Homemade masks for a pandemic

Shelly Fritz and colleagues tested two homemade masks and found one showing potential for respirator protection for health-care workers.

When COVID-19 began to spread in spring 2020, Shelly Fritz started hearing that protective N95 respirator masks were in short supply. If they couldn’t obtain them, nurses were being asked to take unusual measures, such as reusing masks. Fritz was alarmed. “Reusing masks was not considered standard infection-control practice,” she said. “It created a lot of chaos.” But what was the alternative?

As shortages of personal protective equipment loomed nationwide, well-intentioned people across the country were making masks and dropping them off at hospitals. And yet, Fritz wondered, how do we know these masks truly protect the wearer? “We are a field that does not make decisions without evidence,” she said. “So, as nurses, we got creative.”

A simple, home-made mask

Fritz, an assistant professor of nursing at WSU Vancouver, worked with two colleagues—Marian Wilson of WSU Spokane and nurse anesthetist Shawn Brow—on a study to test how well homemade masks could work. The study is described their article, “Impact and Efficacy of Homemade Masks in a Pandemic,” which currently appears in American Nurse, the flagship journal of the American Nurses Association.

Researching the literature for what scant evidence could be found, the researchers asked local seamstresses to make an eight-layer cotton mask and a furnace-filter mask using common household materials. For the eight-layer cotton mask, “The materials we used and the number of layers seemed to be the sweet spot between breathability and potential protection,” Fritz said. The furnace-filter mask used a removable double layer of 3M Filtrete™ 1500 furnace filter inside. Fritz said the decision to use a furnace-filter in a face mask is similar to off-label use of pharmaceuticals.

The important step was to fit-test the homemade masks to be sure they would work. They enrolled 28 front-line health workers at Arbor Health in Morton, Wash., a community hospital where Fritz chaired the Board of Commissioners. For fit testing, the test subject dons a clear hood that fits over the head and is outfitted with a small opening near the neck. A sweet solution is sprayed through the small opening incrementally while the test subject performs a series of tasks, such as jogging in place and reading a passage. The mask is deemed protective against airborne transmission if it passes all fit testing steps—the person wearing the hood never smells or tastes the sprayed solution.

Fit testing a mask

One of the two prototypes ensured a tight-enough seal to be effective: The furnace-filter mask, which includes a piece of household air filter inserted into a pocket for protection against airborne particles, a moldable wire nose/cheek bridge for sealing close to the face, and white shoelace ties with toggle to secure it in place. The researchers say these washable and reusable masks may be environmentally preferable to disposable masks and are usable in health-care situations.

Easy to make, home-made mask

“We are in no way claiming this is a respirator mask,” Fritz said, “because those have to go through FDA approval and testing. But 12 of the 28 participants passed our full 12-step fit testing—they never tasted the sweet solution at all. Clinically, you’d be cleared to go into a room where there is a risk from airborne particles.” Some of the masks tested were taped in place with surgical tape, which appeared to provide an extra barrier. Fritz believes with more frontline staff education on effective taping, the pass rate may have been higher.

“What this did tell us is that the mask has potential, and it definitely would work better than the cloth masks everybody is wearing,” Fritz said. “With a good fit, the homemade mask could provide enhanced protection beyond a regular cotton homemade mask or a single-layer surgical mask. It has the potential to be used as a stopgap where no other respirator is available.”

The pattern and instructions are freely available. “We’re putting it out there to help anyone who wants to make their own mask,” Fritz said.

The pattern is available on Fritz’s professional page on the nursing website: nursing.wsu.edu/people/roschelle-fritz or here.

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Racial discrimination and health: The Asian American story

Racial bias against Asian Americans is seldom the subject of research. Sara Waters and SuYeon Lee say that has to change.

The signs you see everywhere during the COVID-19 pandemic proclaiming “We’re all in this together” don’t ring true for Asian Americans. Because some of the first cases were reported in China, there has been a tendency (even by the U.S. President) to blame the Chinese people for its worldwide spread.

