Affiliate Spotlight: Dr. Melinda Butsch Kovacic

This week, we had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Melinda Butsch Kovacic about her public health research and work in the community. Dr. Butsch Kovacic is an Associate Dean of the University Of Cincinnati College of Allied Health Sciences and also has an appointment in the Division of Asthma Research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. 

Inspiring a Change in Focus 

Dr. Butsch Kovacic is a cross trained as a basic scientist and epidemiologist. She started out at the University of Cincinnati in 2006 with a focus on cancer and later asthma. In 2011, she reached out to a Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses (aka the “Nabe”) in Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood to remedy her lack of healthy Black children in her NIH funded study’s control group. She learned that the Nabe had partnered with other UC researchers before but hadn’t received those studies’ results. Rather than focusing on her own study as she had planned, she asked the Nabe if they would consider developing  a longer term, mutually beneficial partnership with her. It wasn’t until later that this traditionally trained researcher realized that she was proposing a “community-based research” partnership.  After building trust with the staff and leadership of the Nabe over several years, the partnership led to the proposal of the We Engage for Health (WE4H) program.  

WeEngage4Health 

WE4H began in 2018, after receiving funding from the NIGMS Science Education Program Award (SEPA). The program is a collaboration between the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and with Miami University, and the Nabe. Dr. Susan Hershberger at Miami University is the Co-Principle Investigator. The program’s goal was to improve science and health literacy, reduce chronic disease in the most impacted communities, and involve community members in improving their own and their neighbors’ health. Dr. Butsch Kovacic works closely with the 15-member CCTST West End Community Research Advisory Board to understand the best ways to serve and communicate with their community. The resulting WE4H programs targets middle school students to adults and uses comic-style stories read out loud together and hands-on activities to engage program participants and communicate health-related topics. The stories’ characters and story lines were co-created by community members and have rich back-stories that readers “get to know” throughout the program. While some characters are healthy, others have health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure that are explored in the stories.  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, affiliated community partners requested the WE4H team create stories to address concerns about COVID-19 restrictions, masking, and vaccinations. Importantly, the community wanted to better understand the science behind restrictions and recommendations. For this reason, the WE4H team created several stories in their COVID Learning Companion which is now offered on their website.  Their “Take Your Best Shot” and  “Vaccine Victory” stories are also being printed as storybooks for use at health fairs and vaccination events. As a result, Dr. Butsch Kovacic and her WE4H is working with the Cincinnati Health Department on a “COVID Literacy Champions Program” which would distribute WE4H COVID stories broadly in the most vulnerable neighborhoods via trained community members and encourage more individuals to get the vaccine. Dr. Butsch Kovacic explained her belief that public health professionals  have to do more than tell people to get the vaccine; we have to be able to tell them why it is important and why it’s safe. Sharing the “why” will help people overcome their mistrust in medicine and science and better consider the costs versus the benefits of vaccination. Her CCTST C5G study with Jack Kues is just completing a series of focus groups to better understand why some people are hesitant about the vaccine, while others are excited. Recently, one of the staff members at the Nabe passed away as a result of COVID. As a result, her family members partnered with the Nabe, the West End Community Research Advisory Board and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to host vaccine events in the West End and more broadly encourage vaccination. Dr. Butsch Kovacic and her WE4H team were at these events too. 

Three teens read "Take Your Best Shot," one of the books distributed by the COVID Literacy Champions Program.

Community Engagement 

WE4H doesn’t just engage the community through health education, but also had developed training and tools for communities to use to ask and answer health related questions themselves through citizen science. Indeed, their Eyewitness Community survey encourages community members to make observations and record them in an online survey tool in order to learn first-hand how the environment that they live in impacts their own health. A partnership with Keep Norwood Cool aims to assess the health impacts of urban heat islands and air pollution throughout Norwood. Citizen scientists will be asked to observe and record the number of trash cans, standing water, and litter, for example, throughout their streets, carry AirBeam sensors on specific routes to measure air temperature, humidity and air pollution levels, and ask adults about their health and quality of life via an online survey. WE4H also supports community health fairs by providing short educational comic style stories for each table and collecting attendee information via their innovative “health passports”. Dr. Butsch Kovacic always shares the resulting data with her community partners in a format that is easily understood and usable by them.  

