newsId: F7F96C5D-5056-AF26-BE3FE5AB73649630
Title: The Analytics of Measurement and Evaluation
Author: Dan Meyer
Subtitle:
Abstract: By taking inspiration from the way corporations use business analytics to optimize their Big Data, our program measurement and evaluation processes can be greatly enhanced.
Topic: Education
Publication Date: 01/19/2017
Content:

By taking inspiration from the way corporations use business analytics to optimize their Big Data, our program measurement and evaluation processes can be greatly enhanced. To understand the connection, let’s start with the mission of the online MS in Measurement & Evaluation program.

“The ability to effectively evaluate projects, programs and processes is becoming increasingly essential to organizational success today. American University's online Master of Science (MS) in Measurement & Evaluation provides you with the knowledge to lead these evaluation efforts and the technical skills needed for analytically demanding roles in upper management.” A good analytics solution constructs a universal framework for collecting, analyzing and utilizing data to determine project effectiveness and efficiency.

Likewise, an efficient measurement and evaluation of projects, programs and policies using analytics should ensure success. An analytics centered approach will likely work with corporate, non-profit and governmental organizations across various sectors and industries.

We can look specifically to two key business analytics concepts I have used in my twenty plus years of analysis work; Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and Data Visualization. The key to my success was my ability to answer important business questions using analytics. Analytics is generally defined as the discovery of patterns in data that provides insight and identifies opportunities. As Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP said about analytics, “The goal is to turn data into information, and information into insight.”

Organizations that invest in analytics generally make much better business decisions then one’s that don’t. In fact, IBM found that organizations who use analytics are up to 12x more efficient and 33% more profitable. In the corporate world, business analytics is widely use to track, analyze and report Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). KPIs are rolled up to senior leadership to drive business strategy, identify and mitigate risk and to optimize operational productivity.

This approach is very similar to the way projects in the Measurement and Evaluation are tracked, analyzed and reported. So we need to ask ourselves, what are the KPIs for the project, program or process we are measuring? What points of data need to be captured, analyzed and reported to determine success?

A successful analyst is able to remove the noise when analyzing data and isolate what matters most to his or her organization. That is what is at the heart of measurement, knowing what data is important and what is not. Once we have the right data, we can measure what the data tells us to determine success, causality, impact… whatever the outcome may be.

A quote often attributed to management guru Peter Drucker perfectly sums up why big corporations rely so heavily on analytics when he said “What gets measured, gets managed.” Similarly, policy decisions can be made based on what is measured. Project funding can be impacted by what is measured. Process optimization can be directed by what is measured.

Once we are able to measure what is truly important to policy-makers, managers and decision-makers, we need to make sure we present the data in a compelling way. This is where data visualization comes in. I often make the analogy that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a good pie chart is worth a thousand rows of data.

We all know that most people learn more by seeing something then by reading or hearing it. Data visualization takes that a step further. Data visualization is not only important to presenting our insights but also for exploring the data for insights. Most people find it easier to process information when it is in the form of a picture then a collection of data.

Chip & Dan Heath, Authors of Made to Stick, found that, “Data are just summaries of thousands of stories – tell a few of those stories to help make the data meaningful.” The ability to take all of the data gathered in the measurement phase and use it in the evaluation phase will make a significant difference in the success of the project, program or process you are working on.

According to the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, “Program evaluation is a systematic method for collecting, analyzing, and using information to answer questions about projects, policies and programs, particularly about their effectiveness and efficiency”. Data Visualization can be used to paint a picture of a program, project or policy that influences outcomes based on the KPIs. And by appealing to the basic human fascination with stories, a persuasive graph, chart or infographic can make all the difference in the world.

By adopting the business analytics concepts of KPIs and Data Visualization, and applying them to the world of programs, policies and projects, you can find the same level of success I found in the corporate world.

Data-Driven Decision Making and Analytics Webinar 
(February 15, 2017)

Join American University for a Webinar on February 15, 2017 at 1 pm ET with Dan Meyer as he goes into more detail on analytics and data-driven decision making. Register here.

About Daniel Meyer

Dan Meyer is passionate about solving problems by bringing together the best talent, cutting edge technology and successful methodologies. He is an expert on data-driven decision-making, multi-industry analytics and business intelligence. He is the author of Putting Your Data to Work and the Fundamentals of Business Analytics. Learn more about Dan Meyer.

Related Graduate Programs

American University offers an online Graduate Certificate in Project Monitoring & Evaluation and an online MS in Measurement and Evaluation that focus on evaluating impact and teach courses on the theories of evaluation, qualitative and quantitative methods and evaluation approaches.

Request more information to learn more about how to get started with one of American University’s online graduate programs or contact an admission advisor at 855-725-7614.

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newsId: 3052117B-5056-AF26-BECF3F2DF0FDE317
Title: Empowering Women in the Boardroom, and Beyond
Author: Jamie McCrary
Subtitle: Student researchers produce annual women’s leadership report
Abstract: Women's leadership in the workplace continues to be a key area of focus--for companies and researchers alike. Find out how a team of AU graduate students helped advance the conversation.
Topic: Business
Publication Date: 01/19/2017
Content:

Maria Wallace, MSAn '17, has always been passionate about women's leadership—especially since she began her career in a traditionally male-run industry. "Information Technology Consulting is typically male-led," she explains. "Women have a lot to offer, and I think it's important we empower them to lead in the workplace."

For Wallace, awareness of the gender imbalance wasn't enough. She wanted to take action.

Kogod Professor Jill Klein gave her the opportunity she was looking for. Klein invited Wallace to join her women’s leadership-focused research team, offering her the chance to nurture her passion while flexing her data analysis skills. “It was a project I couldn’t say no to,” Wallace says. “I’d say it was a personal calling.”

The team, organized through Women in Technology’s (WIT) Leadership Foundry, collected and compiled data to produce the sixth annual report Advancing Women to the Corporate Boardroom. The report examines corporate boards’ gender compositions, with the goal of increasing the number of women serving—and leading—in the boardroom. “Engaging graduate students in our now annual WIT research creates an outstanding opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ on behalf of senior executive women seeking board service opportunities,” says Klein.

Like Wallace, fellow team member Betsy Henderson was drawn to the opportunity for its focus on advancing women leadership. Henderson, MA International Relations online ’17, brought a wealth of global experience to the team—specifically her work on women’s initiatives in Kenya. “I’ve worked on women’s leadership projects abroad, and am passionate about it,” she says. “I’m thrilled I got to channel this experience into the research report.”

The research team, also joined by Heather Randall, MBA ‘17, found that women make up 14% of corporate boards in Washington, DC, as compared to the 17.9% national average. Data shows women’s board representation in DC is slowly increasing year-to-year, but Wallace admits there’s still a long way to go. “We’re just not seeing the women’s leadership on local boards that we want,” she says. “There’s progress, but it’s slow. Hopefully Advancing Women to the Corporate Boardroom can help affect change.”

While the research process itself was rewarding, the true highpoint of the experience was presenting their work. “I didn’t fully grasp how important this was until we shared it with others,” Henderson says. The team presented their research at the Leadership Foundry’s November 2016 meeting, giving them the opportunity to exercise their public speaking skills in front of fellow women leaders. WIT’s Leadership Foundry, a nine-month training program for budding women board members, was both receptive and excited by the report.

“They were incredibly engaged and encouraging,” says Henderson. “They’re all working hard to become the best board leaders they can. It was gratifying to see how relevant this work is to their daily lives.”

The fact the team met in person the first time for the presentation made their experience all the more fulfilling. Wallace, Randall and Henderson, all currently living in different cities, coordinated their research and presentation remotely through Business@American’s online campus. The online learning platform supports video calling, shared screens and voice recording, making collaborating from afar flexible and effective.

Kogod’s Business@American Analytics and MBA programs also utilize the online campus, offering students all the technological benefits the research team enjoyed. Wallace, Randall and Henderson, all graduate students in AU’s online programs, describe it as “efficient,” and “creative.” In Henderson’s experience, “classes are often times more productive than they would have been in person.”

Though the team’s research has drawn to a close, their commitment to the cause has not. All three team members plan to stay engaged in women’s leadership initiatives—both in the US, and abroad. “I hope to work in foreign policy and business development overseas, and I think women are crucial players in this,” Henderson says. “Working with such a great team of women only motivated me more.”

Wallace will continue working with the Leadership Foundry to organize the report’s research into a central database. She hopes her continued work will provide a tool companies can use to advocate for women in the workplace. “Research shows that many companies say women’s leadership matters, but they’re not sure how to integrate it into their business,” Wallace says. “I hope this helps them talk the talk and walk the walk.”

Most of all, Wallace, Randall and Henderson hope the report will inspire change—in the boardroom, and beyond. “I hope Advancing Women to the Corporate Boardroom will pull more people into the conversation about women’s leadership,” says Henderson. “It’s an opportunity for growth and improvement. Let’s get excited about the potential.”

To learn more about WIT and the Leadership Foundry, visit http://www.womenintechnology.org/the-leadership-foundry

Interested in Kogod’s Business@American online programs? Visit https://onlinebusiness.american.edu/ for more information.

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Title: Introduction to the Online Master's in Sports Analytics and Management
Author: Matt Winkler
Subtitle:
Abstract: An Open Introduction to the Online Master's in Sports Analytics and Management
Topic: Athletics
Publication Date: 01/18/2017
Content:

As a former sports executive turned sports-education career specialist, I am proud to announce the launch of the new program, the Online Master of Science (MS) in Sports Analytics & Management at American University, with the first course starting this January.

American University’s Master’s in Sports Analytics & Management program focuses on an emerging third wave of the sports industry and will help prepare mid-career professionals, career changers and entrepreneurs with the skill sets now needed in today’s sports space. While it currently stands alone among sports-analytic-specific degrees, I hope this masters will be transformative and help set a new industry standard for providing cutting-edge expertise.

