Native research trailblazer joins ranks of ASU's most prestigious scholars

February 7, 2013

Rebecca Tsosie was a young girl growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, an average student going through the motions of school with no plans to be the first person in her family to go to college. Then, an international incident centering on longstanding injustices toward American Indians fueled a passion that would change the trajectory of her life.

The American Indian Movement had seized and occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., alleging corruption by a tribal chairman, and protesting the U.S. government’s failure to fulfill treaties with Indian peoples. Tsosie knew nothing of the incident until four AIM leaders came to a community Indian center near her home to talk about it. Download Full Image

“I was listening to their stories, and it was very powerful,” said Tsosie, who is of Yaqui descent. “I wanted to read more. I was really caught up in it, and I wanted to do all my school papers on it. I started to do better in school.”

So much better that she eventually enrolled in and excelled at UCLA and UCLA School of Law, clerked for an Arizona Supreme Court Justice, became a litigator, and then joined the faculty of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU in 1993. And now, she has been named an ASU Regents’ Professor, the top faculty award at the university.   

In her 20 years at ASU, Tsosie has been a rock for hundreds of Native and other law students, said Dean Douglas Sylvester.

“Rebecca takes her role as mentor and teacher very seriously, never turning away a student who may be homesick or struggling with a concept or a course,” Sylvester said. “She was instrumental in transforming our Indian Legal Program (ILP) into one of the nation’s best, and she helped create our excellent Master of Laws degree in Tribal Law, Policy and Government and our award-winning Indian Legal Clinic. And she’s done all this while continuing to be one of the world’s foremost scholars on Indian law and numerous other disciplines.

“Rebecca is the consummate Regents’ Professor, and we couldn’t be happier that she has received this well-deserved recognition,” he added.

As the author of more than 40 law review articles and book chapters, Tsosie’s work is widely cited, and she has contributed chapters to almost every leading volume on American Indian law published since 2001. She is co-author of the casebook, “American Indian Law: Native Nations and the Federal System.”

“It’s been my dream to be a Regents’ Professor,” said Tsosie, a Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar and former executive director of the ILP. “I am incredibly honored.”

Tsosie credits others for enabling her to thrive, starting at the top. “I treasure President Crow’s visionary leadership and his commitment to open access to higher education,” she said. “It helps undergraduates to know that you don’t have to come from a private school background, that you can make it.”

Tsosie was an undergraduate at UCLA when her professors noticed her considerable critical thinking and writing skills. They asked Carole Goldberg, Jonathan D. Varat Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, to admit her into her Federal Indian Law course. Goldberg said yes.

“This was completely unprecedented, and has never happened since,” Goldberg said. “It was clear from the beginning that she could hold her own with law students. She was walking into advanced courses without any prior training in the legal case method, and she was capable of developing and advancing analyses and arguments.”  

In his letter supporting Tsosie’s Regents’ nomination, College of Law professor Jeffrie Murphy, himself a Regents’ Professor, said he has watched her transformation from “a young scholar of great promise into a mature scholar of international distinction.

“She is now truly a ‘star’ in the field of Indian law,” Murphy wrote. “Although she is a master of the relevant legal doctrines (both statutory and constitutional) in her area of expertise, her work is not merely doctrinal but is also informed by a rich and wide perspective.”

Interdisciplinary research has been a core commitment of Tsosie’s career. In 2011, she joined both the ASU Global Institute of Sustainability as a Senior Sustainability Scientist, and the philosophy faculty in the ASU School of Historical, Philosophical & Religious Studies in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Judge William C. Canby Jr., a College of Law founding faculty member and an ILP Advisory Board member, said she is an unusual combination of fearless academic and tenderhearted advisor.

“Rebecca makes it so clear how deep her feelings are for the students, how much she appreciates them, how well she knows them,” said Canby, a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “You can see it goes both ways, too. The students respond to her.”

One of those students, Naomi White, met Tsosie in 2006 at the Pre-Law Summer Institute (PLSI) in Albuquerque, N.M. White already knew she wanted to go to law school; meeting Tsosie convinced her ASU was the place.

“She wanted the students to excel, but remain friendly, to work together toward a uniform goal, and to serve our communities,” said White, who graduated in 2010 and now is a prosecutor for the Gila River Indian Community. “She wanted us to be exceptional Indian law practitioners, and she created an environment for us to thrive in.”

Doreen McPau, who graduated in 2001, said Tsosie has a sixth sense about making the most of students’ strengths, and is tenacious about helping them overcome weaknesses.

“She tells you you’re good enough, and you start to believe it at some point,” said McPaul, assistant attorney general for the Tohono O’odham Nation. “We had opportunities to go to the big firms, but she encouraged us to go back to the PLSI and give back to the program that gave us so much.”

