Childhood adversity shapes adolescent delinquency, fatherhood

Written by Christine Allen of University Communications

Photo by Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

About 61% of Americans have had at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), experts’ formal term for a traumatic childhood event.

ACEs—which may include abuse, neglect and severe household dysfunction—often lead to psychological and social struggles that reach into adulthood, making ACEs a major public health challenge. But the long-term consequences of ACEs are just beginning to be understood in detail. To fill in the picture, two recent BYU studies analyzed how ACEs shape adolescents’ delinquent behaviors as well as fathers’ parenting approaches.

ACEs linked to girls’—but not boys’—delinquent behavior

Although the role of adversity in adolescent delinquency has long been examined in the field of criminology, only in the past decade have criminologists referred to these events as ACEs and seriously considered how early ACEs predict a person’s delinquency, according to BYU sociology professors Hayley Pierce and Melissa S. Jones.

In their study of that relationship, published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Pierce and Jones showed that ACEs do have a significant effect on teenagers’ criminal behavior—at least for girls. Girls who experienced four or more ACEs by age five, during the most sensitive period of brain development, were 36% more likely to participate in delinquent behavior. Boys’ delinquent behavior, on the other hand, appeared unrelated to early ACEs, although boys have an overall higher rate of delinquency.

“These results run counter to previous research suggesting that girls are far more likely than boys to internalize trauma through developing an eating disorder or other self-harming behaviors,” said Jones. “What we find here is the opposite: girls are externalizing trauma through delinquent acts.”

Pierce and Jones drew their data from the longitudinal Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study. The survey examined childhood adversity and adolescent behavior over a 15-year period for approximately 5,000 children, with a high proportion born to poor, single-parent or minority families in the U.S.

“Our analysis points toward the need for gendered strategies in working with children with ACEs because the different ways boys and girls are socialized shape how they process trauma,” Jones said.

The study should also promote compassion and understanding for adolescents who act out, the researchers emphasized.

“One of the most important things I teach in my juvenile delinquency class is that delinquency is a symptom of an underlying problem,” said Jones. “If an adolescent is getting arrested, there’s often something else going on in the child’s life, such as problems at home.”

“When adolescents engage in delinquency, it’s important first to ask, ‘Okay, what got you here?’ and work from that knowledge,” Pierce added.

ACEs predict less warmth, more harsh discipline in fathers

Even though ACEs may not be linked to teen boys’ delinquency, having ACEs earlier in life does apparently impact how men parent.

Most existing research on ACEs and parenting focuses on mothers and looks exclusively at abuse. Curious about ACEs’ effects on fathers and the wider range of ACEs that may influence more day-to-day aspects of parenting, BYU sociologist Kevin Shafer and Scott Easton of Boston College decided to examine parenting patterns in men with past ACEs.

In a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, they found that fathers who had experienced at least three ACEs were more likely to use harsh disciplinary techniques. Compared to the mothers with ACEs from previous studies, these men were also less likely to exhibit positive parenting characteristics, such as giving affection to their kids, providing care for young children and being emotionally supportive. The more ACEs a father had, the greater their effect on his parenting.

ACEs likely influence fathering partly because ACEs are associated with poor mental health, including depression, anxiety or anger management problems. Mental health challenges in turn influence how men parent their children.

“While on the face of it that sounds bad, it’s weirdly also a good thing because even though ACEs happened in the past and can’t be changed, you can get treatment for mental health issues in the present,” said Shafer. “When men get that help, they can blunt the impact of their ACEs on how they parent their kids, and that improves their kids’ outcomes. So their own childhood isn’t destiny.”

The study analyzed data from the 2015–16 U.S. Survey of Contemporary Fatherhood, which queried over 2,000 fathers about their adverse childhood experiences, degree of psychological distress and parenting habits.

The connection between ACEs and negative fathering techniques is especially indicative of the “untreated trauma” suffered by many men, which Shafer believes is “one of the biggest public health issues we have.”

“When men get that help, they can blunt the impact of their ACEs on how they parent their kids, and that improves their kids’ outcomes. So their own childhood isn’t destiny.”

