Life & Letters Magazine Tue, 05 Feb 2019 20:24:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A Week on Mars Fri, 01 Feb 2019 15:51:54 +0000 For most, going to Mars is merely a childhood dream, but for Sukjin Han, that dream became a reality — all while never leaving Earth.

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) is a project that is operated by the University of Hawaii and funded by NASA. The project hosts a select group of scientists for eight to twelve months in a secluded, barren environment that appears out of this world. While there, project-runners gather data for potential Mars exploration, all while being a part of a grander social experiment themselves: Could humans really survive — and stand living together — on Mars?

Last year, Han, an assistant professor of economics at The University of Texas at Austin, received the call notifying him that he was selected as the commander of the Mission VI crew, which was to embark on an eight-month endeavor, sequestered in a small, dome-shape habitat on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano on Hawaii’s big island.

“I hung up the phone and, for a moment, imagined myself as the protagonist in a science fiction movie,” he says, describing feeling both excited and nervous.

With a Kindle, Korean instant ramen, and paper and pencils for drawing in hand, Han set off to Hawaii to meet the Mission VI crew — a small international team comprised of two men and two women: Han; Calum Hervieu, an astrophysicist from Scotland; Michaela Musilova, an astrobiologist from Slovakia; and Lisa Stojanovski, science communicator from Australia.

The crew of Mission VI during pre-training. Photo by Brian Shiro.

“We were from entirely different backgrounds, a family only by virtue of our shared passion for dreaming beyond the limits of our own worlds,” Han says.

To become part of the mission, crew members submitted research proposals, engaged in several hours of interviews and underwent the same extensive psychological evaluations that NASA gives astronauts. Han’s research proposal was to develop a statistical model that would illustrate crew members’ interactions and dynamics, and how they were impacted by encouragement from Mission Support.

“Understanding this type of model will be helpful to design a system for the future that can promote productivity and reduce conflict and stress in this extremely isolated environment,” Han explains, adding: “Even if I do not end up going to space in the future, at least my data will.”

His proposed research addressed the HI-SEAS mission’s major challenges: minimizing conflict and maximizing collaboration. As commander, he would be in charge of leading the Mission VI crew over these hurdles, especially during emergency situations, which they would face much sooner than expected.

After arriving at the base, the crew was introduced to a whirlwind of information, packed into a mere nine days of physical and technical training, which included treks across the rocky volcanic terrain. “There was so much to remember, we could hardly absorb it all,” Han reflects.

The dome in the late afternoon. Photo by Sukjin Han.

The night before their mission they broke bread with HI-SEAS staff and Henk Rogers, the major investor of the base, gave a short speech: “Remember, you are making the future.” The next day, the door to the habitat was sealed and the mission began.

“Only the door was closed, but it seemed as though we had travelled the farthest distance between the two planets,” Han says. “What awaited us were virtual isolation and virtual danger, virtual distance and virtual desolation, virtual time lags and virtual reality. The virtuality was so real that it baffled me.”

The first day on the base, scientists familiarized themselves with the life support systems. “Constantly checking our batteries and water level and staying anxious were our Martian utility bills,” Han describes.

Then one night the network shut down. The crew lost communication and the life support system stopped. “It was our first emergency situation. It was also my first test as a commander,” Han notes. But the crew worked through it; and by morning, the network was restored.

The crew was getting used to their respective roles and had fun when they could. “In this secluded place, mealtime was a time to relax and to share the warmth of this odd family,” Han explains. “Cooking was almost like a scientific experiment, mixing chemicals with water. There were many funny occasions while preparing the meals.”

“Nothing seemed to be going wrong in the mission,” Han recalls.

Yet, just four days into the project, an accident occurred during an attempt to restart the generator. The crew member involved was taken to a hospital after sustaining a minor electric shock; and shortly after, another crew member, worried about the safety level of the mission, chose to withdraw from the project entirely. That was the end for Mission VI and the end of HI-SEAS Mars simulations, for now. (The habitat was recently revamped for moon simulations.)

After leaving the habitat, a NASA researcher debriefed Han, asking him to recount what happened on the mission. When finished, the researcher asked if Han wanted to know why he was selected for the project as commander, but if told, he would not be able to apply again.

Han remembers hesitating, and then confidently answering, “Well, I guess I don’t want to know.”

“Every failure, like every success, has its unique tale,” Han reflects. “I tried to comfort myself with the idea that most adventures assume a certain amount of failure, and perhaps that is the very essence of an adventure.”

UT Austin Launches Texas Aging & Longevity Center Thu, 31 Jan 2019 18:14:57 +0000 Not all people experience their twilight years in the same way. Some will be hearty triathletes traveling the world and writing novels, while others will be hobbled by chronic illness and dementia. Fifteen percent of Texans — nearly four million people — are aged 65 and older, and that number is growing. By 2040, older adults will make up 22 percent of the population.

Factors such as gender, ethnicity and education level can influence both the quantity and quality of life a person can expect, as well as what resources they will have available. To improve the longevity and well-being of aging individuals across all demographics, The University of Texas at Austin will launch the Texas Aging & Longevity Center (TALC). It will be housed in the Population Research Center (PRC) and led by co-directors Karen Fingerman, human development and family sciences professor and PRC faculty researcher; and Debra Umberson, sociology professor and PRC director.

“Older adults today are breaking barriers by working longer and staying fit and involved in their communities,” says Fingerman. “But addressing optimal aging requires an adaptive society.”

