Research Roundup: Winter 2017 Issue

April 04, 2017


Stacy Philpott and undergraduate student researcher Montserrat Plascencia (pictured) (Stevenson ’16, ecology and evolutionary biology and environmental studies), studied bee diversity in 18 urban gardens. One of their sites included the Beach Flats Community Garden in Santa Cruz. (Photo by Melissa De Witte)
Greg Gilbert measures wood decay in living, tropical trees by sending sound waves through tree trunks. The photos shows the use of sonic tomography to detect and quantify wood decay in living trees. Articles and materials published in Applications in Plant Sciences are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Some of the diverse topics covered by faculty in the Social Sciences Division in Winter 2017 include predicting college success, models for sustainable development, the psychological impact of President Donald Trump, his proposed military budget, and more.

By department:


Lars Fehren-Schmitz

In Quaternary International, Lars Fehren-Schmitz discusses how ancient DNA research can help provide a nuanced understanding of population growth and migration in the high altitude Andes. Ancestral Andeans had to cope with both physical and economic stresses of this challenging environment, including coping with hypoxia and basal metabolism rates all while managing the limited resources a cold climate brings. So when were humans able to live permanently at high altitude? The clue may be in how people coped in these conditions.

Fehren-Schmitz writes, “By sequencing genomic data from individuals spanning thousands of years, evolutionary geneticists can infer the timing of macro- and micro-evolutionary process involved in human adaptations to environmental and dietary changes.”

Diane Gifford Gonzalez

Why are museum exhibits of shipwrecks problematic? Diane Gifford-Gonzalez is quoted in a Nature News and Comment article about why archaeology and commerce do not mix. The article examines how the commercial salvage of artefacts can damage their scientific value as data collection gets lost and how it destroys excavation sites.

Environmental Studies:

Adam Millard Ball

NPR's Morning Edition featured an interview with Adam Millard-Ball about his study of pedestrians and self-driving cars. Millard-Ball shares how self-driving cars means streets can be safer, saying “a self-driving car is not going to be drunk. It's not going to look down to check it's phone. It's not going to be distracted, and it's not going to be sociopathic in that it's not going to kind of dare a pedestrian to walk out in front of it.”

Greg Gilbert

How can you see inside a tree? Try listening to it. In a study published in Applications in Plant Studies, Gilbert shares how he measures wood decay in living, tropical trees by sending sound waves through tree trunks. The longer it takes for sound to travel through the wood, the more decayed it is. This non-invasive method, called sonic tomography, can be helpful to detect tree rot early on. “Most of the decay is hidden – the tomography now allows us to see how many apparently healthy trees are actually decayed inside,” he says. Gilbert is currently working with two UCSC students and the campus grounds services to look at decay of trees on the UCSC campus.

Karen Holl

Environmental studies professor Karen Holl published an article in Science about the challenges of forest restoration goals. Holl urges for bottom-up engagement when it comes to restoration planning and science.  “Successfully restoring the amount of forest needed to meet national and international targets requires a frameshift in both restoration planning and science,” she says. “It requires bottom-up engagement of landowners, non governmental organizations, local government leaders, scientists, private restoration businesses, and indigenous and community groups.” In-depth findings of Holl’s assessment can be read in Plos One.

Stacy Philpott

Could your flower garden be helping or hindering bee diversity? Stacy Philpott, with the help of student researcher Montserrat Plascencia (Stevenson ’15, ecology and evolutionary biology and environmental studies), surveyed 18 urban gardens and was surprised to discover that gardens with a high floral abundance had lower bee species richness and bee diversity was lower. Their study is the first to document that the spatial arrangement of flowers within gardens strongly predicts bee abundance and richness.

“While floral abundance is often associated with higher bee richness in urban areas, we found that bee species richness and diversity was lower in sites with more flowers and patchier flower resources,” they write. “Sites with more clustered floral resources supported higher bee richness and bee diversity.”  


George Bulman

George Bulman was featured in a New York Times article, How Colleges Can Admit Better Students. The article discusses problems of using cumulative high school grade point averages (GPA) and composite scores on the ACT to measure incoming college students’ success. The piece references Bulman's recent paper in The Journal of Public Economics, a study that found that high school students with a higher GPA in their junior and senior years are more likely to succeed in college.

