Faculty Spotlight: Brian Komei Dempster

Resonance and Connection

Brian Komei Dempster in Conversation with Ifeoma Nzerem, Coordinator for Anti-racism, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Faculty Excellence

When did you realize you had a passion for writing?

In my formative years, when I was quite young, my parents signed me up for writing classes. I remember writing a story when I was around preschool age; I personified a rock, and its name was Loafer. That is my first memory of loving creativity, loving writing, and feeling the power to create. I found my literary passion as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. I was taking an Asian American studies course learning about Japanese American wartime incarceration. I was taken aback that this was really the first time I’d heard of this historical event. I remember going home that day and asking my mom, “Did you know about the camps? Were you in the camps?” She said that, since she was a child back then, she couldn’t remember the experience, and, as a result, there was not much to say. But I discovered a deeper psychological layer when I tried to ask my aunts and uncles who could remember these events: some were willing to speak about their experiences while others were reluctant to do so.

I became obsessed with the idea of writing about the Japanese American incarceration–not just the event, but the silences, the withholding, the ways in which that was a form of protection for the younger generation. I found that the older generation was trying to protect us and not hurt us by passing down that trauma. But, at the same time, many of us wanted to know that story and wanted to give voice to what had happened to them, because their imprisonment was an injustice. So, as an undergraduate, I wrote a lot about this subject, and these themes informed my first book of poems, Topaz.  

How do you feel like that work has led you to USF in any way, or how did you end up here?

I was hired as an adjunct in 2001 into what is now known as the Department of Rhetoric and Language. I had a lot of friends who worked at USF and talked about its mission of social justice, honoring diversity, and also supporting the work of artists and scholars who give voice to marginalized communities and stories that need to be heard in the culture. At the time, I was a caretaker of my deceased grandfather’s Buddhist church in San Francisco’s Japantown, which was only a 5-10 minute drive to USF. And I was in this church finishing my first book and teaching community-based courses at the cultural center down the street. I wanted to be able to further my academic career, and I was excited to join USF and then later be hired as a full-time faculty member in 2002. In my 20 plus years with USF, I’ve taught rhetoric and language, creative writing, Asian Pacific American literature, and graduate courses in the Asia Pacific Studies program. All the while I have been working on poetry, and one thing I love about USF is that it really supports the work in a tangible way. For example, I had faculty development fund support and a sabbatical in 2017. Beyond that, the moral and personal support that administrators and colleagues have provided has been amazing.

How has winning the Guggenheim Fellowship affected your writing?

My fellowship period started in July, so I’m early on, but I can already feel the impact. I understand that there are several layers to the process. I would say the first layer is the acknowledgment of getting the recognition. It’s a stunning, humbling, affirmative experience, and processing that initially came with surprise and then the gratitude and acceptance. It’s an acknowledgement that my past work has value. Now that I’ve moved through that stage, I am ready to focus on writing. The opportunity gives me what I would call a healthy accountability, because I’m now a part of the history that exists for the Guggenheim Fellowship. I look at this list of people and see what they’ve accomplished and feel like I have a responsibility not only to my own artistic consciousness but also to the collective consciousness of what it means to be part of the circle. My father was a Guggenheim fellow in 1981 as a music composer, so there’s a father-son connection as well. The overall sense is hard to describe in just one way, but the fellowship has given me another form of motivation, confidence, and freedom.  

I’m currently working on a third book in a trilogy. The manuscript can stand alone but is also meant to accompany the first two books. The first book, Topaz, is about the legacy and aftereffects of the Japanese American wartime incarceration legacy and how that relates to issues of race, gender, sexuality, and identity in a contemporary context. The second book, Seize, centers on my son Brendan, who’s 18 now. He’s a brave soul, and he’s been through a lot. In Seize, I present a father-son quest and explore how to navigate having a son with special needs–the emotional, psychological and everyday territory, the relational territory–and then connect that to other forms of seizure and incarceration historically and now.