Kevin Shafer, BYU Professor of Sociology

“We have a lot of individuals walking around with ACEs going untreated, and our study shows that has a wide-ranging impact on people in their lives,” said Shafer. A big part of the solution would be a “comprehensive public mental health strategy” for fathers, which may include better incorporating fathers into the childbirth experience and early pediatric care, as well as regularly screening fathers for mental health, he concluded.

Media Contact: Tyler Stahle

Social Media Use and Adolescent Mental Health

Written by Christine Allen of University Communications

As teens’ use of social media has grown over the past decade, so too has the suicide rate among younger people, with suicide now being the second leading cause of death among those ages 10 to 34. Many have suggested that social media is driving the increased suicide risk, but because social media is still relatively new, it’s been difficult to determine its long-term effects on mental health. 

In the longest study to date on social media use and suicidality, BYU research recently published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence now offers some answers.

Through annual surveys from 2009 to 2019, researchers tracked the media use patterns and mental health of 500 teens as part of the Flourishing Families Project. They found that while social media use had little effect on boys’ suicidality risk, for girls there was a tipping point. Girls who used social media for at least two to three hours per day at the beginning of the study—when they were about 13 years old—and then greatly increased their use over time were at a higher clinical risk for suicide as emerging adults.

“Something about that specific social media use pattern is particularly harmful for young girls,” said BYU professor Sarah Coyne, the lead author of the study. She noted that girls’ social tendencies likely make them more susceptible to the negative effects of social media.

“Research shows that girls and women in general are very relationally attuned and sensitive to interpersonal stressors, and social media is all about relationships,” Coyne explained. “At 13, girls are just starting to be ready to handle the darker underbelly of social media, such as FOMO (fear of missing out), constant comparisons and cyberbullying. A 13-year-old is probably not developmentally ready for three hours of social media a day.”

That said, in most cases, Coyne doesn’t recommend parents ban teenage daughters from social media, which can backfire by leaving them poorly prepared to manage their media use as adults.

“Thirteen is not a bad age to begin social media,” said Coyne, whose own 13-year-old daughter just joined TikTok. “But it should start at a really low level and should be appropriately managed.”

Coyne suggests that parents limit young teens’ social media time to about 20 minutes a day, maintain access to their accounts and talk with teens frequently about what they’re seeing on social media. Over time, teens can gradually scale up their social media use and autonomy.

“The goal is to teach them to be healthy users of social media, to use it in a way that helps them feel good about themselves and connect with other people, which is its real purpose. It’s parents’ job to scaffold or pre-arm children so that they can deal with some of the heavy stuff that often comes with using social media.” 

For young adults who feel they’ve already developed suboptimal social media habits, Coyne is optimistic that they can make a change. As her previous research has shown, social media can be a positive experience for teens and people of any age if they use it well.

Good habits include logging on for a purpose and actively participating rather than passively scrolling, as well as unfollowing those who are exclusionary or have a negative influence.

“I would love for every BYU student to be mindful about the ways they’re using social media, how it’s working for their mental health and how it’s harming their mental health. And then just to avoid doing those harmful things, whatever they are,” said Coyne. “I think that could have a significant impact on our community.”

The study was co-authored by current and former BYU professors and students, including Jeffrey L. Hurst, W. Justin Dyer, Quintin Hunt, Emily Schvaneveldt, Sara Brown and Gavin Jones.

For more tips on healthy social media use, see Professor Coyne’s social media curriculum.

Are you struggling with suicidal thoughts or do you know someone who is? Contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. 

Original article found here.

Four Ways You Can Help Congress Be More Effective

Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

President Biden in less than a month has issued 30 executive orders, clearly demonstrating the power of the executive branch. As the 117th United States Congress starts out with mostly new leadership the question on the mind of many Americans is how effective the elected representatives will be.

If the past is any indication, most Americans probably aren’t expecting much. Over the last decade, Gallup reported Congressional job approval ratings that hovered just over 20% — with a low of 9% in November 2013 and a high of 31% in May 2020. To put it in perspective, the institution has lower approval ratings than colonoscopies, root canals, and cockroaches.

