It’s a Lot Quieter Now

(This blog post was originally written on July 14.)

The four weeks of June passed by in a blur of sunscreen, pools, and Teddy Grahams. Now, I am sitting in the office of the Children’s School with my notes of the memory games that the children played with me, my laptop open to Google Docs, and my iPad channeled in to watch Wimbledon as I read more papers and cheer for Rafa Nadal (Update: since I started drafting this post he lost a valiant battle in the Round of 16). Summer camp has reached the end, and now I am working to determine the focus and methods of my research project with two weeks left in Pittsburgh; unfortunately, playtime is over.

Looking at all the notes I took about what the children said and did while playing the memory games, I became convinced that they could learn and start to use memory strategies in a shorter amount of time than I anticipated. The children had many choices of activities during their time outside, and even I found myself wishing I could make a wooden bee at the woodworking station. Having all these other fun activities available meant that their time spent playing games with me was sporadic, and some children only played once or twice throughout the weeks of camp. However, with the children who came to play with me every day, I saw some developments in their playing strategies in the few weeks I had with them.

Per Dr. Carver’s suggestion, I talked naturally to the children to see what sort of prompting phrases I would use to help them remember items during game play. I asked a lot of questions such as, “Have we seen this card before?” or ” What was on this card?”. Based on their response, on the next turn I might ask, “Where have we seen this card before?” to encourage them to think of the matching card to successfully get the pair. The purpose of everything I say during the games is to help the children rehearse the information they have been exposed to previously, and also to help them pick out the important pieces of information to remember in the future. Children were always coming and going in the middle of games, and because of all the excitement happening, I didn’t expect them to pay much attention to what I said. Instead, in the last week of camp, I saw that the children who spend the most time playing games with me started asking the same questions, whether it was to themselves or to others playing the game. It seems like they were picking up on what they should pay attention to in order to remember the cards better.

The children’s competitiveness also played a role in their performance. When there was a larger group of children, I sometimes emphasized that we had to work together to find all the matching pairs, trying to avoid conflicts or hurt feelings. They reminded other players of what they were supposed to be looking for, and often made suggestions about where they thought the matching card was. On the other hand, when there were only one or two children playing with me, I sometimes competed against them to slightly change the objective of the game. I would still ask them for advice on where to go, but now that there was a competition, many of them would actually point me to the wrong card, and would then proceed to make the correct match on their next turn, showing that they knew both where the correct card was, and also where it was not. It was also quite entertaining to see their smug faces when they successfully “tricked” me. I’d like to say that I always lost to them purposely, but a few extraordinary children, in their own words, “took a picture of the cards in their brain”, and promptly defeated me before I could put any strategies to good use.

I was surprised to see that both competition and cooperation helped focus attention on the game, improving memory of the cards and performance in the game. That may prove to be another interesting condition to explore, time permitting. As the end of my fellowship period draws nearer, my research project is slowly beginning to take shape. The focus will most likely be on introducing strategies to the children to use during the memory games. Expanding from matching games, the intervention games will cover the four ways that information is processed and stored in memory detailed in A Mind at a Time: pairs, procedures, categories, and rules and patterns. Such games will include a picture recall game, and a sequence of actions game, where children will have to remember and perform a series of different actions in order.

The next immediate step is forming a coherent proposal to send to the IRB for approval (as well as learning to navigate the IRB’s online form). Beyond that, I am working on organizing the literature review I have done so far into an introduction section, and also preparing some presentations for the coming weeks. While some Dietrich Honors Fellows are just getting started in Pittsburgh, I feel like I am in the home stretch for the summer. Seagull the hedgehog is getting ready to go to New Jersey for the first time, and pretty soon I will be preparing for the semester of a lifetime.

Learn more about my project.

Technical Communications meets Public Health: A Tale of Two Disciplines

(This post was originally written on July 3.)

