Breaking the Digital Divide: Using Technology to Improve the Lives of Older Adults

Posted on: July 13, 2017

Shelia CottenAs we age, our ability to learn and retain new information diminishes. So much so, that by the time we reach our 80s and 90s, a skill picked up easily by a toddler – like tapping and swiping on a mobile phone - can seem too daunting to undertake. Frustrated and defeated, many older adults simply give up trying to learn new skills.

That’s where Shelia Cotten, Ph.D. steps in. A professor in the Department of Media and Information in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences (ComArtSci), Cotten researches technology use across the life course. Her goal is to improve the lives of older adults by closing the digital divide and helping them learn to use technologies to improve their lives.

Training Older Adults

Elderly man using computer tabletIn a recent study, Cotten and her team spent 5-years working with 19 different assisted and independent living facilities training older adults to use computers and the internet. The training lasted for 8-weeks in each facility, with 2 training sessions per week plus an additional office hours session.

The team started with the basics – from turning on a computer, to conducting an internet search, to sending an email.

“A lot of times, older adults have had no experience with computers in their lives,” said Cotten. “So, we have to start very basic. We started early teaching them to use email because findings from our prior work showed that older adults really enjoy that one-to-one communication/interaction.”

The participants also learned how to search for health information, and to critically evaluate the information they found.

“Because a lot of older adults have more health problems than younger aged groups [the question is] ‘How do you find information on the latest prescription that you’ve been given?’ and ‘Is there a conflict with some other medicine that you’re taking?’ We try to help them to be more critical consumers of information,” said Cotten.

Improving Quality of Life

The team also observed the mental health and quality of life benefits the residents received while working with the research team, including impacts on depression, isolation and loneliness.

“A lot of times as people age into their 80s or 90s, their partners or spouses have died, their children may be living far away, their health tends to decline… the combination of those factors

leads them to be more isolated, have higher rates of loneliness, have higher depression levels as they move into older adulthood,” Cotten told us.

According to Cotten, more opportunities for interaction and exchange of social support often lead to more positive outcomes for older adults. Because of that, Cotten focused her study on training older adults in a face-to-face environment, teaching them ways to use technology to connect with their present as well as their past.

“We found the interaction is very beneficial for older adults in general,” said Cotten. “But, over and above [we found] that the training and technology usage had positive effects. Teaching older adults how to use computers and the internet had positive impacts on their quality of life.”

From finding their childhood homes using Google Street View, to watching their favorite classic television shows or listening to music from earlier generations on Hulu and YouTube, the participants were able to see that many of their memories still live on.

Findings of the Study

At the end of the 5-year study, Cotten and her team found that their work was a success.

“We saw very positive effects in terms of teaching older adults in these communities to cross the digital divide and use computers and the internet successfully,” Cotten recalled. “They had reduced loneliness, better social integration, and lower depression. And many of the positive results tended to persist over time.”

The group even wrote a book on designing technology training programs for older adults in continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs). The book is intended to help additional facilities work with their residents in the future, continuing to improve their quality of life.

Cotten said the team wrote the book “To provide the latest research- and design-based recommendations for how to design and implement technology training programs for older adults in CCRCs. Our approach concentrates on providing useful best practices for CCRC owners, CEOs and activity directors, as well as practitioners and system designers working with older adults to enhance their quality of life and educators studying older adults. Although the guidelines are couched in the context of CCRCs, they will have broader-based implications for training older adults to use computers, tablets and other technologies.”

More to Come

Cotten has dedicated her career to exploring innovative ways to use technology to improve people’s lives and just finished her fourth year at MSU. This summer, she is conducting a large-scale survey of older adults across the U.S. about different aspects of technology, including digital assistance and even autonomous vehicles.

“You know Alexa? And Siri? We want to get their perspectives on these technologies. There isn’t a lot known about these new technologies coming out and older adults’ perceptions of them and how they might use them to improve their quality of life,” said Cotten. “Autonomous vehicles have such a huge potential for older adults who have mobility problems and can’t drive anymore… Using autonomous vehicles has the potential to significantly impact their independence and have positive impacts on their quality of life.”

In addition to research, Cotten also teaches classes in ComArtSci, is the Director for the Sparrow/MSU Center for Innovation and Research, the Director of Trifecta and was recently promoted to MSU Foundation Professor.