This disdain of Congress can be attributed to many factors, including a rise in partisanship. But Andrew L. Johns, associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, believes the historical record reveals that Congress is not simply ineffective, but has in fact abdicated many of its obligations over time.

“As a result, the constitutional powers, authority, and prerogatives that should be exercised by Congress have been progressively appropriated by the occupants of the White House, both directly and indirectly,” says Johns in his article, “Declining the ‘Invitation to Struggle’: Congressional Complicity in the Rise of the Imperial Presidency,” published in the Pacific Historical Review.

The disturbing result is a less democratic and more authoritarian government. Perhaps most disheartening is the decreasing likelihood of solving complex problems that require a broad range of perspectives and thoughtful deliberation — exactly the strengths a large representative body brings to government.

While Congress will need to be the driving force in reclaiming its authority, citizens can do more than hold their collective breath. By combatting four main reasons Johns outlines for Congressional dysfunction, each of us can find ways to influence the power and effectiveness of Congress.

1. Congress isn’t designed for decisive action. This makes it easy to step back and let the president handle urgent matters. Congress has the authority to intervene, but not always the will to do so when it’s possible there is a faster, if less democratic, way to a solution. As citizens, we can be patient in important matters and, with our representatives, consider a variety of perspectives as they struggle toward solutions.

2. Political polarization limits congressional power and influence. The refusal to compromise with one’s political opponents prevents the government from handling pressing issues. Profoundly gerrymandered congressional districts and other tactics contribute to polarization. “Support members of Congress who are willing to reach across the aisle,” Johns says. When Congress is divided it creates power on the extremes of both parties and leaves the center completely powerless. “The center is where the work gets done, where the compromise occurs, and where Congress gets its power and authority.”

3. The evolving relationship of Congress and the presidency with the American public benefits presidential power. In the contemporary world, media and technological tools have created a presidency that has a closer relationship to the public than individual members of Congress have with their own districts, at least in terms of perception and familiarity. Presidents, like quarterbacks, tend to get more credit and more blame than they deserve. Citizens can make an effort to get to know their congressmen and frequently communicate directly with them. Know where to accurately place both blame and praise.

4. Parochial interests override institutional interests. Although members of Congress all theoretically have a common stake in the power of the institution, the stronger motivation to the hundreds of individual members is to get reelected by serving their own district or state. This type of situation results in the diminishing of Congress because the “collective Congress” fractures under parochial considerations. It’s true then, that the greatest power citizens have over Congress is their vote. Use your vote to express how you want elected officials to prioritize their interests when representing you.

Johns reminds us that we should support and elect members of Congress that actively seek to restore the constitutional balance because “the Constitution cannot enforce itself.”

Psychology Researchers Need Dirty Diapers to Further Autism Research

There is growing evidence in the medical field that a community of gut microbiota is associated with anxiety and depressive disorders. Psychology professor Dr. Rebecca Lundwall and her team of researchers are conducting a study to identify the influence of gut microbiota on the development of autism symptoms. The team is recruiting infants 8 to 12 months old to participate in the study to identify an earlier autism diagnosis for children. They especially need infants who have an older sibling with autism.

The team is hoping to help doctors identify autism in children as young as 12 months old. Currently, most autism diagnoses do not occur until age 4 or later. Diagnosis can be difficult especially for parents who do not have an older child to compare the infant’s development to because diagnosis requires identification of delayed developmental milestones. Early diagnosis is important even if a child succeeds academically because autistics struggle socially when life challenges increase dramatically around adolescence or young adulthood.

Dr. Lundwall explains that, “Early autism diagnosis is important because it starts intervention when it’s most effective, while the brain is still developing, and helps children gain social skills.”

The research gets a little dirty
There is increasing evidence that gut health and bacteria are highly correlated with brain activity and it is known that teenagers and adults with autism have different gut microbes from teenagers and adults without autism. Dr. Lundwall’s team is looking for certain gut microbes in babies by collecting dirty diapers and analyzing the microbial makeup of the stool. The team will compare the gut microbes of infants who have a sibling with autism to those who have no relatives with autism.

