The space between “us” and “them”

Marcelo Diversi’s second book on “betweener” culture urges tackling social justice issues from a personal perspective.

On the 9-hour flight between his native Brazil and his current home in the Pacific Northwest, Marcelo Diversi acquires a new identity. “I’m going from being a white person [in Brazil] to being a brown person [in the United States], from a native to a migrant,” he said. “You see what doors open and what don’t.”

That position provides a unique vantage point for the social justice philosophy he practices and describes in his new book, “Betweener Autoethnographies: A Path Towards Social Justice,” co-written with fellow native Brazilian Claudio Moreira. Diversi is associate professor of human development at WSU Vancouver, and Moreira is associate professor of performance studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

“Betweener Autoethnographies” (2018) expands upon the ideas the two authors set forth in their previous book, “Betweener Talk” (2009). Their friendship and ability to write collaboratively further illustrate the concept of “betweeners.” Although Moreira grew up poor while Diversi grew up privileged, they have found common ground in the space “between” their differences. Overcoming the “us vs. them” mentality, or, as the book puts it, “expanding the circle of us,” is the vision.

“I’m male and privileged socially, but I have my own ways in which I experience being on the wrong side of the tracks,” Diversi said. “Even the most privileged person experiences that once in a while, and in that moment we have the opportunity to identify with others. Either you are part of us—family, country, tribe—or you’re them, the other. We explore the spaces in between us and them, and we call for people to find those places where they themselves have been in that other situation.”

Autoethnography—a form of ethnography that combines personal experience with observation—is an emerging research practice. “Betweener Autoethnographies” both endorses the practice and exemplifies it. The authors tackle social justice issues from their own subjective perspectives. Their work combines academic training and writing with techniques borrowed from literature to analyze political issues. “Creating a direct link between the personal and the political is the principle of autoethnography,” Diversi said. 

Even most knowledgeable and well-trained observer, with the best statistical analysis, needs firsthand experience to understand certain problems, he said. You simply can’t separate the personal from the political: “It’s not an either/or choice.”

Their writing about overcoming the dehumanizing “us vs. them” mentality so prevalent in the world today could not have come at a better time. Indeed, they start by examining the politics of the day in both Brazil and the United States. “How can anyone protest against liberation and humanization of those historically oppressed? By making Them, the historically oppressed, seem innately different from Us, less than Us, ungrateful ..a menace,” Diversi and Moreira write. 

The topics they ponder are big, divisive political issues: immigration, refugees, decolonization, and inclusion versus exclusion. “There has never been a greater need for a militant utopianism,” writes Norman K. Denzin in the introduction. Denzin is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Illinois, where both authors earned Ph.D.s.Diversi acknowledges that their vision may be utopian—that is, if everyone bought into the idea of betweeners, the world would be a far better place—but he remains clear-eyed about the future. “If we have a catastrophic collapse, we will revert to more tribal state,” he said. Citing theologian Theodore Parker, he continued: “But we also have a long history, and the arc of history bends toward justice. I do see that happening.”

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Preparing teachers for bilingual students

Gisela Ernst-Slavit is spearheading a grant to improve the way schools and teachers can support students who are learning English along with their lessons. Communities and families will benefit too.

For many years, Gisela Ernst-Slavit has been troubled by the mismatch between the K-12 student population and elementary-school teachers. While the U.S. student body is growing more ethnically and linguistically diverse, there is a shortage of teachers who mirror the backgrounds of their students and who are prepared to teach students who are learning English as a second or third language. Those students are trying to learn their lessons in a language they do not understand well. And their parents may not always be able to help them.

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Ernst-Slavit at WSU Vancouver

The number of students who are learning the English language as they go to school is growing in Washington state as well as the country. “Seventy-five percent of K-5 English language learners are born in the United States,” said Ernst-Slavit, professor of education at WSU Vancouver. “School districts are trying to implement dual-language programs for students. But it’s hard to find qualified bilingual teachers. In 2012, the state of Washington certified only 14 bilingual education teachers for the whole state.”