“I love being in the Department of Media and Information and being at MSU; my whole department is focused on how can we use media and technology to improve people’s lives and the larger world. It’s a great opportunity to be in a very interdisciplinary department and have great collaborators who are all interested in different aspects of technology, media, or information. I love it here,” said Cotten.

View more of Cotten's work >> 

By Nikki W. O’Meara

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ComArtSci Professor Honored with Gene Burd Outstanding Dissertation Award

Posted on: June 8, 2017

RM Award WideRachel Mourao, assistant professor of journalism at ComArtSci, received the Gene Burd Outstanding Dissertation Award from the International Communication Association (ICA) this year.

“It’s very special,” said Mourao. “You spend a year working on a project, exclusively working on a dissertation, so it’s nice to know that in some way you did good work. It’s a nice way to finish a cycle.”

Mourao was a journalism P.h.D student at the University of Texas at Austin when she met Gene Burd, an associate professor emeritus. She studied under Steve Reese, the associate dean for academic affairs for the Moody College of Communication.

Mourao’s dissertation research focused on a wave of protests in Brazil from 2013-2015, which started out small, but evolved into massive right-wing demonstrations with elite support. She studied how journalists navigated this transformation to cover the protests, what influenced their work and how they made sense of the political strife.

Mourao’s findings contradict literature gathered in the U.S. and Europe that found news portrayal of protesters to be negative.

“The stories focus on spectacle and violence, and some argue that comes from an ideological resistance that journalists have to protesters,” Mourao said. “The story I found was different— it was the opposite of that.”

The majority of the reporters in Mourao’s study were against the demonstrations, especially in 2015, yet their coverage was supportive of the protests.

“It’s really indicative of Brazil— what really drove negative or positive portrayal of protesters was how aligned the protesters were with official sources,” Mourao said.

For example, if there were official sources, meaning elected officials or those appointed by elected officials, that were supportive of the protesters, the coverage of the demonstration would be supportive, regardless of the journalist's personal views.

From Reporting to Research

Mourao was born in Brazil and worked there for several years as a reporter, where she witnessed many of the problems she has encountered in her research. She said her research is a way for her to give back to Brazil.

“I knew I wanted to write something that would shed light on some of the issues faced by the press in developing countries, which are sometimes different and sometimes similar to issues faced by the press in the United States and Europe, where most studies focus,” Mourao said. “My main goal was to show that some of the processes that we take for granted here or that seem really evident in the literature produced in developed countries do not always work the same way in less developed nations.”

Mourao said there is lot of criticism of the press in Brazil, such as claims that the media self-censors and their coverage is against those under the poverty line. As a journalist, she did not see this criticism reflected in the newsroom. Now, her research aims to explain why and how journalists’ coverage reflects the beliefs of those in power.  

The Next Step: Broadening the Research

Mourao used content analysis to examine the way the mainstream press covered the demonstrations and compared that to survey data she gathered from journalists. She also has a third element that she hasn’t used yet— the journalists’ tweets.

“I want to know if the coverage they sent on social media is different than what they produced for mainstream newspapers,” Mourao said, “If it is, then there are different norms and expectations of social media. If you are producing a type of content for your employer, and then you are putting out something else for your personal brand, then there are some influences there. So that’s what’s next for me.”

Mourao’s studies focused on the mainstream press, elite journalists and big newspapers from the urban centers of Brazil. She hopes to expand her research by studying how journalists in the poor regions of Brazil cover protests.

“We don’t have a lot of access to [the journalists],”said Mourao. “I have a lot of access to them via survey, but the stories they write are harder to get.”

Mourao said she is still working on dividing the dissertation into smaller studies. She presented two of the papers at the 67th Annual Conference of the ICA. She will be presenting one more at the 2017 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).

By Rianna N. Middleton

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ComArtSci Professor Researches Media’s Influence on Teens

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Morgan_Ellithorpe_WideMorgan Ellithorpe, assistant professor of advertising and public relations at ComArtSci, partnered with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania to study how risky behaviors portrayed in the media, such as alcohol and tobacco use, sex and violence, are repeated by teenagers.