“We want to help doctors have a simple test to identify autism risk for children at 12 months or younger,” says Lundwall. “Something like this could really level the playing field and help all children, regardless of symptom severity, age and allow children access to resources.”

Lundwall and her team hope that a simple screening test would allow all children who need a referral for a full autism assessment to obtain one.

Join the study
Dr. Lundwall’s team is looking for 100 families with infants-age 8-12 months to join the study. For the control group, participants do not need to have siblings with autism. Compensation is provided and you can get more information by emailing Rebecca_Lundwall@byu.edu.

Brain Scans Illuminate Potential Reasons Some Adolescents Are More Susceptible to Obesity

Kelsey Zaugg, PhD student in the BYU Clinical Psychology Program

According to the CDC, 1 in 5 children are affected by obesity in the United States today. 

Kelsey Zaugg, PhD student in the BYU Clinical Psychology Program, has committed her research to ensure that children are psychologically, physically and spiritually healthy.

Zaugg’s research involves MRI data and neuroimaging of the brain. She studies how the rewarding impact of food is related to obesity in children. Her goal is to see if there is an association between weight and brain structures involved in reward processing. 

By looking at parts of the brain associated with how we process rewards, Zaugg has been able to discover that these brain structures are different in their literal shape for adolescents with higher body mass indexes. Zaugg says, “This finding helps to illuminate a potential reason why some adolescents might be more susceptible to obesity than their peers.”

Her findings are currently in the process of being submitted for potential publication.

According to Zaugg, there are many factors that play into childhood obesity including brain anatomy. She said, “It is so much more than the societal stigma that a person is simply being lazy.”

Upon completing her PhD, Zaugg plans to work in an academic medical center alongside pediatric psychologists in a children’s hospital. She says, “I want to be a part of an integrated care model and work with physicians and psychiatrists to give kids the comprehensive care they need.”

Zaugg expresses her gratitude for the role she has played in helping children: ”In life, we will not be able to remove all challenges children may face, but we can do our part to limit some of the vulnerabilities of children so they can face challenges with a strong foundation.”

Learn more about BYU’s Clinical Psychology PhD Program here.

Walking Through the Comprehensive Clinic

At a program anniversary event, faculty from BYU’s Marriage and Family Therapy program took time to ask themselves “What have we done?” In academia, impact is measured by publications, performance ratings, and research achievements. This time, however, they decided to look further, at the less measurable standards of impact. One clinician mentioned walking across campus at a different university when someone came up to him, recognized him, and said, “You saved my marriage.” How does one measure that kind of impact? Thinking of this impact, Dean Barley of the Comprehensive Clinic looks to the future, saying, “We will continue to learn how to do better what we do, what health looks like, and how to help people get there, so we can accomplish frankly the purpose for which we are on the planet: to get back to Heavenly Father.” 

That’s the spirit and overall purpose of BYU’s Comprehensive Clinic, which is located on the east border of campus, across the street from the Creamery. In the seventies, members of various disciplines within BYU had the idea to consolidate psychology, marriage and family therapy, and social work into a building designed to provide hands-on learning for students as well as service to the community. Barley explains, “one initial vision was that the academic side could do development of theory and practice, and they could help in the creation of training modules to be used by LDS family services…Cross referring and interdisciplinary research and services, that was the idea.” 

The Clinic provides students excellent training in clinical psychology, marriage and family therapy, and social work. Unlike BYU Counseling Services, which is designed especially for BYU students, the Comprehensive Clinic focuses on the uninsured and underinsured members of the surrounding community. Over 100 students and 30 supervisors take on anywhere between 850 to 1,000 cases a year. Graduate students provide the therapy under the careful supervision of their faculty supervisors, who are also licensed therapists.  