SuYeon Lee, PhD student

The blame has been extended to all Asian Americans, many of whom say they have experienced more discrimination and disparagement since people first became aware of the reach of the disease. And there are numbers to back this up. A Pew Research Center survey (2020) showed that 58% of Asian Americans hear racist views more often than before the coronavirus outbreak, and nearly 40% have had adverse experiences themselves because of their ethnicity, such as slurs, jokes or fears of confrontation. In a recent Ipsos poll, 60% of Asian Americans said they had seen someone blame themselves or other Asian Americans for the outbreak. Verbal attacks sometimes escalate into harassment or even physical violence. In California, the situation has led activists to call for more state funding to fight the bias.

SuYeon Lee, a doctoral student in prevention science at WSU Vancouver, was hearing from other immigrant students about the stress they were experiencing since the beginning of the pandemic. Their stories inspired her to look deeper into how discrimination was affecting their mental and physical health. She and Sara Waters, assistant professor of human development at WSU Vancouver, developed a research project and obtained funding via the WSU Vancouver research office, supplemented by some of Lee’s fellowship funds.

Sara Waters, PhD

Their study, “Racial Discrimination and Health during COVID-19,” based on research conducted in May and June 2020, is “the first to examine the impacts of experiencing racial discriminatory behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic on Asians’ mental and physical health,” Lee and Waters write in a paper that is under review for publication.

There is little research on Asian Americans and racial bias, in part because Asian Americans are often perceived as a “model minority” that doesn’t experience racism as Blacks do. “Especially during the pandemic, but even before, people were not appreciating that this is another group who is experiencing discrimination and its effects, even if they don’t fall into that category of ‘people of color’ in many people’s minds,” Waters said.

The study sought to determine to what extent Asians and Asian Americans living in the United States have experienced discrimination and microaggressions during the pandemic and whether there have been health consequences. The 416 respondents ranged in age from 19 to their early 60s and represented a diversity of income levels and occupations. 

Approximately 29% said they’d seen an increase in racial discrimination since the beginning of the pandemic. Health consequences such as increased anxiety (41%), depression (53%) and sleep problems (43%) had also increased. Although not all had encountered discrimination personally (many were quarantined at home), some reported that hearing about discrimination on the news or from friends was stressful.

The survey also sought to determine the effects of social support, and, as expected, found that social support moderated the effect of perceived discrimination on depression and marginally on physical health.

Many respondents provided examples about being avoided or treated suspiciously in public—getting dirty looks, being conspicuously avoided in stores and on the street. Others wrote about verbal attacks, along the lines of “You caused the virus; go back to where you came from.” 

“As expected, people who’d experienced more discrimination and microaggression also experienced more mental and physical health problems,” Waters said. Anxiety and depression were particularly high, especially in women, while aches and pains and sleep problems were also statistically significant.

The study’s goal is to better understand the experiences of racial discrimination and health outcomes of Asian Americans that may help lead to prevention strategies and more culturally sensitive mental health care.“A lot of good research shows that discrimination is bad for our health,” Waters said. “Most of this research is not with Asians and Asian Americans, so there’s not as much work to base ours on. That’s really an oversight in the field.”

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Compliance with CDC guidelines: what makes a difference?

For many employees, economic stress inhibits compliance with guidelines intended to limit the spread of COVID-19.

In March, seeking to control the spread of COVID-19 within their jurisdictions, countries and states ordered businesses closed and asked employees to work from home, if possible. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control developed a list of recommended preventative health behaviors for all Americans, including social distancing, wearing facial coverings in public, frequent handwashing, and limiting non-essential trips from home. 

Until there is a vaccine or effective treatments in place, public health experts suggest that these so-called “non-pharmaceutical interventions” are necessary to stem the disease. But not everyone can or will enact these COVID-19 prevention behaviors.

Psychology Professor Tahira Probst

Tahira Probst, professor of psychology at WSU Vancouver and an expert in occupational health psychology, and Hyun Jung Lee, a graduate student in her lab, were curious to know more. Based on her lab’s prior work linking economic stressors (such as job insecurity and financial strain) with workplace safety behaviors, they designed a study to explore the relationship between these stressors and COVID-19 prevention behaviors among employees. 

