Roschelle (Shelly) Fritz usually draws her research conclusions from qualitative rather than quantitative data. That is, instead of building a case with numbers, she typically reads a narrative or asks questions to detect patterns and derive meaning. A recent grant awarded to Fritz and two Washington State University colleagues gives her a new challenge: qualitative analysis of quantitative data. Now, instead of looking for meaning in what someone says, she remarked, “I am looking for meaning in data regarding how someone moved.”


That someone would be an older adult living independently in a “smart home,” with sensors recording the person’s movement. Fritz’s job is to interpret that data using a clinical lens. The project seeks to determine whether technology can help people stay in their homes longer.

To investigate how smart-home technology can monitor the health and safety of older adults from afar, the project received a five-year, $1.77 million grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research—part of the National Institutes of Health. Its title: “A Clinician-in-the-Loop Smart Home to Support Health Monitoring and Intervention for Chronic Conditions.”

The three researchers, all female, have complementary perspectives. Diane Cook, professor in the School of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, provides the technology expertise. Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, a professor of psychology, is exploring whether health interventions affect cognitive health. Fritz, an assistant professor of nursing at WSU Vancouver, provides the clinical judgment.


For the study, multiple sensors are placed strategically in five homes in retirement communities in Spokane. (The research may expand to other locations during the grant period.) The sensors detect motion and record the residents’ data moment by moment. The clinician analyzes the data to determine their routines, such as getting out of bed to go to the bathroom or the kitchen at night. When the clinician flags a particular pattern as important, the engineer creates an algorithm to trigger an automatic alert to caregivers in the absence of that motion. If the change is significant, it may indicate the need for a “health intervention,” such as a visit or call.

Installation_Participant Home

Fritz is well suited to the task. She has been a nurse for 25 years, with experience in emergency rooms, public health, hospitals and employee health, as well as teaching.

The sensor technology adds something lacking in previous research, where people tell the researcher about their experience. That something is accuracy. “Sensor data has more credibility than when someone self-reports,” Fritz said. While someone might neglect to tell a caregiver about a recent slip, for example, the behavior change cannot be ignored by the smart home.

During the grant period, the research will focus on developing the machine learning piece of the puzzle. Taking into account the person’s health condition—such as a chronic disease—Fritz will tell the engineers what she believes she is seeing in the data, and they will develop an algorithm and alerts when motion indicating a change in health state is noted.

“We are not doing diagnostics,” Fritz said, “but training an intelligent machine to understand what a change in health state looks like, much as a home health nurse would assess that.” Essentially, they are training the machine to learn about the individual’s health and behavior.


The research also seeks to inform engineers’ ability to communicate effectively with clinicians, Fritz said. “The only way the data can impact clinical decision making is if we are provided information we can understand. How do you take big data like this and present it to a healthcare provider in a way that’s meaningful and relevant to their work—which medicines or treatments to prescribe?”

Students will be working on the project along with the researchers. Cook’s and Schmitter-Edgecombe’s student engineers and psychologists are developing visual analytics based on the data and working with Fritz’s nursing informatics students to determine what visuals nurses like best. “Classes will go back and forth doing that,” Fritz said. “It’s very fun and innovative, multidisciplinary teaching.”studentsThe project’s long-term goals address today’s major health concerns, from growth of the aging population to the shortage of caregivers to the cost of healthcare. One big question: Can technology make it possible to extend the reach of caregivers and nurses? Perhaps.

Cost is another matter. “It’s a very simple sensor technology,” Fritz said. “What’s expensive is the infrastructure and brains behind the algorithm.”

Smart homes are not new. For example, Cook has developed a “Smart Home in a Box,” currently deployed in more than 110 homes around the world. Bringing in a clinician to study the data, along with automating health monitoring, assessment and evaluation of the intervention impact, is an important new step in determining whether the system can help individuals manage chronic health conditions.

“We are nowhere near a market-ready product,” Fritz said. “This is very futuristic.”



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Discovering some of world history’s missing links

In the late 1970s, when Candice Goucher began researching African metalwork, she had the field practically to herself.

