Exploring how the past informs the future

Colin Grier’s archeological studies explore how indigenous societies adapted to social and ecological change.

For thousands of years, numerous small-scale societies, mostly coastal hunting, gathering and fishing peoples, populated the Pacific Northwest. What remains of these small-scale societies, and what we can learn from them as they transformed from more mobile, small groups to larger, more complex societies—specifically, how they have adapted and survived—form the basis of Colin Grier’s life’s work.

Grier is professor of archeology in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University Vancouver. His primary field work has been investigating the archeological record of the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia.

Colin Grier and his students working on the coast of British Columbia

Grier, a Canadian who earned his bachelor’s degree at McGill University and his master’s and Ph.D. at Arizona State University, joined WSU in 2007. He was based in Pullman for about 12 years before moving to the Vancouver campus to be closer to the coastal areas where he works. He also does field research on other similarly-scaled societies around the world, such as those of ancient Korea and Japan, looking for commonalities.

Grier’s research is extraordinarily timely. His interdisciplinary approach embraces questions of social complexity, sustainability, climate change and ecological restoration. He works through collaborative relationships and partnerships with the indigenous people whose history he studies. He argues that a lot can be drawn from studying the ways people in the past adapted to environmental and social change. The job of archeologists is to uncover those successful strategies and translate how they can be applied today.

As he wrote in a 2017 article titled “Looking to the past to shape the future,” in the journal Regional Environmental Change, “Humans have made decisions and implemented new practices in the past in ways that may appear dissimilar to our modern context, but which can inform policy and meet our own sustainability challenges.”

What can we learn? “How people engage their environments in different ways than we have. Settled village life means people are staying put and can have significant impacts on their environment. Northwest Coast people were sustainable in these places for thousands of years. What were they doing differently than we are now? We have a lot to learn about ways we might manage ecologies, not only environmentally but socially,” Grier said.

A good example of this on a practical level can be found close to home. Grier is a member of the Science Panel for the Puget Sound Partnership, a Washington state agency tasked with restoring Puget Sound. He was a lead author on the Science Panel’s statement in the “State of the Sound 2021” report on how we need to go forward ecologically. The report cites a number of accomplishments in a long-term effort to clean up the Sound. As the Science Panel statement notes: “Puget Sound recovery does not mean returning to a Sound that existed in 1950, in 1850, or 10,000 years ago.” Rather, it is about making decisions that are “guided by history but not attempting to recreate the past.”

Ground-penetrating radar: An important archeological tool

A more recent theme in Grier’s work is the use of GPR—ground-penetrating radar. He has used it in his work for about a decade and has a National Science Foundation grant to explore its possibilities in locating and surveying households and villages. 

GPR, a tool commonly used by builders and surveyors that deploys electromagnetic waves to penetrate the ground in search of hidden objects, can also help map village locations. “I focus on village locations because to me that is the nexus through which Indigenous peoples have engaged their environment,” Grier said. “If we can map changing households and communities, we can better understand how they were organized to confront ecological challenges.”

Colin Grier using the GPR

GPR made headlines last summer for its use in uncovering unmarked human burial sites at Indian residential schools across Canada. Grier had worked as an archival historian for the Canadian government before joining WSU, documenting the history of the residential schools and helping to process tribal claims. Recent examples of GPR being used at residential schools are bringing his current NSF-funded work and past research together once again. Archaeologists with knowledge of the technology and school histories can help facilitate the hard work that will advance reconciliation and healing.

There were 367 such schools in the United States. including 13 in Washington and 9 in Oregon. “A national conversation is needed,” Grier said. “Archeologists have expertise. We work collaboratively with communities generally.”

In the Vancouver area, Grier and his students are also using GPR as part of a longstanding collaboration with the National Park Service and Portland State University at Fort Vancouver. GPR can reveal ancient and more recent community organization without extensive excavation, allowing us to reframe questions about the site. “People think of it as a colonial fort,” he said, “but it’s also a long-standing indigenous place. I like to think broadly about the fort locale and how it represents a deeper indigenous connection to this landscape.” 

