Highlander Highlights: Week of January 22, 2024

Every two weeks, Highlander Highlights shares with readers some of the extraordinary research and accomplishments happening on and off campus through the tireless work and curiosity of our students and faculty. 

Mock trial team, with its star witness, readies for regionals

Don Martin has some difficult decisions to make.

The faculty coach for Radford University’s mock trial team is preparing his team for the fast-approaching American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) regional tournament. For that competition, Martin must stack his squad into A and B teams. “It’s very difficult to decide which of our talented mockers belong on which team, but those are some tough decisions this coach has to make,” said Martin, a criminal justice instructor at Radford.

The regional competition is set for Feb. 2-4 at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.  At that tournament, Radford will face off against teams from Duke, Wake Forest, William & Mary and other colleges in the region.


Mock trial team

Both Radford mock teams gained experience through practice and had impressive showings over the weekend at the inaugural Queen City Classic Invitational in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“The Radford Mockers made us proud by continuing to be professional, collegial and civil,” Martin said. “Our competitors acknowledged our sportsmanship again by giving us high marks for the Spirit of AMTA prize and an honorable mention finish for that prize.”

The Mockers had an individual winner, too. Criminal justice major Maridel Samson won the Outstanding Witness Award.

Maridel Samson

“It was absolutely a surprise to win the award,” said the senior from Norfolk, Virginia. “It was so exciting, to say the least.”

During the tournament mock trial in Charlotte, Samson played the role of a server at an auction charity gala who witnessed an art heist after criminals landed a helicopter on the building’s roof. She even dressed the part, wearing a server’s apron and a name tag.

“There were dramatic scenes that the server witnessed, which I got creative in acting out,” said Samson, a rookie Radford mocker. “That, I think, the judges really enjoyed. I just wanted to have fun and ease the tension in the room by making people laugh and enjoy the character.”

Ten awards for outstanding witnesses were presented at the invitational, and “I was one of the top-ranked witnesses,” said Samson, who had no previous acting experience.

But Samson’s role wasn’t all about acting. “Witnesses must know the law,” Martin emphasized.

“The other team wants to get information out of her that would help them hurt us,” he explained. “It’s a battle of wits. She has to be engaging and believable as a waitress but also super smart so she doesn’t give them what they need to make their case, and Maribel was interesting, engaging and believable. She was excellent.”

Presenting research in a rainy city

Emily Brandow

Seattle, Washington, is a lovely city to visit, even in early January.

But Emily Brandow and a small group of Radford students didn’t trek 2,700 miles from Radford to the Pacific Northwest just to see the Space Needle and visit Chihuly Garden and Glass and Pike Place Market.

They had people to see, things to talk about.

Specifically, Brandow was in the Emerald City to present her research on zebra finches to the many scientists and educators gathered there for the Society for Integrative and Comparative (SICB) Biology Conference.

The senior biology major – and chemistry minor – from Greensboro, North Carolina, has been working with fellow Radford students and faculty to investigate the effects of social isolation on zebra finches, “which creates moderate psychological stress on different biological systems within a highly social vertebrate species,” Brandow explained.

“We measured stress hormones, body mass/weight, cognitive function, testosterone, immunity and a metabolite – homovanillic acid – of various catecholamines such as epinephrine.”

Brandow has worked on the study with students Austin Swallow and Hunter Rogers, as well as Professor of Biology Jason Davis and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Kristina Stefaniak.

Swallow presented her own research in Seattle, as did several other Radford biology students, including Mark Daniel, Cierra Reed, Sophie Cain, Annie Riffee and Birch Ambrose from the Radford ecophysiology research lab organized by Davis. Also presenting at the SICB conference were Kaitlyn Tracy from Assistant Professor of Biology Sarah Foltz’s lab, Katie Wheeler from Professor of Biology Sarah O’Brien’s lab and Andrea Beverly from Associate Professor and Department of Biology chair Jamie Lau’s lab.

