Faculty research
Researchers examine welfare reform’s effect on the very poor, calculate the effects of math anxiety, algorithmically predict faculty tenure decisions, and discover one of the smallest dinosaurs that ever lived.

Prehistoric porcupine

Fanged, but miniature, with inch-long jaws and a parrot-like beak, the Pegomastax africanus, one of the smallest dinosaurs that ever lived, scurried through the forest 200 million years ago, devouring fruits and slicing up leaves. In an October report in the online journal ZooKeys, paleontologist Paul Sereno described the bizarre anatomy of the newfound species, whose fossils he unearthed from red rock excavated from South Africa. Two feet long and weighing less than a house cat, Pegomastax—among “the most advanced plant eaters of their day”—had big sharp canines, rare for an herbivore. Sereno concluded the teeth were most likely used to defend against predators. The animal’s body was also covered in quills, making it look, Sereno said, like a “nimble, two-legged porcupine.”

No bootstraps

The mid-1990s welfare reform may have left America’s poorest worse off than before. Marci Ybarra, assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration, coauthored a study in the September Children and Youth Services Review comparing the financial well-being of the “deeply poor” (those with incomes of $11,500 or less for a family of four), with the “near poor” (families making between $23,000 and $34,500). When the reforms were enacted in 1996, millions of welfare recipients entered the workforce. But the stipulation that recipients work to qualify for cash assistance meant that those at the very bottom of the income pool—many of whom cannot work—saw a serious decline in aid. By 2005, 88 percent of the heads of households in near-poor families reported working, while only 41 percent from deeply poor families could find jobs.

Math problems

Anxiety about math performance affects many young students, but a study by psychology professor Sian Beilock found that it is most harmful to high-achieving students. Published in the April Journal of Cognition and Development, the study examines the effects of math anxiety and its correlation to working memory, which Beilock describes as “a kind of ‘mental scratchpad’ that allows us to ‘work’ with whatever information is temporarily flowing through consciousness.” Students with less working memory tend to be less affected by anxiety because they have developed simpler ways to deal with math problems, such as counting on their fingers. Anxiety can begin as early as first grade, and it  tends to snowball, leading students to avoid math and ultimately be less competent. The problem affects about half of high-performing students, and the study suggests solutions, including expressive drawing and tests posed as challenges rather than as threats.

Ambitious predictions

Decisions on hiring or tenure can be almost as difficult for the committee as for the scientist whose fate is in question, says Stefano Allesina, an assistant professor of ecology and evolution, in part because predicting the future success of a young scientist is anything but exact. But, Allesina demonstrated in a September Nature study, there are methods to improve those predictions. Allesina and his collaborators gathered data on some 34,000 neuroscientists, including current and past h-index, a widely accepted metric based on number of publications and citations. (An h-index of 12 is normally sufficient for tenure.) Using the data, Allesina developed an algorithm to predict a scientist’s success ten years into the future. Among the findings, says Allesina, were that  “the things that we value the most are in fact the things that matter the most,” like the number of published articles, the number of years since the first articles were published, and the number of articles in the most prestigious journals. Allesina believes better predictions can help channel funding to the scientists with the most potential, leading to more ambitious science.