Ernst-Slavit hopes to develop a remedy through a pilot program funded by a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. It is called ELL-IMPACT, for Equity for Language Learners—Improving Practices and Acquisition of Culturally Responsive Teaching. If successful, the program will become a nationwide model for improving teacher preparation for our changing demographics.

“The new generation of students—both K-12 and college, do not fit neatly organized boxes,” Ernst-Slavit said. “Their backgrounds and experiences and needs and talents are different, because they are a diverse group.”

Led by Ernst-Slavit and four co-principal investigators, all from WSU, ELL-IMPACT is working on two campuses—Vancouver and Tri-Cities—to train 52 new bilingual teachers over five years. Currently, both Vancouver and Tri-Cities have cohorts of 11 students who are expected to graduate in 2019. Both campuses are partnering with local school districts—Vancouver with the Evergreen district, and Tri-Cities with six Eastern Washington districts.

What is most remarkable is who these students are. They are paraprofessionals—instructional assistants—who are already working in a school or district supporting English language learners. They know how to help students who are learning English, but they are not accredited (or paid) as teachers.

Esperanza Huerta guides a group of local educators during an activity

Esperanza Huerta guides a group of local educators during an activity

“Many paraprofessionals play an incredible role as brokers between families, community and school,” Ernst-Slavit said. “Research indicates that most paraprofessionals live in the communities in which they teach, whereas most teachers do not. And most teachers don’t understand the community dynamics, but paraprofessionals do. They speak the language of the children and have experienced some of the challenges that English language learners face.”

The students were selected by their school districts. They came to the United States from Cuba, Panama, Mexico, Honduras and Hungary. While some have degrees from other countries or in other disciplines, most would probably not have earned a teaching degree without this program.

The grant covers most of their tuition. The district accommodates their schedules so they can attend conferences and make presentations. “While they work full-time at their districts, they take classes in the evening,” Ernst-Slavit said. Because WSU Vancouver is partnering with just one district, the education professors are helping out the students—some of whom work multiple jobs—by bringing classes to them, holding them in Evergreen district conference rooms rather than on the Vancouver campus.

The project is directly linked with one of WSU’s Grand Challenges: Opportunity and equity. It seeks to promote equity and to improve educational opportunities for two sets of students: college students preparing to become teachers, and English language K-8 students. The grant has three focus areas:

  1. Improve parental, family and community engagement
  2. Examine the effectiveness of small-group instructional strategies currently used by participating district
  3. Examine the effectiveness and viability of alternative route teacher preparation programs

“The key thing is collaboration—the university, the school district and the community working together,” Ernst-Slavit said. She is thrilled at the support ELL-IMPACT is getting, and at the progress the first cohort is making. “There is dedication, talent, sensitivity—and a big heart,” she said.

Ernst-Slavit’s co-PIs are Judy Morrison, Sarah Newcomer and Yuliya Ardasheva at WSU Tri Cities, and Kira Carbonneau at WSU Pullman. Two Ph.D. students are also involved: Lindsay Lightner on the Tri-Cities campus and Steve Morrison at Vancouver.

Melodie Alfaro-Ulsh sharing her parent & community involvement program wth local teachers at the WSU TC campus in October. Co-PI Sarah Newcomer and PhD student Steve Morrison standing

Melodie Alfaro-Ulsh sharing her parent and community involvement program with local teachers in Tri-Cities

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Water and life on earth

From cities to rural and wild areas, Kevan Moffett wants to better understand the role of water on the planet.

Kevan Moffett’s expertise—ecohydrology—encompasses her global interests in water as a critical sustaining resource for humans and ecosystems. Her research ranges from the effects of heat and water balances on urban life, to forest rejuvenation after wildfires, to the ability of rivers to cleanse themselves of some pollutants before their waters reach the sea. An assistant professor of environmental hydrology at WSU Vancouver, Moffett has the uncommon distinction of concurrently leading three separate National Science Foundation grants, to study these three phenomena.