Take for example, shows like Empire, Narcos and Game of Thrones. Ellithorpe said teenagers see their favorite characters drinking alcohol, doing drugs and/or being violent in multiple episodes and come to think that this is normal behavior.

“My job is to figure out which adolescents are more likely to repeat the risky behaviors they see in the media, what kinds of media are more or less likely to influence behavior and what we can do to decrease the likelihood that these kinds of things will transfer from media to adolescent behavior,” Ellithorpe said.

Media Consumption Differences Across Racial and Ethnic Lines

Ellithorpe and her colleagues have published several research papers on the issue and she presented on the topic at the 67th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association (ICA). Ellithorpe said their research has shown that there are racial and ethnic differences in media consumption.

“We know that black, Hispanic and white adolescents watch different kinds and amounts of media, and the media they watch portrays different risk behaviors to different extents,” Ellithorpe said.

For example, Ellithorpe and her colleagues have found that black youth watch more media than their Hispanic or white counterparts and the shows they watch are more likely to include black characters, who are more likely to be involved in sex and alcohol use than white characters. Despite these facts, the team has found that black teenagers seem to be less influenced by media than white teenagers.

Ellithorpe said that, in the past, similar studies did not include media that was relevant to black teenagers, such as television shows with black characters. However, even with the inclusion of this type of media, she has found that black teenagers still show lower levels of media influence than white teenagers. Ellithorpe challenges future research to confirm these findings and help solve the puzzle.

Research Findings Consistent with the CDC

The researchers have also found that drinking alcohol before or during sexual intercourse is common among adolescents and young adults, which is consistent with similar findings by the CDC.

The combination of alcohol use and sexual behavior is the most common behavioral risk combination in television and movies,” Ellithorpe said. “We know that drinking alcohol before sexual behavior increases sexual risk taking and susceptibility to accidental pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, so it is really important to understand the who, when and why of this behavior.”

Hope for the Future

Ellithorpe hopes that her research will positively impact the lives of young people.

“I hope that stakeholders in adolescent health and wellbeing —  from policy-makers to health organizations to physicians and parents — will be able to use this information gleaned from our research to reduce the negative impacts of mediated risk on adolescent behavior,” Ellithorpe said.

In the future, Ellithorpe hopes to explore the role of social media on influencing adolescent behavior.

“Adolescents and young adults are very often posting on social media about television content and we are exploring the possibility that this social media posting could be a way to intervene in the negative influence of television risk behavior,” Ellithorpe said.

Additionally, Ellithorpe hopes to see more research in the area of media targeted at specific racial and ethnic groups, such as Spanish-language programming.

“This is a growing area of scholarship that really needs more research to understand how this media is different from mainstream media, who is watching these kinds of media and the influence exposure to this kind of media has on cognition and behavior,” Ellithorpe said.

By Rianna N. Middleton

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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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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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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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Bossen recognized with mentorship award

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uuraf-20160408-9818 (1)School of Journalism Professor Howard Bossen, was recognized with the Undergraduate Research Faculty Member of the Year Award, at the University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF).

The award, given annually, acknowledges two MSU faculty members who demonstrate an outstanding commitment to mentoring undergraduate researchers.

Bossen was nominated by journalism seniors Jordan Jennings and Marisa Hamel, who have worked with him on several projects and exhibitions. Their nominations highlighted Bossen’s commitment to mentoring his students and the lasting impact he has had in shaping their college experience.

“He continuously compels me to push beyond what I believe I’m capable of,” Jennings said. “His lofty expectations have always proven reachable, making me a profoundly more passionate, well-rounded and tenacious individual.”

Bossen has been working with undergraduate research assistants for more than a decade and is committed to helping his students grow and achieve their goals.

“When you are at a university it is important to get students involved in the research process early on,” Bossen said. “The skills that students learn are valuable and can be translated to different future opportunities.”

Hamel began working with Bossen as a freshman, and over the years has gained many unique opportunities and as a research assistant.

“Bossen taught me how to work with photographers, publishers, co-authors, and to create, edit, and produce works of art. With no experience in the field, Bossen was patient with me when work was frustrating and spent nights, weekends, and mornings to accommodate my schedule,” Hamel said.