To receive access to these services, potential clients call the Clinic and are scheduled by the receptionist for a phone intake interview with a graduate student. These interviews last 20-30 minutes and are designed to assess the client’s needs and eligibility for care. As a training institution, the clinic is careful to not exceed what they are able to offer; more extreme cases are referred to an appropriate clinic elsewhere. Clients have access to therapy sessions as well as psychological assessments. Sessions are typically $15, though the client can negotiate with the therapist if that is financially challenging. The purpose of the Comprehensive Clinic is to help those in the community who struggle to receive help through normal clinical routes while providing excelling training for the next generation of therapists.  

The clinic isn’t just a place of practice though, as many faculty are conducting research in a wide variety of subjects: positive psychology, autism, obesity, violence in relationships, anxiety, marriage therapy, stress, trauma, and adolescent development, to name a few. The Comprehensive Clinic is the intersect of these diverse fields’ academic and applied endeavors.  

While explaining the function and operations of the clinic, Dean Barley shifted in his chair and began to speak more candidly: “The end goal of all we do is to create a heavenly family, and when we are all done, if things go well, we will be back together.” There was a clear empathy in his voice as he continued, “This is a beautiful and applied setting. How can we help those who are struggling—individuals, couples, and families—across a lifetime span to help us accomplish life’s real purpose?” For Barley, the Clinic is the “crown jewel” of the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, taking all of the theories across multiple disciplines and consolidating them into a place of true care. Barley says, “In this setting it’s: ‘Things aren’t going well, let’s get you healthy again so that you’re thriving and not just striving.’ So, we have a noble purpose here.”  

When one walks the halls of the Clinic, it is clear that this noble purpose is at the forefront of all that the Clinic tries to do. There are several rooms where the actual therapy sessions take place, each designed to be relaxing for the clients and educational for the students. Beautiful photos hang on the wall, toys for children fill cubbies, and comfortable atmospheres make an environment that encourages healthy and productive therapy. There are also rooms dedicated entirely as spaces for students to work, study, and relax. The faculty and students who spend much of their day in this building are dedicated to improving their skills and providing the best possible service to people in the surrounding community. 

With the arrival of COVID, the Clinic was forced to transition most of their care to online meetings, which was an adjustment. However, this has had the unforeseen benefit of allowing them to access clients in a broader geographic area. Where once only those in Utah County were able to meet for regular appointments, the introduction of teletherapy sessions has allowed for a more expansive coverage. The Clinic will continue to operate online for as long as is appropriate, after which a decision will be made on how to move forward and improve access to these services for the community.  

If you or someone you know in the community could be helped by the services of the Comprehensive Clinic, please contact them through the resources provided below. They are happy to get you the care you need.  

(801) 422-7759

https://comprehensiveclinic.byu.edu

Family Life in a Pandemic

Findings presented by deseret.com/AFS

How has a devastating pandemic, social unrest, and political turmoil affected American families? Though most might assume family life has become more stressful, strained, and shaky in recent months, the 2020 American Family Survey results showed despite “pockets of trouble” in family life, there is still strong evidence of “resilience in the face of adversity”. Despite societal tumult, the state of the American family seems to be better than we might have expected.

Principal Investigators Christopher F. Karpowitz & Jeremy C. Pope and Co-Directors of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU, designed the 2020 American Family Survey, an annual nationwide poll with 3,000 respondents, to test how families are faring under unprecedented conditions.

The survey was administered between July 3-14, at the height of racial, social, and political unrest, and these are five of the most interesting findings as identified by the Deseret News.

Finding #1: The pandemic is making families stronger.

56% of respondents say the pandemic helped them appreciate their partner and 43% evaluated their own marriages as getting stronger. Nearly a majority, 47% of respondents agreed with the statement that, “the pandemic has deepened my commitment to my relationship.” During the 2020 American Family Survey webcast from the Brookings Institution, Principal Investigator Karpowitz concluded, “We do see resilience in relationships.” In a time of worldly upheaval, some think couples would struggle, but surprisingly 62% of respondents disagreed that the pandemic had made them question the strength of their relationship.

Finding #2: Since the pandemic started, men are more likely to say they struggle balancing work and home life.