The third book, currently titled Dust and Rain, focuses on tying together those threads and strands of the first two books, but the artistic challenge is to avoid repeating what I’ve done before and to find how to advance the work. There isn’t a singular theme in mind at this time. It’s more like a symphony or orchestra weaving together the different elements of my previous works. I’ve found writing this book to be an ancestral and spiritual experience. I’ve gone back to the ancestors, like my grandfather, and this process has catalyzed more lyricism in this book than the previous two. I describe the work as a lotus sutra for the 21st century. 

What events have evolved your writing strategy or writing focus over time?

I wouldn’t call forth a singular event, but what’s been most profound for me is the evolution of my son and his growth. Now that he’s 18, my poems no longer gravitate towards emergency crisis situations like going to the ER or us managing his seizures. His and our situation feels more nuanced, subtle, and complex as, fortunately, he doesn’t have as many of these medical events. He’s evolving, and it’s been a journey trying to write about my relationship with this human being, who is still nonverbal, as he goes through the frustrating experiences of puberty that he can not fully convey. At the same time, he expresses more love and more connection with us. So there’s a beauty and tenderness to his growth. There’s also a challenge of looking to the future and thinking, 10 years or 20 years from now, what does his life look like? How long can he stay with us or live in this home? Because there’s a large part of us that never wants to let him go. So, as we witness his transformation, we do our best to be observant and in tune with his evolution, because these are not things that we can talk with him about. He understands a lot of language, but he’s unable to express himself in words. So instead, we observe and communicate with him through eye contact and body language. 

What are you looking to next?

I’m working on various things. I’m energized about this epic poem in the current manuscript that my writing partner has encouraged me to dive deeper into. This could eventually be split into many individual poems, so I’m interested to see what the piece will end up becoming. I’m looking forward to pushing the boundaries of theme, content, and artistic approach as far as I can. In the first two books, a coherent subject and theme anchored the narrative throughout. The through line of this third book is more spiritual–a reconciliation of past and present, of our many identities and selves; a holistic exploration of the world here and the world out there and ancestry and the future. It feels like there are several overlapping circles rather than a linear connection. I remember Dean Rader, a Guggenheim fellow and poet at USF, described his fellowship project as a Venn diagram, and that was helpful to think about. I want to see how many things I can connect and reconnect. I’d like to explore global and local connections, events that I haven’t written about and events that are personal to me. I think it was James Joyce who said, “In the particular is contained the universal.” This is a simple idea but a profound one. I want to be as particular and concrete as I can at the literary level–to describe things fully and beautifully and with some kind of taste and elegance. At the same time, I want to reach out and find a level of transcendence that goes beyond the literal, creates new resonances and connections.

I’m also working on a nonfiction manuscript called Brendan’s Garden. The topics vary, but I think of the project as anecdotes or snapshots of life with Brendan. I’m excited to mainly focus on the poetry project and then write the nonfiction when the work emerges organically. My goal is to have a largely shaped manuscript of my third poetry book by the end of the Guggenheim period in June 2024.

Faculty Spotlight: Marie-Claude Couture

Marie-Claude Couture is an Associate Professor and Chair of Health Professions in the School of Nursing and Health Professions. Dr. Couture was recently awarded two large NIH grants to support her research on infectious disease prevention, substance use and violence and victimization. In collaboration with fellow USF faculty, Dr. Erin Grinshteyn, Dr. Couture was awarded a R15 in 2022 to support their project, “Determining the causal pathways of social and environmental predictors of high-risk alcohol drinking among college students.” These awards are highly competitive, with a success rate between 4-17% and are used to promote research opportunities at educational institutions that have not been previously major recipients of NIH support.The award provides $432,136 from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to the team over three years to support their research on the determinants of high-risk alcohol consumption among college students. 

In our conversation, we talk with Dr. Couture about the research she plans to lead with support from this R15 award and her plans for future research at USF. 