Colin Grier and his students making discoveries in the field

Consider that indigenous people navigated this landscape for 14,000 years. “Fort Vancouver represents a transition point,” he said, “when indigenous living transformed rapidly.”For Grier, contributing to contemporary decisions is the overarching purpose of archeology. “We need to look in many places for ideas of how to do things differently,” Grier said. “Looking to people who’ve been here 14,000 years is an important part of the conversation.”

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Expanding understanding of pigmentation diseases

With a new NIH grant, Cynthia Cooper is probing some “unexpected effects” related to diseases of pigmentation.

Cynthia Cooper has spent  18 years studying the relationship of pigmentation to human diseases, notably melanoma and albinism, using zebrafish as a model. Zebrafish are an ideal model because their pigment cells are easily viewed through their transparent skin, and their eggs can be collected in high numbers year round.

Dr. Cynthia Cooper in her zebrafish facility at WSU Vancouver

Cooper, associate professor of molecular bioscience at WSU Vancouver, has now received a two-year, $100,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to further her research into other potentially pigment-related diseases, such as deficiencies in sensory or neural system development and embryonic death. The grant is especially gratifying to her because it is the first she has received from NIH for her research. (She received an earlier NIH grant as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle.)

Traits like white hair, red eyes and variations in skin tone are familiar in albinism, but there are other common traits—Cooper calls them “unexpected effects” or “pleiotropic effects”—that are less well known and understudied, and those are the focus of Cooper’s research. For example, people with albinism may have issues with processing visual input, so that images may be distorted because of a lack of pigment in the eye. Anther unexpected problem is that some people with albinism, or another hypopigmentation disease called Waardenburg syndrome, have optic neuron defects. 

Many of Dr. Cooper’s experiments involve microscopy.

“It has nothing to do with the neuron having pigment,” Cooper said. “It’s more like a nerve in the back of the eyeball does not develop correctly or does not connect to the processing center in the brain correctly.”

Cooper is interested in the idea that pigment can somehow help promote the development of bodily systems that are important for seeing, hearing and other sensory experiences. “It’s intriguing to me that melanin, something we only think of as important to skin color and tanning, may also be important for development of these other systems,” she said.

Cooper joined WSU Vancouver in 2008 after studying for her Ph.D. at the University of Washington and conducting her dissertation research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. She credits her post-doc advisor, David Raible, for inspiring her zebrafish work.

Cooper’s first substantial funding came from the Melanoma Research Foundation in 2011. Over the years, other support has come from WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, WSU Vancouver’s faculty mini-grant program and the Pan American Society of Pigment Cell Researchers. Some of the grants were enough to cover salaries for technicians and students, both graduate and undergraduate, and the NIH grant will do the same. That will help accelerate the research.

Dr. Cooper mentors numerous undergraduate students in her lab, providing them with excellent hands-on research experiences.

Cooper has a storied reputation as a generous mentor, and the proof is that when funding has run out, many students have stayed in her lab as volunteers, sometimes even after finding full-time jobs. She brings them food, takes them to dinner, works beside them even on menial tasks, gives them co-authorship on published papers, serves as a reference for jobs or graduate school, and generally supports them “however I can,” she said. Cooper has been able to collect some preliminary data for the new grant already. Her next grant application will build on her current research, asking, for example: “What proteins are important for melanin dependence? How might it be impacting the development of a neuron or a cell that doesn’t make melanin? Those general questions are where we are now, and I hope with the next grant we can further test the role of pigment cell proteins in pigmented and non-pigmented (initially sensory) systems.”

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Autism and juvenile justice

Laurie Drapela’s book examines how autism research can improve juvenile justice policies in the United States and Canada.

Laurie Drapela has been studying inequities in the justice system for more than 20 years. Drapela, an associate professor of criminal justice at WSU Vancouver, has long been interested in the outcomes for juveniles after they are incarcerated. She is troubled by how society often resorts to punishment in a correctional institution rather than offering therapeutic interventions that could help the child grow up to become a happy and productive member of society.