With many men and women now working from home, work and home life is all managed under the same roof. 40% of men versus 31% of women say the balance is a struggle.

Finding #3: The role of a parent has become more important

80% of parents say their role as a parent is important to their identity, up from 71% in 2018. Karpowitz said, “We are living in a unique moment, a moment that is priming those identities, a politicized moment. But it’s also a moment where people are especially cognizant of their family relationships.” Panelist and Senior Fellow of Economic and Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution Camille Busette discussed how parenting has increased in importance for respondents, and how greater percentages of Blacks, Latinos and Whites reported that their role as parents is important to their identity than in previous years. Busette discussed how this increase could be attributed to the fact that many parents took on the additional role as educators and invested personally in their children’s education during the pandemic.

Finding #4: Men think they’re carrying their weight around the house.

With many men and women staying home, men say they’re dividing tasks 50-50, but women disagree. Women say it’s more like 65-35.

Finding #5: More extended families are moving in together.

There was a significant increase in percent of families living with extended family. 25% of respondents live with extended family, up from 20% last year.

These findings show the resilient nature of American families, but there is also a relationship between respondents who reported lost income and increased stress in marriage. 24% of those who reported no lost income during the pandemic also reported an increase of stress in marriage as compared to 34% of those who reported lost income of a spouse or partner. Dr. Pope discussed the negative effects of the pandemic on the family: “This highlights that most people are resilient but there are pockets of people who are experiencing trouble and it’s worth us paying attention to.”

Panelist and Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings Institution Richard Reeves shared his thoughts about the importance of relationships within American families during the pandemic, “The survey shows the need for, and a hunger for a good relational quality of life…I do think that the things that people associate with marriage and family are being more valued, [and] that’s true with extended families coming together [and] people having to spend more time with their children.”

Busette proposed future implications of the survey results, “The picture that’s clear here is that families are very resilient, particularly during COVID. And I think the fact that they have been so focused on their families means that there is an interesting foundation upon which to pursue pro-family policies in the next few years.”

Reeves concluded that the survey shows that “if there’s a piece of hope, maybe it’s that we have a broader recognition of how much our relationships matter.”

Topline reports and data sets are available for download from BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

Watch the Brookings Institution presentation of the results and expert panel.

See more findings at deseret.com/AFS.

Military Service and Male Veterans’ Civic Engagement

Sven Wilson portrait Photography by Alyssa Lyman/BYU

How does military service affect male veterans’ civic participation?

BYU professor & chair of the Department of Political Science, Sven Wilson recently published a paper in the journal Armed Forces & Society showing that military service has historically predicted greater civic involvement later in life.

Wilson and coauthor William Ruger of the Charles Koch Institute published “Military Service, Combat Experience, and Civic Participation,” which examines the relationship between military service, combat experience, and civic engagement. The researchers stated the goal of their study: “We wanted to see whether veterans, especially those with combat experience, are more or less active in their communities.”

Wilson and Ruger looked at data from the National Survey of Families and Households from 1987–88 and found that veterans are more engaged civically than other men across all the major wars of the 20th century.

The researchers analyzed responses from 2,185 men aged 30–69 who were divided into three groups: nonveterans, noncombat veterans, and combat veterans. The respondents indicated their civic participation from a list of 15 kinds of organizations.

Using data from the national survey, the researchers found that the likelihood and intensity of group participation is higher among veterans than other men and that combat veterans have the highest level of participation. Wilson and Ruger found that combat veterans were just as likely to participate as noncombat veterans in service, youth and sports groups.

Christie Allen for BYU news reported that, “According to survey data, male veterans who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were significantly more likely than male nonveterans to join civic groups. They also on average joined 21% more groups and had a 19% higher rate of participation than nonveterans, even when researchers controlled for veterans’ increased educational opportunities, which are known to boost civic activity.”

Read the full article by Christie Allen on BYU news.