“An additional GPA point in 11th grade makes a student 16 percentage points more likely to graduate from college, whereas an additional GPA point in ninth grade makes a student only five percentage points more likely to graduate from college,” observes Bulman.

Nirvikar Singh

Nirvikar Singh, coauthor of the new book The Other One Percent: Indians in America (Oxford University Press, 2016), was featured in a Foreign Policy interview about immigration during the Trump era. "American immigration policy is not just shaped by high-minded ideals, but by domestic politics and geopolitics," Singh says in the interview. "I think we’d all gotten used to post-1965 immigration policy, and this administration seems to want to question the fundamentals of that approach."

Singh’s research was also featured in the Brookings Institute’s Future Development blog. The post highlights Singh’s research in the Economic Transformation of a Developing Economy (Springer, 2016), a volume he co-edited about the Indian state of Punjab. The investigation focuses on the modernization of Punjab’s economy. Referring to the state’s agricultural economy, Singh says it “needs to be reoriented from a doomed role as India’s breadbasket.” He argues that for the Punjab economy to continue growing, transformation must come from outside agriculture.

Jeremy West

What should policymakers consider when regulating a fuel economy that is greener and more efficient? Jeremy West’s latest study tests possible rebound effects, or what economists call externalities, of when consumers switch from gas-guzzling clunkers to fuel efficient vehicles. Will they drive more because they get more gas per mile, or less because the most frequently bought fuel efficient cars are smaller, less comfortable, and do not get as much horsepower? While West found no rebound effect, he argues that as car makers improve models, rebound effects could end up being overstated.

Latin American and Latino Studies:

Pat Zavella

In Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Pat Zavella examines how two reproductive justice organizations led the campaign against a ballot measure in Albuquerque, New Mexico that would restrict women's access to abortion. Zavella shows that thanks to the groups’ intersectional perspective – a theoretical/political approach that focuses on structural inequalities based on multiple social categories – they were able to mobilize diverse and unexpected voters. “They provided multiple spaces and platforms where stories from diverse community members could be narrated and reflected upon to enable a collective understanding of the politics related to abortion,” says Zavella.


Dan Wirls

What is the strategy behind President Donald Trump's proposed military budget? Dan Wirls analyzes the administration's proposed plan in an op-ed in the Conversation. "President Trump is arguing for a military buildup before producing a strategic vision or laying out priorities to guide the new spending," Wirls problematizes. "Instead he has justified it, so far, on two misleading premises: that President Barack Obama slashed the defense budget and that as a result the military is depleted and needs to be rebuilt."

Ruth Langridge

Droughts are a regular occurrence in California and likely to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change. Is California doing enough to manage a sustainable groundwater supply? In the journal Water Resources Management, Ruth Langridge writes that the state needs to take a proactive approach with its resource management. The current strategy - to wait until a drought is in progress to implement a contingency plan - is insufficient, and  Langridge proposes that creating a drought reserve can increase resilience to drought. Langridge addresses issues associated with establishing a local groundwater drought reserve and examines in detail how two California groundwater management agencies are approaching the establishment of such a reserve.

Ronnie Lipschutz

In the Handbook of Theory and Practice of Sustainable Development in Higher Education (Springer, 2017), Ronnie Lipschutz uses university campuses as a way to address sustainable urban city planning. Lipschutz argues that because university campuses share similar critical elements to a city (such as spatial design, infrastructure, bureaucratic and decision making processes), they can be a useful site for experimentation and examination for larger projects.  “Transforming university campuses into sustainable entities, rather than merely institutions with sustainability projects, offers programmatic templates and practices that can be applied to the far more complex and daunting project of urban sustainability,” Lipschutz writes.

With this approach, Lipschutz shares how UC Santa Cruz successfully integrated sustainability into the campus food system and shows what cities can learn in their holistic approach. “The interaction of student activism, faculty research, administrative policy-making and managerial action – the social – have played central roles.”


Margarita Azmitia

Margarita Azmitia published one of the few studies using quantative methods to explore the psychology of intersectionality. Traditionally, intersectionality has been a concept used in feminist studies and sociology to examine how social identities overlap as a way to understand structural problems such as oppression and discrimination. “Applying intersectionality to psychology leads to a different focus - one that explores the individual experience of occupying multiple minority groups” Azmitia offers about the benefits of subjectively exploring the concept. “A psychological theory of intersectionality helps psychologists identify and navigate the complex connections between the individual and larger social systems.”