Associate Professor Laurie Drapela

Young people with autism are at particular risk of getting caught up in the juvenile justice system. Drapela, who has a child with autism, asks: “What happens if my child, who can be  talkative and have a little bit of attitude, has an encounter with a police officer and doesn’t understand what’s at stake?” Unfortunately, it is all too likely that the police officer doesn’t understand either.

To examine the issue, Drapela has co-authored a book, “Law and Neurodiversity: Youth with Autism and the Juvenile Justice Systems in Canada and the United States,” published by the University of British Columbia Press. Her co-authors are Dana Lee Baker of California State University (formerly at WSU Vancouver) and Whitney Littlefield, a juvenile probation counselor at the Cowlitz County Youth Services Center in Longview, Wash. 

One in 54 persons in the U.S. population is on the autism spectrum. “If you’re a juvenile probation counselor with a rotating caseload of 40 to 50 kids, you’re likely to encounter at least one kid with autism over the course of a work year,” Drapela said. Many will not be detained and will be diverted back into society, but others, especially repeat offenders, may well end up in juvenile prison (known as detention). People of color with autism are particularly vulnerable to misunderstandings and harsh penalties.

Drapela’s Book Cover

The authors decided to study the Canadian and U.S. systems because they have a comparable prevalence of autism (Canada’s is 1 in 66) and a common history in English common law, but decidedly different ways of engaging juvenile offenders. Canada is more likely to implement social programs for youth with autism and connect them with the community and social service agencies. The United States is more likely to take a punitive approach.

“The U.S. still uses confinement more than anyone else in the developed world,” Drapela said. “What do people working with these kids know about autism?” 

The book argues that they need to know much more than they do now. “We make some recommendations for policies that will be driven exclusively by restorative justice,” Drapela said. “People need to be trained in neurodiversity—the idea that persons with autism possess differences that are strengths rather than weaknesses. Different juveniles require different approaches.” 

Autism is expressed in myriad ways, from the stereotypical savant as shown in the movie “Rain Man” to verbal insults and “acting out.” Moreover, bright lights, loud noises, handcuffs and other realities of policing can trigger strong reactions in autistic people and exacerbate the situation.

To their credit, people working in the juvenile justice system want to know more about autism, Drapela said. But there is a lot of work to do to equip them to work with youth with autism. A “best practices” literature on the subject that can be used to design treatments is difficult to find. The book offers guidance on how autism research can inform and improve juvenile justice policies in both countries. It starts with looking at the offender as an individual.

“There are all kinds of ways you can work with justice-involved people,” Drapela said, “but you’ve got to assess what they need”—for example, anger management, education, constructive social activities. “We need to develop diverse ways of reaching people, so once we know what they need, we know how to deliver it to them in ways that will resonate with their hearts and minds.”This fall, Drapela will begin a sabbatical year looking at youth of color in the juvenile justice system. “Juvenile detention rates are higher for kids of color,” she said. “If detention staff aren’t trained in identifying issues such as autism, these kids don’t get assistance and the juvenile justice system is just warehousing these youth when it could be helping them.” As she digs into the archives of juvenile probation counselors, she plans to pay particular attention to opportunities for expanding neurodiversity in juvenile justice practice.

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The Future of Ethics Training for Business

A new book, co-edited by Professor Emeritus Jerry Goodstein and visionary Mary Gentile, heralds limitless potential for a widely used curriculum on values.

The responsibility of educating ethical corporate leaders and employees falls on business schools across the country. They strive to train people to abide by the social contract, act according to their values, and instill the desire in their employees to do the right thing. The challenge often is not getting people to distinguish right from wrong but empowering them to speak up and to act on their values.

Giving Voice to Values, a research-based curriculum that has been part of WSU Vancouver’s Carson College of Business for nearly 15 years, does just that. Jerry Goodstein, now professor emeritus of business at WSU Vancouver, brought it into his business ethics class shortly after its creation in 2007, and it is part of required ethics courses for all business majors. Claire Kamm Latham, associate professor of accounting, incorporates Giving Voice to Values in her junior- and senior-level accounting courses. WSU Vancouver was one of the pioneering schools to adopt Giving Voice to Values, or GVV.