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Just this spring she received NSF’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award. These competitive awards provide five years of support for pre-tenure teacher-scholars. Moffett will receive about $690,000 to study how the urban water cycle interacts with the heat generated by urban areas. The grant period began Aug. 1.

“One of my great interests is how water plays a key role on our planet, including the basic landscape changes it can make, how it can help support ecosystems, and of course how water is important to people,” Moffett said. These interests led her to think about how ecohydrology research today often overlooks the majority of people on the planet—those who live in cities.

Currently, most environmental science research takes place in rural areas that are still considered “natural.” In cities, by contrast, humans have reconfigured the landscape into alternating patterns of pavement and vegetation, with undeniable implications for the movement of water—into storm drains and waterways, but also into the soils and atmosphere. Through the CAREER grant support, Moffett will explore how lessons from natural science conducted in rural natural areas might apply to urban environments, and whether better understanding urban heat and water balances could have applications for making cities more livable despite accelerating global change.

fieldresearch2As part of the CAREER award, Moffett will also design outdoor laboratory science modules to help students (preschoolers and WSU undergraduates) appreciate that they can learn about the environment wherever they are, even in an urban setting. She is particularly interested in making environmental science studies accessible to more students, including those with different mobility needs. She is guided by the vision that everyone can learn to feel a sense of place, understanding, and belonging in their home environment and perhaps in environmental science studies.

 

Moffett’s CAREER work on ecohydrology in the urban environment follows another current project funded by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northwest Climate Science Center, seeking to quantify the influence of city street trees on the temperature of urban stormwater runoff. She said, “It is well known that trees provide shade and that trees’ leaves catch some rainwater and prevent it from reaching the ground. We were really surprised to find that research had not yet put two and two together to see the impacts of tree shading on stormwater runoff temperatures.”

The research has been analyzing heat and water in a set of 12 residential streets in Portland and will finish in 2018. It has sparked a broad and deep collaboration between Moffett, WSU’s Director of Metropolitan Extension Brad Gaoloch, and over 100 other extension staff, researchers and municipal managers across Washington and Oregon.

Earlier NSF funding

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Moffett’s first NSF grant was awarded for the study of the parts of rivers that are near the river mouth and influenced by tides but still freshwater. In these zones, rivers might slow and so enable more nutrients to be naturally removed by the river ecosystem before the nutrients harm the coast. This project will finish in 2018. Moffett and her student Allan Jones have established a definition for these “riverine tidal freshwater zones,” the competing influences of tides and river flow on its dynamics, and its changes in character along the length of the river. Moffett’s collaborators at the University of Texas at Austin are quantifying these zones’ effects on nitrogen pollution and carbon in river waters that flow into sensitive coastal bays.

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Another of Moffett’s NSF grants, shared with Andrés Holz of Portland State University, seeks to better understand the effects of repeated wildfires on Cascades forest ecology and hydrology. This phenomenon of “short-interval reburns” has become more common over the last 30 years but is only just beginning to be studied. Over the next few years, Moffett, Holz and their student research teams will examine whether an altered hydrological cycle and changes in soil moisture may change how plants regrow after a fire and also make them more vulnerable under some conditions to repeated fires in the future. Moffett will also help identify whether and over what time scales reburns might mitigate or worsen the downstream flood risks that often follow fires.

All of Moffett’s studies have an educational component. For example, her research on fires will include coordination with forest and water managers designed to help improve management practices, and may also include a museum educational display. Her research on coastal rivers has included colleagues’ collaboration with a National Estuarine Research Reserve to design and implement public educational kayak outings on the study rivers.

The scope of ecohydrology

Moffett joined WSU Vancouver in January 2015 after earning her Ph.D. at Stanford University, where she studied coastal wetlands, and serving as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. As head of the Ecohydrology Group at WSU Vancouver, she and her students are exploring and even redefining the scope of ecohydrology, which she defines as “the interconnection of water with ecosystems and organisms.”

