Suicide Methods Linked to Drugs

“The postmortem presence of opiates was associated with a 92 percent increase in the odds of suicide by firearm relative to the odds of suicide by hanging,” says study co-author Jason Boardman, director of the Health and Society Program at the Institute of Behavioral Science, and a professor in the Department of Sociology.

Read more at: College of Arts and Sciences

IBS Students Boast Impressive Collection of Prestigious Fellowships, Grants

by Paul McDivitt

Students associated with the Institute of Behavioral Science (IBS) have recently been awarded several competitive fellowships and grants to help with their graduate education, research, and dissertation work.

"I had been checking the status of my application neurotically for months," said Robbee Wedow, an IBS student who recently received the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Wedow went to the website portal one day and noticed that the site's greeting had changed from "Welcome Applicant" to "Welcome Fellow." He was shocked and confused because he had yet to receive an official email, so he called the fellowship hotline to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. They said they had accidentally changed the website portal the day before sending out the email, and that he had in fact been awarded the fellowship.

"After my head stopped spinning, I was just overwhelmingly grateful and euphoric for weeks," said Wedow.

Gene-Environment Interactions

Wedow, entering his third year at IBS, studies the role of genetics in health behavior. For example, his recent focus is on the relationship between subjective health assessment and objective health measures, such as perceived weight status and objective Body Mass Index, with an emphasis on the underlying genetic contributions to health and weight identity.

Hispanic Neighborhoods and Chronic Disease

Emily Steiner, an IBS student pursuing a PhD in sociology, also received the NSF fellowship.

"It's really a game changer for graduate careers," she said. "The fellowship not only provides three years of full funding for graduate students to focus on their own research, it's also a prestigious honor that will hopefully open doors to more great opportunities in the future."

Steiner is currently finishing up her dissertation, which looks at what she calls the "Hispanic Health Paradox."

"In many of the health surveys that are collected in the United States, Hispanics as a group have better health than other racial and ethnic groups across a number of health outcomes," she said. "This is paradoxical because, on average, Hispanics have lower socioeconomic status (SES), and low SES is typically related to poor health."

Steiner is expanding upon previous research that has shown that Hispanic neighborhoods have certain characteristics that help to stave off chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol. She will be surveying and interviewing residents in Hispanic neighborhoods in Denver to learn more, and credits the fellowship with enabling this in-depth research.

"Going forward, it will provide the flexibility for me to conduct fieldwork in Denver for my dissertation and the time to take additional coursework," said Steiner.

Inmate Health in U.S. Prisons

Kathryn Nowotny received both the National Institute of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Fellowship and an NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant. 

"The fellowship has been great because it gives me the time to focus exclusively on research – both my independent dissertation research and my collaborative research with faculty at CU and other universities – as well as time for additional training to support my research," she said.

Nowotny's dissertation is looking at how incarceration influences health in U.S. prisons, identifying factors that link imprisonment to morbidity and mortality. She's also studying how, and if, inmates utilize prison health services. The NSF grant helped pay for four statistics workshops and a trip to a secure data enclave that she says will help improve her dissertation analysis.

Arsenic Contamination in Bangladesh

Chris Jochem also received both a graduate research fellowship and a dissertation improvement grant.

Using data from an IBS-led project, Jochem's dissertation explores the social and spatial patterns of exposure to arsenic-contaminated drinking water in Bangladesh, and the human health impacts of that exposure. The NSF fellowship allowed him to spend over 20 months in Bangladesh helping with the fieldwork and data collection for the project. The dissertation improvement grant, also from the NSF, funded an additional month in Bangladesh, as well as a week-long class in South Carolina to learn advanced statistical methods that he'll apply to the project.

"I'm passionate about my work and I hope that my research on arsenic can help improve conditions in Bangladesh," he said. "The grant provides support to help me make my project the best it can be as I work toward this goal."

IBS Community

All four students credited IBS faculty, staff, and fellow students with helping them get these important awards.

"I wouldn't have been able to get this grant without the people and resources that come together at IBS," said Jochem. "Everyone here is incredibly supportive and they push me to do my best work always."

Steiner is thankful for the workshops, writing groups, graduate student poster sessions, and panel discussions that IBS hosts. 

"I have benefited so much from these opportunities," she said. "Since I joined the IBS community three years ago, I've been amazed by the ability of the institute to foster a community of shared learning and support."

Steiner and a few of the other NSF fellowship recipients decided to return the favor by designing a workshop to help other IBS students apply, and the institute sponsored it.

