Profs elected to scientific society

Five Yale professors have been elected as fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the organization announced Jan. 12. The organization, which is the largest scientific association in the world, selects scientists for their efforts to advance study in their fields. This year 503 scientists and academics from around the globe were selected. The News sat down to speak with four of the awardees.

Abraham Silberschatz, chair of the computer science department, was also elected but could not be reached for comment.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1848 and publishes the prominent journal Science.

Ellen Thomas, a senior research scientist in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, was elected as a fellow to the association for her work on the environmental controls on the distribution of benthic foraminifera, a deep-sea ocean creature. Thomas was the editor of the journal Marine Micropaleontology from 2003 to 2007 and served on the editorial board of the journal Geology from 2000 to 2002.

Yale University

Q What is your research focus?

A I specialize in looking at an organism that leaves fossils that are microscopic. These fossils tell us more about what kind of environment the organisms lived in.

Q What applications might this research have?

A We have learned more about how sea levels change with changing temperatures. This information can help coast communities prepare for changing climates. By looking at geological records, we can make predictions for the future.

Timothy G. Gregoire GRD ’85, forest management professor at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, was elected as fellow for what the Association called “distinguished contributions to the application and development of statistical methods for natural resources and environmental phenomena and for professional and cross-disciplinary leadership.” Gregoire’s research focuses on the sampling of natural resources, especially related to the amount of carbon in environments.

Yale University

Q How can statistical methodology help with environmental research?

A The ways we can select a sample of trees to estimate the amount of forest carbon is similar to gallop polling, using sampling methodology. I was involved with NASA space flight center and other colleagues with sampling methods to calculate biomass of trees in a significant county in Norway. Laser instrumentation has been used to assist with emphasis on forest biomass. Tentatively we plan to conduct a similar type of laser survey in Tanzania in the near future.

Q What sparked your interest in statistic methods of natural resources?

A A statistics course was when the proverbial light went on as a part of the M.S. at the University of New Hampshire.

Psychology professor John A. Bargh was elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his contributions to the field of social cognitive psychology, particularly for his work on unconscious human behavior, a press release from the organization said. Bargh, who has worked at Yale since 2003, won the American Psychological Association Early Career Award in 1989 and in 2007 won the Scientific Impact Award from the Society for Experimental Social Psychology.

Q What does this award mean to you?

A It’s great! This recognition is particularly meaningful for psychology. It means we can be taken seriously as scientists.

Q What are your current research questions?

A I am interested in studying how people do things unintentionally. How physical experiences are affected by the subconscious.

Q What results have you found so far?

A If you hold a cup of hot coffee, you tend to think of people as being warmer. Physical words such as “close relationship” or “distant father” can change our behavior. Encountering the word “aggressive” can change your behavior. Simply thinking about your mother can cause you to be more achievement-motivated, because you want her to be proud of her. I was very surprised by how the data turned out.

Q What does this information mean for clinical psychology?

A We are trying to see to what extent this is involved in emotional problems such as depression. At an intuitive level we already know this information; we have ways to deal with our emotions. We are trying to prove this empirically.

Q How do you prove causal links in research with the subconscious?

A Causal links come from random assignment. To nail down the unconscious cause, you randomly assign people to different variables. You could do the same study subliminally, and you would have the same results. We ask people about what they think they were doing, and people generally have no idea about what they are doing.

Q All of your studies address the question on whether or not we have free will. Do you think we have free will?

A Free will is a problematic concept because of the word “free.” People confuse the word “free will” from “will.” If someone has a gun held to your head, are you acting freely? No. Since we’re studying causal mechanisms, you can’t say things are free from international causation. I’ve been surprised by my findings every step of the way.

Work on the dynamics of animal populations has earned David K. Skelly, associate dean for research and a professor in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, the fellowship at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Skelly, whose research focuses on large scale ecology, released a book in November 2010 titled “The Art of Ecology.”

Yale University

Q What has been your most surprising research finding?

A If you walk out of a house and go to a pond, there is better than a 90 percent chance that you find caffeine. My research is divided in two main components. The first is the related to animal population movements and understanding how animal populations survive. The second is how the way people modify landscapes changes animal movements by looking at chemical contaminants.

Q What future plans do you have for your research?

A I would love to work with people trying to use wildlife species as a barometer of effectiveness in trying to control chemical contaminants.

Q Have you thought about possible systematic changes that could reduce the threat of chemical contaminants?

A A big fraction of wastewater is held in septic waste. Adding a charcoal filter or sand bed in sewage treatment facilities could reduce the threat from chemical contaminants significantly.

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