Although rivers, wetlands, forests and cities may seem very different environments, Moffett said, “To me, these are all environments where the spatial organization of water, vegetation, and other organisms are closely entwined and need to work together to sustain the ecosystem, or even people. Yet, we still have a lot to learn about how water and organisms work together in the environment. I’m pleased to have been granted the ability to work on this topic from a number of different angles by NSF and other funders.”

 

 

 

 

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A GREENER WORLD THROUGH COMPUTER SCIENCE

Xinghui Zhao is working on small- and large-scale projects to help individuals and industries save energy.

In the broadest sense, Xinghui Zhao is using her expertise in data analytics and computer systems research to improve the environment. “Because I’m a computer scientist, I’m using computing technology to make a greener world for people,” said Zhao, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Computer Science.

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At the practical level, she works on both the micro and macro scales in energy-related research. On the micro scale, she is working toward energy-efficient computing by finding ways to monitor and control the energy consumption of various computer operations and applications. These include developing frequency scaling techniques for CPUs, dynamically balancing the workload among heterogeneous processors, and profiling and optimizing energy consumption of applications.

These projects started with an energy-efficient mobile app supported through the Google Summer of Code program, and later expanded in multiple directions. The work applies not only to mobile phones but to many other hardware devices, including multicore CPUs and GPUs. “For these projects, we delivered multiple open source software packages available on GitHub,” she said. “These are research prototypes, but they have already been downloaded and used.”

On the macro scale, she is helping to develop ways to make the world safer for everyone who depends on the power grid for energy. Specifically, Zhao and her collaborators are mining power grid data to identify anomalies, such as unplanned events, faults or cyberattacks, before they have a chance to disrupt the system.

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Lately she has been collaborating with faculty and students at Washington State University, Oregon State University and Portland State University on multiple interdisciplinary research projects, which she calls “Big Data Analytics for Smart Grid.” She explains that power companies monitor their large grids by deploying smaller devices called PMUs (phasor measurement units), which measure electrical waves on the grid to detect anomalies. Sponsored by the Department of Energy and Bonneville Power Administration, one of the projects seeks to develop machine learning approaches to mine PMU data for event detection. “Line events might lead to a blackout if not being identified in a timely manner,” Zhao said. “So we gather the historical data from BPA’s power grid, develop and evaluate various machine learning algorithms to mine the data for identifying anomalies, and give recommendations to the operators on what could be the possible cause for these anomalies.”

Besides event detection, data integrity and cyber security of a power grid are also major challenges. In another project, similar machine learning approaches can be used to detect data spoofs. The collaborators have built an inter-university PMU network among the three universities and started to collect data to simulate what would happen if a hacker spoofed one or more PMUs. If a PMU is hacked, it will quickly get out of synch with all the others. “So we try to mine a large amount of data, detect the problematic PMU, and learn that a cyberattack could be happening,” she said.

The collaborators have been working on these projects for more than three years. Ultimately, there will be a framework for BPA to use to analyze its data, with the goal of making its power grid more reliable and robust.

Zhao is a prolific writer, committed to sharing ideas with other experts at conferences and publications. One such project recently was done a year ago with a graduate student for an international conference. It focused on creating energy-efficient microprocessors. Processors have become much faster since the 1970s, but since about 2005, the rate of increase is more or less flat, she said. “There’s this thing called the power wall,” Zhao said. “We can make a faster processor, but it generates heat when it’s running too fast, and the heat takes energy.” She is seeking to develop ways to help people understand that the computer core does not need to run as fast as possible, only as fast as needed, and that the workload can be distributed among a user’s programs to promote energy savings, without extra effort from the programmers.

Making people aware of their energy usage is a huge step toward a greener world. “Energy is an important resource, and we don’t have that much,” Zhao said, “Things can be done at different scales to help this situation, but increasing public awareness of this issue is a key.”