Well I’m halfway through my first week! I’ve been reading tons of papers on Sustainability in the field of Public Health, Technical Communications, and how the two connect. So far I’ve been trying to set up a working definition of Sustainability and Technical Communications to make it easy for a general audience to understand. I have been fortunate to have found great research papers that have answered this question for me and then some. I plan to continue to look for more research papers to build upon the definitions and criteria of what I have.

I’ve realized the connection between the two are stronger than I originally thought. Website development and grant writing are very important parts of nonprofit organizations that communicate their work to others and how they communicate this information can be the difference between having funding and continuing their foundation or not. I will continue to look into this large network of communications and figure out a way technical writers can enhance the reach of nonprofits to make their cause sustainable.

I also will be incorporating a small narrative portion into my book. I have been abroad many times working in public health and I think others will be able to understand the importance of sustainability in under-served countries if they knew more about the people and way of life in these areas. I hope the addition of the narrative will make the book more lively and give a personal touch to something that seems so technical.

Learn more about my project.

 

Hamilton and Jay and Madison and Washington

(This blog post was originally written on June 30.)

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 2.51.22 PM

Since my last blog post, I have made considerable advances in my research. With the recommendation of my mentor, Geoff McGovern, the Barco Law Library at the University of Pittsburgh has become an invaluable resource for me. As you can probably guess, the library is a pretty empty place during the summer so I usually find myself among only the law professors and the librarians. At times this can be rather usefully since I have a quiet place to peruse different texts on constitutional law. I have even found some go-to texts that I have continuously consulted these past few weeks.

In that period of time, I have dedicated my research to the early days of the American presidency and the federal court system. I naturally began to look at how the framers defined the executive and judicial branches during the days of the Constitutional Convention. Unsurprisingly, there was many conflicting views on how much power should be reserved to an executive and how many people should comprise this branch. From there I began to familiarize myself with different presidencies. So far, I have gained a better sense how a single president can strengthen his power during his term(s) in office. My plan is to ultimately group the presidents by time period to easily show my audience how the executive branch has evolved over time.

Aside from the presidency, I have also looked at the powers of the judiciary. I began with the earliest and most noteworthy cases, such as Marbury v. Madison and McCulloch v. Maryland, to understand how powerful the judiciary was in its early days. I have also gotten into the more procedural aspects of the judiciary’s power and how it chooses the cases it hears. Of course, I delved a little too deeply into this topic and wandered into some areas that will not be relevant for my project as a whole. Now, per the suggestion of Geoff, I will devote more time to presidential powers. By the end of the summer I hope that I can begin writing parts of my thesis.

Learn more about my project.

Seeking Programming Help

(This post was originally written on Friday, June 23.)

matlab

I have now been working on my thesis for five weeks. While in the first few weeks I was just reading papers in order to compile the beginnings of a literature review, recently I started tackling the MATLAB script that I will use to test my subjects. I have a feeling that this script will be one of the most challenging obstacles that I have to overcome in order to successfully complete my thesis.

I do not have a strong background in programming. Besides some brief experimentation with the language in high school, the only time I have used MATLAB to present stimuli was two years ago. At that time, I was working on the project of a post doc in the same lab that I am now doing my thesis. I only had to make a few minor changes to a script but that still took me a long time as I had to look up the appropriate way to write each command and then try to understand the bugs that invariably showed up. Over the ensuing two years, whatever moderate understanding of the language that I developed during that time seems to have vanished. Initially, this made me worried; there was no way for me to tackle this thesis without a functioning script. Out of this problem, however, emerged both a potential solution and an invaluable life lesson: It is okay to ask for help – I do not need to do this alone.

Since programming is such an integral part of conducting human-based behavioral and cognitive research, everyone in my lab has a lot of experience constructing a script; between all of the post docs and graduate students, they have written thousands of lines of code and worked through innumerable bugs. Consequently, I turned to them for help hoping that they could teach me how to program a script myself. As a skill that I may need to draw upon again and again in the future, I wanted to actually learn the language and how it can best be applied.