TALC will coordinate events across campus, organize outside speaker series and training workshops, and hold a monthly journal club highlighting research in the field. The center hopes to bring together scholars from different fields to develop new research proposals in four core areas:

  • Social Isolation and Aging in Community
  • Health Disparities and Early Life Predictors of Aging
  • Brain Aging
  • Technology and Aging

The university has faculty and students doing innovative work on aging and longevity, but that work is spread across campus. TALC will serve as a hub for research and education on this subject and it hopes to foster more collaboration. For instance, research done by neurologists and social scientists might influence the work of technology developers and policymakers by highlighting the needs of older Americans. And community outreach might, in turn, inform research questions.

Fingerman says the center is also focused on solving problems and fears of age-related isolation, frailty and cognitive declines. “We focus on preventing these problems and optimizing engagement in late life,” she says.

In this effort, the center’s research topics complement one another. For example, people living in rural areas are more likely to experience social isolation and to suffer from dementias. And they are less likely to have access to state-of-the-art medical care or experience with web-based health resources. In addition to creating new technologies, TALC faculty assist older adults in navigating existing ones. Becoming more web savvy can allow these people to find the health-related information they need, and to better communicate with medical specialists.

Another goal of the center is providing education and training resources to scholars at all stages of their careers, including the housing of a Graduate Portfolio in Aging and Health. Those who already hold degrees may also benefit from such resources. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently instituted a requirement that new grants in research involving human subjects must include the entire age range, into old age. Faculty who had not previously focused on older adults will now need to learn how to conduct research in this population.

Community outreach is also central to TALC’s mission.

“We are involved with the community in a variety of ways — from urban planning to social work, internships to participation with the non-profit organization AustinUp, which aims to make Austin one of the most vibrant cities for older adults. We have spoken with entrepreneurs and businesses that hope to benefit from selling their products to older consumers” explains Fingerman. “We look forward to building partnerships that increase the health and vitality of Texas’ older population.”

Texas’ 50-and-older population is made up of growing proportions of individuals from ethnic and racial minority groups, with unique challenges, and sizeable health disparities. Additionally, aging presents increased risk of dementia, and caregiving for dementia currently costs the Texas economy billions of dollars. Understanding and addressing the best ways to age and the drivers of such disparities will be essential to improving the lives of aging Americans, UT Austin researchers say.

The Texas Aging & Longevity Center officially launched on January 25. To receive up-to-date information on happenings and research, contact to be added to the listserv.

Feature image: Co-directors Karen Fingerman and Deb Umberson at the Texas Aging & Longevity Center launch, Jan. 25, 2019. Photo by Edwin Rodriguez.

Meet Ann Huff Stevens: Our Next College of Liberal Arts Dean Wed, 30 Jan 2019 16:35:18 +0000 Ann Huff Stevens will begin as dean of the College of Liberal Arts on July 15, 2019. Stevens comes from the University of California, Davis, and is a Texas native with roots in Corpus Christi. She is a professor of economics who has served in a variety of leadership roles, including chair of the Department of Economics, chair of the Economics Graduate Program, interim dean of the Graduate School of Management, and founding director of the Center for Poverty Research. She earned an undergraduate degree from American University and a doctorate in economics from the University of Michigan. Prior to her work at UC Davis, she served as a faculty member at Rutgers University and Yale University.

The value of a liberal arts education is often questioned in our society. How do you respond to skeptics?

First, for individuals educated at a top university like UT, there’s abundant evidence that liberal arts graduates are successful in the labor market, despite what some skeptics claim. Second, beyond the narrow economic benefits to individuals, liberal arts education exposes students to a wide variety of literature, history, culture and types of analysis. At its best, it exposes students to a variety of ways of thinking and learning that help them understand and contribute to society. 

What do you hope liberal arts students get out of their education, and how can the liberal arts also benefit non-majors?

I really want students to be comfortable with complexity, with having to ponder different approaches to solving problems, and with taking on new types of issues and challenges. For non-majors, the liberal arts can help broaden their education and let them think about new problems, or about old problems in new ways. This makes for graduates and citizens who can adapt to new challenges not just at work, but in their communities and in the world.

Why are the liberal arts important to Texas communities and to the lives of Texans?

Texas is a diverse state with a growing, dynamic economy and a rich history. Liberal arts scholarship and education prepares students to understand and learn from history and from a variety of cultures, and prepares them to be flexible thinkers. A strong future for the state requires creative, flexible citizens and workers, and a vibrant set of liberal arts programs at UT has to be part of that future.

How did growing up a Texan inform your life?

Texans have always had their own unique ways and identity. When I first left Texas to attend college on the East Coast, to my surprise, as a Texan I was suddenly a bit exotic! That experience reminds me that family and geography and culture can affect us in ways we don’t really realize until we step away. 

How did you first become interested in researching the connections between poverty and health? 

Microeconomists spend a lot of time trying to disentangle cause and effect. The relationship between poverty and health is a really challenging example of a case where cause and effect are difficult to separately identify. Poverty and related conditions can cause poor health, but poor health also reduces earnings opportunities. So, this area is both extremely important to policy discussions and a classic, and challenging, problem in economics.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

Conceiving of and launching the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis. It taught me how to really learn from other disciplines and work across different fields. That exposure made my own research better and, I think, offered the same advantage to lots of my colleagues and students. The community of faculty and students at the center will, I know, continue to produce great research and mentoring in years to come. 

What are the essentials for a dean to be successful?

That’s probably a pretty long list! I’d start, though, with a combination of passion for thinking about the big picture to advance the college’s mission, and an ability to attend to the details of advancing that mission every day. It’s also essential for a dean to really enjoy interacting with all parts of the college community — faculty, staff, alumni and students.

How do you relax?

