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Study: With Twitter, race of the messenger matters

Study: With Twitter, race of the messenger matters


Tweets shown to change minds of millennials on NFL protests


Credit: Study authors

LAWRENCE — When NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, the ensuing debate took traditional and social media by storm. University of Kansas researchers have found that tweets both in support of and opposed to the protests can influence how young people think about the issue and, like in many aspects of life, the messenger’s race matters.

A sample of white millennial participants viewed real tweets on the topic, then answered questions about their perceptions of the issue and about who tweeted the messages, Eye-tracking equipment mapped the time participants spent reading each post, used as a proxy for their attention to the tweets. According to the eye-tracking data, participants looked longer at messages from white Twitter users, while self-reported data showed that they would be more likely to engage with black Twitter users on the topic.

“Twitter is an important outlet. We know that,” said Joseph Erba, assistant professor journalism & mass communications and lead author of the study. “We also know from traditional advertising and marketing literature that the visual identification of the communicator matters as well. What we were interested to see is if the visual identification of a Twitter user influences how people perceive the message. It does.”

Erba co-wrote the study with Yuchen Liu, graduate student, and Mugur Geana, associate professor of journalism & mass communications. They will present their research at the International Communication Association conference in May. The research was conducted at CEHCUP’s Experimental Media Research Laboratory in the School of Journalism & Mass Communications.

A few weeks before completing the experiment, researchers gave participants a questionnaire to assess their perceptions of race and feelings about the NFL protests. For the experimental component of the study, the research team gathered real tweets about the topic, both in support of and against the protests. They constructed new Twitter identities to present the tweets featuring pictures of users who were either a white man or woman or a black man or woman. During the experiment, participants were exposed to tweets either for or against the NFL protests, delivered by one of the gender/race combinations of Twitter users. Afterward, participants took a post-test asking the same questions about their perceptions of the protests and feelings regarding black Americans. They also answered additional questions about the tweets and the person tweeting.

Eye-tracking software indicated they looked the longest at tweets from white people, especially males. However, when asked after the study who they thought was most credible on the topic, and who they would most likely engage with, participants rated black users, especially male, the highest. That contradiction indicates race can influence audience attention and that self-reported data should be viewed cautiously, Erba said.

Respondents also widely reported changing their feelings about the protests after reading the tweets. Those who were exposed to tweets in favor of the protests had an improved view of the subject, and the inverse was true for those who saw tweets against the movement compared with their views about the protest about three weeks earlier. Each participant saw four tweets.

“Four little tweets were enough to significantly change their views on the NFL protests. We did not find a difference in their attitudes toward black people or racism though,” Erba said. “We think it was because the tweets were directly about the protests, and making the connection to larger issues may have just been too much.”

A number of communication theories are likely at play and can help explain why participants reported more credibility for tweets from users they looked at less. Social identification theory posits that individuals are more attracted to what people who look like them have to say than those who don’t. Identification theory holds that people will provide information to help ensure they are viewed as how they want to be perceived by others, as opposed to how they really are. The latter likely helps explain why participants said black Twitter users were viewed as more credible on the topic. Race is a central issue in the protests and subsequent debate, and the research found that race of a Twitter user matters. White respondents reported that black Twitter users were more credible.

“Yet, if you look at the (2016) elections, 40 percent of white millennials voted for Trump,” Erba said. In the study, they looked more at people who looked like them, but when asked directly, said they supported black men.”

The majority of NFL players are black, and police brutality, the central issue of the protests, disproportionately affects black Americans, especially men. Therefore, the authors hypothesize that when white millennials are asked to think about tweets from black men in the self-reported data, they may perceive them as more knowledgeable about the topic. However, eye-tracking data indicated that, subconsciously, the participants still pay more attention to tweets from white men.

The researchers plan to look further into the issue. The current findings revealed several items of note for researchers and those trying to reach millennials. Namely, race and identity matter when it comes to Twitter, and that conscious and unconscious responses were different, suggesting self-reported data should always be viewed cautiously. Finally, the messenger can be just as important as the message.

“If you want a message to hit home with white millennials, you have to think not only about the message but who is delivering the message,” Erba said. “There needs to be a ‘match up’ between the topic discussed and the perceived identity of the spokesperson.”


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Mike Krings

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Disability progression in multiple sclerosis linked to income, education

Disability progression in multiple sclerosis linked to income, education



Credit: Courtesy Marilyn Lenzen

Neighbourhood income and education level is associated with risk of disability progression in patients with multiple sclerosis, suggests new research from the University of British Columbia.

UBC researchers, along with colleagues in Wales, compared population health data across several measures of socioeconomic status, and found that lower neighbourhood-level income and educational attainment was associated with an increased likelihood of reaching key physical disability milestones, such as difficulties with walking.

