ComArtSci Researchers Receive Grants to Fund Environment and Breast Cancer Projects

Posted on: May 16, 2017

Breast Cancer Header

For 14 years, researchers from the College of Communication Arts and Sciences (ComArtSci) have partnered with the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP) to study the effects of environmental exposures on breast cancer risk.

In March, that partnership grew when a team of ComArtSci researchers, led by Kami Silk, associate dean of research and director of the Health and Risk Communication M.A. program, received two grants totaling nearly $500,000 to facilitate their on-going research in the field. The grants are co-funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Tailoring educational and outreach materials
The first project to receive funding, led by Silk and her research partner Richard Schwartz, professor and principal investigator of the BCERP at MSU, aims to better understand public perception of breast cancer and the environment. The team was awarded an Opportunity Fund Grant of $70,286 from the BCERP Coordinating Center.

For this project, titled “Cross-site Formative Audience Analysis Research to Facilitate Effective Outreach Efforts and Communication Strategies," the duo has partnered with community advocates across the U.S. to conduct focus group sessions with individuals from varying geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds to better understand their needs and risks.

“Partnerships are important for receiving Opportunity Funds due to the transdisciplinary nature of the BCERP. So a multi-site project with advocates across the country made a lot of sense, especially because most advocacy groups do not have resources to do this level of formative research with their communities,” said Silk.

Findings from this research will also be used to help create a national survey to gather information about breast cancer and the environment from a wider and more diverse group, ultimately helping to better tailor education and outreach materials to the needs of different audience segments.

Training pediatric healthcare providers
The second project to receive funding aims to design and deliver advanced training to pediatric healthcare providers on the topic of breast cancer and the environment. This type of training will help facilitate increased communication with patients and caregivers about adopting breast cancer risk reduction practices, particularly for adolescents.


Kami Silk

The project, titled “Training Pediatric Health Care Providers as a Primary Information Source for Communicating Environmental Risks for Breast Cancer," received an NIH R21 grant for $414,367 and is being developed by Silk, Sandi Smith, from the Department of Communication, and Stacey Fox, from the School of Journalism. The funding will provide the means for the team, joined by the Michigan State Medical Society and Michigan Hospital Association, to create a program that will build continuing education units for doctors.

“One of the things that emerged over our 14 years with the BCERP is the need to reach beyond the lay public as a primary target audience for information about breast cancer and the environment. We need to include health care providers in the conversation because they are trusted sources of health information and they can help parents and caregivers understand how to reduce early environmental exposures,” said Silk.

With this training, doctors will use continuing medical education units to become better informed on the risks associated with exposure to certain chemicals – such as PFOA and BPA – as well as learn the results of BCERP research, including both epidemiology and biology studies. The training will focus on helping pediatric health care providers translate BCERP research into actionable recommendations for parents and caregivers, such as what chemicals to avoid whenever possible.

“There is a window of susceptibility for girls as they go through puberty. Reducing environmental exposures during this critical time frame is a precaution that makes sense based on BCERP emerging science,” said Silk. “There was a genuine interest in the idea of training pediatricians about environmental exposures as a strategy to reach parents and caregivers with BCERP findings and recommendations. We are excited to be able to develop communication training that is evidence-based and useful for pediatric health care professionals.”

More information
For more information about the BCERP and the ongoing research of its investigators, please visit

By Nikki W. O'Meara

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New research explains the roles of social media communicators in organizational settings

Posted on: December 2, 2016

In modern day organizations, social media tools enable companies to gather and disseminate information, engage with their audience and create relationships with multiple communities.

Companies are hiring social media communicators to represent their organization, interact with the public, and speak and publish on behalf of the company due to its newfound necessity.

To understand the roles of social media communicators (SMC) in organizational communication efforts, Serena Carpenter Ph.D, assistant professor of Journalism Innovations in MSU’s School of Journalism, and Alisa Lertpratchya M.A., a doctoral student in MSU’s AD + PR department, applied a variety of research methods.

“I am fascinated with how people working within innovative roles navigate that role,” said Carpenter. “The internet and other new technologies have led to a number of workers working in newly created roles.”

