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Researchers SPARK the Nation’s Largest Autism Study


Special to UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (April 21, 2016)Researchers from the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD) in UM’s Department of Psychology just helped launch the Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge, or SPARK, an online research initiative designed to become the largest autism study ever undertaken in the United States.

Sponsored by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), SPARK, for the Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge, will collect information and DNA for genetic analysis from 50,000 individuals with autism—and from their families—to advance our understanding of the causes of this condition and to hasten the discovery of supports and treatments.

UM-NSU CARD is one of a select group of 21 leading national research institutions chosen by SFARI to assist with recruitment. Melissa Hale, clinical assistant professor, and her colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences, Anibal Gutierrez and Michael Alessandri, executive director of UM-NSU CARD, are leading the SPARK effort locally.

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.

“SPARK empowers researchers to make new discoveries that will ultimately lead to the development of new supports and treatments to improve lives, which makes it one of the most insightful research endeavors to date, in addition to being the largest genetic research initiative in the U.S.,” Hale says.

Autism is known to have a strong genetic component. To date, approximately 50 genes have been identified that almost certainly play a role in autism, and scientists estimate that an additional 300 or more are involved. By studying these genes, associated biological mechanisms, and how genetics interact with environmental factors, researchers can better understand the condition’s causes, and link them to the spectrum of symptoms, skills, and challenges of those affected.

SPARK aims to speed up autism research by inviting participation from this large, diverse autism community, with the goal of including individuals with a professional diagnosis of autism and of both sexes and all ages, backgrounds, races, geographic locations, and socioeconomic situations.

SPARK will connect participants to researchers, offering them the unique opportunity to impact the future of autism research by joining any of the multiple studies offered through SPARK. The initiative will catalyze research by creating large-scale access to study participants whose DNA may be selectively analyzed for a specific scientific question of interest.

SPARK also will elicit feedback from individuals and parents of children with autism to develop a robust research agenda that is meaningful for them. Anyone interested in learning more about SPARK or in participating can visit SPARKforAutism.org/card, or e-mail SPARK@psy.miami.edu.

About SPARK

SPARK (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge) is a national autism research initiative that will connect individuals with a professional diagnosis of autism and their biological family members to research opportunities to advance our understanding of autism. SPARK’s goal in doing so is not only to better understand autism, but to accelerate the development of new treatments and supports.

SPARK was designed to be easily accessible to the entire autism community and was fashioned with input from adults with autism, parents, researchers, clinicians, service providers, and advocates.

Registering for this first-of-its-kind initiative can be done entirely online in the convenience of one’s home and at no cost. DNA will be collected via saliva kits shipped directly to participants. Once the SPARK participant’s family has returned their saliva samples and provided some medical and family history information, the SPARK participant will receive a $50 gift card. SPARK will provide access to online resources and the latest research in autism, which may provide participants and families with valuable information to help address daily challenges.

For researchers, SPARK provides a large, well-characterized cohort of genetic, medical and behavioral data, and will result in cost-savings for researchers by reducing start-up costs for individual studies.

SPARK is entirely funded by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI).

 

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Professor a Vital Player in Colombian Peace Talks


Special to UM New

UM College of Arts & Sciences professor to be a special advisor to Colombia’s president as the country continues peace talks with FARC leaders

restrepo

Elvira Maria Restrepo

Elvira Maria Restrepo, assistant professor of geography and regional studies at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences, is taking a public service leave for one year to be a special advisor to Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos while the government continues its peace process with FARC guerrillas.

“I am very excited to join President Santos’ team as they work to build a cohesive plan for peace in Colombia,” said Dr. Restrepo. “This is a unique and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The Colombian government is very close to signing an agreement after more than five decades of war and more than three years of negotiations. As a member of the team, I will be responsible for creating strategies to build peace and implement post-conflict initiatives.”