I am now in the midst of this learning process. Apart from getting more acquainted with MATLAB, this experience has also reacquainted me with the other members of Dr. Behrmann’s lab. Their support and technical expertise form a solid foundation upon which I have begun developing my own skills. Thus, while the prospect of constructing a script in MATLAB is still daunting, I now find myself looking forward to the challenge as I am no longer facing it alone.

Learn more about my project.

Filming

The past three weeks I’ve been traveling in Los Angeles, meeting with individuals who have Vulvodynia (chronic pain of the vulva discussed in last blog post). I managed to spend the day with two different women, filming interviews, the spaces they live in, and self-treatment related to the condition. Above you will find five stills from some of the raw footage, which I’m still working through. The biggest question I’m thinking about so far is how to connect the stories of these individuals, working in unique facets of each narrative while still revealing aspects of the overall healthcare system and Vulvodynia treatment. Moving forward, I’ll be focusing on meeting with individuals in Pittsburgh and NYC to film parts of their experiences with Vulvodynia.

Learn more about my project.

Facilitating Memory Through Games: How Will I Do It?

IMG_4429It’s been three full weeks that I have been exploring memory performance in preschool children. I’ve been spending all my days at the Children’s School, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Not only do I get to enjoy time in the sun and fresh air (instead of being stuck at a desk all day), but I also get help shaping my research project from the children themselves. Playing some memory games with them for the past two weeks has helped me think more deeply about what I want to study, what I can actually study within the available time, and how to make the study as engaging as possible for the children. Finding a balance between all three is no easy feat, much more complex than I anticipated, but thankfully the summer is just heating up (literally).

IMG_4399In the first week of the fellowship, before the Children’s School Summer Camp began, I started my literature review by reading about short term memory (immediate memory for an event that just occurred), long term memory (memory for events and knowledge that were previously encountered), and, most importantly for my research project, working memory, or memory that stores information to be readily available for use. I predicted that working memory would be the focus of my project, but had not thought of how often working memory operates implicitly in our everyday lives.

IMG_4391Of the different ways working memory is used, the two broad topics that struck me were communicating and problem solving. It hadn’t occurred to me how much working memory helps us communicate, mainly because my working memory is not impaired. One of the books I have been reading (A Mind At A Time)  explained memory in the context of memory impairment, which highlighted why studying memory is important. As I write this blog post, my working memory is holding reading and writing knowledge so that I have it available when I need to know how to spell a word or where to add punctuation. With an impairment, it would be difficult to remember the beginning of the sentence by the time I get to the end, which might cause the sentence to not make sense, or sound choppy and disconnected. These impairment effects also impact spoken communication, where we need to remember the beginning of the sentence in order to finish it. More importantly, we need to remember the previous parts of a conversation in order to continue talking appropriately about a topic.

IMG_4424With problem solving, much of the same idea applies. We have to remember the problem we are facing to find a solution. The job of working memory is to hold the problem and its components and have them ready for reference while we search our long term memory for the best solution and related steps. If we keep forgetting the problem parts while devising a solution, the problem may never get solved! Setting goals and performing tasks also falls under problem solving. For example, we have all faced a moment where we walk into a room and forget why we came. This situation probably happens to everyone once in awhile, but imagine if we always forgot what we wanted to do while we were trying to do it. From my recent readings, I realized that working memory is crucial to getting anything done, because without it, we wouldn’t be able to hold together parts of ideas as they develop, devise parts of a plan to solve problems or complete tasks, or bridge the gap between short and long term memory.

