Archive | May, 2012

The neighbors upstairs

31 May

A gray squirrel has a snack on campus.

For the past year, my boyfriend and I have shared our home with another couple. They lived above us. We could hear them walking around up there, and we suspect we heard them copulating above our own bed. The problem we had with this couple, though, was that they never paid rent. This is probably because they were squirrels.

The situation came to a head a couple of weeks ago. We had been away for the weekend, and came home to discover one of our upstairs neighbors lounging on our couch underneath an afghan. How did he get there, you ask? He fell into a wall, wasn’t able to climb back up into the rafters, and decided to chew his way out through the wall.

Once I got past the trauma of having a squirrel running around my house digging through the aloe plants and cuddling under the blanket my mom crocheted for me, I began to wonder how and why these squirrels chose our attic — of all places — to be. Was this normal? And did we need to worry about squirrel diseases or something haunting our house now?

Who better to ask than our resident squirrel expert, Carolyn Mahan?

A professor of biology at Penn State Altoona, Mahan’s specific area of study is the behavioral ecology of flying squirrels. Nonetheless she was game to talk with me for about half an hour on a Friday afternoon about my Squirrel Situation.

I learned that all species of squirrels either make a drey — a bowl- or ball-nest — or find a cavity to build their nests in — like our house.

“There was probably a gap,” said Mahan, of how the squirrels got into the attic in the first place. “They don’t need a lot of space to get through.”

According to Mahan, squirrels will readily chew through vinyl siding or wood if there is some sort of hole or gap started there already. And in the case of the insulation the squirrels were pulling out of our roof and throwing onto the deck, it most likely was simply in their way.

An important answer I got from the gracious Dr. Mahan: there will be no squirrel diseases haunting our house. The most danger a squirrel poses, Mahan said, is its habit of chewing through plastic coating on wires — which could in turn lead to either an electrocuted squirrel or a fire hazard in the house.

The good news is the squirrel didn’t do much damage in our house — aside from the nice squirrel-sized hole in our bedroom wall. There doesn’t appear to be any wire damage, and we have since patched up the hole that the squirrels were using as their front door.

There are plenty of nice trees in our neighborhood. Maybe they can hang out in one of those?

Tell me about critter escapades in your own home/office/other personal space in the comments section below. I’m sure we’re not the only ones with a ridiculous story to tell!


Enforcing Big Pharma’s integrity

22 May

Katrice Bridges Copeland once worked as an attorney in Washington, D.C., defending pharmaceutical companies in fraud cases. The experience was an eye-opener. Now she teaches white-collar criminal law at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law, where her research targets illegal marketing practices by the pharmaceutical industry. Most of the illegalities stem from off-label marketing of prescription medications. Such uses constitute fraud because companies receive government reimbursements for those drugs even though the purposes are not FDA-approved.

Copeland maintains that federal deterrents against such practices are ineffective, and she offers some solutions that she says will help solve the problem. The government pays out a whopping $60 billion a year in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to drug companies, so what she has to say is getting national attention. See a recent USA Today story, for example.

What usually happens, Copeland explains, is that the government launches an intense investigation of a drug company’s alleged violations, the company admits guilt and pays a fine—and then becomes a repeat offender. Another investigation and fine may follow, but the fines are often outweighed by the increased profits that accrue from the illegal practices.

The government is generally unwilling to pursue pharmaceutical manufacturers through the courts because as the law stands now, conviction means excluding a company from receiving any Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements for any of its drugs. That would seriously harm innocent parties: shareholders, employees, and patients who are prescribed any of the company’s drugs. (Patients would have to pay for their medications from their own pockets.)

Copeland suggests several solutions to the problem, including holding corporate officers who participate in illegal practices criminally liable, and removing only the drug in question from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. Innocent third parties would be shielded from the devastating consequences of having all the company’s pharmaceuticals excluded.

Copeland explains in this brief Penn State Law video what prompted her research. Her recent paper, “Enforcing Integrity” offers more details about her proposed solutions.

Penn State Research is On the Road!

11 May

Good morning from our nation’s capitol! I traveled to Washington, D.C. yesterday for the launch of the University’s newest outreach program, Research on the Road. The concept? To bring faculty researchers to locations around the country with active alumni chapters for lively conversations on timely topics.

We could not have had better partners for our inaugural Research on the Road event than the dynamic folks of the Metro D.C. Penn State alumni chapter!

We gathered in the Holeman Lounge at the historic and centrally located National Press Club (where chapter board member Joshua Funk is on staff) and the vivacious crowd of alumni were in a great mood for some after-work hours learning, some networking, and some festive drinks and nibbles.