Ryan Kuehl, AU ‘07 (pictured at right), Vice President, Sports Marketing and Sponsorship, Under Amour and member of our Advisory Council sums it up best:

Ryan Kuehl (AU ‘07)“The importance of data analytics and technology implementation is shifting the focus of the sports landscape towards a series of individual enterprises, beyond the traditional stakeholders - teams, leagues, players, agents, sponsors, media and broadcasters.

Now, thanks to these continuous innovations, brands aspire to a more personal relationship with diverse audiences and seek to build deeper engagements with fans and consumers.

Overall, the field is inherently entrepreneurial, and new opportunities are emerging for students and practitioners around the world. No doubt, the strategic skill sets and data-drive decision-making experience will be in high demand.”

A specialized sports program is poised to fill the recognized gap within the industry and be positioned to capitalize on new ventures for current students and future alumni. These future opportunities include collaboration with current American University alumni and the potential to leverage its institutional assets to strengthen one’s personal brand worldwide.

Personally, I have blended more than 20 years of experience in the NCAA, NHL, WNBA, MLS, the Olympics, and the World Cup, including a footprint on five continents, into this new endeavor. I am very excited to continue to follow my passion in sports, education and career services, and to have the opportunity to develop this ground-breaking program for AU which will bring strategy, data, technology enterprises and innovation to the next generation of sports management.

And finally, by delivering it in an online, distance education format using the latest interactive education technology, this program will be available to a broader geographic, demographic and occupational audience.

I will be following up soon with more information about the degree and program dynamics, but conveniently my general contact information below has not changed, and I am happy to entertain any questions you may have.

Matt Winkler, M.A., APR
American University
winkler@american.edu

To learn more about American University’s online MS in Sports Analytics and Management, request more information or contact an admissions advisor at 855-725-7614.

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Title: Meet New Alumni Association President Joe Vidulich
Author: Traci Crockett
Subtitle:
Abstract: He takes over this month representing the more than 120,000 alumni Eagles worldwide.
Topic: Alumni
Publication Date: 01/17/2017
Content:

Joe Vidulich, SPA/BA '08, fell in love with AU from the moment he stepped on campus. "I knew it was a special place and that I would be honored to be a part of it," he says. Joe, who takes over as president of the American University Alumni Association this month, has been a significant "part of it" ever since. 

As a student, Joe founded the AU Blue Crew to encourage fellow students in supporting the university's athletics teams. "Supporting the men and women who wear the AU insignia on their chests was important to me," he says. The group Joe founded in 2006 is now the university's largest student group. 

Even then, Joe recalls the alumni board president, Brian Keane, SPA/BA '89, saying that your time at AU doesn't end when you graduate – and Joe's involvement certainly didn't stop when he crossed the stage in Bender Arena and received his diploma. "My priority is to be AU's biggest cheerleader," he says. (In fact, that's how he first met outgoing president Andrea Agathoklis Murino, SPA/BA '98. Both are season ticket holders for the men's basketball team, and they struck up a friendship courtside.)

Joe, now in his sixth year as a member of the Alumni Board, believes AU is at a crossroads. "It's a better institution, a stronger institution than it was when I left it," he says. "I think that's in large part due to very active and engaged alumni. One has to look no further than the legacy of Dr. Kerwin as an example. I want more alumni to take an active stake in their university. Talk about AU, share our story, live our values so that American is better for the next students."

In his new role, Joe looks most forward to meeting and engaging alumni who have not yet reconnected to the university. "Whatever drew you to AU, there is a way to support that same vision today, tomorrow, and for years to come…Half the battle is showing up," he says. "Reminisce, contribute time, talent, and dollars. Help shape AU."

Tags: Alumni,Alumni Board,Alumni Newsletter,Alumni Relations,Alumni Relations (KSB),Alumni Update
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Title: Alumni Find Their Way Back to AU
Author: Ryan Jordan
Subtitle:
Abstract: Many WSP alumni eventually find their way back to DC, and some even find their way back to American University. That was the case for Kerwin Henderson, a current Research Associate in the Justice Programs Office of Public Affairs at AU.
Topic: Department Spotlight
Publication Date: 01/17/2017
Content:

Many Washington Semester Program (WSP) alumni eventually find their way back to DC, and some even find their way back to American University (AU). That was the case for Kerwin Henderson, a current Research Associate in the Justice Programs Office of Public Affairs at AU, who completed the WSP with a concentration in justice and law in the Spring of 2011.

"I had a phenomenal experience in the program," Henderson announced. "It exposed me to the full spectrum of the criminal justice system, and through my experience, I gained an understanding of how the system works."

While he participated in the WSP, Henderson interned with the Office of Community Orientated Policing at the Department of Justice and was able to meet a number of influential people in the local DC and federal governments. He recognized that he would not have had the opportunity to gain firsthand experience at a federal agency if he had not participated in the program.

Henderson states that the program helped him become an advocate for criminal justice reform. He says that the program prepared him for his graduate school experience at the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a master's in criminal justice.

"My experience in the program has helped me in every professional position I've held since graduating from grad school," said Henderson. "I've worked as a practitioner at a children's home and as a researcher in academia, and the broad experience I was afforded in the program helped me excel at both."

Like many other WSP alumni, Henderson recognized the invaluable experience he received through his participation in the Washington Semester Program. He commented that it is rare for a program to have both a rich learning environment and the opportunity to intern at influential institutions.

"Prospective students should not pass up the opportunity to participate in the program."

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newsId: 22B89875-5056-AF26-BEA216CCAC36FB35
Title: Share Your AU Happily Ever After
Author:
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Abstract: Add your story and photos to our AU Sweethearts Social Media Project!
Topic: Alumni
Publication Date: 01/13/2017
Content:

Every new American University student begins their journey expecting to find lifelong friends, make lasting memories, and – of course – get a world-class education. A lucky few find their soulmates along the way. In fact, we know there are at least 2,500 happy AU alumni couples.

Each February, we ask these couples to share their love stories as part of our AU Sweethearts Social Media Project. Below are some highlights from previous years. If you found your mate at AU, tell us your story and send us your photos. We will feature you and other AU couples in the next issue of Alumni Update and on social media. You can fill out this form or share stories and photos on Twitter and Instagram using #AUSweethearts.

Sarah Cooper, SPA-CAS/BA ’12, and Sam Miller, SOC-CAS/BA ’12, notably got engaged at commencement. The video of the proposal went viral and was even featured on the Today show.

Robyn (Slagle) Showanes, SOC/BA ’08, and James Showanes, SPA/BA ’08, met on Tenley Campus and now have a beautiful daughter named… Tenley!

Gerry Sommer, CAS/BA ’66, and Joni Palew Sommer, CAS/BA ’67, returned to Mary Graydon on the 50th anniversary of their meeting there.

Adam Dunn, SIS/BA ’07, and Mary (Turkowski) Dunn, SIS/BA ’07, were married on campus in Kay Spiritual Life Center.

Together for over 50 years, Dot (Murray) Waugaman, CAS/BA ’62, and Paul Gray Waugaman, CAS/BA ’61; SPA/MA ’66, love attending All-American Weekend together.

Elizabeth Horsely, SPA/BA '09, SPA/MS '13 and Clay Massa, SPA/BA '10, spent their first date watching the 2009 Inauguration of President Barack Obama. "It was cold, and we left before the swearing-in! But we made up for it in 2013 when we attended the re-inauguration," says Clay.

Tyler Budde, CAS/BA ’10, and Ezree Mualem, CAS/BA ’09, went to the Founder’s Day Ball together for their first date. “Who knew we would be practicing for our first dance [at our wedding]?” says Ezree.

Tessa Telly, CAS/BS '01, CAS/MS '03, and Saliou Telly, CAS/BS '02 were close friends until an outing for a school project turned into a date.

Read about more AU couples:

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Title: A Passion for Excellence
Author: John Ampiah-Addison
Subtitle: My Experience with the Full-time MBA Program’s Global Consulting Project
Abstract: Find out how MBA student John Ampiah-Addison discovered the secret to business success on his global consulting trip to Israel.
Topic: Business
Publication Date: 01/13/2017
Content:

I never dreamed I’d travel to Israel during graduate school. But, through the Full-time MBA Program’s global consulting project, I went on the trip of a lifetime.

The global consulting project – both the greatest highlight and challenge of the program, thus far – paired me and a team of my peers with Voiceitt, an Israeli bio-tech startup. Our assignment? Develop a go-to-market strategy for one of their upcoming products. After conducting our initial research in the classroom in Washington, DC, we traveled to Tel Aviv for two weeks to meet with the company and explore the city.

The Client and the Product
Voiceitt develops applications that translate unintelligible speech into easily understandable dialogue. We created a marketing plan for Talkitt, an application designed to help individuals with speech disabilities communicate clearly.

During our first week, we met with Voiceitt to discuss our findings, and plan next steps. Week two was all about hands-on learning; we did a ton of beta testing to gain a deeper understanding of how the application works.

An Inspiring Experience
What struck me the most was how smart and passionate Voiceitt’s team was. They are genuinely committed to developing products that help people. Working with a start-up was inspiring, too, because they are constantly exploring new ideas.

Developing their go-to-market strategy also taught me that sometimes your work is ambiguous. There’s a lot of ways you can approach a problem. There isn’t always one clear path to success. Learning this helped me tackle our project more creatively, and prepared me for the complexities of professional life outside of school.

Food, Fun and Sun
Our hotel was right next to the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv. I spent time on the beach when I had some free time, and even rented a bike to ride into the city. What really stuck with me is the food, though. Shakshuka, an Arabic dish of poached eggs with cumin-spiced tomatoes, peppers and onions, is now a new favorite.

We also visited Jerusalem and Haifa, and did some unforgettable sightseeing. I got to tour the Bahai Temple’s beautiful gardens, do a sunrise hike to the top of Masada, and even got to swim in the dead sea.

