Learn how faculty are tackling contemporary health threats and challenges.

by Katherine Lewis

From terrorism and trauma to hearing loss and obesity prevention, Adelphi faculty are investigating contemporary health threats and challenges, and helping chart the course toward possible solutions to our modern perils.

Improving Physical Education for Overweight Children

It’s not a war zone, but middle school can leave its own traumas. Some overweight children teased in gym class were affected emotionally, while others weren’t, according to research by a team including Paul Rukavina, Ph.D., an assistant professor of health studies, physical education and human performance science.

The teacher’s awareness and strategies for including overweight children seemed to be a key factor, and affected their ability to participate and become more physically fit. “That logically led to this project where we asked, ‘How do really good teachers create physical education programs where overweight students feel included physically, socially and motivation wise?’” Dr. Rukavina explains.

The study found that effective teachers kept all students busy at the same time, so they wouldn’t be watching each other perform. They also had appropriately sized equipment and activity choices for different levels of skill and fitness.

“We call it differential instruction that the teacher can do to get that overweight student to be involved,” he says. “Teachers have all these individual strategies where they work one-on-one with the students.”

Along with colleagues Sarah Doolittle, Ed.D., and Angela Beale, Ph.D., Dr. Rukavina went on a cultural exchange to China last year, sharing physical education methodologies and research. He presented research on how teachers’ beliefs and goals about overweight students affected their choice of inclusion strategies and how they nudged overweight students toward program goals. 

The next step in the research is to investigate teachers’ beliefs and attitudes about overweight students on a deeper level, in a multi-university study of 300 teachers-in-training and 300 physical education teachers in service. “What we want to see is the correlation among anti-fat attitudes toward overweight people, body image, cultural diversity and motivational disposition,” he says.

Ultimately the goal is to improve training for physical education teachers, many of whom don’t intuitively understand the perspective of an overweight child who may hate sports. 

“We want to do interventions for teachers so they know how to set up environments to teach people how to live healthy, active lifestyles,” Dr. Rukavina says. “A lot of people come from high athletic backgrounds so they don’t really understand diversity. They’re not conscious that not everybody likes basketball.”

Hearing Loss in Adolescents

One growing health concernis the increasing evidence of hearing loss, largely linked to our obsession with iPods, portable video games and ear buds. Professor Yula Serpanos, Ph.D., found that high-frequency hearing loss doubled between 1995 and 2008 in a population of adolescent girls who are being screened when entering a foster care facility, which she detailed in a paper published by the Journal of Adolescent Health last year. Four times as many girls in 2008 listened to personal listening devices on a regular basis, compared with just seven years earlier.

“Hearing loss is increasing in general in pediatric and adolescent populations,” Dr. Serpanos says. “Hearing loss as a result of excessive noise is one of the most preventable health issues.”The study found hearing loss in both ears, rather than just one. Moreover, there was a greater extent of hearing loss than in the general adolescent population. “This is a vulnerable population in that they were [of ] primarily low socioeconomic status,” she notes.

People don’t realize the danger of hearing loss from personal listening devices, which is permanent and irreversible. “Don’t stop using the devices, but use the devices with caution and in very careful dosages,” Dr. Serpanos recommends. “The general thought is for no longer than about an hour a day, and no greater than half volume on the device.”

In another study, she’s comparing the reaction time of individuals wearing single and double cochlear implants, which are surgically implanted devices that allow hearing-impaired individuals to hear and understand speech. They’ll be testing reaction time in research subjects by asking them to react to a panel of lights turning on and off, at the same time they must respond to speech. They’ll test reaction time first when the subjects have two implants turned on and then with just one active.

“The theory is that their reaction time is going to be longer when they’re listening with the single device versus listening with both devices,” Dr. Serpanos says, noting that there is limited research to support the implantation of cochlear devices in both ears, versus a single ear. “This will add to the research pool.”

Decoding Trauma Recovery

Families of 9/11 victims. Rape survivors. Traumatized children. Israeli soldiers. All have been studied by Kate Szymanski, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology. The common thread is Dr. Szymanski’s quest to understand why some people grow in the aftermath of trauma, while others never recover.

“I’m interested in understanding resilience and growth from trauma so we can really utilize what we’ve found in our research to help people who are traumatized discover a more adaptive way of dealing with trauma,” she says. “Trauma can either break a person and you are permanently broken, or you can try to regroup and integrate it…It changes [you] forever, but it opens you up for other ways of thinking.”

The first step is to diagnose trauma, which is trickier than it sounds, so that researchers can then characterize people who experience post-traumatic growth. Going beyond the symptom-oriented  medical approach to diagnosing trauma, Dr. Szymanski uses the narratives of trauma victims as a diagnostic tool, finding that they are disorganized, fragmented and lack detail.

Dr. Szymanski analyzed archival interviews with a population of adolescent psychiatric inpatients. She found from the stories they told that they experienced an average of 2.9 traumas, such as sexual abuse, violence, homelessness or loss of a caregiver. Their narratives should help researchers diagnose trauma.

“There is a qualitative difference in their narratives,” Dr. Szymanski says. “It’s a very promising finding in that maybe we can use [a narrative] with a detailed family history to assess whether children have experienced trauma.”

Traumatized adolescents find it very helpful to connect with other children in similar circumstances. And Dr. Szymanski’s research suggests that trauma victims who learn to rely on others and trust again are more likely to experience post-traumatic growth.

Understanding the Causes of Terrorism

Shawn Kaplan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of philosophy, doesn’t need to travel to the Middle East or Southeast Asia to pursue his research on terrorism. He’s using philosophical tools and analysis to understand terrorism, in a multi-stage set of papers.

First, he’s seeking to move away from the purely accusatory language common in the media and legal worlds. While it’s impossible to come up with a completely neutral definition of terrorism, given the violence involved, Dr. Kaplan’s definition describes how terrorism functions: indirectly, with an attempt to elicit fear or anxiety regarding human life or security.

Next, he gives a typology of terrorism, breaking it down based on factors like the nature of the targets involved, whether state or non-state actors are engaged in the act and whether the violence is lethal or not.

“This paves the way for a more meaningful, normative evaluation of terrorism,” he says. “By parsing it out and bringing forth the various varieties, we can have a meaningful conversation about various terrorist acts.”

The second stage of his research undertakes a critical outlook on some unwarranted assumptions that are generally held about terrorism. “I try to address the common notion that it’s always indiscriminate, it always targets innocent individuals,” Dr. Kaplan says.

He asks whether terrorism is ever effective for people being oppressed who want to change their situation, and whether terrorists are capable of engaging in meaningful negotiation. “We paint with such broad strokes that we miss a lot of nuance,” he says. “We might end up prolonging the conflict or prolonging our troubles through that sort of outlook.”

For instance, his case study of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka highlights the success the group has had in moving the government toward the negotiating table. Until recently, the Tamil Tigers carried out a higher rate of suicide bombings than in Palestine.

“It’s not easy to answer the question of a just war or whether terrorism is ever warranted,” Dr. Kaplan notes. “You may begin by saying terrorism is moral to prevent genocide, but what about to ensure the political survival of a minority group? Or to protect voting rights?

“As you start playing out that logic more consistently, you start to see a broader range of justifications,” he adds. “I don’t think that philosophers can prevent terrorism. The philosophical approach I’m taking can help anyone, whether it’s my students or someone who’s in some position of making decisions or policy, to gain a critical perspective on how we use this language and what we might actually do to make this more clear and precise and less open to abuse.”

This piece appeared in the Erudition 2012 edition.

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