The findings–published online today in Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology–paint a clearer picture of the way that wealth and education might affect patients with MS.

“This study is the first of its kind,” says the study’s senior author Helen Tremlett, professor in the division of neurology at UBC and the Canada Research Chair in neuroepidemiology and multiple sclerosis. “Previous studies have looked at the relationship between socioeconomic status and risk of developing MS. Here, we were able to show a relationship between socioeconomic status and subsequent risk of disability progression.”

MS is a chronic inflammatory disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks myelin, the fatty material that insulates neurons to enable rapid transmission of electrical signals. When myelin or neurons are damaged, communication between the brain and other parts of the body is disrupted leading to impaired ability including vision problems, muscle weakness, difficulty with balance and coordination, and cognitive decline. Most people who live with MS will experience some form of reduced ability.

As the Welsh and Canadian systems for tracking population health data are similar, the team was able to access comparable information for the two groups of patients. For the Canadian patients, the team determined socioeconomic status based on census data, which links postal codes with neighbourhood-level income. Clinical information from a provincial MS database was linked with population-based provincial health administrative data. The Welsh patients were assessed by linking similar datasets, including National Health Service information, postal code-related income data and educational attainment.

A key component of this study was that the data on socioeconomic status were captured before MS onset, therefore predating any possible effect of the disease itself on socioeconomic status.

The researchers did not look at specific factors that might explain the relationship between lower socioeconomic status and higher risk of disability progression, but they suggest that modifiable lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise, could be involved.

“If that is the case, the risk may be amenable to change,” says Tremlett. “One of the next steps is to understand why this relationship exists.”

North Vancouver resident Marilyn Lenzen, who was diagnosed with MS nearly two decades ago, says she wasn’t surprised to learn that researchers have now established a clear link between socioeconomic status and disability progression in patients with MS.

“I’m glad to see that there is now research that backs up what I and many in the MS community have been experiencing for years,” says Lenzen. “Someone who has the financial means to buy healthier food or afford to participate in yoga, pilates or specialized exercise to rebuild their strength after a relapse doesn’t experience the same progression of disabling symptoms as others who can’t afford to access the same healthy lifestyle choices.”

After her diagnosis, Lenzen, now 59, could no longer keep up with the long hours and extensive travel required by her corporate job. When she gave up her job, however, she also lost her extended health benefits and experienced a significant decline in household income.

“When I was first diagnosed, I remember having to crawl on my knees up the stairs to get to bed every night,” she recalls. “But I was determined to exercise and to keep my muscles strong. I took up cycling and with the assistance of an e-bike, cycled 3,000 kilometres last year.

“I do still have occasional relapses but the relapses are not as bad and I have the strength in my body to rebuild again. I wish that everyone with MS, regardless of their socioeconomic status, has the same lifestyle opportunities to slow the progression of their disease.”

The researchers hope that future MS studies will consider the socioeconomic status of participants, especially if multiple study sites are involved and findings are compared across regions, as their socioeconomic status could be an important factor in disability progression.


The study was co-authored by Dr. Katharine Harding (first author), Elaine Kingwell and colleagues at UBC and Southeast Wales. Harding was funded by an MS of Society Canada Fellowship award for this research.

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Emily Wight

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Study explores the role of citrus peel in reducing gut inflammation

Study explores the role of citrus peel in reducing gut inflammation


After years of research, UMass Amherst food scientist zeroes in on powerful interplay between gut bacteria and fruit compounds


Credit: UMass Amherst

University of Massachusetts Amherst Professor Hang Xiao, Clydesdale Scholar of Food Science, has received a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how substances produced in the gut from citrus compounds are involved in decreasing inflammation in the colon.

The ultimate goal of his research is to develop diet-based strategies to prevent and treat inflammation in the colon and associated diseases, such as irritable bowel disease and colorectal cancer.

Xiao studies compounds known as polymethoxyflavones, a unique class of flavonoids found almost exclusively in citrus fruits, such as lemons and oranges, especially in the peels.

Xiao says he designed the study so that the results from the animal models have a high potential to be applied to a human situation, and he hopes to show how humans can derive robust health benefits from consuming citrus products. Using orange peel or zest in recipes is a good start, but it may be that supplements containing higher concentrations of citrus polymethoxyflavones will offer the stronger punch.

“It’s critical to study how the bacteria in the gut help transform dietary compounds into powerful anti-inflammatory agents in our body,” says Xiao, who was named in 2018 among the world’s most highly cited researchers by Clarivate Analytics, owner of Web of Science. “Once those anti-inflammatory metabolites are generated in the colon, they may fight off inflammation in the colon and related diseases, such as colon cancer.”