The Secret to Success?
As future global business leaders, it’s imperative that business students learn how to make good decisions under uncertain circumstances. I gained first-hand experience with this working with Voiceitt. Developing a marketing strategy for a newly developed application was anything but clear-cut. Would our plan be successful in the marketplace? How would our target audience react? Will the app need to be adjusted if sales don’t go well?

Voiceitt’s real secret to success, though, is their passion for excellence. Each and every team member I worked with was fully invested in making Talkitt the best it could be. They were dedicated to their work, and passionate about the impact it could have on the word. This is an attitude I hope to channel into every professional environment I enter. And, if I can put as much passion into my future work as I did into the global consulting project, perhaps I’ll have another chance to positively impact the world, too.

Visit us online to learn more about the global consulting trip and Kogod's Full-time MBA Program.

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Title: Greetings from Joe Vidulich, SPA/BA '08
Author:
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Abstract: A message from the Alumni Association President
Topic: Alumni
Publication Date: 01/13/2017
Content:

Happy New Year, fellow alumni! I'm honored to be serving as your alumni association president beginning this year, and I look forward to interacting with many of you. I've been involved with the esteemed AU Alumni Board for several years, and I couldn't be more excited to lead this group and be a resource to all of our alumni.

Over the last 10 years, I have admired and appreciated the leadership of our first alumnus president, Dr. Neil Kerwin. It wasn't too long ago I helped to inaugurate Dr. Kerwin as AU's 14th president. In honoring his impact and legacy – appropriately dubbed a "Decade of Transformation" – we have many opportunities to thank him for the work he has done, and I will highlight those for you in the coming months.

One of those opportunities is through receptions across the country with Dr. Kerwin. Hundreds of you have already joined in the celebrations, and I hope that those of you in South Florida, Chicago, and DC are looking forward to the events still to come. We will acknowledge him at every opportunity during this - his last - semester as our president.

The new year also means change on the American University Alumni Board. Later this month, we will thank outgoing members for their service to the university community. Chip Griffin, SPA/BA '94, and Penny Pagano, SOC/BA '65, have served their alma mater with distinction, and we appreciate their time and energy.

We'll also welcome our newest AUAB members: Piya Charanjiva, Kogod/BSBA '91, Kerry-Ann Hamilton, SIS/MA '05, Jonathan
Mathis, Kogod/BSBA '04,
and George "Cookie" Reed-Dellinger, Kogod/BSBA '69, Kogod/MBA '71. These alumni participated in
a competitive application process and now have a unique opportunity to give back to the university. If you are interested in learning more about the board, or getting involved yourself, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or any of your other board members.

Joining me on the executive committee this year are Rob Johnson, SPA/BA '81, vice president of operations; Sara Nieves-Grafals, CAS/BS '75, CAS/MA '79, CAS/PhD '80, vice president of external relations; and Amy Jones, SPA/BA '99, WCL/JD '03, secretary. I'm beyond excited to work with this dedicated group of alumni volunteers.

Finally, I send a heartfelt thanks to our outgoing president, Andrea Murino, SPA/BA '98. Andrea has dedicated a great deal of time and energy to AU over the years and will continue to do so in her role as immediate past president of the Alumni Board. She is a dear friend and colleague and has represented us very well. I am honored to follow in her footsteps and to continue our work together.

Please join us in supporting AU!

-Joe Vidulich, SPA/BA '08 

Tags: Alumni,Alumni Board,Alumni Relations,Alumni Newsletter,Alumni Update
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Title: Professor Wins Award for Excellence in Psychology
Author: Patty Housman
Subtitle: Integration of science and practice to improve children’s mental health
Abstract: Assistant Professor of Psychology Nicole Caporino has received the first-ever Anne Marie Albano Early Career Award for Integration of Science and Practice from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT)
Topic: Achievements
Publication Date: 01/12/2017
Content:

Assistant Professor of Psychology Nicole Caporino has received the first-ever Anne Marie Albano Early Career Award for Integration of Science and Practice from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) at the association’s 50th annual convention in New York.

The award was named in honor of Anne Marie Albano, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorder. She has devoted her career to studying and treating anxiety and mood disorders in children, adolescents, and young adults.

“I’ve always been inspired by Dr. Albano and other leaders within ABCT who have advanced scientific approaches to understanding and improving child and adolescent mental health, so it was truly an honor to receive this award,” said Caporino.

Caporino joined the AU faculty in fall 2016 as an emerging leader in the study of child anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. “Her dedication to improving the efficacy and accessibility of evidence-based practices, and thereby the lives of children and their families, is evident in all facets of her work,” said David Haaga, professor and chair of the American University Department of Psychology.

 

Integration of Science and Practice

Caporino’s primary research interest is maximizing the efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders in children and adolescents. At AU, Caporino is working to open a child anxiety clinic on campus. It will become the university’s first child therapy facility for the general public.

“I am excited to direct an AU clinic for youth with anxiety disorders and OCD,” she said. “It will facilitate doctoral-level training that emphasizes the interplay of science and practice while reducing the unmet need for affordable, evidence-based services in the DC area.”

Haaga says that the clinic—and Caporino’s focus on integrating science and practice—exemplifies the best of AU’s clinical psychology PhD program. It can also make a real difference in improving mental health care for children and adolescents, he says, which depends on learning from on-the-ground observations as well as systematic empirical research that takes researchers beyond their own individual perspectives.

“The interplay of hypothesis generation and hypothesis testing, informed by close familiarity with the struggles anxious children and their families face on a daily basis, is science-practice integration at its best,” Haaga says. “Nicole’s work brings this approach to bear on rigorously testing possible improvements in therapy for child anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She also focuses on creative methods for increasing access to the best currently available treatments.”

Tags: Achievements,College of Arts and Sciences,Faculty,Psychology Dept,Science
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Title: Student Filmmaker Finds Calling at AU
Author: Elizabeth Neville
Subtitle:
Abstract: Matt Cipollone, SOC/MFA '18, discusses his new documentary and how AU has helped him develop his work.
Topic: Alumni
Publication Date: 01/12/2017
Content:

How does a film student take a homework assignment and turn it into a professional documentary?
Matt Cipollone, SOC/MFA ’18, did just that while a student in AU’s School of Communication Film and Electronic Media program.  

Cipollone came to AU because, as he said, “I was looking for a media program that allows me to focus on social issues. My goal is to create compelling documentary media for nonprofits that work on the issues I care about. With the help of my professors, I’ve been able to start that trajectory while I’m a student and not wait until after graduation.” 

Inspired by a homework assignment in associate professor Maggie Stogner’s class, Cipollone decided to tell a story about Baltimore, his home city. He focused his attention on the Next One Up Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of young men in Baltimore City by supporting and advancing their academic, athletic, and social development. 

Matt Cipollone filming a Next One Up program
One of Next One Up's SAT prep classes.

Over the course of summer 2016, Cipollone used the five-minute homework assignment as inspiration for a fuller documentary, traveling between DC and Baltimore to film with Next One Up students. The organization provides students with mentoring, academic support, and athletic training. Each summer, Next One Up takes their students to a college in New York for a one-week athletic camp. The students see what life after high school could look likeand see a world very different from inner city Baltimore.

That same summer, Cipollone served as a Center for Media and Social Impact fellow, partnering with community members to create digital stories about issues affecting their communities in the Community Voice Project. There, he came to understand the power of a letter as the driving force and structure for narrative projects. After hearing one Next One Up student talk about Baltimore like a friend or family member, Cipollone suggested that the student write a letter to Baltimore and the focus of the film, Dear Baltimore, was born.  

Student reading letter in front of a camera
The student, John, reading his letter to Baltimore during filming.

When Cipollone returned to campus this past fall, he dove into finishing the documentary – calling on his AU professors for their help in tying all the pieces together. The finished project, Dear Baltimore, weaves a student’s letter to his home city with the story of how students’ lives are impacted by the work of the nonprofit. 

Cipollone premiered Dear Baltimore on October 27 at the historic Senator Theater in Baltimore, Maryland during an event for the Next One Up Foundation. (The trailer for Dear Baltimore can be viewed here.

Just one week before that premiere, Cipollone was a featured speaker at AU’s annual President’s Circle Dinner which highlights the role of philanthropy in the university’s success. This year’s program included stories of the incredible transformation that AU has undergone during President Neil Kerwin’s leadership. 

Before an audience of AU supporters, Cipollone spoke about his experience at AU and how philanthropy has made his success possible. He spoke of seeing his own work in the Malsi Doyle and Michael Forman Theater, “during my first year we screened one of our assignments in the beautiful Forman Theater for class. It was the first time I saw work of mine in such an amazing setting, and it had a major impact on me. I hadn’t expected that opportunity as a student.”

Following the success of Dear Baltimore, Cipollone is looking ahead to the future and finishing his MFA at AU. He hopes to continue sharing stories of nonprofits’ work, “In 2017, my goal is to build upon what I learned making this documentary and look outward to identify new organizations I can work with.” 

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Title: Truth in Numbers: Alumna Combats Human Trafficking Through Statistics
Author: Gregg Sangillo
Subtitle:
Abstract: SIS doctoral grad Davina Durgana is on Forbes’ “30 under 30” list of people to watch in the sciences.
Topic: Alumni
Publication Date: 01/12/2017
Content:

Initially, the field of statistics wasn’t exactly Davina Durgana’s cup of tea. But she soon decided that she liked guesswork even less, and she went looking for new approaches to combating human trafficking.

“We were kind of saying, anecdotally, ‘It seems like there may be a massage parlor or brothel there,’” says Durgana, an American University alumna. “But we didn’t know if those were just the stories we happened to hear about.”

Her preference for foreign languages gave way to numbers, and she’s now using statistics to ascertain where instances of human trafficking are most prevalent. As Durgana addresses the trafficking epidemic, people are taking note of her contributions to the field. Forbes recently named her to its “30 under 30” list of people to watch in the sciences.