Assessing and Reflecting on Impacts 

In addition to using quantitative surveys, Dr. Butsch Kovacic’s WE4H team works with the UC Evaluation Center to collect data via focus groups and other qualitative methods to evaluate their program. They are finding that people are not only understanding the information better, but also acting on what they learn. During one of her focus groups, one participant said, “People always tell me what to do but they don’t tell me why or how to do it. You guys (WE4H) have made it real for me. I am excited about the changes I have made since doing your program.” Dr. Butsch Kovacic smiled as she remember this, saying that she had never dreamed of that kind of impact. She expected knowledge outcomes, but she did not expect behavioral changes so quickly. Now starting year 4 of the project, she is excited to see how many lives can be impacted by WE4H over the final 2 years of the project. 

Answering Hard Questions: Clinical Ethicist Dr. Elizabeth Lanphier

When a patient’s family, caregivers, or medical providers raise ethical questions about how to best balance a patient’s needs, who helps them navigate those conversations and decisions? At the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, a team comprising of doctors and philosophers that all have special training in ethics is prepared to help guide those conversations, hear concerns of families and health care providers, and prepare nurses and other bedside care providers for caring for diverse patient populations ranging from young kids to legal adults.

Dr. Elizabeth Lanphier is part of this team.

As a clinical ethicist, Lanphier is on call to provide counsel about patient care decisions when ethical concerns arise from patients, family, and physicians. Dr. Lanphier addresses questions from families about why an alternate care choice may not be offered, helps doctors and families weigh risks and benefits of medical options, and may work to rectify miscommunications. Much of the time, there is no single clear answer. Lanphier recognizes that families are their own ”experts on their family“ making decisions alongside medical expertise, and provide different perspectives on the risks and benefits of various choices.

Research

Lanphier also researches and writes about bioethics and social and political philosophy, often as it relates to medical care. In addition to being a clinical assistant professor in the Division of General and Community Pediatrics in the UC College of Medicine, Lanphier is a research assistant professor in the UC philosophy department, and affiliate faculty in the UC women, gender and sexuality studies department. In graduate school at Vanderbilt University, from which she earned her PhD in philosophy, she was interested in the intersection of medicine and philosophy, and sought out experiences related to this intersection with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and its Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society.

Now, she uses moral philosophy to put bioethics into practice, especially as it relates to healthcare access, justice, and inclusion. Her desire to understand and serve vulnerable populations, especially those who have historically been mistreated or neglected, drives her research.  Currently , Dr. Lanphier is working on the connection between  trauma-informed care and ethics consultation and recently published a paper advocating for a trauma informed approach to ethics consultation with neonatologist Uchenna Anani.

Additionally, her community work during graduate school with people incarcerated on Tennessee’s death row has instilled in her research and advocacy a commitment towards the incarcerated population. Last year Lanphier along with colleauges Takunda Matose and Abu Ali Abdur’raham (who is currently incarcerated on Tennessee’s death row) published a paper in the Public Philosophy Journal. In December she advocated for incarcerated persons to be prioritized higher in Ohio’s COVID-19 vaccine allocation. The resulting opinion piece received positive feedback, including from a senator who acknowledged how much work needs to be done. While some public reactions were critical, she was thrilled that it had such a wide impact, as she always aims to reach as broad an audience as possible. She and a colleague are investigating if and how the incarcerated population can take part in studies such as the COVID-19 vaccine trials without risking the coercion or exploitation this population has historically experienced in the medical research leading to tighter research regulations on incarcerated persons and other vulnerable populations.

