Thursday, March 27, 2014

Murder, golf carts, and unintended consequences

In his bestselling book Freakonomics, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, Ph.D., showed how sophisticated math—and a knack for asking the right questions—can uncover "the hidden side of everything," from the bare-knuckle finances of a crack-dealing gang to the very real dangers of suburban pools.

You could say that Griffin Edwards, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing, Industrial Distribution, and Economics in the UAB Collat School of Business, is taking freakonomics to court.

Edwards entered college "trying to figure out if I should be a lawyer or an economist." He ended up combining the two. Edwards specializes in empirical legal studies, a young discipline that applies the high-powered statistical methods of economics to lawmaking. By crunching everything from murder rates to crop yields, he is revealing the unintended consequences of mental health legislation, Prohibition, and more.

To Warn or Not to Warn
For decades, mental health professionals have chafed against "duty to warn" laws, which require them to notify authorities if their clients threaten others or themselves.

These laws can be traced back to a landmark California Supreme Court decision, Tarasoff vs. Regents of the University of California. Tarasoff was a young woman murdered in October 1969 by an unbalanced graduate student who had previously confessed his intentions to his psychologist.
In the years since, 43 states have passed so-called "duty to warn" laws. Some require mental health professionals to warn the authorities or the threatened party. Others say professionals can warn at their discretion.
Griffin Edwards

Giving a warning "may seem like a reasonable response, but from a psychologist's point of view, it is not," Edwards says. "They argue that the whole reason the doctor-patient relationship works is that everything said is confidential." According to mental health professionals, such laws make it less likely that potential victims will be protected, because patients will be less likely to divulge violent plans—and that means fewer opportunities for professionals to intervene through counseling.

"This debate has been going on for years," Edwards says, and determining an answer is not obvious. How can you tally up the number of people who were prevented from murder, or suicide, by a psychologist's warning? That is the goal of the law, after all, to stop these events from happening.

Unintended Consequences
Edwards came up with a solution: If the mental health professionals were right, there should be an increase in suicides and murders in states after these laws are passed. But you need to be careful to tease out this signal from a sea of other possible contributing factors. For example, suicide rates are higher in the Pacific Northwest due to the gloomy weather and plentiful supply of isolated bridges, Edwards points out.

Murder rates fluctuate as a factor of policing strategies, drug violence, and a host of other reasons.
So Edwards compared statistics from states after they passed duty to warn laws to the data from the same states prior to passing the laws. Then he compared that difference to the numbers from one of the states that have never passed duty to warn laws. Using econometric techniques, "I'm able to control for a lot," Edwards says. "This allows me to infer something similar to a randomized controlled trial, but with laws and states instead of individuals."

What happened? "I found that the psychologists are right," Edwards says. In a paper published in 2013 in The International Review of Law and Economics, "I found that these laws actually increase suicides among teens, but have no effect on adult suicides," he notes.

In a separate paper forthcoming at the Journal of Law and Economics, Edwards found that "homicides increase by anywhere from 5 to 7 percent" after mandatory duty to warn laws are passed. "Permissive" laws, which say mental health professionals can warn potential victims or the police, had no statistically significant effect.

"We tell our students that the great thing about economics is it's the study of everything," Edwards says. His own research interests range from mental health legislation to the effects of golf cart use on a player's score. "I try to do research that's not totally boring to my wife."
Edwards is now examining involuntary commitment laws. "Every state has a different length of time you can commit someone involuntarily if you suspect they are a danger to themselves or others," he explains. In some states the period is three days; in some it is three years. He wants "to see if locking someone up is actually stopping the crime from happening or just delaying it."

Grain and Greens
Edwards's interests range far beyond mental health. "We tell our students that the great thing about economics is it's the study of everything," he says. He has used official government data on hops and barley crops to estimate how much people were drinking during Prohibition (not as much as you may think), and pored over medical records to determine the effects of Prohibition on infant health (banning alcohol was good for babies).

Edwards is "really excited" about a new paper on golf carts and player performance—a question that caused an uproar in the early 2000s. Casey Martin, a talented golfer born with a degenerative knee condition that makes him unable to get around the course without a cart, sued the Professional Golf Association (PGA), which wouldn't let him use a cart in its mandatory Qualifying School. His case made it to the Supreme Court. The justices agreed with Martin's lawyers that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies at Pebble Beach and Augusta National just as much as it does in any other public place.

