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UMD Researchers Receive $1M Spencer Award to Investigate Disparities in Resources for Children and Long-term Achievement Gaps

December 5, 2019
Contacts: 

Audrey Hill audreyh@umd.edu 301-405-3468

University of Maryland researchers, supported by a $1M award from the Spencer Foundation, will investigate inequality in investments in children from different backgrounds, and develop recommendations for interventions that best improve life outcomes for underserved youth.
 
Led by University of Maryland College of Education Assistant Professor David Blazar, who also directs the Maryland Equity Project, the research will help policymakers determine the most “bang for the buck” when making decisions about investing resources in children’s lives. The study will examine resources invested in children not only in education, but also in other sectors including health.
 
“There are longstanding lines of research that demonstrate inequality in educational outcomes between rich and poor kids and between students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, but also unequal access to resources like high-quality teachers and health care,” said Dr. Blazar. However, he says that much less is known about how differential access to resources compounds across sectors. 
 
“As education researchers, we know that we spend more on White kids versus Black kids, in part because White students attend better-resourced schools with more experienced teachers, access to after-school programs, and other resources. However, educational activities also occur outside of the home, in families and communities, where it is more difficult to quantify differences in access to resources. Education researchers infrequently look outside of these settings to also consider how underserved students may also be underserved in access to health care. We want to monetize these differences – to identify the dollar amount – in order to shed led on the extent of these disparities and make them understandable for policy audiences.”

The project also will synthesize information from the existing evidence base on which resources are most likely to mitigate the disparities identified.
 
The research team – which also includes Associate Professor Claudia Galindo, Professor Steven Klees, Dean and Professor Jennifer King Rice, and Associate Professor Marvin Titus from the College of Education, as well as Assistant Professor Michel Boudreaux from the School of Public Health – will first use national survey data to identify in which sectors (i.e. education, health, family, community) and time periods (i.e. early childhood, K-12, postsecondary) disparities in investments in children from different backgrounds are largest. 

The purpose of this part of the project is to bridge connections between research sectors (e.g., education, health) that traditionally have worked in silos. 

“While disparities in access to resources and high-leverage points for interventions have been identified previously, this research has tended to happen in disciplinary silos,” said Dr. Blazar. “By separating unequal investments in education and health, we are likely to underestimate disparities. Kids that have less access to education, often have less access to health care, which makes gathering information across sectors critical to understanding and addressing inequalities for youth.”

“Researchers have been talking about inequitable educational outcomes and resources in units that make a lot of sense to academics but not necessarily to others. By putting those disparities in a dollar scale, they may by more understandable to a public audience and can bring attention to the degree of disparities between groups of children,” Dr. Blazar added.

To do so, the research team will use tools to estimate the dollar amount that goes into each investment area (e.g., number of hours students spend in school, access to high-quality teachers and after-school activities, access to health care) captured by the national surveys.

Next, the team will conduct meta-analyses of causal studies to determine the effect of human capital interventions on outcomes for children. The team will combine these findings on impacts on investment disparities in order to develop a guide for policymakers on the most effective and efficient use of additional resources to address inequalities. 
 
The cross-sector research on inequality is designed to provide practical information to policymakers so that they can identify the most effective and efficient areas for investment, whether that is addressing disparities in early childhood education or K-12 settings or through community health outreach. 

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UMD Astronomers Catch Natural Comet Outburst in Unprecedented Detail

December 3, 2019
Contacts: 

Matthew Wright 301-405-9267

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – University of Maryland astronomers have made the most complete and detailed observations to date of the formation and dissipation of a naturally occurring comet outburst. Using data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the researchers gained a clear start-to-finish image sequence of an explosive emission of dust, ice and gases during the close approach to Earth of comet 46P/Wirtanen in late 2018. The team members reported their results in the November 22, 2019 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“TESS spends nearly a month at a time imaging one portion of the sky. With no day or night breaks and no atmospheric interference, we have a very uniform, long-duration set of observations,” said Tony Farnham, a research scientist in the UMD Department of Astronomy and the lead author of the research paper. “As comets orbit the sun, they can pass through TESS’ field of view. Wirtanen was a high priority for us because of its close approach in late 2018, so we decided to use its appearance in the TESS images as a test case to see what we could get out of it. We did so and were very surprised!”

