Tag Archive | "college of arts and sciences"

Study Examines Sex’s Role in Zika’s Spread

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Study Examines Sex’s Role in Zika’s Spread

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News

Shingui Ruan

Shigui Ruan

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (June 23, 2016)—Before British long jumper Greg Rutherford departs for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer, he’ll leave an important part of himself behind: a sample of his frozen sperm.

Rutherford, whose wife has expressed the desire to have more children, is preserving his sperm as a precautionary measure against Zika, which has swept across more than 30 Latin American and Caribbean countries, with Brazil being hardest hit. Transmitted primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the virus can also be spread from an infected man to a woman during sex and can cause the severe birth defect known as microcephaly in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and damaged brains.

Few would question Rutherford’s action, but what remains unclear is how much of a role sexual transmission plays in the spread and control of Zika.

Now, in a first-of-its-kind study, a University of Miami researcher and others have created a mathematical model in an attempt to answer that very question.

By itself, Shigui Ruan’s model is not intended to measure the rates of Zika transmission but to delineate the virus’s possible pathways and to help determine which of those transmission routes—either mosquito-borne or sexual transmission—is most important in investigating the spread and control of the virus.

“Zika is a complicated virus,” said Ruan, a professor of mathematics in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s not as simple as passing a cold back and forth.”

To build his model, he and his team combined the two modes of transmission into a set of equations, and then calibrated their model to Zika epidemic rates—obtained through the Pan American Health Organization—in Brazil, Colombia, and El Salvador. Using factors such as the biting and mortality rates of the Aedes aegypti and how partners protect themselves during a sexual encounter, the researchers then produced what is called a “basic reproduction number,” essentially the number of infections resulting from one initial infection in a population.

The team found that the average number of new infections that can be traced directly back to a single case of Zika comes out to 2, and that sexual transmission accounts for only 3 percent of new cases.

“Our analyses indicate that the basic reproduction number of Zika is most sensitive to the biting rate and mortality rate of mosquitoes,” said Ruan, “while sexual transmission increases the risk of infection and epidemic size and prolongs the outbreak.”

Their results are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The model can give epidemiologists and others a good idea of where they should target management efforts, and in this case, mosquito-control measures should remain the most important mitigation strategy to control the virus, said Ruan.

Not that safe sex isn’t important. “It’s a reason to be concerned because on top of mosquito transmission, we now have sexual transmission of the virus,” he explained, noting cases of sexually transmitted Zika in Argentina, Chile, France, Peru, the United States, and other countries.

Zika can stay in semen longer than in blood, though it is not known for how long, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports on its website.

“You could conceivably have somebody who was infected, and didn’t even necessarily know they were infected, carrying the disease around for a while, have some sexual encounter, and infect somebody else,” said Chris Cosner, a University of Miami mathematics professor who has collaborated with Ruan on other studies. “I don’t think it’s been documented. But possibly, in theory, that could result in a source for an outbreak that seems to come from nowhere. So for this particular disease, because of the complexity of the transmission routes and the fact that some people can stay in the infected phase for a long time, it’s more complicated than your average disease.”

Read more about how Ruan and other researchers employ multiple disciplines to study vector-borne diseases.

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Researchers Employ Multiple Disciplines to Study Vector-Borne Diseases

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (June 21, 2016) – Credit a 2011 article in the journal Science for inspiring University of Miami researcher Shigui Ruan to create a mathematical model on the impact of mosquito-borne and sexual transmission on the spread and control of Zika.

That article, “Sex After a Field Trip Yields Scientific First,” reported on a Colorado State University vector biologist who, after returning from a research trip to Senegal, passed along the Zika virus to his wife in what is believed to be the first documented case of sexual transmission of an insect-borne disease.

“It [the journal article] really piqued my curiosity,” said Ruan, who recently published the research results of his mathematical model in the journal Scientific Reports.

This isn’t the first time Ruan has used math to investigate vector-borne diseases. Four years ago, he and a colleague proposed a mathematical model to study malaria transmission, determining that the disease can potentially die out if movement of exposed, infectious, or recovered humans between two regions remains weak.

Ruan is actually part of a consortium of University-wide researchers in multiple disciplines who have been collaborating for years on different vector-borne studies. From an investigation in Honduras focusing on the distribution of breeding sites of the Aedes aegypti—the primary vector for Zika—to a mosquito-control project in Guayaquil, Ecuador, that targets the sugar-feeding behavior of male and female Aedes aegypti, their research runs the gamut.

“We are all looking at similar kinds of questions but through the lenses of different disciplines,” said Chris Cosner, a professor of mathematics who has worked with Ruan on a study focusing on Rift Valley fever in Egypt. “Vector-borne diseases are complicated enough that it’s pretty hard to get a good handle on them with one set of tools. You have to go through a few different disciplines. Biologists, epidemiologists, mathematicians, geographers—everybody brings a little different set of tools and insights to the problem.”

Learn more about UM’s vector-borne research at http://climate.miami.edu.