Furthermore, with memory comes attention. We can’t remember what we don’t notice. One of the challenges I encountered is making the games interesting enough to keep the children’s attention, which will be important if I am trying to facilitate working memory strategies through memory games. However, from all the games I have played in the past two weeks, I have a better understanding of what motivates children and what to say to keep them engaged. For example, I was surprised when many children kept asking for a version of the basic memory matching game where they had to match items with opposite meanings. I thought there might be reluctance to play because the idea of opposites is more complicated than necessary for the game, and might have caused more failures in making matches. Instead, I found that the children requested games with more complex images more often. They are more attentive toward the games that have faces or complex images, preferring the challenge over the simplest version of the game with concrete objects for which the children have labels. When talking to the children, I have to be animated and speak loudly to keep their attention on the games, especially when competing with the pools and art projects at camp. So far, I found that the most effective way to keep their focus is to ask the children for help when I am taking a turn during the game. They seem more motivated to pay attention when they feel like they are helping me improve my performance, which then improves their own.

IMG_3920I am now even more convinced about the importance of studying memory and especially the importance of improving memory ability and strategies in young children, while their brains have the most ability to adapt to and use such strategies. There are a lot of details that need to be worked out, and I have about five weeks left in Pittsburgh with Dr. Carver and only two with the children at camp to do so. It takes a village to raise a child, and it might take the entire Children’s School population (with my hedgehog mascot named Seagull) to determine the focus and methods of my research project before the summer ends, but if the first three weeks were any indication, it will no doubt be something to remember.

Learn more about my project.

The Beginnings of My Project

Hello! This week was my 2nd week working on my thesis project with Dr. Vicki Helgeson. Over the last two weeks, I have devoted hours upon hours to reading various books, research articles, and people’s personal stories regarding the difficulties that come with living with a type 1 diabetes (T1D) diagnosis in order to bolster my knowledge on the subject. Similar to most people, I went into this project with most of my knowledge of T1D management coming from TV commercials showing people cheerfully pricking their fingers with a cool looking gadget. I went into this project knowing I had a lot to learn; and over the course of 2 weeks, the things I have learned completely changed my perception of the illness and brought me immense respect for those who live with it. I hope to share a bit of that learning with you here today.

Starting with the essentials, Type 1 Diabetes is a chronic illness in which the body cannot produce insulin. T1D is often diagnosed in children, however, contrary to popular belief, it can actually develop and be diagnosed later on in life. The body’s inability to produce insulin leads to increases in blood glucose levels (blood sugar), which in turn can lead to heart disease, strokes, kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage, or limb amputation. Pretty intense list of complications that can follow, right? Rarely in the mainstream representation of T1D are any of these complications and health outcomes mentioned, but all of them are possible with inadequate self-care.

T1D is extremely tricky to live with because illness management is predominantly the responsibility of the patient, and is a continuous responsibility across their entire lifetime. In addition, management of T1D changes on a daily basis based on the patients physiological standing in that moment. Health management predominantly refers to adherence to strict diets, constant blood glucose monitoring and insulin administration (if necessary), and exercise. But even while attending to these management forms, difficulties can arise. For example, when exercising, diabetics need to be careful that their blood sugar levels do not drop too low due to their exercising.

One thing that I found very surprising as I furthered my literature search was the lack of psychological importance in T1D management. T1D is highly associated with other psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety, which can make coping difficult; despite this, there is such little emphasis upon taking care of patients mental as well as their physical wellbeing. It brought to mind the overall lack of respect and recognition of the mind-body connection in the current biomedical model of health care that America upholds. In this model, the patient’s treatment is predominantly based on physiology, when in reality, self-care extends to their mental wellbeing as well. It’s rare to find someone in good mental health without good physical health, or good physical health without good mental health. The two go very hand in hand.

In sum, dipping my toe in the literature over these two weeks has brought me immense joy and I look forward to working hard to fill in the gaps of knowledge that exist. And to continue to promote the importance of altering our health care system to value not just patient’s physiological standing, but their psychological wellbeing as well.

First Update

gent_mapSince this is my first blog post, a short introduction is probably warranted. My name is Manu Navjeevan and I’m an economics student at CMU. My honors thesis is focused on studying trends in income mobility in the U.S and specifically in Pittsburgh/Allegheny County. I chose this topic, partially because it is, I believe, extremely relevant in today’s political climate, but also because it is a less studied field of economics that I felt I could contribute to.

