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Monthly Archives: December 2014

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Get to know Brian Vaughn, an award-winning Auburn University authority on children and peer-relationships

“I’m curious about puzzles and mysteries, and to me the interesting and exciting part about science is finding the solution to a puzzle or demystifying something that people don’t really know about.” -Brian Vaughn

Parents often find that no matter how much they prepare beforehand or think they know about children, they can learn more from simply watching and living the experience. That bit of advice to parents is based on research by Brian Vaughn, an award-winning Auburn University authority on children and peer-relationships.

Throughout the past decade, Vaughn, a professor of human development and family studies in Auburn’s College of Human Sciences, has conducted research on peer relationships at Auburn’s Harris Early Learning Center in Birmingham.

“I study how children learn to love in their families and how they learn to use the character that’s developed within the context of those early family relationships to accomplish the kinds of goals that they set for themselves as they move out of the family and into social groups,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn is an authority in child development with special emphasis on the social/emotional development of infants and young children. His published research has made important contributions for understanding the development and consequences of social attachments between children and their major caregivers. He has also contributed to the literature of social competence and peer relationships in early childhood.

“Unless you understand how trajectories unfold for the average case, you’re never going to understand the pathway that leads to deviance or problems,” Vaughn said. “If I’m successful in that, then it will be possible to put the atypical in context. I find that uncovering the mystery rather than changing the ways that trajectories move along motivates many people in science.”

Vaughn has discovered that children who enjoy interacting with other children become more socially skilled and socially competent. Most recently, his research has expanded to include the roles that sleep may play in a child’s cognitive and social/emotional development and adaptive functioning for preschool children. He has found that children who receive more sleep tend to develop higher quality social relationships and a larger vocabulary.

Vaughn is a recipient of the Creative Research and Scholarship Award, which was presented to him at the ninth annual Auburn University Faculty Awards ceremony in October. The award recognizes and encourages the individual efforts of Auburn faculty who honor the practice of mentoring undergraduate research and scholarship, and it is meant to highlight significant commitment to undergraduate scholarship and creative work outside the classroom.

Vaughn credits his career success to a personal drive to solve questions. “I’m curious about puzzles and mysteries, and to me the interesting and exciting part about science is finding the solution to a puzzle or demystifying something that people don’t really know about,” he said.

“When I was invited to come to Auburn, the most impressive thing I noticed was the degree of collegiality and support presence in my department and the College of Human Sciences,” said Vaughn, who has been at Auburn since December 1988. “I thought, ‘Yes. This is a place I could complete my career.'”

As a father, Vaughn’s advice for child rearing is “that not everything you learned in textbooks applies to you. Your family situation and your child is going to be unique, and many of the things that are given as advice don’t apply.”

Vaughn said he finds satisfaction in seeing students complete their programs, especially on a graduate level of instruction.

“Watching students who didn’t think they were ready or belonged walk across the stage at graduation gives me a thrill,” he said. “I really do like that. I am happy to talk to any student who really wants to learn about human development at almost any time.”

“I know that I will never stop being curious and never stop finding out things I didn’t already know,” Vaughn said. “I’ve been very fortunate to find interesting things several times. Staying curious and never thinking that you know all you need to know about some phenomenon, I think is the key to creativity.”

by Tori Rivers

To learn more about Brian Vaughn, visit his faculty page.

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Auburn Undergraduate Research Fellow developing new drug delivery method for glaucoma patients

Andrew Hightaian checking a timolol maleate lens formulation after he synthesized it in lab via UV photopolymerization.

Andrew Hightaian checking a timolol maleate lens formulation after he synthesized it in lab via UV photopolymerization.

Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness, and it’s a disease that lacks a permanent cure. People afflicted with glaucoma have the choice of applying eye drops two to three times daily for the rest of their lives or undergoing surgery, which still may require the administration of eye drops daily.

Andrew Hightaian, a senior in chemical engineering and undergraduate research fellow, is working with his research partner Carter Lloyd under Dr. Mark Byrne to engineer a contact lens that could administer medicine to glaucoma patients automatically.