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UM Researchers Develop Blueprint to Thwart ISIS Online

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UM Researchers Develop Blueprint to Thwart ISIS Online

Neil Johnson and his team applied a mathematical equation to

UM physicist Neil Johnson and his team employed a mathematical equation to find serious social media support groups for ISIS.

By Deserae E. del Campo
and Maya Bell

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (June 16, 2016)—A team of University of Miami researchers has developed a model to identify behavioral patterns among serious online groups of ISIS supporters that could provide cyber police and other anti-terror watchdogs a roadmap to their activity and indicators when conditions are ripe for the onset of real-world attacks.

The researchers, who identified and analyzed second-by-second online records of 196 pro-ISIS groups operating during the first eight months of 2015, found that even though most of the 108,000-plus individual members of these self-organized groups probably never met, they had a striking ability to adapt and extend their online longevity, increase their size and number, reincarnate when shut down—and inspire “lone wolves” with no history of extremism to carry out horrific attacks like the nation’s deadliest mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando this week.

“It was like watching crystals forming. We were able to see how people were materializing around certain social groups; they were discussing and sharing information—all in real-time,” said Neil Johnson, a physicist in the College of Arts and Sciences who uses the laws of physics to study the collective behavior of not only particles but people. “The question is: Can there be a signal of how people are coming collectively together to do something without a proper system in place?”

The answer, according to the study—“New online ecology of adversarial aggregates: ISIS and beyond,” to be published in the journal Science on June 17—is yes. Generalizing a mathematical equation commonly used in physics and chemistry to the development and growth of ad hoc pro-ISIS groups, Johnson and his research team witnessed the daily interactions that drove online support for these groups, or “aggregates,” and how they coalesced and proliferated prior to the onset of real-world campaigns.

The researchers suggest that by concentrating just on these relatively few groups of serious followers—those that discuss operational details like routes for financing and avoiding drone strikes—cyber police and other anti-terrorist watchdogs could monitor their buildup and transitions and thwart the potential onset of a burst of violence.

“This removes the guess work. With that road map, law enforcement can better navigate what is going on, who is doing what, while state security agencies can better monitor what might be developing,” said Johnson, who describes the research in an article he wrote for The Conversation, an academic blog. “So the message is: Find the aggregates—or at least a representative portion of them—and you have your hand on the pulse of the entire organization, in a way that you never could if you were to sift through the millions of Internet users and track specific individuals, or specific hashtags.”

While the Johnson team concentrated on the ecology of collective behavior, not on single individuals, he said their roadmap could eventually help security officials track individuals like Omar Mateen, who claimed allegiance to ISIS and other extremist groups during his shooting rampage that killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub early Sunday. Authorities say the New York-born Florida man was a lone actor who was radicalized online.

“Our research suggests that any online ‘lone wolf’ actor will only truly be alone for short periods of time,” Johnson said. “As a result of the coalescence process that we observe in the online activity, any such lone wolf was either recently in an aggregate or will soon be in another one. With time, we would be able to track the trajectories of individuals through this ecology of aggregates.”

VK Social Media

The researchers unraveled the connections and communication of serious ISIS supporters on  VKontakte, Europe’s largest online social networking service, based in Russia.

For the study, Johnson and his research team monitored pro-ISIS groups on VKontakte, the largest online social networking service in Europe, which is based in Russia and has more than 350 million users from multiple cultures who speak multiple languages. Unlike on Facebook, which very quickly shuts down these groups, they are able to survive longer on VKontakte.

The researchers began their online search of pro-ISIS chatter manually, identifying specific social media hashtags, in multiple languages, which they used as “signals” to trace the more serious groups. Study co-author Stefan Wuchty, a computer science professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and member of the Center for Computational Science, compared the hashtag search to throwing a stone in a lake, watching the ripples, then following each one.

The hashtags were tracked to the online groups, and the data was fed into a software system that mounted the search; the results were repeated until the chase lead back to groups previously traced in the system. The mathematical equation Johnson and his team borrowed from chemistry and physics illustrated the fluctuation of online groups and pointed to possible predictions.

“The mathematics perfectly describes what we saw in real-time—how big and quickly these online groups grew and how quickly they were shut down by agencies or other monitoring groups,” Johnson said.

As cyber police or other anti-terror entities got better at shutting down the groups, Johnson and his team watched the groups reincarnate by changing their names and identities, or shutting themselves down and going quiet, as if they were in stealth mode, only to reappear under a different identity later.

“Much of the scientific community is focusing on different explanations as to why social media is so important, and I think we found research that presents a kind of crystallization method, looking at the dynamics of these groups and how they crystalize, appear, and morph into other groups.”

Johnson and his team’s quest to distinguish serious pro-ISIS support from casual chatter began largely by coincidence in 2014, when he was working on a grant from the U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity to develop a model for predicting unrest or mass protest based on online activity. Just as that grant was concluding, ISIS emerged on the world stage, becoming a feared and familiar household name after the beheading of one then another U.S. journalist on camera. More would follow.

