Research stories

Recent notable research at the University of Virginia

Pick a number, not just any number : Call it another blow to our faith in rational decision-making. In a new paper, UVA professors Patrick Dennis and Benjamin Converse present strong evidence to argue that all numbers are not equal in our minds. Instead, when choosing from an infinite range of possible numbers, even professional stock traders show a clear preference for what the researchers call “prominent numbers”—a specific and repeating subset of round numbers. The researchers theorize that these prominent numbers—1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000 and so on—provide an easy mental “zooming” tool, a cognitive shortcut for narrowing the choice of numbers when making numerical judgments in the absence of specific criteria. In other words, when life asks us to pick a number, any number, these prominent numbers function for users of base-10/decimal numbering systems “like landmarks on a map,” says Converse, helping us to quickly and easily refine our selection. Read more.

Sweet mysteries of life : Edward Egelman, a professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics, studies ancient single-cell organisms found in some of Earth’s most extreme environments—like acid hot springs—that are hostile to most forms of life. In such inhospitable conditions, how do “extremophiles” survive? While studying one such organism, Sulfolobus islandicus, Egelman and a team of researchers examined the long, hairy appendages called pili that, Rapunzel-like, extend from the cell to many times its length. The pili, says Egelman, “were indestructible using the normal lab techniques we have for taking things apart”—including boiling in lye. What extraordinary substance, they wondered, could provide such impenetrable protection? After nearly a year of work, they found an unexpected answer: sugars.  Read more.

It’s hot and getting hotter : Imagine a future where the hottest, most oppressively humid days of the year would be measured not in days or weeks but months. This is the alarming scenario outlined in a recent study conducted by UVA researchers that focused on nine countries in the Great Lakes region of East Africa.Published this summer in the journal Climatic Change, the study drew on a sophisticated climate modeling system to predict how an average annual temperature increase of only a few degrees by the end of this century would be experienced by residents of the region in the form of “heat stress” days. These occur when apparent temperature (a measure of how hot it feels, based on both heat and humidity) rises above 102 degrees Fahrenheit.  Read more

Gender influences perceptions of business leaders : When a company experiences a failure, does our judgment about the company—and the failure—vary depending on whether the company’s leader is a man or a woman? Past research has demonstrated that women in leadership roles may receive less credit or reward than their male counterparts for a company’s success. But professors Amanda Cowen and Nicole Votolato Montgomery of the McIntire School of Commerce wanted to know whether a leader’s gender affected perceptions of a company—and a continued willingness to support that company—after a failure.  Read more.

Early infant nurture may affect gene expression : A new study from the University of Virginia’s Department of Psychology offers evidence to suggest how experience in infancy could affect gene expression in a developing child. The research field of epigenetics examines how environmental factors, from diet to family dynamics, might affect how or to what degree particular genes are “switched on” or “switched off.” In a study published in Science Advances, a research team led by Dr. Kathleen Krol found evidence to suggest that when mothers actively engage with their infants, there is a positive effect on expression of the infant’s oxytocin receptor gene.  Read more.

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