The last few weeks have been extremely constructive in terms of getting a more focused research question and getting a better idea of how to approach the problems I want to work on. When I came into this at the beginning of the summer, I had relatively little idea of what specific question I wanted to answer. I had chosen the topic of income mobility about halfway through the spring semester, with some input from my advisor, Prof. Laurence Ales and had initially thought I would look at specific Pittsburgh programs and see how they might affect income mobility. As I did a bit more looking into the subject over the back half of last semester, it became increasingly apparent to me, however, that I did not have the data to analyze these programs. To study the effect on a specific program on life outcome, one needs individual level data on a variety of variables and over a relatively long period of time for the people in the program. Even if the City of Pittsburgh kept this data, the odds that I would be given access to this data (privacy concerns, etc.) or that it would be robust enough to get significant results were slim. Also, I was having some trouble identifying programs unique to the City of Pittsburgh that I could analyze (though this was probably due to a lack of discipline in looking through the budget on my end). Because of this (and again, in the interest of transparency, a good deal of laziness in doing any real research or reading on my topic during the school year), I didn’t really know what I should be doing apart from reading papers when I got back to Pittsburgh.

However, through reading papers, I began to get a better idea of what problems I could reasonably expect to tackle in an honors thesis. My advisor, Prof. Laurence Ales, has also been particularly helpful in this regard, pointing me to a number of websites where I could find county and census tract level data. Also, with the help of the Dean’s and Associate Deans in Dietrich, I was able to get in touch with the office of City Councilman Dan Gilman and meet with his Chief of Staff Erika Strassburger this Tuesday to talk about city and county programs targeting income mobility. As it stands, I am currently studying income mobility via two approaches.

The first is to look at what county programs or attributes may be correlated with higher income mobility. Through the work of Prof. Raj Chetty at Stanford, we have estimates on the causal effects of living each county in the U.S on income mobility. We don’t know, however, what policies may drive the differences in income mobility between counties. By looking at data on demographic characteristics and the relative sizes of people on public assistance income or on differences in public spending in these counties we hope to study these differences. I’ve currently merged together census data with Chetty’s estimates and am in the stage of identifying what characteristics may be the best predictors and cleaning/transforming the data to perform inference on our regression estimates.

The second approach is through studying the effects of gentrification on income mobility, a problem salient to Pittsburgh. There is a considerable body of work out there that shows that growing up in a better neighborhood has positive effects on life outcomes for poorer children and there is some evidence that people in gentrifying neighborhoods may not move out at a higher rate than in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. Given this, we may want to study the extent to which (if at all) the gains for poorer children in gentrifying neighborhood caused by lower crime rates, etc. are offset by the detriments (less disposable income, more inequality, etc.). To this end, I again used census data at the census tract level to identify which of the over 50,000 census tracts in the U.S look like they’re gentrifying and to what extent. I was able to use this to generate a heat map (below) of which states in the U.S look like they are experiencing the most gentrification (weighted gentrifying neighborhoods as a % of total neighborhoods). The map shows a few interesting results. For example, there appears to be a lot of gentrification in the Dakotas as well as Montana, which runs contrary to where we might believe gentrification is happening. Some of this can probably be explained by the emergence of shale gas in those regions making oil towns in those states significantly better off (North Dakota has the nation’s lowest unemployment rate). When this is combined with the fact that those states have relatively few people, and therefore relatively few census tracts, it probably explains the high rate of gentrification we are seeing on the maps. The hope is now to study outcomes or other characteristics of gentrifying neighborhoods to get a better sense of their effects on life outcomes.

Research aside, life in Pittsburgh over the summer has been relaxing. It’s odd to be on campus without as many people but it means that finding a place to work on campus is nice and restaurants in the area are generally less crowded. Also, because there are no homeworks or midterms, there’s more time to run errands or catch up with people over the summer that, over the school year, you may not get as much time to see. The flexibility of independent research also allows me to go to events and fit my schedule around other things that I may want to do. I’m excited for the rest of the summer, both in terms of making progress on my thesis as well as being to do things in Pittsburgh that I haven’t made time to do yet.

