Academics & Research / Fall 2017

Good Work: Inside DU research that is supporting families, helping seniors and creating a safer world

DU has, in recent years, become known for its research on family health, peace and stability, and aging. Illustration: Sally Vitsky

From engineering to psychology, biology to social work, mathematics to law, University of Denver faculty members bring in millions of dollars each year to conduct research on behalf of federal, state and local governments, as well as corporations and foundations. The money is a boon not just to faculty members, but to the undergraduate and graduate students who play a vital part in the research process.

And while DU is engaged in a wide swath of research endeavors, the University has, in recent years, become known locally, nationally and internationally for its work in three key areas:

  • Family health, encompassing projects in the Graduate School of Social Work, Graduate School of Professional Psychology, Morgridge College of Education and elsewhere
  • Peace and stability, spurred primarily by a number of projects under way in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies
  • Aging, an area to which DU made a significant commitment in 2015 when it launched the multidisciplinary Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging


Here is a glimpse into the world-changing research happening throughout campus.

Research Area: Family Health

A homeless, pregnant woman. A child in an abusive home. A packed classroom of anxious preschoolers. A mental health clinic with undertrained staff. DU psychology, social work and early education faculty across campus are conducting research around a variety of issues to assuage and ideally avoid these scenarios. Their systemic and inclusive approach enables and empowers people on the ground — parents, teachers, schools, mental health practitioners and others—to put into practice proactive measures that help people help themselves.


Learning Trajectories in Early Mathematics

Researchers: Doug Clements, Julie Sarama, Candace Joswick and Crystal Day-Hess, all of the Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy in the Morgridge College of Education

The challenge: Learning trajectories (LTs), the tools that guide how schools across the country plan and assess teaching math, are the basis for the nationwide Common Core mathematics exams. LTs are getting heightened attention from policy makers and curriculum developers because no research has directly evaluated the programs’ contributions to improving student achievement in early mathematics.

The study: Marsico Institute faculty will perform a series of randomized clinical trials to test different aspects of LTs. Graduate students will work alongside faculty members to catalog children’s reactions to the LTs, such as feelings of motivation, shame or frustration. The four-year project is funded by $3.5 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

The hope: The experiments will determine whether LTs are better than other approaches in supporting young children’s learning outcomes so that math educators across America can best teach kids.


Reducing Fetal Exposure to Maternal Depression

Researchers: Elysia Poggi Davis and Pilyoung Kim of the Stress, Early Experiences and Development (SEED) Research Center in the Department of Psychology

The challenge: More than 25 percent of Americans will experience a mood or anxiety disorder in their lifetimes. A mother’s history of depression and her postpartum depressive symptoms are well-known risk factors for her child’s probability of developing anxiety and depression. Emerging evidence suggests that a woman’s severe depression during pregnancy may have even bigger psychopathological and biological consequences for her unborn baby.

The study: The project will identify how women successfully cope with depression while they are pregnant. With $3.4 million in funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, SEED Center Researchers will examine a child’s full life cycle to learn how stress becomes biologically embedded.

The hope: Results will arm in-the-field practitioners with new methods to help families combat — or, better still, avoid entirely — the effects of high-stress scenarios. Researchers hope to identify coping techniques that can be replicated across the globe with pregnant women struggling with extreme depression, including those who are in families struggling with famine, abuse or homelessness.


The National Child Welfare Workforce Institute

Researchers: Carole Wilcox and Robin Leake of the Erna and Brad Butler Institute for Families in the Graduate School of Social Work

The challenge: The child welfare workforce in America provides services and support to keep vulnerable children, youth and families safe, stable and healthy. But child welfare work isn’t easy. Turnover is high. Caseworkers contend with limited resources and huge caseloads as they make life-and-death decisions affecting children and families.

The study: Funded by $3.56 million from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Administration for Children & Families, the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute project focuses on improving the professional success of America’s social workers. The five-year, DU-led project — a collaboration with five other universities — will assess how case workers are recruited, screened and selected. It also will examine how they are supervised; how they are evaluated; their job requirements, education requirements and workplace conditions; and their professional development and training opportunities.

The hope: Improving the workforce will lead to more timely investigations and lengthier caseworker visits with children and families in need of services. Decreasing caseworker turnover and increasing their proficiency means families in the U.S. will have a better chance at stability.

Research Area: Peace and Stability

When it comes to research on international peace and stability — the forces that promote, sustain or threaten global order — DU is a leader among universities worldwide. In areas ranging from human trafficking to social activism to U.S.- China relations, research conducted by DU faculty helps governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations not only understand the factors that lead to conflict, but work more effectively to prevent it. Here’s a look at three projects focused on peace and stability in conflict zones around the world.


African Futures Project

Researchers: Jonathan Moyer, director of DU’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures, and Barry Hughes, the Pardee Center’s founder and senior scientist, along with Hanna Camp (MA ’13), Zach Donnenfeld (MA ’15) Steve Hedden (MA ’15), Alex Porter (MA ’14) and Mickey Rafa (MA ’14)

The challenge: Africa is home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world. At the same time, rates of diseases like HIV/ AIDS are falling, and the number of children enrolled in school is rising. Many forces threaten to derail these positive trends, from climate change to high unemployment.

The study: The African Futures Project relies on the International Futures Model, a scenario-planning tool Hughes developed in the 1970s. It incorporates data from thousands of sources across the globe to produce forecasts for 186 countries to the year 2100. African Futures analyzes how today’s political decisions could affect Africa’s future in such areas as population growth, access to fresh water, disease prevention, infrastructure and agriculture.