GVV is used not only by business schools nationwide but also by more than 1,000 companies and nonprofits. Lockheed Martin was a pioneer, instilling the framework into its ethics awareness training. The CFA Institute offers it as an optional training for investment professionals. Latham and Jane Cote, professor emeritus of business, contributed a chapter to the book that discusses their efforts to lead GVV workshops for accounting professionals in the Vancouver/Portland area.

At Lockheed Martin, for example, the intent “was to shift the emphasis in ethics training … from ‘what’s wrong’ to ‘focusing on what can you as an individual do about it,’” Goodstein writes in a chapter in the book.

Gentile, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, developed Giving Voice to Values. The curriculum has expanded and matured to the point that Gentile and Goodstein agreed it is time for a comprehensive look at where the framework might go in the future. That led to a book, co-edited by Goodstein and Gentile, called “Giving Voice to Values: An Innovation and Impact Agenda,” to be published in July by Routledge. It is the most recent in a series of five books on GVV.

Giving Voice to Values “is very much action oriented,” Goodstein said. It isn’t a muckraking agenda to root out corruption. In a way, it might help head off corruption. It is about ordinary, decent people empowering each other to follow their best instincts. “Giving Voice to Values makes the assumption that the majority of people do want to do the right thing,” Goodstein said. “The question is how can you do that.”

Jerry Goodstein

GVV uses case studies of ethical challenges that might be faced in the workplace—witnessing sexual harassment, for example, dealing with a disruptive employee, or resisting the temptation to manipulate market research data when introducing a new product. Individuals are encouraged to consider how they want to respond, what they want to say and to whom, possible counterarguments, and to develop and rehearse “scripts” to help them take action.

The book is made up of essays from practitioners and leading experts in business ethics and the professions on the possibilities for sustaining its growth and success. These include the creation of new teaching materials, ways to reach different audiences worldwide, and ways GVV can act as a catalyst for organizational and societal change.

“The potential for GVV is tremendous,” Goodstein said, listing reasons why more universities and corporations might want to connect with GVV. One essay looks at the potential role digital tools and technologies could play in significantly increasing GVV’s future global reach and impact. There are possibilities for expansion into government, legal and healthcare settings, among others. 

And there is another step that could be emphasized to make GVV as effective as possible in maintaining an ethical workplace. In an essay about the listener’s perspective, Goodstein writes that more attention needs to be paid to listening to the message. There are two parties in a values conversation—the voicer, who delivers the message that something is wrong, and the listener, who receives it and, ideally, will act on it. That might be, for instance, a manager, a co-worker or an HR officer. GVV training might also emphasize how to adopt an open-minded listener’s perspective and develop good listening skills, pay attention to the issues being voiced, and learn how to respond in a way that safeguards the organization’s ethical culture.

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Abstracts from the winning projects at the 18th annual WSU Vancouver Research Showcase

First place – graduate student podium

Sofia D’Ambrosio – PhD student in School of the Environment

Large variations in methane flux across the bottom boundary layer of a eutrophic lake

Sofia D’Ambrosio

Methane (CH4) produced in anoxic sediments plays a significant role in the carbon and energy economy of many lakes and reservoirs. To reach the lake water column, CH4 released from sediments must cross the bottom boundary layer (BBL), the layer of water overlying the lakebed where currents are slowed by friction. BBL conditions, which often fluctuate hourly to daily with basin-wide internal waves (seiches), likely influence CH4 flux from sediments and thus the supply of CH4 to the lake carbon cycle. In this study, we measured CH4 fluxes across the BBL in a eutrophic lake with a novel in situ flux gradient approach adapted from marine applications. For 2-6 hour periods before and after the onset of summer stratification, we coupled estimates of CH4 fluxes across the BBL with simultaneous measurements of mixing, stratification, temperature, and oxygen. CH4 fluxes across the BBL increased from spring to summer as hypolimnetic hypoxia developed and stratification inhibited mixing out of the BBL and the hypolimnion. Additionally, seiche-induced shifts in BBL conditions corresponded with order-of-magnitude variations in CH4 fluxes within hours, with greater fluxes observed during intense BBL turbulence and lower fluxes observed during quiescent periods or episodic deliveries of dissolved oxygen. Our results are the first to demonstrate how the BBL exerts significant control on the spatiotemporal variability of CH4 fluxes from lake sediments, potentially regulating the supply of CH4 to the carbon cycle of many lentic systems.

