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neville and wakefield
Innovation

New Butler-Produced Podcast to Capture Best-Selling Stories, Memories

BY Tim Brouk

PUBLISHED ON Jan 15 2020

For the past several months, Butler University English Professor Susan Neville has become a fixture in the Irwin Library for her latest literary project.

Neville is not poring over books, however. She is not researching her next novel. The Creative Writing professor is adjusting microphone volume levels in a cozy soundproof booth in the library’s lower level. To her right is best-selling author Dan Wakefield, who penned Going All the Way and Starting Over, covered historic events like the first foreign press interview with former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, wrote about the Emmett Till trial for magazines like The Atlantic and The Nation, and is considered Kurt Vonnegut’s oldest living friend.

Neville and Wakefield
Professor Susan Neville, left, prepares to interview best-selling author Dan Wakefield.

Neville and Wakefield are about halfway through recording Naptown Season One: A Memoir of the 20th Century. The podcast will consist of 20 episodes featuring different chapters of Wakefield’s life, which started in Broad Ripple, Indiana, continued to New York City as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter, then to academia in Florida, and now back to Indianapolis. All 20 episodes will be released at once on iTunes, Wakefield’s website, Irwin Library’s website, and Butler’s Digital Commons in May for maximum binge listening, and to celebrate Wakefield’s 88th birthday.

“He’s a great storyteller and I wanted to capture those stories,” says Neville, who received a $2,000 grant from the Indiana Humanities Council to assist with the production. “These episodes will be kind of his memoir, only done through interviews.”

The soundbooth only fits two people, but the results are as high-level as anything on Podcast One. Neville and Wakefield mapped out every episode, about an hour in length each. So far, they’ve completed episodes focusing on Vonnegut, novelist James Baldwin, and a trio of Wakefield’s mentors from his undergraduate days at Columbia College: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Van Doren, literary critic Lionel Trilling, and famed sociologist C. Wright Mills, who Wakefield served as a research assistant.

Neville enlisted the help of Academic Technology Specialist Megan Grady-Rutledge to help edit each episode, which starts with music and short introductions and outros from Neville. The rest is all Wakefield answering Neville’s questions, recalling major career milestones, and reading from his published works.

“Once he gets on a roll, he gets on a roll,” says Neville with a laugh. “I was a journalism major as an undergrad and have written a lot of freelance feature articles, so I’m used to doing interviews. Recording a podcast is a combination of radio and the print journalism I’m used to.”

Neville reveals that Season Two will consist of Vonnegut interviews she conducted in 1989 and 1990. Those conversations currently live on microcassettes, but will be transferred to a digital format after Season One launches.

“Talking with Susan, I’m remembering a lot of things,” Wakefield says. “I feel like there’s a big hole in our history and in Indianapolis, like the great jazz scene we had here. A lot of if isn’t mentioned in a lot of places so I’m glad to be able to talk about that.” 

Part of the author’s comfort in the recording booth stems from Wakefield’s connection with Neville. They first met when Wakefield was still a graduate writing professor at Florida International University and Neville was a guest speaker at the Seaside Writers Conference. Wakefield has paid close attention to Neville’s career, which includes creative nonfiction works Sailing the Inland Sea, Iconography, and Indiana Winter.

“Susan Neville is the best author today in this city and state,” says Wakefield, noting her 2019 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction award for her collection of short stories The Town of Whispering Dolls. “I feel very lucky to be doing this with her. I feel very comfortable. We have sort of the same literary outlook and framework. We share the same prejudices about writers we like and admire. I know whatever I talk about, she will understand what I’m talking about.”

Naptown is recorded with Audacity and just a few clicks. The writers test their speaking levels for a few minutes, listen to the playback, and then start to record the episode.

For a December 10 session, Wakefield was prepared to speak on his former influential professors. Among his notes, Wakefield brought the March 1968 copy of The Atlantic, which consisted solely of Wakefield’s long-form article on the Vietnam War. The piece, Supernation at Peace and War, mentions some of his former Columbia University professors.

Before the session, Wakefield was a guest at Neville’s first-year seminar on Vonnegut. The students had been reading Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and they poured over Wakefield’s essay on his old friend titled Kurt Vonnegut, Christ-Loving Atheist.

“They were in awe of him,” Neville says. “He told stories about Kurt and his family, and he brought fresh insights to the books they’d been reading all semester. They were amazed.”

And the students will get to know much more about Wakefield, Vonnegut, and 20th century American literature in a fresh format thanks to Neville and Naptown.

 

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
News Content Manager
kgrieze@butler.edu
260-307-3403

 

Innovations in Teaching and Learning

One of the distinguishing features of a Butler education has always been the meaningful and enduring relationships between our faculty and students. Gifts to this pillar during Butler Beyond will accelerate our commitment to investing in faculty excellence by adding endowed positions, supporting faculty scholarship and research, renovating and expanding state-of-the-art teaching facilities, and more. Learn more, make a gift, and read other stories like this one at beyond.butler.edu.

neville and wakefield
Innovation

New Butler-Produced Podcast to Capture Best-Selling Stories, Memories

Creative Writing Professor Susan Neville hosts Naptown series featuring author and Indianapolis native Dan Wakefield

Jan 15 2020 Read more
Hala Fadda in her lab
Innovation

COPHS Researcher Leads New Treatment of Recurring C. Diff

BY Tim Brouk

PUBLISHED ON Dec 12 2019

Close to half-a-million people a year suffer from Clostridioides difficile, or C. diff, and more than 29,000 of them died from the bacteria, according to the Center for Disease Control. C. diff results from disruption of healthy, normal bacteria in the colon, often from antibiotics, and causes diarrhea, stomach pain, and fever. In the most severe cases, C. diff can damage the colon and be fatal.

Most cases can be treated with antibiotics. But for patients who suffer recurring cases of C. diff, the path to recovery is a bit more complex. New guidelines for this group, introduced in 2011, recommend fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), or a procedure in which fecal matter is collected from a healthy donor and placed into the gastrointestinal tract of a patient. These transplants can help replenish the bacterial balance in the gut through colonoscopy or capsules.

Most C. diff patients are elderly and had spent time in healthcare settings under the treatment of antibiotics. While the antibiotics wipe out bad bacteria in the patient, good bacteria resilient to C. diff are also destroyed during the process. Results have been favorable in treating recurrent C. diff with FMT, but Butler University Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Hala Fadda is part of a team that has improved cure rates with oral FMT products, while significantly reducing the amount of capsules a C. diff patient must take.

hala fadda
Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Hala Fadda.

Published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences, Fadda and collaborators designed a capsule coating that dissolves in the colon instead of the stomach. This allows for site-specific delivery to the colon and was found to better restore the gut microbial diversity. These new capsules had faster and more successful cure rates compared to standard capsules that dissolve in the stomach in five minutes.

