Research Roundup: COVID impacts teens’ mental health, CAT scans predict wildfires, news covers non-white homicide victims less

Sept. 28, 2020, 10:44 p.m.

Each week, The Daily’s Science & Tech section produces a roundup of the most exciting and influential research happening on campus or otherwise related to Stanford. Here’s our digest for the week of Sept. 20 — Sept. 26.

Teenagers’ mental health falls during COVID-19 pandemic

Teenagers with a specific brain pattern have a higher risk of developing COVID-19-related anxiety and depression, a study published on Aug. 28 in “Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging” found.

“Our findings suggest that executive functioning in our brain plays a key role in protecting against risk factors that worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety during stressful, uncertain times,” psychology postdoctoral research fellow Rajpreet Chahal told Stanford News. “These results are very relevant for teenagers, as well as people of all ages, in this era of COVID-19.”

The research team scanned 200 teenagers’ brains to observe executive control network (ECN) activation, which is responsible for regulating emotion and processing new situations. The findings suggest that teens with lower ECN activity reported higher rates of anxiety and depression.

“An important takeaway is that we can start to look at predictors of mental health during COVID in susceptible, vulnerable children and adolescents,” psychology professor Ian Gotlib told Stanford News. “We’re just starting to get a sense of the factors that increase not only risk but also resilience, to the effects of the pandemic.”

Unconventional CAT scans predict where wildfires will strike

Computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans and advanced computer models can predict where wildfires are most likely to start and how they will spread, a study published Sept. 17 in “Proceedings of the Combustion Institute” reported.

“For wildfire risk assessment or if you’re a firefighter, what you need is an accurate prediction about how fast the local fuel — the trees and plants nearby — will burn,” mechanical engineering professor Matthias Ihme told Stanford News. “We’ve analyzed this fuel in a new way that allows us to do just that.”

The findings suggest that by using advanced X-ray Computed Tomography (XCT), researchers can measure the temperature and provide internal 3D structures of different wood materials. These scans allow researchers to study smoldering processes — when materials burn with smoke but no flame, eventually leading to fires.

“Our goal is to establish a database for burn rates and conversions of different materials,” Ihme said. “In theory, firefighters and others could send them to us from anywhere.”

News coverage disparities between Black and Hispanic versus white homicide victims in Chicago

In a collaborative study between Stanford and University of Chicago researchers, homicide victims in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods received less news coverage compared to their white counterparts, a study published on Sept. 17 in “Sociology of Race and Ethnicity” found.

“We all have these universal things about us that make us human,” sociology associate professor Forrest Stuart told Stanford News. “So the question very quickly becomes: Who has the privilege, who has the honor of being talked about in any of those ways?”

“We can assume that anyone who dies is a family member — they have people who are going to be mourning their death, a community that is going to be affected,” added Shannon Morrissey, a second-year sociology graduate student at the University of Chicago. “So why is it that only some victims are written about in that way? What makes a reporter choose to put in the effort to track down a middle-school teacher or talk to a neighbor?”

In analyzing over 2,200 news articles about homicide victims, the team found that roughly 35% of victims in the majority-white neighborhoods were likely covered as a “complex individual” — a human being with family and community connections. In majority-Black and -Hispanic neighborhoods, that number was roughly 17 to 18%.

Victims in majority-white neighborhoods received 450 more words per news article compared to victims in majority-Black neighborhoods. Additionally, researchers often found misspellings in Black victims’ names in articles.

“Even just reading the news articles, there was a palpable difference in the way that victims and neighborhoods were talked about,” Morrissey said. “This paper does well to remind us that the disparities are on a neighborhood and community level.”

“Race isn’t just your phenotypical coloring,” Stuart said. “Race is a series of historic, economic, symbolic and, importantly, geographical set of power relations where some people are stigmatized and rendered powerless or less powerful. These are systems of domination.”

Contact Derek Chen at derekc8 ‘at’

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