Graduate student Hyun Jung Lee

With funds from a WSU Vancouver faculty mini-grant and a Marchionne research fellowship awarded to Lee, they are surveying 780 participants from across the country in seven waves over the next year. Participants answer questions ranging from job insecurity and working arrangements to their health to their views of the CDC guidelines. At the same time, they are compiling data on the different ways in which the states have responded to the pandemic to see how these variables might affect employee behavior as well. 

Policy implications

Graduate student Andrea Bazzoli

In the first set of analyses, Probst, Lee and Andrea Bazzoli (another graduate student in the Probst lab) tested the hypothesis that job insecurity and financial strain would act as risk factors for lower compliance with the CDC guidelines. They also looked at the severity of state restrictions such as stay-at-home orders and the generosity of the state’s unemployment insurance program, which serves as a safety net in the event of job loss. 

In their first paper submitted to the Journal of Applied Psychology, titled “Economic stressors and the enactment of CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention behaviors: The impact of state-level context,” the authors conclude that employees worried about potential job loss or paying their bills had lower compliance with the guidelines—potentially because economically stressed employees might feel less comfortable requesting to work from home or insisting on social distancing at work. 

One thing did make a difference: In states with more robust unemployment benefits, compliance with guidelines was better. State restrictions, however, were another matter. 

“Especially in states with extensive COVID-19-related policies, such as stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, school closures, etc., those workers who are financially precarious are less able to follow the CDC guidelines than financially stable workers,” Lee said.

Probst added, “Ironically, state-level policies meant to benefit everyone appear to be most protective in terms of enacting the CDC guidelines for people who are more financially secure.”

The study is designed to address a situation in flux. “We think our current findings may be relevant with policymakers to think about intended as well as unintended effects of COVID-19 state policies, as well as the benefits of having a robust social safety net,” Probst said. In coming months, Probst and Lee will look more closely at company policies and the extent to which companies are enacting COVID-specific workplace safety guidelines and issues of work-life conflict. They hope to inform public policies to address the evolving crisis while also protecting vulnerable employees facing economic stress.

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WSU Vancouver scientist, Stephanie Porter, receives $1 million NSF grant to study food crops

Stephanie Porter, an assistant professor in the School of Biological Sciences at WSU Vancouver, has received a prestigious $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program. Over the five-year grant period, beginning March 1, Porter will study the symbiosis between plants and their beneficial microbes and how that relationship changes as people domesticate plants for their own use.

The study will focus on legumes important in human diets worldwide, such as soybeans, chickpeas, peas, lentils and peanuts. Legumes account for a quarter of global crop production and a third of human dietary protein. The grant will enable Porter to scale up the research from the greenhouse, where she has collected preliminary data, to agricultural fields in Southwest Washington. 

“The NSF CAREER award is a testament to Stephanie’s excellence as a scientist and an educator,” said Christine Portfors, vice chancellor for research and graduate education for WSU Vancouver and WSU Tri-Cities. “Her work addresses important questions of crop domestication and is a wonderful example of the land grant research mission. The award will enhance opportunities for WSU Vancouver undergraduate students to be involved in cutting-edge research.”   

Microbes contribute to plant health in many ways. For example, legumes have a unique symbiosis with rhizobial bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen to usable forms, essentially fertilizing legumes so that they need less nitrogen added in the form of fertilizer. But as plants evolve through domestication, so does their symbiosis with microbes. As a result, some legume crops seem to lose some of the benefits they have enjoyed from microbes in the wild, such as nutrient provisioning and stress tolerance, and may require more chemical intervention.

Humans have domesticated at least 41 different wild legumes into crops. Porter plans to study these repeated domestications as a model system that can lead to a fuller understanding of how the relationship between food plants and beneficial microbes evolves during domestication. The research ultimately may point toward crop improvements based on microbes, such as higher yields and less reliance on fertilizer. 

“If we can identify ways to make our crops better at getting nitrogen from symbiosis as opposed to depending on fertilizer, then in the future we could grow crops under more sustainable conditions,” Porter said.In addition, Porter plans to use some of the grant funds to strengthen undergraduate science education. First, she will help students connect with evolutionary biology by developing an experimental module for an ecology class focusing on symbiosis and crop domestication. Second, she will develop an online clearinghouse, Science Scholars, to publicize opportunities for students in the sciences, such as laboratory positions and internships.

