University anthropologist receives Ecological Society of America Award

October 30, 2012

As an environmental anthropologist, Shauna BurnSilver is concerned with people’s relationships with their environment, how these relationships are changing, and what this means for vulnerability and well-being. She joined Arizona State University’s faculty last year and has already earned accolades for her research. Most recently, one of her research collaborations was recognized by the Ecological Society of America with a Sustainability Science Award.

The awarded research developed out of many discussions BurnSilver had with her fellow researchers and community collaborators about how to do better science. They wanted to implement a new collaborative method that could help alleviate poverty and support sustainable livelihoods and conservation in East African pastoral regions. Two African community members holding a map. Download Full Image

“As somebody who really cares about outcomes in terms of poverty and well-being – you can’t help but begin to really think about what your research means and how it is used,” says BurnSilver, a senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability and faculty member in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

As part of her doctoral dissertation, BurnSilver traveled to Kenya to study the Maasai people. She was part of an interdisciplinary team from Colorado State University that looked at tradeoffs between the well-being of Maasai pastoralists, livestock and wildlife populations, and ecosystem health.

A new research to action model

After completing her dissertation, BurnSilver continued to work with other scientists in Kenya who brought decades of experience to their own research projects, but who felt a lingering sense of dissatisfaction with extractive models of research that narrowly focused on scientific outcomes. BurnSilver joined researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya, Colorado State University, the University of Colorado, and Harvard University in developing a new model for collaborative research. From that experience, came the Ecological Society of America-awarded paper, “Evolution of models to support community and policy action with science: Balancing pastoral livelihoods and wildlife conservation in savannas of East Africa,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009.

The authors describe a new “research to action” model that was centered on the role of “boundary-spanning individuals.” These boundary-spanners were skilled Maasai community members and institutional facilitators who bridged gaps between local pastoralists, researchers, and policymakers, and forged linkages of experience across local, regional, and international scales.

“The science that emerges from this model of research is better science,” says BurnSilver. “For example, at the local level, you’re no longer just documenting traditional knowledge – what you’re creating is a hybrid of scientific and local knowledge that is highly relevant to community and policymaker needs and addresses critical scientific questions. Engaging people at the local level changes the way the science is done. It is a co-production of knowledge that takes place through time.”

The model’s process

In the past, many scientific researchers took an extractive approach. Scientists worked with local people, asked questions and collected data, and then returned home to publish their findings. Many never returned to their study sites to explain the results to the local inhabitants.

“Now, the people we worked with, the Maasai, are very aware that scientists come and go and make their careers on the information that’s extracted from working with them,” says BurnSilver. “One of the explicit components of this new research model assumes that this is no longer appropriate – that collaborative research simultaneously supports exemplary and innovative science, and jumps the boundary between research and action.”

Looking at the paper’s author list, you will notice almost half are Maasai. BurnSilver says this is a reflection of the critical role these boundary-spanning individuals played in creating and applying the model itself.

But putting the collaborative model in place was not automatic. Researchers took months to build and solidify relationships with local communities. It took time for Maasai community facilitators to engage local pastoralists in identifying key livelihood and conservation questions. A Maasai policy facilitator worked hard to link policymakers with research institutions. A high level of trust was established before researchers collected any data. In turn, these high levels of trust promoted engagement by the pastoralists. In the end, the International Livestock Research Institute promoted innovative research approach. All these components were key to the model’s success in the field.

“Ultimately, you know that the questions you are pursuing are directly relevant to people on the ground,” says BurnSilver. “You have incredible buy-in from people at the local level so the quality of the data you are collecting is better. By the end of this process, researchers had local pastoralists specifying their needs for particular kinds of scientific information – and this was a new and very welcomed dynamic. ”

One of the most important aims of the research was to create a model that would continue past the life of the project based on the local and global relationships among the Maasai community, research institutions, and policymakers. Additionally, the researchers suggest that the model could be applied to any type of research.

“I would argue this research to action model can be applied to any research project where scientists, policymakers, and local people are actively interested in thinking through complex questions, and making their results matter to people on the ground,” says BurnSilver.

The award

It was because of this creation of a new collaborative research model that BurnSilver and her fellow researchers were given the Ecological Society of America’s Sustainability Science Award. The award is given to the authors of a scholarly work that combines social and natural sciences to achieve regional, ecological, and cultural sustainability.

“The award is very nice validation of the work that has been done,” says BurnSilver. “It gives greater visibility to a side of science that is important but isn’t often recognized. The new model is an invisible process that was made visible, based on this award.”

When asked what the advantages are to using this model, BurnSilver replied, “The collaborative process becomes an end in itself – it is so much more rewarding, and I believe it will get us closer to sustainable livelihoods for people and landscapes.”