Dr. Restrepo, who lived in Colombia for 25 years, is an expert in Colombian politics and its justice system. She has written and published numerous research articles and books on Colombia, such as The Colombian Criminal Justice in Crisis: Fear and Distrust (2003), which focuses on the country’s failing judiciary system. She also wrote the entry for Colombia in the first Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice (S. Lavinia and N. Nedelsky, editors, Cambridge University Press, 2013), as well as her most recent publication related to peace building, Against all Odds: Women Victims of Conflict in Colombia (Palgrave Communications, 2016).

Dr. Restrepo will take her leave from the University of Miami in June and plans to travel back and forth from Colombia to her home in South Florida once she takes on the role as special advisor to President Santos.

“I hope this is a successful mission,” she said. “I care deeply about this issue and am a great believer that Colombia can make this peace process happen. This endeavor will be a restructuring of the individual and collective players in Colombia. My immediate goal is to advise the government and help initiate pilot projects geared to societal reconciliation, before scaling them up to the national level.”

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Chilean Minister Launches New Speaker Series

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Chilean Minister Launches New Speaker Series


Special to UM News

chileThe Miami Institute for the Americas (MIA) launched a new speaker series featuring leading policymakers of the Latin American and Caribbean region with a renowned international diplomat, Chile’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Heraldo Muñoz.

Dr. Susan Kaufman Purcell, former director of UM’s Center for Hemispheric Policy, provided commentary. Dr. Felicia Marie Knaul, director of MIA, moderated the event, titled “Chile’s Foreign Policy in a Changing World.” Attendees included the consul generals of Argentina, Chile, and Peru, and the deputy consul generals of Chile and Mexico.

Minster Muñoz shared a global view of policy making with a Latin American perspective based on over 30 years of experience as a researcher, writer, public leader, and national minister. He addressed topics of pressing world significance ranging from the legacies of the Cold War to economic globalization, terrorism, and the current refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe. By offering an insightful perspective on the issues facing many countries today, Minister Muñoz outlined the strategies necessary for designing a foreign policy dedicated to respecting the core principles of democracy, human rights, and sovereignty.

One of the key points made by Minister Muñoz—one highly relevant to policy making on a national and global level—is the impact that social media has on the international community. “I read today that 70 percent of the world population has cellphones [smartphones]. We experience the hopes, the frustrations, and the anger of others directly in real time,” said Minister Muñoz.

Chile has experienced dramatic social and economic changes in the last few decades. Minister Muñoz described many of the positive policies the Chilean government has implemented, from the 2014 tax reform to mobilizing funds to accept migrants from Syria and Afghanistan to Chile.

Additionally, Minister Muñoz outlined three major goals Chile must accomplish to improve the country’s stance on the world stage: “First, we have to deepen our openness to the world economy and add value to our efforts. That’s our first challenge. Second, we must contribute to global governance, particularly for sensitive issues for Chile. And third, we have to continue to prioritize Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said.

Minister Muñoz also spoke about Chile’s contributions to the world, from renowned architect Alejandro Aravena’s accomplishments in Venice to Maritza Soto, the doctoral student from the University of Chile, who discovered a planet twice the size of Earth orbiting a star.

Elaborating on the achievements of Chileans in many other fields, Minister Muñoz summed up the course Chile is taking now: “We should not only be a country of poets, a country of great wines but a country of astronomers, a country of architects, a country of filmmakers.”

Following his remarks, the foreign minister engaged in a question-and-answer session with the audience, fielding inquiries and comments on a diverse range of issues, from changing U.S.-Cuba relations and their potential impact in the broader Caribbean to the outlook for energy production in Chile and South America.

Dr. Knaul closed the forum by reiterating MIA’s commitment to organizing events with distinguished speakers and global leaders as well as supporting other faculty and student activities at UM.  More information on MIA resources can be found at: http://www.as.miami.edu/mia/grants/cosponsorships/

‌An accomplished statesperson, Minister Muñoz was previously the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United Nations Development Programme from 2010 to 2014. He also served as Chile’s Ambassador-Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2003 to 2010. In addition to the high-ranking positions he has held in the international community and Chilean government, he has written and edited over a dozen publications on Inter-American relations and security, Latin American foreign relations, democracy and human rights, multilateral affairs, and international political economy.

