Researcher to Advise WHO on Addressing Loneliness and Social Isolation

Munmun De Choudhury

Munmun De Choudhury, an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing, is one of three U.S. experts on the internationally diverse committee.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has launched a new initiative to raise global awareness of loneliness and social isolation and to reduce their impact.

To stay informed by global experts as it plans potential policies on the subject, the WHO has created the Technical Advisory Group on Social Connection (TAG-SC). The 20-member committee will serve as an advisory body to guide the WHO on how it can increase political visibility, measure the extent of the problem, and identify effective interventions.

Munmun De Choudhury, an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing, is one of three U.S. experts on the internationally diverse committee.

De Choudhury is renowned for her research on the role of social media and how it shapes and influences mental health. She will serve a two-year term on the advisory group, providing insight to the TAG-SC on how social media and other technologies can affect loneliness and social connection.

“TAGs are the highest level of technical advisors at WHO and are noted to wield significant power as an independent body in shaping evidence-based policies and reforms on issues threatening global health,” De Choudhury said. 

“My involvement will center around how social media use relates to mental health and well-being outcomes, spanning varied populations, platforms, and cultural contexts, including the Global North and the Global South.” 

The advisory group’s findings will be part of a report that the WHO shares with its member states and partners. The report could guide relevant discussions within the United Nations General Assembly.

“We’re thinking about this question on a global stage, and an organization like WHO can help make this a global focus,” she said. “It’s an issue that is of significance everywhere in the world.”

The WHO estimates that loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of mortality by 14-32%, which is on par with other well-known risk factors such as smoking and excessive drinking. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem.

“The harmful effects of loneliness are not just harmful mentally, but there are physical health aspects,” De Choudhury said. “Studies have shown that people who felt lonely have shorter life spans than those who felt supported. 

“There is an increased risk of things like cardiovascular disease or stroke, and suicide rates are also higher. To ensure our society wants to feel good and healthy, we must tackle this as a problem.”

The TAG-SC will advise the Secretariat of the WHO Commission on Social Connection, which comprises two co-chairs and nine commissioners tasked with making the harms of social isolation and loneliness a global health priority.

De Choudhury said the first step for TAG-SC is to measure the global impact of loneliness. They will do this by developing culturally aware measurement tools to assess the problem in different parts of the world. The process will inform any research, data collection initiatives, or interventions WHO may recommend.

“To take on this challenge, we must figure out the extent of the problem,” she said. “Before we can collect any data or identify potential mitigation strategies, we need to know what we should be measuring, and that’s where this committee plays a role.”

This recognition is the second major committee appointment De Choudhury has received in the last two years. She recently advised the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) on a 250-page report in December detailing social media’s impact on the health of adolescents and children.
 

Photo by Terence Rushin/College of Computing.

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Nathan Deen

Georgia Tech Partners with The Carter Center to Support Guinea Worm Disease Eradication

A dog in Chad is tethered to prevent the spread of Guinea worm disease. The number of human and animal cases of the disease in Chad dropped by 27% from 2021 to 2022. [Courtesy of Carter Center]

A dog in Chad is tethered to prevent the spread of Guinea worm disease. The number of human and animal cases of the disease in Chad dropped by 27% from 2021 to 2022.

Photo Courtesy of the Carter Center

Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) researchers have teamed up with The Carter Center to support dracunculiasis eradication efforts, using mathematical modeling and analytics. Dracunculiasis, or Guinea worm disease (GWD), is caused by the parasite Dracunculus medinensis. Currently, there is no diagnostic test to detect pre-patent infection, no vaccine, and no treatment for GWD. Eradication efforts focus on community-based surveillance, health education, targeted treatment of water sources with larvicide, and most importantly, behavioral changes, such as filtering drinking water and preventing humans and animals, mainly domesticated dogs with emerging worms, from entering and contaminating water sources.  “Given the year-long life-cycle of the disease, mathematical modeling is a valuable tool for fine-tuning interventions and evaluating resource allocation decisions,” said Pinar Keskinocak, professor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) and the director of the Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems.