Trust in Science

COVID-19 has brought important questions about bioethics, healthcare access, and public confidence in medical research to the forefront.  Lanphier sees medical professionals growing frustrated as the public’s trust in science deteriorates. To her, this means that clear communication and approaching medical research in a way that regains that trust is paramount. Part of this includes increasing representation of persons of color (POC) in biomedical research as researchers and participants to help increase confidence in clinical trial outcomes. As her opinion piece in the Columbus Dispatch shows, she has been considering the problem of who should have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, as it is still a limited resource. For example, healthcare workers should be offered it, because we need them to keep us healthy and they are at risk of virus exposure. Beyond that, it gets more complex. How do you designate other frontline workers? Many groups, including store workers and teachers, are needed, but by the time we include so much of the population, we are well beyond the number of available doses, though this number of available doses continues to increase. With this scarcity and the vaccine currently approved for emergency use, we are also a long way from being able to mandate receiving the vaccine for those who work with the vulnerable. She also posed the question of how to approach undocumented populations, who still play a critical role in their communities but may have limited access to healthcare, and also stressed that vaccine roll out needs to also address hesitancy.

Lanphier’s career path leading to her position on a clinical ethics team combined philosophy with practical experience and post-doctoral training working in healthcare environments.  Her role mixes a theoretical, philosophical approach to broader questions with day-to-day interaction with families and care teams related to ethical concerns that come from a diversity of beliefs and backgrounds. She encourages anyone wanting to follow a similar path to seek out a wide variety of experiences and talk to others who are already established in their field.

Affiliate Spotlight: Dr. Arnie Miller

Arnold Miller
Dr. Arnie Miller

This week, we highlight the work of Dr. Arnie Miller. Dr. Miller is an Advisory Board member of the UC Center for Public Engagement with Science, as well as Professor Emeritus, former Head of the UC Geology Department, and former Senior Associate Dean of the UC College of Arts and Sciences.  

Dr. Miller is an evolutionary paleontologist and paleoecologist. His research has focused on mass extinctions and their impacts on global biodiversity, environmental gradients, and anthropogenic effects on modern coastal communities. Dr. Miller differs from a lot of paleontologists in that his passion did not stem from a childhood interest in dinosaurs or other fossils. He grew up in New York City, and with the exception of the American Museum of Natural History, there are not a lot of fossils to be found there. Dr. Miller found became interested in geology while living among geology majors in college. He took a course in geology to learn more about what his peers were talking about, ultimately leading to him pursuing majors in geology and biology. During his studies, he was inspired by a professor who introduced him to using fossils as data to study biodiversity and mass extinctions, which is when he first became passionate about paleontology.  

In 2007, Dr. Miller was elected as a Fellow of the Paleontological Society for, among other work, being instrumental in the Paleobiology Database (PBDB). This website is a compilation of  fossil data, where they were found, the publication that described them, and where they can be found now. It is used by paleontologists with an interest in “big data”- the use of multiple collections to piece together an understanding of broad trends in space and time. However, this database is open source, and is also used by instructors to give their students experience processing data.  

Since then, Dr. Miller has served as the President of the Paleontological Society; he is currently finishing his term as Past President. In this position, he has strived to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion. He has encouraged the scientific community to acknowledge our previous shortcomings in these areas. He is co-chair of the Society’s ethics committee, dedicated to ensuring that Society is inviting, safe, and inclusive for all participants in its activities. He and his colleagues are working to improve opportunities for people with diverse backgrounds to enter all fields of science. The Society has been developing financial opportunities for underrepresented minorities, and Society representatives now regularly attend  meetings focused on minority inclusion in science, such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). They also work to increase education and outreach that specifically targets underrepresented audiences.   

Dr. Miller also addressed outreach and community involvement in science in his role as Head of the Geology Department and as A&S Senior Associate Dean. When the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) closed for renovations a few years ago, he was a part of a group that worked to bring some of the exhibits to the University of Cincinnati campus. Along with this, they scheduled programs such as a panel on global climate change that drew in community members in Cincinnati. CMC exhibits were also set up at the airport, and the teams behind this and the University exhibits held a townhall at a conference for museum professionals about their experiences setting these up. These exhibits being in different environments effectively brought the museum to people who might not normally visit, resulting in more engagement than may normally be possible.  