Researchers develop more reliable concussion tests

October 31, 2012

It could happen during a nasty spill on the ski slopes, a hard tackle at football practice, or even a car accident. ASU nursing student Sarah Hollowell sustained her concussion playing intramural softball, when she took a hit from a ball right between the eyes.

“I had a bad headache, short-term memory loss, late reactions, was unbalanced and sometimes I would confuse words,” says Hollowell. Download Full Image

After toughing out her symptoms for a week, Hollowell decided it was time to see a sports medicine doctor. There, she completed tests such as remembering a few words and repeating them, and walking back and forth in a straight line. It didn’t take long for her doctor to diagnose a severe concussion.

Since there is no treatment for concussions, doctors rely on the “wait-and-see” approach. Hollowell was told not to drive or exercise as long as she had symptoms. She also took weekly online assessments to gauge her memory and reaction time.

After about a month, Hollowell’s test scores had improved and she felt better. By current medical standards, this constitutes a full recovery. But the absence of symptoms can be misleading when it comes to concussions, explains David Dodick, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic.

“We know from highly specialized imaging of the brain that there is a lag or a delay from the time people report their symptoms are gone and the time the brain has actually metabolically recovered from a concussion,” Dodick says.

Concussion patients can experience a diverse array of symptoms. Some, like Hollowell, have bad headaches and short-term memory loss. Others say they feel “fuzzy” and irritable, or have trouble sleeping. These vague symptoms don’t always point to an obvious culprit, which can result in undiagnosed concussions.

“There is no objective, physiological marker for concussion that’s reliable, cost-effective and efficient,” like the blood test used to diagnose diabetes, Dodick says. Neither is there a simple, reliable test to determine when the brain has recovered. This can be particularly dangerous for people at high risk for experiencing multiple concussions, like athletes.

“When concussions occur repeatedly, over time they have a cumulative effect, which can be quite devastating,” says Julie Liss, a professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science, part of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Dodick has seen this disturbing effect firsthand.

“I just saw one 23-year-old patient today who had experienced three concussions playing basketball, recovered nicely from all of them, but the fourth concussion she had two years ago has rendered her unable to work the past two years,” he says.

Cases like this have spurred recent legislation requiring medical clearance for student athletes to return to play after they’ve suffered a concussion. That means health care providers could face legal liability if their patients get back in the game too soon.

“I don’t want to be responsible for returning your child to play competitive sports prematurely, because the next concussion they get could either kill them or permanently disable them,” Dodick says. “School districts are nervous now, athletic trainers are nervous, coaches are nervous, physicians are nervous, and well they should be.”

Concussions are a contentious topic on the professional level, as well. Right now in the United States, more than 3,500 retired National Football League players are suffering from the effects of multiple cumulative concussions.

Together, they are filing a class-action lawsuit against the NFL.

Liss and Dodick want to find a solution to ensure the safety of concussion patients. Combining her expertise in the speech and hearing sciences with his medical background, the researchers have teamed up to develop a sensitive neurological test for diagnosing concussions and determining when a patient’s brain has truly healed. They are currently testing their method on patients from the concussion clinic at Mayo.

Liss and Dodick fit a patient’s scalp with an array of electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes. The electrodes pick up on very low-level electrical activity the brain gives off as neurons are firing. With the electrodes secured, a patient listens to statements spoken by a computer and must determine whether those statements are true or false. For example, the computer might say, “apples are fruits.”

In some trials, the computerized speech is clear and easy to understand. But on other trials the speech is distorted, making it more difficult or even impossible to understand. This type of speech-recognition task requires the integration of multiple brain functions that occur in different regions of the brain.

“Listeners have to concentrate really hard and pull together all these pieces of information so they can understand what’s being said. It requires a lot of brain activity,” Liss explains.

Tools doctors use routinely, like a CAT scan or MRI, can’t pick up on subtle disruptions in metabolic or structural brain integrity. That’s why Dodick and Liss chose the more sensitive and precise EEG electrodes, which feed into a computer program and provide a kind of map of the brain.

Patients will be tested within the first couple of weeks of their concussions, then again when they report feeling better, which is referred to as clinical recovery. About six weeks after that, Liss and Dodick will use another form of testing to verify that the patient’s brain has actually healed. Then they will run the speech test again to see if the new results correspond with the patient’s brain recovery. If there is a meaningful difference, Liss and Dodick will know their test works as it should.

Over the course of a year, the researchers will collect data from 20 to 30 subjects and compare those results to non-concussed individuals. If the speech recognition test proves to be effective, it will provide doctors with a simple, objective and cost-effective tool for diagnosing concussions and declaring patients healed.

“Identifying biomarkers of recovery will give us a better idea of when intervention should happen and possibly even the nature of intervention,” Liss says. “Understanding concussions allows us to potentially ward off a whole epidemic of cognitive and emotional problems in, for example, kids who play soccer and those kinds of things.”

Written by Allie Nicodemo, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development

Director, Knowledge Enterprise Development