Exploring roles

The first study conducted by Carpenter and Lertpratchya explored role stressors associated with SMCs and how they handled job stress in this recently created position. The purpose of the study was to assess how people holding innovative roles learn and navigate the responsibilities of often ill-defined jobs.

Carpenter and Lertpratchya drew results from qualitative interviews that investigated how this digital workforce contributes to the organization when their role is not well understood.

The interviews revealed that SMCs did not experience conflict as a result of leadership holding multiple expectations of them. Instead, a large portion of SMCs experienced role ambiguity because management and coworkers did not fully understand what they did for the organization.

As a result, SMCs used several tactics and resources for guidance in learning more about their responsibilities. Results showed SMCs navigated the ambiguity by turning to search engines to get questions answered, having a mentor, networking, participating in seminars and training sessions and more.

“In the digital media environment, social media communicators addressed ambiguity by banding together with outside social media experts to help each other advance within their own organizations.” said Carpenter.

While jobs varied for SMCs involved in the study, SMCs overall saw the ambiguity of their role as empowering rather than stressful. In their respective companies, SMCs were regarded as experts because of their ability to use social media to improve campaign efforts, relationships and other communication tactics.

The study concludes that knowledge workers, or SMCs, must regularly learn and share their expertise to manage role ambiguity. But as a whole, the study deduced that social media communicators were not only adept and personable, they were digitally literate and self reliant, too.

Expanding understanding

Carpenter and Lertpratchya conducted a second study to create and define a set of social media communicator roles, leading to the creation of a measure that illuminates what these employees do within an organization.

“The study specifies the various functions of their position,” said Carpenter. “People working in such positions can better understand their job responsibilities and leadership can better understand how to manage digital media workers.”

To understand social media communicator roles, 10 SMCs were interviewed and asked 10 multi-part questions. Following the interviews, the researchers received feedback from social media experts that assessed validity and evaluated their scale. Additionally, Carpenter and Lertpratchya administered a pretest to eight professional communicators and surveyed experts to assess and adjust their questionnaire structure.

As a final step, the two researchers conducted a quantitative survey to professionals under the SMC role.

Roles is a sociological concept, and roles aid social scientists in understanding how multiple publics such as management, colleagues, audiences, and other social media experts influence how they define their role,” said Carpenter.

Defining these roles can help inform those unfamiliar with the various roles and responsibilities of SMCs. The results of this study showed five common general behaviors that describe the roles of SMCs: customer service provider, mobilizer, information disseminator, researcher and community builder.

Read more about the stressors associated with SMCs and the various roles of SMCs through a scale.

By Lily Clark

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ComArtSci professor aims to improve family wellness with NSF Grant

Posted on: October 28, 2016

How can a virtual pet or plant help a family to establish healthy routines? Wei Peng, associate professor in the Department of Media and Information at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, is developing a system called FRESH (Family Routine, Education, and Sensing Health) that will use familiar objects and environments to help families track wellness and improve health.

The goal of FRESH is to use mobile technology, like tablets and cell phones, to monitor a family’s behavior - including their diet, whether they eat together, their physical activity and sleeping habits. The built-in audio, motion, and light sensors necessary to acquire this information from families, as well as a unique algorithm for an app, are being developed in collaboration with MSU’s College of Engineering.  screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-4-16-06-pm

“The reason that we wanted to focus on these family routines is because these activities are very important for obesity prevention,” Peng said.

FRESH works by accessing and collecting data through sensors placed on family member devices with their permission.

The app then uses the information collected through the system, to show the findings through scenes such as a blossoming flower. As a family’s routine improves, the flower will grow and thrive, offering participants an image of their progress. The program also provides families with a support system since the app enables them to communicate with and learn from other families.

Peng said that preliminary testing in Greater Lansing shows that people are willing and excited to participate.

“Most of the families are very accepting because they see the benefits of helping the whole family to be more healthy,” she explained. “This outweighed the risk or the privacy concern.”

The collaborative project between Michigan State University and University of California, San Diego received a $1 million grant in September from the National Science Foundation and an additional $880,000 from MSU. Peng said the funding will solidify and support their 4-year plan.