According to Farnham, the TESS observations of comet Wirtanen were the first to capture all phases of a natural comet outburst, from beginning to end. He noted that three other previous observations came close to recording the beginning of an outburst event. Observations of a 2007 outburst from comet 17P/Holmes began late, missing several hours of the initial brightening phase of the event. In 2017, observations of an outburst from comet 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1 (SW1) concluded early, due to limitations on pre-scheduled observation time. 

And, while observations from the UMD-led Deep Impact mission captured an outburst from comet Tempel 1 in unprecedented detail in 2005, the outburst was not natural—created instead by the mission’s impactor module. However, the current observations are the first to capture the dissipation phase in its entirety, Farnham said.

Although Wirtanen came closest to Earth on December 16, 2018, the outburst occurred earlier in its approach, beginning on September 26, 2018. The initial brightening of the outburst occurred in two distinct phases, with an hour-long flash followed by a more gradual second stage that continued to grow brighter for another 8 hours. This second stage was likely caused by the gradual spreading of comet dust from the outburst, which causes the dust cloud to reflect more sunlight overall. After reaching peak brightness, the comet faded gradually over a period of more than two weeks. Because TESS takes detailed, composite images every 30 minutes, the team was able to view each phase in exquisite detail.

“With 20 days’ worth of very frequent images, we were able to assess changes in brightness very easily. That’s what TESS was designed for, to perform its primary job as an exoplanet surveyor,” Farnham said. “We can’t predict when comet outbursts will happen. But even if we somehow had the opportunity to schedule these observations, we couldn’t have done any better in terms of timing. The outburst happened mere days after the observations started.”

Artist's rendering of NASA’s TESS spacecraftFarnham and his colleagues are also the first to observe Wirtanen’s dust trail. Unlike a comet’s tail—the spray of gas and fine dust that follows behind a comet, growing as it approaches the sun—a comet’s trail is a field of larger debris that traces the comet’s orbital path as it travels around the sun. Unlike a tail, which changes direction as it is blown by the solar wind, the orientation of the trail stays more or less constant over time.

“The trail more closely follows the orbit of the comet, while the tail is more offset from it, as it gets pushed around by the sun’s radiation pressure. What’s significant about the trail is that it contains the largest material,” said Michael Kelley, an associate research scientist in the UMD Department of Astronomy and a co-author of the research paper. “Tail dust is very fine, a lot like smoke. But trail dust is much larger—more like sand and pebbles. We think comets lose most of their mass through their dust trails. When the Earth runs into a comet’s dust trail, we get meteor showers.”

While the current study describes initial results, Farnham, Kelley and their colleagues look forward to further analyses of Wirtanen, as well as other comets in TESS’ field of view. The team has generated a rough estimate of how much material may have been ejected in the outburst (about 2.2 million pounds, which could have left a crater close to 65 feet across), but further analysis of the estimated particle sizes in the dust tail may help improve this estimate. Observing more comets will also help to determine whether multi-stage brightening is rare or commonplace in comet outbursts.

“We also don’t know what causes natural outbursts and that’s ultimately what we want to find,” Farnham said. “There are at least four other comets in the same area of the sky where TESS made these observations, with a total of about 50 comets expected in the first two years’ worth of TESS data. There’s a lot that can come of these data. We’re still finding out the capabilities of TESS, so hopefully we’ll have more to report on this comet and others very soon.”

In addition to Farnham and Kelley, UMD-affiliated co-authors of the research paper include Astronomy Associate Research Scientists Lori Feaga and Matthew Knight.

 

The research paper, “First Results from TESS Observations of Comet 46P/Wirtanen,” Tony Farnham, Michael Kelley, Matthew Knight and Lori Feaga, was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on November 22, 2019.

 

Two University of Maryland Engineers Named 2019 Fellows of the National Academy of Inventors

December 3, 2019
Contacts: 

Lee Tune 301-405-4679

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – University of Maryland Professors Ray Liu and Min Wu in the A. James Clark School of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering have been named 2019 Fellows by the National Academy of Inventors, joining the ranks of some of the nation’s most prestigious and creative academic inventors.

According to the National Academy of Inventors (NAI), the NAI Fellows Program “highlights academic inventors who have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.  ...To date, NAI Fellows hold more than 41,500 issued U.S. patents, which have generated over 11,000 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than 36 million jobs. In addition, over $1.6 trillion in revenue has been generated based on NAI Fellow discoveries.” 

The 2019 Fellows represent 136 research universities and governmental and non-profit research institutes worldwide and they collectively hold over 3,500 issued U.S. patents. Among the 2019 Fellows are six recipients of the U.S. National Medal of Technology & Innovation or U.S. National Medal of Science and four Nobel Laureates.