Bossen accepted Research Faculty Mentor of the Year Award Friday April 8, 2016 at the MSU Union.

By Victoria Bowles, senior Journalism major and ComArtSci Editorial Assistant


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Research Showcase Honors Eight CAS Scholars

Posted on: January 14, 2014

research-mattersThe College of Communication Arts & Sciences' research showcase on the main floor of the CAS Building has eight new honorees.

The college started the research showcase in 2012 as a way to recognize the outstanding work of our research faculty. Each semester, eight new honorees are selected from all departments and their portraits hung in the research showcase on the main floor of the CAS Building, serving as an inspiration for our students, as well as other faculty, staff, visiting alumni and friends.

Congratulations go out to the 2014 spring semester research showcase honorees for their outstanding research and scholarly achievements:

  • Daniel Bergan, Associate Professor, Communication
  • Shelia Cotten, Professor, Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media
  • Karl Gude, Graphics Editor in Residence, School of Journalism and Media Sandbox
  • Eric Hunter, Associate Professor, Communicative Sciences and Disorders
  • Anna McAlister, Assistant Professor, Advertising + Public Relations
  • Bruno Takahashi, Assistant Professor, Communication and School of Journalism
  • Brian Winn, Associate Professor, Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media
  • Susan Wyche, Assistant Professor, Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media
Daniel Bergan, Ph.D.

Dan BerganBergan's main research interests involve the influence of advocacy efforts on public policy. He has conducted field experiments evaluating the effectiveness of different advocacy efforts on public policy, and in particular, the influence of constituent contacts to policymakers on health policy outcomes.

In a recent study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Bergan, along with (then Ph.D. student) Genevieve Risner, tested the influence of issue ads about health reform on attitudes about reform. He also has explored public attitudes on tobacco policy and anti-bullying.

"My main results so far have shown that legislators' voting behavior is influenced when people contact their legislators. This is encouraging for people who have thought about contacting their legislator or for citizen groups that rely on their membership to influence public policy," Bergan said. "In future work, I will be trying to better understand these results by exploring when, and under what circumstances, constituent contacts and other forms of advocacy influence policy outcomes."

Shelia Cotten, Ph.D.

Sheila CottonCotten's research examines how people use information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the health, social and educational impacts of this use for people in varying generational groups. She also focuses on how larger scale social and digital inequalities affect ICT use and a range of health and quality of life outcomes.

One of her current projects, funded by the National Institute on Aging, examines how computer use impacts the quality of life for older adults. In this randomized controlled trial, approximately 300 older adults living in assisted and independent living communities have been trained to use computers and the Internet.

"We have found that using the Internet reduces depression, reduces loneliness, increases contact with social ties, and increases both the quality and the quantity of contact with friends and family members," Cotten said. "Participants in this study also have learned how to overcome social and spatial barriers that are present in the types of communities in which they reside."

Karl Gude

Karl GudeGude currently is working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to disseminate understanding of phylogenesis, the evolutionary development and diversification of a species or group of organisms, and the tree of life that is used to visualize the various categories that all life falls into.

Working with students and outside professionals, Gude and his team are using a variety of social media to inform the public and scientific community about their educational site. They also are building awareness for a larger, connected project being conducted at other universities to build an online tool that scientists can work with to conduct and share phylogenetic research. Additionally, Gude is involved in building an educational website to engage and teach the public about the science behind the tree of life.

"There are a variety of online efforts to explain the evolutionary tree of life, but they fail to engage and inform the user because they use standard, text-heavy web designs. Very few contain interactive graphics that can pull the user in and explain the science, and those that exist are simple and don't go far enough," Gude said.

"Our site will be text-light and highly visual using interactive graphics that will compel the user to explore the content. Deeper explanations for the different parts of the tree will be revealed as you mouse over different parts of the graphics. This approach to science education is seldom used, and our site hopes to raise the standards for all science education sites, not just in the field of evolutionary biology."

Eric Hunter, Ph.D.

Eric HunterHunter's principal research area is on individuals who use their voice as a primary tool of the trade, or occupational voice users.

"I explore what environmental, physiological and social factors might increase the risk of vocal health issues in these population of workers. Using this information, we are developing strategies to reduce increased incidences of vocal health problems," Hunter said.