Azmitia also explored the social identity and inequality for a chapter in Encyclopedia of Lifespan Development (Sage, 2017). “Individuals have a myriad of possible social identities, but only those that are salient – chosen – will become important parts of their self-concepts,” writes Azmitia about how the social identities play out in the development of stereotypes, social categorization, self-worth, and self-esteem. “These salient social identities will serve as lenses through which they process their experiences. Across cultures, gender, ethnicity/race, and social class tend to be salient because they embody different behaviors, norms, values, and power,” she goes on to say.

Nicolas Davidenko

Does the brain see what it hears? Apparently so, according to a new study by master illusionist and psychology professor Nicolas Davidenko. During a presentation of random images, Davidenko noticed that scrambled components seemed to move coherently across frames, for example shifting up and down, or from side to side. “Simply priming observers with several frames containing a drifting (e.g., up-up-up-up) or rebounding (e.g., up-down-up-down) motion pattern at 2.5 Hz was sufficient for that motion pattern to persist across many subsequent random frames,” says Davidenko. He wanted to know how a purely random stimulus established a pattern. With help  from several UCSC undergraduate researchers from his High Level Perception Lab, Davidenko found that drifting motion can be explained as a result of positive priming effects. To see Davidenko’s illusion, watch the video below.

Campbell Leaper

Campbell Leaper wrote a commentary concluding two special issues of the journal Sex Roles honoring the work of psychologist Sandra Bem (1944-2014). Bem was at the forefront of feminist psychology and challenged traditional, male-centered ways of thinking about gender and sexuality. In his essay, Leaper reviews how Bem repeatedly reflected and helped to define the intellectual zeitgeist from the 1970s into the 1990s. He highlights how Bem boldly questioned the conceptualization of gender as a binary construct, and how she was the first to consider the possibility that traditional gender socialization during childhood was neither “inevitable nor desirable.” He writes, “she deserves recognition for being one of the first psychologists to address the topic from an overtly feminist perspective.”

The special issues dedicated to Bem's work include two separate papers by Psychology Professor Eileen Zurbriggen with current graduate students Brandon Balzer Carr and Christine Starr.

Leaper was also interviewed for the USA Today article, Gender reveals: Insanely popular--and also outdated, where he discusses the problems that result from gender stereotypes and categorization. “When you put things in a category, we all naturally want to make meaning of that category,” Leaper is quoted saying. “Girl and boy, if those categories exist there must be reasons for that and we start to think about them differently.”

Thomas Pettigrew

Thomas Pettigrew published an opinion piece about the psychological impact of relatively moderate Republican voters who regret casting their ballots for Donald Trump. “For these supporters, the first stage of denial is now starting to erode and the second stage beginning to take hold where many are embarrassed they fell for the massive scam,” Pettigrew writes. He goes on to say, “The phenomenon to watch carefully in the coming months is how rapidly the relatively moderate Trump voters work through their denial process and realize that they have been scammed. The Democratic Party would be wise to encourage this process by not condemning these victims of the Trump scam and welcoming them back into the majority of Americans who desire to return to the nation they believe in.”

Steve Whittaker

How do you win a debate on Facebook? Know your audience’s personality before you make your argument, says Steve Whittaker in a study he co-authored with UC Santa Cruz computer science and linguistic researchers Stephanie Lukin, Marilyn Walker and Pranav Anand in the European Association for Computational Linguistics. The team compared argument styles, audience types, and the source of the argument to test what affected belief change over social media. They found that agreeable people are more influenced by factual material whereas people who have a more open personality type are influenced by emotional arguments.

“How can we explain this?,” Whittaker et al. ask. “People who are more open are typically receptive to new ideas. But our results for emotional arguments also show that conscientious people change their views when presented with emotional arguments, possibly because they are careful to process the arguments however expressed. And agreeable people may also be motivated to change belief by emotional arguments because they are less likely to be influenced by personal feelings.”

In another article published in Winter 2017, Whittaker also examined the role of emotional language in online enterprise communities. Working with collaborators at Google, IBM and Couchbase, Whittaker surveyed group members to determine how emotional versus factual communications relates to community success.  Whittaker found that in enterprise communities, factual posts positively impacted perception. In contrast, emotional posts led to less satisfaction. “Community leaders might apply our results either by introducing policies concerning the use of emotional language or by moderating posts that are ‘over emotional.’”

