University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Discoveries

Discoveries

"Schools and Mental Health", "Beta Diversity and a Changing Climate", "PFAs May Not Be Forever"

PHOTO by cdr-lter; cc by-sa 4.0

Schools and Mental Health

Childhood rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses remain stubbornly high, even after students returned to in-person learning post pandemic. In 2021 an estimated 1 in 5 U.S. adolescents had a major depressive disorder, and fewer than half of adolescents who needed treatment were able to access services.

Researchers in the School of Public Health investigated the practice of placing licensed mental health clinicians directly in schools to work alongside the school’s existing counselors and social workers. This school-based mental health (SBMH) approach allows schools to more quickly identify students who need support and connect them to services. It is also a more effective way to treat students who lack health insurance or have other barriers to receiving care.

Researchers studied data from 263 K-12 schools in Hennepin County, many of which implemented SBMH between 2001 and 2019. The study found the program increased students’ access to mental health services by 8 percent, and rates of attempted suicide decreased by 15 percent.

“There is a clear need for additional mental health resources for children and adolescents in the U.S.,” says Ezra Golberstein, an associate professor in SPH and lead author of the study. “School-based mental health cannot solve all mental health, behavioral, and learning challenges, but this study is evidence that it can be a valuable investment in the well-being of children and adolescents.”

This study originally appeared in the October 6, 2023 issue of the Journal of
Human Resources.

Beta Diversity and a Changing Climate

As climate change forces humans and animals to adapt, plant life is also having to adjust to new conditions. Researchers at the College of Biological Sciences are looking at climate change’s impact on beta diversity, which is how species thrive exclusively in specific habitats.

Researchers examined the Cedar Creek Ecosys-tem Science Reserve (above) in East Bethel, which has several distinct habitats in one place. They were interested in how beta diversity affects plant biomass in any given area, which is crucial for various ecological and environmental functions, including carbon sequestration and supporting food webs. Researchers looked at five habitats: oak savanna, where bur oak tree dominates; coniferous forest, where white pine dominates; deciduous forest, where red maple dominates; bog, where tamarack dominates; and an old grassland where big bluestem dominates. They transplanted seedlings from these species to each habitat in both monocultures and mixtures of multiple species planted together, and then used seedling survival to measure the rate of biomass production, known as ecosystem productivity.

The aim is to help researchers preserve biomass as the climate changes. “Plant establishment can be very difficult in this experiment because they have to be able to survive as seedlings in a new environment,” says Karen Castillioni, a postdoctoral research associate in CBS. “We are trying to track if they can become established adults. And then, in the long term, we can start measuring things like productivity, things like how much biomass the trees and grasses produce over time as they occupy different ecosystems in the landscape.”

The first results of this ongoing experiment were published in the November 9, 2023 issue of Landscape Ecology.

PFAs May Not Be Forever

Polyfluorinated chemicals (PFAS) make everyday products resistant to anything from raindrops to burnt food residue. They’re also toxic; hazardous to humans, animals, and the environment, and extremely slow to break down, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” PFAS remediation has already cost billions of dollars, including a recent landmark $10.3 billion dollar lawsuit involving Minnesota-based 3M.

Some scientists say breaking these chemicals down biologically is impossible. But a team of U of M researchers wanted to understand why PFAS are so hard to remove from the environment. They identified an enzyme that can degrade fluorinated compounds and engineered a bacterium (called Pseudomonas putida ATCC 12633) to make the enzyme. Researchers then showed how and why the breakdown of the chemical is toxic to the bacterium and discovered a way to overcome that.

“Although the element fluorine has always been present on Earth, it was mostly bound up in rocks where living organisms were not exposed to it,” says coauthor Lawrence Wackett, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences. “Our study has laid a foundation that can make biological breakdown of PFAS in the environment possible in an inexpensive and efficient way.”

This research originally appeared in the December 8, 2023 issue of mBio.

Thanks to the team at University Public Relations for their help with these briefs.


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