Research roundup for Oct. 24, 2016

Gillings researchers find more accurate statistics on deaths of pregnant women

UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health researchers recently found the number of violent deaths of pregnant women in North Carolina are higher than previously reported.

Doctoral student of maternal and child health Anna Austin worked with Gillings graduate and professor of obstetrics and gynecology and epidemiology Dr. Catherine Vladutiu and researchers from the North Carolina Division of Public Health and North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics to write their study, “Improved Ascertainment of Pregnancy-Associated Suicides and Homicides in North Carolina” in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

Researchers looked at data from the North Carolina Violent Death Reporting System along with traditional surveillance systems to look at the full picture of maternal deaths. They found between 2005 and 2011, there were 55 homicides and 29 suicides amongst pregnant and recently postpartum women in North Carolina. Previous statistics only reported 34 homicides and 20 suicides in the same time period.

There are two reasons these statistics weren’t previously accurate, the researchers said. Firstly, a checkbox on death certificates indicating women were pregnant wasn’t fully implemented in North Carolina until 2014. Secondly, North Carolina does not require a certificate of death for fetal deaths before 20 weeks — the researchers consolidated autopsy reports with their other statistics to find maternal homicides and suicides that fell through the cracks.

When can children see emotion?

Psychology and linguistics researchers are trying to find out at what age children can identify complex emotional states. Researchers didn’t use a simple survey or sterile experimental environment — they used aliens.

Kristen Lindquist and Misha Becker, professors in the departments of psychology and neuroscience and linguistics respectively and graduate student in psychology Holly Shablack used animated aliens to assess when children are able to assume complex emotions without context.

The researchers were able to carry out this project thanks to a Fostering Interdisciplinary Research Explorations grant which is given to researchers doing interdisciplinary work.

The aliens — Palooza, Chrysanthemum, Chromia, Wazu and Xylobean

Becker said they chose aliens, who speak an alien language, to portray emotions rather than humans to avoid the problems that come with mutual exclusivity — when children already have a label for something and do not want to re-label it. Lindquist said the aliens are also more interesting to look at than human faces.

When sampling three to five year old children at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, researchers found only the five-year-old children realized the aliens were experiencing an emotion when only given their syntactical structure. When more context was introduced into the alien’s speech, the four-year-olds were also able to realize they were experiencing an emotion.

UNC will continue protecting air quality

UNC’s Institute for the Environment was awarded a seven-year contract Thursday worth up to $10.2 million from the Environmental Protection Agency to continue the research of its Center for Community Air Quality Modeling and Analysis.

Since 2003, the EPA’s center has been hosted at UNC and works with the agency to create air quality modeling and analysis software used to evaluate and propose regulations. The contract will allow the center to continue their air quality work in vital environmental and human health areas.

Regulatory offices at the EPA, along with state governments, academics, businesses, industries and federal agencies, have used the center’s air quality models. It has grown to serve more than 5,000 registered users in more than 90 countries.

The center has created a participant-funded training program at the UNC’s Institute for the Environment focused on air quality and emissions models. The training is conducted on campus, online and at national and international sites.

The center also hosts an annual conference that brings together leading air quality scientists. The fifteenth annual conference is Oct. 24 to 26 at the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education. 

Taking a crack at plate tectonics

Berk Biryol, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Geological Sciences, is shaking up how to understand plate tectonics in the Southeastern United States.

Biryol, originally from Turkey, lived through two earthquakes and studied them as an undergraduate at Middle East Technical University.

But now Biryol is focusing on areas where it’s more difficult to see fault lines, like North Carolina and Virginia.

Although the Southeastern United States is located about 1,000 miles from the closest plate boundary, earthquakes still occur in this area, but it is not understood why. Biryol thinks the earthquakes could be related to ancient weakness zones, left behind from a tectonic episode nearly half-a-billion years ago.

Biryol studied these areas to find weakness zones by analyzing data from a “seismic network” or earthquake monitoring stations. Nearly 250 of these stations are deployed in a grid pattern across Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

When an earthquake occurs, waves of energy exude from it in all directions. Some of the waves go into the core, reflect back up and hit one of Biryol’s stations. Biryol can then guess how far away the earthquake occurred by observing the frequency of the waves.

Through his seismic tomography, Biryol has discovered this region has weakness zones that likely contain faults but he now wants to address the question of why the zones activate in some places but not in others.

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