Faculty research

UChicago scholars examine charitable giving behavior, Earth’s iron isotopes, universal flu vaccines, and predictors of STEM success.

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Fighting flu

Universal flu vaccines may offer key advantages over conventional flu shots, according to a study by UChicago graduate student Rahul Subramanian. While conventional vaccines are aimed at the strains of flu currently circulating, universal vaccines now under development target proteins shared by all flu strains. In the paper, published December 15 in PLOS Computational Biology, Subramanian and his coauthors used mathematical modeling to study the effects of universal vaccines at a population level. According to their model, widely administered universal vaccines could reduce rates of flu transmission more effectively than conventional vaccines and slow the evolution of new flu strains. However, the team still sees utility in conventional vaccines, which could be used to provide extra protection to high-risk populations.

Hitting close to home

The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” extends even to charitable donations, suggests recent research from Ayelet Fishbach, the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at Chicago Booth. In a study published online March 2 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Fishbach and her coauthor, Northwestern’s Maferima Touré-Tillery, PhD’13, found that physical distance influences giving behavior. Using lab experiments and fundraising data from a private university, the researchers found that donors are more likely to donate to causes physically close to them. They showed that the perception of distance matters too—when a country was described as “faraway” in an experimental appeal, donors were less likely to give than when the same country was described as “nearby.” The researchers suggest the study could help charitable organizations improve their outreach to donors.

Heavy metal

Why does Earth have such different iron composition than other bodies in the solar system? In comparison to rocks from other planetary objects, Earth’s rocks have more heavy iron isotopes than light isotopes. The prevailing theory had been that the conditions on early Earth pulled light iron isotopes to the planet’s core, leaving heavy iron isotopes to accumulate in the mantle. But the new study, whose authors include Nicolas Dauphas, Louis Block Professor in Geophysical Sciences, and graduate student Justin Y. Hu, challenges that explanation. By using a device called a diamond anvil cell, which can recreate the high pressures that exist deep within planets, Dauphas and his colleagues found iron isotopes didn’t break and rebond with elements found in the mantle or core, as the prevailing theory would require. The paper, published February 20 in Nature Communications, makes way for competing theories about Earth’s anomalous iron. 

Making a math whiz

If you’re hoping to raise a computer scientist or engineer, talk to your kids about math and science early and often. A study coauthored by Human Performance Lab postdoctoral scholar Christopher S. Rozek and published in the January 31 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that parents could boost high schoolers’ math and science scores on the ACT by talking to them about the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. For the study, parents in the experimental group were provided materials designed to help them talk about the relevance of math and science with their teenagers. This led to a 12 percentage point increase in the children’s math and science ACT scores, as well as an increase in their STEM course work in both high school and college.

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