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New colloquium program showcases faculty research

| Monday, October 3, 2016

The first installment of the new faculty colloquium occurred Friday, where professors present any research they have worked on to the Saint Mary’s community.

Laura Williamson Ambrose, associate professor of humanistic studies, said the goal of this series is to showcase faculty research.

“So much of what we do … as faculty is to inspire the next generation of thinkers, researchers, doers and civic minded folks, but none of that can happen, or would happen, without our own healthy — and sometimes strange — obsession with things that no one else pays attention to,” she said. “The life of the mind drives us, on campus and in our research.”

Jennifer Bauer, assistant professor of nursing, started the presentations with her research on the effects of guided imagery to reduce stress in undergraduate nursing students.

Bauer said she was inspired to study stress by the nursing students she taught at Indiana University South Bend.

“I was really searching for something I could do to help my students,” she said. “A lot of them were like, ‘Help us fix our stress.’ Well, I can’t fix it — it’s normal — but I can help you be able to work in an environment that is less stressful and [to] develop coping mechanisms that science believes will help you get your work done and still be able to mentally feel stable at the end of the day.”

Bauer said other scientific research shows stress needs to be addressed in younger people, specifically freshman and sophomores in college, so they know how to manage it later on in life. This is why she chose her sophomore nursing students as her sample, she said.

“If we teach them in their younger phases, then they will be able to take what they learned early on and utilize it junior and senior year and out in their professional field,” she said. “That’s very important, specifically in nursing and the medical field because it’s high stress out there on those nursing floors. … There’s a lot of occupations where it’s just high stress, so if you have coping mechanisms in your academic experience, you can take those with you.”

According to Bauer, she administered a stress-level evaluation to the students in her class. She then spent six weeks playing a CD of calming music for the first 20 minutes of class. At the end of the six weeks, she administered the same evaluation and found the music helped reduce stress levels in her students.

Catherine Pittman, associate professor of psychology, presented her research on the effects of benzodiazepine withdrawal.

Pittman said people typically approach their physician when having issues with stress or anxiety and are often proscribed benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Valium and Klonopin, a practice Pittman disagrees with because of the lasting effects of withdrawal.

“We, in the United States, have the highest rates of benzodiazepine consumption in the world,” she said. “It was very similar in Europe and in Australia, but they’ve gotten wise to the problems associated with benzodiazepines and cut them down.”

Pittman said she studied a group of people who were struggling with benzodiazepine addiction, so she focused on the online social group “BenzoBuddies,” where people support each other as they work to get off the drug. She said this type of support group is necessary because withdrawal effects can be as bad or even worse than the original symptoms a person had for going on the drug, and there are very few physicians who help people withdraw from it.

“We’re looking here at medications that are used to calm people down,” she said. “It affects more parts of our brains than the parts that create the stress response, so they have a very broad, wide range of effects.”

Though there are beneficial impacts of benzodiazepines, Pittman said most people do not realize their bodies build up tolerance and need more medication or higher dosage. She said benzodiazepines are acceptable for occasional use, but the majority of users who become addicted take them every day for months at a time.

“With prolonged use … four to six weeks, a person can become physiologically dependent on them,” she said. “Tolerance occurs and then increased dosages are required for them to have their effect.”

Pittman said people will often begin taking benzodiazepines for one condition, such as epilepsy, and begin experience anxiety or panic attacks as a result of the medication. She said her research found people still experienced withdrawal symptoms up to 14 months after being off the medication, which is why she believes other psychological remedies — such as meditation, deep breathing or prayer — are often more beneficial for people than benzodiazepines.

Laura Kloepper, assistant professor of biology, presented her research on the use of sonar in groups of swarming bats.

Kloepper said bats use echolocation to navigate, in which the bats makes an intense sound, which goes into the environment and bounces off the nearest object and comes back to the animal. The animal uses information in the echo that comes back to make a picture of its surrounding.

“Everything we know about science says that the bats should not be able to echolocate when they’re in these really large groups,” she said. “When bats are flying around and using their sounds, their sounds should be interfering with each other. If you’re supposed to rely on a sound and know that that’s your echo, when you’re in a big group, how are you supposed to figure out if its your echo that’s coming back or another bat that’s next to you?”

Kloepper said she has not been able to answer this question, but she hopes she can help unlock this scientific mystery. She said a better understanding of bats would help humans better protect bats.

“Bats provide a huge economic value to our country,” she said. “It’s been estimated that just in agriculture alone, bats provide $30 billion a year benefit in the insects and pests they help control. Bats are important for our ecosystem, and it’s important to understand them so we can help better protect them.”

Kloepper said the sonar she studies is important because it has technological advantages. She said bat-like sonar is used for self-driving vehicles, both on ground and in the air, and other daily technologies, but people have not yet been able to replicate the exact form of sonar bats use.

“Despite all this effort we put into studying sonar, we haven’t been able to create a device that can be as good at sonar as what these animals can do,” she said. “This is a field known as bioinspiration or bio-mimickery, where we say, ‘We haven’t figured it out, but these animals have had it figured out for years, so lets try to understand what they’re doing.’”

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About Nicole Caratas

Nicole is a senior English Writing and Humanistic Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. Now a senior news writer, she previously served as the Saint Mary's Editor. She was born in real Chicago but grew up in the suburbs, and she currently lives in Opus Hall.

Contact Nicole