“I’m recognized as being kind of an old timer in terms of research on African ironworking,” said Goucher, professor of history at WSU Vancouver. Initially she worked with a blacksmith in 1979 in a small village in Ghana. Around the same time, she was involved in an archeological excavation of a medieval town. There, she discovered the extraordinary technology involved in the production of iron objects, implements and weapons that supported everyday life.


Goucher climbing into an iron-smelting furnace in Togo, 1984.

Now, her decades of research are coming to fruition in a monumental exhibition, “Striking Iron: The Arts of the African Blacksmith,” which opens in spring 2018 at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles and travels to Paris and other cities. Goucher is a collaborator on the project and also co-editor of a book to be published by the University of California Press in conjunction with the exhibition.

In addition, she is working on another volume about African ironworking as it has spread throughout the African diaspora via immigration. “I am looking at the global impact of African technology, which has been very understudied and underappreciated,” Goucher said. Tentatively titled “The Memory of Iron,” this book will seek to restore the role of African ironworkers to the history of technology, which for centuries has ignored Africa.

In her proposal for “The Memory of Iron,” Goucher points out the “terrible ambivalence” of iron in the lives of African people. The metal meant brutality as well as beauty. She writes:

Between about 1508 and 1880, iron was ubiquitous across the Atlantic: iron shackles and chains restrained the 12 million enslaved Africans, destined for voyages in ironclad sailing vessels. As key agricultural laborers, these Africans and their descendants would wield iron cutlasses in Caribbean sugarcane fields. In the hands of rebels and freedom fighters, their iron tools and weapons could transform moments of brutality into successful resistance.

Skills with iron were valued in the New World, and the knowledge of African craftsmen helped forge a new understanding of working with metal. “We now know Africans contributed essential knowledge and skills, especially to the Americas but also to the whole Atlantic world,” Goucher said. She sees “The Memory of Iron” as the culmination of decades of interdisciplinary scholarship around African metallurgy.


After excavation of an iron foundry in Jamaica, 1995.


Ironwork is just one thread of Goucher’s scholarship. Her work combines the theories and methods of history, archaeology, ethnography, art history, ecology and chemistry. She is well known for her books and articles on African foodways, metallurgy, and popular and political culture, as well as global themes in world history.

Goucher has studied Caribbean food almost as long as she has studied African ironworking. Among her many honors, her 2014 book “Congotay! Congotay!” won both the National and the World Gourmand Awards for Best Book on Caribbean Food.

In the classroom, Goucher has been instrumental in shifting the teaching of world history from an outdated rise-and-fall-of-civilizations approach to a more engaged thematic approach to the past, which makes it possible to see contemporary global and environmental issues borne of history. “It’s a way to make history more relevant to our lives,” Goucher said.

The approach has been widely adopted by secondary schools and colleges. Goucher is co-author of one of the leading textbooks, World History: Journeys from Past to Present, (2008; second edition, 2013), which has been translated into Chinese, Korean and Portuguese. Her online multimedia project Bridging World History (with 26 videos) has been viewed on public television stations and classrooms in nearly every state as a model of the thematic approach to world history. In 2015, Goucher was awarded the Pioneer in World History prize from the World History Association.

Goucher joined WSU Vancouver in 2000, after chairing the Black Studies Department at Portland State University. In 2017, she received the Chancellor’s Award for Research Excellence at WSU Vancouver.

Next year’s exhibition in Los Angeles promises a different kind of thrill than solitary scholars usually get to experience—as well as the possibility that a missing link in the worldwide history of technology will receive its rightful recognition. “It is so much fun to be around other people who are so excited about these works of art that African blacksmiths created over centuries,” Goucher said. “The longevity of African ironworking over the millennia and the survival of the arts into 21st century makes the African continent an important place to think about the history of technology.”

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ENVIRONMENT AS ART EXPERIENCE: Geography and architecture inspire Avantika Bawa’s installations.

Visitors entering the gallery see jagged swaths of color—the earthy colors found in topographical maps of the San Fernando Valley and San Gabriel Fault line in California.

Rumbling sounds of tremors and earthquakes interrupt the silence. It is as if visitors have entered a troubled landscape where the ground beneath their feet cannot be trusted.

Avantika Bawa’s most recent installation, “Parallel Faults,” was on view from March 16 through April 6 at Los Angeles Valley College, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. Visitors might feel a sense of foreboding from the landscape around them—a valley run through with invisible fault lines, shadowed by a ring of mountain ranges.


“I wanted to respond to the colors of the topography as seen in maps and the idea of being sunken in, with this force that surrounds you and can implode any time,” she said.


Bawa, an associate professor of fine art at WSU Vancouver, creates installations that respond to the geography or architecture of specific sites. She begins with extensive research, scouring the Internet, visiting libraries, poring over maps and books, and talking with researchers in the field. For “Parallel Fault,” she obtained field recordings of earthquakes and tremors from geologists.

Sometimes the research is playful. For “At Owners Risk,” a show in Seattle in 2012, for example, she wanted to capture the idea that the gallery was housed in a former body shop. So she visited body shops to observe their work. Bawa color-coded each element in the installation according to function: blue upright hydraulic lift, yellow clamp forms and so on. “The mechanical form of the hydraulic lift dominates the room and anchors the exhibition as the most obvious reference to auto repair,” wrote Craig Drennen in the catalog essay.

As part of the Portland Biennial in the summer of 2016, Bawa created an installation in Astoria, Ore., for which she received a faculty research minigrant from WSU Vancouver. Called “Mineral Spirits,” the installation is a haunting evocation of the economic cycle that characterizes life on the Oregon coast.

The Astoria building offered for use had once been a grand hotel, then low-income housing, and now was slated to be turned into condominiums and retail spaces. “It was beautiful but falling apart,” Bawa said. “I was taken aback by its vacuousness, its splendor and the decayed state it was in. I thought it would be interesting to address all those issues.”

As her primary material, she built scaffolding—a symbol of growth and construction—and painted it gold to symbolize the hotel’s former prosperity. “But it’s also isolated, which is why it sits in middle of the room,” Bawa said. “It looks like it does something, but it doesn’t—it’s just an object that’s more a metaphor for past and future.”



Her position as a fine artist teaching at a research institution with a lot of scientists intrigues Bawa. In fact, it was one of the reasons she came to Vancouver in 2010.

A native of India, Bawa earned her Master of Fine Arts degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and taught at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. In April 2004 she was part of a team that launched Drain—Journal for Contemporary Art and Culture, which she still edits.

She’d had a lot of success, with work represented in museums and private collections, numerous exhibitions as both artist and curator, prestigious visiting teaching assignments, and many grants, awards and residencies. Looking for a change from the East Coast, she gave herself a year off, drove across the country for a residency and decided to see what happened. She found herself in Portland, where her success as a teacher, artist and lecturer continued. In 2014 she was appointed to the Oregon Arts Commission.

The move west also changed her work. She went from teaching at an art school to being one of two faculty members in a small fine arts department.

“It changed my research component too,” she said. “All these scientists and geologists around me—I wanted to make sure my work was significant in the larger context of life and not just a cool art community. It was a bigger challenge. And I do love working with a diverse body of students who don’t necessarily major in art. It’s a different perspective.”


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Studying soil processes of the critical zone on the Vancouver campus

For Marc Kramer’s fall 2016 class called Soil Processes in the Earth’s Critical Zone, students found an outdoor laboratory just steps from their classroom.

Five students measured various aspects of the “critical zone,” where the bulk of the planet’s life forms reside. The critical zone is an enormously complex area stretching from the treetops, through soil to the groundwater and housing a vast array of interdependent biogeochemical processes. These processes have a huge hand in ecosystem services, such as clean water and air, as well as the fate of carbon, global warming’s fundamental element.

The WSU Vancouver campus sits amid a swatch of field and forest just east of the loop road. Open meadow at its edge, then a mix of deciduous and conifer forest sloping down to a stream, it offered a chance to take measurements related to several processes within the watershed—soil, water, trees and leafy matter, vegetation that falls from the trees. “It provides a nice snapshot,” said Kramer, an assistant professor of environmental chemistry.

“One of the many exciting things about the WSU Vancouver campus is you can literally walk outside the campus and have access to field sites that can be used in teaching,” Kramer said. It is not uncommon for students at other universities to have to drive 20 or even 30 minutes off-campus to reach field sites that can be used in course instruction.

An ideal learning context

The students’ aim was to identify soluble organic carbon and nitrogen response to seasonal, land-use and climate change in the Pacific Northwest. Last fall’s extraordinary rainfall provided the ideal context for analysis.

WSU Vancouver student researchers Corey Ruder and Sarah Kintner on site.

WSU Vancouver student researchers Corey Ruder and Sarah Kintner on site.

In the meadow, Sarah Kintner, a first-year master’s student from Green Bay, Wisc., collected water to test for dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen. In the woods, Corey Ruder, a doctoral student from near Sacramento, could measure changes in carbon-dioxide concentrations in and around the ground. Greg Clark, a first-year master’s student from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, measured precipitation with instruments in the open meadow and under the canopy.

Luke Reyes, a doctoral student from New Jersey, patrolled litter traps, screens that caught leafy matter as it fell from the trees. He would dry the contents, weigh them and do carbon and nitrogen analyses to see how the vegetation is contributing inputs to the soil. And Geoff Kahl, a geology master’s student from Portland, sampled stream and groundwater to analyze their chemistry.


Doctoral student Luke Reyes collects tree litter to gauge carbon and nitrogen impact.

The students then developed indicators of how water arrives and moves through the system, plus measures of soil moisture, carbon, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The next time the course is taught, students will be able to study the movement of metals and other mobile elements such as calcium or silicon, thanks to a recent large research grant from the Murdock foundation.

“The students will have access to new equipment—an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer and an ion chromatograph—that will allow them to measure many additional constituents in water,” Kramer said.

More rain, more intense storms?

Kramer encourages the students to answer the questions they started with but also to look for new questions that might arise from the data they chart. It’s science as a reality-based creative process.

While analysis continues, the students research in the course has already been making an impact. WSU’s Washington State Magazine published a story in its spring issue. In February, the students made a presentation to the WSU Vancouver faculty seminar and displayed a poster at the graduate student symposium. They will be presenting their results at the Ecological Society of America conference in Portland this summer. And they are writing a paper for publication.

By semester’s end, based on reading the scientific literature and analyzing their data, they had an interesting finding—that the carbon and nitrogen and water responses they observed during the heavy warm rains of this October provided a rare opportunity to gain insight into how future climates may impact soil processes. Their observations may well be a sign of things to come.

Predictions that climate change will bring increased rainfall have been around for a long time. “But no one knows what that means for life on the ground,” Reyes said. “We see evidence that the increased rainfall may come from more intense storms rather than more frequent storms. Our study provides a rare opportunity to better understand how water, dissolved carbon, and nitrogen may respond to these type of storms, which may well become the new norm.”

One of Kramer’s goals was to make field and lab-based measurements an integral part of the classroom experience. Not only does it provide practical experience, but it benefits the students in another way too. “Gathering so many pieces of data and working in a team, the students dramatically increase their capacity to do big science,” he said.

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RESEARCH EQUIPMENT FOR THE NEXT GENERATION: John Harkness and Ryan Todd want to make lab equipment practical, affordable and beautiful.

Postdoctoral fellow John Harkness and scientific assistant Ryan Todd were working in Barbara Sorg’s neuroscience lab on the WSU Vancouver campus when they ran into an expensive equipment problem.

They were investigating sleep deprivation in rodents by examining how structures surrounding neurons, called perineuronal nets, change throughout the day and during periods of limited sleep. They believe perineuronal nets are important for regulating neural plasticity and could be important in storing memories—with potential clues for treating various addictions.

They needed “sleep deprivation boxes,” which prevent mice or rats from sleeping for a period of time. The Sorg lab hypothesizes that neurological changes occur from lack of sleep that make the brain more susceptible to drug addiction. After a rat is sleep deprived, the researcher can measure drug-seeking behaviors over time and see how perineuronal nets are involved.

Although these devices are available commercially, they cost upwards of $3,000 apiece. Multiplied over the number of devices (typically 6 to 24) needed for a study, the cost is prohibitive for a small lab’s budget.

“We don’t have that equipment, so Ryan and I started building it,” Harkness said.

Their prototype is “really simple,” Todd added, “but it does what we need, and better than anything else on the market.”

To measure the effects of sleep deprivation in the rewireneuroscience2brain, Sorg wanted the animals to be kept awake but without stressing them. Harkness and Todd’s solution was to use the rat’s home cage, with a little wheel in the middle (called an agitator trolley) that runs back and forth so the rat has to keep out of its way. It’s big enough to hold food and water. “Nothing in the rat’s environment has changed,” Harkness said.

Todd did the mechanical engineering of the device, and Harkness did the coding of the computer that can control up to eight devices simultaneously. The device can be remotely operated from a researcher’s desktop computer, a laptop and even a smartphone.

The device is installed on a platform, next to a small computer that controls the agitator trolley.

“It’s easy to repair, adjust and clean,” Todd said. A researcher could easily add monitoring equipment to see what’s happening in the rat’s brain while the device is running.


They worked with WSU’s Office of Commercialization on a preliminary patent. Then, realizing that other researchers could also benefit from using the device, they applied for a Commercialization Gap Fund award from the commercialization office. They received the $50,000 grant, which will fund the continued development and validation of the device and help them bring the product to market.

In addition, Harkness and Todd founded a company, Rewire Neuroscience, to bring the product to market. “Our vision for this company is that it’s built around the future of neuroscience,” Harkness said. “We want to help early career investigators build their own equipment that’s customizable and cheaper than what’s available now.” (For more information, see


Rewire Neuroscience’s first product is already being sought out by young researchers. Called the Journal of Abstracts (, it allows researchers to upload their science posters—work often done in grad school but seldom recognized beyond—so they can get their work seen before the long process of publication in a traditional journal can take place.

“It’s part of empowering future of science,” Harkness said. “It’s difficult for students to get their names out there before they have a lot of publications. Graduates and undergraduates present lot of posters at conferences. Then the posters die in a box, and the data never sees the light of day again.”

“I see this as bridging that gap between the work a lot of people do in labs that might go unseen, and their next job or grad school,” Todd said. “They can now send a link to someone who can look at all of the posters they’ve been on, and potentially collaborate with.”

Harkness, who earned his doctorate at Oregon Health and Science University, and Todd, who has a master’s degree in whole systems design from Antioch University in Seattle, are a good pair. “We both appreciate the challenge of coming up with these ideas and piecing things together, as opposed to going out and spending a lot of money on something that may or may not meet our needs,” Todd said. “We’d rather design and build something that meets our needs exactly.”

Much of the lab equipment out there was designed two or three decades ago. “John and I hope to reduce the expense of lab equipment in the future by developing products that are simple in design and easy to use,” Todd said. “We also want to modernize lab equipment by using technology typical in everyday devices, such as wireless printers and smartphones.”

And while they love the thrill of invention, they also love the research and discovery it enables. “Science is where our passion is,” Harkness said. “We’re just excited to do it better.”

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Helping engineers improve their writing skills: A collaborative approach

Dave Kim remembers the rainy day in 2014 when he was reading his students’ lab reports and just couldn’t take it anymore. “Their writing was very poor,” said Kim, associate professor and coordinator of mechanical engineering. “I thought they had learned to write in their first-year composition class. I called Wendy Olson, and that was our starting point.”

Olson, associate professor of English, is the director of composition and writing assessment and is in charge of first-year composition classes (English 101). “Faculty from all departments complain about their students’ writing,” she said, “but what was wonderful was that Dave asked, ‘What can we do to move forward?’”

They decided to investigate the writing practices of engineering students as they move from first-year composition courses into introductory engineering laboratory courses. In 2015, their research proposal received a National Science Foundation grant of $249,613 over two years. Kim is the principal investigator, and Olson and Praveen Sekhar, assistant professor of electrical engineering, are co-PIs. Sekhar is extending the curriculum design to electrical engineering students.