The hope: Moyer’s goal is to build capacity within African institutions to do long-term planning, analysis and forecasting. “With a broader perspective that considers longer time horizons,” he says, “we’ll be able to make policy decisions today that have more positive future impacts.”


Inclusive Approaches to Violence Reduction, Peacebuilding and Governance

Researchers: Deborah Avant, Marie Berry, Erica Chenoweth, Cullen Hendrix and Oliver Kaplan of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, and Tricia Olsen of DU’s Daniels College of Business, all affiliated faculty of the Korbel School’s Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy

The challenge: When women and elderly people are excluded from protest movements, it may signal impending violent clashes with law enforcement. When negotiations between extractive industries and communities exclude affected populations, it may undermine the potential for lasting agreements. Clearly inclusivity matters, yet exactly how it matters is poorly understood.

The study: With a $1 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Researchers will share knowledge about and explore the links between inclusionary policies and decreases in violence. One team will use photos of protests from around the world to identify the percentage of women present and explore gender diversity as a predictor of political violence. Another team will study how inclusiveness affects relations between extractive industries and locals in Peru. A third group will incorporate diversity metrics into existing data sets on conflicts around the world.

The hope: Avant hopes the research will help activists build more effective, inclusive coalitions.


Norms and Local Dynamics in Conflict-Affected Countries

Researchers: Timothy Sisk, Josef Korbel School of International Studies; and Astri Suhrke (PhD ’69), senior researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway

The challenge: Decades after countries overcome major internal conflicts, why does violence so often erupt anew, often along lines of ethnicity, race or class? And how do partners work to address the discrimination and social exclusion that drives recurring conflict while respecting local norms, customs and values in the countries where they work?

The study: Through case studies in postwar societies like Nepal, South Africa and El Salvador, Sisk, Suhrke and their partners are showing how ongoing discrimination against historically marginalized groups can fuel local conflicts long after national peace agreements have been negotiated. The project is funded by $1 million from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Norway’s Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The hope: Sisk and Suhrke believe their research can give international organizations like the U.N. new tools to help build lasting peace. “Our work shows that the focus needs to be shifted from national level dynamics to local-level dynamics,” Sisk says.

Research Area: Aging

The senior population is expected to double globally by 2050, so it’s not surprising that demand for new technologies and services to help them age well is soaring. To brace for this “silver tsunami,” DU recently launched the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging (KIHA), a multidisciplinary center that brings together engineers, scientists, social workers, lawyers, business faculty, education specialists and others to conduct age-related research. Funded in large part by a $10 million donation from Denver philanthropist Betty Knoebel, the institute distributes $250,000 in seed money for four to six pilot projects each year.

Here’s a glimpse at a few of the projects now under way.


Improving Care for Parkinson’s Patients

Researcher: Mohammad Mahoor, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering

The challenge: Roughly 60,000 people are diagnosed annually with Parkinson’s disease. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) — in which electrodes are implanted into the brain and receive electrical impulses from a generator beneath the skin — can quell symptoms. But because the frequency and amplitude of these stimuli are usually fixed and only adjusted about once a year, DBS can have its own side effects, including speech, cognitive and balance problems.

The study: Mahoor is working on an algorithm that uses brain-activity measurements from electrodes embedded deep inside the brain to tell the signal generator what the patient is doing, allowing it to adjust in real time. He works with patients as they have their systems installed, measuring brain signals as he asks them to click a mouse or say a few words. He then identifies patterns associated with different activities.

The hope: Within five years, Mahoor hopes to license the algorithm to a medical device company, which could incorporate it into existing DBS hardware. The end result: “The quality of life for patients could improve dramatically,” he says.


Building a Better Shoulder

Researchers: Kevin Shelburne, Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering; Bradley Davidson, DU Center for Orthopaedic Biomechanics and the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging

The challenge: Shoulder injuries affect about 25 percent of senior women and 17 percent of senior men. These injuries can be painful and debilitating, and they frequently advance until replacement of the joint is recommended. But unlike knee and hip replacements, which have been remarkably successful, total shoulder replacements remain relatively rare. “Being able to design a device and procedure that helps people retain their full range of motion is challenging, and many people are not satisfied with the results,” Shelburne says. “We want to know why.”

The study: Researchers plan to recruit senior patients who have had one of their shoulders replaced. Using motion capture and high-speed X-ray technology, they’ll measure joint and muscle movements on both shoulders as subjects perform various tasks. They will then compare the replaced side to the healthy side — and those who are satisfied with their surgery to those who aren’t.

The hope: “We hope it will lead to information that helps companies better design implants and surgeries,” Shelburne says.

Exploring the Concussion-Alzheimer’s Link

Researchers: Lotta Granholm-Bentley and Aurelie Ledreux, Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging; Bradley Davidson, DU Center for Orthopaedic Biomechanics; Kim Gorgens, Graduate School of Professional Psychology; Daniel Linseman, Department of Biological Sciences; Martin Margittai, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

The challenge: U.S. athletes sustain 300,000 sport-related traumatic brain injuries — predominantly concussions — each year. Research suggests these can boost risk of cognitive problems, depression and other mental issues later in life. Studies have shown that people who play contact sports and who have had multiple concussions may have elevated levels of blood biomarkers associated with neurological trauma. Many suspect that chronically elevated levels of such compounds precipitate Alzheimer’s disease. Yet Researchers don’t know precisely what goes on in the brain after a concussion, or when it is safe to return to play.

The study: Researchers will study hundreds of DU athletes, gathering blood samples at the beginning of their first season and collecting samples and other measurements if and when they have a concussion and at different time points afterward.

The hope: Scientists can use the data to develop an app to help coaches better determine whether an athlete has a concussion and when it’s safe for athletes to return to play. The research also will help scientists better understand how concussions contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.



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