Disease Dynamics

Dracunculus medinensis is a parasite that infects in a vicious cycle. When a human or animal host  ingests either water contaminated with infective Guinea worm larvae or raw or undercooked aquatic animals that harbor the infectious larvae, the larvae mate in the host’s body, and, after 10-14 months, a pregnant female worm that can be as long as one meter emerges slowly and painfully from the host’s body. To seek relief, the host might immerse the affected body part into a water source (e.g., a pond), releasing the worm’s larvae into the water source, contaminating it, and continuing the infection cycle. In particular, worms emerging from dogs can contaminate drinking water sources used by people and in turn, lead to infection of people or other dogs in the community. 

Progress Toward GWD Eradication

GWD eradication efforts worldwide have been supported by the collaboration of many entities, including The Carter Center, ministries of health in endemic countries, WHO, CDC, UNICEF, and others. Since 1986, The Carter Center has led the international Guinea worm eradication campaign, which has eliminated the ancient disease in 16 countries in Africa and Asia. In 2022, Guinea worm was reported in five African countries.

Together with The Carter Center and Chad’s national Guinea Worm Eradication Program, Georgia Tech researchers have developed an agent-based simulation model that incorporates the life-cycle of the worm, daily interactions between dogs and water sources, seasonality of infections, and environmental factors such as rainfall and temperature. The models can also capture the influence of dog movement between multiple regions/water sources. Using these mathematical models in a wide range of simulated scenarios, the researchers evaluated the impact of combinations of interventions (such as water treatment or tethering of dogs). The results from the simulated scenarios suggest that historical levels of interventions in Chad, even when adjusted to regional differences, might not be sufficient to interrupt GWD transmission in dogs within the next five years. Hence, there is a need to improve intervention implementation fidelity, adjust implementation approaches, or implement new interventions.

GWD Eradication Onward

New interventions, such as a diagnostic test that can detect pre-patent infection, could help accelerate the progress toward eradication.  To guide research and development of such a test, WHO initiated the development of target product profiles (TPPs), outlining preferred and minimally acceptable criteria for novel diagnostic tests, which could be, according to WHO, “a game changer in speeding up a global eradiation of the parasite.”

Georgia Tech researchers adapted an agent-based simulation model and evaluated a wide range of scenarios to assess the impact of a new diagnostic test to detect pre-patent infection in dogs on the disease spread. In the mathematical model, each dog is represented by an "agent," which mimics the dog behavior, their interactions with the water source, and the progression of the disease within a dog.

In the absence of a treatment for GWD, the research results quantify the impact of the diagnostic accuracy (sensitivity and specificity) of the test, but also emphasize the importance of rollout decisions and the compliance of dog owners with the recommended tethering practices. “The potential benefits of testing depend on test accuracy, but also on several other factors, e.g., how the test is deployed, and how it affects owners’ behaviors regarding tethering of dogs with positive or negative test results,” said Hannah Smalley, a research engineer in ISyE. “For example, even if the test could detect pre-patent infections in dogs with perfect accuracy, if dogs are not tested frequently enough, or if owners do not consistently tether test-positive dogs, then the impact of such a diagnostic test could be limited.” The timing of when, i.e., how far in advance of worm emergence, the test can detect pre-patent infection is also important. For example, if the test could not only detect pre-patent infection but also accurately estimate the timing of worm emergence, this could increase the owners’ compliance with tethering recommendations during the time period leading to estimated worm emergence, reduce the need for long-term tethering, and reduce the resources (human and financial) needed to support the intervention.

Recommendations from the research are included in the WHO’s TPP for a diagnostic test to detect pre-patent Guinea worm infections in animals. “This important research highlights how a novel diagnostic test that can detect pre-patent Guinea worm infections could help, especially if used in conjunction with existing interventions,” said Adam Weiss [Director of The Carter Center’s Guinea Worm Eradication Program], “and we are looking forward to continuing our collaborations with Georgia Tech as a means to support GWD eradication efforts.”

“Potential Impact of a Diagnostic Test for Detecting Prepatent Guinea Worm Infections in Dogs,” Hannah Smalley, Pinar Keskinocak, Julie Swann, Christopher Hanna, and Adam Weiss, The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 2024, DOI: https://doi.org/10.4269/ajtmh.23-0534

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Media Contact: Tess Malone, Senior Research Writer/Editor

tess.malone@gatech.edu

Convergence Innovation Competition Expanding to Asia

Michael Best with professor Andri Andriyana, director, International Relations Centre at the Universiti Malaya.