By Savannah Swix


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Journalism scholars turn to social media to answer research questions

Posted on: September 30, 2016
Professor School of Journalism Rachel Mourao

Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism, Rachel Mourao

There’s no denying that social media affects news and storytelling. Recent research by two journalism scholars explores the depth and breadth of the impact of social media on news delivery, bias, and perception.

Rachel Mourao, a new ComArtSci faculty member and assistant professor in MSU’s School of Journalism, joined Shannon McGregor from the University of Texas’ School of Journalism, to research news coverage with three focus areas in mind: gender, elections, and social networks.

Mourao says the research began when she entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Texas; where she met McGregor and joined forces. When it came to journalistic coverage of elections, they questioned what has changed and what hasn’t changed since the addition of social media into the news cycle.

In their research, the team explored how journalists cover political events by examining the coverage of the U.S. elections, debates, and mid-term elections. Mourao says the research examined “old theories to see how things have or haven’t changed with the added technological element. A lot of times what I find is that nothing really changes. You’ve just brought in old norms and values and put them in a new place.”

Reliant on social media

While observing journalist’s patterns, Mourao and McGregor came to two conclusions. The first was drawn from Mourao’s dissertation research on Brazilian protests, and concluded that journalists often turn to social media as a source of information during breaking news moments.

The second conclusion came from surveying activity around U.S. elections. They concluded that during a staged event, old norms are transferred to Twitter, meaning that newspaper-like characteristics shift to fit social media guidelines.

Mourao says her research can be distilled into a single concept: during protests or breaking news events, technology is more relied upon compared to staged events, when traditional media is often the go-to.  

Gender and media

Their research delved into gender patterns on social media during election periods and observed how female and male candidates interacted with their audiences. The data was garnered from a sum of more than three-quarters of a million tweets relating to various candidates in the 2014 U.S. midterm elections.

Mourao and McGregor had one goal in mind when it came to assessing how genders are treated differently in the media: gaining predictive power. The two readily admit that men and women candidates are treated differently by the media, and set out to examine how that translated to social networks. Mourao said her research aimed to create conditions that enabled the prediction of race outcomes and were based on the genders running.

Mourao says the research is relevant to politicians since it may help them better use their social networks. And while her research may not be directly applicable to journalists, she says the findings illuminate patterns of biases in the conversations journalists are a part of.

Ethical social media reporting

Politicians and journalists aside, Mourao says her research has implications on teaching students how to make sense of, and ethically report on, social media.

“Similar to the responsibilities that come with printing a newspaper, there are also responsibilities that come with retweeting someone and putting your opinion out there,” she says. “I think my research informs my teaching in a way that asks how to train journalists in the most ethical way while finding a meaningful way to use these tools.”

Read the full research report to learn more about their findings.


By Lily Clark

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Call for Applications: Trifecta Pilot Funding Grant Award

Posted on: August 7, 2016

Trifecta seeks to stimulate new or emerging interdisciplinary research collaborations between faculty in the colleges of Communication Arts & Sciences, Engineering, and Nursing at MSU. Pilot funding will be used to help create innovative, interdisciplinary research projects that will lead to increased applications and successes in external funding, presentations and publications, and visibility for the Trifecta initiative at MSU.

Improving health outcomes and healthcare organization and delivery (including enhanced outcomes, reduced and stabilized costs, and improved access) are significant societal issues, especially in populations experiencing health disparities.  The complexity of delivery models, diversity of populations, existence of large-scale societal inequalities, and development of healthcare solutions require interdisciplinary approaches to make advances in these areas.

The Colleges of Communication Arts & Sciences, Engineering, and Nursing at Michigan State University have joined forces to create a Trifecta—a winning partnership of three innovative colleges. With support and investment from all three colleges, MSU’s provost, and vice-president for research and graduate studies (VPRGS), Trifecta is a launch-pad for groundbreaking interdisciplinary projects that will develop cutting-edge computing and communication technologies to improve health care and outcomes and address health disparities.