Published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences, Fadda and collaborators designed a capsule coating that dissolves in the colon instead of the stomach. This allows for site-specific delivery to the colon, which has been found to better restore the gut microbial diversity. These new capsules had faster and more successful cure rates compared to standard capsules that dissolve in the stomach in five minutes.

“The coating is essentially a high fiber starch polymer,” says Fadda, who’s gained expertise through researching how patients consume medicine. “The enzymes produced by colonic bacteria start to chomp away and digest that starch, even with C. diff patients’ lowered bacteria diversity. These enzymes, which break up the starch, are abundant in the colon.”

FMT has been adopted by many hospitals, but Fadda says access to the treatment can be improved. Her new capsules are less invasive and more affordable than a colonoscopy, and they can be shipped from specialist centers around the world.

Healthy donors only

Fadda says there is only a 2.5 percent acceptance rate for fecal donors because the criteria is so strict for FMT. Stool banks like OpenBiome in Boston, Massachusetts, don’t accept potential donors who have traveled to places with communicable diseases in the past six months. They also don’t accept donors who have suffered from digestive diseases, metabolic syndromes, and other conditions.

“You can’t have taken antibiotics in the past three months, and body mass index must be less than 30,” Fadda says. “Evidence suggests a correlation between weight and gut microbial communities.” 

As of 2018, 43,000 FMT treatments were issued by OpenBiome, Fada says. However, this number is not representative of total FMT treatments, as some hospitals prepare their own FMT products.

How C. diff spreads

The spores that cause C. diff are abundant in hospitals. They can be spread by visitors, or by healthcare professionals. After the resistant spores are transmitted to patients, they can germinate into vegetative bacterial cells in the colons of vulnerable individuals, and the bacteria produces toxins.

Fadda and her team’s breakthrough will help shorten return hospital stays for many patients suffering from recurrent C. diff. The capsule approach provides an alternative to a colonoscopy—an expensive and invasive procedure some patients might want to avoid—and it looks to be a quick and effective treatment to C. diff while restoring microbiome diversity in the gut.

“Fecal microbiota transplant has been adopted by lots of hospitals,” Fada says. “It’s common in the U.S. and Europe, but accessibility is still an issue. That’s why this capsule offers a significant advantage because it makes FMT more accessible.”

how the FMT works

Innovations in Teaching and Learning

One of the distinguishing features of a Butler education has always been the meaningful and enduring relationships between our faculty and students. Gifts to this pillar during Butler Beyond will accelerate our commitment to investing in faculty excellence by adding endowed positions, supporting faculty scholarship and research, renovating and expanding state-of-the-art teaching facilities, and more. Learn more, make a gift, and read other stories like this one at beyond.butler.edu.

 

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
News Content Manager
kgrieze@butler.edu
260-307-3403

Hala Fadda in her lab
Innovation

COPHS Researcher Leads New Treatment of Recurring C. Diff

Professor Hala Fadda has developed capsules that dissolve in the colon to better fight Clostridioides difficile

Dec 12 2019 Read more
Wendy Meaden holds masks.
Innovation

Theatre Professor Writing the Textbook on ‘Masks Inside Out’

BY Tim Brouk

PUBLISHED ON Dec 11 2019

Butler Theatre Professor Wendy Meaden was one of the almost 10 million viewers for the premier of reality competition show The Masked Singer. The program, which is now in its second season and was renewed for a third in 2020, pits disguised celebrities in elaborate costumes singing in front of a panel of judges and a live audience.

Being a costume designer and professor whose work has included mask design, creation, and research for more than 20 years, Meaden felt like she had to watch The Masked Singer. But she didn’t make it past the second episode. She enjoyed the show’s mask designs, which are created by artist  Marina Toybina, but Meaden was hoping for more emphasis on the masks themselves.

“I can understand the spectacle, and her designs are really good,” says Meaden, who has designed masks for Butler Theatre plays and leads the Masks class in the Department of Theatre, “but it seems to be design for design’s sake. When masks are designed, there is usually some reason or connection for the aesthetic choice.”

Meaden says creating theatrical masks banks on the audience meeting the performers halfway. It takes a lot of practice to be able to design masks that draw audiences to use their imagination and let themselves be transported into the story.

To help future mask makers understand that dynamic, Meaden is in the process of writing a textbook, Masks Inside Out. She knows there are lots of books about masks already, but she says they concentrate on individual aspects: history, cultural significance, design, and how to perform while wearing one. Meaden aims to create one book that combines it all.

Meaden wears a mask.
Theatre Professor Wendy Meaden wears one of her masks.

“There is so much to learn about masks, but there is no textbook on the market to address masks the way I want to,” Meaden says.

In collaboration with Michael Brown, a former Indianapolis artist now teaching at Columbia College Chicago, Meaden will submit the final manuscript next summer, and she expects to publish it by late 2020.

Masks in the Core Curriculum

Growing up, Meaden never wore masks for Halloween. She remembers noticing masks for the first time when she saw Adam West and Burt Ward’s wearing them in the old Batman TV show.

“I remember thinking ‘They’re not disguised at all. It’s clear who they are,’” Meaden says, laughing.

Meaden created her first masks while she worked as a costume designer for The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which needed billy goat masks for a performance called Three’s Please. She’d never made a mask before, but it seemed like a natural next step to the costume design she’d been doing since 1986.

“As a costume designer,” Meaden says, “I’ve always been interested in presenting characters and transforming actors, and I love the process of creating costumes. Sculpting masks is an extension of that passion.”

Meaden’s masks made their Butler debut during the 2001 production of Hamlet. Made of plaster and cardboard, they portrayed the characters of the Duke of Vienna Gonzago, his wife Baptista, and their murderous nephew, Lucianus. They were then given a worn, weathered appearance of being buried in the dirt, just like poor old Yorick’s skull.

Theatre students that worked on plays with Meaden were enthusiastic to learn more about mask-making and the Masks class at Butler was established in 2003. It’s now part of the Perspectives in the Creative Arts Core Curriculum. Some Theatre majors still take the class as an elective, but many students outside of the Jordan College of Arts enroll, too.

On just the second day of class, students start by creating masks of their own. After protecting their hair with bandanas or plastic bags, they start gluing cardboard and paper over their faces.

“They sit and look in the mirror,” Meaden says. “The class is usually chatty to start, and then there’s a quiet. Everyone stops talking as they are totally focused on the mirror and putting things over their face. What’s fascinating is their sense of transformation—to understand that you can put something on that is your face, but it’s not your face. I am me but I am not me.”

How the brain reacts to masks

In the first chapter of Masks Inside Out, Meaden  explains why people are often either intrigued or repelled by someone wearing a mask. 

“How does your amygdala react?” Meaden asks. “Your brain’s initial reaction is usually fight or flight, but then your neocortex kicks in and tells you it’s a thing on a person. You’re going to be safe, you laugh, and you enjoy.”