Minister Muñoz holds a Ph.D. in international studies from the Korbel School at the University of Denver, a diploma in international relations from the Catholic University of Chile, and a B.A. in political science from the State University of New York at Oswego.

April 08, 2016

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Sociologist Named  AERA Fellow

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Sociologist Named AERA Fellow


Special to UM News

Braddock

Jomills H. Braddock II

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (March 23, 2016)—Sociology Professor Jomills H. Braddock II, whose research interests include race-ethnic relations and sociology of sports and gender equity, is among the 22 scholars selected as 2016 American Educational Research Association (AERA) Fellows for their notable and sustained research achievements.

“It’s always a tremendous honor to have any aspect of one’s work acknowledged by professional peers,” said Braddock, the   co-author of the book Sex Segregation in Sports: Why Separate Is Not Equal. “I have always sought to conduct research that makes a difference. I am especially grateful to receive this honor.”

Founded in 1916, AERA is the largest national interdisciplinary research association dedicated to the scientific study of education and learning. The 2016 AREA Fellows were nominated by their peers, selected by the AERA Fellows Committee, and approved by the AERA Council, the association’s elected governing body.

Braddock and his fellow nominees will be inducted on April 9 during the AERA 2016 annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

“We are delighted to honor these 22 scholars for their contributions to education research and for their dedication to the field,” said AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine. “AERA Fellows exemplify the highest standards of excellence through accomplishment, professionalism, and commitment.”

Other AERA Fellows include professors from Florida State University, Vanderbilt University, University of Notre Dame, Harvard University, and University of California, Berkeley.

 

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Relationships in Distress Find Support Online

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Relationships in Distress Find Support Online


Special to UM News

Nationwide study by University of Miami psychologists show unhappy couples significantly improved relationship satisfaction, reduced depression and anxiety

RelationshipsCORAL GABLES, FLA. (March 18, 2016)—Relationships in distress are linked to mental and physical health problems in partners and their children. Within the U.S., one-third of married couples are distressed, and almost half of first marriages (and more than half of unmarried, cohabiting relationships) end in a divorce or separation.

“We know that high-quality marriage counseling can help couples solve problems and prevent divorce. The problem is that in-person counseling is expensive and time-consuming,” said Brian Doss, a psychology professor at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, and co-developer of the online program OurRelationship.com.

Although couple therapy is effective in reducing relationship distress, it is utilized by less than one-third of divorcing couples, and racial and ethnic minority and lower-income couples receive services at even lower rates.

In a recent study entitled, “A Randomized Controlled Trial of the Web-Based OurRelationship Program: Effects on Relationship and Individual Functioning,” Doss and his UM colleagues tested the efficiency of the eight-hour web-based program. Couples completed online activities, such as selecting a problem to work on and watching videos on how to solve that problem, and had four 15-minute calls with project staff.

With funding from the National Institute of Health, the researchers conducted a nationwide study where 300 couples were randomly assigned to either begin the program or selected for a two-month waitlist control group. “We assessed couples’ relationships before, during, and after the program,” said Doss.

According to the findings, the program improved relationship satisfaction, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and 97 percent of the couples said they would recommend the program to a friend.

“We’re excited about the results because they show that couples can get almost all of the benefit they would get from in-person marriage counseling by completing this brief program,” said Doss. “The results also showed that, by improving their relationship, it made people significantly less depressed and anxious.”

In July, an updated version of the program, sponsored through a federal grant from the Administration for Children and Families, will be available. This version can be completed on a smartphone and will include coaches to help couples through the program. It will be available to married couples, couples living together, and same-sex couples. As part of a research study, couples will be paid up to $200 for completing research assessments.

“I think the most rewarding thing to me about this program is that we’re able to help couples who otherwise wouldn’t get any assistance for their relationship problems,” said Doss. “This program seems especially important for couples who don’t have the time or the money to go to face-to-face counseling. At the end of the day, it’s rewarding to be able to help so many couples and make a real difference in their lives and the lives of their children.”

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

 

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