I love to cook, and it’s relaxing because there’s a clear process with a definite outcome at the end — that doesn’t happen every day as a researcher. And, then I get to enjoy the food with family and friends. I also love reading about, and talking, and debating about politics and policy. I joke that one day I’d like to have a reality show where I cook a meal, and as I do it I give my thoughts on the week’s politics. Not sure anyone would want to watch, but I’d have a great time filming it.

A Different Kind of Prison Sentence Fri, 25 Jan 2019 15:59:39 +0000 Texas has the largest prison population in the U.S., and among the highest rate of incarceration for all age groups. And yet when assistant professor of sociology Sarah Brayne arrived at The University of Texas at Austin she found no campus-wide prison education program, despite evidence that such programs significantly reduce recidivism rates.

Brayne, who has been teaching in prisons since graduate school, responded by founding the Texas Prison Education Initiative (TPEI). With the help of sociology graduate student Lindsay Bing, they crafted the program with three goals in mind:

  1. that students would receive college credit
  2. that the courses be free of cost to students
  3. that they be in liberal arts subjects rather than the vocational offerings that comprise much of prison education.

Why the focus on liberal arts over seemingly more practical vocational skills?

Sarah Brayne, assistant professor of sociology at UT Austin and founder of Texas Prison Education Initiative. Photo credit: Jona Davis

“Unfortunately, a lot of the things people are trained for in prison with vocational training they’re barred from legally doing on the outside,” says Brayne, who is also a faculty research associate with the Population Research Center.  “So, in addition to there being kind of a mismatch there, there’s something about liberal arts education which has to do with transforming your perspective of the world, introducing you to research and great literary works that can kind of broaden the mind.

“And also, importantly, some of our students might never get out of prison,” Brayne adds. “So rather than it merely being this skills training thing, it is also an opportunity for intellectual stimulation and community building within the prison.”

The TPEI’s pilot course took place in a juvenile correctional facility in south Austin. This semester, they will add a larger women’s prison in Lockhart, where they will offer courses in both sociology and college prep. Ultimately Brayne hopes to grow the program to include all types of prisons, with instructors teaching enough variety of courses that students could potentially fulfill the requirements for an associate’s degree while still in prison. She also wants to include a transitional component to help students incorporate their education into their lives on the outside.

TPEI volunteers at Spring 2019 Training. Photo courtesy: Sarah Brayne

Teaching college courses in prisons presents unique challenges. Technologies that instructors take for granted when designing courses for a standard college audience are not available to inmates. And even access to a decent library is unlikely. TPEI instructors have to find creative ways to maintain the high standards needed for college credit while still assigning work that students are able to accomplish with their limited access to resources. The unpredictable nature of the prison environment is another hurdle – a student might go missing for several classes due to being in solitary confinement, or a class may be canceled because the facility is on lockdown – as are the myriad mental and physical difficulties faced by individual students.

“There’s just a lot of things on these students’ plate that can interfere with their schoolwork.” Brayne explains, “But that said, I find them to really, really prioritize their schoolwork.”

U.S. prisons are required to provide GED courses to inmates without high school diplomas, but beyond that educational opportunities vary greatly. The overall volume of programs dropped after the 1970’s as a result of “tough on crime” and “nothing works” movements. But that trend may be changing. Given that many inmates will eventually be released and that recidivism rates are alarmingly high, people on both sides of the political spectrum seem ready to try a new approach.

“I think we have to think bigger in the sense of prison purely for retribution is not effective from an individualistic standpoint.” says Brayne, “If you have over 95 percent of people getting out and you have two thirds of them reoffending and going back to prison within a couple of years, something’s not working.”

Brayne hopes to eventually track how effective the program’s interventions are, but she prefers to keep her own academic research separate from her teaching so that students don’t feel they’re being exploited or experimented on. However, she adds, “The questions that inform both are really related, and that’s questions about what is the relationship between the criminal justice system and inequality in American society? What is the relationship between surveillance and data collection and crime outcomes?”

Facilities approached by TPEI have thus far been eager to take part in the program, but others question the fairness of prisoners receiving a free college education while law-abiding citizens take out loans to cover rising tuition costs. Brayne notes that corrections officers sometimes ask why she spends her time teaching this particular population. She is not unsympathetic to their concerns, but her answer is simple:

“I tell them that I think everyone deserves access to an education.”

TPEI is an all-volunteer program, but there are sizable administrative costs incurred in allowing students to earn college credit. You can donate to the program here.

Feature image: Volunteer instructors Sarah Brayne, Lindsay Bing and Armando Tellez on the first day of class with TPEI. Photo courtesy: Sarah Brayne

Trolling the U.S.: Q&A on Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election Wed, 09 Jan 2019 20:27:25 +0000 It’s been more than two years since the 2016 presidential election, and the United States is still piecing together Russia’s propaganda-filled interference in U.S. political conversations on social media.

According to a February 2018 poll by The University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune, 40 percent of Texans believe Russian interference played a role in the outcome of the 2016 election; and in their most recent poll, 41 percent disapprove of how the investigation into Russian meddling is being handled, leading many to ask, “How did this all happen?”

“From a basic democratic perspective, it is absolutely critical for us to know whether the entire premise of the country itself has been tampered with,” says UT Austin psychology postdoctoral researcher Ryan Boyd.

He and researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft Research analyzed Facebook ads and Twitter troll accounts run by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) to determine how people with differing political ideologies were targeted and pitted against each other through this “largely unsophisticated and low-budget” operation. To learn more about the study and its findings, we asked Boyd the following questions:

Ryan Boyd is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at UT Austin.