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Health technology in a community setting

A small study aiming to reduce hospital admissions among underserved individuals provided gratifying results.

Cory Bolkan

Technology to help people age in place is a hot research and development topic these days. For the most part, such studies involve sophisticated technologies that hold promise for those on one side of the digital divide—those in a position to access, afford, learn and use the new tools. That leaves out the large segment of older Americans who don’t have or understand digital devices.

Enter WSU Vancouver researchers Cory Bolkan and Renee Hoeksel, with their modest project titled “Technology to Support Aging in Place (TSAP): A Community-Based Partnership for Older Adults with Heart Failure.”

Renee Hoeksel

“Usually the fancy whistles and gadgets and industry go toward higher-income, higher-educated populations,” said Bolkan, associate professor of human development at WSU Vancouver. “This was the first time local private industry had expressed interest in an underserved, near- or at-risk population.” In addition, while much of the remote health monitoring research is clinically based, this study was community-based and focused on a social service agency that addresses social determinants of health as well as physical.

The social service organization was the Area Agency on Aging & Disabilities of Southwest Washington. The agency provides home- and community-based services for people aged 60 and older and people with disabilities. Bolkan had been working with the agency in other research projects to support older adults’ well-being in the community. AAADSW developed a partnership with a technology company, HealthSaaS, which is based in Beaverton, Ore, to create TSAP. 

Area Agencies on Aging are often a state’s best-kept secret. They are a network of federally designated entities all over the country that help people age in place and provide information and referral in every community. They connect people with local resources, including nutrition, family caregiver support, health and wellness and case management. Most of their work is with people who are “dual-eligible,” which means eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare.

Aims of the TSAP program were to reduce hospital readmissions, enhance self-management of a chronic illness (in this case heart failure), encourage aging in place and improve quality of care.

“This program is unique in key ways,” the study authors write in a fact sheet: “(1) it targeted low-income older adults who were in poor health, at high risk of hospital readmissions, and who often required intensive clinical services; and (2) it was implemented by a community-based organization in consultation with local health care providers and hospitals.”

Needing clinical expertise, Bolkan reached out to Renee Hoeksel, professor in the WSU College of Nursing on the Vancouver campus. Hoeksel helped bring on members of the medical community, including Legacy Health and PeaceHealth. 

In developing the partnership, Bolkan and Hoeksel and the other members faced enormous hurdles, from ethical (who has the training to monitor the health data provided by patients; what happens in an emergency?) to practical (the amount of time it took to tailor devices to each patient, for patients to use them and for care coordinators to monitor them), and much more. But ultimately they were gratified with the results.

The technology is sophisticated but easy to use. HealthSaaS provided remote monitoring devices to each of 43 individuals, who each had completed a personalized heart failure care plan with their cardiologists. Over six months, patients incorporated these devices into their daily lives, monitoring their weight, blood pressure, medicines and how they felt. The devices sent data to an online portal, and if anything was amiss, care coordinators at the AAA received HIPPA-compliant secure notices so they could contact the patient to determine if clinical care was needed.

HealthSaas partnership provided remote monitoring devices to use in the study.

“At the end of the day, there were a lot of lessons learned, and a lot of bumps in the road,” Bolkan said. Nevertheless, she added, “We were surprised that we saw some statistically significant reduction in the number of hospitalizations for that small trial.”

Hospital admissions among participants were reduced by 54 percent, and days in the hospital by 57 percent. In interviews, many participants reported encouraging changes in their health behaviors. One said, “Doing this helped to improve my routine so that I did not forget anything.”The study was self-funded, with everyone involved pitching in their time and expertise. Bolkan and Hoeksel say that this kind of partnership-based study has particular value in helping to move research from the lab to a community setting. “You can show things work over and over in a controlled educational lab setting,” Bolkan said, “but that’s not where people live and work, so doing this messy kind of study where people really live is how you can find out what is really effective.”