Tracking the Traffickers

Durgana is based in the D.C. area and currently does statistical analysis for the Walk Free Foundation, a private nonprofit that focuses on human trafficking. She’s part of a team that publishes the Global Slavery Index, and this year they’ll work with the United Nations to collect data on modern slavery. She also teaches at the SIT Graduate Institute.

She bases her research on the UN’s seven areas of insecurity, including economic, political, and environmental weaknesses. Using vulnerability models and Gallup data, she’s able to identify regions that are susceptible to human trafficking.

“Anywhere where there are vulnerable people and a viable market, there will be trafficking,” says Durgana. Labor and sexual exploitation occur in developing countries—where many vulnerable citizens live. But she says trafficking is also a problem in wealthy nations, such as the United States, where there’s a huge market for cheap labor and commercial sex.

In recent years, U.S. politicians have paid much more attention to the issue of human trafficking. But it’s still not necessarily front-page, headline news. She posits that the issue raises all kinds of sensitive questions about American consumer and lifestyle choices.

“I just wonder if some of it comes down to our own culpability,” she says. “Going to strip clubs for bachelor parties—we’re part of this culture of commercial sex. We go to restaurants or nail salons, where we see potentially exploitative labor situations.”

Intellectual Growth at AU

Durgana earned her doctorate from American University’s School of International Service in 2015, focusing on international relations, trafficking, and applied statistics. She notes AU’s role in fostering her intellectual and professional development.

“American was the best choice I could have made for a Ph.D. program. We had such fantastic facilities and great professors. We had great opportunities for additional training,” she says.

She finished her Ph.D. at an expedited pace, with help from SIS Director of Doctoral Studies Sharon Weiner. And she mentions the invaluable support from her adviser and dissertation chair, professor Joe Young.

Durgana’s dissertation model is now being utilized by Seraphim Global, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit.

“I feel at home with the global work that I’m doing. I feel like it’s really impactful,” says Durgana.

Big Plans and Shout-Outs

Durgana grew up on Long Island, N.Y., where she often returns for family visits. With the UN headquarters nearby, it’s also an additional work base for her.

While earning her undergraduate degree at George Washington University, she took a mission trip to El Salvador that sparked her interest in human trafficking. At that time, her community service contributions were so numerous—an EMT in the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department, a Big Sister mentor in Anacostia, among others—she received a lengthy shout-out from First Lady Michelle Obama during her commencement ceremony.

Her extensive internship and work experience included stints in the office of then-Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y. and on Hillary Clinton’s 2006 Senate re-election campaign. She later interned in the Office of Vice President Joe Biden and worked as an associate in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. She also earned a master’s degree from a joint program at the Sorbonne and the American University of Paris (no relation to AU in D.C.).

While working at the White House, she ended up talking with the same speechwriter who worked on Michelle Obama’s GW commencement address.

“He said, ‘You actually did everything that you were planning to do.’ And he was so happy about it. It was a really great moment,” she recalls.

Forging Ahead

As Durgana forges ahead with her work on human trafficking, she says that there’s a risk of burnout for many people in the field. That’s why—though she has worked with trafficking survivors—she believes that survivor support should generally be left to psychologists and therapists. To avoid her own burnout, she’s also active in Cross-Fit training.

In the future, she’s open to running for elective office. Right now, she’s navigating a path that’s grounded in academic research but extends to policy. On the subject of modern slavery, she’s co-editing an upcoming edition of the journal CHANCE, which is co-published by the American Statistical Association and the Taylor & Francis Group.

“I think this is the sweet spot of where our work has the most impact,” she says. “A lot of what motivates me and keeps me so excited is really finding my niche.”

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Title: Alumna exposes the “unmanned” drone war
Author: Kaitie Catania
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Abstract: Alumna Sonia Kennebeck, SIS/MA ’04, reveals the humanizing faces, stories, and hidden truths behind the US drone program in her documentary “National Bird.”
Topic: International
Publication Date: 01/11/2017
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“Don’t believe everything you hear about the drone program. I know what I’m talking about,” read a sheet of paper that an anonymous woman held up to conceal her face as she posed for a photograph, upon which Sonia Kennebeck, SIS/MA ’04, would eventually stumble. After some detective work on Facebook helped Kennebeck identify the woman in the photo as Heather, a US military veteran, Kennebeck finally had the source she needed to begin shooting her first feature-length documentary film, National Bird.

Kennebeck’s film made its world and US premieres last year at the renowned Berlin International Film and Tribeca Film festivals, respectively, and will make its way around the US for a series of free community screenings this spring before airing May 1 on PBS. National Bird provides unique insights on the US’s secretive and controversial military use of unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones, through the humanizing perspectives of three veterans and whistleblowers: Heather, a former imagery analyst; Daniel, a former signals intelligence analyst; and Lisa, a former technical sergeant on the drone surveillance system.

The three describe their involvement in drone wars and strikes in the Middle East, revealing troubling issues such as veteran suicide, civilian casualties, and government technology and surveillance that have shrouded the drone program in mystery for years. While the first half of the film explains the technology, use, and history of drones as a military tool, the second half of the film takes an emotional turn as the protagonists’ personal stories and struggles with guilt, reconciliation, and acceptance unfold.

“I really wanted to bring the humanity into the drone program and this technical war,” says Kennebeck of her initial idea for the project. “In early 2013, people were talking about unmanned aircrafts—no one was looking at the people flying the drones. They were talking about ‘videogame war.’ What was known to the public then was really formed by statements from high-level military officers or politicians who talked about clean, precise, surgical war. I questioned that narrative.”

The film, Kennebeck hopes, will serve not only as platform to share these personal stories of war—of the military members who must decide whether someone thousands of miles away is holding a shovel or a weapon and of the innocent civilians in war-torn countries who have been used as human shields in the drone strikes—but also hopes it will be a tool and springboard for informed conversations about the future of drone wars.

“This is a new technology and it’s creating a lot of issues in how it complies with international laws, rules, and regulations. It is one instance in which technology has outpaced our laws, which were not written with this type of technology in mind. We have to catch up,” Kennebeck says.

In years prior to the film, Kennebeck creatively combined her talent behind the camera with her international affairs background to cover international, political, and military stories as a freelance producer. Originally, she intended for her drone research to be a shorter broadcast documentary, but realized as she dove deeper into the subject that it had to grow into a larger feature-length film—a first for her.

To continue with the project, Kennebeck had to secure funding and an attorney. She also found two top-notch executive producers: Academy Award-nominated Wim Wenders and Academy Award-winning Errol Morris. With no prior connection to either Wenders or Morris, she was pleasantly surprised to be granted a 30-minute appointment with Wenders, which concluded with him agreeing to be an executive producer on the film.

Armed with the tools she needed to pull off the film, Kennebeck and her small crew shot in New York, San Francisco, and Pennsylvania, as well as in Afghanistan, where she and US veteran Lisa met with Afghan victims, survivors, and family members who lost loved ones in drone strikes.

“It’s very, very moving. Audience members expect that the civilians who have been targeted or who have lost limbs will be angry. But there is no anger. You see it in the film that the Afghan families are just so peaceful—there’s not a single trace of anger. The only thing that they ask is that the US please stop killing civilians with drones. In a way, it has almost an optimistic ending because there is hope for reconciliation,” she says.

The powerful emotional response from audience members has surprised Kennebeck, who recalls a recent screening of the film at an international hacker conference, which ended with a standing ovation and three-hour Q&A. “I didn’t know what to say, it really threw me off,” she admits. The New York Times has called her film “elegantly unsettling,” and the Los Angeles Times has praised it as “powerful cinematic journalism.”

As National Bird prepares to make its way around the US for a community screening tour, Kennebeck is hopeful that she will be able continue to attend these events to educate the public about drones. “I want to bring transparency to the program and start a discussion. I think society should be informed about this type of warfare and, based on information, decide if this is the type of warfare we want.”

Watch Kennebeck’s National Bird in full at 10:00 p.m., May 1, on PBS, or attend a local screening near you.


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Title: Three Election Questions for History Professor Allan Lichtman
Author: Patty Housman
Subtitle: AU history professor correctly predicted Trump win
Abstract: American University’s Distinguished Professor of History Allan Lichtman made national headlines last September when he predicted a Donald Trump presidential win.
Topic: Government & Politics
Publication Date: 01/11/2017
Content:

American University’s Distinguished Professor of History Allan Lichtman made national headlines last September when he predicted a Donald Trump presidential win.

It wasn’t just a lucky guess, and it wasn’t based on poll numbers. Instead, Lichtman applied a tried-and-true presidential election prediction formula that he developed with renowned mathematician Vladimir Keilis-Borok in 1981. It involves 13 true/false statements (keys), which have correctly predicted every presidential election outcome since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election.

Lichtman describes his keys in depth in his book Predicting the Next President: The Keys to the White House 2016. They are simple to use: if 8 or more keys are true for the incumbent party, its candidate will win the election—but if fewer than 8 are true, the challenger will win. This election cycle, the keys pointed correctly to a Trump win, despite the vast majority of pollsters predicting a Clinton landslide.

During this inauguration season, we asked Lichtman to look back at the election, the polls, and why everyone seemed to get it wrong this time.


This was obviously a difficult election to predict. Did you have faith in your keys all along?
This was the most difficult election to predict since I began using The Keys to the White House for forecasting in 1984. The keys pointed to a Democratic loss, but in Trump the Republicans were running an unprecedented type of candidate. Ultimately, my prediction was correct and the force of history prevailed over the force of Trump.

 

Why do you think all the pundits got it so wrong?
The pundits got it wrong because they don’t understand how presidential elections really work. The keys demonstrate that these elections are primarily judgments on the strength and performance of the party holding the White House and do not depend on the day-to-day events of the campaign. 

As always, the pundits analyzed the election as a horserace with candidates racing ahead or falling behind every day, with the pollsters keeping score. However, polls are not predictors; they are snapshots at a point in time based on guesswork about who is likely to vote in the election. The “experts” were equally wrong, because their bogus probabilities of a Clinton win were no more accurate than the underlying polls. They conducted no independent scientific analysis. 

