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Counseling Psychology team helps girls “see the best” in themselves

Dr Britney Brinkman Chatham University
Project members included Whitney Ringwald (University of Pittsburgh); Ashley Dandridge, PsyD; Britney Brinkman, Ph.D.; Sara Goodkind, Ph.D. (University of Pittsburgh); Kelsey Johnson, MSCP; Samantha Marino, MAP

In September 2016, a troubling report was released. It begins:

“Until very recently, little public attention has been focused on understanding the ways Black girls and women experience institutional racism and sexism. Over the last year, the national conversation about the experiences of Black girls has gained momentum. This report is an attempt to share some troubling local data in order to support additional conversation and draw public attention to these issues. Among its findings:

  • Black girls are suspended from the Pittsburgh Public Schools at more than three times the rate of white girls.
  • Black girls are referred to juvenile court three times more often than white girls nationally. In Allegheny County, it’s 11 times more often.”[1]

While black females are not incarcerated at the rate of black males, that’s not to say they fare better in schools. The phrase “pushout” is used to describe institutionalized racism and sexism that results in inequitable treatment of black girls in school, and the subsequent effects on their lives.

From this, it seems clear that furthering understanding of the girls’ lives—and of the girls themselves—is key to combatting institutionalized prejudice. And who better to tell you about that than, well—them?

“There’s a surge of research on African American girls right now, but we want to make sure that the body of research is informed by girls’ direct perspectives,” says Britney Brinkman, Ph.D., associate professor of counseling psychology and co-founder of Chatham’s Psychology of Gender Research Team.

In January 2017, Dr. Brinkman, along with the University of Pittsburgh’s Dr. Sara Goodkind, launched a project as part of local non-profit Gwen’s Girls “See the Best in Me” campaign. “See the Best in Me” is an initiative focused on self-esteem, critical thinking, and advocacy skills that enable girls to better understand and express themselves about the issues that affect them daily.

The project involved about 80 girls, who participated in Gwen’s Girls after-school programs. They used a research method called photovoice to capture their experiences. “Rather than responding to questionnaires or focus group prompts, photovoice offers a broader way of expression, through photos but also drawing, poetry, and collage,” says team member Jeremy Holdorf, MSCP ’18.

For about six months, Dr. Brinkman, Holdorf, and the other members of the team met periodically with the girls to talk about how the photographing is going, bat around ideas, troubleshoot technology mishaps, and otherwise touch base.

The program culminated in a gallery exhibit at Chatham that ran from June 6-9. The exhibit displayed these photos by 26 girls, along with drawings and notecards from a workshop that included over 80 girls.  The goal was to share the work with as many people as possible, to counteract negative stereotypes and get more positive messages out into the community.

exhibit-33“We wanted to help kids connect their individual experiences to group experience,” explains Dr. Brinkman. “To help them see that it’s not just them; that other black girls might be having similar experiences. It lets us not only learn from individual experiences, but also paint a bigger picture of what’s going on.”

Dr. Brinkman takes an individualized approach to mentoring research assistants. “Part of our mentoring is getting to know each student, their strengths and growth edges. Jeremy has an MFA in film and video, and we’ve worked on how to connect these skills to psychology. Another team member has worked at Gwen’s Girls, and with her, it’s like ‘You’ve worked with these girls the most, so tell us when we’re missing something, and we’ll help develop your competencies in research methods.’ I love it when our team members have different strengths and our team is collaborative.”

Chatham University’s Masters of Science in Counseling Psychology and Doctor of Psychology in Counseling Psychology programs focus on the professional, intellectual, and personal growth of students, emphasizing human-centered values as well as evidence-informed treatment approaches. 

[1] Goodkind, Sara. (2016). Inequities Affecting Black Girls in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Pittsburgh, PA: FISA Foundation & The Heinz Endowments.

 

independent monitoring for quality

“What Independent Monitoring For Quality (IM4Q) allows us to do,” says Chatham Professor of Counseling Psychology Anthony Goreczny, PhD, “is to help improve the quality of life for people who have historically not had much choice or opportunity to do so.”

IM4Q is an information-gathering method used in Pennsylvania to improve the lives of individuals with an intellectual or developmental disability. The state has contracted with Chatham to conduct this research in Allegheny, Washington, and Greene counties. Dr. Goreczny is principal investigator for that work.

goreczny-anthony“Here’s how it works,” he says. “Each year, we receive a list—a random sample of individuals who are receiving services through Pennsylvania’s Office of Developmental Programs. Then we go out and interview them in teams of two. Typically, one of the two will be an individual with an intellectual disability (ID), or a family member of an individual with ID. We interview folks in their home, or wherever else they’d like to be interviewed, and ask them how satisfied they are with their lives, and with the services they’re receiving.”

“And we ask them an important question: what would improve your quality of life?”

“They might say that they want to go to a Pirates game, or to go to church services more often, or to take a college course of some sort,” he says. “We submit their request to the county, and the support coordinator has 45 days to take action toward making it happen.”

“When we first started, a lot of participants were interested in moving,” says Dr. Goreczny. “Now, there seems to be a movement toward empowerment and self-improvement for people with ID. Instead of just accepting their lot, they’re saying ‘I want better’ and it’s really neat. They want to take a college class, learn how to vote, become more integrated and included in the general community.”

Dr. Goreczny considers individuals with disabilities to be underserved yet rewarding populations to work with. “When it comes to people who want to go into the helping people professions, there tend to be three groups of people that they don’t want to work with: older adults, the chronically mentally ill, and people with developmental disabilities. However, research has shown that when we bring people into the fold of working with these populations during their training, it opens up a whole arena that they’d never considered working with.”

“I’ve had several people say to me that they never thought of this as a population they’d want to work with, but now it’s all they want to do.”

Dr. Goreczny estimates that over 100 Chatham students have been involved in IM4Q, both graduate and undergraduate, and their degrees of participation vary with their interest and availability. Chatham students conduct interviews, enter and analyze data, and even publish in scientific journals based on work they’ve done through the program.