In one of his current projects, supported by the National Institute On Deafness and Other Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health, he aims to quantify gender-specific voice accommodation strategies used by teachers and call center workers (as compared to non-occupational voice users) in occupational settings and acoustic environments.

Another area of his research explores how the voice changes with age.

"Traditional studies of the aging voice compares two populations of voice users (young, elderly). However, my research uses databases of speeches from single individuals, allowing me to examine how the voices of these individuals change over nearly 50 years of recordings," Hunter said. "Through longitudinal data, we can more accurately observe what are normal or abnormal changes."

Anna McAlister, Ph.D.

Anna McAlisterMcAlister's research focuses on consumer behavior, child development and public policy. She is especially interested in understanding how very young children (e.g., 3- to 5-year-olds) learn about food and beverage brands and subsequently develop taste preferences.

"My research is helping parents, teachers, caregivers and other child advocates to understand the ways in which children are targeted by advertisers and marketers. This provides a step in the right direction for leveling the playing field where marketing to kids is big business. Parents frequently express frustration about not knowing how their children come to be 'addicted' to brands at an early age," McAlister said. "Given the rapid expansion of technology, parents are raising kids whose access to commercial media is almost unlimited. The current generation of parents is struggling to understand marketing practices that barely existed during their childhoods."

One of McAlister's current projects, funded by Cornell's Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition, investigates children's responsiveness to a school lunchroom intervention program where healthy menu choices were promoted using child-friendly themes (e.g., in the dinosaur-themed week children saw a lunch menu on which the healthier items were listed as the "triceratops picks" for the week).

Bruno Takahashi, Ph.D.

BrunoTakahashi's research focuses on environmental communication, environmental journalism practices and international news.

"Most of my research has an international or intercultural component. For example, I have been analyzing climate change communication in Latin America, as well as comparative studies looking at media coverage of climate change between the U.S. and Canada, and about hydraulic fracturing between the U.S. and Spain," Takahashi said. "I think my research is helping to better understand how different groups (media, policy makers, public) in developing nations socially construct environmental issues, which allows these groups to better communicate such issues."

Takahashi currently is conducting research on news decision-making about environmental issues in Spanish language media in the United States and is starting work on crisis and risk communication of environmental issues through social media.

He also is completing a study that looks at New York farmers' risk perceptions related to climate change. That project is funded by a grant from the Environmental Finance Center with funds from the United States Department of Agriculture, Rural Development.

Brian Winn

Brian WinnWinn researches interactive media design, including game design, digital game-based learning and interactive health communication. His expertise is in designing engaging serious games that balancing learning, pedagogical and gameplay objectives.

"As a new media and game designer, my goal is to use the power and versatility of interactive media technologies to have a positive impact on the world. This is accomplished through both the entertainment and learning games that are created and played by various audiences around the world, and from the knowledge generated from my work that helps advance the field of game design and development," Winn said.

One of his current research projects, funded by a three-year, $1.2 million grant from NASA, aims at keeping astronauts motivated to exercise during space flight through use of virtual workout partners.

Susan Wyche, Ph.D.

Susan WycheWyche's research focuses on human-computer interaction, information and communication technologies and development.

The goal of her current research is to provide technology developers with an empirically accurate understanding of technology use in sub-Saharan Africa to improve design and to motivate other innovative and creative technological interventions. Wyche conducts fieldwork in Kenya, studying mobile phone and social media use in Nairobi's informal settlements, in rural cyber cafes and in off-grid villages.

Wyche aims to make understanding and designing effective information and communication technologies (ICT) in sub-Saharan Africa a more integral part of human-computer interaction.

"Understanding rural Africans' ICT needs and practices opens up possibilities for improving on existing initiatives and developing entirely new types of interventions that have the potential for widespread and long-term impact. This knowledge can also inform and motivate environmentally sustainable and innovative design for users in industrialized nations," Wyche wrote in her research statement.

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Researchers Study Incentive-Based Environmental Conservation Programs

Posted on: December 10, 2013

Maria-Lapinski-Tibet-mainA team of MSU researchers, lead by Maria Lapinski, College of Communication Arts & Sciences' Associate Dean for Research, recently traveled to the Tibetan plateau. The focus of the research team is to study the effects of short-term financial incentives on the social norms of two kinds of behaviors: poaching patrols for protecting large mammals, including the snow leopard, and modifying grazing patterns to protect the grasslands for species conversation and water quality.