 

Do you think this election will change the way polls are used, and the way that the media will report on presidential elections in the future?
I can only hope that the media will stop using and abusing polls as predictors and instead focus on the big picture of the election. The keys can provide guidance.

But I am not optimistic. The media makes its money on reporting the so-called horserace, day by day, however meaningless it may be. Poll-driven stories are easy to write: you don’t even have to get out of bed in the morning to do it.

I do hope that the media can at least temper its poll-driven, horse-race coverage.

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Title: An emphasis on the Earth, always
Author: Kaitie Catania
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Abstract: Gearing up for Global Environmental Policy’s Earth Always event on January 21, we asked Professor Paul Wapner for his insights on some of the most pressing issues facing the environmental movement.
Topic: International
Publication Date: 01/10/2017
Content:

After environmental issues took a back seat to immigration and trade in the 2016 election, there have been calls for a renewed voice and a new message from the US environmental movement, to bring climate change and environmental protection to the forefront of domestic and international policy discussions. To that end, the Global Environmental Politics (GEP) program at the School of International Service will host Earth Always: An Evening of Environmental Solidarity on Saturday, January 21, to convene environmentalists and social justice advocates for a rededication to building a more just and sustainable future. The event will include remarks from Bill McKibben, author and founder of 350.org; Katie Redford from EarthRights International; Mike Tidwell from Chesapeake Climate Action Network; and Ken Berlin from The Climate Reality Project.

Ahead of Earth Always, we asked event organizer and GEP Professor Paul Wapner about some of the challenges the planet and the movement currently face, what can be done to address them, and what he’s optimistic about for the future.

In 2016, global levels of CO2 passed 400 parts per million (PPM). What does this mean, and why does it matter?

Since the Industrial Revolution, the planet has heated up about .8 degrees Celsius. A number of years ago, the international community—which agrees on very little—agreed that 2 degrees Celsius is the threshold after which we’re going to have runaway climate change that will be incredibly hard to adapt to, let alone try to reduce. We only have a certain amount of carbon we can put into the atmosphere and that budget is shrinking very fast.

Crossing that threshold [of 400 PPM] signals that, despite efforts like the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, the world still is unable to restrain its addiction to fossil fuels. While many countries have worked extremely hard to put in place domestic policies and shift economic incentives, crossing the 400 PPM threshold demonstrates the insufficiency of such efforts.

What can be done, in the short or long term, to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere?

We know what to do. We know we need to transition to a clean energy economy, which means shifting our sources of energy away from digging up fossil fuels to wind, solar, hydroelectric, and—some people say—nuclear.

The economics of this shift are becoming increasingly clear. For example, no one can make money in coal anymore. Coal plants are closing largely because of economics, not because of policy. But it’s happening at a slow rate. We need to stop giving incentives to the fossil fuel industry, which we do in numerous ways: handouts to the auto industry, allowing pipelines on public lands, etc. And we also need to create more incentives for people and companies to shift to renewables.

How likely are any of these things to happen as a result of US policy or regulation?

Under a Trump administration, all bets are off. Trump wants to resuscitate the coal industry, which is crazy; it’s not even economically viable. All of the things I mentioned earlier become much more difficult now that we have an administration that says it doesn’t believe in climate change and is anti-regulatory. The few regulations that we have to reduce carbon are, sadly, probably going to be ripped apart.

Officials from 23 states have asked President-elect Trump to declare the Clean Power Plan unlawful. Attorneys general from 15 states and officials from New York City and from counties in Florida and Colorado have asked that the plan be preserved. What are the possible environmental impacts if the plan is halted?

The Clean Power Plan is probably the most important rule that the Obama administration introduced to combat climate change. If it’s scrapped, it takes out a major policy instrument for reducing carbon. It would also have an implication on jobs, since the renewable sector employs more people than coal and oil industries.

As you look toward the incoming administration and the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, what do you fear? About what are you optimistic?

This is a person who has cut his teeth on trying to weaken the EPA, and specifically EPA regulations. What I fear is that this person, who is now in control of the EPA, will spend his time making it less powerful—in fact, rendering it powerless. I also fear that the people and sectors he will consult will be anti-regulatory. America’s environment is going to be open for business rather than for protection.

I’m optimistic that the environmental movement is going to be forced to find its voice in a new way and to find the tools to advance an environmental agenda which includes social justice.

How do you see the environmental movement accomplishing that?

The movement needs to make clear the real costs of environmental degradation. This includes drawing meaningful links between ecological and social wellbeing. Recently, a letter writer to The New York Times drew such a connection when they recommended that before Trump makes any environmental decision, he go and take a deep breath in Beijing. Beijing is almost unbelievable in terms of air quality. Right now, we externalize that cost of air pollution—no one pays for it but the public. By revealing those costs and then explaining ways to internalize them, environmentalism can take a major step forward in finding a more resonant voice. I also must say that having a carbon tax would be a fabulous thing, but the last word that the new administration would ever use is “tax.”

From an international affairs perspective, how is the US bound to the Paris Climate Agreement? How easy or how difficult would it be for the US to abandon some or all of what was agreed to in 2015?

We are bound to the agreement because we are a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which commits us to the Kyoto Protocol and everything that comes after that. As long as we are party to the Convention, we are bound by its rules. The Kyoto Protocol was interesting because it was signed by the US, but never ratified. And then former President George W. Bush literally pulled our signature from it. Interestingly, this didn’t scuttle the agreement, partly because the US never adopted plans completely at odds with Convention. Although we publicly rejected the agreement, in practice we never completely turned policy instruments against it. This may change with the new administration.

My understanding is that this administration could easily renege on the financial commitments that the US has made to help developing countries in its obligation to the Paris Agreement. Certainly we could slow down or halt what we do domestically to come into compliance with our commitment. If it’s clear that the US has no intention to meet its Paris Agreement commitments, then two things could happen: Some countries, particularly in Europe, have said that they’ll go ahead and move forward anyway. However, countries like India, who are expecting money to help them meet their targets, have indicated that they will not be able to keep their commitments if the US reneges on its obligations. If more countries follow India’s lead, curtailing US action could be the unraveling of the Paris Agreement. I think this is highly probable. It becomes even more so if the new administration strikes a dramatic stance and publicly and practically positions itself against the Paris Agreement.

What do you think are some of the major roadblocks the environmental movement faces?

Some important obstacles are the economic and political interests behind casting doubt about environmental issues, especially climate change. ExxonMobil deliberately sowed ignorance for years and tried to cast doubt on climate change. Another obstacle is the conflicting appreciation for environmental goods. Almost everyone says that they care about the environment, but when you ask them to prioritize it on a scale of other things, they rank environmental concern last because it’s an abstraction. The narrow-minded viewpoint—that the economy, terrorism, or national security always trump environmental dilemmas, rather than seeing them as part in parcel with these issues—is an obstacle.

What can be done to dismantle those roadblocks?

Study global environmental politics at American University! Really, I think education is a crucial piece. I also think we need to build a public discourse around scientific understanding. The US government spends billions of dollars supporting scientific research, and yet we have a fairly scientifically illiterate Congress. The information is out there, but we need to build a more informed and literate public that takes scientific understanding seriously.

It seems like climate issues inevitably escalate year after year. What do we have to be optimistic about in terms of victories and progress toward combating climate change and environmental issues recently? What can be done to continue that growth or expand on it?

I think the Dakota Access Pipeline is an example of a great victory. I think what counts for its victory is the expansion of what it means to care about the environment. An important motivator for a lot of people was trying to bring justice to indigenous peoples’ rights and their history of exploitation.

I’m optimistic that there’s an opportunity for us to wake up. There’s an opportunity for us to finally stop living in this clouded delusion that more and more material things are going to make us happy, and that simply growing the economy is an end in itself. There’s a real opportunity for people to question that fundamental tenet of Western civilization, which has been around for more than a century. There are new ways of shaping technologies and rethinking work that will humanize our world and make it a better place.

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Title: Social Enterprise at SIS to venture online
Author: Anthony DiFlorio
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Abstract: The School of International Service (SIS) will offer its MA in Social Enterprise program online in spring 2017 for students to pursue skills in entrepreneurship, business, and innovation from anywhere in the world.
Topic: International
Publication Date: 01/10/2017
Content:

Recognizing the importance of global collaboration and innovation in creating lasting social impacts, the School of International Service (SIS) will launch the MA in Social Enterprise (SE) online program in spring 2017. The new program builds upon the existing on-campus SE program and enables students around the world to pursue their passions, businesses, and education in the field.

Since 2011, the DC-based SE program has readied six cohorts of students to tackle global and societal challenges through entrepreneurship. Graduates have gone on to start their own businesses and nonprofits or enhance existing organizations tied to a social mission.

Strategic Good, for example, is a DC-based consulting firm founded in 2014 by four program graduates which helps small start-ups and established organizations to rethink strategy, revenue generation, and corporate social responsibility. SE alumni also have gone on to work within the start-up, international development, and impact investment fields.

Similarly to the on-campus program, the new online program will incubate globally aware and socially minded career builders, experienced professionals seeking career shifts or advancements, and budding entrepreneurs. Students will work together and independently through an interactive online platform to consult for real clients while pursuing their own social enterprise ventures.

“We’re the first social enterprise program to be hosted in an international affairs school and one of about a dozen or less degrees in this field worldwide,” notes Robert Tomasko, director of the program. “SIS is the definition of multidisciplinary diversity, which characterizes our students and the field [of social enterprise], too.”

Through a practitioner-focused curriculum, the program teaches innovation skills, business knowledge, and policy expertise that support each student’s specific interests and career goals in social innovation and entrepreneurship. Students can further customize their learning with 18 credits of concentration and elective courses offered by both SIS and the Kogod School of Business. For example, those entering with a strong business or finance background could complement their studies with courses in nonprofit management, social issues, and international development, among others.