Q. Why is it important to continue studying the interference in the 2016 election?

In the U.S., it is a core principle that we have the right to make informed decisions about our own government and collective destiny. By better understanding how interference occurred, we can understand how to best protect those core tenets. Aside from this — and from a pretty basic scientific perspective — it’s generally important to understand what is actually happening in the world around us. Whether or not you have a vested interest in election interference, knowing the truth is valuable in its own right.

Q. When did the IRA begin disseminating political propaganda on social media, and were they successful from the very beginning?

According to the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the operations date back to 2014 and continued well past the 2016 presidential election. However, the degree to which they were actually successful is another question. Especially early on in their influence operation, the IRA appears to have been doing a lot of trial-and-error testing, with several early attempts appearing to have made little impact — for example, trying to play liberals and conservatives off of each other on LGBTQ issues. It wasn’t until later that they had moderately more success by amplifying racial tensions in the U.S.

Q. Are there any themes that the IRA focused on more than others?

Probably the longest-running theme of the IRA ads was attempting to divide people on issues of civil rights. Regardless of the specific topic (e.g., law enforcement officers, Second Amendment rights, racial issues), they seem to have been trying to get people to believe that the “other side” were the bad guys, and that people who aren’t like you are trying to hurt you or threaten you in some way. The goal appears to have been to make people afraid and hateful towards anyone who is different, regardless of what those differences are.

Q. Did Russian ads target one political party over another?

For the most part, ads seem to have targeted both ends of the political spectrum. Some ads were designed to make liberals feel like all conservatives are violent racists, and others were designed to make conservatives feel like all liberals are trying to take their rights away.

Of course, the reality is that neither of these is true. The IRA ads are a perfect example of “divide and conquer” tactics — subtly manipulating people into focusing on their differences instead of their common ground, resulting in even less focus on the big picture.

They seem to have been trying to get people to believe that the “other side” were the bad guys, and that people who aren’t like you are trying to hurt you or threaten you in some way.

Ryan Boyd

Q. How can you decipher a real post versus an IRA-manipulated post?

A lot of what we’re finding is that the IRA posts aren’t super easy to spot. If you were to approach any given social media ad or user post, it might just look like a person with a strong opinion. By using some fairly sophisticated techniques, we can get a more zoomed-out understanding of what was really going on in a way that is pretty difficult for the average person (or even an expert) to see by just looking at bits and pieces up close.

Q. Was the IRA creating its own content or simply elevating existing tweets/FB posts?

The IRA content appears to be largely homegrown. Linguistic analyses of their influence operations suggest a distinctly non-native pattern in the language that they were using.

Q. Why, do you believe, did the Russians fail to cover their tracks?

I’d guess that it’s a simple cost/effect balance. If the goal was to cause as much disruption as possible, it could be accomplished with a fairly simple approach. After all, some of these operations were going on for more than four years, but we’re still sitting around trying to put the pieces together.

Q. What should future research in this area look at?

I think that one of the most critical things will be to integrate all of the work being done in this area into a unified understanding of what has taken place. The work that we have done is just a tiny part of trying to understand the bigger picture, but the public is still a long way away from having some kind of an objective barometer for cyberwarfare and influence operations. It’s difficult to be absolutely sure of the motivations behind information that we’re exposed to in any venue — online, traditional media and even face-to-face interactions. More research in this area, in particular, could help us to be more accurate and informed in our vigilance for misinformation and external manipulation.

Always Worth Fighting For: A Q&A with 2019 Pickering Fellow Quimberly Jasso Fri, 21 Dec 2018 15:20:36 +0000 Quimberly Jasso, an international relations and global studies senior from Cypress, Texas, is the recipient of a 2019 Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship.

The Pickering fellowship, which is funded by the United States Department of State and administered by Howard University, will fund Jasso’s graduate education in pursuit of a Master of International Affairs, with a focus on East Asian and security studies.

In addition to supporting Jasso through a two-year graduate program in an area relevant to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, the fellowship will provide extensive professional development opportunities, including internships, mentors and skills training. In the summer of 2020, Jasso will intern for the Department of State in Washington, D.C. The following summer she will complete an overseas internship at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Summer travel, housing and other expenses related to the internships are also covered by the fellowship.

Following the completion of her master’s program and Foreign Service entry requirements, Jasso will be employed as a Foreign Service Officer by the Department of State., with a minimum five-year service commitment.

“The Pickering Fellowship has truly changed the course of my life and my family’s life,” Jasso said. “I will be the first in my family to earn a master’s degree. This fellowship has reinforced what I always believed throughout college: Your dreams are always worth fighting for because true fulfillment comes from doing what you love.”

The fellowship isn’t Jasso’s first experience working with the Department of State. In 2017, she spent the summer studying Mandarin in Dalian, China, through the department’s Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program. She also worked as a Department of State intern at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in Washington, D.C. as a part of the U.S. Foreign Service Internship Program.

As a UT Austin student, Jasso was a legislative intern for Texas State Senator Judith Zaffirini, the chair of the Hispanic Business Student Association and the Under-Secretary General of Logistics for the Central Texas Model United Nations. She was also the recipient of the prestigious Terry Foundation scholarship, which funded her undergraduate education.

“Quimberly Jasso is one of our college’s finest students,” said Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “Her commitment to scholastic excellence and dedication to public service are truly inspiring. I look forward to seeing how the fellowship will create even more exciting opportunities for this outstanding young scholar.

The Pickering fellowship, established in 1992, is awarded to 30 students in the U.S. annually. The intention of the program is to attract and prepare outstanding young people, based on financial need, who represent ethnic, gender, social and geographic diversity historically underrepresented in the Department of State and have an interest in pursuing a Foreign Service career.