How long have you been at USF and what brought you here?

I arrived in 2013, coming from University of California, San Francisco as a postdoctoral fellow in HIV prevention research and global health. At the time, the Masters of Public Health (MPH) program was just launching, and I wanted the chance to teach more and help build this program from the ground up.

Prior to joining USF, I was an online instructor for a continuing education program at the Public Health Agency of Canada while completing my PhD at Université de Montréal. I taught a range of online epidemiology courses for healthcare professionals. There was a real need for this type of training during this time, due to the emerging SARS epidemic, which really affected Toronto, Canada in 2003. We had 361 cases in the city with a 9% death rate. It was clear at the start that many healthcare professionals were not well prepared to respond to this health emergency, and so there was a real need to teach epidemiology and basic public health courses for all healthcare professionals. 

In addition to wanting more opportunities to teach, I was drawn to USF due to the attention the university pays to social justice. My HIV prevention research in global health often involves addressing health disparities and working with underserved communities, and this was important for continuing my research program.

Can you tell us about your research program and how it has evolved recently?

My research focuses on the intersection of substance use, violence and infectious disease transmission. Originally, my research career started with HIV prevention among marginalized and underserved populations, including drug users and sex workers. Since drug and alcohol use are major drivers of sexually transmitted infections, like HIV, my work naturally included these risk factors. As my HIV prevention work continued, I began detecting major overlaps with violence and victimization, particularly among sex workers. These issues intersect and represent my major interests and current research work.

I have always been interested in infectious diseases. I started in microbiology, with a Bachelor in Microbiology from Universite Laval, then continued with a Master in Biochemistry focusing on molecular biology from McGill University. When an opportunity presented itself to pursue my PhD in epidemiology at the University of Montreal with a team working in global health and HIV prevention, it seemed to really fit. I had the opportunity to conduct research and perform data collection in the field for my research projects with female sex workers and other vulnerable populations, including Cambodia, Thailand, Haiti, Ghana, Zambia, and Côte d’Ivoire. I have a lot of great stories from some of these crazy data collection experiences – come talk to me sometime about it!

Going forward, I plan to continue to look at the effect of victimization and violence on substance use and mental health which brought me to my current R15 work.

Can you tell us about your recent R15? What is an R15 and what work will you be doing with this award?

This grant is based on preliminary results that we got from a CRASE Interdisciplinary Action Group (IAG). In 2017, the IAG gave us a $300 award to address health post-Trump administration on mental health and substance use in college students. The title of the project was, “title was “Trumping fear: The impact of the new administration on fear and mental health sequelae among college students.”  In collaboration with Drs. Erin Grinshteyn and Dellanira Garcia from the School of Nursing and Health Professions, we looked at different forms of fear (victimization, discrimination, deportation) during the Trump administration and their effects on mental health and substance use. From this small IAG award, we published 5 peer-reviewed articles and had 13 presentations at conferences. We also used the findings as preliminary results to secure our R15 from the National Institutes of Health NIH.

An R15 is a grant awarded by the NIH to support non-research universities and to mentor graduate students in research. Our NIH R15 is titled “Determining the causal pathways of social and environmental predictors of high-risk alcohol drinking among college students” and is  $432,136 for 3 years. Dr. Erin Grinshteyn is a Co-PI on the project with me and this is a partnership with the GIS Spatial Analysis Lab in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Through this work, we hope to identify where, when, how, and with whom college students experience violence and victimization and how that impacts high risk alcohol drinking. Measuring behaviors and experiences is difficult, because they are subject to recall bias and other errors. One of the novel aspects of this project is that we are using ecological momentary assessment to follow students for 30 days and collect data on victimization and violence and alcohol use in real-time using a mobile app. Using the mobile app, we will also collect geospatial data to track where they are (e.g., what we call their “activity space”) and to identify their location when violence or victimization experiences and alcohol use happen. The GIS Spatial Analysis Lab will use the GPS coordinates from the app along with google street view to examine the environment and apply a scale to determine physical disorder, crimes, and other neighborhood-level disadvantages. This way we can connect neighborhood-level information on crime and physical disorder with substance use behavior and violence or victimization – thereby addressing structural and environmental issues through geographic information. 