“IM4Q gives them in-depth interviewing skills, and also the opportunity to do more research analysis,” he says. “Students who work on the project really feel good about it.”

One of these students is Terrie Haggey, PsyD ‘21, who came to Chatham from Maine for the Master of Psychology program and for the opportunity to work with Dr. Goreczny on the IM4Q program. She co-conducts interviews, and serves as the coordinator for IM4Q Washington county.

“Chatham was one of very few programs I found that has an emphasis on research with people with intellectual disability,” she says. “I’m already working on a couple of studies with Dr. Goreczny, and I haven’t even finished my Master’s degree yet.”

This summer, Haggey will be presenting results from a study at the annual American Psychological Association conference in Washington, DC, focusing on how the overlap of intellectual disabilities with physical or behavioral disabilities affects quality of life. “We in the United States have done very little research on this,” she says.

For Haggey’s doctoral work, she’s interested in looking at co-morbidities of mental health and intellectual disability, particularly with regard to what types of treatments individuals are getting. “It’s about healthcare equity,” she says. “Even when people with ID have access to healthcare, providers aren’t necessarily trained to work with them, so they’re maybe not getting the care that they could.”

Chatham University’s Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) in Counseling Psychology program is one of a small number of APA-accredited Counseling Psychology PsyD programs in the nation. The program includes three years of coursework and practicum experiences, followed by a one-year internship.

 

 

An emoji is worth…what, exactly?

emojis1

It’s not every day that Vogue magazine wants to talk to a Chatham researcher, but Assistant Professor of Psychology Monica Riordan, PhD was ready. Dr. Riordan studies computer-mediated communication (such as texts, instant messaging, and emails), and she recently published a study in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology about emojis—the little pictures of everything from a thumbs-up to a salamander to the Romanian flag that we see on our phone screens and computer monitors.

Some people think that emojis grew out of emoticons, combinations of punctuation that help writers communicate the emotion behind a text or an email. The smile is a common one: :) In fact, many computer programs (including Microsoft Word) automatically replace emoticons with emojis: in the case of the colon + right parenthesis, it’s replaced with a smiley face.

“But if you look at all the 2000+ emojis that exist, only a small percentage of them are faces,” says Dr. Riordan. “The vast majority are objects. It begs the question, what are these non-face emojis for? What do they communicate?”

To investigate this question, Dr. Riordan worked with students to develop a set of texts that they could imagine receiving (“ecologically valid,” in psychology-speak), and paired the texts with zero, one, two or three emojis. She then showed the texts to study participants and asked them to rate how much of each of eight emotions (joy, trust, fear, surprise, anger, sadness, disgust, and anticipation) was present in the text message.

The results surprised her.

“It’s intuitive that if you use a smiley emoji, it will make you seem happier,” says Dr. Riordan. “But it’s not quite as intuitive that an emoji of a tree should suddenly make people seem happier, and yet they seem to. I was really surprised that of all eight emotions that I looked at, joy just significantly increased every single time.

“People just seem more joyful when they use emojis, no matter what that emoji is.”

Cara Gillotti, Senior Writer at Chatham University: Why do you think that might be?

MR: I think it adds an element of playfulness. If you’re really angry about something, you don’t play with language, right? You’re very terse, very to the point. Emojis are a form of art. They’re a form of playing with language.

CG: Do you think that’s their main purpose?

MR: I think emojis are used in a few ways. For one, they might be used to disambiguate meaning. For example, if I send you a text that just says “Party time!”, that could mean a baby shower, a graduation party—you don’t know. But if I include an emoji of two beer glasses clinking, it tells you more about what kind of party it’s going to be. But of course the extent to which they do that depends on which emoji you use, for example, a balloon emoji may not differentiate.

I was working closely with a former student—who is now in the Quantitative Psychology PhD program at Notre Dame—and we spent many hours talking about what emojis mean. She showed me a text she got from a friend that said “See you later” with a unicorn emoji after it, and I was like “What does that mean?” It turns out that they had negotiated the meaning of the unicorn emoji to be a personality signature, like a hidden understanding, a shared joke just between the two of them. And I found that really interesting, and we put together this theory, that by having this hidden meaning inside joke emoji, you’re almost performing your role as a friend, saying “we’re besties.”

The meaning of emojis is negotiated and changes over time. Emojis rise and fall in popularity, more emojis are made, and some emojis are deleted from the favorites list. In these ways, they are a lot like words, and have become a language unto themselves.

Emojis can also be great timesavers in terms of acting out social roles too. Let’s say you’re part of a sales team that just won an award. You could go down to the office and give everyone a high-five, or you could type a couple trophies, a couple of high fives, and text them to everybody, and you’re “present” in that moment.

And sometimes emojis have no meaning whatsoever, sometimes they’re just like rainbows and flowers and whatever else. I have nothing else to say so I’m just going to text you a bunch of emojis in a row.

CG: So we don’t always know what emojis mean.

MR: Nope. In fact, people who are older than college age tend to think of emojis as pictograms—that they represent the actual object. And this can lead to misunderstandings, because the people who use emojis more often actually consider them to be more like ideograms. Which means they don’t represent a trophy in reality, they represent the idea of being a champion, the idea of winning.

CG: How can we tell whether they’re used as pictograms or ideograms? 

MR: Apple recently came out with an upgrade to the iPhone that suggests emojis for words you type in a text— if you text “tree”, it will suggest replacing that word with an emoji of a tree. The problem is, most people don’t do this. The most common place for an emoji is at the end of a text, not in the middle, and rarely in place of words. They’re used as punctuation.

CG: Interesting. 

MR: Yeah. So, because emojis are often seen as ideograms, we can never really know what they mean. With some, there’s almost like a cultural-level negotiation of their meaning.  I thought it was really interesting that negotiation happens at the cultural level, and also at the interpersonal level, like with my former student and her best friend.

emojis2

CG: I looked at one of the papers your studies references, and was intrigued by the finding that texts that end with periods are actually seen as being less sincere. 