Meaden’s research has found that masks are an extension of humans’ fascination for seeing faces—from selfies to picturing faces in inanimate objects. Faces are why we connect to other people, she says, and a mask on a human face usually brings about feelings of mystery, intrigue, or creepiness.

“Faces are how we judge our safety, how we pick potential partners, and identify family. Our aesthetics are wrapped up in how we perceive faces. And masks are a way we tell stories. They are potent ways to communicate. They are a way of connecting with nature, the spirits, ancestors, the gods, disguise, and protection. We use them in so many ways. They are universal.”

While The Masked Singer relies on glitz, glamour, and reality TV brassiness, millions of brains are reacting to the masks, no matter which celebrities are behind them.

Meaden with many masks
Meaden stands with masks she has made and collected.

 

 

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
News Content Manager
kgrieze@butler.edu
260-307-3403

 

Innovations in Teaching and Learning

One of the distinguishing features of a Butler education has always been the meaningful and enduring relationships between our faculty and students. Gifts to this pillar during Butler Beyond will accelerate our commitment to investing in faculty excellence by adding endowed positions, supporting faculty scholarship and research, renovating and expanding state-of-the-art teaching facilities, and more. Learn more, make a gift, and read other stories like this one at beyond.butler.edu.

Wendy Meaden holds masks.
Innovation

Theatre Professor Writing the Textbook on ‘Masks Inside Out’

From early man to ‘Masked Singers,’ Wendy Meaden analyzes masks’ history, cultural significance, and theater roles.

Dec 11 2019 Read more
The Farm at Butler FFA tour
Innovation

A Model for Urban Farming in Indianapolis

BY Katie Grieze

PUBLISHED ON Nov 25 2019

This story is part of a mini-series exploring The Farm at Butler, its methods, and its mission. Part five of six. 

 

On a frosty morning in early November, about 50 high school students from across the nation visited Butler University to learn about a different kind of farming—a kind that can meet the needs of humans and nature alike.

The students traveled from as far away as Maryland and California to spend the day in Indianapolis for the 2019 National FFA Convention & Expo, an annual celebration of student accomplishments within the organization for young people who are interested in agriculture and leadership. Throughout two hours of exploring The Farm at Butler and hearing from staff at the Center for Urban Ecology & Sustainability (CUES), they learned how the chemical-free, planet-friendly growing methods used on Butler's one-acre space could be applied at a larger scale.

These annual tours first started several years ago, when FFA was on the hunt for powerful examples of urban agriculture. As part of the yearly FFA convention in Indianapolis, the organization’s leaders wanted to help teach members about the variety of ways they could approach food production. With a focus on agroecology and sustainability, and a mission based on education, The Farm at Butler became a lasting match.

But the FFA tour is just one of about 30 educational sessions the CUES staff lead each year. Even as The Farm’s main focus shifts to serving Butler students through internships and classes, the urban agriculture project still holds down its role as a community model of all that can be grown on just one diversified acre.

Roughly half of The Farm’s tours each year are for elementary school students, teaching young people how farmers grow the ingredients for pizza and other favorite foods. Another 10 or so tours are for groups on Butler’s campus, who usually learn about the role of local agriculture in the food system or how everyday food choices can influence the environment. The CUES also leads a handful of farm tours with other Indianapolis organizations.

 

 

For a more in-depth experience, The Farm hosts workshops through a science education network called Purdue Extension, helping train the next generation of gardeners and farmers to grow food in ecologically sound ways. Butler is also working alongside three other local farms—Mother Love’s Garden, Fitness Farm, and Growing Places Indy—to explore urban mushroom production. The project, which was funded by a USDA-SARE partnership grant in 2017, has helped these groups understand and share their findings on the most effective ways to grow mushrooms in Indianapolis.

“Overall, we want to educate the public about healthy eating, how food is grown, and the implications of different food production methods,” says CUES Director Julia Angstmann. “We want to help people understand how they, as individuals, can make food choices that benefit themselves, the environment, and society.”

 

READ MORE:

Part 1: Getting To The Root of It: How Butler’s One-Acre Farm Has Evolved In a Decade

Part 2: Farming Full-Time: How Tim Dorsey Discovered the World Through Agriculture

Part 3: A Crash Course on Nature-Focused, Hands-In-The-Dirt Growing

Part 4: Sustainability on the Syllabus

Part 5: A Model for Urban Farming in Indianapolis

Part 6: So, Where Does All The Food Go?

 

Explore the full Farm at Butler mini-series here

 

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
News Content Manager
kgrieze@butler.edu
260-307-3403 (cell)

 

Community Partnerships

Through collaboration and strong partnerships, Butler Beyond will unleash the potential of our brilliant faculty and students on the complex issues facing our community. Support for this pillar will expand Butler’s reach and roots in the Indianapolis community and beyond by cultivating deeper integration with local organizations and businesses, increasing experiential learning opportunities for students, nurturing new ventures, and more. Learn more, make a gift, and read other stories like this one at beyond.butler.edu.

The Farm at Butler FFA tour
Innovation

A Model for Urban Farming in Indianapolis

The Farm at Butler leads educational tours for local organizations, up-and-coming farmers, and students of all ages.

Nov 25 2019 Read more
GuideDawg 2.0 icon on a phone
Innovation

New App to Help Blind, Visually-Impaired Butler Students, Visitors

BY Tim Brouk

PUBLISHED ON Nov 14 2019

Haley Sumner’s first few weeks at Butler University were spent navigating campus—learning routes between buildings, figuring out where to go for coffee, and learning how to use her student ID card. Most new students could always use a head start, but Sumner, who graduated in May 2019, is blind. She needed three weeks before the start of classes to feel comfortable with her new academic environment.

Sumner admits there were challenges as construction changed her routes every year. The young graduate had to be mindful of twisting sidewalks, changes in ground surfaces, and certain doors being made unavailable, again due to construction.

“Having a guide dog was an asset,” Sumner says. “It was incredible to work with a guide dog. I thought campus was very accessible.”

Haley Sumner on campus
Haley Sumner '19 was instrumental in GuideDawg 2.0's development.

But not all blind or visually impaired people have access to a guide dog, and those who do use guide dogs may not have weeks to learn Butler’s campus. What if a visually impaired prospective student wants to find their way around? What if a blind person wants to attend a concert at Clowes Memorial Hall?

A team of undergraduate software developers are working on an answer. Led by Computer Science and Software Engineering Professor Panos Linos, the team is creating a digital guide for the blind and visually impaired. Inspired by its four-legged predecessors, GuideDawg 2.0 will be a mobile prototype application available in time for fall 2020 classes. The app will work on any smartphone.

Initial coding started in fall 2018, and Linos says the students will have enough of GuideDawg 2.0 complete to present at conferences next semester. The app will vocally tell users the best route to take from class to class or the cafeteria to Starbucks in Atherton Union. Custom digital mapping installed in the software combined with GPS location will serve as guidance but with features that stretch beyond Google Maps.