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BAM! Chicago’s Black Arts Movement – a rich documentary from English professors Lewis and Narayanan

A Chicago Story

The role of artists and writers “is to make the revolution irresistible,” said African-American author, documentary filmmaker, civil rights activist, and scholar Toni Cade Bambara. During the 1960s, many cities cultivated an innovative and revolutionary arts scene in African American communities. Oakland, CA, Detroit, New York, and Newark, NJ were some of the major early locations producing avant-garde art and cultural work. But Chicago was not only an epicenter of the kind of cultural workers that Bambara envisioned, it also sustained its work into the 1980s and beyond. The city nurtured and in turn, was transformed by a vibrant community of Black artists, musicians and activists who worked tirelessly for social change and justice. The revolutionary impact of Chicago’s Black pioneers and visionaries on the city of Chicago, American arts and culture, and Black Studies is the focus of Thabiti Lewis’s contracted book project, “Chicago and the Black Arts Movement.” As he planned the interviews for the edited collection, it dawned on him that the material could also be the subject matter of a documentary film. So, he reached out to his colleague Pavithra Narayanan, who had the expertise in filmmaking and editing, and asked if she would collaborate with him to make a documentary to complement the book. 

The Movement
Thabiti Lewis with Angela Jackson, award-winning poet, playwright, novelist, and member of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC)

The two Associate Professors of English come from different backgrounds. Thabiti is a scholar of Black Studies. He decided to major in English after being introduced to the language of Black Arts poets like Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, Amiri Baraka and others. Baraka’s one act play The Dutchman simply blew him away as the protagonist revealed Baraka’s own inner struggles and rage that led him to form The Black Art Repertory Theatre in New York (BART). After double majoring in English and History at the University of Rochester and receiving a Master’s degree in Education (English), Thabiti spent two years working at Third World Press in Chicago from 1991 to 1993, where the people involved in the Black Arts Movement became a central part of his life. “I learned so much during my time at the press. People were always giving me a list of books that I needed to read. People like Safisha Madhubuti gave me many articles to read about the independent Black School movement. I went to so many lectures; so many people came to the city of Chicago. On any given day or week, I might meet Sonia Sanchez, John A. Williams, Ishmael Reed, Keropetse Kogisile, Eugene Redmond, or be asked to go to Gwendolyn Brooks’s house to pick her up to take her to Chicago State University for a class she taught. During those drives, I got a chance to learn from Miss Brooks what it meant to be gracious, patient and genuinely interested in people. She would write me over the years after I Ieft Chicago, sending me poems, or signed copies of her new books. I thought I was special and later learned that she thought all the people she encountered were special.” 

Lewis and Narayanan

Pavithra’s area of specialization is postcolonial studies. Born and educated in India, major influences in her life include her parents, who were union members (her Mother was a union leader), Kerala’s radical left politics, and political frameworks of decolonization. Her undergraduate degree is in Zoology! A love for books and for writing, led her to pursue a Master’s degree in English and a second Master’s in American Literature. She was part of the first group of students in India to receive the University Grants Commission Junior Research Fellowship, which was started in 1989. The award gave her the opportunity to enroll in a PhD program. “Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Osborne’s Look Back in Anger impacted me and I might have gone in that direction, had I not attended a workshop at the Dhvanyaloka Center in Mysore where I met several Australian scholars and writers including Helen Tiffin, Chris Koch, and Les Murray. And, Australian Literature, specifically, Patrick White became the focus of my PhD. For my post-doctoral work, I focused on Indigenous writers from Australia and Canada.” She moved to the U.S. in 1998 to earn another Master’s degree in Mass Communication, where she acquired filmmaking and editing skills and made a documentary film that examines India’s economic policies in relation to the worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal gas leak. 

Haki Madhubuti

The film, BAM! Chicago’s Black Arts Movement, is their first collaborative project. For Pavithra, it involved doing research in a new area. For Thabiti, it meant gaining an understanding of documentary filmmaking. Supported by funding from the WSU Vancouver mini-grant, the duo packed filming gear and made their way to Chicago in the summer of 2015. The first conversation with Val Gray and Francis Ward, who started the Kuumba Workshop, one of Chicago’s oldest Black theatre groups, set the tone for all the interviews. Participants were welcoming, gracious with their time, and happy to share stories about their own work as well as the contributions of other leaders who built and made the Movement a reality. Individual conflicts did not stand in the way of building the movement; the focus remained on creating a culture of solidarity and support, on community organization, and creating functional art that was accessible to the people. Schools, publishing houses, cultural organizations, arts centers, and theatre groups were some of the many institutions that Black intellectuals established in Chicago. They nurtured the youth and fostered literary, artistic, and cultural activities for African Americans in that area. The Black Arts moment, which forced what Eugene Redmond calls, “accidental academics” like himself and Haki Madhubuti on the scene, changed academe. There is a sense of regret that the south side of Chicago is no longer the hub of cultural production and activism. Today, Haki’s Third World Press, the largest independent black-owned press in the United States, is among the few remaing establishments from that era that still remains in the south side. 