Tsosie practices what she preaches, serving on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation Supreme Court and the San Carlos Apache Court of Appeals. She teaches constitutional law, critical race theory, federal Indian law and property, and is a faculty fellow in the law school’s Center for Law and Global Affairs and an affiliate professor in ASU’s American Indian Studies Program.

Diane Humetewa, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, has watched Tsosie open doors for Native women in the law.

“Under her direction, the law school began taking this evolutionary approach to federal Indian law issues and developing their relationship with and relevancy to tribal governments,” said Humetewa, a law alumnus and ASU’s special advisor to the President for American Indian Affairs.

Tsosie is a pioneer in bringing international and comparative perspectives to thinking about domestic Indian law. She has traveled the world lecturing about climate change, forest management and environmental stewardship, governance of genomic research, American Indian political poetry, indigenous peace-making, cultural conflict and judicial reasoning, indigenous women and human rights law, and cultural sovereignty.

“At ASU, Rebecca is the face of Indian law and indigenous rights because of her prominence in the field,” Humetewa said.

McPaul said Tsosie is simply the most important professor many law students will ever have. “She’s an Indian law superhero. She just needs a cape."

Study: Expressing love can improve your health

February 8, 2013

After giving a talk at a university in Texas, Kory Floyd received an unusual request from an audience member. The young man asked for a prescription for the health booster Floyd had discussed in his presentation.

It was an odd question, given that Floyd isn’t a medical doctor; he holds a doctorate in communication. And the treatment the young man wanted a prescription for was no pill or potion – it was kissing! Download Full Image

Floyd is a professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. He studies the relationship between affectionate communication and physical health. During his talk in Texas, Floyd discussed a study in which he found that kissing can lower cholesterol levels, decrease stress and increase relationship satisfaction.

“This young man was really intrigued by the kissing study. He was going to go home and tell his wife all about it. He said, ‘Well, you’re a doctor. Write a prescription and say that for my health it’s very necessary that I get kissed a whole lot more,’” says Floyd. “I said, ‘Well, I’m not that kind of doctor, but I’ll write the prescription. See what it does.’”

Kissing isn’t the only way to boost your health. Floyd and other researchers have found that communicating our positive feelings for others through words or actions offers a wide range of health benefits. These include lower stress hormones, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and a stronger immune system.

Floyd notes that these benefits happen when affection is expressed, not merely felt. And affection can be expressed in many ways, all of which are good for you. You can say “I love you,” write a letter, send a text to say “I’m thinking about you,” give a hug, kiss, hold hands, snuggle, or even do a favor that shows you care – such as finishing that chore your partner hates.

“One of the things I give as an example of the link between affection and health is the way you feel when you’re having a really horrible day, and everything’s going wrong. And in the midst of that stressful day, you see somebody that you care about and they put their arms around you and give you a hug,” he says. “That hug may not change anything about what’s going bad in your day, but it can change everything about the way you feel in that moment. It feels like all of your stress is just melting away.”

These benefits of affection apply not just to the person receiving the affection but also to the person giving it. In fact, you can get a health boost from expressing affection even if the receiver doesn’t reciprocate.

Much of Floyd’s research focuses on the stress response – that “fight or flight” reaction that can save us in times of disaster, but on a chronic level can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, digestive disorders and more.

In his lab, Floyd can induce and measure the stress response in his subjects. In one study, he found that writing a letter expressing feelings of affection lowered people’s stress levels back to normal faster than simply thinking about a loved one, journaling, meditating or doing nothing.

“That started to get us thinking about whether we would be able to find group differences between people who reported higher amounts of affection in their lives, as opposed to people who don’t,” says Floyd. “What does this mean for people who have a comparatively high level of affection in their close relationships? Do they also have differences in, say, their ability to react to stressors?”

To find out, Floyd surveyed people to measure the affection levels in their daily lives. [Take the survey for yourself.] Then he brought them into the lab to induce a stress response and measure its intensity.

He found that the highly affectionate people didn’t have as strong of a stress response as their less affectionate peers. For example, they didn’t produce as much cortisol, and their blood pressures didn’t spike as high. Being affectionate seems to offer protection against the effects of stress.

The key may be the hormone oxytocin, often known as “the bonding hormone” because it is released during activities such as sex, childbirth and breastfeeding. It is also released during nonsexual affectionate touch.

“Oxytocin’s effects on the body are primarily ones of calming, of warmth. It’s very much a feel-good hormone,” explains Floyd.

In one study, Floyd and his colleagues showed that people with more affection in their lives release more oxytocin during stress than people with very little affection. This may explain why affectionate people don’t get as stressed out as others.

Now, Floyd is moving beyond asking how affection affects the body, and asking why. He is exploring the genetic underpinnings of human affection and asking why some people are naturally more affectionate than others.

“To me, I go back to the very first human relationship that any of us ever has, and that’s with our mothers, the person who gives birth to us, who obviously has a vested interest in our survival,” he says.