“They are eager to push the envelope,” he says. “Throughout this project, it wasn’t just about finding the answers but also finding the questions. We are really figuring out what it means to have people differently abled than us. These students are all here because of their willingness to learn, to explore, and to communicate.”

Serving the community

GuideDawg 1.0 was developed by Linos and other students for the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in 2015. Blind students at the school were assisted by navigation instructors to get around, but they weren’t getting detailed directions once outside the classroom and on their own. GuideDawg helped them get from classroom to classroom as it gave directions step by step.

Linos and his students had to develop a completely different user experience than typical apps they developed in class. They also had to factor the cadence of the app’s vocalizations with voice-to-text and text-to-voice development, while eliminating as many touches as possible.

“They can hear—and prefer—much faster speech for their apps,” Linos says. “We had to speed up the voice for the app.”

For GuideDawg 1.0, Linos had his students wear blindfolds in early meetings.

“Everybody was wearing them while holding their phones,” Linos says. “That experience reminds us of who the actual user will be. We had ideas that would work for you and me, but not for someone who is differently-abled. Would a blind student be able to use this?”

Tech details

A major key to GuideDawg 2.0 will be data collection by Linos’ students. They are in the process of gathering the latitude and longitude of every door on Butler’s campus—every classroom, every entrance to Atherton Union, every bathroom. The data will be entered into a database that GuideDawg 2.0 will pull from via Microsoft Azure cloud. A pre-existing database of every room at Butler that contains technology was also utilized courtesy of Butler Information Technology.

Bluetooth-activated, weatherproof sensors were purchased and will be placed at construction sites and other “hazardous” areas on campus. The sensors work as beacons to trigger GuideDawg 2.0 and are designed to blend in with walls and doorways.

“It’s an interesting challenge,” says Ryan Graham, a senior studying Computer Science on the GuideDawg 2.0 team, “to try to make it so users can understand where buttons are very efficiently and effectively without seeing them. It can’t be clunky with a billion buttons on the front. It has to be very minimal but extremely functional."

Prof. Linos and student
Professor Panos Linos, left, shows Bluetooth-activated beacons to student Gabbi Forsythe.

GuideDawg 2.0 must be nimble and able to change with a growing campus. In just the last year, the new building for the Andre B. Lacy School of Business and the expansion and renovation of the sciences buildings were added to maps.

“I think Butler is really big on inclusivity, and this is just another step in becoming more inclusive,” says Gabbi Forsythe, a Software Engineering senior developing the web interface of the app, “so everyone can get around campus.”

Michele Atterson, Director of the Office of Student Disability Services (SDS), agrees that GuideDawg 2.0 will only improve a campus that has received favorable accessibility feedback, even at active construction sites. She says, “I had many conversations with the project managers for the (sciences complex construction) to ensure the color contrast, font, and size of the detour signage was also accessible to people with vision impairments—as well as those with mobility impairments.

“Raising disability awareness is a mission of SDS. Overall, we have a community that is committed to welcoming people with disabilities.”

The students presented their progress on GuideDawg 2.0 at the October 25 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Advisory Committee meeting and were met with enthusiastic, positive feedback. The project was given a $500 donation from committee chair Michael Swarzman ’74 and his wife, Barbara Grier, on the spot.

“You can’t help but respect the innovation a project like that demands,” Swarzman says. “It is an obvious commitment for the professor and the students. Expanding on need of inclusivity and diversity is applaudable and the broader application to it is exactly what my family wants to support.”

‘Very beneficial’

During her senior year at Butler, Sumner served as a consultant for GuideDawg 2.0’s early development. She took the developers on her campus routes and pointed out landmarks like a loud air conditioner near Jordan Hall. Sumner noted doors that were difficult for her to open. The GuideDawg team implemented these details into the app to alert users when they approach potential problem areas.

“I think this will be very beneficial for step-by-step routes between buildings,” Sumner says. “Hopefully it will have a very smooth transition.”

Sumner adds that apps like Google Maps don’t have enough spatial awareness for blind users. Like the young students at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Sumner couldn’t rely on Apple Maps for which doors to use and what hallways to take to reach her Communications Sciences and Disorders classes on time.

But accessible technology has come a long way and is improving rapidly. Sumner has noticed a marked improvement in the quality of apps and screen-reading software. GuideDawg 2.0 will be part of the further advancement in technological accessibility. Sumner still lives around Butler and she is excited to download the app next year.

“Technology has come a long way,” says Sumner, who is pursuing certification as a life coach. “It needs to continue to be equal and inclusive for everyone. It will cultivate empowerment and diminish stigma.”

 

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
News Content Manager
kgrieze@butler.edu
260-307-3403

 

Student Access and Success

At the heart of Butler Beyond is a desire to increase student access and success, putting a Butler education within reach of all who desire to pursue it. With a focus on enhancing the overall student experience that is foundational to a Butler education, gifts to this pillar will grow student scholarships, elevate student support services, expand experiential learning opportunities, and more. Learn more, make a gift, and read other stories like this one at beyond.butler.edu.

GuideDawg 2.0 icon on a phone
Innovation

New App to Help Blind, Visually-Impaired Butler Students, Visitors

Launching in fall 2020, the GuideDawg app measures steps between classrooms and warns of construction sites

Nov 14 2019 Read more
Tom Mould
Innovation

Butler Professor’s Research Dispels Myths of the ‘Welfare Queen’

BY Tim Brouk

PUBLISHED ON Nov 04 2019

Recipients of welfare and other government aid are unfairly scrutinized and even demonized as “welfare queens,” according to Professor of Anthropology and History Tom Mould and his several years of research on public assistance.

Mould dispels numerous myths while humanizing people that rely on welfare. He and his students recorded more than 150 interviews with not only welfare recipients but politicians, grocery store clerks, aid providers, and members of the general public in North Carolina. Mould says his findings go against the grain of what most Americans think of the welfare system.

“Official government documents are clear that the food stamp fraud rate has been between half a percent and one and a half percent over the past decade, way lower than most federal programs,” Mould says. “What we have with stories of so-called ‘welfare queens’ is an incredibly unfair narrative and an incredibly negative light that is unfair. This work is trying to rectify that.”

Mould’s book Overthrowing the Queen: Telling Stories of Welfare in America focuses on the broad picture of welfare in America while weaving in riveting narratives of aid recipients and the overwhelming lengths people go through to provide for their children and to keep a roof over their heads. The title will hit shelves this summer from Indiana University Press.

Mould says the stereotype of the “welfare queen,” someone who is believed to work the welfare system to gain wealth, was mostly fabricated in the 1970s and 1980s.

“It infuriated people, but, of course, the stories, by and large, were not true,” Mould says. “There doesn’t appear to be any more fraud in the welfare system than any government system. Why are we singling out the poor to demonize?”

While all of his research was in the Tarheel State, Overthrow the Queen appeals to readers nationwide, Mould says. The book documents how recipients came to need public assistance and the current challenges they are facing.