First place – graduate student poster

Erin O’Rorke – medical student, College of Medicine

Safety of GalaFLEX in Prepectoral Breast Reconstruction

Background: Prepectoral implant-based breast reconstruction is gaining in popularity. Acellular dermal matrices (ADMs) are an integral part of prepectoral reconstruction. However, large quantities of ADM are required for total implant coverage and the cost of ADMs could be a deterrent to reconstruction. To minimize the cost, the authors have resorted to the use of a bioabsorbable mesh, GalaFLEX, as a replacement to ADMs. The comparative safety of using GalaFLEX in combination with AlloDerm versus AlloDerm alone in prepectoral reconstruction is reported. 

Methods: Consecutive patients who underwent immediate, expander-implant, prepectoral breast reconstruction were included in this retrospective study. Patients were stratified into two groups: those who received AlloDerm-GalaFLEX combination versus AlloDerm alone. In AlloDerm-GalaFLEX reconstructions, the lower third of the expander was covered by the AlloDerm while the rest of the expander was covered by GalaFLEX. Complications following reconstruction were compared between the groups. 

Results: AlloDerm alone was utilized in 128 patients (249 breasts) and AlloDerm-GalaFLEX in 135 patients (250 breasts). Rate of any complication was 7.6% in the AlloDerm alone group and 6.4% in the AlloDerm-GalaFLEX group. Rate of infection, skin necrosis, seroma, capsular contracture, prosthesis exposure/extrusion, and prosthesis loss were ≤3.0% in the AlloDerm-GalaFLEX group and did not differ significantly from those in the AlloDerm only group. 

Conclusions: GalaFLEX bioabsorbable matrix is a less costly alternative to ADMs in two-staged, prepectoral reconstruction with comparable safety outcomes. Further long-term data and clinical experience are needed to better understand the safety of this matrix for use in breast reconstruction.

First place – undergraduate student podium

Kay Hall – History

State v. Towessnute and State v. Meninock: State Conservation and Indigenous Rights

Kay Hall

The catastrophic effect of the 2020 fire season on the Pacific Northwest was only one example of the risks the area will confront as the climate continues to warm. Washington State has a long history of conflicting viewpoints over how the environment and its natural resources should best be handled, a situation that is especially troubling given the key role that management strategies play in determining the resilience or vulnerability of the environment. Systematic subversion of treaty rights is at the heart of this conflict. In 1915, Alec Towessnute was charged for fishing at Prosser Falls despite the guarantees of the 1855 Treaty with the Yakama that all usual and accustomed fishing places would be protected in perpetuity. He was accused of violating the newly passed Fisheries Code, an attempt by the new State Fish Commissioner to implement state-sponsored conservation. In State v. Towessnute and the subsequent State v. Meninock, the Washington State Supreme Court determined that state power took precedence over treaty rights. The decision began a century of tension between state-sponsored conservation and Native rights and stewardship. This legal microhistory uses case records, media coverage, speeches, and personal statements to tell the stories of Towessnute and Meninock, highlighting their early use of civil disobedience as a political tool. Towessnute and Meninock bring timely insights, drawn from the axis of law and resistance, to the topics of Native American identity and rights, as well as their role in the broader discussion of conservation and environmental management moving forward.