We’re excited to give USF graduate students the opportunity to gain research experience through this R15. We plan to involve students in the data collection and analyses for this project, who will help us implement some of our surveys. 

What are your plans for the future?

Get more grants! Do more research! In the future, I’d really like to find more opportunities to collaborate with faculty across the university –  both within our school and across other schools. I would like to share our expertise on geospatial ecological momentary assessment with other faculty interested to use this methodology for their projects. I value interdisciplinary collaboration and would like to find other topics and research areas to collaborate.

I’d also like to continue to progress my research program on substance abuse and mental health and bring in some aspects of COVID-19. Stemming from our R15-funded work, I’d also like to work toward securing future funding to continue to learn from our geospatial ecological momentary assessment findings and to develop interventions to address substance use among college students.


Faculty Spotlight: Annette Regan

Annette K Regan is Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the Community Public Health Practice Concentration in Orange County, CA

When did you realize you had a passion for epidemiology?

I didn’t know what epidemiology was until I was in my fourth year of psychology in undergrad. I was about to graduate, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I was volunteering in a sleep lab, and one of my coworkers was talking about epidemiology. I started looking into it, and it sounded perfect for me. It was math plus health plus all these things I liked all in one field. On my first day in epidemiology class during my MPH at Emory I thought, “This is where I belong.” Epi is one of the best fields. We can tackle all of these different health problems and use data and data science to better understand important health problems and identify effective solutions. 

How did you end up at USF?

My family was transitioning back to the US from Australia, and we were looking for a place where our family could be happy and grow. My husband and I settled on southern CA – he works for the State Lands Commission (oil and gas guy) and fortunately USF was hiring for a MPH faculty in Orange County to extend their MPH program. Starting this MPH program in OC sounded really exciting. And our family is definitely settled here – we welcomed our son right before I started at USF!

Can you describe some of your recent work?

Right now I’m really busy with COVID-19 vaccine evaluation. I recently completed a series of papers on COVID-19 infection during pregnancy and how it affects the health of the mother and the infant.  I’ve just launched a large study looking at COVID-19 vaccine safety and effectiveness in mothers and babies. Another big study I’m working on in collaboration with Boston University is a preconception cohort study to examine vaccine exposure around the time of conception and whether it influences the risk of miscarriage. We recently published a paper showing that vaccination is not associated with fertility but that COVID-19 infection in the male partner could reduce one’s chances of getting pregnant. It might be my favorite paper I’ve worked on, because it’s the only research I’ve ever done that was mentioned on SNL! Anthony Fauci also talked about it to try to dispel these myths about the COVID-19 vaccine and fertility.  

I think it’s also important to acknowledge other impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had beyond infection. In addition to examining the direct health impacts of COVID-19, I’m also currently leading a large cohort study on the mental and societal impacts of COVID-19 on pregnant individuals, their partners, and their babies. It’s been very meaningful to learn from parents about their experiences birthing and parenting during the pandemic.

What has it been like doing so much research on COVID and vaccines during this pandemic?

Interestingly, I didn’t originally want to do COVID-19 research because I knew everyone was going to be doing it. I supported some student work looking at the impact of COVID-19 on childhood vaccination, but felt like I didn’t want to take on COVID-19 research myself. It’s a tough field. Almost any project you start to draft up has already been published five times by the time you get started. But, I’ve been doing influenza research for so long, all of my influenza colleagues were entirely consumed by COVID-19 work, and I just knew I was going to have to start doing this work eventually. Just as I was coming back from maternity leave, the recommendations started to come out for COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy, so this was my sign that I could not continue to do the type of research that I do around respiratory diseases and vaccines and without including COVID-19. 