The interdisciplinary research seeks to provide new information and insights to help make the next generation of incentive-based environmental conservation programs more effective.

"The ultimate goal is to look for ways to make these programs more successful," Lapinski said.

Besides Lapinski, the research team includes Jinhua Zhao, Professor of Economics and Director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program, and John Kerr, Associate Professor in the Department of Community Sustainability.

The project is supported by a three-year, $600,700 grant through the National Science Foundation Interdisciplinary Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (IBSS) competition.

In many countries, there is a movement towards incentive-based programs to promote environmental conservation, vaccination, school attendance and other socially desirable behaviors. However, most of these incentive-based programs are government or donor funded, with budgets subject to political processes and availability of funds. That makes them vulnerable to elimination and raises the question of what happens when the incentives stop.

Basing their work in Sanjiangyuan, a Chinese region in southern Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau, the researchers are trying to answer that question and to better understand the linkages among communication, monetary incentives, social norms and behaviors.

Sanjiangyuan was selected as the study region because of the strong existing conservation ethic among the Tibetan people and the potential introduction of a large-scale payment-for-ecosystem-services program.

The research team is using interviews and surveys, and conducting a series of field experiments as part of the study, which began in October.

In the end, they team hopes to improve societal understanding of how financial incentives and social norms interact to influence behavior. By offering possible policy modifications and a better understanding of their effects, the research could help improve the design of incentive-based environmental conservation programs.

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Research to Measure Voice Quality Holds Potential for Earlier Detection of Disease

Posted on: October 22, 2013

CSD-Voice-Research-0005Changes in a person's voice are caused by a variety of reasons, such as screaming and aging. However, a change in voice quality also may be a sign of illness and disease.

Right now, there is no "universal scientific method" to quantify a change in someone's voice quality. That is what a team of researchers at three universities, lead by MSU's College of Communication Arts & Sciences, is trying to solve so clinicians have more precise, consistent tools for accurately diagnosing and treating illness and disease.

"People have tried to do this for decades (quantify changes in voice quality) and have come as close as 50-percent accuracy. We are hoping to achieve a whole new level of precision and are shooting for 90-percent accuracy," said Rahul Shrivastav, Chair of the Communicative Sciences and Disorders department and lead researcher on the project.

"Once we achieve precision in measurement, there are all sorts of things we can do with that in terms of diagnosis, treatment and prevention. It will give us the tools that we have never had before."

The key difference between the approach taken by this research group and others lies in understanding how a person's voice is represented in a listener's ear and parts of the brain. Historically, scientists have captured a speaker's voice using a microphone. This recording is analyzed to identify characteristics that influence how it sounds. In contrast, the team led by Shrivastav uses computer programs to simulate how a speaker's voice is encoded in the neural pathways associated with hearing. This "internal representation" of the speaker's voice is used to determine the quality of sound.

The way the human ear captures sounds is very different from the way a microphone works. By replicating the biological processes in sound perception, the researchers are able to explain how voices sound with much greater accuracy.

The findings of the research also highlight a close collaboration between different experts, including those in speech production and speech-language pathology, hearing science and electrical/computer engineering. To be successful, the team needs a good understanding of how voice is produced as well as how the ear works. They need to be able to simulate complex biological processes on computers, which requires a high level of skill in programming and digital signal processing. They also need to understand how such tools can be utilized in clinical practice, requiring the team to work closely with front-line clinicians.

The research is funded by a five-year, $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The NIH funding helps put together a team that is capable of solving such complex problems.

In the end, the researchers hope to give clinicians the tools they need to quickly and accurately capture and measure the changes in a person's voice quality. Once the team is ready, they want to test the results of their research with a small number of clinicians to get their input.

The universities sharing the grant with MSU include the University of South Florida and Medical University of South Carolina.

The other researchers involved in the project from the College of Communication Arts & Sciences include Mark Skowronski, Assistant Professor of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, and doctoral student Lisa Kopf. The team also includes David Eddins, Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of South Florida, and Heather Bonilha, Assistant Professor at Medical University of South Carolina.

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