“The stories show people putting in a lot of hard work, a lot of ingenuity, a lot of commitment to their children,” he adds. “Parents were unwilling to give up on trying to make a better life for their kids.”

 

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
News Content Manager
kgrieze@butler.edu
260-307-3403

 

Innovations in Teaching and Learning

One of the distinguishing features of a Butler education has always been the meaningful and enduring relationships between our faculty and students. Gifts to this pillar during Butler Beyond will accelerate our commitment to investing in faculty excellence by adding endowed positions, supporting faculty scholarship and research, renovating and expanding state-of-the-art teaching facilities, and more. Learn more, make a gift, and read other stories like this one at beyond.butler.edu.

Tom Mould
Innovation

Butler Professor’s Research Dispels Myths of the ‘Welfare Queen’

Professor of Anthropology Tom Mould’s research shows food stamp fraud rate is lower than most federal programs

Nov 04 2019 Read more
A woman casts her ballot
Innovation

Republican Delegates More Likely to Disagree, New Butler Research Shows

BY Tim Brouk

PUBLISHED ON Nov 04 2019

Within any political party, there’s a multitude of views and approaches to campaigning. Some members want to advance specific policies, others just want to do whatever it takes to win.

Recent research co-authored by Greg Shufeldt, Butler University Assistant Professor of Political Science, found that at the 2012 conventions, Republican delegates were not only much more polarized within their party than Democratic delegates, but they were much more divided than in previous years.

While published results are from 2012, they shed important light on internal party processes that shaped the conflicts evident in the 2016 presidential primary contests.

Greg Shufeldt
Greg Shufeldt

“This was before President Trump,” Shufeldt says, “but this might inform some of the things that allowed President Trump to rise to power.” 

Shufeldt culled his data from surveys sent to every delegate that attended the Republican and Democratic conventions. The Butler researcher helped draft the questionnaires in 2012 and 2016, which the delegates filled out online.

“We’re looking at fault lines within the parties,” Shufeldt says. “Congress is more polarized than it's ever been. The parties are farther apart ideologically but also more homogenous. Delegates or party activists are what connects these polarized elites with the general public.” 

Shufeldt writes that delegates are classified as more pragmatist, or wanting the party to win elections at the expense of advancing specific policies, or classified as more purist, believing that advancing specific policies is the way for the party to win elections.

The research found not much variation between 2012 Democratic delegates, which offered more balanced pragmatic and purist tendencies. Shufeldt says the Democratic party is more used to navigating inner faction conflict because that is the nature of the Democratic party. Through group identities, they become Democrats. While Democrats internally balance these competing pragmatic and purist tendencies, Republican delegates are more divided into a clearer pragmatic wing and purist wings.

In fact, his research found that the 2012 Republican delegates were more internally divided than the infamous 1972 McGovern Democrats. Based on how delegates responded to questions about group membership, key policy areas, and attitudes toward key party groups, the study organized delegates into factions. On the Republican side, three factions were developed from the Republican delegate data—“contemporary conservatives,” “establishment Republicans,” and “Libertarians.” Among Democrats, the study identified factions of “cultural liberals,” “all-purpose liberals,” and “centrists.” 

Looking back on 2012, the rise of the Tea Party and support for Rep. Ron Paul, who campaigned for the Republican candidacy, were influencers to Republican delegates within the “Libertarian” faction. Shufeldt reveals that those factors were less crucial in 2016, but new groups formed four years later within both Republican and Democratic parties. 

“These studies inform our politics,” Shufeldt says. “We’re so evenly divided into red and blue states. It’s a really unique time to be talking to people that are at these conventions.”

 

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
News Content Manager
kgrieze@butler.edu
260-307-3403

 

Innovations in Teaching and Learning

One of the distinguishing features of a Butler education has always been the meaningful and enduring relationships between our faculty and students. Gifts to this pillar during Butler Beyond will accelerate our commitment to investing in faculty excellence by adding endowed positions, supporting faculty scholarship and research, renovating and expanding state-of-the-art teaching facilities, and more. Learn more, make a gift, and read other stories like this one at beyond.butler.edu

A woman casts her ballot
Innovation

Republican Delegates More Likely to Disagree, New Butler Research Shows

Research sheds light on what led to internal conflicts during 2016 presidential primary contests

Nov 04 2019 Read more
Sally Perkins
Innovation

If Susan B. Anthony Had a Smartphone

BY Katie Grieze

PUBLISHED ON Oct 10 2019

 

 

What would the fight for women’s suffrage look like in 2019—a centennial after women won the right to vote?

Sally Perkins, a professional storyteller and Director of Butler University’s Speaker’s Lab, imagines Susan B. Anthony would be texting her fellow activists. Ida B. Wells would be tweeting about the importance of the black female voice. Anna Howard Shaw would become Ellen DeGeneres, and the spirit of Sojourner Truth would shine through Queen Latifah. And no matter how hard the fight for voting rights became, none of them would give up.

In Digging in Their Heels, a one-woman storytelling performance that will hit the stage in New York City later this month, Perkins captures the complexities of this part of American history she’s found most people don’t know much about. Through modern references and comedic elements, she makes this 100-year-old story more accessible to audiences who don’t know much about what it took to win the vote.

The show races through 72 years in 60 minutes. But Perkins helps audience members keep track of the 16 characters by assigning each suffragist a modern alter-ego—a well-known woman who mirrors the suffragist’s personality and activism style. The characters use smartphones and social media to communicate, “in some ways pointing to the fact that they didn’t have that technology,” Perkins says. “It was so difficult what they did.”

And the performance doesn’t shy away from those difficulties, which emerged both from those outside the movement and between the women leading it. Instead, Perkins shows where black women experienced racism from their white counterparts, even as they all worked toward a shared goal.

“I’m doing what I can to bring that truth to the story,” she says. “We cannot talk about issues of gender without talking about issues of race.”

 

Sally Perkins

 

The show first launched at the IndyFringe Festival in 2018. Perkins has performed at several venues since, including a show for Indiana’s League of Women Voters and a few visits to out-of-state conferences. On October 17, she’ll take it to New York for the United Solo Theatre Festival, a 10-week international event dedicated to one-person shows.

When Perkins first applied to perform at the festival, she didn’t really think she had a chance. But she received her acceptance in April, and her October show is now listed as a bestseller among the more than 120 performances on the United Solo calendar. If the first performance sells out completely, Perkins will be able to schedule a second, and that process could repeat for up to eight total shows throughout the course of the festival.

Digging in Their Heels first started taking shape in late 2017, then it unfolded over about 10 months of research and writing. Typically, Perkins is more of an oral performer than a playwright. But to juggle the stories of 16 women over 72 years, sharing the narrative of women’s suffrage demanded a more robust script. And to help keep audience members grounded in the chronology, she called on the skills of Butler CCOM colleague Armando Pellerano, Lecturer of Strategic Communication, to design an interactive set.