How do you bring the themes of your research to your courses at USF?

This past Fall, I offered a vaccine epidemiology course for the first time. It was a really fun course to teach and I think the students got a lot out of it. There has never been a better time to teach about vaccines than during a pandemic!

I also get a lot of students who are interested in doing research, so I have a few Research Assistants and volunteers who are helping with my cohort study. I bring in a lot of my own research as examples in my classes especially when teaching epidemiology methods. 

What are you planning on doing next?

Taking a nap. But seriously, what I really want to do is continue to grow this COVID-19 research area with pregnant individuals. They are a really high risk group, but they have the lowest vaccination rates. I want to use the results of my work to co-design interventions with communities to improve maternal immunization rates. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to increase these vaccination rates. I also want to build more of a team and further mentor junior scientists to do this work. I really want to develop the next generation of scientists in this area. 

Fearful News Traveled Slow on Twitter in Disinformation Campaigns

By Violet Cheung

As a psychology professor with a specialization in mass emotion and public sentiment, I have conducted research on anger, fear and anxiety in the contexts of terrorist attacks, cyber insecurity, and the migrant crisis. In 2018, I was aware of the rising prominence of social media in shaping public opinions and the limited utility of traditional analytic tools on large datasets from social media. I owe a debt of gratitude to a workshop at CRASE for its guidance and inspiration on one of my research projects at USF. The recently published findings shed light on the affective strategies in foreign disinformation operations.

In Twitter’s first release of data on state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, Russian and Iranian troll farms posted a majority of their tweets in fearful and negative sentiments according to our research published by the American Psychological Association. Furthermore, each additional fearful word in a tweet was found to correspond with a drop in “Likes” and retweets. Negative tweets were disengaging as compared to positive (and even neutral) ones. Since the dataset contains users’ responses from the entire Twitter space to a large number of tweets, the results have a high degree of confidence.

Twitter’s data corpus contains roughly 4,000 accounts and over 10 million tweets by Russian and Iranian operatives. The study, published in Analysis of Social Issues and Public Policy, identified a majority of the tweets as retweets and therefore focused on a subset of about 1.5 million unique English tweets that originated from the fake accounts. These unique tweets were not sent uniformly throughout the entrenched information warfare that spanned from 2010 to 2018. Rather, a third of them were concentrated in the year prior to the 2016 US election.

The results contradicted the notion that “bad news travels fast,” as well as the burgeoning research on polarization, and even some well-established emotion theories. For example, the negative bias theory would assert that negatively framed information is disproportionately influential and salient compared to positive and neutral events. As such, negative tweets have the potential to engage the audience and spread on Twitter.

However, fear is a negative emotion in a class of its own. The functionalist approach to emotions, pioneered by Darwin, purports that fear’s adaptive function is to prompt a person to freeze, hide or run away – tendencies more akin to disengagement than engagement on social media. Fearful tweets are inherently negative and as a result both emotion undercurrents have to be considered. After all, the dataset contains a lot of negative tweets with a major of them employing fearful themes. When negativity and fear work in opposite directions, the effect of fear prevailed over that of negativity in this dataset.

Much of the media’s reporting on election interference stressed the foreign operatives’ strengths but failed to acknowledge the lack of sophistication in their strategies. Russia and Iran overinvested in fear mongering and undelivered in engagement. That said, the Russian disinformation operation seemed more nuanced than Iran’s. The Russian troll farm might be aware of the unpopularity of fear and only used the strategies at the critical moment. They spent from between early 2013 and late 2014 ingratiating themselves with upbeat tweets, only to revert to fear in time for the 2016 election. Iran’s campaign adhered to fear tactics throughout their accounts’ lifespan.