MR: One of my students told me that she uses a period to specifically end a conversation. When you’re face and face with someone, you walk away and the conversation ends. But conversations over text message can go on perpetually. Maybe there’s a delay, and 20 minutes later you get a message. It’s a constant, ongoing conversation. So she feels that if she wants to end the conversation, she puts a period there to show that we are now closing.

CG: So it’s a deliberate decision that she’s making?  

MR: Exactly. And it’s so interesting to me that it’s using punctuation in a completely different way. It’s not ending a sentence; it’s ending a conversation.

CG: In your study, did you find that three emojis—trophies, for example—correlated with more joy than two trophies?

MR: No, interestingly—if we look at the trophy, joy went up almost an entire point from zero emojis to one emoji. But two emojis were basically the same as one emoji, and when you added a third, it went up only about another three-quarters of a point. So it looks like the important thing is whether an emoji is included, not the number of emojis. Only rarely did adding more emojis make an emotion more intense.

If you look online, you will find like the “laughing while crying” emoji three times in a row, and that’s supposed to indicate the intensity of the emotion. But in reality, most of the time we’re not really feeling the ways that we’re communicating that we’re feeling. It’s all a complete performance, so you’re performing the social role.

CG: Do people use emojis in emails?

MR: It is extremely infrequent. Most people – especially teenagers and 20-somethings don’t email their friends or family. To them, email is strictly something they use for professional correspondence.

CG: Are you thinking about extending this line of research?

MR: Yes, I am. So, if my father or mother sends me an eggplant emoji, I know they don’t mean certain associated meanings. But if a friend sends it, I think “she knows what that means!” I judge the meaning of the emoji based on the person who sends it. It’s obviously very complex, but I think I’d like to untangle some of the relationships between context and emoji use, and meaning of the emojis of that context.

Read Vogue’s coverage of the study here.

This study was funded by a Chatham faculty research grant. Chatham University’s undergraduate psychology program allows students to explore contemporary theory and research in psychology while thinking scientifically about behavior and mental processes, appreciating and respecting others and their differences, and to pursue a variety of career paths or graduate school.

global food garden at Eden Hall Campus

global-food-garden_crop

The idea started in the “Food Culture and History” course taught by Alice Julier, PhD, Program Director and Associate Professor in the Master of Arts Food Studies program in Chatham’s Falk School of Sustainability & Environment.

“As part of the course, students are assigned a region of the world, and they research the cuisine and culinary practices of a part of it,” says Alice. “What I’ve found over the years is that they need to talk about the ingredients that go into those cuisines. Imagine places that consume a lot of rice, potatoes, corn—those staple crops define cuisines. So now, we focus on the agriculture as much as the culture.”

Thus was the Global Food Garden born. It’s a fenced-in 26,205 sq. feet, right by the Lodge, north of the old glass greenhouse. The Garden’s current caretaker, Jenalee Schenk, is a two-time Chatham alumna, having graduated in 2010 with a BA in Professional Communication and Visual Arts, and in 2012 as a member of the first cohort of the Master of Arts in Food Studies program.

Some of the Global Food Garden’s highlights:

Latin American garden
• Purple and pink Peruvian potatoes
• Ten varieties of chiles
• Tomatillos
• Jicama
• Mexican midget tomatoes
• Mexican sunflowers
• Epazote (an herb that aids digestion)
• Cape gooseberries, also known as ground cherries

Mexican sunflowers
Mexican sunflowers

“One of our students from Guatemala wanted to try a traditional meso-American agro-forestry crop design,” says John R. Taylor, PhD, assistant professor of Sustainable Agroecology. “We had been looking for a place to plant corn, so we decided to do it as a traditional ‘three sisters garden’ from Native American culture.” The three sisters are corn, beans, and squash. Corn shades the beans and provides a pole for their vines to climb. Beans provide nitrogen for the corn and help to stabilize the plants; and the squash provides a heavily shaded ground cover to prevent soil moisture from evaporating.

John walks me through other field experiments that the students have set up. “It looks like the Brandywine tomatoes are susceptible to early blight,” he says. “But that’s farming, right? You’re constantly experimenting.” Students are evaluating not only eight different varieties of tomatoes, but also methods of spacing them—double vs. single row, high density, vs. lower density.

Ethiopian garden
Teff is a traditional Ethiopian grain crop with tiny little seeds, and right now it looks like elegant, long, brown fronds taking a sweeping bow. “It was really beautiful until it rained really hard and all fell over,” laughs John. Also featured in the Ethiopian garden:

• Collard greens
• Ethiopian ground pepper
• Herbs and spices including cilantro and black cumin
• An Abyssinian red banana that came from e-bay. “It doesn’t really have an edible banana, and is mostly used for fiber,” he says. “But during times of food shortage, you can eat the interior of the stem. It’s edible-ish.”

Abyssinian red banana
Abyssinian red banana

Pan-Asian garden
“We have some Thai crops, some Chinese crops,” says John. “A lot of what we’re doing here is new to us. For instance, this pink Thai tomato looks like it’s starting to ripen, but I’m not really sure when it’s ripe.”

• Sesame
• Lemongrass
• Adzuki beans
• Asian varieties of eggplants
• Different varieties of peppers
• Thai basil
• Bunching onions
• Thai baby watermelons. “I was trying to get them to grow up this trellis, but they seem to just want to trail. Maybe they’ll help suppress some of the weeds,” says John.

Thai baby watermelon
Thai baby watermelon

The ranges of varieties are part of the research component of the Global Food Garden. “We’re looking at not only interspecies but also intraspecies crop variety,” says John. “For example, here we’re comparing two varieties of cabbage – Chinese and Napa. We’re looking at criteria like weight, flavor, and disease/insect resistance. These Napa cabbage are like little insect motels. The leaves are loose enough that they just get in there. They’re beautiful, but not very insect resistant,” he laughs.