Michael Best with professor Andri Andriyana, director, International Relations Centre at the Universiti Malaya.

The Convergence Innovation Competition (CIC), one of Georgia Tech’s oldest and most storied innovation competitions, is expanding to five Asian countries: China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Founded in 2007, the competition is organized by the Institute for People and Technology (IPaT) and has been sponsored in the past by AT&T, Verizon, Google, Cisco, Siemens, Panasonic, NTT, and other companies.

CIC aims to build entrepreneurial confidence, people-centered mindsets, and encourage innovation while responding to today’s global challenges and opportunities. Innovative projects in the contest are expected to align with the 17 United Nations sustainability goals and can fall within IPaT’s current research focus areas.

“It seemed only natural that the Convergence Innovation Competition would one day expand beyond our campus walls,” said Michael Best, executive director of IPaT and professor with the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. “Georgia Tech attracts talent across the world and our researchers collaborate with many international institutions and faculty. With the Asian expansion of CIC, we are creating a competition where global teams can tackle global challenges, showcasing meaningful innovations which align with IPaT’s people-centered research.”

During his most recent and very tightly scheduled Asian innovation competition roadshow tour this spring, Best visited Sun Yat-sen and Yuan Ze University in Taiwan; Universiti Tenaga Nasional, Universiti Malaya, Multimedia University, and Universiti Putra in Malaysia; and King Mongkut's University of Technology North Bangkok in Thailand.

All of these universities were excited to partner with Georgia Tech and be among the first southeast Asian anchor universities to help sponsor and support the competition according to Best who is also a professor in the School of Interactive Computing.

Best was specifically seeking to identify faculty fellows at each university who would be responsible for advertising the CIC Asia opportunity among students at their university, encouraging team submissions, while also providing advice and mentorship to participating student teams.

As added support, the Shenzhen Georgia Tech Education Foundation is helping to organize this year’s competition with the assistance of Shelton Chan, managing director of the foundation.

CIC semi-finalists will receive travel support to attend a gala competition on December 7th in Taiwan. The finalist will go on to receive travel support to visit innovation events and engage with entrepreneurship programs at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. In addition, the semi-finalist teams will receive $1,000 while the finalist team will receive $2,000 to help launch their ideas.

Detailed information about this year’s Asian Convergence Innovation Competition can be found here: https://research.gatech.edu/ipat/cic

Shelton Chan, managing director of the Shenzhen Georgia Tech Education Foundation, with Michael Best

Shelton Chan, managing director of the Shenzhen Georgia Tech Education Foundation, with Michael Best

News Contact

Walter Rich

Empowering Research Faculty: Georgia Tech’s Strategic Plan

A scientist dressed in protective clothing works in a clean room laboratory at Georgia Tech

A research scientist from the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology (IEN) works in a clean room at the Marcus Nanotechnology Building. Research faculty are the non-tenure track faculty who carry out crucial research in labs, centers, and departments across campus. (Credit: Rob Felt)

Georgia Tech is supporting career growth for its research faculty, who do critical work at the heart of the research enterprise.

The word faculty is often synonymous with tenure-track professors — the individuals who teach courses and run major labs with their surnames in the title. But while groundbreaking discoveries regularly happen at Georgia Tech, the people doing the day-in, day-out research aren’t always visible.

Research faculty are non-tenure track faculty who carry out crucial research in labs, centers, and departments across campus. They are the lifeblood of research enterprises at major universities like Georgia Tech, but their work often occurs behind the scenes.

To support these essential employees, Georgia Tech launched an initiative to recognize and develop research faculty, who comprise 60% of the nearly 4,400 total faculty currently employed at the Institute. It is part of the second phase of Research Next, the strategic plan for Georgia Tech’s research enterprise.  

