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Professors present behavioral and biological research at “NED Talks”

On Nov. 13, the Ned R. McWherter Library hosted the fourth iteration of the biannual “NED Talks” series, an event based on the TED Talks series where researchers present their findings and discuss the future of their research, and will continue their series Nov. 14.

The “NED Talks” offers opportunities for people to learn about the research being done at the University of Memphis and gain insight into the methods of conducting research in different departments.

“There’s two every year,” said Ashley Roach-Freiman, research and instruction librarian at the McWherter Library. “There’s the faculty one that we’re doing right now, and there’s the NEDxStudents which features student researchers.”

Dr. Cassandra Nuñez, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, used her 15-minute window to discuss the problem of population control in feral horses.

“We have to manage species that are expanding, particularly those expanding due to diminished natural predators,” Nuñez said. “This is true of elk and white-tail deer, but unlike these species, we don’t hunt feral horses.”

Nuñez later explained that contraceptive measures were deemed the most humane population control method currently available. Hormonal options can render female horses, called mares, infertile, but have significant social impacts. Thus, the preferred method is to use porcine zona pellucida (PZP) immunocontraception. This method tricks the autoimmune system into protecting the mare’s eggs from sperm, allowing them to maintain ovulation cycles and ideally leave them unaffected socially.

Through her research at Shackleford Banks, Nuñez has studied the social implications of PZP to determine how this method would affect feral horses. The social structure of feral horses is made up of bands, where one stallion has several mares and foals, and a breakup of bands could lead to malnutrition, stress and other issues. Her research concluded that horses that had been treated with PZP were more likely to break up with their band in search of a band where she could have offspring. However, this breakup was mitigated by allowing mares to have foals occasionally, keeping the band more preserved and less stress on the mares.

Joel Roberts gave his “NED Talk” about the research he had done in finding the origin of Bob Miller, one of the first country music artists who has been neglected in most of the history books. Roberts said only the most intensive music history classes even mentioned Bob Miller, and most readily available information about Miller was at least half wrong.

“He was the most prolific Memphis songwriter post-W.C. Handy,” Roberts said. “Most of the scholarship that even halfway addresses Miller has a false narrative. They’ll say that he led the Steamer Idlewild Orchestra at 15, that he was a professional pianist at age 10, (etc.). All these things are halfway true.”

Roberts went on to describe how Miller had a successful career heading the Steamer Idlewild Orchestra until the riverboat craze died out, at which point he began touring the rural South. It was during this time Miller likely ran into the country style of music and after his first big country hit, he moved to New York and joined others as a major recording artist. Roberts later revealed he had found all this information through intensive digging through old newspapers and microfilm, because there was not an online database to search.

Dr. Cody T. Harvard took a lighter spin on his research, discussing how he and his team of students used comic books and superheroes to study behavior. Harvard used his superhero “Sports Rivalry Man” to study how other people reacted in ways that he had done himself, such as rooting for the rival of his team’s rival to win a football game. The idea of studying reactions he saw in himself led to the creation of a series of comics where “Sports Rivalry Man” would teach children that people on the other side of the game were just like themselves, and that people ought to be treated well regardless.

Eventually, the team realized that the children in their comics had no agency, and so “Sports Rivalry Man” became a narrator, telling the story as the children figured out the good path on their own. This has culminated in the ultimate goal of having children be the reminder to behave well, as adults can sometimes lose sight of what is good in the heat of the moment.

“The objectives were to teach kids about in-group bias and provide them with examples of appropriate ways to behave,” Harvard said. “Kids are really good at taking things out of one context and putting them into another; the hope is they can take these lessons and take it from the sports setting and put it into other settings.”

Dr. Deranda Lester spoke about the research into oxytocin as a means to combat dopamine addictions. Both oxytocin and dopamine are chemicals in the brain that affect mood; oxytocin affects feelings of love and affection, and dopamine affects feelings of euphoria. Oxytocin is generally released when in close contact with others and in taking certain actions with others, while drugs, video games and eating have been shown to release dopamine.

Drugs such as cocaine prevent the brain from reuptaking dopamine, letting it sit in the receptors and making the user feel good, but eventually leading to addiction and a number of serious health issues. Studies of oxytocin in rats and mice have shown that oxytocin has lessened the effect of dopamine to a more normal level, reducing the “high” from drug use and lessening the likelihood that the rodent would request more of the drug.

Another study even showed that when deciding between immediate drugs or immediate companionship (regardless of sex), the rodents would choose companionship over the drug. This study of mice has serious implications into the rehabilitation of all sorts of addictions, but more research is needed before anything would be implemented in practice.

The final presenter of the day was Dr. Jeremy Orsoz, with his presentation on the intermingling of hip hop and country music. Orsoz points to the increased popularity of hip hop elements in country music with the rise of Florida Georgia Line back in 2012. This trend continued with more established country artists such as Tim McGraw, Blake Shleton and Luke Bryan with songs that used more hip hop style speech patterns and beats. More recently, Orsoz points to hip hop hits such as “Old Town Road” and “The Git Up” as an indication of hip hop artists incorporating country music elements into their music. 

The NED Talks series will continue Nov. 14 at 2:45 p.m. in the McWherter Library 2nd Floor Commons with four more presentations. The NEDxStudents event will take place in the spring semester, although it is too early to place a definitive date on the event.  NEDxStudents affords students the opportunity to present their research for the possibility of winning a monetary prize for the best presentation each day.

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