The second journalist to lose his life in such a ghastly fashion, Miami native Steven Sotloff, has ties to the University of Miami. To honor their son’s work overseas, his parents established the 2Lives: Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial Foundation, which awarded its first Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial Endowed Scholarship to a UM student in the School of Communication.

In addition to Johnson and Wuchty, other coauthors of the Science study are UM’s Yulia Vorobyeva and Nicolas Velazquez, of the Department of International Studies; Minzhang Zheng, Andrew Gabriel, Hong Qi, Pedro Manrique, and Chaoming Song, all from the Department of Physics; Elvira Restrepo, of the Department of Geography and Regional Studies; and from Harvard University’s Department of Government, Daniela Johnson.

Johnson credited the College of Arts and Sciences Complexity Initiative, under which several of the co-authors were hired as faculty, for enabling researchers from such diverse disciplines to tackle such a significant real-world problem.

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New Program to Offer Certificate in Behavior Analysis

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New Program to Offer Certificate in Behavior Analysis

Special to UM News

AustismCertificationAddressing the growing demand for qualified behavioral therapists in the treatment of individuals with autism and other developmental conditions, the psychology department at the College of Arts and Sciences is implementing a new program for graduate students seeking a professional certificate in applied behavioral analysis.

The post-baccalaureate Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program is a structured, full-time graduate program designed to benefit students who have earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field. The year-long certification program begins in the fall 2016 semester.

“The program will provide students with excellent classroom instruction as well as the opportunity to gain specialized practicum experience working in our on-site clinic alongside University of Miami faculty,” said Dr. Anibal Gutierrez, a research associate professor in the psychology department.

Students in the graduate program who complete all coursework and experiential requirements will be eligible to take the exam to become a Board Certified assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA). The BCaBA is a certification offered by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), an internationally recognized credentialing agency for practitioners of applied behavior analysis.

The program is designed to provide graduate students with the knowledge of behavior analytic concepts and clinical competency while also acquiring the skills to uphold and maintain ethical and responsible conduct, as defined by the BACB.

Currently, the demand for behavior analysts is growing in today’s job market, and according to the BACB’s website, there has been a constant increase in individuals seeking the certification since its inception in 1999.

The method of applied behavioral analysis is a recommended treatment for individuals with autism and endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General, American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, among others.

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CARD Aims to Awaken Autism Entrepreneurs

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CARD Aims to Awaken Autism Entrepreneurs

Special to UM News

card.grantCORAL GABLES, Fla. (May 26, 2016)—Michael Alessandri, clinical professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences and executive director of the UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), was awarded a $515,000 multi-year grant from The Taft Foundation for his proposal to help employ adults with autism and other related disabilities in the workplace.

The proposal, “Awakening the Autism Entrepreneur,” seeks to help those who are interested in creating businesses that employ people with autism. The three-year grant will go towards funding educational workshops nationwide, podcasts, webinars, and other dynamic and innovative activities for those interested in pursuing social enterprises employing people with autism.

“I felt great and a bit overwhelmed when I received word of our grant being funded, but I feel excited now about the extraordinary opportunities that are ahead of us,” said Alessandri. “This is a potential game changer if we get this information and this kind of support out to people who are eager to create more employment opportunities for autistic adults, but perhaps don’t have the information and support to proceed in a manner that would allow them to create a viable, sustainable business.”

The process began when CARD collaborated with the internationally acclaimed Rising Tide Car Wash five years ago. Nearly 85 percent of the employees at Rising Tide have some form of autism. After helping provide technical expertise and support in employing autistic adults, Alessandri pitched a preliminary proposal to The Taft Foundation for funding in entrepreneurship programs and support nationwide. Shortly after, Alessandri received a letter in the mail informing him of the grant award.

“Our mission is to change the paradigm of how the world thinks of people with disabilities,” he said. “We think of them as people with unique abilities, and we need to create employment opportunities that embrace their uniqueness and strengths as opposed to exploit their disabilities.”

This initiative incorporates two aspects of training: CARD offering expertise in how to work with autistic adults, and Rising Tide teaching would-be entrepreneurs the business side of things. For Alessandri, the goal is not to provide charity for people with autism, but opportunities for them to be independent.

Currently, 80 to 90 percent of people with autism are either unemployed or underemployed in the workplace. Clinical research has shown that many people with autism function well in highly regimented systems with clear expectations and systematic processes and procedures. Where the average person becomes bored with repetition, people with autism may be more comfortable with the predictable nature of such work.

“We talk about autism not as a disability, but as a potential competitive advantage for businesses,” said Alessandri. “People with autism are highly reliable and with the right support can be very productive.”

To date, a second car wash is being built in Margate, Florida, with the same business model as Rising Tide. Alessandri’s long-term goal is to form an autism entrepreneurship institute at UM that functions as a hub in the South Florida area for people who can work together with those with autism.

Housed in the UM College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology, UM-NSU CARD is a state-funded resource and support program dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with autism and related disabilities including deaf-blindness and pervasive developmental disorders.

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