While the online program boasts flexibility to earn an MA in Social Entrepreneurship from anywhere in the world, a unique highlight of the new program combines its DC roots with the program’s core ethos of experiential learning and continual innovation. Prior to beginning online courses, students will have the opportunity to attend an immersion program in Washington, DC, and make field visits to local nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, and innovation incubators. They’ll also participate in a “hackathon” designed to push them beyond their comfort zones and collaboratively solve a complex business problem for a DC-based social enterprise in just 48 hours.

Matthew Meekins, senior director of strategic partnerships at SIS, views the launch of the online program as an answer to the needs of many qualified and talented students who are either outside of Washington, DC, or unable to regularly visit campus.

“Through our innovative online learning platform, students from around the world can collaborate in real-time with their classmates and faculty member with synchronous high-quality audio and video. By bringing students and faculty together in a virtual space from multiple states, multiple countries, and multiple continents, the program’s mission of educating global social entrepreneurs will be achieved not only through course content, but also through its delivery method,” he says.

The new MA in Social Enterprise online program joins SIS’s other successful online degree offerings, including the online Master of Arts in International Relations and Executive Master of International Service programs, and strengthens the course catalog for all International Relations Online students.

While the program is gearing up for its first semester online, Tomasko believes the social enterprise program will continue to evolve to meet the needs of its students around the world, and even sees potential for collaboration between online and DC-based students in the future, creating a truly globally collaborative program for those both online and on-campus: “The online program is going to give us the ability to greatly expand the geographic scope and magnitude of our social enterprise network. Your network is only as useful as the number of connections you have.”

Learn more about the MA in Social Enterprise program.

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Title: Feeling Grateful? No, Thanks!
Author: Rebecca Basu
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Abstract: Not everyone experiences gratitude in response to the generosity of others, according to new research by American University psychology Prof. Anthony Ahrens.
Topic: Research
Publication Date: 01/10/2017
Content:

When you receive a gift from someone, do you have feelings of gratitude? Or do you feel obliged and burdened to reciprocate the gesture? Not everyone experiences gratitude in response to the generosity of others, according to new psychology research in the journal Cognition and Emotion. What could temper gratitude for some people? One answer could have to do with autonomous personal style, one's sense of independence and self-reliance. 

In one of the first published results examining autonomy in relation to gratitude, American University associate psychology Prof. Anthony Ahrens and his graduate students report on three studies that involved more than 500 participants. They used a self-report measure to determine levels of autonomy. Across the studies, individuals higher in autonomy (not wanting to depend on others or be depended on) experienced less gratitude, and they also valued gratitude less. 

"There's nothing wrong with self-reliance and valuing autonomy. The concern is, to what extent could that interfere with the processes that bind people together?" Ahrens said. 

Gratitude = relationship glue

Gratitude has been widely studied in psychology, and researchers are finding evidence for its many benefits. It helps to build relationships. It's been associated with physical and mental well-being. In Ahrens' research, autonomy was characterized by responses to questions about topics such as how much respondents liked to rely on others for help or to have others depend on them. 

In the first study, participants reacted to receiving a hypothetical gift or favor, with the more autonomous individuals feeling less positive about receiving a hypothetical gift from a friend. In the second study, the results reaffirmed higher autonomous individuals' relative dislike of gratitude. The researchers went a step further in the third study to gain more insight into whether autonomy could interfere with compassion. Just as hypothesized, more autonomous individuals were more focused on presenting themselves well and less so on supporting others in relationships.

"Relationship quality could suffer without expressions of gratitude. A person who is more autonomous might misinterpret a well-meaning gesture by her partner. A compassionate action could be seen as intrusive instead of supportive," Ahrens said. "Other research has shown autonomy could lead to an aversion to any form of reliance on others, making individuals vulnerable to depression."     

Next steps

Ahrens theorizes that people who value independence to a high degree dislike gratitude and think it could make them weak. The next steps in the research will be to explore certain cultural messages related to autonomy. 

"Contemporary American culture emphasizes autonomy," Ahrens said. "It's possible cultural messages lead people to value autonomy and less so gratitude. Examining how autonomy and gratitude interact in the interpersonal realm will hopefully lend insight into how best to cultivate the positive experiences of shared connection, healthy independence, and increased emotional well-being."

Editor's Note: See coverage of Prof. Ahrens' research on gratitude at NPR's Shots Blog.

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Title: WSP Alumna Casey Mendoza: Living the Life of a True Journalist
Author: Ryan Jordan
Subtitle:
Abstract: Casey Mendoza, a former Washington Semester Program student, has started her journalism career off strong.
Topic: Alumni
Publication Date: 01/10/2017
Content:

Talent can be limited by limited
resources, but that was not the case for Casey Mendoza.

“When we filmed, we were using our
own cameras, our own mics, and one other camera borrowed from a professor,”
said Mendoza. “Meanwhile, schools like DePaul or Northwestern were working with
equipment that equaled our budgets for the year.”

A video on undocumented students at
Knox College that she shot and edited with a fellow student reporter won First
Place in Multimedia Reporting from the Illinois Collegiate Press Association.
The win was completely unexpected, and not the reason she began the project in
the first place. As editor-in-chief of her home school’s newspaper, The Knox Student, Mendoza simply wanted
to create videos of stories that resonated with the community. She learned those skills while studying Journalism and New Media in the Washington Semester Program (WSP).

Mendoza entered the WSP in the spring of 2015 to pursue her interest in journalism. She had only
minored in the subject at Knox College due to the small size of its journalism
program. As a student of political science, she decided that entering the
Washington Semester Program was her best option for immersing herself in both
disciplines.

Referring to American University, Mendoza
said,
“AU
was able to introduce me to so many different people active in the industry. It
helped me understand better how the industry is evolving and transitioning to
include multimedia and new technologies.”

While in DC, Mendoza also honed her
pre- and post-production skills while interning at a documentary film company
called The Biscuit Factory.
Through
this WSP required internship experience she acquired the necessary skills and
platform to tell the stories of people who are regularly denied attention and
air time.

Her introduction to multimedia and
real-world film work started with her decision to attend the Washington
Semester Program. Mendoza acknowledged that Professors Klein and Ivory at
American University showed her that young people have the power to change how
journalism works.

“They taught me not to be scared of change,
even though other people are,” said Mendoza “They see that technology, video,
and social media can help journalism become more accessible and democratic for
audiences and readers.”

Mendoza hopes to make her career in
video production for news organizations and documentaries. Currently, she is
the post- baccalaureate fellow at Knox College’s journalism department. She is
working on an oral history project and doing freelance work for her local newspaper, The Register-Mail.

“I would never have been on this
track if it weren't for Klein and Ivory,” Mendoza said. “The fact that I have
their support and advice helps me keep going as well."

Casey Mendoza illustrates that
talent contributes toward person’s success, but she also demonstrates that
support and building a professional network are essential for long-term career
development. The Washington Semester Program provides a nurturing environment
for all this and more.

 

Casey Mendoza was awarded First Place in Multimedia Reporting by the Illinois Collegiate Press Association for a video she shot and edited on undocumented students at Knox College.

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Title: Professor highlights Nigeria’s humanitarian crisis
Author: Kaitie Catania
Subtitle:
Abstract: Following his latest field research trip to Nigeria, Professor Carl LeVan sheds light on the country's humanitarian crisis and why good governance is crucial for meaningful relief efforts.
Topic: International
Publication Date: 01/10/2017
Content:

January 8, 2017, marked 1,000 days since 276 schoolgirls were abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria. Today, nearly 200 of the girls are still being held in captivity by the group. School of International Service Professor Carl LeVan, an expert in African politics, governance, security, and development, says that the Chibok girls who made international news in 2014 are unfortunately just one example of many that comprise Nigeria’s current humanitarian crisis, which he experienced first-hand during his most recent research trip to the area.

“The focus of my trip was to start doing research for a new book about how [Boko Haram’s] violent insurgency in northeastern Nigeria had shattered elite political networks and made the defeat of the ruling political party feasible [in the 2015 elections],” he says. “But along the way, I became interested in and concerned about the governance component of the humanitarian relief effort,” Levan says.

While there, LeVan met with many northeastern Nigerians who are experiencing humanitarian issues that perpetuate due to a lack of adequate governance. He participated in a feeding program that assists Almajiri boys who are taken out of their schools in order to beg for their families, and as a result, are susceptible to Boko Haram recruitment; he met with internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in refugee camps and settlements because of violent insurgencies in their hometowns; and he met with local cattle herders whose livelihoods are impacted by a disappearing Lake Chad due to global warming.

“What I stumbled upon and discovered on my trip is that the governance and the oversight of humanitarian relief is really inadequate, that there are openings for corruption, and that there are tremendous inefficiencies,” he says.

According to the United Nations, more than two million IDPs have fled violence related to Boko Haram. Most of the IDPs are living in informal “host communities” rather than government-run camps and settlements. They end up being victimized twice: the violence they flee in their hometowns is often replaced by new dangers and threats, including sexual abuse, malnutrition, and limited access to basic necessities. According to the IDPs with whom LeVan met, the Nigerian government’s response to the situation has been poorly coordinated and often impeded international relief efforts.

“None of the IDPs we met had been visited by government officials. Not even their hometown politicians—their state legislator or local council chairman—had bothered to come to see them or advocate on their behalf,” wrote LeVan in an article for AllAfrica.com. “When confronted, the state officials gave conflicting alibis, claiming that they sent help, but that it was stolen by local officials. Given how little oversight there is over a humanitarian relief effort opaquely micromanaged by corruption-prone bureaucrats, it is no surprise that very few of the two million IDPs have received any meaningful help.”

LeVan’s observations from his time in Nigeria, and the article for AllAfrica.com in particular, have spurred meaningful conversations between the US and Nigeria officials on how to improve humanitarian crisis management and gaps in governance through accountability and transparency in the region. He notes that this is also a pivotal time in the US-Nigeria relationship, which currently stares down the barrel of the Trump administration. LeVan has outlined for The Hill what impacts of an isolationist stance by the US could mean for both Africa and Trump, and will continue the conversation about Africa policies in the Trump administration on January 18 at a roundtable discussion hosted by the newly launched School of International Service Africa Research Cluster.