Professor Ray Liu

"I am honored to be named an NAI Fellow for the recognition of wireless AI technology that my team and I are developing,” said Liu, who is a Distinguished University Professor and the Christine Kim Eminent Professor of Information Technology in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “[This technology] has been deployed as Belkin's Linksys Aware for WiFi sensing for home security to over 150 countries worldwide. I am excited that we are making a real impact to the world with our technology.”

Professor Liu, who joined the UMD faculty in 1990, is the leader of the University of Maryland Signal and Information Group (SIG). Liu's main fields of study are in signal processing and communications. As part of multiple teams, he as three times received the University’s Invention of the Year Award: in 2013 for Time-Reversal Division Multiple Access for Wireless Broadband Communications, in 2011 for Active Sensing for Dynamic Spectrum Access, and in 2004 for Coding Techniques for Maximum Achievable Diversity in Space, Time and Frequency for Broadband Wireless Communications.        

As an entrepreneur, in 2013 Prof. Liu founded Origin Wireless, based in Greenbelt, Maryland.  This start-up company develops wireless AI analytic technologies for smart home systems. It invented the world’s first centimeter-accuracy indoor positioning/tracking system and the company’s patented TRM (Time-Reversal Machine) Technology has been applied to motion detection, home security, well-being monitoring, human breathing monitoring and fall-down detection without wearables or cameras. This technology can be used in many applications from Wi-Fi smart homes to smart tracing, with high performance, low cost and ease of use. The TRM technology won the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (CEATEC) Grand Prix Award after its worldwide debut. Since then, in partnership with industry companies such as Qualcomm and Marvell Technology Group, TRM technology is being deployed to millions of users worldwide in a variety of applications.

Among many pioneering works, Prof. Liu has also revolutionized wireless communication with the concept of cooperative communication by improving communication capacity, speed and performance; reducing battery consumption rates to extend network lifetimes, increase throughput and stability and expand transmission coverage area. Liu also is a Fellow in both the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). 

Professor Min Wu

UMD Professor Min Wu“I am honored to be named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and feel very much blessed by having supportive inventors as mentors and collaborators along the way. Not only do I find the joy in discovery and innovations that can make a positive impact on the society, I also appreciate the opportunities to give back by sharing the invention process with students and helping them become future inventors,” said Wu, who was recognized by NAI for her contributions to the field of signal processing, particularly for multimedia security and forensics.

Wu joined the faculty of UMD’s Electrical & Computer Engineering Department (ECE) in 2001 and currently is an ECE Professor, a University Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, and Associate Dean for Graduate Programs in the A. James Clark School of Engineering. 

Wu also is affiliated with the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies and UMD’s Institute for Systems Research. She leads the Media And Security Team (MAST) with main research interests in information security and forensics, and multimedia signal processing. 

Among her many previous awards and recognitions are a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award in 2002, an MIT TR100 Young Innovator Award in 2004, an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award in 2005, a Computer World "40 Under 40" IT Innovator Award in 2007, a 2015 University of Maryland Invention of the Year team award, a 2012 Innovator of the Year award from the Maryland Daily Record, and recognition as the IEEE Distinguished Lecturer in 2014. Wu is also a Fellow in both the AAAS and the IEEE.

Previous UMD NAI Fellows

Professors Liu and Wu join four other highly acclaimed University of Maryland, College Park faculty as NAI Fellows. These are 2017 NAI Fellow C.D. (Dan) Mote, Jr., president emeritus of the National Academy of Engineering and a Regents’ Professor and former president of the University of Maryland; Distinguished University Professor Rita Colwell, a 2016 Fellow; and Distinguished University Professors John S. Baras and Benjamin A. Shneiderman, both 2015 NAI Fellows.  

The NAI was founded in 2010 to: recognize and encourage inventors holding patents issued from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO); enhance the visibility of academic technology and innovation; encourage the disclosure of intellectual property; educate and mentor innovative students; and translate the inventions of its members to benefit society.

 

 

 

Two UMD Scientists Named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

November 27, 2019
Contacts: 

Lee Tune 301-439-1438

COLLEGE PARK, Md. ﹘ Two University of Maryland, College Park faculty members have been named 2019 fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Ellen D. Williams, a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology, and John R. Townshend, a Research Professor/Emeritus Professor, a past dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and a past chair of the Department of Geographical Sciences, are among 443 members of the association being recognized this year for their “efforts toward advancing scientific applications that are deemed scientifically or socially distinguished.” New Fellows will be presented with an official certificate and a gold and blue (representing science and engineering, respectively) rosette pin on February 14th at the AAAS Fellows Forum during the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington.