“Patterwitz” and a New Approach to American Heritage

The Fall 2020 Semester has been unlike any before at BYU, and students and faculty alike are feeling the strain of hours-long, sometimes mind-numbing online activity. For courses with high enrollment, classes have been held exclusively online in a variety of formats. Some faculty post prerecorded lectures, others host live Zoom meetings, and all are just trying to do the best that they can. So, it may come as a surprise that BYU’s infamous American Heritage course has found a way to have a little fun with online learning.   

Understanding that their teaching would be moved online, Professors Chris Karpowitz and Kelly Patterson began brainstorming a new style of class back in April. They knew that many of their students would be freshman, and that these students had likely either lost out on their senior year or had been reassigned or released early from missions. They wanted to make American Heritage a memorable part of these students’ day, while preserving the academic rigor of the course. They also knew that they couldn’t take on this project alone; they needed a team of help.   

Karpowitz and Patterson decided to consolidate the six sections of their class into one lecture session, held on Monday and Wednesday at 11AM, where they deliver an interactive online lecture for around 2,400 students. Bruce Burgon, database manager at FHSS who has been helping with the course, says “The two professors are team teaching, but they discuss with each other the principle. They can put each other on the spot and ask tough questions that would normally embarrass a student. They can build off of each other’s energy.”  

The class is designed to look and feel like a tv show. Ron Ralston and his production team from OIT have taken the American Heritage review room in the library and transformed it into a stunning learning studio. Every Monday and Wednesday the team  starts  work at 9:00 am to make sure that everything is ready for the broadcast. As part of the design, students  are able to  engage with the lectures through polls, chat, and a panel of students connected to the lecture via Zoom.   

Kristen Betts, administrator for American Heritage, says “Students have really loved the new style, especially the chemistry of the professors. The dialogue between the professors has been really great. It’s fun for students because it’s really engaging.” She and her team make sure that students have access to all the resources they need to succeed in the course. This interactive format means more students are tuning in and working with the material instead of just passively listening to the lecture. In addition, Teaching Assistants still provide scheduled labs on either Thursday or Friday and online review sessions for students who need extra time with the concepts taught in class.   

One student says, “The implementation of remote/online learning is something that is fairly new to me as a recently graduated high school senior. Until now,  I wasn’t really exposed to it, but I would say that the professors Patterson and Karpowitz  [and team]  have made the transition very seamless. As a class that emphasizes student participation, your ability to explore concepts and apply them into current events is something that really cultivates your capability to learn.”   

Another student, Josh Rueckert,  reflects, “This semester has definitely been a big change, I’m not used to taking classes online.” He goes on to say, “American Heritage has surprised me with the lectures, I feel like I have fun watching the professors engage with the students remotely.  Overall different doesn’t always mean bad, new experiences can surprise you.”  

The production team had a little fun and came up with the surprisingly catchy  title “Patterwitz” to refer to the two professors. Some students have taken the moniker and “are distributing t-shirts of it on the black market,” according to Burgon. While walking through the library, Dr. Karpowitz was surprised to meet a student who enthusiastically displayed her “Patterwitz” t-shirt to him.   

A meme page has  also  popped up on Instagram, with  captioned pictures based on that  day’s lecture  posted regularly.  The students running the Instagram account said, “It started after my first day of class when I was like ‘these guys are  kinda  funny’ and made a meme about them looking exactly the same.” They went on to say, “I like that I get a better understanding of American values and history. I feel like a more effective American citizen and that I can contribute to  democracy with the right educational background. It also is cool that we’re learning all of these things while an election is happening.”   

American Heritage is inspiring excitement where students once felt  mostly  dread  because of  its  reputation for  extensive readings and challenging  exams.   

While the professors enjoy the new format, they realize that none of this would have been possible without  Kristen Betts  (American Heritage)  and   Ron  Ralston  (OIT)  and his  production team.  These people, according to the faculty, deserve all the credit  for the  course’s  successful integration into the online format, saying “They  took  our  idea and transformed it into something exciting and engaging. They  have gone above and beyond to make American Heritage what it is this semester… we  think it is a significant example of the different ways  by  which  individuals  throughout the university demonstrate their  devotion to  the educational mission of the university.”  