First place – undergraduate student poster

Forrest Fearington – Neuroscience

Investigating a Potential Mechanism of Noise-Induced Synaptopathy

Forrest Fearington

Noise is the most common cause of preventable hearing loss, affecting 31 million Americans. A less-studied subcategory of noise-induced hearing loss is known as hidden hearing loss, in which the synapses connecting inner ear hair cells to afferent ganglion neurons are damaged (termed synaptopathy). This damage is suspected to be caused by excess glutamate release in the synaptic cleft. However, the exact mechanism of synaptopathy remains unknown, and there is currently no FDA approved treatment. Here we investigate a potential mechanism of noise-induced synaptopathy. We hypothesize that excess glutamate release following noise damage will cause AMPA receptors lacking the GluA2 subunit to leak excess calcium into the ganglion cell, and that heterogenous distribution of this GluA2 subunit will be negatively correlated with calcium entry and damage to the ganglion cell. This hypothesis was tested by using noise to damage hair cells in the zebrafish lateral line, an established vertebrate model for studying noise-induced hearing loss. Following noise damage, GluA2 and GluA4 subunit distribution and intracellular calcium levels were determined. Synaptic integrity and ganglion cell death were also assessed at different time points after noise exposure. This research can shed light on the suspected mechanism of AMPA-receptor mediated synaptopathy following acoustic trauma, thus uncovering a potential pharmacological target. Given the absence of an FDA approved treatment and the inefficacy of hearing aids in mitigating hidden hearing loss, our research has the potential to fill a health care gap for a currently untreatable condition. 

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Why make music?

Military music and lullabies hold keys to the evolution of musical sounds

When he was a graduate student in California, Ed Hagen heard a song on the radio and found himself singing along with it, even though he had not heard it for years. Its melody, beat and timing seemed to be embedded deep in memory. It occurred to him that a core feature of music is synchronizing with others, and he wondered whether musical traits might have evolved as part of human psychology. 

That was the beginning of a thread of research that has occupied Hagen off and on for more than 20 years. It is the subject of his recent paper, “Origins of Music in Credible Signaling,” published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Hagen, professor of evolutionary anthropology at WSU Vancouver, and three colleagues, from Harvard, UCLA and the University of Wellington in New Zealand, developed their theoretical paper following an international conference three years ago. They hypothesize that music has evolved as a signal particular to two contexts: coalitional interactions (such as military strength) and infant care. Music is a “credible signal,” meaning its purpose is instantly recognized by the listener in either context—indicating a strong coalition or parental concern. 

Credible signaling is the idea that actions convey information that can be trusted. The concept won its creators the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001 and has been applied in many fields since then. “Credible signaling is the core of our hypothesis,” Hagen said.  “We’re applying that idea to music.” For example, if one group is trying to defend its territory, its war songs indicate that the group has a fearsomely large presence capable of synchronizing its actions against the enemy. As Hagen wrote in an earlier paper on the origins of music, in 2009, “Human proto-music, in essence, might have been functionally analogous to the howling of wolves.”

“The question is why do humans have a more sophisticated system than, say, a group of wolves?” Hagen said. “When we defend our territories, we often do it in alliance with other groups, and to do so, we often hold feasts, with elaborate displays of music, clothes, food and dances—trying to impress other groups that we are high-quality allies. Maybe this is a human version of territorial signaling, but elaborated to impress potential allies and also enemies that we are a formidable coalition.”

In an entirely different context—but also a credible signal of cooperative intent—are lullabies. Citing the “pressures of helpless infants requiring substantial parental investment, relative to other primates,” plus siblings competing for their parents’ attention, Hagen and his colleagues propose “that music could function as a credible signal of parental attention.” Parents use lullabies and other sounds to let the infant they are close by and ready to fulfill the infant’s needs. The sound provides insight into the parent’s state of mind.

In an unusual exploration of alternate scenarios, Behavioral and Brain Sciences is simultaneously publishing another paper paper laying out a common hypothesis about the origins of music—that it evolved to create social bonding. Hagen and his colleagues argue systematically against this theory—that it has causation backward. “For us, social bonding comes first,” Hagen said, “then the music signals the existence of that bond.”

They dismiss the hypothesis that music is simply decorative—“auditory cheesecake,” as Steven Pinker called it. And they find a long-held belief, first suggested by Charles Darwin, wanting. Darwin suggested that music was developed by humans to attract mates. But much about music, such as the fact that it is often performed by groups and that men and women have similar (rather than complementary) skills, don’t support the sexual-selection hypothesis.