“The great part about this research is that it allows glaucoma patients to have freedom from remembering to take eye drops every few hours,” said Andrew. “These lenses would dispense the medicine, and the patient could wear them for hours or days at a time without worrying.

Right now, Andrew is working on designing a contact lens with functional monomers that could hold medicine effectively. His next step will be to determine the rate at which the experimental lenses release the medicine to diffuse across the eye.

To learn more about undergraduate research at Auburn, visit their website or subscribe to their newsletter.

Auburn oil spill research indicates recovery for microscopic invertebrates

The results are in on Deepwater Horizon oil spill research conducted by an Auburn University postdoctoral researcher, and her study indicates microscopic animals at the base of the food web that were harmed during the 2010 oil spill have recovered.

The researcher, Pamela Brannock of the Department of Biological Sciences in Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, together with a team from Auburn Professor Kenneth Halanych’s lab and the University of Texas San Antonio, gathered and analyzed sediment samples taken before and after the oil reached Dauphin Island. The samples provided a basis for comparison to assess how the microscopic communities of marine invertebrates that live between the sand grains, or meiofauna, fared the oil spill.

An initial study, conducted by Halanych and colleagues at the University of New Hampshire, revealed an increased presence of fungus in meiofaunal communities. According to the study, a rise in fungus indicated organismal death, and COSAM researchers were concerned that oil, or perhaps dispersants used to clean up the spill, may have been responsible for irreversibly harming meiofaunal communities.

Brannock’s latest research results indicate the fungus that was present in large amounts in the sediment immediately after the oil spill is no longer there, which means the microscopic marine invertebrates are no longer dying at an alarming rate.

“For one year, people from the Halanych Lab intermittently collected sediment samples at five intertidal locations throughout Dauphin Island and Mobile Bay,” Brannock said. “We would freeze the sediment immediately on dry ice and then store it in the minus 80 degree freezer when we came back. Coming back into the lab we would do this process called ‘decanting,’ which is basically agitating the sediment in order to release the organisms. We would then isolate the meiofauna, or animals, on a sieve, and we would extract the DNA from that material. We would then send the DNA off to be sequenced, and we used computers and bioinformatics to determine which animals were present in the communities sampled.”

Researchers are relieved that the microscopic invertebrates seem to no longer be in danger of mass destruction. However, Brannock’s research also shows that while fungus is no longer present, there has been a significant shift in the composition of meiofaunal communities compared to pre-spill communities. The research was published in The Biological Bulletin at this link: http://www.biolbull.org/content/227/2/161.full.pdf+html.

“These communities of small organisms have recovered from the oil spill, but we are still trying to assess how much natural variation exists in these communities,” Halanych said. “These communities are important because they are at the base of the food web, and they are also critically involved in helping pass nutrients and chemicals back and forth from the sediment to the water column. Pamela has continued to look quite extensively at these small organisms to see how they are faring and whether their communities are changing.”

Halanych said this kind of research is critically important to assessing the health of the Gulf Coast ecosystem.

Auburn University researchers continue to investigate effects of the oil spill

“One of the things we have learned is that the effects from an environmental catastrophe like this can take a long time to be realized,” Halanych said. “One of the main reasons we should be concerned with or interested in studying the effects is, in all likelihood, another spill is going to occur. The Gulf Coast region has a huge number of rigs, about 4,000, and we keep going into deeper and deeper water to drill. As you move into deeper water, the engineering challenges become greater and greater and greater. The concern is another big blowout, like the Deepwater Horizon, may happen in the Gulf. The hope is we have collected enough information about the Deepwater Horizon spill that we can apply that knowledge to the next spill and be able to control the damage a little bit better.”

As a member of the Gulf of Mexico Research Board, Halanych has his finger on the pulse of oil-spill-related research in the Gulf. The 20 scientists that make up the board are tasked with distributing $500 million over a 10-year period for oil spill research. The board awards funds to investigators based on a highly competitive, peer-reviewed proposal process. BP provided the funding for the Gulf of Mexico Research Board, but the funding is now independent of the multinational oil-and-gas company.