A maximum of $10,000 per project is available. Eligible expenses include: support for graduate or undergraduate research assistants, supplies needed to conduct the research, course releases, travel for data collection, incentives for participants, and other expenses that are needed to carry out the proposed research activities.

Deadline for Applications: Friday, September 30, 2016
Awards will be Announced:  Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Get the full details about the grant >

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Are Men Better at Video Games than Women? Research Gives Us the Answer.

Posted on: June 16, 2016


It’s a fact: men and women are different. But at times, the reasons behind those differences aren’t purely biological. Instead, they can often be attributed to social bias. For example, when it comes to video games, do you think that men or women advance faster when playing, and if so, why?

That is the question Rabindra Ratan, assistant professor in the Department of Media and Information at ComArtSci, along with first-author Cuihua Cindy Shen at the University of California, Davis, and other co-authors, tried to answer with their recent research.

Inspired by the stereotype that men naturally excel at video games more-so than women, the research team set out to examine the difference in video game advancement between men and women. They used player data pulled from two massively multiplayer online (MMO) games - EverQuest II from the United States and Chevalier’s Romance III from China - to test if the stereotype held true, and if so, why.

After reviewing the data pulled from 2007 MMO logs, the research team found the same pattern for both the United States and China: women advance just as fast as men.

“We found that if you do not control for the amount of time that they have played or other aspects of game behavior (such as guild membership), then it looks like men level up faster than women. But, when you do control for such factors, then the statistical difference between men and women goes away,” said Ratan. “This suggests that the perception that women are not as good at video games as men is simply driven by other factors besides gender, such as the fact that they tend not to play as much as men.”

Indeed, gender bias exists across many cultures for a variety of reasons, and many have social implications that go unnoticed. According to Ratan, while the stereotype that women aren’t as skilled at video games as men isn’t necessarily true, it does have a social impact.

“The irony is that one of the reasons women do not play as much as men might be the perception that they do not play as well as men. So this is a vicious cycle. There is an effect called stereotype threat, which says that when you know about a stereotype that applies to you, it affects your behavior. If women know about the stereotype that they do not play well, then this might actually reduce the likelihood that they play well,” said Ratan. “This is consistent with other research that I have done which also supports the case that stereotypes about women in video games are self-reinforcing.”

The research completed by Ratan and co-authors has shown that video games are part of an important social dynamic between men and women. The implications go beyond gaming itself, ultimately reinforcing the need to promote gender equality throughout our society. “Playing video games leads to many positive cognitive, social and psychological outcomes, like increased persistence in challenging tasks and enhanced emotional management skills. Video games are also a gateway to STEM fields,” said Ratan. “If we want to promote gender equality in these areas of our society, then we must recognize that the stereotypes about gender and video game performance are not only false but are also harmful outside of gaming contexts.”

Read the full case study and learn more about the research findings.

By Nikki W. O'Meara

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Journalism Professor Making an Impact on Concussion Research

Posted on: May 10, 2016

at Planet Fitness in Novi, Tuesday, August 13, 2013.  Planet Fitness   Kathleen Galligan/Detroit Free Press

By Joanne C. Gerstner, Sports Journalist in Residence, School of Journalism

The gravity of the moment hit me, a few seconds after I walked into the dramatic grand main hall of the University of Zurich’s Student Union. It was the first week of December 2015, and I was far from Michigan State University and my sports journalism students.

My new life, for a week, was about serving as a Jacobs Foundation Neuroscience Journalism Fellow and zipping around Zurich to different labs and offices for private meetings with groundbreaking researchers. I was the first sports journalist in the world awarded the prestigious Fellowship honor, given to journalists engaged in significant coverage of neuroscience.

I was nervous as I walked into the University of Zurich, as the other four Fellows – two Americans and two Brits – were all involved in award-winning scientific and medical journalism. I was the wild card, the American sports journalist/college prof who covers concussions and sports neurology as a specialty for NPR and The New York Times. It soon became clear that not only was I warmly welcomed by the professors, doctors and fellow journalists, it turned out they were extremely intrigued by my world of sports and neurology.