The Global Food Garden is also hosting three different verities of rice – a Japanese sushi variety, a variety called Carolina Gold that was brought by enslaved people to the southern US in 1700s, and Russian variety called Duborskian. “Rice doesn’t need to be grown in a paddy, and we’re trying to see if we can propagate it here,” says Alice. “We are a world of immigrants, and we migrate.”

What are the plans for the crops grown in the Global Food Garden? “In the fall, we’ll use some of the crops in different classes, for example, in a fermentation course. I’ll probably focus on medicinal herbs,” says Alice. Some of the plants will be moved into the greenhouse. In tropical climates, crops such as tomatoes are perennials; not so here.

But that comes later. “The first thing we’re going to do is have a feast when the new students get here,” says Alice. “It’s one of the ways we share what we’re doing with our new students and with our returning students. Take everything out of the garden and have a fantastic party.”

Chatham’s Master of Arts in Food Studies in the Falk School of Sustainability emphasizes a holistic approach to food systems, from agriculture and food production to cuisines and consumption, providing intellectual and practical experience from field to table.

Sniffing around brooklyn

_MG_0139---Version-2

Note: This story originally appeared in the Chatham University Spring 2016 Recorder alumni magazine. 

As with so many New York stories— at least in the movies—it began with a gun. A 3,200-pound custom-built breakfast cereal-puffing gun, in fact, that traveled the city demonstrating how grains get puffed into cereal. It was a mobile exhibition called BOOM! The Puffing Gun and the Rise of Cereal, the year was 2013, and the gunslinger was the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD). In 2014, MOFAD moved into a space in Brooklyn, began thinking about onsite exhibitions, and hired Catherine Piccoli, a 2012 graduate of Chatham’s Master of Arts in Food Studies program, as program associate.

For Catherine, a social and cultural historian who focuses on food, it’s an ideal match. She would be the first to tell you she’s felt that click before. After completing a bachelor’s in social and cultural history at Carnegie Mellon, her next steps weren’t clear. “I had been thinking and reading deeply about food,” she says, “but neither culinary school nor working in a restaurant appealed to me. I didn’t know what the other options were. One day I saw a newspaper ad for the food studies program, and it was like a light bulb—this is me, this is what I want to do. I can study food and continue to focus on history and social and cultural phenomena.”

In the food studies program, Catherine focused on writing and communication and explored the interplay of food and history through culture. She completed internships at the Heinz History Center, at an environmental radio show, and at a community food pantry.

During the program I was constantly challenged,” she says. “Things that I had thought were constantly being blown open. Not just about food, but about cultures, poverty, and social justice. I know it’s cliché to say, but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. History, culture, science and technology, production, commerce–because of the Food Studies program, I feel like I can speak knowledgeably about all of these things, and I’m confident bringing them into my job.”

In the summer of 2012, Catherine moved to Brooklyn. She began contributing her research skills as a volunteer at MOFAD, and the rest is history—the history of food and culture that Catherine researched, documented, and helped craft into MOFAD’s first on-site exhibition, Flavor: Making It and Faking It. Flavor: Making It and Faking It is a collection of interactive stories and experiences that build toward a holistic understanding of the modern flavor industry. It’s a huge topic that has been thoughtfully calibrated to the space available—a cavernous, one-room, 3000-square foot former car park.

2Flavor_Wheel_vector_noflavors[1]

The exhibition starts with a short video about how the nose and mouth work together to produce flavor. Taste refers to what we perceive through the tongue; flavor refers to the interplay of taste and smell. In fact, most flavor comes from the aroma of food when it’s in your mouth. As you chew, aroma molecules drift toward the back of your throat, up an airway that connects to your nose, and are processed and received by receptors in the brain, just as though they had been inhaled through your nose.

EXHIBIT: LEARNING TO FAKE IT: VANILLA AND THE BIRTH OF THE FLAVOR INDUSTRY
“Initially, you could only get vanilla from the bean of the vanilla orchid, grown primarily in Mexico, which flowers for only one day,” says Catherine. She gestures at a vanilla orchid under a glass bel and introduces Vanessa the Vanilla Orchid. “Taking care of her is one of my duties,” she says. “I spent a lot of time on the phone with Larry at Larry’s Orchards in Michigan.”

In the 1870s, two German chemists realized that vanillin—the chemical that gave vanilla its aroma—could also be made from pine tree bark. And from wood pulp, from clove oil, from paper pulp, and, from coal. That meant that vanilla had gone from being a rare and carefully cultivated substance to something that could be mass-produced. The exact same chemical compound is found in the vanilla bean and produced in the lab. Today it’s the most popular flavor in the world.

vanillin

The exhibition also features a large tablet-making machine, of the sort that MOFAD used to make small tablets of different flavors that are available in tablet-dispensing machines throughout the exhibition. Visitors can sample and compare a vanilla bean-based tablet with a synthetic vanillin-based tablet. “Lots of people prefer the synthetic one, because it’s what they’re used to,” says Catherine.

EXHIBIT: UMAMI: SEAWEED AND THE DISCOVERY OF A NEW TASTE
Umami is the most recently identified primary taste whose Japanese name translates to something akin to deliciousness. A Japanese chemist discovered MSG (monosodium glutamate) as he was trying to replicate the flavor of an edible seaweed. “Glutamate intensifies the savory taste of food,” says Catherine, and beginning in the 1920s, MSG was marketed to food manufacturers and cafeterias as a way of adding flavor back to foods post-processing.

The Japanese army was also interested in using it to make bland, nutritious food taste good. “This is the moment in our story when the flavor industry and the food industry start becoming inseparable,” says Catherine.