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Teaching business ethics to accounting students.

Carson College faculty members win two awards for publications on using the Giving Voice to Values approach to teach ethics to accounting students.

A framework for addressing small and large workplace conflicts has been sweeping the business world. Called Giving Voice to Values, it was created by Mary Gentile, a professor at Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

But does it truly work, and if so, what is the evidence? That was the question on the minds of Jane Cote and Claire Kamm Latham, professors in WSU Vancouver’s Carson College of Business.

“We were impressed with the framework she was using to teach students and professionals how to address ethical challenges in the workplace,” said Cote, academic director for the Carson College. “It’s an active learning approach, and it resonates when we go to workshops and get together with academics. But to move it forward, Claire and I felt we should explore the efficacy of the training. Do people feel good about it and go home and never use it, or does it have a more lasting impact?”

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Jane Cote

What is GVV?

GVV provides tools to move from recognizing ethical conflicts to speaking up when confronted with conflicts. Through practice, it helps to instill awareness and self-confidence.

“One reason I feel it works so well is it builds on your strengths,” Latham said. “You know what works for you, but we don’t have that finely tuned. Through these exercises, you develop game plans and scripts so that in this situation you are more comfortable—so that when something happens and a boundary is crossed, your mind won’t go blank.”

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Clair Kamm Latham

Cote and Latham introduced GVV training into the accounting program at WSU Vancouver six years ago. It turned out to be the ideal time to begin studying how well it works. Now, the use of GVV in WSU Vancouver accounting classes has resulted in two award-winning publications. Cote and Latham received the 2017 Outstanding Accounting Education Research Award for a paper on developing ethical confidence through the accounting curriculum; and the 2017 Outstanding Author Contribution for a second paper on using a peer-to-peer approach to teach the GVV framework.

“What’s unique about Jane’s and my research is that we were the first to show in certain settings that GVV works, so that’s exciting,” said Latham, associate professor of accounting.

“We not only have tested its efficacy but also explored in the process embedding it throughout the accounting curriculum,” Cote said.

Peer training—intriguing results

The peer-to-peer approach in the classroom has proved particularly interesting. Students have their first exposure to the GVV approach in the introductory accounting class. Upper-division accounting honor society members also complete GVV exercises and casework in upper-division classes. Then, with faculty guidance, those students create and deliver workshops for the introductory class—essentially serving as peer coaches so the introductory students learn about ethics from their peers rather than faculty members.

The study found that peer instruction resonates with students, especially with ethics training, because the peer instructors are sharing their experiences and emphasizing the importance of the curriculum. An unexpected finding was the increase in student engagement with co-curricular activities.

A longer-term, between-subjects study explored the efficacy of embedding GVV across the accounting curriculum. In an accounting capstone course, students study the professional code of ethics and read a case study about a new accountant who told a white lie about passing the CPA exam during her first month on the job. After the case discussion, students had access but not authority to access certain class materials. The learning outcome was to illustrate that the code of professional conduct expects accountants to respect confidentiality of client information. Students were asked if they had crossed this boundary, and faculty were able to observe their behavior.

Before the introduction of GVV into the curriculum, all students looked and most students lied about looking at the confidential information. Afterward, none of the students accessed the confidential information. Debriefing both groups uncovered that students in the early group had rationalized that because everyone would violate confidentiality, they should too.

After the intensive GVV training, students said they understood that most students shared values related to honesty and respect and thus chose to not cross the boundary. This understanding led to the change in the behavior. This finding has implications for workplace training and the power that understanding others can have for building an ethical workplace culture.

Trainings as fundraisers

Cote and Latham also conduct trainings with organizations and, in particular, CPA firms to provide ethics workshops that qualify for continuing education credit for CPAs in Oregon. In appreciation, firms donate funds to the Carson College in Vancouver to support students and programs. To date, these efforts have raised tens of thousands of dollars to fund student scholarships, faculty research and program activities.