“The audience should never have to be thinking, ‘Where are we in the timeline of all this?’” Perkins says. “So I have a huge set with a timeline and a map of the United States, which helps people keep track of which states have granted women the right to vote at different points along the way.”

In Pellerano’s 20 years of experience in the creative services industry, he had never designed a set piece. But on a late-April day when he saw Perkins rehearsing on campus, he stopped to see what she was doing. They chatted about the graphics on her old set, and after a brief critique from Pellerano, Perkins asked if he could help her design something that would tell a better story.

Pellerano chose colors and patterns that captured a Victorian-era mood, making sure the set would complement Perkins instead of drawing attention away from her words.

“I was trying to find something that fit her vision,” he says, “as well as accomplishing what I wanted from a visual standpoint, which was getting people to focus on what she was talking about without being distracted by the background.”

During a recent local performance of Digging in Their Heels, Pellerano had the chance to see the set design in action.

“To me, the coolest thing was seeing her actually use all the pieces,” he says. “There’s a little marker that moves down for the timeline, and we made velcro pieces so she can reveal information more gradually.”

But the show was even more interactive than Pellerano expected, and he was amazed at the way Perkins connected with the audience. Plus, it told an important story he didn’t know.

“What I really learned about was the politics of that time in history,” Pellerano says. “You can read about something, but you’re not really situated in what the conventional wisdom of the time was or what the cultural norms were. To me, it was revelatory that these women were as strategic as they were about when to dig in their heels and when to back off.”

While Perkins has spent the last few months focused on her upcoming trip to New York, she says performance is just one part of her career. At Butler, she teaches public speaking classes and runs the Speakers Lab, a group of tutors who provide students with one-on-one help in creating and delivering speeches or presentations.

In the community, Perkins works with professional clients, helping them effectively tell their stories. She trains organizations on the basics, explaining the power of storytelling when it comes to fundraising, sales, organizational development, recruitment, and more. She also offers individual coaching for a range of story-based projects. This professional service work, along with her commissioned performance experience, strengthens what Perkins does at Butler.

“All my storytelling work has deepened, improved, and impacted the way I teach public speaking,” she says. “Before I started doing all of this, I would never have talked about the importance of storytelling in public speaking class. Now I totally do.”

But it works the other way around, too, and she lets a love of education influence her performing. When audiences walk away from Digging in Their Heels, she wants them to have learned something.

“I want people to feel inspired not to give up, even though, as I say at the end of the story, many of these women went to the grave without ever casting a vote,” Perkins says. “But we need to not give up with whatever our battle is. It matters to me that people walk away feeling inspired by the longevity of the movement, and that they think about how we can be better in the future, no matter what the issue is at hand.”

 

Digging in Their Heels
Thursday, October 17, 7:30 PM
410 West 42nd Street, New York City
Tickets: $45 (purchase here)

 

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
News Content Manager
kgrieze@butler.edu
260-307-3403 (cell)

 

Innovations in Teaching and Learning

One of the distinguishing features of a Butler education has always been the meaningful and enduring relationships between our faculty and students. Gifts to this pillar during Butler Beyond will accelerate our commitment to investing in faculty excellence by adding endowed positions, supporting faculty scholarship and research, renovating and expanding state-of-the-art teaching facilities, and more. Learn more, make a gift, and read other stories like this one at beyond.butler.edu.

Sally Perkins
Innovation

If Susan B. Anthony Had a Smartphone

Celebrating 100 years of women's suffrage, Sally Perkins takes her one-woman storytelling show to New York City.

Oct 10 2019 Read more
JUUL research
Innovation

New Study: Students Report Harmful Effects from Vaping, Don’t Use JUUL to Quit Smoking

BY Katie Grieze

PUBLISHED ON Oct 07 2019

When e-cigarettes first hit the market, manufacturers sold them as a cleaner, safer alternative to combustible cigarettes. They targeted current smokers, touting vape as a good way to quit.

“But that is clearly not how they are being used,” says Amy Peak, Butler University’s Director of Undergraduate Health Science Programs. Her recent research about the harmful effects of vaping included a survey of nearly 1,000 college students.

research results Peak recently completed this large-scale study in collaboration with Sarah Knight, a senior Health Science major, and they presented their findings at the 2019 Indiana Life Sciences Summit on September 26.

They discovered that, while vaping was originally promoted as a safer alternative for existing smokers, most young vape users are brand new to nicotine. And it probably isn’t any safer, either, with most users experiencing a variety of harmful effects.

In data gathered throughout the past year, Peak found that almost 60 percent of college students had used a JUUL—the most popular e-cigarette in the United States. Of the students who vaped, 90 percent had never smoked a traditional cigarette. Only 3 percent of respondents said they used JUUL in an effort to quit smoking.

“Vaping is clearly an entry-level thing,” Peak explains. “It is not something that the college population is using as a smoking cessation product.”

And for pretty much everyone who vapes, even occasionally, there are consequences.

The most common adverse reaction found in Peak’s study was coughing, a symptom reported in about a third of all users. Other common harmful effects included nose or throat irritation (20 percent of users), headaches (18 percent), shortness of breath (16 percent), and difficulty sleeping (6 percent). For most of these effects, Peak found that the more often someone vaped, the more likely they were to experience these side effects.

Nicotine withdrawal was also common, affecting 72 percent of heavy users, 54 percent of moderate users, and 8 percent of occasional users. Reported withdrawal symptoms included cravings, headaches, mood changes, and the inability to think clearly. Peak explains that the form of nicotine used in JUUL pods provides a faster, harder hit than combustible cigarettes, which makes vaping more addictive per use than smoking.

“There is no doubt that this is an addictive substance,” she says. “It is something that people are going to have substantial trouble coming off of if they are using it regularly.”research results

The study also found that almost all college students who vaped had done so in a social setting, sharing e-cigarettes with others, which could contribute to the spread of infectious disease. Of the respondents who used vaping products, 95 percent had put a JUUL in their mouths immediately after it was in someone else’s mouth. Peak says this could spread any form of bacteria or virus that is transmitted via saliva, including some forms of herpes, mononucleosis, influenza, norovirus, or strep throat—just to name a few. This risk of spreading infectious disease is not typically seen with combustible cigarettes.

“That, in and of itself, I think is a public health hazard no one is talking about,” Peak says.

Going forward, Peak plans to partner with Butler Biological Sciences Lecturer Mike Trombley to look deeper into that infectious disease potential.

Before collaborating with Peak on this research, student Sarah Knight had noticed many of her college-aged peers starting to use JUUL without knowing much about it. She wanted to help fill gaps in existing research about the risks of vaping, and she enjoyed the chance to be part of something that has such an immediate impact on public health.

“There is a misconception that vaping is a safer alternative to combustible cigarettes,” Peak says. “My hope is that, as this data comes out, we have mounting evidence that changes this idea.”