Many commentators were outraged. "Lots of people were saying, 'He's ruined sports; pretty soon we're going to see quarterbacks on crutches and referees with seeing-eye dogs,'" Edwards says.
The PGA and its defenders argued that walking was a crucial part of the game. But, Edwards wondered, how much of an advantage did Martin really get from his cart?

Searching for evidence, Edwards hit on a quirk of NCAA scheduling for college golf tournaments. Because these events need to be fit into a single weekend, all players use carts on one tournament day, and walk the other day. Analyzing hundreds of tournaments, Edwards found that players scored worse rather than better when they drove carts. (Possibly because the trudge to the next tee helps a player burn off steam from a bad shot on the previous hole, and gives that player a chance to visualize the approach needed on the upcoming hole, Edwards speculates.)

"It actually makes you better to walk," Edwards says. "So not only does it not give him an unfair advantage, it actually puts him at a disadvantage. The point of that paper is, maybe we could be a little more accommodating to people with disabilities."

There is evidence that judges are beginning to cite empirical legal studies research in their opinions, Edwards says—a trend that should continue as the discipline matures. But Edwards also has another motivating factor: "I try to do research that's not totally boring to my wife," he says. "Something she can at least pretend to be interested in."


The UAB Collat School of Business now offers completely online degrees in economics, finance, management, and marketing. Learn more here.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A self-portrait in cells: Grad student gets cheeky with art show entries

"Les Demo-cells d'Avignon"

Pablo Picasso's angular, proto-Cubist "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," painted at the dawn of the 20th century, is one of the foundational works of modern art and a jewel in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

UAB doctoral student Shane Kelly's "Les Demo-cells d'Avignon" (above), currently on display in The Edge of Chaos as part of the annual UAB School of Medicine Art Show, represents new movements in 21st century art and science. "Les Demo-cells" is one of three micrograph images that Kelly has entered in the show. [His two other entries were also inspired by great art: "Cell-Flowers," from Vincent Van Gogh's blockbuster painting "Sunflowers," and "Arigato," whose robot-like appearance reminded Kelly of the classic Styx rock anthem "(Domo Arigato) Mr. Roboto."]

All three images are fluorescent confocal micrographs of cheek cells. "Some are my own and some from friends," Kelly explains. Separate fluorescent probes highlight DNA, the plasma membrane, and actin in the images. The art is definitely an "extracurricular project," says Kelly, who is a graduate research assistant in the lab of microbiologist David Bedwell, Ph.D. He thought it would be fun "to create a type of personal cellular art" by imaging his own cells, inspired by "DNA art" companies such as, which turn DNA samples into poster-size prints.


Kelly's studio is the "mini lab" he built at home. He scoured eBay to buy the centrifuges and other equipment he needed to collect and stain the cells. "Then I rent a microscope from UAB's High Resolution Imaging Facility to acquire the images," he says.

Kelly learned how to use fluorescent confocal microscopy under the tutelage of Shawn Williams at the High Resolution Imaging Facility as part of his day job in the Bedwell lab. Bedwell, a leading cystic fibrosis researcher, is focused on "inducing translation read-through of premature termination codons in order to treat patients with genetic disease," Kelly says.

Roughly 10 percent of patients with cystic fibrosis have a mutation in the CFTR gene that results in a premature "stop" codon, preventing the gene from working properly. Bedwell's lab has identified drugs that suppress these "stop" mutations in experimental models.


"The idea being if a patient has a mutation in a gene that is a stop codon, the patient could take a drug that would allow the translating ribosome to 'read-through' the stop codon and produce the full-length protein," Kelly says. Ultimately, the approach could be applied to treat a wide range of genetic diseases.

Kelly's own work focuses on autophagy, a natural process by which cells rid themselves of "unwanted, unneeded, or damaging proteins," he says. "I'm studying how autophagy is controlled at the messenger RNA level," particularly when a cell is starved of nitrogen. Autophagy mRNA is known to be upregulated during nitrogen starvation, which increases the production of autophagy proteins. "We are studying how this occurs and will be submitting a manuscript of our findings soon," Kelly says.