"Last year was the first year of the workshop, and four of our nine participants received the competitive fellowship," she said. "More than anything, this example reflects an environment where we use our successes to bolster and build the capacity of others, and I feel so lucky to be a part of it."

Nowotny agrees.

"I feel extremely supported and will be forever grateful to all of the faculty and staff at IBS that have helped me," she said. "I wouldn’t be where I am today without them."

Undergraduate Student Gains Research Experience

by Paul Mcdivitt

While most of her peers are enjoying a break from the rigor of academic life this summer, undergraduate integrative physiology major Carly Ratekin has other ideas.

"I'm somebody who has to stay busy," she said.

Ratekin is working on an IBS project with Dr. Lori Hunter this summer, thanks to an Undergraduate Research Opportunity (UROP) grant from the university. She took Hunter's introduction to sociology course, and was fascinated by Hunter's research studying natural resource-based livelihoods in rural South Africa. She reached out to Hunter, and they worked together to secure the UROP grant for her to work at IBS this summer. 

"UROP grants are a fantastic mechanism through which undergraduates can participate in faculty research and also create their own projects," said Hunter. "Supporting engaged, motivated undergraduates in this way deepens their educational experience, helps with critical thinking and potentially creates future researchers."

Hunter has been collaborating with Dr. Wayne Twine of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa for about the last decade on public health studies at the Agincourt Health and Demographic Surveillance Site. In addition to Hunter and Ratekin, graduate student Miriam Counterman also works on the project.

"It's been great to see the whole process," said Ratekin. “To see what it's like to do research.”

Ratekin is using statistical software to analyze survey data that Hunter and others collected in 2012. In addition, Ratekin conducted an extensive literature review related to the work.

"We're trying to better understand how households in rural South Africa combine a suite of activities to make ends meet," said Hunter. "By better understanding which combination of activities most enhance well-being, we hope to inform programs and policies aiming to increase household resilience."

Many of the households they study rely on their natural environment for food and materials that they use to make household items and products they can sell for income, such as baskets or reed mats. Categorizing these households based on factors such as how much land they own and farm, and whether or not they own livestock, could help government programs better target those who need assistance. 

"Hopefully we'll be able to get typologies of households," said Ratekin. "From there we'll be able to see which ones are more or less food secure, and then give that information to governmental agencies to help households."

The importance of the work keeps her spirits up while she's programming. 

"Being able to help people is my motivation," said Ratekin. "Hopefully we'll see some sort of outcome that will be able to get resources to people who really need it."

She hopes to do a related project for her honors thesis in integrative physiology, possibly looking at the effect of natural resource-based livelihoods on childbirth weight. 

In addition to her academic pursuits, Ratekin volunteers at Planned Parenthood on a regular basis, and recently spent a week teaching at a science camp for kids on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She also enjoys hiking, and tries to hike every Friday. She's summited two "fourteeners" (mountains with elevations higher than 14,000 feet) already this year. 

Ratekin, who will begin her junior year at CU-Boulder in September, is planning to apply to medical school or a master's program in public health after graduating. 

"Carly is curious, smart, motivated, hard-working, organized and all-in-all, an absolutely delightful collaborator," said Hunter. "She will succeed in whatever she chooses for her future."

New Research and Trends in Capital Punishment

by Paul McDivitt

A lot has changed in the 35 years since Dr. Michael Radelet, an IBS researcher and sociology professor at CU-Boulder, started studying the death penalty. 

For starters, 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty in 1980, he said. Today, polling has shown that more than half of Americans favor life in prison without parole over capital punishment.

"Support for the death penalty has been dropping precipitously," said Radelet.

This trend away from the death penalty is not unique to the United States either. When Radelet started studying the issue, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty. Today that list has expanded to 140 countries. 

"Belize just did it the other day, so every country on the mainland of North and South America, with the exception of the United States, has abolished the death penalty," said Radelet. (In addition, every European country except Belarus has outlawed the practice, he noted.)

Radelet became interested in the death penalty while teaching at the University of Florida. He began visiting Florida death row inmates, and even housed their families on several occasions. 

"I've gone through last visits fifty times," he said. "What sustains me is knowing the people who are involved. They're very different from my family. People on death row tend to be poor, people of color, a different world than I've ever lived in."

These experiences helped shape his research on the subject, with racial disparities becoming a central focus.