Learn more about my project.

 

 

Starting My Novel

For my senior thesis I’m exploring the concept of narrative identity, basically the idea that we form our identities through stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the world, by writing a novel. I’m currently taking summer classes and volunteering at the Jubilee Soup Kitchen, so my allotted time this summer to work on my thesis doesn’t begin until July 1st, but that hasn’t stopped me from laying out the groundwork for my project.

I’ve decided my novel will be set at a large tech company (not exactly sure what sort yet) in Silicon Valley. Having attended Gunn High School in Palo Alto, I’m very familiar with the area and its culture, and have set a few of my short stories there in the past. The novel will center around a few intelligent slackers who manage to get by without doing much by falling through the cracks at the large company they all work at. This will of course backfire for them later on in the story, but I want to introduce my characters in a somewhat tranquil setting before I plunge them into conflict. I have a lot of ideas for where the novel will go, but some of them are mutually exclusive, so I don’t really want to put them on this blog yet. As of now, I’ve done a lot more work generating choices for where the story can go than actually deciding between these choices, so once I make more decisions, I will have more to report back on.

Outside of class, volunteering, and writing, I’ve been doing some reading and have been watching some films and television. I just finished reading The Magus by John Fowles and am about to read The Sellout by Paul Beatty and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. As far as films and television, I’ve adapted this William Faulkner quote to guide my viewing: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” Though I suppose I should read more terrible books, shoddy films are much less of an investment of my time and I often find I’m more inspired by a bad film than a good one. To this end, I’ve been making my way through the Fast and Furious series. Though most of the dialogue is terrible and much of the acting is flat or overdone, there is something really human about these sorts of mistakes that I just love. As far as more critically acclaimed films, I recently saw Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal and Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, and have been rewatching some of my favorite David Lynch films, as well as catching up on the reboot of Twin Peaks. No matter whether I love or hate something Lynch makes, I always feel challenged by it, and his work is a well of inspiration I can always draw something new from.

It’s been exciting going from nothing to the foundations of a novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in the coming weeks and months.

Learn more about my project.

Pittsburgh Meets Guatemala

image1[1]It’s raining. Then again it rains everyday at this time (6 pm). I’m writing to you from Antigua, Guatemala during the rainy season! I’ve been here about three weeks and I have one more to go. I won the Jennings Brave Companion Fund, which is a scholarship to study abroad during the summer. With this, I choose to volunteer in a free clinic in Antigua, Guatemala for 4 weeks. Antigua Guatemala is such an exciting place to be. The cobble stone streets, the daily views of the active volcanoes, and the merchants selling their goods in the street never get old. I have rode in a chicken bus (a colorful loud bus packed beyond capacity) to work everyday, I hiked an active volcano, and I have had great conversations with people in my clinic.

This scholarship has given me the funds to come to the area I am researching for my honors thesis (Central America). I have learned so much about the culture and how the water system works here in Antigua. It’s been very valuable being here in person and not learning from behind a computer screen. I’ve been to Honduras and Nicaragua over the years for one-week volunteer trips building water systems, but these four weeks has deeply widened my global perspective.image2[1]

For my project I will be looking at how technical communications plays a role in sustainability in public health projects in Central America. I intend to mainly look at water systems when discussing the scope of public health projects (surprise, surprise). I’ve decided to start my journey by reaching out to nonprofits that operate in Central America and see how they work towards making there projects sustainable. It seems that everyone has a system they use that has changed over the years to make these projects last longer. Hopefully I will be able to find image3a trend between the organizations use of technical communications and the degree of sustainability.

I am very excited to be working on a project that lets me take a step beyond the United States. I’ve been interested in the field of sustainability in public health for a while, but I haven’t been able to look into it until now. Combine that with my favorite part of the world, and you have an unforgettable research project.

Learn more about my project at Carnegie Mellon University.