Dr. Miller also has had the opportunity to engage in debates about evolution and creation. He thinks that engaging people of all backgrounds and belief systems is important without being perceived as condescending. As part of the 2009 North American Paleontology Convention hosted at UC, Miller, who was chair of the organizing committee, took 75 paleontologists to visit the Creation Museum to give them a firsthand look at what and how ideas were being communicated there. Members of the group found the visit to be eye-opening, with respect to how professionally ideas were presented from a strictly technical standpoint, even though those ideas diverged from accepted science. Responding to dissent is important, but scientists do not always communicate well, and doing so well with humility and respect is crucial. Every year while teaching an introductory-level course on the history and evolution of life , he spent a week on the creationism-versus-evolution question, including inviting a representative from the Creation Museum to speak to the class at the end of the semester ; this was followed by extensive, in-class discussion . While Dr. Miller does not think that direct debates with creationists are helpful or productive, he does encourage scientists be aware of  and understand the bases of other views. Through the study and discussion of creationism, he hoped that students would come to understand what information was being taken out of context. He also encouraged them to listen, rather than making wholesale judgements about what others think; everyone’s beliefs and ideas have multiple dimensions and need to be taken seriously. 

As an emeritus professor, Dr. Miller is continuing to work with the Paleontological Society and University. Besides his work on the Center’s Advisory Board, he is also helping to develop a Digital Futures Consultant program for new and young faculty at the University of Cincinnati. He’s also becoming more politically involved; in the most recent election, he served as a poll watcher and on a “Protect the Vote” hotline for people who had questions about how to vote.  

Dr. Miller’s message is one of encouragement. He wants people to keep their minds open to other people and opportunities around them, especially those outside of the classroom. Had it not been for the experiences he had in college, especially those that focused on working with data  , he likely would have taken a different path. In recruiting diverse participants to paleontology and geology, he advocates speaking  about the diverse opportunities there are for people who want to work in these areas.  “Field work and adventures in the out of doors can be off-putting, at least initially, to people who grow up in  urban settings, for example, and yet we do other things that aren’t field work, such as working on computers and in geochemistry labs.” Paleontology and geology are not just for those who enjoy field work and dinosaurs; these fields, and science in general, are diverse and have something for everyone.  

Affiliate Spotlight: Dr. Abel Gustafson

Abel Gustafson
Dr. Abel Gustafson

This week, we highlight the work of our newest Faculty Affiliate with the Center for Public Engagement with ScienceDr. Abel Gustafson, Assistant Professor in the UC Department of Communication.  

Research Focus

Dr. Gustafson studies public opinion and strategic communication in science and environmental issues. Using surveys and communication experiments, he assesses how various demographic and political groups think about and respond to these issues. For example, his research has identified how political polarization develops on environmental issues, and how the public reacts to portrayals of uncertainty in science.  His findings help develop more effective strategies for communicating science to the public  

Gustafson’s Background

Dr. Gustafson became interested in science and environmental communication as a graduate student. At the time, he was studying theories of persuasion and social influence. However, he wanted his research to make a positive impact on society. This led him to study persuasive communication related to climate change and other environmental issues. 

Current Research and Outreach

Dr. Gustafson has collaborated with a wide range of scholars (from political scientists to geographers and literary scholars) and a wide range of organizations (from nonprofit advocacy groups to media companies). A primary goal of his work is to help these different groups improve the way that they communicate about science issues to the public.

A key player in public science communication is the news media. In a forthcoming report, Dr. Gustafson and his colleagues at Yale and George Mason Universities use public opinion data to show that many Americans want the news media to do more to address the issue of climate change. Dr. Gustafson says this study is particularly important, because many people get their information about science and environmental issues from the news. If news organizations are made aware that their audience wants more and better information about important issues like climate change, this may lead to increased news coverage, which can in turn have large impacts on public support for climate action.