On April 27, Cote and Latham are conducting a GVV workshop for women in the Vancouver area, titled “Strengthening Women’s Voices in the Workplace.” It will be a fundraiser for the college’s Business Growth Mentor & Analysis Program (MAP), which provides pro-bono consulting services to small businesses in the region. More than half of the small business owners in Southwest Washington are women, and Cote and Latham hope attendees will learn valuable tools while creating resources for other women in the region. The event will be held at Fort Vancouver.

“This workshop will provide people with the tools they can use to create a strategy to address situations that cross an ethical boundary,” Cote said. “In the workplace, such situations often arise at inopportune moments. Taken off guard, we often feel somewhat mute; where do we start? That’s where our training comes in.”

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The complicated story of slavery in the Indian Ocean world. Sue Peabody unravels a long-hidden tale.

Sue Peabody’s seventh book, “Madeleine’s Children: Family, Freedom, Secrets, and Lies in France’s Indian Ocean Colonies,” published in 2017, is the signature achievement to date of her career as a historian. And it affirms her reputation as the world’s foremost expert on the law of slavery and race in the French Empire.

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Peabody is the Meyer Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and History at Washington State University Vancouver. “Madeleine’s Children” is the first full-length biography tracing the lives of slaves in the Indian Ocean world. It is largely the story of the youngest of Madeleine’s three children, Furcy. Peabody calls it a “microhistory”—exploring the society at large through the life of one family.

Her publisher, Oxford University Press, describes the book as “a detailed family saga set against the broader context of plantation slavery, Parisian society and colonization.” The individual histories of family members illuminate the types of labor slaves performed and the varying nature of their relationships with society and plantation owners.

Through 10 years of research, what Peabody discovered was not what she had expected. Furcy—who had fought for his freedom in court for 25 years and finally won—soon became a slave owner himself.

“It was a disappointment to me to learn this,” said Peabody. “But it was not atypical for free people in the Indian Ocean world. Furcy was in a system and he made use of the system to advance himself.”

Owning slaves was a steppingstone to the middle class, she explained. “One of the first things free people of color did when they could afford it was to buy slaves,” Peabody said. The slave owner could rent out slaves and take the wages. “It was a capital accumulation process,” she said. “Over time, the master can use accumulated savings to buy more slaves and land, and rise slowly in status through this process.”

A story that many did not want told

But if Furcy was no abolitionist, he and his lawyers proferred many reasons to challenge his wrongful enslavement, and Peabody’s research uncovered the many ways that slave owners sought to keep his story hidden. “Careful attention to Furcy’s legal battles reveals the hypocrisy, contradictions, and outright fabrications deployed by planters, colonial legal officials, and metropolitan authorities to maintain slavery, as well as idealists’ efforts to reform corruption and exploitation,” she writes in the book. Furcy believed he should be free because his mother had worked for a plantation owner to purchase her son’s freedom, but was tricked out of the wages owed to her. Furcy’s lawyers, recognizing that his assertions could not hold sway in court, concocted other legal grounds: that Indians (as opposed to Africans) could not be legally enslaved, and that his mother’s brief residence on France’s “free soil” (in Europe) was sufficient to free her. It was the free soil argument that finally secured his status as a freeborn man, making him eligible for reparations.

Peabody traveled to Réunion three times, and Mauritius twice (as well as Paris, Aix-en-Provence and London) to find the crucial documents to tell Furcy’s story. Her research sources—most of which were in French—included “three grocery bags of documents the archivist in Réunion brought to me in 2008,” Peabody said. “I was the first historian to look at them. They had hardly been catalogued.” In addition, she pored over census records, parish records, notary records, letters and newspapers.

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Historical documents damaged by worms and water

Recently, Peabody was invited to travel to Réunion for a conference on new sources for the study of slavery. Scholars from throughout the French empire attended, and Peabody gave a presentation on some of the problems of interpreting the sources. Her research was reported in the newspapers of Réunion and Mauritius, where Furcy is something of a cause célèbre.

