Academics and Research

Faculty present diverse research at first Founders Forum

In his presentation about forensic science, biology professor Phil Danielson opened by talking about the cases of Timothy Masters and Clarence Moses-EL, two Colorado men released from prison after new forensic evidence showed they did not commit the crimes of which they were convicted. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

In his presentation about forensic science, biology professor Phil Danielson opened by talking about the cases of Timothy Masters and Clarence Moses-EL, two Colorado men released from prison after new forensic evidence showed they did not commit the crimes of which they were convicted. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Part of the University of Denver’s expanded two-day Founders Celebration — which includes a campus lunch event and a gala dinner and awards ceremony — the Founders Forum brought 250 students, faculty, staff and community members to the Cable Center Wednesday afternoon to learn about the work of five faculty members who specialize in topics including nonviolent resistance, forensic psychology and marijuana law.

“Our faculty are phenomenal, and we wanted to create as many opportunities as possible to showcase their research and teaching excellence,” said Armin Afsahi, vice chancellor for advancement, who helped conceive and plan the event. “The forum opens up a space for our community to engage with one another as well as our academic colleagues.”

Provost Gregg Kvistad introduced the faculty members — who appeared in a “brief-and-brilliant” format that allowed each of them 10 minutes to present their research — as “the most extraordinary part of the University.”

The faculty presentations are available for viewing on DU’s YouTube channel.

“Next to students,” he said, “they are the most important people at DU.”

In her introductory remarks, Chancellor Rebecca Chopp said that through research, DU realizes its commitment to the public good by addressing real-world problems through interdisciplinary approaches. The research presented at the forum, she said, demonstrates the importance and the power of a modern urban university. It also highlights some of the contributions DU is making to improve its community and the world.

Chopp also connected the forum to DU IMPACT 2025, the University’s new strategic plan, and its focus on faculty talent and excellence.

“During the planning process,” she said, “it became clear that as the shape of knowledge changes — and as the world’s most vexing problems increasingly require multi-disciplinary approaches — we as a university must break down the barriers between departments and schools and make it easier for faculty members to identify common interests and pursue their passions.”

 

Community connections

The first faculty member to present at the forum was Lavita Nadkarni, director of DU’s Forensic Psychology Program and professor in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology. She focused on the important work the forensic program does in the Denver community.

Nadkarni, who is responsible for providing supervision and training to graduate students in their clinical work with clients who have involvement with the civil, criminal or family legal systems, noted the program’s partnerships with 50 state, local and nonprofit agencies. Students in the program, she said, spend 10 to 12 hours each week working in the community, for a combined annual total of more than 20,000 hours. Some work with adults on probation or parole; some work with immigrants seeking visas or asylum; some evaluate people convicted of animal abuse; and some conduct psychological evaluations to determine mental conditions and competency for court cases.

The work changes the students, she said, and the hope is that it changes the lives of clients as well.

“Our grad students go beyond the stigma of crime and listen to their clients’ stories, hear their narrative,” she said. “We want them to be objective and to be as genuine as they can to create a real relationship with their clients.”

 

The marijuana dilemma

In a presentation titled “Not Whether, But How: Undoing the Federal Marijuana Prohibition,” Sam Kamin — the Vicente Sederberg Professor of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Sturm College of Law — noted that medical marijuana is now legal in 23 states and recreational marijuana is legal in four — despite the fact that marijuana is still illegal under federal drug laws.

Kamin, one of the nation’s leading experts on the regulation of marijuana, spoke about the confusion this creates in everything from banking to employment, singling out the case of Brandon Coats, a Denver-based DISH Network employee who was fired for a positive drug test despite the fact that medical marijuana is legal in Colorado.

With marijuana on the ballot in six to 10 states in November, Kamin said we are reaching a tipping point where some decision by the federal government will need to be made.

“Right now it’s an uneasy truce,” he said. “We can’t go on with a $1 billion industry that deals mostly in cash and puts people at risk every day. It’s not a simple question of when the federal prohibition will go away, but what will take its place.”

The answer, he said, depends on our priorities as a society. Possible solutions include everything from making marijuana available by doctor’s prescription only to outright federal legalization. He noted that tobacco, though it kills some 400,000 people per year, is not criminalized and is, in fact, taxed by the government.

“It’s not whether [the federal ban will be lifted], but how,” he said. “And it’s not a one-time process; it’s iterative. We won’t get it right the first time.”

 

Giving homeless youth a sense of belonging

Kim Bender, associate professor in the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW), spoke about her work with homeless youth in Denver, including the federal grant that she and DU psychology professor Anne DePrince received to test an intervention to prevent street victimization among homeless youth, who often don’t have the same network of connections as their peers who live with their families.

“Without the social capital that many of us take for granted, youth are forced to seek support from strangers,” Bender said, adding that those strangers often attack or sexually abuse them.

Bender and Anamika Barman-Adhikari, an assistant professor in GSSW, received a grant from DU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning to create what Bender calls “a photo voice intervention.” Along with a team of DU graduate students, the pair is providing homeless teens with cameras “to capture their world, identify issues important to them and be a voice for social change,” said Bender, who shared photos from the project as part of her presentation.

“The project,” she said, “aims to build social connectedness and self-efficacy among homeless youth and join them with the broader community.”

 

‘This is going to revolutionize crime fighting’

In his presentation about forensic science, biology professor Phil Danielson opened by talking about the cases of Timothy Masters and Clarence Moses-EL, two Colorado men released from prison after new forensic evidence showed they did not commit the crimes of which they were convicted.

“Not only were their convictions based on incomplete or inaccurate science,” he said, “but the actual perpetrators remained free and continued to commit crimes.”

Danielson talked about the difficulties forensic scientists face — specifically unreliable DNA results from bullet casings and potential false positives in body-fluid analysis — and the work that he and his students are doing to develop better crime-scene technology. A project funded by the U.S. Army, he said, will greatly improve the reliability of rape kits, and will extend the time necessary to collect fluid samples from two or three days to eight.

Using human genome sequencing technology, Danielson said, he and his students also are adapting existing DNA sensor technology to create mobile crime scene analysis that by 2017 will allow investigators to obtain DNA results from 70 percent of bullet casings as opposed to nearly zero percent today.

“This is going to revolutionize crime fighting,” he said. “If we had this technology years ago, there’s a good chance the jury could never have reached a conviction [in the Clarence Moses-EL trial].”

 

Gandhi was right

Erica Chenoweth, professor and associate dean for research at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, centered her talk around “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” the award-winning 2011 book she co-authored with Maria Stephan. In a talk titled “The Stunning Success of Nonviolent Resistance,” Chenoweth countered common beliefs about nonviolent protest, revealing that such resistance is more effective than violent resistance, works against even the most brutal regimes and results in long-term change.

When she began her research, Chenoweth said, she was skeptical about the success of nonviolence, asking “Who was right, Gandhi or Che Guevara?”

She found, she said, that nonviolent uprisings — protests, strikes and demonstrations — are twice as effective as armed uprisings, and 10 times as likely to produce lasting change with a lower body count. Such protests, she said, also are more collective and lower risk, encouraging participation from a more diverse community.

“In Tunisia, Guatemala and elsewhere,” she said, “civil resistance is now the primary way of challenging government,” especially since protestors have a growing amount of resources available to them about how to engage in effective civil resistance.

The faculty presentations are available for viewing on DU’s YouTube channel.

 

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