He lists behaviors that a mother uses to protect and nurture her infant: holding, covering, nursing, rocking. Floyd believes these fundamental behaviors morphed into the affectionate behaviors we see in adults, such as hugging.

“These behaviors, at least nonverbally, come out of our most fundamental survival needs,” he says. In prehistoric times, before the advent of baby food, mothers even pre-chewed food to give their babies. Floyd says that as gross as that may seem today, it might be the precursor to kissing. Chew on that idea for a while!

“When I think about the ability of an affectionate act to soothe us and ameliorate our stress, I think about it as an example of a survival behavior. So that’s my theoretic picture of why affection is something that we do in the first place, where it came from, why we value it, and why we feel like we suffer when we don’t get enough,” Floyd says.

If we evolved to be affectionate, and it offers so many health benefits, why are some of us less affectionate than others? Certainly, environment plays a role. Research shows that people who are raised in affectionate families are more likely to be affectionate. And there are regional differences in terms of how people choose to express affection. These differences occur over time, as well. Floyd notes how the portrayal of affection on television has evolved drastically over the last few decades.

“What you see men do on TV today – hugging each other, for instance – you never saw Ward Cleaver do that,” he notes.

But Floyd wanted to know if there was more than environment involved. Because his earlier research showed a strong link between affection and oxytocin, he decided to look at oxytocin receptor genes. He will be presenting his results at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association in London this June.

He found that variations in one of these genes predicted variation in people’s levels of affection. This effect was extremely pronounced in people who had low attachment security.

Attachment security is a person’s level of security in personal relationships. People with high attachment security don’t worry about abandonment or, conversely, fear that they will lose themselves in their relationships. People with low attachment security, however, feel these fears acutely.

People who have low attachment security and this particular genetic variation were generally less affectionate than people without the variation. They were also less affectionate than highly secure people with the variation.

“And so another way of saying it is that we found a gene-by-environment interaction. There was a genetic effect on the oxytocin receptor gene, but it was modified by people’s attachment security, which is an environmental variable,” Floyd explains. Although Floyd notes this is only one gene among many that may influence affectionate behavior, he and his team believe the finding helps illustrate the link between genetics and social behavior.

The gene in Floyd’s study is also associated with other traits related to affection, such as empathy and altruism. The ASU scientist is currently working with people in careers where the ability to communicate affection and empathy are critical, such as nursing or counseling.

Over the past couple of years, he has worked with medical residents at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix on developing empathy and empathy communication. The residents practice on a simulated patient – a dummy controlled by a nurse who can talk to the doctor and manipulate vital signs like heart rate. The dummy also wears a video camera on its head, so the doctors can see how they appear to their patients.

“So we sit in a room afterwards and watch the video, and I’ll stop the tape at different points and say, ‘Look at what you are all doing.’ Invariably every one of them is standing at the foot of the patient’s bed with their arms crossed and a scowl on their face,” he says. “And I say, ‘What does this look like from the patient’s point of view? How easy would it be for you to not scowl, and stand there with your arms pleasantly folded in front of you?’ It’s just that they’re not aware of their behavior.”

The experience makes him wonder about who is most likely to be aware of their behavior naturally, and who is most inclined to learn those skills through training. He wants to find out if there are more effective ways to train doctors, and others, to improve their bedside manner.

Next spring, Floyd is taking a sabbatical at Stanford Medical School to continue his work. This time, he’ll genotype medical students to find out what kind of receptor genes they possess. He will connect this information with their natural or learned ability to show empathy to patients and families.

“I’m hoping we’ll be able, over time, to help educators better understand the behavioral side of empathy and affection and just showing a patient and their family that you care. Because I know that doctors do care. It just doesn’t always dawn on them to display it,” he says.

Floyd’s work has received attention outside the clinical setting, as well. He was invited to be a consultant on the “Million Moments of Touch” advertising campaign for Nivea, the skin care company, in 2012. He supplied talking points and conducted additional research for the company, which extolled the many benefits of touching.

“Basically getting people to touch more and use their products to make them more touchable,” Floyd says.

The company enlisted Dr. Drew, a medical doctor, as their celebrity spokesperson. Floyd recalls feeling amazed when he saw Dr. Drew on a talk show with Joan Rivers discussing the benefits of touch.

“It was this absolutely surreal moment because I realized I had scripted this entire interview. It’s wild when you turn on the TV and you see Joan Rivers speaking your words!” he says. “Dr. Drew did a marvelous job. He made it understandable but not dumbed down. I never in a million years would have thought of that as a way to get the message out about the importance of affection, but it did. It was a lot of fun, too!”

How affectionate are you? Take the quiz and find out.

Major funding for Floyd’s research has come from The National Institute of Mental Health. The Hugh Downs School of Human Communication is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Director, Knowledge Enterprise Development