Tablets allow visitors to compare umami tastes of tomato, mushroom, and seaweed with manmade

EXHIBIT: TASTE MAKERS: THE ART & SCIENCE OF FLAVOR CREATION
Along the back wall of the exhibition is one of its biggest draws, the Smell Synth—a kind of control panel where visitors can create and experience combinations of smells. It’s a simplified version of the kind of machine that allows olfaction scientists to mix and sample new smells. MOFAD asked David Michael, a Philadelphia flavor company, to choose no more than 20 compounds that visitors could use to create as many smells as possible. Because the compounds have names like “ethyl acetate” and “gamma hexalactone,” Catherine helped come up with user-friendly descriptors of how the compounds smelled, including green, leaf; cheesy vomit; earthy, hazelnut; and boozy.

The Smell Synth houses 19 glass containers, each of which contains a scent chemical compound. When you press a button, the machine opens a valve and blows scented air through a pipe to your nose. Pressing several buttons at once allows you to combine aromas to mimic a common smell. Above the control panel are “recipes” for aroma chords (Maple, brown + butter, sweet cream = pancakes). Catherine helped to “write” these recipes, too.

kid

Through the lens of flavor, the exhibition invites us to consider broader concepts. In this historical and cultural moment, it’s easy to decry the artificial as inferior to the organic, but the synthesis of vanillin brought the sweet, beloved taste of vanilla to people all over the world. We’re also invited to consider the divide between what is “natural”and what is “artificial,” and how those concepts might relate to what we call “real.” “I think there’s a lot of confusion around food,” Catherine says. “Chemicals is not a scary word. Chemicals make up the sky, my mom, soup! The same chemical is the same chemical, whether it’s found in a food or in a test tube.”

Chatham’s Master of Arts in Food Studies in the Falk School of Sustainability emphasizes a holistic approach to food systems, from agriculture and food production to cuisines and consumption, providing intellectual and practical experience from field to table.

The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement comes to Pittsburgh Public Schools

Brashear High School Food Service Employees are starting their day with the power of protein! Cafeteria Manager, Kathy Harris (center), uses the #milklife campaign to get kids to drink more unflavored milk at lunch.
Brashear High School Food Service Employees are starting their day with the power of protein! Cafeteria Manager, Kathy Harris (center), uses the #milklife campaign to get kids to drink more unflavored milk at lunch.

Simple changes in the environment can lead to healthier lunchtime choices. That’s the thinking behind the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement (SLM), a program started in 2009 by researchers at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition. In a study funded by Highmark, Chatham graduate student Dani Lyons, Master of Arts in Food Studies ’16 teamed up with food services dietician Elizabeth Henry to bring it to 19,000 children across all 56 elementary, middle, and high schools in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system in 2015. This work comprised Dani’s Master’s thesis, and her final report can be read here.

Questions of who has access to what kind of food play out in an interesting manner in public schools.” – Dani Lyons, MAFS ’16

The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement borrows a concept from behavioral economics: hot-state vs. cold-state decision making. In cold-state decision making, we’re more likely to weigh pros and cons and consider long-term consequences of our actions. In contrast, hot-state decision-making favors the quickest, easiest, most immediately satisfying option. It tends to be the default setting in children, exacerbated during periods of time pressure and academic and social stress, like in a school lunchroom.

SLM aims to game hot-state decision making by making healthy choices more visible and more appealing. To that end, Dani and Elizabeth worked with local school food services staff to implement four initiatives, one per week for four consecutive weeks:

1. Menu boards
Large, wet-erase black whiteboards placed at the beginning of the lunch line let students know what’s available before they confronted it later in the line. This built-in pause offers an opportunity for them to consider what they might like to eat, lessening the chance that they’ll make a spur-of-the-moment decision.  “Research suggests that if you prime students for a meal advertised to be delicious, students are more likely to eat the healthy food to take because they expect it to taste good,” says Dani.

2. Cool names
Giving foods fun, memorable names can increase their appeal to students. Schools were given signs with photos and slogans advertising Game-Changing Green Beans, #BOSS Baked Beans, and Smoky Chipotle Bean Salsa. Some schools invited students to name foods themselves. 
beechwood elementary signs3. Putting white milk first
At least one-third of all milk in each cooler was white milk, and it was the first in each line or in the front of the cake. Lunchroom banners and posters advertised the “MilkLife” campaign.

4. Improving visibility of fruits and vegetables
Schools were given tablecloths, fruit bowls and “fruit chutes”—wire chutes that hold and dispense whole fruits—and other ways to emphasize fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria line were suggested.
university prep fruits veggies

Before the interventions, Dani conducted an 8-hour training session for PPS food service mangers and other staff members about the Smarter Lunchroom Movement, introducing them to the four interventions. There was also a one-hour follow-up training session.

Results
To assess the study’s efficacy, Dani interviewed ten food service managers, and the team gathered observational data pertaining to how well the lunchroom adhered to best practices at ten of the schools schools, and did before-and-after analyses of how much food from students’ plates was being thrown away, and of computerized food sales and ordering data.

Dani and Elizabeth found that in every area, scores increased from the baseline data to the follow-up data, by a minimum of 12.2% and at most, 38.6%. “Milk drinking increased,” says Dani, “as well as the proportion of white to flavored milk chosen. Vegetable choice increased, and we saw kids who chose more than one vegetable tended to eat them both.”

She points out that while they only collected follow-up data from 10 of the 57 schools, there’s reason to believe that the other schools would also have seen an average increase in all areas as well, since all schools received the same training, materials, and instruction for implementation.

Dani acknowledges the challenges that schools face in getting students to make good lunchtime selections. “Half of the schools don’t have a kitchen,” she says. “And they don’t use plastic trays, so students have to carry their food. That’s another obstacle—kindergartners can’t carry their lunch in their hands.”

Tips for parents who are trying to get their kids to eat more healthily at home? “Managing serving size is probably the most effective thing you can do,” says Dani. “We know it’s economical to buy in bulk, but then we find ourselves eating out of the package. So divide trail mix into individual servings and store them that way. Also, when we use smaller serving utensils and smaller plates, we serve ourselves less. The opposite holds true, too—if you want your kids to eat more salad, buy larger salad prongs.”