"They could be my teachers about what their family was like, what their neighborhood was like, and help me understand that if I had been brought up in those circumstances, I'd probably be in prison too," he said.

According to a study that Radelet coauthored, between 1930 and 1967 over half of those executed in the United States were black, including 89 percent of those for rape cases. This trend has persisted in the modern era, even despite a 1972 Supreme Court ruling that required a degree of consistency in the application of the death penalty.

In a 2011 study, Radelet and coauthor Glenn Pierce looked at homicide cases in North Carolina from 1980 to 2007. They found that the odds of a death sentence for those suspected of killing whites were three times higher than the odds of a death sentence for those suspected of killing blacks. In an earlier study, looking at over 1,000 homicides in Florida, Radelet and Pierce found that blacks who killed whites were more likely to have their crimes "upgraded" (for example, from second to first degree murder) and less likely to be "downgraded" by prosecutors. The process of "upgrading," they showed, significantly increased the likelihood of the death penalty being implemented.

In addition to racial disparities, Radelet is also interested in the role of the death penalty as a deterrent and the costs associated with its implementation.

He coauthored a 2009 study that surveyed leading criminologists on whether or not the death penalty is an effective deterrent, finding an overwhelming consensus that capital punishment does not provide any additional deterrence over long imprisonment. 

In a recent interview with the Denver Channel, Radelet said that, on average, death penalty cases cost six to eight times more than life in prison without parole.

"The reason why is because lawyers cost more than prison guards," he said in the interview. 

Radelet has been in the news a lot lately, with his work appearing in the Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, and on Colorado Public Radio.

One recent Colorado case that he has been asked to comment on is the Aurora movie theater shooting. Radelet is skeptical that the shooter will ever be executed, even if he's sentenced to death. With appeals and reviews, the average time between sentence and execution in the United States is around 20 years. Due to the case’s high profile, and the need for expensive mental health experts to testify, Radelet expects litigation to cost even more than the average death penalty case.

"Easily $20 or $30 million if they're going to kill him," he said.

Radelet has studied the death penalty in Colorado, as well as several other states, including California, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, and Louisiana. He has also testified before state legislative committees, and in court for expert testimony in more than 70 cases. Radelet hopes to continue to do research on race and death sentencing, specifically in southern states, in the future.

He's currently finishing a book on the history of the death penalty in Colorado, dating back to the first execution in 1859. Radelet has worked on several books on the topic, including “In Spite of Innocence: Erroneous Convictions in Capital Cases,” which chronicles the stories of hundreds of Americans wrongfully convicted of capital crimes.

His 35 years of research, and experiences with death row inmates and their families, have led him to one conclusion:

“If people commit heinous crimes, there are other ways to punish them.”

Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Emissions Could be Eliminated from the Great Plains

Myron Gutmann's study analyzing historical agricultural census data and ecosystem models to estimate the magnitude of annual greenhouse gas emissions from all agricultural sources in the Great Plains from 1870 to 2000 demonstrates the potential to completely eliminate agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from the region. This is an important research milestone about the ways that population change shapes the environment. The article is set to appear in the the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Myron also appeared on KGNU Radio's program, "How on Earth" August 4, 2015, to discuss this research. Listen to the show here.

Research Links Drinking Behaviors with Mortality

Research findings from a new study led by Rick Rogers and co-authored by Jason Boardman, Philip Pendergast, and Elizabeth Lawrence, show surprising results in linking drinking behaviors with mortality.  The study, involving some 40,000 people across the nation, aged 21 and older,  indicates that social and psychological problems caused by drinking generally trump physically hazardous drinking behaviors when it comes to overall mortality rates.  The strongest associations between problem drinking and mortality involved cases in which physicians, family members, or friends intervened to suggest reduced drinking. Losing one's job because of drinking problems within their lifetime was strongly linked to mortality risk. Social risks were equally or more strongly linked to mortality than physiological consequences of alcohol abuse such as lifetime reports of needing a drink to stop shaking or getting sick.  Most importantly, these associations were evident despite statistical controls for alcohol consumption levels and demographic, social, economic, behavioral, health, and geographic factors.

 “What this study really shows is that researchers and policymakers need to look at the nuanced complexities tied to alcohol consumption,” said Rogers. “Alcohol consumption does not have a clear dose-response relationship like smoking, for instance. We have seen that alcohol does have a benefit at low levels in some cases, but it also can create social problems for some individuals who are only light to moderate drinkers.”

The article is published online in Drug and Alcohol Dependence here:

Read the CU News Headlines article here: