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November 04, 2015

In Research

Researchers show how leadership ‘churn’ undermines school reform

elementary student with pencil and paper

Imagine the turmoil that would ensue if half the actors walked out of a play midway through the performance.

Something very similar happened in an urban school district in the northeastern United States during the four-year period it was studied by Kara Finnigan, associate professor of educational policy at the Warner School, and her colleague Alan Daly from the University of California–San Diego.

Over just a few years, nearly half of the district’s 181 leaders, including central office directors (and higher-level administrators) and school principals, moved into or out of these positions, resulting in an ongoing leadership “churn.” The numbers do not include individuals who moved to another central office leadership or principal position—only those who moved in and out of the district or, if they stayed in the district, moved in and out of leadership roles. Using social network analysis, the study shows how “churn” severely undermined the strong, trusting relationships and the collaborative learning that other studies have shown are essential if districts are to succeed in carrying out complex educational reforms.

“While we know that turnover exists in urban school districts, our data unearths just how challenging the problem of improving these districts is when leaders are in a constant state of flux,” write Finnigan and Daly. Their findings are summarized in a chapter of Thinking and Acting Systematically: Improving School Districts Under Pressure (American Educational Research Association), a forthcoming book that Finnigan coedited with Daly and to which she contributed two other chapters.

The study was focused on the flow of research-based ideas and practices across the leadership team as they tried to implement reforms under sanctions and found that churn impacted the movement.

“In the literature there is overwhelming attention to the low performance levels of youth in urban school settings, but the organizational instability of these systems resulting from the churn of educational leaders is generally overlooked,” Finnigan and Daly note.


Experimental treatment regimen effective against HIV

Protease inhibitors are a class of antiviral drugs that are commonly used to treat HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Scientists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center designed a new delivery system for the drugs that, when coupled with a drug developed at Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, rid immune cells of HIV and kept the virus in check for long periods. The results appear in the journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine.

While current HIV treatments involve pills that are taken daily, the new regimen’s long-lasting effects suggest that HIV treatment could be administered perhaps once or twice per year.

Nebraska researcher Howard Gendelman designed the investigational drug delivery system—a so-called “nanoformulated” protease inhibitor. The nanoformulation process takes a drug and makes it into a crystal. Next, the crystal drug is placed into a fat and protein coat, similar to what is done in making a coated ice-cream bar. The coating protects the drug from being degraded by the liver and removed by the kidney.

When tested together with URMC-099, a new drug discovered in the laboratory of Rochester scientist Harris (“Handy”) Gelbard, professor of neurology and director of the Center for Neural Development and Disease, the nanoformulated protease inhibitor completely eliminated measurable quantities of HIV. URMC-099 boosted the concentration of the nanoformulated drug in immune cells and slowed the rate at which it was eliminated, thereby prolonging its therapeutic effect.

The two therapies were tested together in laboratory experiments using human immune cells and in mice that were engineered to have a human immune system. Gendelman and Gelbard believe that the nanoformulation technology helps keep the protease inhibitor in white blood cells longer and that URMC-099 extends its lifespan even more.


Can we unconsciously ‘hear’ distance?

Because sound travels much more slowly than light, we can often see distant events before we hear them. That is why we can count the seconds between a lightning flash and its thunder to estimate their distance.

But new University research published in PLOS ONE indicates that our brains can also detect and process sound delays that are too short to be noticed consciously. And they found that we use that unconscious information to fine tune what our eyes see when estimating distances to nearby events.

“Much of the world around us is audiovisual,” says senior author Duje Tadin, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences. “Although humans are primarily visual creatures, our research shows that estimating relative distance is more precise when visual cues are supported with corresponding auditory signals. Our brains recognize those signals even when they are separated from visual cues by a time that is too brief to consciously notice.”

Tadin and his colleagues have discovered that humans can unconsciously notice and make use of sound delays as short as 40 milliseconds.

“Our brains are very good at recognizing patterns that can help us,” says Phil Jaekl, who conducted the research while a postdoctoral researcher in Tadin’s lab. “Now we also know that humans can unconsciously recognize the link between sound delays and visual distance and then combine that information in a useful way.”

Researchers used projected three-dimensional (3-D) images to test the human brain’s ability to use sound delays to estimate the relative distance of objects.


Data mining Instagram feeds can point to teenage drinking patterns

beer mug with instagram screenshots floating withinInstagram could offer a novel way of monitoring the drinking habits of teenagers.

Using photos and text from Instagram, a team of Rochester researchers has shown that this data can not only expose patterns of underage drinking more cheaply and faster than conventional surveys but also find new patterns, such as what alcohol brands or types are favored by different demographic groups. The researchers say they hope exposing these patterns could help develop effective intervention.

Instagram is very popular among teenagers, and it offers considerable amounts of information about the target population in the form of photos and text. As Jiebo Luo, professor of computer science, and his colleagues describe in a new paper, underage drinkers “are willing to share their alcohol consumption experience” in social media. Studying the social media behavior of this group allows the researchers to observe it passively in an “undisturbed state.”

They presented their work at the 2015 IEEE International Conference on Big Data in Santa Clara, California.

An example of the disadvantages of traditional methods for monitoring underage alcohol consumption is that teenagers might not be honest when they respond to an administered survey about alcohol use, such as the “Monitoring the Future” survey by the federal government. Also, those who choose to respond to such a survey might not be a representative sample, and the sample size might be too small to draw conclusions.

Instagram does not offer a way of selecting users by age, but the research team was able to select users that fit the profile they were looking for by applying computer vision techniques. Luo and his team have been pioneering techniques that teach computers to extract information from images on the Internet, something that is much more complex than just extracting information from text. They were able to use computers to analyze the profile faces of Instagram uses to get sufficiently accurate guesses for their age, gender, and race.

Having selected a group of underage users to study, the researchers monitored drinking -related activities via their Instagram photos by analyzing the social media tags associated with these photos using a constructed Internet slang dictionary and also any alcohol brands the users follow.


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