My upcoming book, “Back in the Game: Why Concussion Doesn’t Have to End Your Athletic Career,” co-authored with noted sports neurologist Jeffrey Kutcher MD, talks to youth parents, coaches and athletes about brain health. We’ve spent more than three years researching and writing the book, and can’t wait for it to be released by Oxford University Press on September 1, 2016.

The impact of concussions is changing the way we play and think about sports. This led me to that incredible week in Switzerland, representing Michigan State as a proud sports journalist. I learned a lot about neurological development and saw how cutting-edge technologies are revealing the brain’s secrets. I have taken that knowledge back to my Michigan State students and my journalistic endeavors.

The power of journalism, present every day in what we teach at the MSU School of Journalism, is also demonstrated in how we lead the public discussion of sports neurology. I wove in some neuroscience into the spring 2016 semester of our senior-level sports journalism class, as well as into the frequent public speaking I do on concussions and sports.

Concussions aren’t going away in sports, but having a better-informed discussion – hopefully led by Spartan journalists – will go a long way to helping all of us be safer in athletics.

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Studying the Effects of Advertising for Benefit of Common Good

Posted on: May 9, 2016

saleem_featureSaleem Alhabash recognizes that when it comes to advertising, some people love it and some people don't. The Assistant Professor of Public Relations and Social Media also admits he's so fascinated by the advertising discipline that he's committed to studying its persuasive effects.

As Co-Director of the Media and Advertising Psychology (MAP) Lab through the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, Alhabash oversees research and analysis driven by the psychophysiological changes and eye movements that occur when people view mediated communication. And while that sounds a bit abstract, the overarching mission of the lab is simple.

"We're trying to understand how advertising is effective by studying it as a process," Alhabash said. "We want see the kinds of effects it has on people, and then address questions about those effects within an ethical and legal context."

Since the MAP Lab opened in 2014, Alhabash has been the principal investigator of several studies that have collected data via high-tech devices to measure physical responses like heart rate, respiration, facial expressions, skin conductance and eye movement.

In his most recent research, social networking sites and other social media platforms are being put under the MAP Lab "microscope" as Alhabash leads teams of faculty collaborators and students to unlock how new communication technologies influence attitudes and behaviors.

In one study, Alhabash seeks to understand how particular responses to alcohol advertisements can predict drinking behavior among students college age and younger. Findings show that exposure to alcohol ads on sites like Facebook and Instagram, as well as the number of likes, shares and comments an ad receives, affects drinking behaviors and perceptions.

"The moment people want to like, share and comment, the likelihood of them drinking increases significantly," Alhabash said. "We found that the marketing effects are more pronounced on students in low- to moderate-risk groups, which has great implications for regulations."

Currently, alcohol advertising on social media isn't regulated like it is through traditional media and is left to the discretion of the advertiser and social media venue.

"You have all these messages coming to underage people, showing them how cool it is to drink, which might quicken the onset of drinking," Alhabash said. "This doesn't just apply to alcohol, but to other harmful behaviors like drug use, unprotected sex or cigarette smoking. It can form an expectation of what the social norm is."

A targeted outcome of the study is to discover the strategies and tactics used to create effective, behavior-changing ads, and then to use those methods to create counter messages.

"Think about how easily messages are accessed on mobile phones," Alhabash said. "We want to find out what advertisers do that works, how those messages prime memories and create expectations, and then apply those tactics to convince underage people not to drink."

In addition to this research, Alhabash is collaborating on a MAP Lab study that examines impulsive or deviant behaviors on social media. Part of the research will focus on cyberbullying among college-age populations, another on more general causes of digital aggression across the life span.

"Is it the problem of the system of social media that makes people feel less restrained and more inclined to be aggressive? Or is it a certain type of person?" Alhabash asks.  "We're trying to come to a level of understanding about the precursors of digital aggression and why it happens."

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"Boxed Beyond Selfies" aims to change the way we see ourselves

Posted on: April 29, 2016

_MG_9706A few years ago, the Girl Scouts of Lansing approached the MSU Department of Media and Information and Assistant Professor Saleem Alhabash, seeking help with a workshop focused on the effects of social media on teenage girls.