Maribeth Coleman, interim assistant vice provost for Research Faculty, and Michelle Rinehart, vice provost for Faculty, were appointed as co-chairs of a Research Next implementation team tasked with finding ways to recognize, support, and retain research faculty. Building on years of effort and collaboration with campus partners, the group took on several projects to improve the research faculty experience and environment at Georgia Tech.  

“Research faculty are critical members of the Georgia Tech community, and their contributions to our billion-dollar research enterprise and the state’s economic development cannot be overstated,” Rinehart said. “We wanted to understand what it’s like for research faculty as they come on board at Georgia Tech, what the hiring process is like, and how we as an Institute can more effectively mentor and develop research faculty in terms of advancing in their careers.”

At the outset, the implementation team identified and examined several facets of the research faculty experience. They reviewed policies in the faculty handbook, giving special attention to existing guidance for promotion and career growth for research faculty.

Promotion guidelines are generally clear for tenure-track faculty. Research faculty, on the other hand, are often not actively encouraged to seek promotion, and may not even know that promotion is an option, according to Rinehart and Coleman. One issue is that funding for research faculty often comes from external research dollars. At least nine months of a tenure-track faculty member’s salary, however, comes from the state budget.

“When you’re constantly having to bring in all of your own salary, as research faculty do, it can be a stressful experience,” Coleman said. “It can also mean you’re more isolated, because you’re focused on bringing in those research dollars that will help you keep your position. But we want research faculty to know that we want them to build their careers here.”

To address these issues, the team developed reference materials and workshops for research faculty seeking promotion. The workshops are offered on a regular basis, and resources and recordings are available on the Georgia Tech faculty website. The team also created educational materials for promotion committees, often composed of tenure-track faculty who are unfamiliar with the research faculty experience.  

“We saw a need for better consistency across campus with regards to guidance for research faculty promotion committees,” Rinehart said. “Tenure-track faculty need guidance on not just how to properly hire research faculty, but also in how to mentor and retain them.”

According to Coleman and Rinehart, the implementation team’s most significant achievement was the launch of a research faculty mentoring network. The mentoring network connects junior research faculty mentees with senior research faculty mentors who have grown their careers at Georgia Tech.

“When new tenure-track faculty arrive, they are usually assigned a mentor within their School or department, but that method doesn’t generally work for research faculty,” Coleman said. “There may not be a large research faculty community in their unit, and research faculty roles and responsibilities vary significantly from person to person. For this reason, the mentoring network is meant to foster cross-pollination and build community across units.”

The mentoring network is a collaboration with MentorTech, a program run by Georgia Tech Professional Education. The program is ongoing, and enrollment is always open. 

To foster inclusivity and belonging, the team established an orientation program for research faculty, modeled after the tenure-track faculty orientation. The Provost’s Office hosted the inaugural research faculty orientation in Fall 2023. Because research faculty are hired throughout the year, the team decided the orientation should take place semiannually. The second orientation took place on March 13. 

In addition to the workshops, mentor network, and orientations, the implementation team also launched a program to welcome research faculty in a personal way. When a new research faculty member is hired, another more senior research faculty member is assigned to welcome them in person, provide them with important information for getting oriented to campus, tell them about relevant professional opportunities, and give them Georgia Tech-branded swag.

“All of this work is about recognizing that research faculty are a tremendously valuable part of our community,” Rinehart said. “They also really enhance our reputation internationally.”

According to Coleman, research faculty can sometimes be viewed as disposable, because of their support from grants that may be limited in time and scope. But she believes that line of thinking is a disservice to both the individual and the Institute.

“It’s important that we recognize the value of research faculty, nurture them, and retain them long term,” she said. “We need to make it possible for people to spend their careers here, as I have, and help make sure research faculty positions at Georgia Tech can be both viable and fulfilling long-term careers.”

 

To read more about Georgia Tech's strategic research initiatives, visit the Research Next website.

News Contact

Catherine Barzler, Senior Research Writer/Editor

catherine.barzler@gatech.edu

Capitalism for Humans

Title: Capitalism for Humans

Beth Kolko

Professor and Associate Department Chair in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering
University of Washington.

