The Future…Not What It Used to Be

USC Dornsife 2020’s newest research clusters probe immigration issues, visual studies and changes in neural systems as one ages.
ByPamela J. Johnson

USC Dornsife 2020 calls for professors to identify a theme of great societal importance for years to come and form research groups to investigate solutions. Each cluster includes faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers who work across departments, centers, institutes and schools at USC.

Launched Fall 2010, one cluster studies the impact of climate change on Southern California’s ocean and coastal ecosystems. Another looks at highly charged public debates at the intersection of science, technology and society, such as stem cell research and teaching creationism in public schools. Here are the some of the newest clusters.

A New American Narrative

The year is 2042. If you are white and living in the United States, you are a minority, according to Census Bureau projections.

“By 2042, the U.S. is going to look completely different in terms of who’s being born, going through the school system, being educated in college and who’s joining the workforce,” said Ange-Marie Hancock, associate professor of political science and gender studies in USC Dornsife.

“For the next 20 years, how immigrants integrate into society will be one of the key areas of discussion throughout the nation. At USC Dornsife, the topic is becoming a core specialty.”

The country’s first graduate certificate in immigrant integration is being created through USC Dornsife 2020 — cross-discipline research clusters exploring societal issues crucial today and into the future. The “Taking the Next Step: Enhancing Graduate Education and Scholarship on Immigrant Integration” group is the brainchild of Hancock, associate director of USC Dornsife’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII), and Manuel Pastor, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and CSII director.

Certificate graduates will be trained to collect and analyze data using disciplines such as sociology and American, ethnic and gender studies. There will be dissertation development workshops and funding for CSII research assistantships.

CSII researchers gather data to study the impact of immigrants who meld into the American fabric without abandoning their own traditions. “Integration” is the topic as opposed to assimilation, when immigrants shed most of their host country’s customs.

“USC can be the go-to place for anybody who’s producing scholarship in this area,” Hancock said. “Whether it’s research about health care, public schools, community safety — all of these key issues will include a component of immigrant integration by 2042.”

Living in a Photoshopped World

No matter what they told you, seeing is not always believing.

The “Seeing 20/20: The USC Visual Studies Research Institute” cluster teaches participants how to critically examine the constant barrage of images in an increasingly visual world. Everything from paintings to newspaper and television images to billboards, graffiti and sculptures is being deconstructed.

Led by Kate Flint, Provost Professor of English and Art History, the cluster builds on the success of USC Dornsife’s Visual Studies Graduate Certificate program that began in 2006. The institute explores the nature of visual evidence across disciplines and in society as a whole.

“We want undergraduates, graduates and colleagues not to take their visual surroundings for granted,” Flint said of the effort to begin in Fall 2012. “And to think intelligently and questioningly about what use we make of images. And, in a sense, the use that images make of us.”

Today, images can be accessed at any time over the Internet, Flint noted. “What does it mean to be able to access the world visually in a way that we couldn’t before?” she asked. “What difference does it make if an image can be transmitted globally within seconds to communicate protests and wars?”

Through courses, international speakers, workshops and field trips, participants look at the appeal and distraction of images. When teaching visual studies, Flint has used her own research on flash photography as a topic of study.

“If you think about press photographers, paparazzi and the uncle who might be taking photographs at a family gathering, people think about flash photographs as invasive or irritating. But once upon a time it was thought of as a means of allowing people to see what they couldn’t otherwise see.”

During a Spring 2012 conference, neuroscientists such as USC Dornsife’s Antonio Damasio spoke about activity in the brain when people see things in their imaginations. David Freedberg of Columbia University discussed his research on Renaissance art and what occurs in the brain when a viewer sees something violent in a painting.

“[Freedberg’s] research showed the way in which our bodies, or at least our brains, mimic the response to being present in the threat of actual violence,” Flint said. “We are thinking through different ways of providing evidence for how we see in our mind’s eye. Making visible, if you like, the invisible.”

Delayed Gratification

Neural evidence shows that the elderly rely on habits more than younger people, who are more impulsive and emotion driven. As one gets older, the brain’s impulse system decreases in activity. The ability to learn new habits wanes.

This may explain why older people become dependent on the place they live and may find traveling or moving into a retirement home extremely stressful.

“It’s good to know there’s a neurobasis to explain why it’s so hard for many elderly people to adapt to change,” said Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business in USC Dornsife, who is heading the USC Dornsife 2020 research cluster, “Adapting to Downturn, Rising with Recovery: Multi-Method Training for Social, Behavioral and Brain Scientists.”

The group is examining lifespan changes in neural systems underlying self-control and decision-making.

Graduate training, courses and speakers from throughout the world are addressing how self-control varies across the lifespan, affecting decision-making. Typically, successful decisions involve suppressing bad habits and tempting urges to choose smaller, short-term rewards and instead selecting larger, future rewards. Because the neural systems underlying deliberation, habits and tempting urges mature and decline at differing rates across one’s lifespan, the neural sources of self-control failure shift from children to older people.

“How do little kids decide to delay gratification and do homework rather than play?” Wood asked. “How do elderly people learn to eat a healthy diet when they no longer have people around them reminding them?”

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data, researchers are identifying lifespan shifts associated with self-control decisions in a graduate course, “Social Neuroscience of Self-Control,” taught by Wood and John Monterosso, associate professor of psychology.

“Think about how people adapt to circumstances,” Wood said. “We’re living through major changes in the economy, higher unemployment rates and stagnated incomes. This research shows us how we cope with a variety of changes in our lives.”