According to AAAS, Professor Williams was recognized for scientific contributions to nanotechnology as well as leadership on technical issues in national security and policy, and Professor Townshend was recognized for fundamental contributions to earth resources remote sensing, especially the global study of deforestation and land cover change, and significant administrative leadership in academe. 

Williams, who works at the interface of energy technology and policy, is known for her research in surface properties and nanotechnology and for her engagement with technical issues in national security, both as chief scientist at  British Petroleum (BP), and in government service as director of the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

“I am honored to receive this award and delighted that it affirms the important role of scientists in providing clear technical assessments to support policy decisions,” Williams said.   

Williams came to UMD in 1981 for a postdoctoral fellowship and rose to the rank of professor by 1991. At Maryland, she established an internationally recognized research program in experimental surface science, exploring fundamental issues in statistical mechanics and nanotechnology. She also pioneered the use of very powerful electron scanning, tunneling microscopes to study the surface of materials like silicon at the atomic level. In 1996, Williams founded the University of Maryland Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, serving as its director until 2009.  

Williams served as the chief scientist for British Petroleum (BP) from 2010 to 2014, before her confirmation by the U.S. Senate as the director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) on Dec. 8, 2014. Launched with bipartisan support in 2009, ARPA-E’s mission is to advance high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early in development for private-sector investment.  Williams returned to UMD in January 2017. Since then, she has been working to bridge policy and technology perspectives for clean energy innovation. Recently, she completed a report to the State of Maryland on “The Present Status and Future Potential of Maryland’s Clean Energy Innovation System.”

Townshend is an internationally renowned scholar and author whose research focuses on the rates and causes of vegetation cover change, especially deforestation, through the use of remotely sensed data from satellites; his work is funded primarily through NASA grants. He has headed UMD’s Global Land Cover Facility, which houses the largest open access non-governmental online collection of Landsat data in the world.

From 1989 to 1995, and again from 2001 to 2009, Professor Townshend served as Chair of the Department of Geographical Sciences. From 2009 to 2014, Professor Townshend served as Dean of the College and Behavioral and Social Sciences.

“I am honored to have been awarded a fellowship by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. My endeavors have been greatly aided by colleagues in the Department of Geographical Sciences in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the contributions of the many postdocs and graduate students with whom I have worked. Finally, my work—and in particular my international peregrinations—would not have been possible without the tremendous support of my wife, Jan.” Professor Townshend said.

 

UMD Alumnus A.J. Pruitt Named as Mitchell Scholar

November 25, 2019
Contacts: 

Laura Ours, lours@umd.edu, 301-405-5722

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The US-Ireland Alliance recently named the 12 members of the George J. Mitchell Scholar Class of 2021. Among the winners is Baltimore native and University of Maryland alumnus Adler “A.J.” Pruitt, B.A. ’18, a double-degree major in economics and in government and politics.

The Mitchell Scholarship sends future American leaders to Ireland for a year of graduate study. Pruitt will pursue a master’s degree in comparative criminology and criminal justice at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

“I applied to the Mitchell Scholarship for the unparalleled opportunity to study criminal justice and conflict transformation in Ireland. I believe Irish universities are pushing forward a modern form of criminology that is beginning to acknowledge that effective crime prevention requires a more holistic approach,” Pruitt said.

“Given the history of the island of Ireland, I look forward to learning how the people of Ireland have worked to overcome their violent past and continue to dismantle systems of oppression. I also don’t know of a better place to observe as the UK, the EU, and of course Ireland continue to grapple with the consequences of Brexit.”

Pruitt serves as Chief of Staff to the Maryland House Judiciary Committee, and works on the leadership’s legislative efforts on criminal and juvenile justice reform. He also volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for Children and Youth.

Pruitt said his interest in criminal justice began when his supervisor, Del. Luke Clippinger, was appointed to serve as the Chair of the Maryland House Judiciary Committee. “Since then, I've been fortunate enough to have a front-row seat to the development of our criminal and juvenile justice policy in Maryland. Moving forward, I’m excited to bring policies and programs back to Maryland that have been effective in Ireland.”

