns about a later surge in antibiotic-resistant infections.

In 2017, the Quave lab published the finding that a refined, flavone-rich mix of 27 compounds extracted from the berries of the Brazilian peppertree inhibits formation of skin lesions in mice infected with MRSA. The extract works not by killing the MRSA bacteria, but by repressing a gene that allows the bacteria cells to communicate with one another. Blocking that communication prevents the cells from taking collective action, which essentially disarms the bacteria by preventing it from excreting the toxins it uses to damage tissues. The body’s immune system then stands a better chance of healing a wound.

That approach is different from the typical treatment of blasting deadly bacteria with drugs designed to kill them, which can help fuel the problem of antibiotic resistance. Some of the stronger bacteria may survive these drug onslaughts and proliferate, passing on their genes to offspring and leading to the evolution of deadly “super bugs.”

For the current paper, the researchers wanted to narrow down the scope of 27 major compounds from the berries to isolate the specific chemicals involved in disarming MRSA. They painstakingly refined the original compounds, testing each new iteration for its potency on the bacteria. They also used a series of analytical chemistry techniques, including mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and X-ray crystallography to gain a clear picture of the chemicals involved in the anti-virulence mechanism.

The results showed that three triterpenoid acids worked equally well at inhibiting MRSA from forming toxins in a petri dish, without harming human skin cells. And one of the triterpenoid acids worked particularly well at inhibiting the ability of MRSA to form lesions on the skin of mice. The researchers also demonstrated that the triterpenoid acids repressed not just one gene that MRSA uses to excrete toxins, but two genes involved in that process.

“Nature is the best chemist, hands down,” Quave says. She adds that weeds, in particular, tend to have interesting chemical arsenals that they may use to protect them from diseases so they can more easily spread in new environments.

The research team plans to do further studies to test the triterpenoid acids as treatments for MRSA infections in animal models. If those studies are promising, the next step would be to work with medicinal chemists to optimize the compounds for efficacy, delivery and safety before testing on humans.

“Plants are so incredibly complex chemically that identifying and isolating particular extracts is like picking needles out of haystacks,” Quave says. “When you’re able to pluck out molecules with medicinal properties from these complex natural mixtures, that’s a big step forward to understanding how some traditional medicines may work, and for advancing science towards a potential drug development pathway.”

First authors of the current paper are Huaqiao Tang — a former visiting scholar at Emory and a veterinarian at Sichuan Agricultural University in China — and Gina Porras, an Emory post-doctoral fellow. In addition to senior author Quave, co-authors include Francois Chassagne and James Lyles, who are both members of the Quave lab; John Basca, director of Emory’s X-ray Crystallography Center; and Alexander Horswill and Morgan Brown from the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Global experts call for mental health science to combat pandemic's impacts

Emory anthropologist Carol Worthman is among 25 mental health experts who issued a call for global action on mental health science surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Carol Clark

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 infected about 8,000 people and killed hundreds. Although SARS was stamped out relatively quickly, and before it could spread globally, it left a lingering impact. One study found that most SARS survivors in two major hospitals had high levels of psychological distress a year after the outbreak.

“Just surviving the pandemic was not the end of the story,” says Carol Worthman, professor of anthropology at Emory University. “And the COVID-19 pandemic is much more pervasive than SARS. It affects everybody, worldwide. Even those who do not get COVID-19 will have to live with the fallout.”

Worthman is among 25 mental health experts who issued a call for global action on mental health science surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, recently published by The Lancet Psychiatry. In a position paper, they stress the immediate need for creating neuro-psychological databases concerning the pandemic’s impacts on brain health, mental health and overall well-being. These databases are needed to support evidence-based responses to the pandemic and to develop longer-term strategies to promote mental health and well-being.

Even as nations mobilize to treat patients, develop drugs and vaccines, and salvage economies, coordinated efforts on a similar scale are needed for mental health, Worthman says. Her research focuses on how cultural and social factors interact with human health, for better or for worse.

“We’re used to thinking about physical diseases and mental illnesses as two separate things,” Worthman says, “but the two actually go hand-in-hand. Mental illness doesn’t just affect the lives of individuals, but of those around them. And like a virus, mental illness is invisible, in a way, and can be even harder to test and screen for.” Before the pandemic, depression already ranked in the top 10 causes of poor health worldwide and had climbed to the top four health problems related to healthy years of life lost.

The impacts of the lockdowns and social isolation on the mental health of vulnerable people are among the key questions that need to be tackled in an international response to COVID-19, the experts write. Their paper also stresses the need to research the best ways to move people to follow the advice of public health messages without unduly increasing stress and anxiety.

“People are especially hurting right now, they’re suffering, and they’re looking for ways to feel better,” Worthman says. “If we don’t develop pro-social ways to help people cope now and, in the future, we’re going to be living with the consequences for a long time.”

She points out that the 1918 flu pandemic, following on top of the first world war, helped set the stage for the social disruption and sense of hopelessness that fueled political movements and nationalism leading to the second world war.

One critical need is to gather data and develop strategies to support people currently working in high-intensity, high-risk settings during the pandemic, such as healthcare workers. “Burnout and higher suicide rates among healthcare providers had already been a growing problem for years,” Worthman says.

She cites the mental health effects of massive unemployment as another critical area. “Work is a huge part of peoples’ identities, not to mention their livelihoods,” she says. “Depression, anxiety, stress and lack of control are all things that undermine resilience. What can we do to help people stay resilient when they’re losing their sense of dignity and self-worth and predictability for their futures?”