The rich data trove released by Twitter in late 2018 could have left me feeling overwhelmed if it were not for a workshop on statistical computing in R, offered by CRASE in the summer of 2018. It piqued my interest in big data analytics and I decided to learn more about it by taking a class at USF during my sabbatical in 2018-2019. The rest of my sabbatical was spent on analyzing Twitter’s data corpus with the help from student assistants at USF in psychology, computer science, and business. One of my student co-authors now works on big data in a tech company in the Bay Area. Another student co-author has just completed his Master’s degree at the University of Washington in Human Centered Design and Engineering. What I gleaned from this experience is that professional development, sabbatical, research projects and student outcomes do not have to be competing forces but forces to be marshalled to build synergy and purpose.


Citation of the Article: Cheung-Blunden V., Sonar, K. U., Zhou, E. A., & Tan, C. (2021). Foreign disinformation operation’s affective engagement: Valence versus discrete emotions as drivers of tweet popularity. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (ASAP). Published online July 27, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1111/asap.12262

The lead author can be reached via email vcheung@usfca.edu

Event Recap: An Afternoon with Tommy Orange

The Center for Research, Artistic, and Scholarly Excellence (CRASE) had the immense pleasure to host celebrated novelist Tommy Orange over three separate events held over Zoom on April 19, 2021.

In the first session, Tommy Orange spoke to a select group of about 15 students from the English Department, the School of Education, and the MFA in Creative Writing program. All the students attending had read There There and had the chance to pose questions they had wondered about in class directly to the author, which is a rare opportunity. Topics ranged from the potential pitfalls of writing autobiographical fiction, the challenges of experimental writing, the importance of indigenous literature, strategies for building characters, and even the thorny ethical dilemmas that can come when one writes about people who are still alive (and just so happen to be members of your family).

Students had great questions about the use of perspective and point of view in the novel, such as the use of second person in one of the chapters. Tommy Orange gave us great insight as to how this is part of his creative process, and how he plays with perspective to see “what it will do” to the story. Additionally, he gave us insight into how much of the story is based on his own experiences, woven into these characters, invoking the concept of “auto-fiction.” These ideas really stuck with students and, again, the opportunity to engage a writer directly with their thoughts, observations, and inquiries was a wonderful way to develop their academic experience! Tommy Orange responded with both thoughtfulness and graciousness. The students asked smart question, and he responded in kind. The event was a great success.

During the second event, Tommy Orange met with faculty to discuss the pieces they wrote in response to his book. Faculty responses, which were published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Perspectives and Scholarship, reflected on place and identity in a modern world. Each faculty who wrote a response explained their piece to Tommy Orange and how the book inspired their work. The conversation between Tommy Orange and the faculty responders evolved into a dialogue related to his thoughts on the response pieces and next steps for his writing.

When asked about how Native Americans can bridge the dichotomy between tradition and modernity—a theme he addresses in his book—Tommy Orange said that one of the challenges he liked to take up in his writing was giving voice to Native Americans in the present, because they are always otherwise spoken of in terms of the past, relegated to history as it were. He brought up the arguments made in David Treuer’s excellent essay that make a persuasive case for returning America’s national parks to its original peoples. In addressing the experience of visiting national parks and the question of representing Native Americans in the present, Treuer writes, “Indians were barely mentioned on the signage, and I don’t remember meeting any Native rangers or even sensing that we existed as anything other than America’s past tense.”

In the final session attended by over 160 people, Tommy Orange was in conversation with Laleh Khadivi, novelist and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at USF. In this wonderful, wide-ranging conversation they spoke about the writing process, the genre of auto-fiction (writing that is close to memoir but not quite memoir), literary influences, and Tommy Orange’s second book, among other topics. Tommy Orange read from There There, a section titled “Apparent Death,” and spoke about how his own graphic dreams had informed the depiction of a mass shooting. While his reading struck a somber note—“….the fact that we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive, only to die in the grass wearing feathers”—it was extremely relevant in the context of ubiquitous gun violence, and the here and now of Native Americans in the country.

(With contributions from Erin Grinshteyn, Christina Garcia Lopez, Dean Rader and Tanu Sankalia)