How recent research out of BYU shows its scholarship is both ‘wide and deep’

From exercise to icebergs and leopards to social media, take a look at some of the research coming out of BYU

Among the diverse institutions that make up the Church Educational System, Brigham Young University is the only one that is research-focused. 

With that, the university has a responsibility, BYU President Kevin J Worthen told the Church News in 2021, to provide students with “wide and deep engagement with the world.” 

“Through faith-based teaching and student-centered research, BYU aims to produce students of excellence who make a distinctive and profound impact on the world,” he said.

From exercise to icebergs and leopards to social media, recent research from BYU shows how the school is providing “wide and deep engagement with the world” and ways in which students and faculty are making a “profound impact.” Here’s a look at some of the published studies within just the last few months.

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Why women shouldn’t be excluded from exercise research

Female subjects are excluded from over 90% of studies on exercise performance and fatigability because hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle are thought to affect exercise capability. A BYU study shows it’s crucial to include women in exercise research. | Daxiao Productions - stock.adobe

A BYU study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows why it’s crucial to include women in exercise research.

What many don’t realize is that over 90% of studies on exercise performance and fatiguability exclude female subjects. Why? It’s believed that hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle affect capability, which could muddy the data and make women’s inclusion too complicated.

However, Jessica Linde, who led the study for her BYU master’s thesis in exercise science, found that “females with regular cycles performed the same between the high-estrogen phase, the high-progesterone phase and during menstruation, when there are low concentrations of both.”

Workout to workout, women’s performance was consistent. “That information lifts a big barrier,” Linde said in a BYU news release. “It shows we shouldn’t be excluding women from research based on the idea that their menstrual cycles are going to skew the results.”

Not only did a menstrual cycle not affect a woman’s exercise performance, but the study also highlighted key differences between women’s and men’s endurance. For example, women reached exhaustion from muscle fatigue about 18% faster than men, even when adjusting for muscle mass, possibly because women’s bodies may naturally reserve more energy.

“The assumption in exercise research has long been that women are like men, just smaller,” said BYU exercise science professor and co-author Jayson Gifford. “Our study suggests that they’re not, that there are important differences between women’s and men’s exercise. Including more women in research will allow us to fine tune approaches to women’s physiology.”

Why managers should be more like Mr. Spock

Research from BYU Marriott School of Business shows that innovation can be hampered when organizations prioritize “psychological safety” at the expense of intellectual honesty. | BYU photo

Research published by BYU Marriott School of Business professors Jeff Dyer and Taeya Howell explores the tension between what they call “psychological safety” and “intellectual honesty” in promoting innovation.

The study, published in MIT Sloan Management Review, discusses how in order to create an environment where innovation can thrive, a team must be able to speak freely and be open to disagree and debate. However, managers who focus solely on creating an environment where people feel accepted and comfortable sharing ideas and concerns — or a “psychologically safe” place — can actually hamper innovation.

“A focus on social cohesion and making people feel safe can undermine honest, candid debate,” explained Dyer, the study coauthor and Horace Beesley distinguished professor of strategy at BYU Marriott School of Business, in a BYU news release.

On the other hand, being blunt or brutally honest in a discussion — think Steve Jobs — can make people feel less safe and less likely to share concerns and mistakes. 

Leaders who can balance psychological safety and intellectual honesty gain the benefits of both. 

In other words, ideally innovators and their teams create a culture where individuals can voice ideas and disagreements in a rational and constructive way — like the “Star Trek” character Mr. Spock — while also acknowledging their human emotions and biases.

“The challenge for most leaders is to learn how to be more like Mr. Spock by promoting candid debate on the problems the team needs to solve in a hyperrational, non-biased way that defuses interpersonal conflict,” Dyer explained. 

Antarctic icebergs in the 1700s vs. today

Tourists get close to icebergs and the Antarctic coast during a shirt excursions on a Zodiac boat in Brown Bluff, Antarctica, in December 2005. A new BYU study compares explorer observations from the 1700s with modern satellite datasets. | Brian Witte, Associated Press

From 1772 to 1775, Captain James Cook circumnavigated Antarctica on the HMS Resolution. When possible, Cook recorded in his journal his position alongside his iceberg observations, which he referred to as “ice islands,” “ice isles” and “hills of ice.”

“Cook kept pretty good records, but they’re not perfect,” noted David G. Long, BYU professor of electrical and computer engineering. “They’re basically journal entries. He took some days off. Sometimes he would just say ‘saw a lot of ice in the ocean.’”

It was enough, though. Using Cook’s journals, a trio of researchers from BYU, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography made comparisons with the two largest modern datasets: the BYU/National Ice Center and Alfred Wegener Institute datasets.

They found that Cook’s description of the iceberg distributions agree with modern data. They also found additional iceberg tracking by Edmond Halley in 1700, Lozier Bouvet in 1739 and Edward Riou in 1789 are also consistent with modern data.

“Where they saw icebergs, we see icebergs now; where they didn’t seem them, we don’t see them,” said Long, the study’s coauthor.