Learn more about it Jasso’s time at UT Austin and the valuable lessons she’s learned from her mother in the Q&A below.

Quimberly Jasso

What was the interview process for the Pickering fellowship like?

Sixty finalists were selected out of 800+ applicants and the finalists traveled from all over the nation to interview at the U.S. Department of State in D.C. The finalists got to know each other throughout the interview day, which was my favorite part because I got to meet people who share the same aspirations. As part of the interview day, I completed a one hour writing component and I was interviewed by a panel of Foreign Service Officers.

Who was the first person you told when you found out you’d been selected?

I was waiting at the connection airport in Georgia on my return flight back to Austin from the interview in D.C. I received an email and the subject read “Congratulations on Being Selected as a Pickering Fellow!” I was in complete shock and I didn’t even get halfway through the email before I called my mother. She answered quickly and I was already crying when I told her “I got it.” She knew exactly what I was talking about, so she reacted with pure joy and excitement. Of course, she immediately said, “I knew you would get it!”

What does winning a Pickering fellowship mean for you?

I attended UT Austin with a full ride scholarship from the Terry Foundation and I chose to pursue an International Relations degree based on my passion. Throughout college, I felt an immense pressure to prove that a liberal arts degree is significant and my scholarship foundation invested in me for a good reason.

After almost four years of nonstop hard work and never giving up on my dream despite those who doubted my goals or ability to achieve them, I received the fellowship that fulfilled my dreams and more. Not only will I get the opportunity to work in diplomacy, but I will also receive funding to attend graduate school. I will be the first in my family to earn a Master’s degree. The Pickering fellowship has truly changed the course of my life and my family’s life. This fellowship has reinforced what I always believed throughout college: Your dreams are always worth fighting for because true fulfillment comes from doing what you love.

What drew you to your major and fields of study?

I was drawn to International Relations because I loved learning about cultures and the way cultural backgrounds influence societal norms and global policies. Since I was a freshman in high school, I’ve participated in Model United Nations conferences and I enjoyed exploring the way countries collaborate and conflict with each other. I decided to minor in Asian Studies, because I knew how critical China is on the world stage and I wanted to study the most challenging and widely-spoken language: Mandarin.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned in college?

The most important thing I learned in college is to think outside of yourself. UT professors and peers consistently find ways to help others and students are taught to use their talents to address public issues. Although people commonly think students live in a college bubble, I was happy to observe how much college students think of others’ welfare and aim to positively impact the world.

What’s your favorite memory from your time at UT?

My favorite memory is when I received my UT class ring and my family came to campus to celebrate a milestone in my college career. I was awarded the Texas Exes Ring Scholarship, which was created in 2005 to recognize an outstanding member of the UT community who has made significant contributions to campus life and school spirit. I was presented with a UT class ring in recognition of my commitment to making a difference on the Forty Acres, which made it even more special for my family members and partner to witness.

The Texas Exes Ring Scholarship is even more meaningful to me because my mom got me the Texas Exes membership when I was a freshman. My mother’s paychecks always went straight to bills, but she really wanted to contribute to my college experience and she believed the Texas Exes association would help. Hence, this ring scholarship was the perfect opportunity to show my mom that her actions did make a big impact. I engraved the ring, “For my mother” in her honor. She is the reason why I feel supported to pursue my passions and I will forever be grateful for her countless sacrifices.

A big part of my story is my background as a Hispanic-American raised by a mother who raised three daughters on her own, lived paycheck-to-paycheck and earned her GED. She attended parent-teacher meetings, even when she had 2-3 jobs. Even though many people would look at her situation and pity her, I know that her experiences have only made her stronger and wiser.

I worked side by side with her at our hometown’s Chick-fil-a fast restaurant, where I learned practical skills under her leadership. Despite her financial circumstances, she took me on my dream trip to Paris, France. Since that trip, I got the travel bug and now I get to travel the world in the Foreign Service. I am diligent, strong-willed, and independent because of my mother. My mother’s circumstances did not deter me from success, but taught me valuable lessons in humility and strength.

What are your goals for the future and your professional life?

My goal is to enter the Foreign Service and successfully complete my first tour as a Consular Officer. After my mandatory tour in the Consular section, I aim to join the Public Diplomacy or Political section in the East Asian region. The Pickering Fellowship only requires a five year minimum commitment to the Foreign Service, but I intend to continue my career with the U.S. Department of State and serve at other embassies around the world. 

New Year, Same You: Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail Wed, 12 Dec 2018 12:00:06 +0000 After we’ve spent all our money on gifts and stuffed ourselves to the brim with endless holiday treats, it’s no wonder many of us see the new year as an opportunity to become a little less broke and little more fit. But come next December, most of us will find ourselves back in the same routine, pining for another opportunity to start fresh.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So why then, year after year, do we make New Year’s resolutions that, for most of us, won’t last through February? How can we end this cycle of insanity?

University of Texas at Austin psychology professor Art Markman says it’s all about training our brains to replace old habits with new habits — which is easier said than done, “especially when we’re fighting against millions of years of evolution that have created mechanisms that want us to maintain our behaviors.”

“The more you understand about how the brain motivates you to act, the more effectively you can help yourself to act in new ways,” says Markman, who taught us a little more about habits and offered us some advice on how to be more successful with our New Year’s resolutions in the Q&A below:

WATCH: How to make a New Year’s resolution stick.

How long does it take to form a habit?

The answer to every difficult psychology question is “it depends.” In this case, habits are memories that relate the situation you are in to the behavior you want to perform. When you are faster to remember what to do than to have to think about what to do, you have a habit.