She explains that most people assume that just because you don’t see smoke or smell tar when using JUUL, it must be safer than a combustible cigarette. This has created an environment where vaping is a lot more socially acceptable than smoking.

“But this is just a different delivery device for an incredibly addictive substance—and a substance that is mixed with flavorings and colorings that have no business being inhaled,” Peak says.

Those candy-like flavors—now facing a potential ban—have made JUUL especially appealing to young people. And as new lung illnesses have brought vaping products under more nationwide scrutiny in recent weeks, Peak hopes this study will join the conversation in a way that helps teens and college students understand that adding an “e” doesn’t make cigarettes any safer.

 

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
News Content Manager
kgrieze@butler.edu
260-307-3403 (cell)

 

Innovations in Teaching and Learning

One of the distinguishing features of a Butler education has always been the meaningful and enduring relationships between our faculty and students. Gifts to this pillar during Butler Beyond will accelerate our commitment to investing in faculty excellence by adding endowed positions, supporting faculty scholarship and research, renovating and expanding state-of-the-art teaching facilities, and more. Learn more, make a gift, and read other stories like this one at beyond.butler.edu.

JUUL research
Innovation

New Study: Students Report Harmful Effects from Vaping, Don’t Use JUUL to Quit Smoking

Professor Amy Peak and student Sarah Knight surveyed nearly 1,000 college students about experiences with JUUL use.

Oct 07 2019 Read more

Using Science to Save the Arts

Rachel Stern

from Fall 2019

Michael Samide doesn’t have a background in art. Well, if you want to get technical—and the Butler University Professor of Chemistry likes to get technical—there was that one art history class. A British guy taught the class. It was after lunch, the room was dark, a slide projector was involved, and a fan would go on. Then, like clockwork, Samide would take a nap.

He ended up working in chemistry, which he figured meant he could steer clear of those sleepy afternoons. But after about 12 years of conducting one type of research at Butler, a visit from the new Senior Conservation Scientist at the Conservation Science Lab of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields piqued Samide’s interest. Greg Smith had come to talk to Butler Chemistry faculty and students and explained that Newfields’ lab combines art history, science, analytical techniques, and research.

Samide was intrigued.

“I realized how lucky we were at Butler to have this lab 400 yards away,” Samide says. “My mind was blown after the presentation. I realized this unique, exciting realm takes all the techniques I have learned and applies them to solve real-world problems. It was time to learn something new.”

What has followed has been a seven-year partnership between the Conservation Science Lab at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields and Butler’s Chemistry Department. From student internships, to research collaborations, to published papers, to lectures across the globe, the partnership has flourished since Smith walked into the chemistry classroom back in 2012.

The museum’s Conservation Science Lab started in 2012 and uses scientific tools to study the materials of art. The lab works in tandem with the conservation staff to make sure the materials and methods that are being used are effective as well as safe for the artwork. The team also collaborates with the curatorial department to analyze the different materials comprising a work of art.

“Locked up in the chemistry of objects are often the answers to who made this, how old is it, has it changed appearance, is it even real or is it fake,” Smith says.

Partially funded by a $2.6 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, the facility operates out of a spacious, 3,000-square-foot analytical and research lab on the first floor of Newfields. As one of only about 10 museum conservation labs like this in the country, the work performed at Newfields can have a significant impact beyond the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Smith, the museum’s sole full-time lab employee, relies on interns and partnerships to assist in his efforts.

The Butler team was a natural fit, he says. They immediately added their chemistry expertise, working on research projects with faculty and students on varied topics such as pollutants, curricular development, and dye synthesis.

Samide and Smith have focused a great deal of their research on how materials used in museums impact art. There is a plastic that museums use for gallery casings that, after a great deal of research, they found was tarnishing silver. To date, they have published two papers, and are working on a third on the potentially harmful effects.

The partnership provides numerous benefits to the museum, but it also provides important experiential learning opportunities for Butler students. Heidi Kastenholz ’19 started at Butler as a Chemistry major certain she wanted to be an optometrist. She heard about the Chemistry of Art course that had a short study abroad component, so she signed up.

The course focused on how pigments are made chemically. When she returned from traveling, Kastenholz did a Butler Summer Institute research project on one specific pigment. After she graduated, she was offered an internship with the Library of Congress in their conservation science department, and her goal now is to become a conservation scientist in a museum lab.

“I learned how applicable science was,” she says. “I never thought about science and art as things that were related.”

That is exactly what drew Samide to this area of chemistry, despite his shaky memories of art history class. His research used to have very little application. Now, it has a real impact on what is placed into gallery spaces, what materials should be used inside a museum, and how museums think about preserving historic pieces of art.

“You would be surprised how every area of chemistry has something to do with art,” Samide says. “The best artists are using science and the best scientists are very artistic people. It is about the coming together of the two disciplines, rather than telling people they are two separate things.”

Innovation

Using Science to Save the Arts

The Chemistry Department and the Indianapolis Museum of Art have forged an exciting partnership. 

by Rachel Stern

from Fall 2019

Read more
Understanding Esports
Innovation

Butler Prof Explores Rise of Esports in New Book

BY Katie Grieze

PUBLISHED ON Oct 01 2019

When Ryan Rogers was writing the syllabus for a new esports class at Butler University, the required reading section glared back at him. He needed to find books that covered the rapidly growing competitive video game industry, but there weren’t many to choose from. 

So Rogers, Assistant Professor of Creative Media and Entertainment, decided to create his own.

Understanding Esports: An Introduction to the Global Phenomenon hit the shelves in late September. Containing chapters written by 30 contributors from a variety of backgrounds, the book explores the rise of the esports industry and its significance within media, culture, education, and the economy.

But, what exactly are esports?

You’ll probably get a different answer from everyone you ask, says Rogers, whose research has explored the ways different forms of media—especially video games—influence their audiences. That’s why he wanted to build a conversation through an edited book with multiple authors. But he says a professional, competitive element generally sets esports apart from other video games.

Almost any time you play a video game, it can be competitive. But with esports, there’s something deeper than just trying to beat your friend’s score in the latest version of Super Mario Bros. Esports have an organized structure, with leagues, tournaments, and governing bodies setting standards and overseeing competition.

“I felt like there was really a need to understand this phenomenon and build a body of knowledge around it,” Rogers says. “Ultimately, I think it provides a broad view of the esports industry so that academics and industry professionals alike can wrap their minds around it.”

While Rogers solicited and edited all of the book’s chapters, he credits the other authors for making it possible—including Butler Journalism and Sports Media Associate Professor Lee Farquar, who wrote a chapter about the fighting genre of video games.

Rogers says the general lack of research on esports has to do with how quickly the industry has grown.

“As gaming culture evolved, esports became a thing that couldn’t be ignored,” he says. “It’s truly an international phenomenon with tons of money flowing in and more attention being paid to it each day.”

The role of esports within culture isn’t all that different from traditional sports, Rogers says. And esports are also similar to things like football or soccer when it comes to why so many people want to play—and watch—them. Whether on a field or on a screen, humans desire competition. People want to belong to something. They want to bond over common interests, and they want to have something to root for.

