Campus News

Charter Lecture highlights Regents’ Professors’ research

From biological aging to the ‘Nuremberg women,’ they outline their work

Shown, from left, are Pejman Rohani, Ronald L. Simons, Diane Marie Amann, and Steven R.H. Beach.

Following an introduction from Deven Gokhale, a doctoral student studying ecology, four faculty members named 2020 and 2021 Regents’ Professors—Diane Marie Amann, Steven R.H. Beach, Pejman Rohani and Ronald L. Simons—discussed their respective work in a joint Charter Lecture held virtually April 6.

Exploring social factors and biological aging

Simons, a Distinguished Research Professor in the sociology department of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, discussed his research on how social experiences can impact biological aging more than other health risk factors, such as body mass index, diet, exercise and smoking, for example.

Since the 1960s, researchers have been aware of the strong link between age and DNA methylation, a tool cells use to control gene expression. However, only a few years ago, scientists began to use methylation information to make predictions about how an individual is aging, which gave rise to the use of epigenetic clocks.

“You’ve got a measure of how fast their biological clock is ticking, and that’s pretty cool,” Simons said. “If it was just cool, then that’d be one thing, but it’s more than just cool: it’s consequential.”

So, why do some people age faster than others? One reason, Simons said, is genetics. But more than half of that puzzle involves other factors, and he found that the social experiences people face over a lifetime can contribute to aging.

“The events and circumstances we experience over the life course influence—for better or worse—our speed of biological aging and in turn, onset of chronic illness and the time until death,” Simons said. “This line of work is in its infancy, but it would seem to have important policy and intervention implications.”

Evaluating relationships and health

Building on the foundation that Simons laid, Beach spoke on ways in which people can strengthen family units using family-based interventions to reduce mental and physical health issues and mitigate the effect of social and economic stressors.

When Beach began at UGA, he was already interested in strengthening marital relationships as a way to combat depressive episodes. He began more prevention-oriented and started to wonder whether he could do more than react to problems that had already developed and instead, help strengthen families to nip issues in the bud. In light of that, Beach spoke specifically about the Protecting Strong African American Families program and the results.

“Being in Pro-SAAF was associated with changes in parent communication and reduced arguing in front of kids, and that reduced the impact of neighborhood disadvantage on change in youth problem behaviors, so Pro-SAAF was buffering that effect on youth and increasing family resilience,” he said.

Beach, 2021 Regents’ Professor and Distinguished Research Professor in the department of psychology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, discussed direct effects of multiple aspects of couple and family functioning that he believes should be important in protecting families, including increased family resilience.

Predicting eradication of major childhood diseases

Rohani, 2020 Regents’ Professor and University of Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Ecology and Infectious Diseases in the Odum School of Ecology and the College of Veterinary Medicine, began his presentation with a topic on the forefront of many minds across the globe: infectious disease. Although he mentioned the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen, Rohani focused on reemerging infectious diseases and what happens when that emergence event takes place.

The discussion elucidated the ways in which researchers can use statistical approaches to anticipate disease reemergence and once the disease reemerges, how researchers can create effect means of control and mitigation.

Rohani spoke about a machine learning algorithm he and his colleagues implemented that provides them with a pipeline to take in data like surveillance data that allows for the calculation of early warning signals.

“Our algorithm tells us how to weight each of these measures through time, and then we produce an ensemble of these algorithms into an emergent risk,” he said. “We identify a threshold so that when the emergence risk is below that threshold … we don’t predict approach to the tipping point, but when it exceeds the threshold, we have a detection event and we sound an alarm.”

Using data from mumps in England, Rohani visualized the concept before coming full circle by mentioning the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now, we’re actively working towards an endgame strategy for COVID-19 in terms of how we vaccinate in the presence of vaccine hesitation … which could be a major barrier,” he said.

Analyzing the role of ‘Nuremberg women’

Amann, 2021 Regents’ Professor and the Emily and Ernest Woodruff Chair in International Law in the School of Law, spoke on a subject she’s researched for years and is present in her upcoming book, Nuremberg Women. The book zeros in on six women who represent a multinational cohort of women professionals active during the 13 trials in Nuremberg, Germany, from 1945-1949.

A recurring theme during her presentation is the concept of monstrosity: the monsters on trial, the Nazi regime’s monstrous crimes, the monster of a trial that involved thousands of people and the physical depiction of a monster, present in the form of a bronze mask that hung over the courtroom. The mask is believed to be an image of Medusa, the woman in Greek mythology who has venomous snakes in place of hair that strike evil.

“This has been striking to me in my work because she also turns out to be … a bit of a feminist icon. The story of the Medusa … is in some ways an inspiration and a reminder to think through what the existence and work experience would’ve been of the women I’m interested in,” she said.

Those women—many of them journalists, some working as analysts, interpreters and even lawyers—are included in Amann’s database and represent a diverse group of professionals of various races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexualities, gender expression, political ideologies and socioeconomic statuses.

“It’s the intersection and interplay of these identities at one of the major projects of the mid-20th century,” she said. “The work is a work of legal history … and what I do then is analyze these intersecting identities and these varying experiences that come with them.”

The event, designated a spring 2021 Signature Lecture, ended with a series of questions from the audience, moderated by S. Jack Hu, the senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.