When the new situation is very distinctive, there is little to compete with the new habit in memory, and you can learn it quickly. The worst-case scenario for habit formation is learning basic math facts. All of them are very similar (involving the same digits), but requiring different answers, so it can take you months or years to get enough repetitions to form a habit.

Most things in your life fall in between. You can often form a good habit in a new situation in 4-6 weeks.

Why do old habits die hard?

Art Markman (Photo by Marsha Miller)

Because habits are memories, they are retrieved from memory automatically. That is, things come out of memory, just because you are in a situation that calls them to mind. As a result, you are constantly being reminded of what you used to do in that situation in the past.

When that old behavior was also enjoyable, then being reminded of the action creates a real desire to perform that action again. That is what happens with the habits we find hardest to change.

What’s happening in our brain when we get cravings or fall back into old routines?

Cravings are interesting. They happen when the habit system suggests a desirable action, but you choose not to perform it. For example, if you are dieting, and routinely eat a piece of chocolate in the afternoon, your habit system will suggest eating a piece of chocolate, and you will have to explicitly resist the urge to do so. Your motivational system will continue to remind you that you have not yet achieved your habitual goal by creating a craving.

The best way to avoid the effect of cravings is to engage another goal and do something else.

“The more you understand about how the brain motivates you to act, the more effectively you can help yourself to act in new ways.”

Art Markman, UT Austin Pyshcology Professor

What’s the best way to ditch bad habits?

Habits aren’t really broken, they are replaced. That is, the memory of the old action will continue to be retrieved and to suggest itself as an option unless you create competing memories. So, for each situation in which you used to engage the old behavior, you now need to find a new behavior to perform so that yourhabit system will be reminded of a different action.

Why do we often fail at keeping our New Year’s resolutions?

There are two big problems with New Year’s resolutions. First, we often state them very abstractly. Behavior change is actually quite specific. You need to engage in particular behaviors at particular times. So, you need to do some work to create a specific plan.

Second, you often focus your resolutions on behaviors you want to stop doing. But, the habit system can’t learn not to dothings. It can only learn behaviors you perform. So, you need to focus on what you will do instead of the old behavior rather than just trying to stop yourself from doing the wrong thing.

What should we keep in mind when making a resolution — or setting any goal — that will help us be more successful?

Smart Change was published in 2014.

When trying to achieve any goal, you need to put in a lot of effort to develop a good plan for when you are going to perform actions that will help you to achieve that goal. It isn’t enough just to want to make a change. You might also want to engage with other people to have them help you along. It can be easy to talk yourself out of behavior change, but friends and family can be a source of strength.

There are a lot of great resources out there for changing behavior, including my book, “Smart Change.” Don’t feel like you have to figure it all out for yourself.

Living Amid History: A Q&A with 2019 British Marshall Scholar Laura Hallas Tue, 11 Dec 2018 17:34:45 +0000 Laura Hallas, a Plan II honors, economics and health and society senior at The University of Texas at Austin, is the recipient of a 2019 British Marshall Scholarship.

The Marshall scholarship will fund Hallas’ graduate education at both the University of Oxford, where she will pursue a Master of Science in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation, and at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where she will pursue a Master of Science in Public Health.

The scholarship will cover Hallas’ university fees, cost of living expenses, books, thesis research and travel, and fares to and from the United States.

“This scholarship is an incredible honor, but I also feel a real responsibility to use this opportunity to improve public health on the largest scale I can,” Hallas said. “Studying at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Oxford will equip me to deliver on that responsibility.”

As a UT Austin student, Hallas was the editor-in-chief of The Daily Texan, a member of the Texas Orange Jackets and a finalist for the Rhodes scholarship. While earning her bachelor’s degree, Hallas has also been completing a graduate certificate in public health from the University of Texas School of Public Health.

She held internships with the U.S. Department of State, Pathologists Overseas and the Dell Medical School, where she currently works in the Health Leadership Apprenticeship Program helping to address healthcare needs in the community. She also interned with The Dallas Morning News, where she continues to contribute as a freelancer. Last month, the newspaper published a 3,000-word special project piece for World AIDS Day written by Hallas.

“Laura Hallas embodies the multidisciplinary approach to education that strengthens our college,” said Randy Diehl, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “As one of our most ambitious student scholars, she bridges the barriers between science and the liberal arts to explore the ways in which public health can improve to benefit the lives of people around the globe.”

The Marshall scholarship, now in its 65th year, is funded substantially through the government of the United Kingdom. The intention of the Marshall scholarship is to “strengthen the enduring relationship between the British and American peoples, their governments and their institutions,” according to the British Marshall Scholarship website. It was founded as a tribute to the Marshall Plan, which was named for former U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall and through which the United States provided aid to rebuild Europe after World War II.

Hallas is the 26th UT Austin student to receive a Marshall scholarship since its establishment in 1953.

Read more about Hallas and her achievements in the Q&A below.

Laura Hallas

What does winning a Marshall Scholarship mean for you?

As a freshman working both in a hospital and a college newspaper, it’s hard to see how those paths align. At several points in college, I felt like I was pursuing a career path that didn’t exist. But as I have progressed in my education, and planned for graduate school, the relationships between economics and health, writing and policy got clearer every day. To me, receiving the Marshall Scholarship is both confirmation of this path, and a chance to continue drawing on my varied experiences as I begin a career in global health policy.

What was your reaction when you found out you’d been selected?

The panel called me to tell me I received the Marshall just as I was leaving class on the South Mall. As soon as I saw the Houston number, I instantly received a total flood of adrenaline. The only coherent thing I could think to do was try and call my parents. They were as shocked as I was —they couldn’t think of much to say besides “wow.”

