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Posted on Oct 1, 2014

Study Offers Insight Into Challenges College Athletes Face

A new study from North Carolina State University sheds light on how some collegiate student-athletes deal with uncertainties ranging from excelling in both school and sports to their career prospects outside of athletics, and urges university athletic programs to adopt new efforts to support student-athletes.

“We wanted to explore how student-athletes at top-tier universities cope with the dual challenges of meeting the expectations of their teams while simultaneously complying with their responsibilities as university students,” says Dr. Lynsey Romo, an assistant professor of communication at NC State and lead author of a paper on the work.

The study was based on in-depth interviews with 17 student-athletes at a university that is considered to be “elite” in both its academic and athletic programs.

“This is a qualitative study, so we can’t generalize these findings to all college athletes,”Romo says. “But it’s highly likely that universities with both high-level academics and athletics can use this information to examine their own programs and explore possible services for their student-athletes.”

The researchers found that student-athletes reported feeling uncertain in three areas: personal uncertainty, such as uncertainty about balancing school work and sports; social uncertainty, such as uncertainty related to who their “real” friends are; and future uncertainty, such as uncertainty concerning their post-collegiate careers and whether the time they spend pursuing athletics will hurt their career prospects.

Most of the student-athletes reported using a variety of techniques to reduce uncertainty. These uncertainty-reduction strategies included seeking social support from friends, family, or academic counselors; socializing with friends to take a break from sports and school pressures; negotiating with coaches in an attempt to raise their scholarship; and sometimes concealing their athlete status from peers to minimize people befriending them for the wrong reasons, or prevent negative stereotypes. Other student-athletes came to terms with uncertainty as a natural part of life and turned to prayer to help them cope.

“Our findings suggest that universities can do more to prepare students for life outside of athletics,” Romo says. “For example, athletics departments may be able to work with employers to offer flexible paid or unpaid professional internships around student-athletes’ seasons. In this way, student athletes can receive work experience in fields outside of sports.

“In addition,” Romo says, “university athletics programs should take steps to give student-athletes more free time – what is sometimes overlooked amidst a heavy athletics and academic schedule is the scholar athletes’ need to unwind and decompress. Study participants reported having to make a concerted effort to see family and friends, often at the cost of time that could have been devoted to schoolwork. They need more downtime.”

The paper, “‘You Never Know What’s Gonna Happen’: An Examination of Communication Strategies Used by College Student-Athletes to Manage Uncertainty,” is published online in the journal Communication & Sport. The paper was co-authored by NC State undergraduates Christine Davis and Alyssa Fea.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“‘You Never Know What’s Gonna Happen’: An Examination of Communication Strategies Used by College Student-Athletes to Manage Uncertainty”

Authors: Lynsey Kluever Romo, Christine Davis, and Alyssa Fea, North Carolina State University

Published: online Sept. 17, Communication & Sport

DOI: 10.1177/2167479514549371

Abstract: Student-athletes are regularly faced with uncertainty, particularly at the highest levels of collegiate sports. Although it can result in both adverse and beneficial outcomes, little is known about the nature of this uncertainty. Thus, framed by Uncertainty Management Theory (UMT), this study relied on in-depth interviews of 17 student-athletes at an athletically-and-academically elite U.S. university to uncover what uncertainty scholar-athletes encountered and how they managed this ambiguity communicatively. The investigation found student-athletes experienced personal (e.g., injury), social (e.g., friends), and future (e.g., career) uncertainty. Participants managed this uncertainty through the use of communication strategies such as seeking social support, not disclosing their athlete status, or relying on prayer. While most participants perceived uncertainty as negative and sought to reduce it, some embraced it and learned to adapt. In addition to uncovering tangible uncertainty management strategies, the study recommends that college athletics departments implement several measures to address uncertainty.

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Posted on Sep 30, 2014

The Root(worm) of the Problem: Unexpected Obstacles on the Road to Research

There’s a side of science that many people don’t know about. Namely, the fact that scientists often have to spend an enormous amount of time becoming experts in things outside their field of study in order to do research they think is important. This is where a corn-eating beetle and a guy named Clay Chu come in.

The western corn rootworm beetle (Diabrotica virgifera virgifera) is bad news. As larvae, these insects feed on the roots of corn plants, while the adults can damage corn leaves and silk. Experts estimate that the rootworm costs U.S. farmers an estimated $1 billion per year in lost crops and pest control expenses – but that estimate dates to 1986, so the cost has probably gone up. And that estimate doesn’t include the cost to farmers elsewhere in North America and Europe.

Clay Chu is a Ph.D. entomology student at NC State in the lab of Marcé Lorenzen, and he’s very interested in Diabrotica virgifera. With Lorenzen’s support, and funding from Monsanto, Chu is trying to create a system of genetic markers that can be used to study the rootworm, so that we can develop new tools and strategies for controlling the pest.

Adult corn rootworm beetle. Photo credit: Fu-Chyun “Clay” Chu.

Adult corn rootworm beetle. Photo credit: Fu-Chyun “Clay” Chu.

Specifically, Chu is introducing genes into rootworm DNA that trigger production of a fluorescent protein. The idea is to create a line of rootworms in which the fluorescent proteins are produced whenever a targeted gene is activated. In other words, researchers could study specific genes by having the rootworms light up when those genes are expressed.

Cool, right?

But before Chu can do all the things he wants to do in the lab, he needs to be able to keep a colony of rootworms alive and healthy for generations. No rootworms, no research.