During his time on campus, Pruitt represented students charged with conduct violations as part of the campus Legal Aid Office and co-founded Maryland Discourse, a non-partisan student organization designed to research, explore, and discuss politics. He was elected to serve as Student Body President during his senior year.

“This distinguished scholarship attests to A.J.’s academic achievements, leadership, and community service,” said University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh. “He brings honor to the University, and we’re sure he will continue to do so as he advances his education and career.”

Ultimately, Pruitt hopes to return to Baltimore to play a role in reducing the levels of violence facing communities, and to help build a more equitable criminal justice system.

“Baltimore requires a new approach to violence intervention, and I remain committed to partnering with communities across the city to create grassroots change,” Pruitt said.

Dean Gregory Ball of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences said that Pruitt’s scholarship and work to date are inspiring to the entire campus community.

“A.J. represents the ideal we are trying to foster in all our students in the College, namely a commitment to academic investigation and a commitment to issues of fundamental significance to society; in his case, to promote justice and to strengthen communities.”

In his role as UMD’s advisor for UK/Ireland fellowships and scholarships, Dr. Richard Bell, an associate professor in the Department of History guided Pruitt through the application process.

“A.J. is about as fearless a Terp as you’ll find. He is bursting with ideas to make this state and this country safer and fairer for everyone, and will fight with every fiber to achieve them,” Bell said. “The award of a George J. Mitchell Scholarship to study in Ireland is an important and deserved acknowledgment of AJ’s dauntless vision and character.”

Pruitt said he is grateful for the support he received from faculty and staff through the rigorous application and interview process.

“I was encouraged to pursue this opportunity by my scholarship advisors at UMD. UMD is fortunate to have two of the best in the business in Dr. Francis DuVinage, director of the National Scholarships Office, and Dr. Bell. They not only directed me toward the Mitchell program, but have provided resources and guidance throughout the application and interview process. I could not have done this without their tireless effort, and would encourage anyone interested to seek their guidance.”

The Mitchell Scholarship was created by the founder and president of the US-Ireland Alliance, Trina Vargo. The prestigious award is named in honor of Senator George J. Mitchell’s contributions to the Northern Ireland peace process.

Pruitt is now the third Mitchell Scholar from UMD since the program’s founding in 1999.

Learn more about the award, and the latest cohort of Mitchell Scholars.

Photo: UMD Alumni Association 

 

UMD International Programs Show Resilience and Progress, U.S. State Department ‘Open Doors’ Survey Reports

November 19, 2019
Contacts: 

Sarah Marston smarston@umd.edu 301-405-4312

COLLEGE PARK, MD—The Institute of International Education and the U.S. State Department 2019 Open Doors annual survey of U.S. international exchange activity, released today as part of International Education Week, reported progress in Education Abroad (EA) programs and resistance to declining trends for international student enrollment at the University of Maryland College Park (UMD). UMD ranked #20 nationally for number of students participating in semester-long EA programs, and #32 nationally for number of students studying abroad for academic credit, among both public and private universities.
 
In its analysis of international students in the U.S., the survey found nearly flat overall international enrollment, inching up .05 percent, but reported a 10 percent decline among first-time international students at U.S. institutions in 2018-19 from their peak of over 300,000 in 2015-16. UMD, meanwhile, maintained its #31 ranking among doctorate-granting universities for international students, with more than 6,400. The top five countries of origin for UMD’s international students included China, India, South Korea, Taiwan and Iran.
 
The survey reports a total of 340,751 U.S. students studying abroad for the 2017-2018 academic school year, an increase of 2.6 percent over the previous year. UMD’s EA programs doubled that national rate increase, sending 1,871 students abroad for an increase of 5 percent. 
 
“We are happy to see growth in our EA program enrollment, but we continue to focus our efforts on increasing enrollment to further reflect the diversity of our campus community,” said Leeanne Dunsmore, Director of EA. “We will do this through our commitment to inclusion; seeking to create welcoming, supportive learning environments for students historically underrepresented in study abroad.”
 
Nationally, the U.S. is experiencing a decline in the admission of international students for the third consecutive year. 
 
“It is vital that we build on work to date to ensure that international students and scholars feel very welcome to campus,” said Sue Dougherty, Director of International Student & Scholar Services. “We value them as important members of the UMD community, and their contributions both academically and socially make the university stronger.”   
 