Keep in mind, at that point I had been working for months on an application that seemed like a pipe dream. In November, I did not even know what country I would be living in the following year. That all changed with a two-minute phone call.

Have you been to the UK before? If not, what are you most looking forward to?

No, I have not been outside the U.S. except for one trip to Hong Kong.

I am honestly looking forward to living in an environment that is just surrounded in history that is truly old. Oxford has had some form of teaching since the year 1106. I don’t believe there’s a building in my hometown [Allen, Texas] older than the early 1900s. There are entire travel guides based on historically significant London pubs. There is something really profound and motivating to living amid history in that way.

What are you passionate about outside of your studies?

I have loved drawing (specifically using pen and ink and watercolor) since I was young. In fact, I briefly considered going to art school instead of UT. I particularly love to draw places I have traveled and am excited to spend more time doing that over the next two years as I explore the UK.

What made you want to study public health?

Like most students who are drawn to health professions, I can trace a lot of my motivation to patients’ stories. But unlike most, my experiences with healthcare occurred far from the bedside. For example, when my grandmother living in New York fell deathly ill, I mostly experienced my extended family’s struggles with health insurance. And when the first Ebola case occurred just miles from my home in 2014, I experienced the public panic by reading the Dallas Morning News.

I wasn’t in the hospital room surrounded by white coats and pill bottles as these two patients were treated. Instead, my view was centered on how economics, policy and journalism affect health. More than 70% of heal this determined by factors outside of a doctor’s office, and I was lucky enough to have that understanding even before I entered college. That’s why I decided to pursue not medicine, but the systems tasked with delivering it.

Why do you think studying liberal arts is important?

Studying liberal arts grants a kind of mental flexibility that only comes from exposure to multiple fields. Just this semester, I am taking classes in macroeconomics, neuroscience and Latin American history—that is three entirely distinct ways of thinking in a single semester. I know that personally these distinct points of view have made me a better person and student, and I think that having that kind of liberal arts experience is much more enduring throughout a person’s life than any single fact or technique.

What do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned in college?

To build trust in yourself. College is a wellspring of advice and guidance, and it is very easy to join a club or a major. This is great, as it means UT students have choices, but when you are constantly being presented with alternate versions of “you” to choose from, those external voices become deafening.

It has taken me a long time to build up my own instincts and gain a better understanding of what I find important and what I want to accomplish in the world. Even writing the Marshall scholarship applications was a huge opportunity to let me learn about myself and build trust in my own instincts and priorities. It’s learning that won’t show up on any transcript, but it is the most important thing I have learned in college.

What’s your favorite memory from your time at UT?

I will always remember late nights in my office at The Daily Texan. The Texan staff works out of a basement, and every night for a year I would walk down these nondescript concrete stairs and spend hours editing and putting together a page. It was difficult work, and I was essentially sleep-deprived for three whole semesters. But it was an immense privilege to be editor, and I would often look up at the end of a long night and see the proof pages and coffee cups strewn around the room and just feel so overwhelmingly lucky to have the job I did.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

As editor, I heard from a lot of Daily Texan staff that it was difficult to commit the hours to working in student media with such low pay compared to working full time at a traditional job. However, student media and experiential learning is an extremely important first step for anyone looking to start their journalism careers, so I wanted to find a way to offer a kind of work-study program to make that process more feasible, especially for first generation students.

I brought this to the Texas Student Media director, and within a few months had expanded a partnership with the University Leadership Network, a student success initiative, and Texas Student Media—five entities including The Daily Texan—to create more than 40 new internship positions throughout student media. It was a small, behind-the-scenes change, but one that I was really proud of because it created a lot more permanent opportunity for students to gain experience in media.  

What are your goals for the future and your professional life?

I hope to work in global health law with an international health organization such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—I plan to return to eventually return to the U.S. and go to law school. I could someday see myself serving as an ambassador or a policy advisor to one of these organizations.

In an increasingly globalized world, disease is just a plane ride away, and people commonly cross international borders to buy medicines and get their teeth cleaned. Health can’t be examined in isolation, and international health organizations play an ever-increasing role in protecting our health and helping entire countries to access care. But that global infrastructure is largely invisible, and right now governments are becoming less and less likely to commit resources to maintaining global health.

I want to help reverse this trend. I hope to spend my career strengthening global health policy to be more equitable and sustainable, and by communicating the impacts of global health policy to lay audiences through writing. I want to actively affect change in these systems, but also to help the vast majority of people who aren’t immersed in the world global health to understand how their lives—and their wallets—are affected by health policy every day.

America’s Ongoing Housing Crisis: Q&A with “Owned” Film Maker Giorgio Angelini Thu, 06 Dec 2018 17:47:50 +0000 Fifty years after the passing of the Fair Housing Act, people across the United States continue to face an uphill battle to homeownership.

Owned, a Tale of Two Americas,” directed by University of Texas at Austin history alumnus Giorgio Angelini attempts to get at the root of the U.S. housing crisis, which erupted in an economic collapse a short decade ago and may do so again if policies, currently catering to systematic oppression, don’t change.

The film, which was produced by Plan II alums Maggie Burns and Zachary Heinzerling, was selected to screen at festivals across the country, including the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, DOC NYC, the San Francisco DocFest, St. Louis International Film Festival and Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.  Most recently, the film was featured on MSNBC’s Chris Hayes podcast, Why Is This Happening?

To learn more about the film and the new approach it takes to answering some of the toughest questions about the U.S. housing crisis, we asked Angelini the following:

What inspired you to make this film?

The documentary’s promotional poster. Image courtesy of Giorgio Angelini.