Among her favorite courses in the Food Studies program, Dani counts U.S. Agricultural Policy (“We learned the Farm Bill inside and out and took a trip to DC to meet with lobbyists, researchers, and other people involved in the politics of food and agriculture.”) and The Politics of Chocolate (“We focused on labor practices; marketing; parallels with tea and coffee; and human rights. And I got to design, produce, and market my own chocolate bar, which was delicious.”). After graduation, she plans to work in school food administration or in school food policy at local and state levels. “That may sound very boring to some people,” Dani laughs. “But I find it fascinating.”

Learn more about the study at www.smarterlunchroompps.tumblr.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the Aquaculture Lab

Roy Weitzell, PhD (back row, second from right) leads a tour of the Aquaculture Lab.
Roy Weitzell, PhD (back row, second from right) leads a tour of the Aquaculture Lab.

Aquaculture—the farming of marine organisms, including fish, shellfish, turtles, and plants—is responsible for more than half of all seafood eaten worldwide,[1] and getting bigger. It’s widely seen as the most efficient way to provide protein to the rapidly growing global population, slated to reach over 10 billion people by 2050. The rapid growth in global aquaculture production has created questions of long-term sustainability in aquaculture.

Falk School Aquatic  Lab Director Roy Weitzell, PhD is ready.

The Lab is loud. Not factory-loud, but it’s abundantly clear that things are happening. As befits Eden Hall Campus, these things are powered entirely by energy generated on campus. Water is cooled or heated on demand using the geothermal heating system, electricity is generated by solar panels, and Roy hopes to eventually use Eden Hall crops to make fish pellets. Perhaps most impressively, between 98 and 99 percent of the 5000 or so gallons of water is recycled in a continual process of filtering within the Lab (the other one to two percent is used to water plants across campus or treated in the campus sanitation system and re-infiltrated into the local aquifer).

“It’s a great example of how all these sustainable systems can come together and support serious infrastructure in a relatively small space,” says Roy. The lab is divided into three main parts: fish tanks, aquaponics and research stacks.

Aquaculture tanks
The space is dominated by three large, round fish tanks holding a total of about 1500 gallons of water. Combined, they’re able to hold around 850-1000 foot-long rainbow trout. Having three tanks allows Roy and his students to research how fish-related variables (e.g., coloration, taste, texture, size, and growth rate) are affected by environmental variables (e.g., insect-based vs. plant-based fish food, amount fed, and water source). Roy notes that the lab is able to culture a range of cold-water and warm-water species.fish

Fish from the tanks will also be used by Eden Hall Chef Chris Galarza and his team to create meals for the EHC community and special products, such as a “signature smoked trout spread.” Roy also looks forward to working with the Falk School’s Food Studies Department, mentioning an Asian fish paste as a possible initiative that the Lab could help support. 

Aquaponics
Aquaponics—a portmanteau made from aquaculture and hydroponics—refers to the mutually beneficial growing of fish and plants together in one physically interconnected system. Here’s how it works:

  1. Waste is collected from the fish tank, and pumped to the growing beds.
  2. Bacteria in the growing beds transform ammonia from the waste into nitrate, which makes an ideal plant fertilizer.
  3. Plants filter nutrients (nitrate and macronutrients) from the water, and the water is returned to the tank.

“Aquaponics has a lot of backyard hobbyists. It’s very easy to do, cost-effective, and there are a lot of resources to help,” Roy says, mentioning Pittsburgh Aquaponics as one of them. Chatham’s system was built by four students in the Falk School’s Agroecology and Sustainable Aquaculture classes.

In the growing beds, plants are embedded in a bed of expanded clay pellets. “We use these because they’re very light, easy to work with, and the porous surface provides more space for bacteria to grow,” notes Roy. Come fall, students will be using the system to grow collard greens (also chard, peppers, tomatoes, basil, etc.).

Roy estimates that the aquaponics system will be able to grow 40 tilapias from one to two inches to “plate size” in four to five months. “But that’s part of the grand experiment,” he says. “We’ll be adjusting variables to see where we get the best results.”

You’re basically recreating what nature does on its own, but could never do it at this density. Growing a lot of fish in a small space lets us feed more people.”

Eventually, Roy hopes to add insects and worms to the food they feed the fish. “They’re nutritionally dense, and their larvae are an ideal food source,” he says, adding that worms in the growing beds can also help break down organic material.

Research stacks
Toward the back of the Lab are the “research stacks” – aisles of many small tanks stacked together (“sort of like a fish condominium,” Roy says) with a recirculating system.  At the moment they’re mostly empty, but Roy plans to use them to grow and display aquatic life, such as native fishes and aquatic invertebrates. “The life cycle of fathead minnows is the perfect fit for the teaching semester,” he says, explaining that they grow from an egg to a reproducing adult in only three to four months. Roy is also interested in using the stacks to expose students to other such forms of local aquatic life, such as salamanders and fresh water shrimp. The large number of tanks allow a degree of statistical rigor that lets us expand our findings to the outside world.

This is first and foremost a teaching laboratory,” Roy says. “Education comes first; research is second.”

That’s not to say some pretty fascinating research isn’t in the cards. Inside fish ears are tiny structures called otoliths. As fish age, the otoliths lay down bands, much like rings inside tree trunks. Like rings of a tree trunk, these bands can be “read.” They can be used to determine not only the age of the fish, but also potentially abrupt chemical changes in the fish’s environment, and together with Duquesne University’s Brady Porter, PhD, that’s what Roy is interested in exploring. The plan is to start by breeding minnows in the research stacks, to minimize variables. Once the minnows are grown, they’ll be exposed to salt compounds, such as road salt, fracking brine, and acid mine drainage. The researchers anticipate that this exposure will produce telltale otolith rings that can then be used to help identify toxicity in rivers and streams.