“The work presented by Radford students was incredibly diverse, including a genetic algorithm computer game that we used to test evolutionary patterns and presented in Seattle,” Davis said. “It's pretty charismatic, and we're hoping to expand and do more with it. Plus, it's a nice synthesis of bio and computer science.”

The SICB conference covered various topics within biology, from avian migration to synapse density in slugs, Brandow said, with undergraduate and graduate students, along with Ph.Ds presenting on a long list of topics that included animal behavior, botany, biomechanics, endocrinology, physiology and biochemistry, developmental biology, immunity, ecology and evolution, invertebrates, vertebrates and neurobiology.

Brandow, who is also a member of the Highlanders women’s tennis team, was a finalist for the Riddiford Award, given to the best student-produced poster.

“This experience gave me the chance to not only share my own findings,” Brandow said, “but to listen to a variety of others’ research on so many different topics I had never even thought of or would have ever had the chance to learn, as well as other captivating sightseeing adventures Seattle has to offer.”

Radford University’s Office of Undergraduate Research and the Department of Biology supported the group’s trip to Seattle, where during some downtime, they visited the Space Needle, Chihuly Garden and Glass and Pike Place Market “as well as Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle Public Library and Discovery Park trail,” Brandow said.

Detecting COVID in wastewater

RUC biomedical science student Willow Lehrer (left) and Dr. Jay Rao perform quantitative polymerase chain reaction, “which is the method we use to determine the levels of viral RNA in our samples,” Houser explained.

Radford University Carilion (RUC) Assistant Professor of Biology Sara Houser recently appeared on the “With Good Reason” public radio program to speak about a Virginia Department of Health-funded project she and students are working on to measure COVID in wastewater samples in the Roanoke/Salem area.

About nine RUC undergraduate students have joined Houser on the ongoing project that is examining “wastewater epidemiology and its effectiveness at looking for evidence of infectious agents or their genes in wastewater,” Houser told “With Good Reason” host Sarah McConnell. “We hope to use this information to direct public health measures in response to the virus.”

One of McConnell’s first questions to Houser was, “Are you finding anything interesting?”

“Yes, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, every site that we sampled, of course, had COVID in the wastewater,” Houser replied. “It was all over … and we were able to see the increase in COVID about a week, a week and a half, maybe two weeks before we saw the actual clinical cases of COVID. So, this was truly a good predictor of what was going to be happening in the community.”

McConnell also asked about the process of collecting samples.

“It is just as inglorious as you would imagine,” Houser said. “We take a bucket, a sterile bucket, tie a rope to it and just toss it down into the sewage system, pull it up and pour that water into our sample containers.”

Currently, Houser and students are looking for the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in local wastewater samples.

You can listen to Houser’s interview in its entirety at withgoodreason.org. “With Good Reason” is produced by Virginia Humanities for the Virginia Higher Education Broadcasting Consortium, which comprises all of Virginia’s public colleges and universities.

They said it

A week ago, Sports Illustrated announced a massive round of staff layoffs, leading to speculation that the magazine, once considered the preeminent source of sports journalism, would soon cease to exist. Radford University School of Communication Professor and media historian Bill Kovarik explains why. 

Bill Kovarik, Ph.D.

“Sports Illustrated — once the beloved icon of sports news and photography — has been sidelined for financial irregularities and technical fouls. It probably won’t be back. 

The fouls involved articles scraped up through artificial intelligence bots – an ethical lapse that came to light in November 2023. Worse, the magazine tried to cover it up with AI portraits of the supposed authors. The ruse was quickly spotted, and the editor was fired. 

As advertisers began pulling out, the remaining editorial management faced increasing financial trouble and then, on Jan. 5, 2024, defaulted on the regular quarterly payment to its owners, Authentic Brands Group. Two weeks later, ABG terminated the licensing agreement and laid off most of the editorial staff.      