Penn State political science professor (and academic director of the University’s Survey Research Center) Eric Plutzer (below) got us all thinking with some fascinating (and non-partisan!) food-for-thought.

His topic? How we form our political opinions, affiliations and voting behavior–and how and why we react to negative campaign ads. Think we’ll be seeing any of those in the months ahead? There were some laughs, nods of agreement, and even a shock or two at some slides Eric showed us. (DC folks, are you still picturing that spider image? For those who weren’t there, how would you react to a photo of a spider crawling on someone’s face? This brought out the point that conservatives and liberals have been found to have different biological reflexes when viewing startling images.)

The crowd of alumni definitely grasped that these gatherings are discussions, not lectures, and jumped right in with lots of excellent questions. A+ to you all!

Exciting events like Research on the Road only happen with the support and on-the-ground work of dedicated people. We appreciate the support of University Relations  VP Bill Mahon. It was great to have him in attendance for the launch last night.

Bill Mahon, right, chats with members
of the DC alumni chapter

And we definitely could not have pulled off the successful evening without the enthusiastic help of Metro DC chapter president Dave Fites (’02) and board member Josh Funk (’04) as well as Andrew Fett (’01). If anyone reading this wants to bring Research on the Road to their alumni chapter, give me a shout.

l to r: Andrew Fetts; Josh Funk; Dave Fites

Interesting to note that Andrew just helped found the Smeal Business Club DC, a networking and prof group for Smeal College of Business grads in the metro DC area. (Check facebook and LinkedIn for more info!)

Speaking of social media, these guys were all over it in promoting our event, as were Penn State’s own social media team. With help like this, look for #researchontheroad trending strong in the months ahead!

Remember, there are (usually?) real live people behind all that tweeting–and behind the blogging too, so I’ll close with a photo of yours truly with that iconic National Press Club sign. Where are we headed next? Stay tuned!

Do students value an easy A?

9 May

Do students typically gravitate toward college courses that are more likely to yield an “easy A, ” instead of taking more difficult classes that will make greater demands on their time without the assurance of a high grade?  Also, in their subsequent course evaluations, do students who take the so-called easy classes rate them higher and the tough ones correspondingly lower?

An interdisciplinary team of Penn State researchers, including faculty from the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Penn State World Campus, decided to find out, aiming to “help inform how we approach course preparation and teaching,” according to Lawrence Ragan, World Campus director of faculty development.

The researchers recently surveyed a group of University Park campus students to see what these students really value in their courses, including the single best predictor of how much liked or disliked a course.

A news story highlights what they found. You can download more detailed reports of their findings at the team’s Schreyer Institute site.

Wanted: Global Strategy that works

4 May

“If one considers where America was 20 years ago and compares that to where the United States is today, in terms of its ability to achieve its own stated, high-priority objectives in the world, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the United States is a declining power.”

That’s Flynt Leverett, professor in Penn State’s School of International Affairs, in a recent public lecture at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law.

U.S. power is waning, Leverett added, “because, since the end of the Cold War, American political and policy elites have failed to do their job as strategists.  They have failed to define clear, ‘reality-based’ strategic goals and to relate the diplomatic, economic, and military tools at Washington’s disposal to realizing these goals in a sober and efficacious manner.”

Leverett speaks from more than an academic perspective. Before coming to Penn State in 2003, he held positions with the CIA, the State Department, and most recently as senior director for Middle East affairs with the National Security Council. His opinion pieces have appeared in CNN, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, and Politico, and he is a frequent guest in national media ranging from “Charlie Rose” and “Frontline” to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

In his talk, part of a yearlong series on national security sponsored by the Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs, Leverett identified two competing strategic models: a “global leadership model, whereby the United States seeks to maximize its international standing and influence through adroit management of regional and global power balances,” and a “global transformation model, whereby the United States seeks not to manage the balance of power but to transcend it.”

The chief reason why American policy is failing, he argued, “is because, since the end of the Cold War, the global transformation model has gained almost complete ascendancy over the global leadership model in American policy circles.

“The pursuit of hegemony,” Leverett added, “in the face of objective, material reality, is not just quixotic—it is deeply counter-productive for a great power’s strategic position… Pursuing hegemony actually ends up making you weaker.  And that is the story of American foreign policy over the last 20 years.”

Want more? You can catch the whole talk here.

Or check out, a prominent online forum for policy analysis regarding Iran and the broader Middle East that Leverett publishes with his wife and frequent co-author, Hillary Mann Leverett.

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