“This work continues, and it has already made a huge difference for the Gulf Coast region,” Halanych said. “Unfortunately, in many ways the Gulf Coast is the forgotten coast in terms of national funding priorities. The west coast, especially southern California, and the northeast really have major marine and oceanographic efforts, and there is a lot of money that goes there. The Gulf Coast does have institutions but typically federal funding does not flow in the same way to these areas. This research initiative is helping with that – it is helping to stimulate scientific research, and one of the things we are hoping is we will be able to build much stronger capacity so in the future we can address societal concerns and national research priorities.”

Halanych’s group will continue to investigate effects of the oil spill on the Gulf Coast. Brannock plans to continue her research into the composition of meiofaunal communities in the Gulf region and how they change over time so she can establish a baseline dataset for the next time an event like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurs. The Halanych Lab has also received soil samples from various NOAA cruises throughout the Gulf of Mexico taken right after the spill and a year after the spill. The lab is working to compare the meiofaunal communities in samples from sites located within or near the spill to communities present in samples from areas that were not impacted by the spill.

“As the spill was happening, a lot of people around the coast realized this was going to be a big deal, and people at Auburn, including researchers in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, started mobilizing because we knew there were going to be things that needed to be studied,” said Halanych. “COSAM researchers have stayed involved because we want to know the effects through time. We want to know how this will be a lasting problem or if this will be a lasting problem, and we want to be ready for the next oil spill.”

To learn more about Auburn’s research related to the oil spill, check out: Auburn Speaks: The Oil Spill of 2010.

by Candis Birchfield

Tips for Safe Online Shopping This Holiday Season

Shopping Online

It’s Cyber Monday, the largest online shopping day of the year, and if your inbox looks anything like ours, its filled with messages about online deals and sales.  This year, retailers are anticipating more than $2 billion dollars in online transactions with an ever-increasing amount of those sales taking place from mobile devices.  Each one of these transactions represents an opportunity for hackers.  Today and everyday, the experts in the Auburn Cyber Research Center and in the Open Source Intelligence Lab are working to keep the cyber marketplace secure.  To learn more about their efforts, visit: www.auburn.edu/cyber.

In the meantime, to help keep you safe during the online shopping season, the National Cyber Security Alliance has assembled some great tips through their StaySafeOnline initiative, and this morning seemed like a great time to pass them along:

Before you start your holiday shopping, remember to STOP. THINK. CONNECT.: Make sure security measures are in place, understand the consequences of your actions and behaviors and enjoy the benefits of the Internet.

Keep a Clean Machine: All the devices you use for shopping ‐ including smartphones and tablets ‐ should have up‐to‐date software including security software, operating systems, programs and apps.

When in Doubt, Throw it Out: Links in email, tweets, posts, and online advertising are often the way cybercriminals compromise your computer. If it looks suspicious, even if you know the source, it’s best to delete or if appropriate, mark as junk email.

Think Before you Act: Be wary of communications that offer amazing deals that sound too good to be true, implore you to act immediately ‐ including those about a problem with an order or payment or ask you to view the website via a provided link.

Get Savvy about Wi‐Fi Hotspots: Don’t share personal or financial information over an unsecured network (a connection that doesn’t require a password for access). Using the direct web access on your phone (via a 3G/4G connection) is safer than an unsecured wireless network when on your mobile device.

Make Sure the Site is Legitimate: This includes a closed padlock on your web browser’s address bar or a URL address that begins with shttp or https. This indicates that the purchase is encrypted or secured. For new sites, check online reviews.

Protect your Personal Information: Be alert to the kinds of information being collected to complete the transaction. Make sure the information requested is only that needed to complete the transaction. Only fill out required fields on checkout forms. Check the website’s privacy policy. Make sure you understand how your information will be stored and used.

Use Safe Payment Options: Credit cards are generally the safest option because they allow buyers to seek a credit from the issuer if the product isn’t delivered or isn’t what was ordered. Credit cards may have a limit on the monetary amount you will be responsible for paying. Never send cash through the mail or use a money‐wiring service.

Keep a Paper Trail: Save records of your online transactions, including the product description, price, online receipt, terms of the sale, and copies of email exchanges with the seller. Read your credit card statements as soon as you get them to make sure there aren’t any unauthorized charges. If there is a discrepancy, call your bank and report it immediately.