Hagen’s primary research area is evolutionary medicine. But the evolution of music and dance is an ongoing fascination. “Music is an incredibly important facet of human existence,” Hagen said. “Most of us love it, spend money on it, and it sometimes forms an important part of our identity. And yet it’s utterly puzzling, because there doesn’t seem to be any utility to it. It doesn’t produce anything, it doesn’t give food or safety, so it’s a really mysterious behavior—and it’s all around the world. That was the attraction to me. Can we explain what seems utterly inexplicable?”He hopes to address two related ideas in future research—first, an empirical study of the credible signaling theory in human groups; and second, a psychological study focusing on how people judge the qualities of a musical performance.

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The Pandemic’s Psychological Toll

Hospitality workers have suffered an unprecedented loss of well-being since COVID-19 shut down much of their industry.

When you enter a restaurant or check in at a hotel, you typically feel a sense of anticipation. You expect the staff—from hosts to servers to desk clerks—to show warmth, consideration and a welcoming smile. But the hospitality labor market, including those who work in food, lodging and tourism, isn’t the growing, confident force it was less than a year ago. These days, that worker’s smile may not come so naturally.

Women make up more than half of the hospitality workforce

Since March of this year, as the country locked down and travel restrictions were imposed locally, nationally and internationally, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with the hospitality industry. Indeed, perhaps no other industry was hit so hard. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in accommodations and food and beverage services had risen to 37.3% in April 2020. Many hospitality workers had been laid off or furloughed, and many of those who kept their jobs felt insecure. Since then, although some establishments have rebounded modestly, some others have closed entirely and more people have lost their livelihoods.

“It unfolded very quickly,” said Chun-Chu (Bamboo) Chen, assistant professor of hospitality business management at WSU Vancouver. “While many people were able to work from home, hospitality workers have no choice. They have to work on site.” When students told him about their experiences being furloughed or laid off, Chen wanted to know more about the pandemic’s impact on their overall health and well-being.

Bamboo Chen, PhD

Working with an online research company, Chen surveyed about 1,200 hospitality workers. They fell into three groups. The first group remained fully employed and experienced little to no impact. The second group had been furloughed, surviving on reduced hours or not being paid but still considered employees of the company. The third group had been laid off; they were on their own.

In a paper published in October in Annals of Tourism Research[SL1] , “Psychological tolls of COVID-19 on industry employees,” Chen identified three key stressors that affected well-being:

  • Pandemic-induced panic
  • Social isolation or lack of social support
  • Unemployment

“In terms of overall well-being, my respondents were pretty bad,” Chen said. Understandably, panic affected most everyone to some degree. But those who still had social support and employment were better able to cope with the psychological trauma.

Unemployed and furloughed workers who had lost both their income and the social support of colleagues were most severely affected by the pandemic. Interestingly, Chen adds, “female and younger respondents were also hit harder, regardless of their employment status.” Because the hospitality workforce skews female (52.8%, and 58.7% of Chen’s respondents) and younger (median age of 30.7; and 62.5% under 40 in Chen’s sample), the impact is widely felt.

Implications for the industry

The study results were not surprising, but having empirical evidence is important for long-term thinking and planning for the industry, Chen said. “What’s really surprised me,” he added, is that “social support and isolation play a very important role here, and social support is a bigger factor [in well-being] than unemployment. I think that is the most unexpected finding from my study.”

The March/April lockdowns cost half of the hospitality jobs in the U.S.

One possible explanation why losing a job can be doubly devastating—loss of income and loss of co-workers’ support—is that hospitality workers are inherently social beings. “We have to face people on a daily basis,” Chen pointed out. For employers, while it is impractical to keep their employees on the payroll when there is no or little revenue, these findings pose some significant implications: When the industry rebounds, will it have trouble recruiting workers, who might see their jobs as precarious? If laid-off workers are rehired, will they be as outgoing as before, or might they be wary? How loyal will they feel to their employer?

Chen has a couple of other projects in the works. One is looking at whether losing a job in a pandemic or getting infected is a greater source of fear. He also hopes to look at the long-term impact of the current situation on the hospitality labor market.

A native of Taiwan, where he worked in the hospitality industry as a marketer for a resort hotel, Chen earned his Ph.D. at Texas A&M University in 2012 and joined WSU Vancouver in 2018. His project was funded via the mini-grant process by WSU Vancouver’s Office of Research and Graduate Education.

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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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