The Lab: research from UCR and the UC system

Courtesy of The Denver Post
Courtesy of The Denver Post

UC Riverside: Voter expectations tied to disappointment

UCR Assistant Professor of Psychology Kate Sweeney and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Iowa State University Zlatan Krizan have collaborated on a study that explores the dimensions of voter expectations, confidence and disappointment. Entitled, “Causes and Consequences of Expectation Trajectories: ‘High’ on Optimism in a Public Ballot Initiative,” the study was published last month in the empirical journal Psychological Science.

The study focuses on how voter expectations changed over time in regards to the failed Proposition 19—the ballot measure that would have legalized marijuana in the state of California. Over the course of the months leading up to the 2010 elections, the pair of researchers studied the expectations of 175 voters who supported or opposed the initiative to some degree.

“We found that knowledge about the issue, which in this case meant a growing awareness that the measure was unlikely to pass, predicted a move toward pessimism about the measure’s likelihood of passing—which makes perfect sense,” said Sweeney. “However, this was only true for opponents of the measure; supporters remained optimistic about the measure’s passage even if they should have known better.”

The reason that they chose Proposition 19 to focus on was due in part to the convenient timing. The measure was on the ballot right about the time that they came up with the idea. They also figured that they could easily find participants from different sides of the spectrum of opposing and supporting opinions.

When asked about the effect that disappointment has on a person, Sweeney explained, “Disappointment is a poignant experience. When I talk about my research, I often ask the audience members to pause and think about a moment of significant disappointment in their lives, and most people can readily (and painfully) bring a personal example to mind. Although the feeling of disappointment is short-lived in many situations, I would argue that the shattering feeling of being caught off-guard by a feared outcome can make people hesitant to get their hopes up in the future, and it might even undermine their motivation to engage with something like a political cause that might not turn out their way.”

 

Courtesy of  Digital Journal
Courtesy of Digital Journal

UC Davis: Autism indicators for pregnant women

A specific abnormality found within the placenta called trophoblast inclusions (TIs), may be an early indicator that a child will develop autism, according to research scientist at Yale School of Medicine Dr. Harvey J. Kilman. In collaboration with the UC Davis MIND Institute, Kilman compared placentas from pregnant women who had a heightened risk of giving birth to a child that would develop autism to those who didn’t. The results showed that in the high-risk group, 59 percent had no TIs but 92 percent of the control group had none.

“Our study found a very strong association between trophoblastic inclusions and autism risk,” said Assistant Professor Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology Cheryl Walker who is the first and lead author of the study. “Placentas of the at-risk pregnancies of mothers of children with autism included as many as 15 trophoblastic inclusions, while the placentas from the uncomplicated pregnancies had no more than two trophoblastic inclusions.”

Walker explains that trophoblasts are unusual microscopic findings marked by cell clusters that appear to represent abnormal tissue folding within the placenta.

“They have been associated with a wide range of chromosomal abnormalities found in early pregnancy losses,” she stated. “Their role in pregnancies that result in live births has been unclear.”

“The role of the MIND Institute and UC Davis was considerable,” said Walker. “The study’s participants are followed before, during and after their pregnancies. Researchers obtain information about the prenatal and postnatal environment to which the baby is exposed. The study obtains a broad array of biological and environmental samples from study participants, including samples of their placentas following delivery,” she said.

In total, 217 small pieces of placentas were sent to Dr. Kilman from UC Davis. Once received, his staff cut the tissue and embedded samples into paraffin, which allows for thin slicing into tissue that is put on microscope slides and stained for microscopic view.

Walker feels that Kilman collaborated with UC Davis largely due to the efforts of the Markers for Autism Risk in Babies-Learning Early Signs (MARBLES) study, which according to its website is a “longitudinal study for pregnant women who have a biological child with autism spectrum disorder.” All the placental tissue that was studied in Kilman’s research was contributed by participants in MARBLES. The study is a collaboration of the MIND Institute, the UC Davis Center for Children’s Environmental Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Courtesy of Learn NC
Courtesy of Learn NC

UC Berkeley: Using tobacco crops as a biofuel source

Researchers from Berkeley, in collaboration with the University of Kentucky, have been working on turning the tobacco crop into a potential source for biofuels. By infusing genes from algae into the leaves of the plant, its efficiency to turn light into carbon fuels is increased. As a high biomass plant, tobacco is more preferable to use when extracting oil.

According to Faculty Biologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Center and one of the head researchers, Anastasios Melis, “There are other high biomass leafy plants, like corn and sugarcane, but these are food crops and we better avoid the conflict of food versus fuel. There are also grasses with about equal to tobacco, or even slightly greater productivity, like Miscanthus giganteous and Napier grass. However, these cannot be easily transformed by genetic means to accumulate hydrocarbon products.”

He reports that in lab trials, they have been able to make tobacco accumulate more than one percent of its dry weight in the form of a specific hydrocarbon that can be used as fuel. His goal is to reach 10 percent within the next two years.

Also part of their effort is trying to install carbon dioxide transporters—normally found in algae—within tobacco in order to accelerate carbon uptake from the atmosphere and to promote assimilation by the photosynthesis of the plant. This means that while the fuels being burned produce carbon, it is at the same time being reintroduced to the plant to be turned back into fuel.

If the process becomes commercially successful, Melis states, “It would become one of the solutions in the quest for alternative and renewable energy.”

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