While LeVan admits that the complexities of the issues facing Nigeria and African can be daunting, likening them to layers of an onion, he says their intellectually stimulating nature and the people impacted by them are what keep him returning to Africa year after year. “When I started going to Africa in 1999, people told me: ‘You go to Europe for the sights, but you go to Africa for the people,’ and that’s definitely been my experience. The people and the intensity of the relationships that you develop with people over the years is really rewarding.”

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Title: Disability Advocates Used Digital to Become Visible
Author: Jessica Harris
Subtitle:
Abstract: Professor Filipo Trevisan traces the strategy and successes of the online disability community in his new book.
Topic: Communications
Publication Date: 01/09/2017
Content:

American University School of Communication professor Filipo Trevisan at American University recently published his first book, Disability Rights Advocacy Online: Voice Empowerment and Global Connectivity.

Before joining the faculty of AU, Trevisan received his PhD in political communication and public policy at University of Glasgow. While in the UK, Trevisan, who teaches in the strategic communication program, witnessed much of the transformation in advocacy that is the focus of his research.

“At the time a conservative government created anxiety (in the disability community) for a number of reasons. The leverage of social media grouped advocates together for rights that took many of them off a traditional tract. Crisis brings forward community.”

Technology was a major factor for the new and emerging advocacy groups. There was a shift in how they were portraying themselves, what their focus was and how the groups were achieving results. They were able to address accessibility issues and meet with those in government to discuss policy changes. This is in contrast to the fact that more seasoned advocacy groups had not been able to penetrate the tension between themselves and policy makers.

Social media, blogging and other online platforms continue to be a tremendous tool for those advocating for the rights of, and for, persons with disabilities. Groups are able to form a community, a voice and raise awareness regarding the issues and reality they face.

The general public has a limited knowledge of persons with disabilities, and the media portrays and controls the narrative of these issues. The term "disability" often has a stigma attached to it.

“As a category it makes organizing complicated [because it groups everyone together] however, new media has helped in providing opportunities with awareness. Groups are able to maintain their identity but not be defined by them... blogs have been a powerful tool for individuals,” Trevisan explains.

Some traditional news outlets have provided different views of those who have a disability. For example WNBC 4 provided a platform for viewers to contact the station flagging accessibility issues around the area. The physicality that is often associated with the term disability is not about impairments but barriers. 

Encountering such barriers is often what catalyzes persons with disabilities to become politically involved. Grassroots organizations and campaigns like Crip The Vote have emerged to rally the community as a potential voting block.

“Persons with disabilities are able to share their stories dealing with the government, daily life and dealing with communication. They can determine if the influentials are listening, whether or not they are targeting the right audience. But most importantly, I’ve seen the power of the personal stories,” he said.

Trevisan also conducted research with Google centered around voter ecology.

“I would say that the main takeaway from my work on how people use Google during elections is that users appear to be moving away from the issues suggested by traditional forms of media (e.g. newspapers and cable) when they look for information online.

This suggests an important shift in the ways in which some voters get their information that privileges candidates, parties, and affiliated websites as direct sources of information over legacy media outlets” To see more about this project here.

Trevisan, though he shies away from speculation, believes that advocacy groups for those with disabilities will continue to use technology and social media as leverage to group together for rights and change in policy. There is concern that organizations and funding for disability issues could potentially be threatened if not dissolved under a Trump administration.

“We are not in ordinary times,” Trevisan stated.

Looking forward, Trevisan wants to examine the use of blogs. Blogs have served as a powerful tool for advocates and the disability community. They serve as more than just a platform, but a window for those on the outside looking in. He continues to work with focus groups to gain more insight on how technology and social media can benefit persons with disabilities. He hopes that as things progress access to these things will become more prevalent and training would accompany those who can benefit from it.

Follow Trevisan on Twitter @filippotrevisan 

Learn more about an MA in Strategic Communication.

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Title: Spring Arts Season Kicks Off at AU
Author: Asantewa Boakyewa
Subtitle:
Abstract: Spring 2017 calendar filled with art, music, theatre, and dance.
Topic: Arts
Publication Date: 01/06/2017
Content:

Welcome to the 2017 spring arts season at American University! Our calendar below is filled with concerts, dance performances, new interpretations of classic plays, exciting art exhibitions, and talks by nationally known scholars and artists.

Spring Calendar

MOVEMENT SPEAKS: CONVERSATIONS ABOUT DANCE
Featuring Guest Artist Michel Kouakou
Saturday, January 28, 5:30 p.m.
Katzen Arts Center, Room 152

As the culmination of a week-long residency with the AU Dance Program, guest artist Michel Kouakou discusses the choreographic process and gives a sneak peek of the new performance collaboration with the American University Dance Company (AU/DC). The AU/DC will perform this new choreography as part of its April dance concert, Dance Works. Free and open to the public.

ART HISTORY AND MUSEUMS LECTURE

Never the Same Day Twice: Art History and Curatorial Practice
Wednesday, February 8, 4–6 p.m.
Abramson Family Recital Hall

Virginia Treanor, associate curator for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, will talk about her adventures as a curator and how she has learned to balance exhibition planning with unexpected challenges and opportunities. Reception to follow. Free and open to the public.

KATZEN SOUND BITES
Thursdays, 12:35–12:55 p.m.
February 9, February 23, March 9, April 6, April 20
Katzen Rotunda, Katzen Arts Center

Join AU student and faculty performers for live midday mini-concerts. Free and open to the public.

AU CHAMBER SINGERS: AN EARLY MUSIC PROGRAM

Saturday, February 11, 7 p.m.
Sunday, February 12, 3 p.m.
Kay Spiritual Life Center
Daniel Abraham, director

The American University Chamber Singers perform Baroque works, including a rare hearing of a large-scale Zelenka mass, one of Bach's beloved vocal motets, and a juxtaposition of the beautiful Salve Regina by Caldara with Pärt's modern masterpiece on the same text. This program is a preview of their international concert tour to Poland in May. Tickets: $5–10

DRACULA
Thursday-Friday, February 16–17, 8 p.m.
Saturday, February 18, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Greenberg Theatre
4200 Wisconsin Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20016
Directed by Carl Menninger

Adapted by William McNulty, this performance is an action-packed, blood-soaked retelling of Bram Stoker's classic tale of horror. Produced by special arrangement with Playscripts, Inc. (playscripts.com) Adult content and some mild adult language. Tickets: $10–15

ARTS MANAGEMENT SPRING COLLOQUIUM
Friday, February 17, 3 p.m.
Abramson Family Recital Hall

Leading practitioners and theorists address critical issues affecting today's cultural community. Free and open to the public.

AU SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: CONCERTO AND ARIA COMPETITION

Saturday, February 18, 7 p.m.
Sunday, February 19, 3 p.m.
Abramson Family Recital Hall
Matthew Brown, director

The AU Symphony Orchestra hosts the annual competition, open to all AU undergraduate students. Held in two rounds, the winner will perform as soloist with the AU Symphony Orchestra in a public concert. Free and open to the public.

ALLEGRO

Thursday-Friday, February 23–24, 8 p.m.
Saturday, February 25, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Katzen Arts Center, Studio Theatre
Directed by Karl Kippola

A small-town doctor tries to follow in his father's footsteps—but is tempted by fortune, fame, and the big city. Rodgers and Hammerstein's most innovative and contemporary musical explores the challenges facing an ordinary person in a chaotic modern world.
Tickets: $10–15

ARTIST TALK: SAM MOYER

Monday, February 27, 6 p.m.
Katzen Arts Center, Room 201

Sam Moyer introduces students and the public to her work, which fuses the languages of painting, sculpture, and photography. Moyer's work is featured in the exhibition New Ruins at the American University Museum, on view January 28–March 12. Free and open to the public.

AU SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: MARCH MEDLEY
Saturday, March 4, 8 p.m.
Sunday, March 5, 3 p.m.
Abramson Family Recital Hall
Matthew Brown, conductor

The American University Symphony Orchestra spring concert opens with Rossini's Barber of Seville Overture. The program continues with Smetana's Moldau, Painted Music by AU faculty composer Jerzy Sapieyevski, and ends with Edvard Grieg's lively and memorable Symphonic Dances. Tickets: $5–10

ARTIST TALK: VALERIE HEGARTY
Thursday, March 9, 6 p.m.
Katzen Arts Center, Room 201

Valerie Hegarty introduces students and the public to her interdisciplinary practice, which includes painting, sculpture, and installations that address themes of memory, place, and history. Free and open to the public.

EMERGING ARTS LEADERS SYMPOSIUM
Sunday, March 19, Day-long event
Katzen Arts Center

Now in its tenth year, the Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium (EALS) is a day-long event kicking off Arts Advocacy Day. This year's theme is Focus Forward, a call to action to use our collective strength to not only envision the future of the arts, but to make this future possible. The symposium will be a day of conversation, reflection, education, and networking. Registration is required. ealsatau.org

MASTER CLASS WITH ZOE SCOFIELD
Saturday, March 25, 11 a.m.
Katzen Arts Center, Room 152

Learn contemporary dance practices with guest artist Zoe Scofield. Prior dance experience recommended. Free for the AU Community.

THE GORENMAN RUSSIAN PROJECT

Saturday, March 25, 8 p.m.
Abramson Family Recital Hall

Internationally acclaimed concert pianist Yuliya Gorenman performs masterpieces of Russian composers. Tickets $10–25

MOVEMENT SPEAKS: CONVERSATIONS ABOUT DANCE
Featuring Guest Artist Zoe Scofield
Saturday, March 25, 8 p.m.
Katzen Arts Center, Room 152

As the culmination of a week-long residency with the American University Dance Program, guest artist Zoe Scofield discusses the choreographic process and gives a sneak peek of the new performance collaboration with the American University Dance Company (AU/DC). The AU/DC will perform this new choreography as part of their April dance concert, Dance Works. Free and open to the public.