Angelini: I was at Rice University completing my master’s in architecture during the middle of the housing crisis. I felt like people were diagnosing the wrong problem and offering solutions that did not really tackle the underlying issues. As an architecture student, we were told to consider what role design and architecture had in both the creation of the crash and in fixing it. Given this prompt, I applied for a grant to photograph this particular mcmansion development in Inland Empire, California. It was 2011, and with all the lending having dried up, the project had been abandoned.

With the intent to simply photograph the remnants of this project, I came across a condition I wasn’t expecting. Hundreds of square miles of burnt down orange groves standing alongside half-built homes. It was a palpable sense of alienation, in this desolate desert wasteland, where I began to understand the relationship that commoditization was having on the way we built our homes, neighborhoods and cities. It seemed like a photograph exhibit was not enough to tell this story properly. So, I started filming the documentary the following year.

What would people find most shocking about the American housing economy?

When you tie the idea of wealth accumulation and valuation to the idea of home ownership, it has the consequence of teasing out some of the worst human instincts. Whether it be racist self-segregation or predatory lending practices, when you make a home’s primary purpose an accumulator of wealth rather than a builder of cultural and human experience, it tends to lead to really bad things.

Is America still in a housing crisis? 

Yes, 100 percent. When average home buyers have to compete with all-cash buyers — whether they come in the form of hedge funds amassing huge real estate portfolios, wealthy family funds collecting homes as a part of their portfolio of assets, or international buyers who see American single-family homes as no different than buying any other commodity — you have system so heavily built on speculation, that it is only a matter of time before the next bubble bursts.

An undeveloped suburban community at standstill. Image courtesy of Giorgio Angelini.

What do you hope viewers take away from watching your film?

Our housing economy was built on racist policies that deprived millions of Americans from access to subsidies that helped to create the American middle class. And today, this same system is now leaving behind the middle class it helped to create, increasingly only serving to benefit a small percentage of the investor class. We need to change our policy to create homes that nurture great neighborhoods and inter-personal relationships, not great financial returns for investors.

How did your liberal arts/history education benefit you in making this film?

My professors at The University of Texas at Austin taught me the value of speaking truth to power. Any society that claims to be free cannot run from its past. And the cause of the study of history is to ensure a freer society.

For more information on the film and where it will screen next, visit

Hope, Love and Charity: Q&A with Miss Austin 2019 Jacqueline Petescia Thu, 29 Nov 2018 16:54:09 +0000 Jacqueline Petescia, a freshman health and society major at the University of Texas at Austin, recently won the title of Miss Austin 2019. Jacqueline runs a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Friends Don’t Count Chromosomes, is a part of the Omega chapter of the Alpha Phi sorority, and is a classically trained opera singer and yodeler.

Learn more about Jacqueline Petescia’s path to becoming Miss Austin 2019 by reading the Q&A below.


What was your reaction to being selected for Miss Austin 2019?

I was so honored, humbled and excited to have been chosen to represent my city. I honestly was not expecting to win because the competition was so good. There were girls competing who were far older and more accomplished, who are currently in medical school or running their own businesses. As a freshman at UT Austin, I felt as though I was far more of a novice at life compared to these women, but my passion, determination and drive for style, service, scholarship and success lead me to the title of Miss Austin.

What does the process of running for Miss Austin look like?

The Miss Austin competition is a preliminary local pageant for the Miss America Organization. We used to compete in a swimsuit category, but it has been replaced with an onstage interview to focus on what the women of Miss America do and who they are, rather than how they look.

In addition to the onstage interview, we compete a 20-minute private panel interview with topics ranging from our social impacts, to current events, to controversial topics. We also perform a 90 second onstage talent and, of course, an evening gown walk in which we share a statement about our social impact. A social impact is something you plan to bring awareness to your year as a titleholder. For me, it is my 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Friends Don’t Count Chromosomes, which is an organization I started to help kids living with intellectual and developmental disabilities become involved with their community.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Besides starting a nonprofit, I’m most proud of my involvement with the Miss America Organization. I was able to pay for my first year of undergrad with the scholarship funds I obtained by being the “Quality of Life” finalist, national highest GPA winner, and state community service winner in last year’s Miss Texas competition.

I have a passion for working with this organization to spread the message of inclusivity and for the opportunity to work closely with Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) Hospitals. Volunteering through CMN Hospitals as Miss Austin has influenced me to pursue a career as a neonatal doctor, so that I can help premature babies the moment they are born regardless of their parents’ financial background. This is a driving force for my studies at UT Austin and my passion for volunteering with CMN.

How has being a part of the Omega chapter of Alpha Phi helped you in your endeavors?

The support I have gained from my sisters has been unlike any I’ve received before. My sorority sisters are always there cheering me on and to remind me to get back on the right path. They’re the first to tell me I’m doing a great job, and the first to be honest when I need real critics.

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope to graduate from UT Austin and go on to medical school so that I can ultimately become a neonatal doctor. I’m hoping that sometime between now and going to medical school that I win Miss Texas and then, Miss America, so that I can continue to grow and promote my social impact, Friends Don’t Count Chromosomes and CMN.

What does success look like to you?

All I want to do with my life is to help others, whether it is as Miss Austin, Miss Texas, Miss America, or even as a neonatal doctor. This passion will help to guide me through on my path to heal those around me. I’m not asking for world peace or to change the world, because realistically I know I can’t do that on my own. What I want is to change the lives of those who come in contact with me — to be the beacon of hope, love and charity in the way that kids in CMN Hospitals eyes light up when they see a real-life princess walk into the room. As Miss Austin, I want to be able to teach people to have compassion, empathy and love for others because it’s what our world needs most right now.