Between interviews, Thabiti and Pavithra visited several museum exhibits, collected archival material and secondary footage. Added bonuses during the trip included an afternoon with Sterling Plumpp at Pearl’s Place, lunch with Carole Parks and Ann Smith, and a two-hour tour of Chicago’s Black historic sites with Useni Perkins. All the interviews were arranged by Thabiti Lewis. While the two of them had clearly designated roles, they acknowledge that the project was a truly collective effort. For example, although Thabiti conducted interviews and Pavithra was behind the camera, she pitched in with many of the questions. And, Thabiti always helped with setting up and dismantling equipment, learning about sound, lighting and production from Pavithra. But the filmmaking was not limited to static cameras. Thabiti seized every opportunity to interview artists and scholars, and IPads and phones became necessary video recording devices. His 2017 interview with Phil Cohran, one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), is probably Cohran’s last interview before he passed away in June 2017. 


There are a total of 19 interviews and about thirty hours of footage. Each of the interviews is a documentary in itself. Editing the material to a one-hour film was a monumental task for Pavithra, who created an impressive aesthetic that reflects the film’s topic and people. Extensive conversations with Thabiti, her own research on the subject, and most importantly, the interviewees’ narratives shaped the editing process. The film does not follow a traditional story-telling style (voice overs or blocks of texts) to trace the history of the movement. Instead, the speakers narrate the history in their own voices. 

Carole Parks, journalist and managing editor of Negro Digest/Black World

The Black Arts Movement is an important period in U.S. history and Thabiti and Pavithra were anxious about how it would be received, particularly by the leaders who had created and shaped the movement. Safisha Madhubuti, Angela Jackson, Gerald Williams, Bennett Johnson, and Carole Parks who are featured in the film, attended the screening in Chicago on September 14th. They loved the film. They said that the film captured the history and spirit of the movement. “The youth should see the film. The mayor of Chicago should see it. It should be screened every month in Chicago,” Safisha said. The film was also well received by audiences at WSU Vancouver and Pullman. 

The name of their production, PATH, derived from the first two alphabets of the filmmakers’ names, symbolizes their own filmmaking journey as well as paths of justice and equity paved by public intellectuals, grassroots activists and social movements.

 BAM! Chicago’s Black Arts Movement: Featuring interviews with Angela Jackson, Haki Madhubuti, Safisha Madhubuti, Carole Parks, Eugene Redmond, Mwata Bowden, Carol Adams, and many other artists and scholars, the film introduces viewers to the history of Chicago’s Black Arts Movement (BAM) and reflects on the extensive national and international impact of Chicago’s Black writers, musicians and community organizers and the organizations and institutions that they supported and founded including the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Afro-Arts Theatre, the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), Negro Digest/Black World, Ebony Talent Agency (ETA),Chicago Theatre Alliance, the DuSable Museum, Third World Press, Afri-Cobra, Johnson Publishing, Path Press, Kuumba Theatre, and the South Side Community Arts Center. To preview the film go to: https://vimeo.com/295695342.

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The world of scientific research

Now off to Switzerland in search of new insights about aquatic invasive species, Eric Dexter is a late-blooming research success story.

Eric Dexter was planning to become an acupuncturist when he inadvertently discovered a love for research. A high school dropout, he completed his diploma through an adult program in his home state of Florida, worked at several short-term jobs, moved to Portland on a whim, and at age 25, enrolled at Portland Community College to take remedial classes and prerequisites needed for the acupuncture program, including basic biology. He also took courses (which he describes as invaluable) in college survival skills and applying for scholarships.