ART HISTORY DISTINGUISHED SCHOLARS LECTURE
Foregrounding the Background: Dutch and Flemish Images of Household Servants

Wednesday, March 29, 4–6 p.m.
Abramson Family Recital Hall

Diane Wolfthal, the David and Caroline Minter Chair in the Humanities and a professor of art history at Rice University, presents a lecture on images of servants in Netherlandish art, challenging previous interpretations of such images to better understand the rich and complex web of attitudes towards servitude that existed in the past. Reception to follow. Free and open to the public.

ARGONAUTIKA

Thursday-Friday, March 30–31, 8 p.m.
Saturday, April 1, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Greenberg Theatre
Directed by Isaiah Wooden

This imaginative adaptation of The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts follows Jason and his spunky band of Argonauts as they endeavor to retrieve the coveted Golden Fleece. Bursting with humor and fantastical creatures, playwright Mary Zimmerman refashions the enduring tale into a timely theatrical event that explores the complexities of the human condition and the resilience of the human spirit. Gaius Valerius Flaccus translated by David R. Slavitt. Apollonius Rhodius translated by Peter Green. Tickets: $10–15

AU DESIGN SHOW
Monday, April 3–Thursday, April 13
Reception: Tuesday, April 4, 5 p.m.
Katzen Arts Center, Rotunda Gallery

An exhibition of selected student design work from the next generation of leaders in graphic design. Free and open to the public.

AU CHAMBER SINGERS: INTERNATIONAL A CAPPELLA

Saturday, April 8, 8 p.m.
Sunday, April 9, 3 p.m.
Abramson Family Recital Hall
Daniel Abraham, director

The American University Chamber Singers present a mixed program spanning Renaissance European and Polish works; intense contemporary American, Polish, and central European choral literature; and uplifting American spirituals, traditional, and gospel arrangements. This program is a preview of their international concert tour to Poland in May. Tickets: $5–10

THE LIVING COMPOSER'S SERIES: THE MUSIC OF AMY WILLIAMS

Friday, April 21, 8 p.m.
Abramson Family Recital Hall
Noah Getz, director

The American University Workshop jazz ensemble concert focuses on one of Amy Williams' newest large ensemble works and several chamber works. Williams writes with a modern aesthetic that borrows from a variety of musical styles in a uniquely American way. Her music is informed by her work as an active contemporary pianist. Tickets: $5–10

DANCE WORKS
Friday-Saturday, April 21–22, 8 p.m.
Greenberg Theatre
Artistic direction by Britta Joy Peterson

The American University Dance Company presents the annual Spring Dance Concert, featuring choreography by AU students, faculty Britta Joy Peterson and Erin Foreman-Murray, and guest artists Zoe Scofield and Michel Kouakou. This main stage production presents fresh and seasoned perspectives on concert dance performed by AU dance students. Participate in a post-performance discussion with the choreographers on Friday, April 21. Tickets: $10–15

JAZZ: CONCERT AND CONVERSATIONS
Saturday, April 22
Panel Discussion: 6 p.m.
American University Museum

Join jazz musicians and scholars for a panel discussion on education, performance, and business education moderated by Joshua Bayer, director of the American University Jazz Orchestra. Panelists include Rusty Hassan, longtime jazz host at Washington, DC, community radio station WPFW 89.3 FM. Reception to follow. Free and open to the public. RSVP required.

Jazz Concert: 8 p.m.
Abramson Family Recital Hall
Joshua Bayer, director
The American University Jazz Orchestra and professional jazz musicians perform a variety of works for the orchestra's annual spring concert. Tickets: $5–10

AU SYMPHONIC BAND: FRENZY AND CALM
Sunday, April 23, 3 p.m.
Abramson Family Recital Hall
Ben Sonderman, director

The American University Symphonic Band proudly presents its spring program. This production features popular classics and new favorites of the repertory.

THEATRE/MUSICAL THEATRE SENIOR CAPSTONE
Thursday, April 27, 8 p.m.
Friday, April 28, 8 p.m.
Saturday, April 29, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Katzen Arts Center, Studio Theatre
Artistic direction by Randy Baker

Graduating theatre and musical theatre students present original dramatic work and songs. Production contains mature themes. Tickets: $10–15

AU CHORUS AND AUSO: LUX IN TENEBRIS (LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS)
Friday, April 28, 8 p.m.
Saturday, April 29, 8 p.m.
Abramson Family Recital Hall
Matthew Brown and Casey Cook, conductors

The American University Symphony Orchestra and AU Chorus present a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna. The performance also includes a newly written work by AU faculty composer Sean Doyle, as well as Brahms' epic Symphony no. 1 in C. Tickets: $5–10

For More Information

For more information or event updates, visit AU Arts. To reserve seats, visit american.tix.com or call 202-885-2787.

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Title: AU 2030: Colin Saldanha
Author: Gregg Sangillo
Subtitle:
Abstract: CAS professor’s curiosity drives his research on the mammalian brain.
Topic: Research
Publication Date: 01/05/2017
Content:

Through scientific inquiry, older ideas can be expanded, re-examined, or completely refuted. Biologist Colin Saldanha gets animated when discussing paradigm-shifting moments.

He remembers when people thought of estradiol—a form of estrogen—as just a hormone for the female reproductive system. We now know that estradiol is not only present in males, but it’s a critical component of their brains.

“It’s actually what makes the brain male in mammals. But it’s also important for a lot of other behaviors, including mood, learning, memory, balance, and the response to stress,” says Saldanha, an American University professor, chair of the Biology Department, and a member of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience.

Since scientists have ascertained that estradiol may protect—or fail to protect—capacities like learning and memory, this research could have implications for neurodegenerative diseases that afflict millions of people. Everything from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s to aging might be better understood.

Saldanha cautions that the human applications of his research are yet to be determined. But as he and his colleagues amass this knowledge, they’re helping to decode the mysteries of the mammalian brain.

As part of its AU 2030 initiative, the university has invested resources in the research area of neuroscience.

Birds and Breakthroughs

Hormones are secreted chemical signals, usually synthesized in glands all over the body and dumped into the circulatory system. But in songbird brains, Saldanha explains, estradiol was made within specific synaptic structures. (Synapses are electrochemical connections between nerve cells, and they’re information transfer points in the brain.)

“These synaptic connections are extraordinarily specific. They have to be. If you’re going to try to control a specific behavior, there has to be a very specific electrochemical circuit that conducts this information,” he says.

His initial National Institutes of Health grant was to study this phenomenon in songbirds. Through several cycles of funding, Saldanha and his team examined estradiol’s core function. They learned that after a songbird’s brain injury, certain cells that normally do not synthesize estradiol do exactly that. And they do it within 24 hours of the trauma.

“It was remarkable to me,” he says. “We investigated further and discovered that this rapid synthesis of estrogens in response to brain damage is actually a mechanism to protect the brain from the degeneration that usually occurs after neurotrauma.”

Essentially, the songbird brain is treating itself in a way that the human brain cannot. For example, once a human being starts to show signs of having a stroke, it’s highly recommended that people rush that person to a hospital emergency room. That’s because the stroke has probably been occurring undetected for a while, Saldanha says.

“The damage sort of emanates from that initial bleed, or starvation of oxygen, or whatever the cause of the stroke was,” he says. “That degeneration sort of spreads like a halo, around that initial point of damage.”

Yet that just doesn’t happen with the songbird. Its ability to synthesize estrogens rapidly after brain trauma completely eliminates that wave of degeneration.

“These animals have evolved a rapid response to brain trauma that we’ve lost,” he says.

Animals and ‘Extreme Biology’

If you’re just relying on what you cobbled together in high school biology, some of these findings might seem surprising. If humans are further along on the evolutionary chain, why are birds better at treating themselves? Well, mammalian aptitudes across species are not so clear cut.

“We are the ones who have been on the planet the least amount of time. These other organisms have been here way longer than we have,” he says. “To a certain sense, it’s not surprising that they have things going on in their bodies that we either haven’t developed evolutionarily, or will never develop, because we’re occupying a completely different ecological niche.”

Saldanha’s research lab works with songbirds to learn more about people. The group is also now using rodents, since they’re closer to—and likely to provide a better template for—humans.

He also touts observing “extreme biology” to find out how animals survive in extraordinary places. Saldanha points to bar-headed geese, which migrate over the Himalayas twice a year.

“There’s hardly any oxygen up there,” he notes. “Many of us have gone up to Breckenridge or Vail and tried to climb up a flight of steps and stood there really sucking air, because there’s just very little oxygen up there, either. Well, if we really wanted to understand respiration, maybe the bar-headed goose is the species we need to be studying.”

He continues, “Animals, including people, do amazing things. They breathe in water, fly through the air, write poetry. Understanding how they do it—understanding how we do it—is a pretty cool exercise.”

Searching for Answers, Starting with Questions

Saldanha was born in Bombay, India. Suffering from a dislocated hip in 8th grade, he ended up in a body cast and suddenly had reading time. Someone gave him the James Herriot animal-focused novel All Things Bright and Beautiful, and he subsequently consumed everything Herriot ever wrote.

With his interest in biology ignited, he eventually came to the U.S. for undergrad at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. He later earned an M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York.

During his post-doc years at UCLA, he and his wife were active participants and supporters of choral music. They still travel during vacation periods, but he doesn’t have much time for singing anymore. Yet even if he’s abandoned shower singing, he’s still left with boundless thoughts about science and nature.

In one instance, he remembers wondering, “Why doesn’t a woodpecker’s constant hammering on the tree give it a concussion?

“Those moments happen, right? But they’re not ‘a ha’ moments. They’re mostly questions,” he says.

Others scientists have pondered the woodpecker conundrum before, he says. But his question still provides a window into his curious mind, one that’s flourished at AU.

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