Xiao’s grant is one of 10 awarded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the National Institutes of Health. All the projects are focused on possible links between gut microflora and the transformation of dietary compounds into bioactive metabolites. These metabolites, which gut bacteria produce when they break down food components, may provide an explanation for the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

In Xiao’s research, mice are fed citrus polymethoxyflavones. “The fecal material from the mice reflects what happens in the colon,” he explains. “We use chemical and biomedical methods to isolate the metabolites generated in the colon and study their anti-inflammatory properties.”

The gut bacteria were found to be responsible for the production of an array of colonic metabolites from polymethoxyflavones, “and many of these metabolites possessed much stronger anti-inflammatory effects than their parental polymethoxyflavones,” Xiao says.

“We want to keep looking at what other novel metabolites are generated by the bacteria,” Xiao says. “We want to identify them and determine their anti-inflammatory potential. We also want to identify and characterize the gut bacteria which are responsible for the production of these metabolites.”


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Patty Shillington

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Antarctic flies protect fragile eggs with ‘antifreeze’

Antarctic flies protect fragile eggs with ‘antifreeze’


Temperature-resistant gel helps the eggs of wingless flies survive the extreme conditions of the southern continent.


Credit: Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

The good thing about the short Antarctic summer is it’s a lot like a Midwest winter.

But for wingless flies, that’s also the bad thing about Antarctic summers. The flies and their eggs must contend with an unpredictable pattern of alternating mild and bitterly cold days.

University of Cincinnati biologist Joshua Benoit traveled to this Land of the Midnight Sun to learn how Antarctica’s only true insect can survive constant freezing and thawing. He found that the midges have surprising adaptations for life in their wintry realm.

Benoit and his students presented their findings in January at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology conference in Tampa, Florida.

Smaller than a Tic Tac, Belgica antarctica is the largest land animal found in Antarctica. Larvae resemble plum-colored worms. Adults are black and antlike.

At some point in their evolution, the little midges lost their wings — possibly to cope with the notorious Antarctic winds. Since they eat abundant algae and never travel far from where they’re hatched, the flies don’t need to fly.

Finding them isn’t hard.

“You crawl around on the ground and dig in dirt, algae and moss until you find them,” said Benoit, an assistant professor in UC’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. “And because of the penguin colonies, there’s a lot of penguin excrement, too.”

Benoit has undertaken three scientific missions to Antarctica, conducting research out of Palmer Station in the U.S. Antarctic Program. Previously, he studied Antarctic ticks that feed on penguins and other sea birds.

For his latest project, Benoit examined the molecular mechanisms underlying the fly’s reproduction. Like other midges, adult flies mate in big swarms during the brief Antarctic summer. The females lay eggs that hatch about 40 days later. Then the newborn flies spend the next two years developing as larvae, entombed for much of the year in ice.

It’s only in their last week of life that they spread their wings, so to speak, as fully formed adults. They die just days after mating.

Scientists call them “extremophiles” for their ability to survive in extreme conditions.

“It could be living at a high elevation on a mountain — that’s extreme. Or if you live in an extremely salty environment,” he said.

Few creatures can survive the hostile conditions of Antarctica, Benoit said. The continent is home to a menagerie of tiny organisms such as mites and nematodes. It’s the tiny fly’s ability to withstand cold and dehydration that makes it an extremophile of Olympic proportions.

Scientists know that the midge larvae stay sheltered from the worst of Antarctica’s blinding sun and bracing cold by remaining under a protective layer of moss and soil. Here the temperature and humidity are relatively constant.

But during the Antarctic summer, daily temperatures can soar into the 40s and dip well below freezing. UC researchers wanted to know how the midge’s eggs tolerate such big temperature swings.

“The females secrete this clear jelly around the eggs. Essentially, it’s like antifreeze,” UC student and study lead author Geoffrey Finch said. “It acts as a temperature buffer against those fluctuations to help them survive.”

The gel also helps the eggs survive Antarctica’s other defining climate feature — its dryness. Antarctica is home to the world’s biggest desert. Belgica can survive even after losing more than 70 percent of its water content. By comparison, studies have found that people begin to suffer cognitive impairments when we lose as little as 2 percent of our water content through dehydration.

“So having all these unique adaptations is what allows them to live in this extreme environment,” Benoit said.


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Michael Miller

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CCNY’s Nir Krakauer in monsoon research breakthrough

CCNY’s Nir Krakauer in monsoon research breakthrough



Credit: Nir Krakauer

With average precipitation of 35 inches per four-month season over an area encompassing most of the Indian subcontinent, the South Asia summer monsoon is intense, only partly understood, and notoriously difficult to predict. Until now, according to findings by Nir Y. Krakauer, a City College of New York civil engineer.

Because of the monsoon’s enormous impact on these sectors, his research is of importance to a range of activities, including agriculture, industry, fishing and hydropower.