Eric Dexter as a PhD student at WSU Vancouver

At the end of the year, Dexter was awarded a research internship to study interactions between native and invasive honeybees in Ghana. The world opened up for him. “That research internship changed my focus,” he said. “ I forgot about acupuncture and started pursuing core science classes.” 

He transferred to Portland State University for his bachelor’s degree, receiving international research internships every summer. He spent a year in New Zealand on an exchange program. “No one from my family had ever left the country before, and I got shipped off to West Africa to do research and realized there’s a big world of science out there, and if I pursue a scientific career I can do something international,” he said.

Dexter enrolled at WSU Vancouver for his master’s degree, earned a Fulbright to study in Switzerland in 2014/15, then returned to Vancouver to finish his Ph.D. in environmental and natural resource science with Professor Stephen Bollens. Now a new Ph.D., Dexter leaves in May for a European Commission–funded Marie Curie postdoc fellowship at the University of Basel in Switzerland. He will work with Dieter Ebert, a professor at the University of Basel, on the co-evolution between hosts and parasites or the pathogens that affect them.

Dexter’s Fulbright year at the University of Lausanne gave him an initial understanding of genetics research, something he plans to continue. To study the genetics of aquatic invasive species, he brought his research specimens along and returned to Vancouver with the data to complete the analysis, which was published as an article, “A genetic reconstruction of the invasion of the calanoid copepod Psuedodiaptomus inopinusacross the North American Pacific Coast.” It appeared in the journal Biological Invasions in 2018 and became a chapter in his dissertation. One of his collaborators in Switzerland, Séverine Vuilleumier, joined his dissertation committee. 

Eric busy collecting data

“The dissertation work focuses on the way invasive zooplankton species impact water bodies around the Pacific Northwest, and examines some of the mechanisms that might be behind their establishment and spread across the region,” Dexter said. “The next work is a little shift in direction, using similar species but this time in a laboratory setting and with wild populations as well. We are going to test some fundamental predictions of co-evolutionary theory between hosts and the organisms that affect them. I think we will find a really clear signal in the genomes of the species we’re studying.” 

With the use of genetic methodology, the research is groundbreaking. “We’re looking for something in evolutionary biology and genetics which has never been seen before,” he said.

The long-term implications are significant. “Co-evolution is the process that drives antibiotic resistance in bacteria and a lot of other agricultural and medical real world problems,” he said. “This is going to improve our understanding of the basic processes.

Collecting samples in Portland. Local research with global impact.

Research on the razor’s edge

Dexter’s international interests are about much more than travel. In an article for Science magazine in June 2017, he described the frustrations of scientific funding in the United States. For example, about four years ago, he was told he’d received a three-year grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but havoc in the agency left no one in charge and the funding uncertain for Dexter and the others in his program. 

After an 11-month delay, he and his fellow awardees finally learned they would receive the full three years of funding, but the program would no longer accept applications. In Science, he wrote that while he was “extraordinarily grateful” for the EPA’s support, he was also concerned about the agency’s future.

“Beyond that, I am worried about my nation’s scientific institutions as a whole,” Dexter wrote. “Scientists in the United States face a shortage of tenure-track faculty jobs and fierce competition for a shrinking pool of grants. These dimming prospects reflect decades of underinvestment in the sciences. … We are all doing research on a razor’s edge.”

Dexter’s sharp focus and perseverance have helped him get ahead in a competitive environment, and WSU Vancouver has been good to him too. “I’ve had great faculty and easy access to faculty whenever I have questions,” he said. “The campus is beautiful, there are incredible support staff in my department, and my adviser has been a great resource.” The university has given him grants and awards for professional development, travel and scholarships.Dexter’s wife, Claire, and 8-year-old son, Redmond, will join him in Switzerland in August, when she finishes her x-ray tech program.

Posted in Invasive species, Water | 1 Comment

The puzzle of pediatric pain

What is the relationship between physical pain and psychological pain in children and adolescents?

Early in her academic career, Jessica Fales realized that hardly anyone had studied what she most wanted to learn about—the relationship between chronic pain and social development in children and adolescents. There was little research and a wide-open field.