“We’re working collaboratively with schools, colleges and centers across the university to more deeply integrate international programs into curricula,” said Ross Lewin, Associate Vice President of International Affairs. “The goal is to give all students across the university an opportunity to engage globally as part of their UMD experience.”
 
International education programs and exchanges allow students to see the world’s rich diversity and cultural commonalities, helping to develop a global perspective and skills valuable to employers in an increasingly global economy. The National Association for College and Employers’ 2018 Job Outlook reports that more than 30 percent of surveyed employers rate global and multicultural fluency as an essential attribute for college graduates entering the workforce—yet only 20 percent of their incoming employees are proficient in these cultural skills. Research has demonstrated that these attributes and qualities in students are cultivated through study abroad. 
 
“Our future world will be shaped by UMD graduates with the knowledge and skills to collaborate across cultures to address pressing global challenges,” Dunsmore said. “It is vital that we continue to grow students’ access to these global experiences through inclusive practices that enrich their education and future opportunities.” 
 
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UMD Receives Gold Seal for Excellence in Student Voter Agreement

November 18, 2019
Contacts: 

Zimri Diaz zimri@umd.edu 301-314-8402

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — At the 2019 ALL IN Challenge Awards Ceremony held to recognize colleges and universities committed to increasing college student voting rates, UMD received a gold seal for achieving a student rate between 40% and 49%. A full list of seal awardees can be viewedhere
 
“The university is proud to receive this recognition on behalf of Terps Vote,” said John Zacker, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs. “Students, faculty and staff have worked tirelessly to increase voter turnout and civic engagement on campus. This achievement is proof that our students are prepared to meet and solve the nation’s most pressing challenges beginning with going to the polls to make their voices heard."
 
Student participation in elections has increased from the 2014 midterm elections to the recent 2018 midterm election. According to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, an initiative of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, voter turnout at the more than 1,000 institutions participating in the study increased by 21 points from 19% to 40%. UMD’s data reveals that our student population voted at even higher rates, with a 2018 voting rate of 46%.
 
“We are excited to honor UMD with an ALL IN Challenge gold seal in recognition of their intentional efforts to increase democratic engagement and full voter participation,” said Jennifer Domagal-Goldman, executive director of the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. “More institutions like UMD are changing culture on campus by institutionalizing nonpartisan democratic engagement efforts that are resulting in the incredible student voter turnout rates that we’ve seen across the country.”
 
TheALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge is a nonpartisan, national initiative recognizing and supporting campuses as they work to increase nonpartisan democratic engagement and full student voter participation. The Challenge encourages higher education institutions to help students form the habits of active and informed citizenship, and make democratic participation a core value on their campus. 
 
More than 560 campuses, enrolling more than 6.2 million students, have joined the Challenge since its launch in summer 2016.
 
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University of Maryland Researchers’ Study of Vaccine-Related Facebook Ads Reveals Ongoing Challenges for Public Health

November 15, 2019
Contacts: 

Kelly Blake kellyb@umd.edu, 301-405-9418

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- In a year that has seen the largest measles outbreak in the US in more than two decades, the role of social media in giving a platform to unscientific anti-vaccine messages and organizations has become a flashpoint.
 
In the first study of public health-related Facebook advertising, newly published in the journal Vaccine, researchers at the University of Maryland, the George Washington University and Johns Hopkins University show that a small group of anti-vaccine ad buyers has successfully leveraged Facebook to reach targeted audiences and that the social media platform’s efforts to improve transparency have actually led to the removal of ads promoting vaccination and communicating scientific findings. 
 
The research calls attention to the threat of social media misinformation as it may contribute to increasing “vaccine hesitancy,” which the World Health Organization ranks among the top threats to global health this year. This increasing reluctance or refusal to vaccinate threatens to reverse the progress made in halting vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles, which has seen a 30% increase in cases globally. 
 
The research team, co-led by UMD’s Dr. Sandra C. Quinn, GW’s Dr. David Broniatowski and JHU’s Dr. Mark Dredze, examined more than 500 vaccine-related ads served to Facebook users and archived in Facebook’s Ad Library. This archive, which became available in late 2018, catalogued ad content related to “issues of national importance.” Their findings reveal that the majority of advertisements (54%) which opposed vaccination, were posted by only two groups funded by private individuals, the World Mercury Project and Stop Mandatory Vaccination, and emphasized the purported harms of vaccination. 
 