Let’s pause for a moment of silent reflection in recognition that another great institution is passing us by, headed for the intellectual property boneyards, where its icons will be recycled to brand products like designer swimsuits and tennis shoes.   

Sports Illustrated was founded in 1954 by Henry Luce of the Time-Life group to compete with two of the major sports magazines of the time — Sport (founded 1946) and the venerable Sporting News (founded 1886).   

Back then, people thought Luce was crazy, but his timing was good — illustrated magazines were filling the consumer demand for high-quality visuals, while the dominant media — radio and early television — offered audiences only low-definition visual experiences.     

Sports Illustrated also presented better quality journalism and photography than was possible in daily newspapers at the time, and Luce managed to keep all his magazines a step ahead of the competition.  

In the 1950s and 60s, Sports Illustrated occupied center field by raising the tone of sports news. Along with sports that were already well covered, like boxing and baseball, Sports Illustrated opened tennis, golf, football and basketball to greater public participation. Some of its editorial innovations are still well known, such as the Athlete of the Year and the annual swimsuit issue. Making the cover of Sports Illustrated was, for an athlete, a lot like a Nobel Prize for a scientist.  

However, by the end of the 20th century, the business of magazine and newspaper publishing fractured under competitive pressures from cable, streaming and internet publications. Advertising and circulation declined, and so did Sports Illustrated, despite valiant attempts to save it.   

The magazine was sold during the Time-Warner breakup in 2018 and, after changing hands, was picked up by Authentic Brands Group, which specializes in franchises like Reebok shoes, clothing brands like Juicy Couture and commercial celebrity names like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.  ABG will profit from the Sports Illustrated photo archives and the famous swimsuit editions if nothing else.   

The chances that Sports Illustrated will return from the elephant graveyard of news magazines are probably about the same as those of Sport (d. 2000), Sporting News (d. 2012), or for that matter, general photo magazines like Look (d. 1971) or Life (d. 2000).

It’s not only that the genre is no longer profitable, or that if you want to make a small fortune in publishing, you have to start with a big one.

No. It’s that the world has moved on. Deadspin, The Athletic, network media like ESPN and media from individual franchises and conferences have taken the lead. Magazines of all kinds are long gone.    

One reason why all this matters more than, say, shifts in seasonal produce or fashions in furniture, is that print journalism was a quality element in a bundle of services that have come unglued. Thoughtful writing and brilliant photography no longer have financial support. They have lost out to the amusement park midway and the digital-industrial information complex.   

There is no fixing the loss of magazines, but there are ways to rebuild the media. Repealing Section 230 would be a start in the U.S. Adopting legislation like Canada's Online News Act and Australia's News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code would be helpful. In Europe, the Digital Services Act is expected to restrain Big Tech and new cross border journalism initiatives will help stabilize financing for some publications. 

Recent reform proposals in the U.S. include the Local Journalism Sustainability Act of 2021, 2022 and 2023.  While the act has attracted bipartisan support, it remains in committee while larger antitrust issues get sorted out in U.S. v. Google, U.S. v. Apple, issues with Microsoft and U.S. v. Meta.”


The U.S. economy surged past fourth-quarter expectations, growing at a 3.3% rate, the Commerce Department announced on Thursday, Jan 25. Davis College of Business and Economics Associate Professor of Economics Thomas Duncan explains the Feds’ approach to curtailing inflation.

“In 2021-2022, the U.S. saw inflation rates at heights not reached since the 1980s. When the Fed tamed the 1980s’ inflation, it sent the economy into a fairly significant recession. Considering that history, the report of 4.9% (Q3) and 3.3% (Q4) growth over the last two quarters is a pleasant surprise, to say the least. Economists have raised concerns over the possibility of a similar recession since the Fed began its monetary tightening period. Though a risk, it also seemed a necessary one to rein in rising prices. That the Fed was able to take the necessary steps without destabilizing the economy so far indicates they were right to take a strong and serious approach to the inflation problem.”

Jan 22, 2024
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7761