“The main thread that ties my research together is trying to understand why rates of chronic pain increase in adolescence, why girls are disproportionately affected, and how to prevent them from turning into adults with chronic pain. And for those with chronic pain, how can we improve their outcomes?” Fales said. She believes that social relationships may play a key role in pain onset, pain chronification and pain prevention. 

Fales became interested in links between social functioning and pediatric pain while working on her graduate degree at the University of Maine. Determined to do her clinical internship year at an academic medical center with a pediatric pain specialty, she found Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. “I got to be in on the ground floor of a treatment they were developing for parents of children with chronic pain,” she said, “and after that I was hooked.” Fales completed a two-year fellowship in pediatric pain management at Seattle Children’s Research Institute in 2014.

Chronic pain is common in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, Fales said. Things like headaches, stomach aches and limb pain may be caused by an injury or disease, or there may be no known cause. And while some children in pain function just fine in their social worlds, others struggle or withdraw from activities. That can impair their social development.

A subject in the Fales lab with her arm in water to induce pain

Since joining WSU Vancouver in 2014 as an assistant professor of psychology, Fales has not slowed down. In 2016 she received a New Faculty Seed Grant from WSU for research in her Adolescent Health & Wellness Lab on the Vancouver campus. She also works with two other WSU Vancouver psychology professors, Benjamin Ladd and Renee Magnan, as part of a broader project supported by Grand Challenges Seed Grant and Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program funding from WSU Pullman. In addition, she continues to collaborate with her former mentors and colleagues at OHSU, SCRI and worldwide.

A promising start

Fales has learned a few things about what pain can do to kids. For example, in a commentary written with Paula Forgeron of the University of Ottawa, Fales concluded that strong friendships may benefit youth with chronic pain. “Children and youth with chronic pain have fewer friends, are rated as less likeable by peers, and may be subjected to higher rates of peer victimization,” she wrote. 

This indicates a need for more research into how friendship can impact pain and disability, how to help children with chronic pain develop more social skills and ultimately how to harness the power of peers in recovery efforts. “Understanding social functioning, particularly peer friendships, in youth with chronic pain is the next critical wave of research in helping youth manage the complexity of chronic pain and develop into healthy young adults,” she wrote.

A subject in the Fales lab viewing the “pain scale.”

Another avenue for research is the role of parents in pediatric chronic pain. For example, Fales has learned that teaching problem-solving skills to parents—so they experience less stress in their own lives—can also help their children suffer less pain.

In her work at WSU Vancouver, Fales explores whether bullying or social exclusion is linked to physical pain. She and her collaborators have discovered that adolescents with chronic pain experience similar rates of victimization compared to their peers without pain—but are sometimes more bothered by these experiences when they do occur. 

Last semester, Fales and her team of undergraduate research assistants (Alivia Stone, Elizabeth Hardin, Abigail Bambilla and Rachel Murray) wrapped up an experiment looking at whether being socially excluded affected healthy adolescents’ perception of physical pain. Stone will present her findings at the Society for Pediatric Psychology’s annual conference this spring, and Hardin will present at the American Psychology Association’s annual conference in August.

“The team is now trying to figure out where to go from here,” Fales said. “We are hoping to build on these results in clinical populations.”

Similarly, the Grand Challenges Seed Grant opened the door to further research on health behaviors and marijuana use broadly. Fales’s part of that grant involved use of marijuana for chronic pain in young people. “Some young adults are primarily using cannabis for its presumptive pain-relieving properties,” she wrote. “Nevertheless, even in the context of longstanding heavy use, their pain persists.” Is it possible that the relief from cannabis inhibits the development of other pain management techniques and ultimately prolongs the pain over time?

These are questions Fales wants to answer. “My big interest is trying to figure out the social risk and protective factors that may contribute to the development of chronic pain,” she said. “Once you identify those, they can be harnessed to develop preventative interventions. Is there something we can do to encourage and promote peer relationships and build resilience factors for youth with chronic pain? How can we make our treatments more effective?” She keeps running into the same problem: What she wants to find out has never been done. She said, “I wish there were lots more psychologists working on this subject.” 

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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.”

Posted in Equity and diversity | Leave a comment

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.

PI Gisela E-S teaching at WSUV

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

Posted in education, Equity and diversity, Writing | Leave a comment