In Spring 2017, Roy will be teaching Sustainable Aquaculture for the Falk School of Sustainability.

[1] FAO 2012. The State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture. United Nations Food and Agriculture Department

Faculty Research: John R. Taylor and Migrant Gardners in Chicago

Professor John Taylor teaches students at Chatham’s Eden Hall Campus

The Industrial Revolution compelled workers to seek employment in cities, a trend that has never really reversed: According to the U.S. Census, in 2013, nearly two-thirds of Americans lived in cities.* Due to a finite amount of land, these cities are expanding, and more land is being incorporated every year.

The largest single land use in cities is residential, so what we choose to do with the space we inhabit is of interest to researchers who study urban environments. For example, the preponderance of residential land use means that residential gardens, including urban agriculture, are increasingly important sites of biodiversity (plants, animals, and micro-organisms) and agrobiodiversity (a subset of biodiversity concerned with food and agriculture) in cities.

But these urban sites of food production haven’t been studied extensively, at least not in the developed world, says Falk School of Sustainability Assistant Professor of Sustainable Agroecology John R. Taylor, PhD who is looking to change that. Further, he says:

“I thought that by doing this I could almost act as an advocate for home gardens. They do make a substantial and unrecognized contribution to urban food systems.”

A polyculture of winter melon, bitter melon, and leafy greens in the backyard garden of a Chinese-origin household in Chicago
A polyculture of winter melon, bitter melon, and leafy greens in the backyard garden of a Chinese-origin household in Chicago

Dr. Taylor grew up on a farm in Latrobe, PA where his family grew corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, oats, and raised cattle and hogs. In high school, he sold crops that he grew in his market garden. “I was like a little plant nerd,” he laughs.

For the current project, Dr. Taylor and his colleagues sought to understand food gardens of a subset of Chicago-area ethnic and migrant households.  Dr. Taylor and his team interviewed 19 Mexican-origin, 23 Chinese-origin, and 17 African American gardeners (for a total of 59), catalogued what they were growing, and asked about their garden histories, gardening practices, and personal histories. Linguistically competent graduate assistants from the focal communities helped secure participation and facilitate interviews.  The research, published on February 15, 2016 is entitled: “Ecosystem services and tradeoffs in the home food gardens of African American, Chinese-origin, and Mexican-origin households in Chicago, IL” by John R. Taylor et al in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, Cambridge University Press.

“Attaining a height of three or more meters…tropical corn is a striking botanical feature in Chicago neighborhoods, potentially acting as a signifier of regional and ethnic identity.”

Among their other findings:

  • Only 9.6% of the inventoried species were native to Chicago.
  • A total of 123 edible plant taxa were identified across the 61gardens, including 17 species of food crops, 27 species of culinary herbs, and 79 taxa of vegetable crops.
  • Only three species (Jerusalem artichoke, pokeweed, and fox grape) were native to the Chicago area.
  • On average, Chinese-origin households devoted a significantly higher proportion of their lot to food production than did African American or Mexican-origin households.
  • Fruit trees were most abundant in Mexican-origin households’ gardens and least abundant in those of Chinese-origin households.
  • Only winter squash appeared in the ten most abundant groups for all three samples.
  • Ethnic food culture and preferences most strongly influenced the species composition of Chinese-origin households’ gardens.
Bitter melon in the backyard garden of a Chinese-origin household in Chicago
Bitter melon in the backyard garden of a Chinese-origin household in Chicago

Planting food for our own consumption might seem to be an unmitigated good to the non-agro-ecologists among us, but Dr. Taylor cautions that there are trade-offs.

“If urban gardeners use a lot of synthetic fertilizers a couple of times each week, that can contribute to storm water pollution. And planting perennial species limits the time that the ground can act as a hospitable environment for “good” insect species.”

Gardeners’ priorities might conflict with those of human urban dwellers, too. Take trees. “While vertical structures like trees are helpful in terms of supporting biodiversity, urban agriculturalists tend to not want a lot of trees, since they block sun,” says Dr. Taylor. But many people see trees as welcomed sources of shade that not only provide comfort, but also mitigate urban heat island effects. “City centers tend to be warmer than fringe areas because of the amount of concrete. This leads to increased costs in terms of cooling, and can lead to a serious negative impact on human health,” he says, citing the 1995 Chicago heat wave that led to 739 heat-related deaths.

“While the composition of the front yard purportedly reflects social class, backyards are alleged to be ‘dreamscapes’ reflecting the owner’s ‘true’ landscape preferences.” – Larsen and Harlan, 2006 (mentioned in Taylor et al, 2016)

Ultimately, Dr. Taylor is interested in evolving the project from descriptive study to experimental work, developing agro-ecological approaches to community gardens. “We could potentially take models provided by the Chinese-origin gardeners—like polycultures, trellises, and vertical gardening—and use them in new ways,” he says. “I’m interested in developing models where perennials, trees, shrubs, and other plants can grow together in a home garden that produces food and supports biodiversity.”

Dr. Taylor cites Pittsburgh’s Mt. Oliver Community Garden Gathering Space, a project run by Bhutanese refugees in conjunction with Grow Pittsburgh and GTech, as a way that culture and agriculture can come together to provide some degree of food security, companionship, and purpose to a migrant community.

The Falk School of Sustainability offers an M.A. in Food Studies (MAFS), a Master of Sustainability (MSUS), a Bachelor of Sustainability, and dual-degree MAFS/MBA and MSUS/MBA programs. Learn about growing food at Eden Hall.

*Population Trends in Incorporated Places: 2000 to 2013 Population Estimates and Projections Issued March 2015 P25-1142 By Darryl T. Cohen (With Geoffrey W. Hatch)

Community Research: Food and Health

Siedle-Mim

Some things just line up. In 2014, Assistant Professor of Nutrition in the Food Studies program Mim Seidel, MS, RD, LDN, found out that the Aetna Foundation was looking to fund a project that addresses healthy eating in low-income communities—an ideal match for Mim, whose interests (and deep experience) lie in food security, sustainable systems, and health. The Aetna Foundation agreed, and Mim’s project was funded.