Youth and adolescent mental health is another vital area to consider, Worthman says. “Young people are having to watch a remapping of the social-economic political world and try to find their way through it. Their future is our future and they need to be part of the solution. How do we mobilize youth to help them make their future as great as possible? Do we make supporting youth as important as saving airlines and other industries?”

COVID-19 is revealing and widening existing fault lines in social, economic and political systems. “We now have the challenge and opportunity to heal those ruptures even as we seek to heal ourselves of COVID-19,” Worthman says.

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How family stories help children weather hard times

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

How family stories help children weather hard times

Stories of family members — who persevered by simply putting one foot in front of the other and by maintaining loving bonds — reassure children that their family will also find a way to get through a situation, says Emory psychologist Robyn Fivush. (Getty Images)

By Carol Clark

In times of great stress, stories sustain us, says Robyn Fivush, director of the Family Narratives Lab in Emory’s Department of Psychology.

Family reminiscing is especially important, says Fivush, who is also director of Emory’s Institute for the Liberal Arts. When children learn family stories it creates a shared history, strengthens emotional bonds and helps them make sense of their experiences when something senseless happens — like the current global pandemic.

“When we don’t know what to do, we look for stories about how people have coped in the past,” Fivush says. “You can see that happening in the media now, in articles comparing today to historical events, like the 1918 flu pandemic and 9/11.”

She sums up the 9/11 narrative in the United States: “A horrific event happened; we were attacked. But we came together as a nation, persevered and rose back up together.”

Such narratives help build a shared capacity for resilience. “That’s true for nations and it’s true for families,” Fivush says.

Over decades of research, Fivush and Emory psychologist Marshall Duke developed a scale to measure how much children know about their family histories. Using this scale, they conducted a study that began just before 9/11 and continued for two years. “We found that in families that talked in more coherent and emotionally open ways about challenging family events with 10- to 12-year-olds, the children coped better over the two-year period than in families telling less emotionally expressive and coherent stories about their challenges,” Fivush says.

The families in the study were all comparable, middle-class, two-parent households.

Standardized measures showed that children in the families that told the more coherent family narratives had better self-esteem, higher levels of social competence, higher quality friendships, and less anxiety and stress. They also had fewer behavioral problems, as reported by parents.

Tips for telling family stories 

For families under quarantine together, opportunities abound to weave family stories into conversation, Fivush says. The stories need to be tailored to different ages, she adds, so that children are emotionally and cognitively able to understand them.

Elementary school children, for example, are not ready to digest complex family stories. “With younger kids, it’s really more about helping them structure their own experiences into stories that help them process their feelings,” Fivush says. “You want to start by asking them non-judgmental, open-ended questions like: ‘Why do you think you were upset yesterday? What could you have done to make yourself feel better? What can we do about this?'"

She uses an example of a little girl who left her favorite storybook at her school and was worried that it wasn’t going to be there when she went back. A mother could tell a story about how she left a favorite toy somewhere when she was little but later her father took her back and they found it.

“Tell them a story from your own life that provides a model for how everybody forgets things, but you can get them back,” Fivush says. “Or, ‘My brother used to tease me a lot, too. But now he’s your Uncle Bill and we love each other.’ Parents are identity figures. Little kids are fascinated by stories about their parents when they were little.”

Ultimately, the goal is to help children construct a coherent story that validates their feelings while helping them think of resolutions.

“Particularly with very young kids, don’t make assumptions about what they may be upset or sad about,” Fivush says. “You may be surprised. Stay open to what your children of all ages may be experiencing.”

Middle school children are starting to have more of an ability to understand the bigger picture. “By the age of 10, children are thinking in the abstract and because of that, they are likely to be anxious about the future,” Fivush says.

By this stage, children begin to understand stories on a deeper level. It’s not that every story needs a happy ending or a silver lining, Fivush stresses. “You can explain to your child, ‘We don’t know yet how this story is going to end but let me tell you about some challenging times I got through, or your grandparents got through.’”

Examples of family members — who persevered by simply putting one foot in front of the other and by maintaining loving bonds — reassure children that their family will also find a way to get through a situation.

When they reach adolescence, children are especially vulnerable. “High school is a time when children start to really think about themselves as a person and what their life is going to be like,” Fivush says. “They are mulling big questions, like ‘Who am I? What are my passions?’ And now the pandemic has pulled the rug out from under them.”

By the age of 16, parents can start talking to a teen-ager about their own vulnerabilities as people and as parents. “Emphasize how you can build strength together, as a family,” Fivush says. She suggests finding ways of giving teen-agers a role in supporting younger children in positive ways.

“Human beings are really altruistic and empathetic. We feel good when we help other people, particularly people that we love,” Fivush says. “That’s going to make every family member feel better about themselves and about each other.”

Silly, funny family stories are also valuable, along with small touchpoints about the past that emerge spontaneously, Fivush says. “When you’re cooking together with your children it’s a perfect time to say, ‘When I was a little girl, my mother taught me how to cook this dish. We used to have pot roast every Friday and I would peel the carrots.’”

Adolescents are especially hungry for these kinds of stories, she adds. “If they roll their eyes, so be it, they’re still listening,” Fivush says. “It’s the really mundane, everyday stories that reassure them that life is stable. It provides a sense of continuity, of enduring relationships and values. They need to know that they come from a long line of people who are strong, who are resilient, who are brave. And who can cook. The definition of who they are is not just something independent and autonomous, spun from nowhere. It’s embedded in a long, intergenerational family story.”

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