“People are arranging their media landscapes in order to gratify those needs,” Rogers says. “Video games and esports—whether you’re playing them or watching them—are serving those needs for a large population.”

And even beyond the people playing or watching the games, esports provide economic opportunities for the people creating, promoting, and reporting on them. 

“To me, esports represents another whole industry that our students can find jobs in,” Rogers says. “Traditional sports media is a competitive industry, but it is fairly stagnant in terms of growth. Meanwhile, the esports industry is growing exponentially. I see that and say ‘wow, that’s an opportunity for our students.’”

 

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
News Content Manager
kgrieze@butler.edu
260-307-3403 (cell)

 

Innovations in Teaching and Learning

One of the distinguishing features of a Butler education has always been the meaningful and enduring relationships between our faculty and students. Gifts to this pillar during Butler Beyond will accelerate our commitment to investing in faculty excellence by adding endowed positions, supporting faculty scholarship and research, renovating and expanding state-of-the-art teaching facilities, and more. Learn more, make a gift, and read other stories like this one at beyond.butler.edu.

Understanding Esports
Innovation

Butler Prof Explores Rise of Esports in New Book

Edited by Ryan Rogers, the book collects chapters from 30 contributors to provide big-picture view of esports.

Oct 01 2019 Read more
DNA research
Innovation

Professor’s DNA Research Could Help Cure Genetic Diseases

BY Katie Grieze

PUBLISHED ON Sep 10 2019

Many life-threatening diseases come from slight variations in our genetic codes. A problem with the BRCA1 gene makes a person more prone to certain cancers, for example, and mutations of the hemoglobin-Beta gene can lead to sickle cell anemia.

Not everyone with genetic mutations will develop the associated conditions, but just having a variation can change a person’s life—they’ll need to get tests, take pills, go through surgeries, and constantly worry that doing all of these things still won’t be enough.

So, what if we could fix the problem at its root?

Using a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for more than $711,000, that’s what Butler University Pharmaceutical Sciences Professor Alex Erkine is trying to work toward. The project falls into NSF’s fairly new Rules of Life category, which aims to promote discoveries related to fundamental questions about how living things work.

Erkine says genes can have a wide range of functionality levels. Scientists already understand that the level of functionality depends both on certain aspects of the gene itself, as well as on the quality of the proteins that bind with the gene. These proteins work as activators, helping determine the gene’s level of functionality by dimming it up or down—imagine a light dimmer controlling the brightness in a room.

The problem is, biochemists have never completely understood how that gene-regulating dimmer works. If we don’t know how it works, we don’t know how to control or replicate it, and we can’t effectively edit a person’s DNA. Erkine’s project combines biochemistry with informatics, or machine learning, to try and change that.

In the physical lab, researchers will transfer strands of unique DNA sequences into cells. Then they’ll rate each cell based on how functional the DNA sequence is. In the past, similar tests have only been able to analyze a few DNA samples at a time, but using bioinformatics and machine learning will allow Erkine and his collaborators to compare more than 10,000 cells at once.

The ability to work with such a large group of DNA sequences is game-changing, Erkine says, because researchers can find patterns that never would have shown up when only comparing a few samples. Using bioinformatics tools makes this possible.

While scientists have been trying to understand the gene activator mechanism for decades, Erkine says both the DNA sequences and the ways they interact are highly variable and almost random—but not completely. Patterns do emerge within large enough data sets, which is why massive amounts of data are key. Erkine says computer-based tools are necessary in trying to understand these near-chaotic processes because finding those patterns will help us predict how genetic structures might interact after the activators are edited.

By identifying common features between strands with similar functionality scores, the informatics tools should help answer the question of what makes one gene functional and another gene cause disease.

The finished project is expected to shed some light on how genes are regulated and exactly how specific parts of a gene would need to be altered to prevent certain diseases. Scientists already know which part of the gene needs to be changed—as they can recognize mutations in DNA—and they now have the power to make those specific changes with the recent discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 DNA editing system. But Erkine’s project is trying to answer the question of how to change sequences in ways that achieve the desired outcome of curing disease. So, we can already recognize and remove a genetic mutation, but what DNA sequences can we use to effectively replace it?

One of the project’s goals is to create a computational algorithm that will predict how certain changes to the gene activator mechanism (or the dimmer) will affect the genes it is working on.

“It sounds easy—just create an algorithm,” Erkine says. “But in reality, the problem is not trivial, because we do not fully understand how activators work. Our project, first of all, addresses the question about the mechanism of activator function. Then, as a byproduct, we hope to create a machine learning model (or algorithm) that can be used with CRISPR DNA editing for medical purposes.”

Some of this analytics process will take place at Butler, with help from PharmD students Brad Broyles and Andrew Gutierrez.

Broyles, who is in his third professional year of Butler’s Doctor of Pharmacy program, says working on this research has been the most valuable part of his time at Butler. He’s excited for the chance to learn about complicated aspects of biology while sharpening his computer skills, and he hopes the results will help make the field of biochemistry more receptive to new ideas.

Researchers at Purdue University also received close to $250,000 from the NSF to collaborate with Butler on this project. Purdue will handle most of the computer-based process Erkine calls the dry lab.

Back in 2015, Erkine had the chance to spend his sabbatical in Cambridge, England, with the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. He has continued collaborating with the institution ever since, publishing an article in 2018 that helped lay the foundation for his current project.

Erkine says our current lack of understanding about how some molecular mechanisms work has a lot to do with long-held beliefs in the field of biochemistry—beliefs about what is and what isn’t worth studying.

“In short, biochemistry is about specificity,” he explains. “It looks at specific structures interacting with other specific structures in specific ways—key-and-lock sorts of interactions. But this is simply because that’s easy to study. Everything that does not necessarily interact specifically or strongly is ignored by biochemistry. It is considered noise: noise that is nonessential, non-functional, detrimental—that essentially stands in the way of new biochemistry developments.”

Erkine wants researchers to think about things differently. The human cell is full of interactions that occur randomly, but that doesn’t make them any less important to understand. Because if his research works, he says, we’ll find a way to get to the root of diseases we’ve been trying to cure for decades.

 

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
News Content Manager
kgrieze@butler.edu
260-307-3403

 

Innovations in Teaching and Learning

One of the distinguishing features of a Butler education has always been the meaningful and enduring relationships between our faculty and students. Gifts to this pillar during Butler Beyond will accelerate our commitment to investing in faculty excellence by adding endowed positions, supporting faculty scholarship and research, renovating and expanding state-of-the-art teaching facilities, and more. Learn more, make a gift, and read other stories like this one at beyond.butler.edu.

DNA research
Innovation

Professor’s DNA Research Could Help Cure Genetic Diseases

Alex Erkine receives more than $711,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study gene regulation.

Sep 10 2019 Read more

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