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Neuroscientist Teams Up with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue on Mindfulness Study

Special to UM News


Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey and UM neuroscientist Amishi Jha

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (July 13, 2015) – The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department will partner with University of Miami neuroscientist Amishi Jha on an innovative research study to investigate how mindfulness and relaxation training can help firefighters better cope with the high stress and challenging nature of their demanding service.

A recent study by Jha and her colleagues suggests that mindfulness training bolsters cognitive performance in pre-deployment military populations, and may be useful in other high-stress, high-performance cohorts.

“Our program aims to understand if the human attention system can be made stronger and more effective using these training programs,” said Jha, associate professor of psychology and director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the UMindfulness Initiative.

Jha, the lead researcher on the study, is collaborating with Scott Rogers, director of programs and training for the UMindfulness Initiative and of UM Law’s Mindfulness in Law Program. Their previous research found that mindfulness training helps curb mind wandering and improves attention as high-stress undergraduates near exam season. Jha will begin the new project this summer, with Rogers delivering an innovative mindfulness and relaxation training program to Miami-Dade firefighters.

The Jha-fire rescue collaboration is one phase of a larger research project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, which aims to determine if mindfulness and relaxation training might help protect individuals in high-stress, high-demand careers—an area of interest that is drawing national attention.

“These programs have been found to reduce stress, improve sleep and mood, as well as protect against depression and improve relationships,” Jha said. “Through our work with the military, we’ve also found that mindfulness- and relaxation-based brain fitness programs improves memory, attention, and situational awareness.”

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey said, “We know that even though firefighters are strong and resilient, we, too, may suffer from the high pressures and stresses of our daily work.”

Gary Gonzalez, a retired battalion chief for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, has been practicing mindfulness for nearly two years. “There is no question it would have improved my work performance, my leadership and decision-making skills, and my ability to more effectively manage the stress of the job if I had started 20 years ago,” he said. “I wish I was given the opportunity to learn this brain fitness program while I was still working.”

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Team Identifies Gene Causing Neuorological Disorders

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Team Identifies Gene Causing Neuorological Disorders


This high-resolution microscope image shows the donut-shaped outer mitochondrial membranes. Unlike typical mitochondrial transporters, SLC25A46 localizes to the outer mitochondrial membrane.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (July 13, 2015)—Researchers at the University of Miami have discovered and characterized a previously unknown disease gene linked to the degeneration of optic and peripheral nerve fibers. Their study, “Mutations in SLC25A46, encoding a UGO1-like protein, cause an optic atrophy spectrum disorder,” is published in the journal Nature Genetics.

Patients with mutations in this gene present symptoms similar to optic atrophy and Charcot-Marie-Tooth Type 2 (CMT2), including vision loss and weakening of the lower leg and foot muscles beginning in the first decade of life.

The novel variants occur in a gene called SLC25A46 that functions in mitochondria, organelles inside animal cells known as the “cellular engines.” They transform food into fuel that allow cells to carry out energy-demanding functions.

“Mitochondria play a large role in human health,” said Alexander Abrams, Ph.D. student in neuroscience at the Miller School of Medicine and first author of the study. “Although we study rare diseases such as CMT2 and optic atrophy, the implications encompass all forms of neurodegeneration, including Lou Gehrig’s and Parkinson’s Diseases.”

Mitochondria constantly undergo fusion and fission to respond to cellular energy demands. By changing their size and connectivity through fusion and fission, mitochondria can travel to regions in cells where they are needed.

“Our study reveals that disrupting SLC25A46 causes mitochondria to become both more highly interconnected and improperly localized in cells,” said Julia E. Dallman, assistant professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences and a senior author of the study. “These data support a critical role for SLC25A46 and mitochondrial dynamics in the establishment and maintenance of neuronal processes.”

SLC25A46 encodes an atypical protein in the SLC25 family. SLC25 family members act like a channel, transporting molecules across the bilayer membranes inside mitochondria. But unlike the majority of human SLC25 family members (there are 53) that transport molecules across the inner mitochondrial membrane, SLC25A46 settles on the outer mitochondrial membrane where it regulates mitochondrial dynamics.

Mutations in the genes associated with mitochondria dynamics OPA1 and MFN2 are linked to similar mitochondrial disorders. Homologous genes in baker’s yeast work in combination with a gene called UGO1, which has ancestral similarities to SLC25A46. The new findings suggest that the SLC25A46 and UGO1 proteins may play similar roles.

Given the similarities between the diseases caused by mutations in OPA1, MFN2 and SLC25A46, these genes could be involved in common pathological mechanisms of neurodegeneration, the study says.

“This finding builds on our discovery of MFN2 as a major disease gene in this area over 10 years ago,” said Stephan Züchner, professor and chair of the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Department of Human Genetics, at the Miller School of Medicine, and a senior author of the study. “Only through the new genome sequencing methods and active global data exchange were we able to solve this puzzle.”