Since the databases they use track large icebergs that are not as sensitive to climate change, the study doesn’t necessarily make a connection to global warming issues, Long said, but the result of no significant iceberg change from 1700 to 2000s is fascinating to consider.

“It’s the first comparison that I’m aware of, of a satellite iceberg database with pre-modern era data,” Long said. “I have always been proud that my database goes back multiple decades, but here we’re going back multiple centuries.”

Mapping the genome of an endangered wild cat

Researchers from BYU and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute are doing their best to help protect an endangered species of wild cat by studying its genetics. 

Both species of the clouded leopard — named for it cloud-spotted fur coat — have dwindling populations due to habitat destruction, poachers and other threats. 

Their study, published in the journal iScience, details how the team sequenced the entire genome of both species of the wild cat — the Sunda clouded leopard and the Mainland clouded leopard. They found that the clouded leopard diverged into two separate species much earlier than previously thought.

Why does that matter? “The deeper the species divergence, the more genetic differences are accumulated over time,” explained Paul Frandsen, BYU professor and study author, in a BYU news release. “If two species diverged 5 million years ago versus 2 million years ago, that just gives a lot more time for the genome to accumulate unique variation. That’s critical for conservation because we want to maintain that unique variation within the species.”

Self-censoring on social media

Woman with long blonde hair taps on a smartphone she is holding.
Research out of BYU shows moderate conservatives, independents, and moderate liberals are self-censoring on social media and creating a silencing effect of the majority. |

When slogging through a slew of posts on social media, it may seem natural to assume that those opinions represent the majority, but a study out of BYU finds that conversations on social media are being driven by the far left and right, not the majority in the middle.

The study, published in the Social Media + Society journal, asked participants about their social media use, how worried they are about losing friends on social media due to political differences, and how likely they were to self-censor their social media comments.

The results showed that most people — moderate Democrats and Republicans — are self-censoring their comments on social media to not create contention, lose friends online or be perceived a certain way. 

“Those on the far left and far right are the ones speaking up on social media,” said Devin Knighton, BYU public relations professor and co-author of the study, in a BYU news release. “They report lower levels of self-censorship than those who are moderate.”

To understand the impact of the vocal minority on social media, Knighton, along with BYU public relations professor Chris Wilson and graduate student Alycia Burnett, surveyed more than 1,000 participants from a nationwide sample.

Knighton says their findings serve as a reminder to recognize that what you read on social media doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the broader population and that individuals sharing articles online likely lean toward one extreme or the other.

Are robots taking over?

A BYU study found that robots aren’t replacing humans at the rate most people think, but people are prone to exaggerate the rate of robot takeover. | Jaren Wilkey, BYU

With chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT making headlines and computer programs tracking and moving packages without the use of human hands, it may feel like robots are extensively disrupting the labor market.

But there’s no need to panic about a pending robot takeover, according to research by BYU sociology professor Eric Dahlin. Robots are not taking jobs at the rate most people think.

The study, published in Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, found that only 14% of workers in the sample saw their job replaced by a robot. However, the results also showed that respondents’ perceptions of how many employees have been replaced by robots is inflated. 

“Overall, our perceptions of robots taking over is greatly exaggerated,” said Dahlin. “Those who hadn’t lost jobs overestimated by about double, and those who had lost jobs overestimated by about three times.”

Dahlin said these findings are consistent with previous studies, which suggest that robots aren’t displacing workers. Rather, workplaces are integrating both employees and robots.

Making nuclear energy safer

BYU chemical engineering professor Matthew Memmott works in his lab on campus. He and his colleagues developed a molten salt reactor to make nuclear energy production safer. | Brooklynn Jarvis Kelson, BYU photo

While nuclear energy might be the key to clean energy, it also has a greater risk of a Chernobyl-type disaster if something goes wrong.

A nuclear power plant produces 8,000 times more power than fossil fuels and is environmentally friendly, but during the 1986 Chernobyl accident nearly 100 people died.

A new system designed by BYU chemical engineering professor and nuclear engineering expert Matthew Memmott and his colleagues has the ability to make nuclear energy production safer.

“Nuclear energy can be extremely safe and extremely affordable, if done the right way,” Memmott said in a BYU news release. “It’s a very good solution to the energy situation we’re in because there are no emissions or pollution from it.”

Memmott explained that as uranium atoms are split to create energy, the leftover products radiate massive amounts of heat. They are stored in solid fuel rods with water running through them to cool everything down. If the rods overheat, the facility is at risk for a nuclear meltdown. 

In Memmott’s reactor, the radioactive byproducts are stored in molten salt instead of fuel rods. Not only does the new reactor help negate the danger of a nuclear meltdown but the byproducts of the reaction can be safely removed from the salt and sold.

The reactor is also much smaller and can produce enough energy to power 1,000 American homes. Memmott compared the molten salt reactor to a silicon chip, which took computers from filling an entire room to the small, efficient devices we have today.

“We can have smaller, safer, cheaper reactors and get rid of those problems.”

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to ChatGPT as Google’s. It was developed by OpenAI.

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