“The average person might think that this anti-vaccine movement is a grassroots effort led by parents, but what we see on Facebook is that there are a handful of well-connected, powerful people who are responsible for the majority of advertisements. These buyers are more organized than people think,” said Amelia Jamison, a faculty research assistant in the Maryland Center for Health Equity, and the study’s first author. 
 
In contrast, those ads promoting vaccination did not reflect a common or organized theme or funder, and were focused on trying to get people vaccinated against a specific disease in a targeted population. Examples included ads for a local WalMart’s flu vaccine clinic or the Gates Foundation campaign against polio. 
 
Yet, because Facebook categorizes ads about vaccines as “political,” it has led the platform to reject some pro-vaccine messages. “By accepting the framing of vaccine opponents – that vaccination is a political topic, rather than one on which there is widespread public agreement and scientific consensus – Facebook perpetuates the false idea that there is even a debate to be had,” said David Broniatowski, associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at GW, and principal investigator of the study. “This leads to increased vaccine hesitancy, and ultimately, more epidemics.”
 
Facebook is a pervasive presence in the lives of many people, meaning its decisions about how to handle vaccine messaging have far-reaching and serious consequences, said Sandra Crouse Quinn, professor and chair of the Department of Family Science at UMD’s School of Public Health, and a principal investigator on the study.
 
“In today’s social media world, Facebook looms large as a source of information for many, yet their policies have made it more difficult for users to discern what is legitimate, credible vaccine information. This puts public health officials, with limited staff resources for social media campaigns, at a true disadvantage, just when we need to communicate the urgency of vaccines as a means to protect our children and our families,” said Sandra Crouse Quinn, professor and chair of the Department of Family Science at UMD’s School of Public Health, and principal investigator on the study.
 
The researchers note that the data gathered for this study from Facebook’s Ad Archive was collected in December 2018 and February 2019, before Facebook’s March 2019 announcement of updated advertising policies designed to limit the spread of vaccine-related misinformation. This study provides a baseline to compare how new policy changes may change the reach of ads from anti-vaccine organizations. Those standards, issued in response to the proliferation of anti-vaccination misinformation that coincided with measles outbreaks across the U.S.in early 2019, include that Facebook will block advertisements that include false content about vaccines and disallow advertisers from targeting ads to people “interested in vaccine controversies,” as they were previously able to do. 
 
Yet, the messengers may simply mutate their messages, virus-like, to avoid the tightening standards. “There is a whole set of ads that focus on themes of freedom’ or ‘choice’ and that elude the Facebook rules around vaccine ads,” Broniatowski said.  
 
Jamison says that the research team will continue to study how anti-vaccine arguments are spreading on Facebook and how the company is responding to demands from public health organizations to clean up its act.

“While everyone knows that Facebook can be used to spread misinformation, few people realize the control that advertisers have to target their message,” said Mark Dredze, a John C. Malone associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins. “For a few thousand dollars, a small number of anti-vaccine groups can micro-target their message, exploiting vulnerabilities in the health of the public.” 

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New Artificial Intelligence System Automatically Evolves to Evade Internet Censorship

November 14, 2019
Contacts: 

Kimbra Cutlip kcutlip@umd.edu 301-405-9463

Internet censorship by authoritarian governments prohibits free and open access to information for millions of people around the world. Attempts to evade such censorship have turned into a continually escalating race to keep up with ever-changing, increasingly sophisticated internet censorship. Censoring regimes have had the advantage in that race, because researchers must manually search for ways to circumvent censorship, a process that takes considerable time.

New work led by University of Maryland computer scientists could shift the balance of the censorship race. The researchers developed a tool called Geneva (short for Genetic Evasion), which automatically learns how to circumvent censorship. Tested in China, India and Kazakhstan, Geneva found dozens of ways to circumvent censorship by exploiting gaps in censors' logic and finding bugs that the researchers say would have been virtually impossible for humans to find manually.

The researchers will introduce Geneva during a peer-reviewed talk at the Association for Computing Machinery's 26th Conference on Computer and Communications Security in London on November 14, 2019.

"With Geneva, we are, for the first time, at a major advantage in the censorship arms race," said Dave Levin, an assistant professor of computer science at UMD and senior author of the paper. "Geneva represents the first step toward a whole new arms race in which artificial intelligence systems of censors and evaders compete with one another. Ultimately, winning this race means bringing free speech and open communication to millions of users around the world who currently don't have them."