Furcy‘s life has been celebrated in a novel, two plays and a song by Kaf Malbar; and to a group of contemporary activists, Furcy is a symbol against oppression. Peabody has met with members of the group “Liber nout Furcy [Let us free Furcy],” and while they too expressed disappointment that Furcy is not the hero they had initially thought him to be, they believe it is nevertheless essential to honor and memorialize his long fight for freedom. Freedom, Peabody writes, “meant belonging to family, acknowledging the debt to ancestors, and preparing a legacy for generations yet to come.”

As Kaf Malbar says in his song “ Furcy’s Gold,” “We need this story to tell to our children.”

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Making sense of big data

We collect mountains of information about everything, but what are we supposed to do with it? Bala Krishnamoorthy says mathematics can help figure it out.

People, businesses and institutions are collecting more and more data, but often don’t know what to do with it. That’s where mathematics comes in. Bala Krishnamoorthy, associate professor and program leader of mathematics and statistics at WSU Vancouver, is participating in a project funded by the National Science Foundation that he describes as follows: “The grant is about applying mathematical techniques to make sense of the loads and loads of data that people are collecting.”

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Specifically, the grant will use data analysis to help develop new management techniques for agricultural crops. Using maize as their model system, the researchers want to understand how certain genes interact with environmental conditions to produce higher or lower yields. “The same gene behaves differently depending on where the plant is growing,” Krishnamoorthy said. “Even within a few acres of a farm, there will be local climate changes.”

He is one of three WSU scientists who received a $761,428 NSF grant for the three-year project in July. The others are computer scientist Anantharaman Kalyanaraman (principal investigator) and statistical genomics expert Zhiwu Zhang, both in Pullman. The multiuniversity project also includes Patrick Schnable, a plant scientist from Iowa State University, and Bei Wang Phillips, a visualization expert from the University of Utah, who also received NSF support, bringing total funding for the project to $1.2 million.

Historically, growers have used trial-and-error methods in their efforts to improve crop yields. But technology has made it possible to amass vast amounts of data through sensors in their fields. The challenge now is to figure out what data is most important. Was it temperature or humidity or irrigation—or something else—that made the difference?

“Right now they don’t know what to look for,” Krishnamoorthy said. “They have the capability to collect all sorts of data, but they are blindly collecting it. They would rather be more strategic, with some goal in mind. We are developing the tools to help them formulate hypotheses that could then be tested—so they can evaluate the genotypic variety of crop that will do well under certain conditions.”

Broad application

The tools can have many applications beyond crops—helping to make sense of data in healthcare, political voting patterns, the power grid, even sports. In basketball, for instance, “some guards play well under certain conditions, while others do not,” Krishnamoorthy said. “You can apply similar techniques to see patterns in that.”

And you won’t have to be a mathematician to use the tools. “The math needs to be done,” he said, “but it will be useful only if non-mathematical practitioners can understand what it does. We are developing software that will be intuitive and interactive.”

Krishnamoorthy’s dream research situation, he said, encompasses both pure and applied mathematics: He meets someone who has a question or a need, then goes to work: developing a pure mathematical theorem, based on that developing new computational tools, and then giving the problem-solving software to the person who brought the question in the beginning.

He believes deeply in disseminating research through open source publication. The current system of peer review, with its anonymous comments and long time frame, lacks accountability, he said. And yet the stakes are so high—for the person publishing the research, tenure and promotion often hang in the balance.

“We need to make things more open,” he said. “Any federally funded research or publication should have some version of the publications available for the public to look at. The more open, the more people will look at it, and it will get feedback. Change won’t happen overnight, but maybe in two decades it will be the prevalent model for all academic research—but particularly mathematics.”

For more information, visit the project’s web page: tdaphenomics.eecs.wsu.edu.

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