Dr. Gustafson noted that the current COVID-19 pandemic is a fascinating example of the oftentimes fraught and polarized relationship between science and the public. Currently, opinions about the dangers of pandemic and participation in recommended preventative actions show a sharp divide along party lines. Dr. Gustafson noted that this is a clear example of the need for clear, effective science communication from trusted experts. In a study conducted earlier this spring, Dr. Gustafson and his colleagues found that the CDC’s official recommendation to wear masks resulted in an immediate and dramatic increase in mask-wearing behavior.

You can read more about Dr. Gustafson’s publications and work here. 

Affiliate Spotlight: Dr. Nate Morehouse

This week, we want to highlight the work of one of the Center’s affiliates, Dr. Nate Morehouse

Research

Dr. Morehouse leads a lab that studies insects and spiders. He has a special interest in how they see the world, and how their vision influences the choices they make. He was drawn to the University of Cincinnati because the school has a strong community working on the biology of vision, philosophy of perception, and other fields related to sight. He is currently part of an effort to create a central place for this community through the Institute for Research In Sensing (IRIS). Planning is ongoing, but programming is staged to begin by Spring 2021. 

Dr. Morehouse is partly interested in the vision of spiders and insects because of the diversity of ways that their eyes function. Vertebrates all have eyes similar to a camera; they have a single lens in front of a cavity above a sheet of cells that receives light. Arthropods have a wider diversity of types of eyes. In insects, the most common is the compound eye, which has thousands of individual flat lenses that are all sensitive to light. The information from these pieces together a clearer mosaic image. They also have a lens that gives them separate information about which way is up and helps them make quick decisions important to flight. Spiders are even more complex; they have 8 eyes. 6 of these evolved from compound eyes, derived from a common ancestor with insects. However, these have lost their ability to create a detailed image, likely because spiders lived underground for a large part of their evolutionary history. These eyes have a very low resolution and cannot see color, much like our peripheral vision. Their other eyes collect information for a more complex color image. They form at a different stage in the spider’s development, and even connect to a different part of their brains. This pair of eyes has a single lens, with a long cavity behind it, like a Galilean telescope. This is called a diverging lens, and magnifies anything they focus on. This means that despite having eyes that are only ½ mm wide, they can see patterns as well as an elephant can and can see better than most other animals their size. 

Significance

One of the overarching questions Dr. Morehouse and his lab are pursuing is “why?” Spiders have 3-color, vision like humans do, although the exact colors they see are different. Some can see even more than 3 colors. Their interactions, especially during mating, are very reliant on visual cues and color. However, it is unlikely that these displays evolved until after their vision did; after all, why show off if no one can see it? So why did they evolve such complicated vision in the first place? To help them hunt? To avoid something toxic? This research has taken them around the world. 

On-going Projects

Ongoing research in the lab includes whether the male and female audacious jumping spiders see the world differently. Both sexes track each other’s movements closely during mating and develop in similar ways. One notable difference is that the females have an extra stage or two of development (instars) before maturity, which might allow their eyes to get bigger. There are some differences in the way genes linked to vision are expressed, but the physical effects of that expression are still being figured out. Dr. Morehouse also has students working on the evolution of illusions and how non-human animals discriminate faces. Such studies are possible with arthropods because the lab has technology that can track the movement of their eyes.  

Inspiration

Dr. Morehouse was inspired to study arthropods when he was three years old; he would go into his backyard and pick up bumblebees, get stung, and pick them back up. He tries to foster the curiosity of children through long term mentoring programs. He participates in the STEM Girls programs at the Cincinnati Museum Center, afterschool programs, and summer camps. Most recently, he ran a summer camp that allowed students to write their own superhero persona, including a disguise, personality, and power, that was inspired by the natural world. At the end of the week, he showed up in disguise as a supervillian with his own powers, and challenged them to defeat him with their own creativity.  