Common principles

One challenge they discovered is that while students in English 101 may be encouraged to develop persuasive opinions, express themselves and use description, those rhetorical strategies are not appropriate in engineering lab reports. Engineers rely on data, experimental results and logical analysis. “You cannot show your own feelings,” Kim said. “Emotional appeals may be valuable in humanities, but they cannot be effective when the writer is trying to convince engineers as the readers.”

The researchers agreed, however, that there are commonalities in writing for any discipline: purpose, persuading an audience and structure.

“We found students were only doing persuasion and opinion in English 101 and only facts in engineering,” Olson said. “We said no, that’s not what we want you to do. Think about the need for evidence and facts in English 101, and the need for some persuasion in engineering. Even with lab reports, you’re addressing the whole context. They hadn’t been thinking about the audience before.”

In designing the curriculum for the project, Olson discovered two things: “I recognized the difference between how often you use secondary sources in some disciplines [such as English] but primary data in others [such as engineering]. Another big one was the role of visuals, such as graphs and tables. So I’ve been asking students to think more strategically about visuals and how to use them even in English 101. One of the big changes in English 101 [for the project] is that we moved up the research paper earlier in the semester, and then we follow with a genre project, which might be an academic poster, proposal or scientific poster. They take the research and create a genre that might be for a very different discipline and audience.”

Starting with their own students as they developed their approach, Kim, Olson and Sekhar transformed their classes to emphasize teaching for transfer across their disciplines, from English to engineering. Then they brought on additional colleagues from WSU and Clark College. “Nine professors are now using this new approach in their classes,” Kim said. “We assume it impacts more than 200 students at both schools.”

With the revised curriculum, Kim said, “Engineering students can make use of what they learn in English 101, but in an engineering context. They can see the continuation of writing from English 101 to lab report writing instructions.”

“It reaffirms for students what we talk about in English 101,” Olson said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all in writing. Your job as a writer is to be skilled in adapting to context and expectations.”

Sharing results

In their first-year report to the NSF, the researchers wrote: “Data collected in writing artifacts, student surveys, and a focus group show that curricular revisions to teaching lab reports reinforced students’ learning of rhetorical concepts from first-year composition courses, helped students to better understand the expectations of the lab report as a discipline-specific genre, and developed student’s understanding of the rhetorical features of writing in the discipline of engineering.” As they identify best practices for teaching writing skills that will transfer across the university, they will share them in the hope that other teachers of freshman composition may see the value in their approach.

The researchers have begun to disseminate their ideas through professional development workshops and in their respective professional organizations. They are planning a web page to open the approach to anyone.


Olson and Kim received a second grant, $10,000 from the Conference on College Composition and Communication, to study the writing knowledge of early-career engineers. Engineers spend from 20 to 40 percent of their workday writing, and Kim said the industry is calling for better writing from college graduates.

“There was a huge gap in what students were learning and what they would find in the market,” Sekhar said. “The project bridges the gap a little bit in student writing that will benefit them in the long run.”

“In a 21st-century engineering environment, it’s very common to have a collaborator in a different state or nation,” Kim said. “When I was working in industry, the manufacturing plant was in Hong Kong—no way could you have a simple phone call because of the time differences. You’d have to write an email. So I think students should understand how to write before they graduate in order to succeed at their jobs.”

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Looking at drug use from an evolutionary perspective

Ed Hagen, Associate Professor of Anthropology

For 15 years, Ed Hagen has been challenging the conventional theory that drug addiction is the consequence of a “hijacked” reward mechanism in the brain—the idea that people become addicts because taking drugs accidentally triggers brain circuits that make them feel good.img_5238

Studying hunter-gatherer and developing societies, Hagen, associate professor of anthropology at Washington State University Vancouver, and his frequent collaborator, Roger Sullivan, an anthropologist at California State University, Sacramento, believe that there are evolutionary reasons for drug use and addiction. Drug plants such as tobacco and marijuana contain natural neurotoxins, he said, and they might serve an evolutionary purpose in protecting people from certain infectious diseases and parasites.

