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A feast of findings

April 15, 2009


Doctoral candidate Pamela Wesely explains her work.

Doctoral candidate Pamela Wesely (curriculum and instruction) explained her work on second language acquisition at a research fair April 7.
Photo: Patrick O'Leary

Doctoral candidates show off their discoveries at a research fair

By Deane Morrison

Walking around the research fair, a visitor could learn about new ways to make efficient solar cells, factors that predict lion attacks in Tanzania, and how German nurses helped transform their profession into a respectable one for women.

Those were just a few of the findings on display April 7 at the University of Minnesota Graduate School's annual Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship (DDF) Research Showcase. With 65 fellowship winners eager to expound on their contributions to human knowledge in roughly 40 different fields, the event was a research junkie’s paradise.

Following are two examples of graduate research from the fair.

Something fishy

Lake Superior is the deepest Great Lake, and Minnesotans want to keep its fish populations healthy. But, says Allison Gamble, little is known about the food web that exists deeper than 100 meters.

Sampling the stomach contents of numerous fish species, Gamble, a graduate student in water resources science, found that two tiny crustaceans are central to the food web. Changes in the population of either "would have a significant impact on the Lake Superior food web," she says.

One crustacean, a shrimplike creature called Mysis, is a relict of the glacial lakes formed at the end of the last ice age and is adapted to cold water.

"It's eaten by every fish in the lake," says Gamble. But as global warming progresses, that chilly habitat becomes more threatened, and Gamble says Mysis populations ought to be monitored.

On the bright side, fish such as the cisco (the fish formerly known as herring) turned out to be very flexible in their diets and could probably adapt to major shifts in the food web, Gamble says.

Wars: why they go awry

Aaron Rapport takes issue with commentators who believe the Iraq War was planned by people who didn't care what happened to the country in the long run.

"[P]eople focused on long-term military goals think more about the desirability than the feasibility."

"I say they cared very much in the long term. They valued future goals," says Rapport, a political science graduate student. But through research in psychology, he found evidence that people focusing on distant objectives may become "risk blind."

"Psychology says that when people think about the near present, they think concretely and in terms of feasibility," says Rapport. "They are more detail-oriented. When they think about the distant future, they think more abstractly and more in terms of ends, and how desirable they are, than of means.

"Thus, people focused on long-term military goals think more about the desirability than the feasibility." And so risks go unnoticed.

As secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld was involved in details of the war but failed to be so detail-oriented in the long run, when the occupation of Iraq was to occur, says Rapport. But odd thinking about wars isn't limited to any particular war or political party.

Franklin Roosevelt "was very strategic in decisions about fighting the war [World War II]," Rapport reports. But his ideas about how the Allies would occupy Germany weren't well thought out. He had to be convinced, for example, that a plan to de-industrialize Germany's northwestern zone and return it to agrarian life by, among other means, dismantling the entire industrial complex of the Ruhr Valley, wasn't a very realistic goal.

"It's sort of like the dieter phenomenon," says Rapport. "You fight with the near-term self, who wants to eat a doughnut, and the far-term self, who wants to look good on the beach. Maybe people commit to a diet plan because they don't think about all the sacrifices."

The DDF Research Showcase is supported by the biomedical laboratory supplier Beckman Coulter.