Dr. Morehouse continues to be excited about his field. It has incredible implications for technology; understanding how animals process information could inspire biomedical advances, the engineering of computers that can process information as quickly as arthropods, and programming for the decision making of autonomous cars. In his words, “the natural world has had millions of years to figure out the answers to questions that we are only beginning to ask.” But Dr. Morehouse’s main mission is more philosophical.  

“To be honest, those [questions] aren’t what motivate me. Its cool, but it doesn’t drive me. I would feel like my life had been wasted if I didn’t spend it in the pursuit of curiosity. …I actually think that to be curious is an essential part of what it means to be human. If we forget …it as a basic human pursuit, we’re lost. We should encourage healthy curiosity. In part, what I’m doing is art: I want to spark the curiosity of others. Have I changed how people view their world? Is there more magic to their backyard? If I can just move people’s feet from where they were before, that’s success.” 

To read more about on-going research in the Morehouse lab, click here.

New Affiliate Spotlight: Dr. Eduardo Martinez

Dr. Eduardo Martinez

This semester, we are excited to welcome Dr. Eduardo Martinez to the University of Cincinnati philosophy department and as an affiliate of the Center for Public Engagement with Science. Drawn to UC by the interdisciplinary philosophy community and by an interest in the current environment of the midwest, Dr. Martinez is a philosopher with an interest in democratic theory. 

Democratic Theory

Democratic theory is the way that philosophers evaluate institutions, elected officials, and the groups that influence them. It also models their decisions and actions. Dr. Martinez is particularly interested in understanding the influence of non-elected officials. Democratic theory research results in debates over how to better represent the population, assess the ideas of the public, and hold officials accountable. Early on, papers are aimed at other researchers. However, Dr. Martinez wants his research to influence how he communicates and teaches. He also encourages people to make themselves heard in ways beyond voting and surveys by joining advocacy groups and being active in their communities. For example, one ongoing discussion encompasses climate change; because it is slow, it might not be the drive behind the public’s vote. However, it is still important that it be acted on. 

One idea that democratic theory addresses is how government agencies writing policies interact with the public. When these agencies ask for public opinion, there is potential for the answers they receive to not lead to actions that the public wants. Partly, this might be the result of who answers the survey if only those who are passionate about a topic will respond. Additionally, the way that information is presented before a question is asked, and how the question is asked, may influence how people answer. They may also respond based on how they identify with a political party, religion, race, or other group. Dr. Martinez is currently working on co-authoring a paper that examines the role that such identities play. Although many theorists describe and model actions in simple or “ideal” situations, Dr. Martinez is more focused on more complicated scenarios. Work like his can be used in further discussions that lead to policy writing. 

Inspiration

Dr. Martinez was drawn to philosophy because it gave him the flexibility as a student to ask questions and do interdisciplinary research, combining empirical data and abstract ideas. During his time in graduate school, he coached an ethics bowl team at a local high school. He plans to pass his enthusiasm on to students at UC by teaching classes on civics. Civics classes, he said, need to communicate more than the basic process of bills becoming laws; he intends to teach classes that involve students discussing current events, as well as collecting information and taking action in their communities. He hopes to encourage students, who are also citizens, to actively work to solve problems around them, rather than merely regurgitating facts. He also hopes to communicate his work to his new community in Cincinnati in partnership with the Center for Public Engagement with Science, increasing people’s exposure to new groups and ideas. He is participating in the Center’s efforts to write a series of papers that is meant to give researchers guidance in science communication. He hopes to continue to work with scientists who are doing work related to current politics to promote communicating this work to the public.  

Congratulations to Center Post-Doc Melissa Jacquart!

Dr. Melissa Jacquart

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We are pleased to announce that Center Post-Doc Dr. Melissa Jacquart will be joining the University of Cincinnati Department of Philosophy as a tenure-track Assistant Professor in the Fall of 2020! Melissa has been working with the Center for Public Engagement with Science for two years now and has been an integral part of Center activities. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Western Ontario and was previously a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Melissa will continue to work with the Center going forward! To learn more about Melissa and her research, here is a link to her website: https://melissajacquart.com/.