“One of our main hypotheses is that we might have a taste for drugs as a form of self-medication against pathogens—it isn’t conscious, but maybe we sample some toxic plants and find that some seem to have medicinal effects, so we consume them when we get the chance,” Hagen said.

Hagen, Sullivan and others have published widely on evolutionary psychology, which is an approach that sees continuity in the evolution of behavior and cognition in both animals and humans. Evolutionary psychology raises the possibility that some forms of drug use could be an adaptation.

Hagen and Sullivan began studying drugs from a mental health perspective. Knowing that people with schizophrenia and depression tend to use more drugs, he said, “we thought we should start from the perspective that the origins of these drugs were as plant-defensive chemicals and are pretty potent neurotoxins, and see where that got us. Fifteen to 20 years later, I think it has gotten us somewhere.”


While the reward theory has a solid empirical basis, he said, “we still don’t have any really good treatments for drug addiction. The mainstream model has not yielded the result we had hoped for. It’s time to consider other theoretical approaches.”

In an article published in 2013 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, Hagen and collaborators write: “We accordingly challenge the popular idea that the rewarding and reinforcing properties of drugs ‘hijack’ the brain, and propose instead that the brain evolved to carefully regulate neurotoxin consumption to minimize fitness costs and maximize fitness benefits.

“Why would anyone want to consume a toxic substance?” Hagen asked. “There is increasing evidence that non-human animals seek out toxic plants when they have an infection. Pretty much the same parasites and pathogens that attack plants attack us. If a plant has evolved something effective against its parasites, it’s probably effective against our parasites.”

Drug toxicity appears to explain many patterns of drug use. For example, children avoid drugs, and pregnant women use them much less than men, perhaps because of potential harm to the fetus.

“These plants might be particularly toxic to kids because their brains and organs are still developing,” Hagen said. “There are good reasons for kids to be cautious of toxic plants. They taste bitter, don’t look like they would taste good, don’t smell good, so they give off all kinds of cues that should tell kids that’s something I don’t want to eat. The same is true for pregnant women.”

Of course, culture and social learning also play a role—children and pregnant women are often warned away from harmful substances.

Growing evidence

Drug use is just one line of research for Hagen, who also studies depression, suicide, child development and evolutionary models of leadership, as well as evolutionary approaches to ontogeny, cognition and behavior.

He started drug research casually, Hagen said, “but the more we worked on it, the more we felt it was an important contribution to the literature on substance use. So when I got here, I decided to devote a lot of time to actually running studies to see if this perspective was fruitful. That was one reason I came here.”

The research team

The research team

Hagen has conducted studies among the Aka hunter-gatherers of the Congo Basin with WSU Vancouver anthropology professor Barry Hewlett. The Aka are heavy users of tobacco and marijuana.
“The Aka were a perfect population,” he said. “They use lots of plant drugs and are heavily infected with intestinal worms and other parasites. Maybe that’s not a coincidence. We were very interested in measuring that. We started one of the only systematic investigations of drug use in traditional hunter-gatherer populations,” testing saliva, urine, and feces for evidence of parasites and correlating the results with smoking.

“It looks like heaviest smokers have fewer worms,” Hagen said. “If you treat people for worms, it looks like they smoke less.”

Aka camp

Aka camp

While evolutionary studies may hold clues to the drug use puzzle, Hagen says reward studies also are important, and he sees a long road ahead. “I’d say our results on parasites are enough for us to keep working, but not strong enough to compel other folks to change their minds—yet,” he said.

Anthropologists and global public health researchers share many interests, and one potential area of promise lies in global smoking prevention. Women in the developing world rarely smoke, and therefore represent a potential huge new market for tobacco companies, but if those women currently avoid tobacco use to protect their fetuses, a good time to reach them with an anti-smoking message might be the age when they are considering marriage and children. “If we can tie the tobacco decision to other decisions that are more immediate in their lives and maintain a cultural tradition”—that is, heeding the advice of mothers and grandmothers, he said, it might help prevent a huge increase in tobacco-related illnesses and also empower women to take more control over their lives.

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