The study is a collaborative effort with investigators from nine universities and research institutions in the United States, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Coauthors from UM’s Dr. John T. Macdonald Department of Human Genetics and the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics are post-doctoral fellows Adriana Rebelo and Alleene V. Strickland, graduate Michael A. Gonzalez; Ph. D. candidate Feifei Tao, Fiorella Speziani, former research project manager; Lisa Abreu, clinical research coordinator; and Rebecca Schüle, M.D., Ph.D., visiting Marie-Curie Fellow. Other Miller School co-authors are Antonio Barrientos, professor of neurology, and Flavia Fontanesi, research assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

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Autism Researchers Examine Factors that Strengthen Parental Bonds

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Autism Researchers Examine Factors that Strengthen Parental Bonds

UM News

Researchers  find personality traits that predict relationship satisfaction among parents of children with autism spectrum disorder

happy couple with childCORAL GABLES, Fla. (July 6, 2015) – Parenting can be stressful and parenting children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often means facing more challenges than those experienced by parents of typically developing children. The pressure can take its toll on the parent’s relationship. To understand what helps moms and dads of children with ASD strengthen their bond, researchers at the University of Miami  are examining the individual factors that predict relationship satisfaction for these couples. Read the full story

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Political Scientist to Study New Zealand’s Female Prime Ministers


Political Scientist to Study New Zealand’s Female Prime Ministers

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (June 30, 2015) — Over the past four decades, the number of women holding national-level political office has steadily increased throughout the world. However, only one country has appointed two women to its top leadership post: New Zealand.

Next year, Louise Davidson-Schmich, associate professor of political science in the UM College of Arts & Sciences, will spend four months there, conducting research on how these two former Prime Ministers – Jenny Shipley, 1997-1999, and Helen Clark, 1999-2008 – represented New Zealand women during their terms, and the lasting effect of their tenures on female Kiwis.

Davidson-Schmich will be based at the Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand’s capital city, where she will have access to parliamentary transcripts and news archives, and will be able to meet with individuals who worked closely with these two dynamic but very different leaders.

Davidson-Schmich’s project was inspired by her ongoing research on gender and politics in Germany, and Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“I could not always determine whether Merkel’s policies were inspired by her gender or by some other factor,” Davidson-Schmich says, noting that Merkel grew up in communist East Germany, and was trained as a physicist.

So she set her sights on New Zealand, “a country which experienced two very different female leaders serving back-to-back terms.”

She explains, “If I could identify commonalities in the ways in which two very different women governed, I could better make claims that their gender played a role.”

Davidson-Schmich will travel to New Zealand in February 2016, and conduct her research there through July. She will also teach an undergraduate course on the comparative political economy of post-industrial democracies.

The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program provides approximately 800 teaching and/or research grants to U.S. faculty and experienced professionals in a wide variety of academic and professional fields each year. Program participants design their own research projects aimed at enhancing their existing scholarly interests.

The fellowship will give Davidson-Schmich “a wonderful opportunity to expand my intellectual horizons beyond the European focus of my research to date,” she says. Her forthcoming book is about gender quotas in Germany, and she has edited a special issue of the journal German Politics focusing on Merkel’s Chancellorship.

Davidson-Schmich served as the Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program in the UM College of Arts & Sciences for the 2014-2015 academic year. She received her Ph.D. from Duke University.

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Taking the Stage with Samantha Dockser

By Megan Ondrizek
UM News

Actress Samantha Dockser.Photo by Lonnie Tague 2

Acting major Samantha Dockser landed the lead role of Rachela in the world premiere of Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires at the GALA Theatre in Washington, D.C. Photo by Lonnie Tague.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (June 10, 2015) – The first time Samantha Dockser performed in front of an audience, she was rewarded with a plate of cookies rather than a standing ovation.

“I played Grandma in my kindergarten class performance of No One Makes Cookies Like Grandma,” Dockser recalled, speaking from her home in the Washington, D.C. suburb of McLean, Virginia. “After the performance, we were all allowed to eat the cookies.”

At this stage of her career, Dockser can expect a packed house and plenty of applause. A rising senior acting major in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences Department of Theatre Arts, Dockser is spending the month of June starring in Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires at the GALA Theatre in Washington.

The bilingual musical tells the true story of girls and young women from poor, Jewish villages in Poland and Russia who were lured to Argentina in the early 1900s with false promises of a better life. Instead, they ended up as prostitutes or sex slaves for an international slave trading organization.

During her return home for spring break, Dockser auditioned for the musical’s lead role of Rachela after seeing the call for auditions on the industry website Backstage.com.

“Rachela’s struggle was interesting to me because of the cultural similarities the character and I share,” she said. “My family is from Eastern Europe; I’m Jewish. It’s such a dark subject matter but an interesting thing to make a musical about. Rachela is so hopeful and so brave after everything she had to endure.”

Dockser wasn’t, however, very confident after the audition. She told her father she doubted she’d get the part. But a week later, while in UM’s theatre department, the call came. Dockser had just landed the lead role in her first professional show—a world premiere.

But singing in both English and Spanish proved daunting. Dockser admits she hadn’t practiced her Spanish since high school. The production team for Las Polacas provided a Spanish tutor, and the two Argentine cast members offered support.

“Beyond rehearsal, I spend many hours at home practicing my lines. I’ve watched some Argentine shows and films to get the accent down,” Dockser said. “I feel much more confident with my Spanish now.”

She’s also already lined up a summer encore. Following her role in Las Polacas, she’ll head to Los Angeles, where she’ll intern for the president of casting at Twentieth Century Fox studios.

Stepping into the character of Rachela in Las Polacas may be Dockser’s first professional performance, but she has many other stage credits to her name, thanks to her talent and the theatre arts conservatory program, which casts students in productions at the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre and Black Box Theatre at the Hecht Residential College.

At the Black Box, the theatre department faculty take more artistic risks in their staging and choice of productions, allowing for those shows—and the students involved—to be more experimental. As such, Dockser has appeared in Adding Machine: The Musical, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Assistance, Our Town, and Lessons from an Abandoned Work. And when she returns to Coral Gables in August for her senior year, she’ll star in Tennessee’s Treasures.


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