A frequent visitor to the region, stretching from Nepal to Sri Lanka, Krakauer has devised a methodology that allows forecasts potentially up to a year in advance. Currently, most predictions are made about two months in advance of the South Asia monsoon season that runs from June to September, but it is not known how far ahead skillful forecasts might be possible.

“People usually use one or two predictors for forecasts,” said the Grove School of Engineering associate professor who is also affiliated with the CCNY-based NOAA-CREST. “Many of these predictors are one or another pattern of sea surface temperatures. My question was how do you find which patterns are important for forecasting the monsoon – the amount of rain and where it will be?”

Unlike other forecasters who use only the sea surface temperature readings from neighboring waters, Krakauer looked at the predictive potential of all the common patterns in the sea surface temperature map. He developed prediction methods using global sea surface temperature and monsoon precipitation data from between 1901 to 1996, and tested the performance of his prediction methods on data from 1997-2017.

“What I found is that two methods seem to do a good job of forecasting the monsoon. I looked at the sea surface temperatures at the beginning of the monsoon, and going back as far as four years before.”

His finding was that, generally, the closer to the beginning of the monsoon season, the more accurate forecasts that are based on sea surface temperature can be. But predictions with some accuracy can be made as far as a year in advance.

Getting a better sense of how much water will be available is particularly important given that the rainfall is getting more intense in South Asia while the total amount remains constant, meaning that more rain is falling in a shorter period. This could be problematic for farmers in the region.

Entitled “Year-ahead predictability of South Asian Summer Monsoon Precipitation,” Krakauer’s research appears in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

His work in South Asia has been partly supported by USAID, most recently as part of the US-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies on Water program.


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Jay Mwamba

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This Biotech Accelerates Stem Cell Therapy Development

This Biotech Accelerates Stem Cell Therapy Development

Mogrify is the new kid on the block for stem cell therapy. Based in Cambridge, UK, it boasts technology that could speed up the development of stem cell therapies by predicting the best protein recipe to transform mature adult cells into other cell types.

stem cell therapy mogrify disley

Mission: To use next-generation sequencing and gene expression data to develop more cost-effective stem cell therapies for regenerative medicine fields such as cardiac repair and cartilage regeneration.

Many cell therapies require taking adult cells such as fibroblasts, reverting the cells back to a stem cell stage, and then program them into the therapeutic cell that you want. This is not a simple process, and it can take significant amounts of time and money.

The stem cell stage can be skipped in a process called transdifferentiation, directly changing one mature cell, such as a liver cell, to another cell type, such as a pancreatic islet cell. Doing so could save a huge amount of effort for researchers developing cell therapies from scratch, as well as saving many costs in the development and manufacturing process. However, researchers have to carry out extensive trial-and-error approaches to make it work.

Mogrify aims to make this transdifferentiation process easier. The company has developed a software tool that combines data from next-generation sequencing and gene regulation studies to predict which proteins and small molecules they need to transdifferentiate the cells.

The Mogrify algorithm has not only confirmed many previously discovered cell conversions, but it has also already validated over a dozen cell conversions in vitro,” Darrin Disley, the CEO of Mogrify told me.

The cell therapies that Mogrify develops could be the first to convert adult cell types into other types without needing to enter the stem cell stage.

Additionally, once discovered, each cellular conversion can be iteratively tweaked to achieve optimal therapeutic effect, safety and manufacturability,” said Disley. “None of these capabilities have been reported to date.

stem cell therapy mogrify disley stem cell

The company is planning to commercialize this software tool by licensing it out and forming partnerships with other companies. In addition, Mogrify has plans to develop its own therapies using the software, with applications in fields such as regenerating cartilage in osteoarthritis, and cardiac tissue repair in heart disease.

Founded in 2016, Mogrify raised a seed round of €3.3M ($3.7M) this week to help fund the commercialization of its software. The company also hopes to close a Series A round of up to €26M ($30M) by the end of 2019.

One of the top biotech leaders around London, Oxford and Cambridge, Disley is a well-known figure in the medical biotech world, having previously been the CEO of the UK gene editing company Horizon Discovery for 11 years.

What we think:

Mogrify’s technology could help to advance regenerative medicine by guiding the transdifferentiation of adult cells in the lab. Overall, this could cut a lot of R&D from the drug development time, which can easily take ten years or more.

Stem cell therapy is a field with a lot of potential. Last year, the stem cell therapy Alofisel from the Belgian biotech TiGenix was approved in Europe for the treatment of Crohn’s disease. The Czech biotech Bioinova is also taking stem cells from bone marrow to encourage wound healing and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.     

“There is a long way to go,” noted Disley. “The Mogrify approach could dramatically accelerate the quest for new cell therapies, which are currently limited by the lack of available sources of cells with suitable efficacy, safety and manufacturing profiles.” 

Images from Shutterstock

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