That request resulted in Alhabash and his team in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences designing a year-long, multi-stage project. The project culminated in the "Boxed Beyond Selfies" exhibition showcased earlier this month at Regional Center in Old Town Lansing.

Alhabash said the girls involved in the project often talked about how they look on social media, and how they’re not happy with what they see.

"We want to take the stories of these young women and use them in order to raise awareness of the complexities of growing up at a time where we are constantly connected, when teens are being exposed to all sorts of body ideals, on social media, in magazines,” Alhabash said.

The goal of the exhibition was to see how the girls reacted to having their pictures displayed in public on physical boxes with their stories next to them. Alhabash said he and his team wanted to give the girls a sense of empowerment, and to make them role models for other kids their age through their inspirational stories.

“It’s about raising awareness on a social level,” Alhabash said. “If we can reach one individual who is at risk, whether at health or psychological, telling them there is a different way of looking at it, then we’ve succeeded.”

Alhabash said most parents do not know much about what their kids are doing on social media, and with kid’s privacy concerns, it becomes hard to navigate.

“We want to start the discussion that there are kids being influenced negatively by social media,” he said. “Reminding the girls you can be whoever you want. It’s okay to have a pimple in a photo. It’s not the end of the world.”

Alhabash understands that he and his team are not the first to investigate this issue. Dove’s “Love your Body” campaign, for instance, is a good example of how groups have started to see the importance of tackling the issue of body image and the effects of social media. Existing research, too, already shows that a large number of teenagers and even girls as early as 3rd grade think they are fat or don’t look good.

Working on a local level has been another factor to consider with the project. Alhabash and his team conducted a number of surveys with Michigan State University students and the Girl Scouts.

We are “trying to see what are the patterns of the relationship between taking selfies, posting selfies and a bunch of psychological factors which include self esteem and loneliness,” said Alhabash.

The project culminated in a workshop with 12 Girl Scouts hosted by MSU's College of ComArtSci. Girls were asked about their body image and how society, including the media, affects their self-image, their self-worth and the expectations they have for how they look.

Although the MSU research team is still sifting through the data, they have already discovered some interesting trends. In some cases, the researchers are finding that social media does affect body image.

“There’s a relationship between the way we take selfies and the act of taking selfies and posting them on the web,” he said.

Alhabash feels the effects of social media on teen girls is significant issue that needs to be pursued.

“We all have insecurities, but a standard for looks has surfaced because of popular media,” he said. “Constant exposure to media makes it hard for girls to accept who they are.”

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ComArtSci focuses on Flint at 2016 UURAF

Posted on: April 12, 2016

TimmonsThe annual University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF) at Michigan State University each Spring showcases undergraduate research, scholarship and creative activity either in the form of a poster or oral presentation.

In 2016, three oral presentations focused on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. One of those three presentations--“Faces of Flint”--won the award in the oral presentation category, and was presented by journalism seniors Maria Braganini and Kelley Waterfall with Geri Zeldes as their mentor. After national and local news organizations have covered infrastructure concerns and political missteps, the documentary series focuses on ‘what’s next?’ for Flint residents. “Faces of Flint” will premiere on the WKAR the week of April 11.

“Knowing our final product will impact people and winning an award means a lot to us,” Waterfall said. “It’s a really powerful series and changed the way I look at Flint and the crisis.”

Zeldes said she was happy students were recognized, and added that it was a great and humbling experience for all of them.

“It takes a lot of bravery to go in, especially when you are elbow to elbow with reporters who have done this for 20 years,” Zeldes said. “I chose them because I did see a glimmer in them and it shows in their radio stories.”

The number of presentations and research about Flint at the annual awards wasn't surprising given the magnitude and implications of the water crisis. The other two presentations were “From Flint”--a documentary that tells the story of the Flint Water Crisis--and “Hubert: His Story”--a documentary displaying how Flint youth may be set up for failure, and how one individual helps these young adults down the right path.

“It just goes to show that research can come in all shapes and forms,” Waterfall said. “Research in our college can be different and we tend to show it in different ways.”

In total, there were more than 50 presentations by ComArtSci students across two categories at UURAF: communication arts and sciences and digital media. A full list of the award winners can be found here:

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