All information on the internet is broken into data packets by the sender's computer and reassembled by the receiving computer. One prevalent form of internet censorship used by authoritarian regimes works by monitoring the data packets sent during an internet search. The censor blocks requests that either contain flagged keywords (such as "Tiananmen Square" in China) or prohibited domain names (such as "Wikipedia" in many countries).

When Geneva is running on a computer that is sending out web requests through a censor, Geneva modifies how data is broken up and sent, so that the censor does not recognize forbidden content or is unable to censor the connection.

Known as a genetic algorithm, Geneva is a biologically inspired type of artificial intelligence that Levin and his team developed to work in the background as a user browses the web from a standard internet browser. Like biological systems, Geneva forms sets of instructions from genetic building blocks. But rather than using DNA as building blocks, Geneva uses small pieces of code. Individually, the bits of code do very little, but when composed into instructions, they can perform sophisticated evasion strategies for breaking up, arranging or sending data packets.

Geneva evolves its genetic code through successive attempts (or generations). With each generation, Geneva keeps the instructions that work best at evading censorship and kicks out the rest. Geneva mutates and crossbreeds its strategies by randomly removing instructions, adding new instructions, or combining successful instructions and testing the strategy again. Through this evolutionary process, Geneva is able to identify multiple evasion strategies very quickly. 

"This completely inverts how researchers typically approach the problem of censorship," said Levin, who holds a joint appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. "Ordinarily we identify how a censorship strategy works and then devise strategies to evade it. But now we let Geneva figure out how to evade the censor, and then we learn what censorship strategies are being used by seeing how Geneva defeated them."

The team tested Geneva in the laboratory against mock censors and in the real world against real censors. In the lab, the researchers developed censors that functioned like those known from previous research to be deployed by autocratic regimes. Within days, Geneva identified virtually all the packet-manipulation strategies that had been discovered by previously published work.

To demonstrate that Geneva worked in the real world against undiscovered censorship strategies, the team ran Geneva on a computer in China with an unmodified Google Chrome browser installed. By deploying strategies identified by Geneva, the user was able to browse free of keyword censorship. The researchers also successfully evaded censorship in India, which blocks forbidden URLs, and Kazakhstan, which was eavesdropping on certain social media sites at the time. In all cases, Geneva successfully circumvented censorship.

"Currently, the evade-detect cycle requires extensive manual measurement, reverse engineering and creativity to develop new means of censorship evasion," said Kevin Bock (B.S. '17, M.S. '18, computer science), a computer science Ph.D. student at UMD and lead author of the paper. "With this research, Geneva represents an important first step in automating censorship evasion."

The researchers plan to release their data and code in the hopes that it will provide open access to information in countries where the internet is restricted. The team acknowledges that there may be many reasons why individuals living under autocratic regimes might not want or be able to install the tool on their computers. However, they remain undeterred. The researchers are exploring the possibility of deploying Geneva on the computer supplying the blocked content (known as the server) rather than on the computer searching for blocked content (known as the client). That would mean websites such as Wikipedia or the BBC could be available to anyone inside countries that currently block them, such as China and Iran, without requiring the users to configure anything on their computer.

"If Geneva can be deployed on the server side and work as well as it does on the client side, then it could potentially open up communications for millions of people," Levin said. "That's an amazing possibility, and it's a direction we're pursuing."

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In addition to Levin, Bock and George Hughey (B.S. '19, computer science) at UMD, Xiao Qiang of UC Berkeley also co-authored the paper. Seven UMD undergraduate students worked on this project as part of Levin's Breakerspace lab in the UMD Department of Computer Science.

The paper "Geneva: Evolving Censorship Evasion Strategies," Kevin Bock, George Hughey, Xiao Qian and Dave Levin will be presented at the 26th Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Computer and Communications Security in London, England, on November 14, 2019.

University Statement on USM Independent Review Released Today

November 13, 2019
Contacts: 

Natifia Mullings mullings@umd.edu 301.405.4076

The University of Maryland offers its sincere condolences to the family and friends of Olivia Paregol as we near the anniversary of her tragic passing. The University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents released today its report on the University of Maryland’s (UMD) handling of adenovirus and mold last fall. 

 

UMD will carefully review the recommendations as part of a continuing effort to evaluate current policies and practices.  In response to recommendations that encourage a more coordinated response to future emergencies, UMD is currently studying ways to implement trainings that build upon existing tabletop exercises and reviewing the role of the safety committees now in place. 

 

The panel unanimously found that university employees worked tirelessly and that student health and safety were paramount in our decision making. This reflects our values as an institution.

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