Human-AI Interaction in Mental Health

Hwajung Hong
Associate Professor
Department of Industrial Design at KAIST

Thursday, Apr 11, 2024 
12:00 p.m. Lunch; 12:30 p.m. Talk

Autographic Design – the Matter of Data in a Self-Inscribing World

Speaker: Dietmar Offenhuber, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair of Art+Design at Northeastern University

ABSTRACT
Data analysis and visualization are crucial tools in today’s society, and digital representations have steadily become the default for presenting claims about the state of the world. Yet, more and more often, we find that citizen scientists, environmental activists, and amateur forensic investigators are using analog methods to present evidence of pollution, climate change, and the spread of disinformation.  

2023-2024 Research and Engagement Grant Award Winners

12:00 p.m. Lunch; 12:30 p.m. Talks start

If you can't attend, please watch the Live Stream.


LECTURE PRESENTER

Gian-Gabriel Garcia
Grant Participants: Gian-Gabriel Garcia (co-PI, ISyE), Jovan Julien (co-I, ISyE and Public Policy), Juba Ziani (co-PI, ISyE) 

Video Illustrates Interactive Tech Created to Help Understand Dolphin Communication

Developed at Georgia Tech for the Wild Dolphin Project, CHAT emits dolphin-like whistle sounds made up to represent objects divers handle in the water.

Computers and dolphins don’t typically occupy the same space. However, Georgia Tech researchers and marine biologists from the Wild Dolphin Project have been swimming with the two for more than a decade.

The Wild Dolphin Project is the world’s longest-running underwater dolphin research project, and this week, the organization is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Georgia Tech is marking the occasion with a fun and engaging video illustrating the interactive computing technology its researchers have created to help marine biologists studying dolphin behavior and communication in the open ocean.

Referred to as the “Jane Goodall of the sea” by National Geographic, Denise Herzing is the founder and research director of the Wild Dolphin Project. She and Georgia Tech College of Computing Professor Thad Starner began collaborating in 2011 on interactive technologies to aid the project’s study of a specific pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins.

The initial CHAT (cetacean hearing augmented telemetry) device developed by Starner’s Contextual Computing Group was a large chest-worn submersible computer that produced and recorded sounds underwater. Fast forward to today and CHAT is now two smaller units that fit on the chest and wrist.

CHAT works by having two marine biologists wear both units while swimming with the dolphins. The wrist device emits dolphin-like whistle sounds, while the chest device includes a hydrophone to detect and record sounds. The researchers made up the sounds to designate items they handle while in the water.

The Georgia Tech video features an animated example of marine biologists passing a red scarf back and forth while triggering the designated sound for the scarf.

“The hope is that the dolphins watching all of this can figure out the social context and repeat that sound to ask for the scarf,” said Scott Gilliland, CHAT developer and Georgia Tech senior research scientist.

“If that happens, it means that our dolphins can mimic one word in our tiny, made-up language.”

Gilliland and Starner continue to push CHAT forward to ensure the team captures this breakthrough when it happens. They are now collecting auditory field data to optimize their machine-learning model for identifying dolphin sounds in the open ocean.

Ultimately, they expect CHAT to recognize if a dolphin repeats one of the preset sounds in real-time. The advanced system will notify researchers in the water of this event through bone-conducting headphones paired with CHAT.

“Discoveries in dolphin cognition will serve to further elevate the status of all animals on the planet and help us define our relationship with them,” says Herzing, affiliate assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University

CHAT is an ongoing collaboration between Herzing and Starner’s Contextual Computing Group. The Wild Dolphin Project is a Florida-based nonprofit research organization.­­

An animated image from Georgia Tech's video illustrating interactive technologies developed for the Wild Dolphin Project.
Stock image of an open-ocean dolphin pod swimming underwater.
News Contact

Ben Snedeker, Communications Mgr.
Georgia Tech College of Computing
albert.snedeker@cc.gatech.edu

Critical AI literacy with children: in pursuit of fair and inclusive technology futures

Speaker: Sumita Sharma, Ph.D., Postdoc Researcher in HCI, University of Oulu

Date: 2024-3-14 12:30 pm

Location: 
Technology Square Research Building (TSRB, 1st Floor Ballroom)
85 Fifth Street NW
Atlanta, GA 30308

Livestream available here: https://research.gatech.edu/ipat/gvu-lunch-lectures