Fighting Cancer with Family History

Ashlyn Taylor, a BYU student working for the Center of Family History and Genealogy, starts her day by clocking in and jumping on the computer to sift through email. For her, every day presents new tasks and challenges. She spends much of her time utilizing a breadth of genealogical skills that she has acquired, including reading census data and analyzing DNA, to track people’s genetic heritage. She also contacts study participants, edits report templates, and compiles data for research application. Once a week she joins a call with Dr. Brian Shirts and his team of researchers at the University of Washington to discuss their progress and goals. And, at the end of the week, she compiles a report based on her findings to send to this team. 

The goal of this research? End preventable hereditary disease like cancer. The method: Family history. 

This idea was born as Dr. Shirts and his lab were working with Heather Hampel, a genetic counselor and hereditary colorectal cancer researcher at The Ohio State University. As Shirts’ lab was conducting genetic testing for this study, they discovered the same MSH2 gene variant in two individuals that shared no obvious relationship. Wondering if there was some genetic component, one of Hampel’s staffers conducted genealogical research and discovered that these two were 3rd cousins. Through extended family history research, dozens of descendants from the same common ancestor were identified and received preventative screening and care for cancer. 

Seeing the efficacy of using genealogical factors to identify high risk patients, Shirts said he “did genetic analysis of other pairs of people who shared a variant and found that two people who have the same rare cancer risk variant have over 90% chance of being related.” He went on to explain that “by using family history to connect distant relatives, we could dramatically improve cancer prevention outreach.” 

Shirts reached out to Jill Crandell of BYU’s Center of Family History and Genealogy to see if she would be interested in conducting research in coordination with his lab. With 3 years of funding provided by the Brotman Bay Institute for Precision Medicine, Shirts’ and Crandell’s labs began in 2019 on a cooperative effort to use genealogical tools to trace strains of cancer.

When Dr. Shirts’ lab identifies individuals with a certain rare genetic variant, those people are connected to the BYU genealogical team. The team, working with the subjects and their families, uses genetic and traditional genealogical research to find a common ancestor between the subjects with the same variant, moving up the family tree to find a shared link. From there, they move back down the tree from that common ancestor to identify other living descendants, who are then contacted about their potential risk of cancer. 

Once two or more individuals are identified with a genetic variant for cancer, researchers track a common ancestor and then attempt to find and contact living descendants who may be at a similar risk.

According to Shirts, the hardest part is, “Finding people who know that they have a hereditary cancer risk mutation and realize that they can use that information to help a lot of close and distant relatives…most people who are at risk find out after they get cancer, which is too late.” It can be difficult to find more than one person with the same variant who is willing to work with the project. With only one, it is nearly impossible to track the variant through their ancestry. With two or more subjects, all the researchers have to do is determine where the line of their genealogy intersects.

The research is moving forward, though, as BYU student researchers become more adept with genealogical tools and more people are becoming aware of the project. Taylor boasts, “A recent highlight that we have found is an exponential increase in the number of participants we are working with.” As the number of participants in the study increases, Dr. Shirts and his team are better able to identify at-risk persons and get them preventative care, which is much better than reactive care. 

Ashlyn Taylor working in the lab.

            Shirts is constantly impressed with the quality of work done by Crandell’s team, saying “Every day I am surprised at how effectively the student researchers at the BYU Center for Family History and Genealogy team are able to identify relatives of the people that enroll in this project. It is fantastic to see what they can do with just a little information.” 

The more participants the study can find and connect with each other, the greater Shirts is able to identify and prevent traumatic cancer diagnoses by catching the risk early. 

            Shirts continues to focus on eradicating hereditary disease like cancer through genetic identification. In reflecting on his passion for the medical field, he says, “I keep a quote on my wall that says, ‘Nobody ever thanks you for saving them from the disease they didn’t know they were going to get.’ Even though it is hard, it is incredibly satisfying to be able to help someone prevent a disease like cancer.” 

To find out more, go to ConnectMyVariant.org