And for a species that is frustratingly difficult to eradicate in the wild, rootworms are tough to keep alive in the lab – as Chu learned the hard way.

“We’ve had to address a wide range of problems, which has slowed down our work on rootworm genetics,” Chu says. “We’ve had to develop expertise in rootworm lab survival in order to pursue the larger scientific questions we’re really interested in.”

Problem 1: Eating

When Chu first set up his lab to study rootworms, he fed them insect food that he made using a standard recipe. (Yes, these exist.) But there was a problem.

“Every week, 30 percent of my population [of rootworms] died,” Chu says. After a frustrating trial and error period, Chu determined that the diet was to blame.

“It took four months to find a recipe that didn’t kill them,” Chu says. But there was another problem.

Problem 2: Breeding

In order to determine whether and how the genes for fluorescent proteins are being passed on to the next generation of rootworms, Chu’s research team needs to collect and screen their eggs. Easier said than done.

Corn rootworm larvae. Photo credit: Fu-Chyun “Clay” Chu.

Corn rootworm larvae. Photo credit: Fu-Chyun “Clay” Chu.

In the wild, adult rootworm beetles lay their eggs in the soil, near the roots of corn plants. But eggs laid in soil are difficult (or impossible) to find and retrieve – they look like tiny brown specks. So Chu needed to simulate egg-laying conditions in the lab without dirt or corn roots.

Chu ultimately settled on a customized (and improvised) set-up. A petri dish is the foundation, including a thin layer of non-nutritional agar to provide some moisture. The bottom of the dish is lined with filter paper and loosely-woven cheesecloth to mimic corn’s fibrous root structure. It looks like a tiny, white shag carpet, but that makes the eggs more visible and easier to collect.

The male and female are kept in the dish by an upside down plastic cup that has holes punched in the top and is taped to the dish.

“This is something I had to come up with on my own, but it works,” Chu says.

Problem 3: Health

As it turns out, farmers aren’t the only organisms interested in killing rootworms.

“There are a lot of bacteria, fungi and mites that can kill rootworms at every life stage,” says Katy Chalmers, a lab tech working with Chu to maintain the lab’s rootworm colony. “And it’s almost impossible to eliminate all of these variables.”

To minimize mortality, the researchers disinfect almost everything the rootworms come into contact with – from the special rootworm diet to the cheesecloth and egg collection cups.

“When good protocols aren’t observed, you can lose an entire generation, meaning none of the eggs reach maturity,” Chu says.

However, while Chu’s team is still experimenting with new techniques to improve the survival rate, they’ve reached the point where 30 percent of the eggs are reaching adulthood.

“That’s very good and, if we can keep it up, we’ll be in good shape,” Chu says.

And if a new problem crops up? Well, Chu has plenty of practice at tackling unforeseen obstacles.

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Posted on Sep 29, 2014

This Is What Science Looks Like At NC State: Makita Phillips

Editor’s note: This post was written by Makita Phillips, a recent Ph.D. graduate from NC State’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. The post is an entry in an ongoing series that we hope will highlight the diversity of researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The series is inspired by the This Is What A Scientist Looks Like site.

Hello there! My name is Makita R. Phillips and I am a recent mechanical engineering doctoral graduate of NC State. My research in the Schwartz Group, led by Dr. Justin Schwartz, focused on the impact of various insulation materials on the thermal management of a superconducting coil. Don’t worry, I will explain.

As we continue to technologically advance, various energy sources need to be developed to accommodate our needs. The idea of increasing energy efficiency is a priority to reduce the economic and ecological impact of our energy system. The main areas of impact are production, transmission, and storage.

Photo courtesy of Makita Phillips.

Photo courtesy of Makita Phillips.

Superconductors are materials that have zero electrical resistance when cooled to a specific temperature and can produce and expel magnetic fields. During the production phase, superconductors can be used for fusion energy containment and in generators. For the transmission phase, superconductor cables and fault current limiters can be incorporated into the grid. When energy must be stored from production and transmission, superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES) systems can be used as well. The advantage of superconductors over their traditional counterparts is their small size and electrical conductance capabilities due to zero resistance. However, research is needed on superconductor cooling requirements, and other areas of concern that cause instability, in order to increase mainstream adoption of these technologies. My work with insulation is to help us understand how we can look at materials differently in order to maintain the temperature levels needed to use superconductors.

When I’m not spending time with my research, I participate in a lot of activities. I like things that work toward the complete development of my mind, body and spirit. Personal development and community service fall into that category for me. I love physical activities ranging from half marathons to group fitness classes. I am a member of Raleigh North Christian Center, where I am involved in the dance ministry and a co-leader of the youth dance ministry. I am an avid movie-goer that will watch any genre but horror films (action films are my favorite). I am also interested in activities that increase minority and women participation in STEM fields. I currently serve on the National Executive Board of the National Society of Black Engineers as the National Leadership Institute Chair. I also am the founder of the Minority Engineering Graduate Student Association (MEGSA) at NC State.

As an engineer, I am a problem solver at heart. I solve problems to make a positive contribution to society. I take pride in my research and personal endeavors. While most of society knows the technical capabilities of engineers, it is important to understand we aren’t just defined by them. I am not a unicorn. Most researchers have a variety of hobbies ranging from flag football to photography. I enjoy what I do and would not change it if I had the chance. I am Dr. Makita R. Phillips and I am what an engineer at NC State looks like.

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