What followed was an experiential, project-based class that Mim taught in the spring of 2015—FST613: Community Research: Food and Health.

Residents of low-income communities may qualify for federal aid known as WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). Having worked for WIC, Mim knew that the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program checks they are given often went unused. Having read widely about the problem, she had some ideas of why that might be. With her Community Research class and other Food Studies students (including Dani Lyons, whose internship centered around the project), she staged an intervention in Wilkinsburg (a low-income community in Pittsburgh) called CRUNCH! Eat Fresh, Eat Healthy, Move More, designed to address some of the barriers.

In Mim’s class, students read about low-income neighborhoods; alternative food systems; and programs like farmers markets and CSA (community supported agriculture). Despite the well-documented benefits of eating local, sustainably grown foods, these programs are often underused by minorities and by people with lower incomes.

“We have some “out of the box” recommendations for changes the USDA might make.” – Mim Seidel

It’s not hard to see why: for one, farmers’ market food can be more expensive. For another, some vendors at farmers’ markets aren’t prepared to accept the large, purple WIC checks. An individual who wants to use a WIC check at farmers’ market won’t get change. But sometimes it’s unfamiliarity that poses the biggest barrier, and that is what CRUNCH! staged a three-prong intervention to address.

Participants were recruited at the WIC clinic in Wilkinsburg. They explained the study (including its incentives, including gifts like vegetable peelers, measuring cups, and supermarket gift cards in small denominations) to WIC recipients and in just over three weeks, reached their target goal of 200 participants (202 were actually enrolled). Throughout the study, students staffed the WIC clinic, recruited participants, conducted surveys, held demos, led tours, and entered data—a full spectrum of community-based research. One student used the study as an internship; another received funding to serve as research coordinator.

The first prong was the tastiest. “The students held cooking demos at the WIC clinic using fresh vegetables that you can get at a farmer’s market,” says Mim, “and let them taste everything. If your income is limited, you’re less likely to buy what you’ve never eaten and don’t know how to prepare.”

“Also, we’re less likely to go to a farmers’ market if we haven’t been to one before,” she adds. “It’s unfamiliar, and it can be hard to tell which vendors accept WIC checks. The little signs are hard to find.” To counter that, she and her staff provided casual farmer’s market tours for CRUNCH! participants.

Thirdly, CRUNCH! staff connected with leaders of community gardens, and tried to encourage CRUNCH! participants to check them out—both to associate healthy eating with community, and to reinforce their familiarity with locally grown produce.

“We sent bus tickets to all CRUNCH! participants after some participants mentioned not being able to afford the extra ticket, and we also knew that transportation issues are documented in the research,” says Mim.

CRUNCH! would be considered a success if participants showed an increased use of WIC checks, and indeed, the increase was statistically significant: a 46.5% redemption rate compared to 39% by non-CRUNCH! participants, at the same WIC clinic.

“We also want to write this up to be published in a professional journal and present it at a meeting in Toronto,” says Mim, who lists Food Studies students Malik Hamilton (research coordinator) and Leslie Gordon and Christen Dinger (graduate student assistants) as her co-authors.“We have some “out of the box” recommendations for changes the USDA might make.”

Undergraduate Student Christina Austin Awarded Research Fellowship

Christina-5
“My mom is a Chatham alumna,” says Christina Austin ’17, “but that didn’t factor into my decision to come here. Chatham was actually one of the last schools I looked at. But when I came to visit, I saw that I could connect with people and have a close mentorship with professors in a way that I might not be able to do at a larger university.”

Austin, who is majoring in Biology, had hit the nail on the head. It was an email from one of those professors – Dr. Pierette Appasamy – that would lead to Austin pulling in research dollars, a feat that’s not always easy for faculty members to accomplish, let alone an undergraduate.

It started this spring when Dr. Appasamy learned of a research internship with the Allegheny Health Network Lupus Center for Excellence from the Office of Career Development. Dr. Appasamy forwarded the information to Austin, then a student in her Cellular and Molecular Biology class. “I immediately thought of Christina Austin when I heard about the internship opportunity,” says Dr. Appasamy. “It seemed perfect for her interests in hands-on work in biomedical research.”

Once Austin was accepted into the internship, the program director suggested that she might be a good candidate for the Gina M. Finzi Memorial Student Summer Fellowship Program, which funds students to conduct medical research under the guidance of a mentor. She was.

austin2

For eight weeks, Austin worked in the lab, isolating white blood cells from blood samples that had been collected at West Penn Hospital. She stained the cells with substances that, when run through a machine, turn fluorescent where a certain protein is present. The goal of the study was to compare how this protein appeared in patients with lupus, with other autoimmune diseases, and in a control group of healthy individuals. Austin’s work may one day be used to help diagnose lupus, today an arduous process that often takes years.

Austin’s internship primarily focused on research, but she also worked on the clinical side. “I was trained to obtain consent from study participants,” she says. “I went through the IRB (Institutional Review Board) packet with them, and if they consented, we drew their blood that day. I liked that aspect of the internship a lot.”

In fact, Austin – who plans to go to medical school – liked it so much that she is considering seeking out a clinical internship for next summer. “I’d love to travel abroad and work at a clinic of some sort,” she says. “I’ve talked to classmates who worked in hospitals in Belize or Puerto Rico and had really good experiences.”

Outside of the lab, Austin is a Chatham Scholar, Vice President of Communications for the Black Student Union, a R.I.S.E Mentor, and starting this fall, she will also be a resident assistant. She offers this advice for incoming students: “Make sure you go to recitation and go to all the study groups before a test. They can be a lifesaver when it’s a topic you don’t understand. And get to know your professors and let them get to know you. They’re looking out for you, throughout your time here.”

She knows whereof she speaks.