In a new media age, the old adage “don’t dwell on the past” still rings true. In a co-authored article in Human Computer-Interaction with graduate and undergraduate student researchers, Whittaker explores how recording negative and positive experiences impacts one’s emotional well-being. They found that recording positive experiences boosts emotional well-being while posting about negative experiences reduces it. The findings result from two field studies about self-tracking technologies. One study was with EmotiCal, a system for goal-driven mood tracking and the other with Echo, an app that allows users to reflect on life events. “Our results indicate that recording extremely negative events detracts from well-being, suggesting that designs might encourage users to strategically emphasize positive experiences to improve well-being,” the authors write.


Rebecca London

Rebecca London examines the experiences elementary school children have when recess is safe and structured in a report published with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “During recess, students learn and practice important social and emotional skills, such as conflict resolution, decision making, compromise, and self-regulation,” she writes. “They also have opportunities for physical activity, and to engage with peers and adults who they might not see in their classrooms,” she adds. London suggests that state and district policy should protect recess for all students and advocates that schools treat recess plans as they would a lesson plan. London’s report was featured in the Wall Street Journal and Ed Week.

Jenny Reardon

“Clarifying the goals of data sharing is harder today than it was two decades ago,” Jenny Reardon and her co-authors point out in a commentary piece in GigaScience about a set of rules established in 1996 by the genomic community about keeping data sharing of DNA sequences open for public benefit. Reardon argues that openness has become an increasingly complex issue and there are new ethical, political, and technical challenges to consider in today’s world - and beyond. “We need a better understanding of the actual practices and stakes involved in data sharing,” she says. “We must clarify what we mean when we talk about genomic data and ‘the public good.’”  

Co-authors include Beth Shapiro from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Katherine W. Darling, Assistant Director of Research and Academic Programs at the Science and Justice Research Center.

Social Sciences:

Julie Guthman

Julie Guthman published a research brief with the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems about how California’s phase-out of methyl bromide and increasing restrictions on other soil fumigants affected the state’s strawberry industry. The publication reports the findings from a three year study Guthman conducted, which included interviews with strawberry growers, farm workers, and industry figures. While the phase-out did not result in the economic disaster initially predicted, Guthman writes, “the industry still faces serious challenges, one of which is grappling with a trajectory of strict pesticide regulation. Growers are not unified in their perspectives on this trajectory, with some supporting the regulations and others fearing they will squeeze growers out of business. But there was a consensus among growers that that the regulations are complex and sometimes unevenly implemented and contradictory.”

In her careful assessment of challenges and opportunities from all perspectives in the industry, Guthman also calls out the the need for greater attention to the issue of pesticide exposure for fieldworkers. While the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and Environmental Protection Agency have strengthened worker protection and is a step in the right direction, Guthman shares, “our interviews with workers suggest that these efforts may not be enough to truly enhance worker safety. Often the problem of worker safety from pesticide exposure is not simply a matter of inadequate safety information, but a problem of reporting and enforcing violations of pesticide use.”

In Gastronomica, Julie Guthman examines the phenomenon of volunteer farm labor in an era of increased precarity, focusing on volunteers in the farming sector. Guthman asks why work that is extremely physically demanding and historically demeaning appeals to many young, university-educated adults who readily intern in programs such as Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms/Working on Organic Farms (WWOOF). The article was co-authored by Guthman’s research assistant, Madison Barbour, an undergraduate in the Politics Department.

Taking a political economy approach, Guthman also explores the impact these volunteers might have on the already precarious labor market and lives of farm workers. Describing interviewees reaction to her question about implications on paid labor, Guthman writes, “they had not really reflected on the subsidy they were effectively providing to the organic farming sector, despite that having non-waged labor is one of the primary motivations for farm hosts of WWOOF farms.” She goes on to say, “their inattention to the subsidy they provide and how that might reverberate in the so-called formal economy sheds some light on similar blind spots regarding the so-called sharing economy of Uber and Airbnb: many users do not think twice about how they might be contributing to the deregulation of waged work and health and safety standards through purchasing services that are cheaper precisely because they are casualized.”


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