All posts by madhuritagoswami2020

Tailor-made models for preventing suicide may soon be a reality

By Madhurita Goswami
Medill Reports

A recent study based on social media data shows that chat features of conversations between help-seekers and therapists can be used to predict suicide risk and develop models to reduce the risk.

“There is an interesting link between language and health that hasn’t been explored in real-time fashion,” said Carlos Gallo, a research assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. For instance, expression of positive or negative emotions compared to “yes” or “no” answers is linked to reduced suicide risk. Help-seekers who are less engaged tend to fare the worst, Gallo said.

On the other hand, he said a counselor can improve suicide prevention by using sentences such as – “it’s understandable that you are feeling sorry for your loss” or “thank you for sharing that awful experience” or “what would it feel like if you were to take a walk around the park?”

Carlos Gallo is using text analysis to come up with a computational model to guide counselors in reducing suicide risk. He spoke at this month’s Data Science Night at Northwestern University. (Madhurita Goswami)

Gallo and his colleagues have linked suicide risk to chat features of help-seekers such as length of sentences, number of times a positive or negative emotion is expressed, response time (which is a measure of engagement), typing mistakes (which are related to stress), and function words. They have also linked risk reduction to the type of questions counselors ask, the number of times they ask those questions, number of words in their sentences (or complexity of sentences), and safety planning. Safety planning, including advice such as “toss away your pills” or “call a friend right now”, reduces suicide risk, Gallo said.

He presented these preliminary findings at this month’s Data Science Night in Northwestern University’s Chambers Hall in Evanston.  According to World Health Organization, one person dies due to suicide every 40 seconds across the world.

Talking about the significance of function words, Gallo said help-seekers use articles, prepositions and auxiliary verbs, subconsciously. “If I want to talk about a table, I make the choice to talk about the table. But the architecture of language used to talk about the table is so automatic that I am not necessarily choosing the actual function words,” he said, adding that such words allow counselors to echo help-seekers and find common ground with them.

The researchers are now developing a computational model to monitor counseling services and guide crisis intervention. “The model has to be tested before being integrated into counseling services,” Gallo said. Moving forward, he said models could be tailored to fit the needs of various vulnerable groups, including teens, Hispanics or immigrant communities. Such models, designed to better meet needs based on age, race and gender, could become starting points for counselors to provide care to suicidal individuals.

Gallo said his group analyzed data from 1,800 online chats and then focused on help-seekers who were suicidal. The participants were mostly young women and their anonymity is protected. Observers tracked the chats and subjectively assessed their outcomes. They also took feedback from help-seekers into account. Gallo, who is with the department of psychiatry, said, “Only around 5% of counseling services are monitored now. We have to find out what’s happening and then improve it.”

“Gallo has some significant results from a small data set,” said Thomas Stoeger, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern’s Amaral Lab which facilitates study of complex systems such as metabolic pathways, the ecosystem and the Internet.  “There is a lot of confidentiality in this kind of research and considerations of what you can research on or not. But from Gallo’s results, it seems we can actually improve suicide prevention,” said Stoeger, who is also an organizer of the Data Science Nights.

Gallo was invited for a talk because many attendees were interested in applications of text mining (converting a huge number of texts into structured data suitable for analysis) in social sciences, said Sarah Ben Maamar, another organizer and postdoctoral fellow at Amaral Lab. “Also, he is collaborating with social media, which is now a big thing in data science. It (data science) acts as a bridge between researchers and industry.”

Data Science Nights, launched in 2017, bring together researchers and students working on data science techniques and their applications in fields ranging from medicine to journalism.

Photo at top: Analysis of huge sets of unstructured data can help tackle challenges such as suicide risk and intervention. (Open access photo. Blue computer internet technology background with binary data code from

A festival that binds Bengali students and professionals in Chicago

By Madhurita Goswami
Medill Reports

Students and professionals belonging to the Bengali community in Chicago came together for a recent religious and cultural celebration.

Started at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) campus by a group of students in 2007, the celebration is centered around Durga, a Hindu Goddess.

It, however, has turned into “a huge picnic” and “a version of Christmas for Bengalis in Chicago”, according to 26-year-old Indrani Banerjee who is completing her Ph.D. in chemistry at UIC.

Durga Pujo/festival is celebrated in India and Bangladesh in honor of a warrior goddess, who defeated the dark forces. The festival has become an integral part of the social and cultural fabric of West Bengal, an eastern state in India, and is also observed in other locations where Bengalis move in.
Approximately 500 people joined the celebrations in Chicago. The idea is that Bengalis will come together as a community, according to Banerjee, the president of the organizing body.
This is the second idol of Durga that has been brought to UIC from Kumortuli, the porters’ quarters in northern Kolkata, by air. The first was handed over to the National Indo American Center near Little India after being worshipped for at least six years. After the celebrations, the idol is taken to the house of a volunteer, where it stays till the next year.
Former students who are now working in Chicago are actively involved with the volunteer-based festival. This provides incoming students a chance to network and find new friends, said Banerjee.
Volunteers include current and former students from different Chicago area universities. Sumit Bhattacharyya (left), an assistant professor of medicine at UIC, who arrived in the US from Kolkata in 1998, has been involved with the event since 2007. “This is about revisiting our growing up years in Kolkata. Students wanted to organize a festival as they couldn’t afford to go to the suburbs for Durga Pujo and they asked for my help,” he said.
The cultural program kicked off with a dance performance by former student Debasmita Paul depicting Durga’s triumph over evil.
The performances included songs in Bengali, Hindi and English by various groups, Bollywood dances and a theatrical act.
Food is one of the most important aspects of the festival, according to Bhattacharyya. This year, the culinary fest included a traditional meal of “khichudi” – an Indian comfort dish made with rice and dal, Indian-Chinese dishes such as chili chicken, biriyani – a mixed rice dish with meat, and fish cooked with mustard.
Photo at top: Bengalis across generations celebrate Durga Pujo in Chicago. (Madhurita Goswami)

“Why we should care” – Calling on Asian Americans to demand environmental justice

By Madhurita Goswami
Medill Reports

Asian Americans are increasingly pushing for environmental reforms to address the issues impacting their communities across the country. A new advocacy group in Chicago, Asian Americans and Environmental Justice (AAEJ), recently held a workshop at the Institute of Cultural Affairs to drive home the importance of the community’s political involvement for climate action.

AAEJ is led by Andrea Chu, who has been organizing these workshops for the past year. Chu, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, has studied environmental planning and management. She is also involved with Chicago Asian Americans for Environmental Justice (CAAEJ), an environmental group urging residents of Chinatown and Bridgeport to test their garden soil for lead.

Chu said that an overwhelmingly large number of industrial factories are located in the South and Southwest sides of Chicago and it is a matter of concern for immigrant families who grow their vegetables in backyard gardens. “We are encouraging lead testing and trying to figure out what the situation is,” she said, adding that Chinese families are also being advised to move towards raised beds for growing bitter melon, bok choy and other garden staples.

Andrea Chu (right front) stressed on the importance of political involvement for action against climate change. (Madhurita Goswami)

Lower-income communities and communities of color have historically been at a higher risk of environmental hazards and disasters. However, there is a lack of racial diversity in non-profit organizations and government agencies working towards a better environment. Groups such as AAEJ and CAAEJ offer Asian Americans the opportunity to formulate actionable ideas in this regard and exert their voices in the decision-making processes.

Chu started the discussion by asking: “Why should Asian Americans care?” On the local level, she said poorer Asian Americans – like other disadvantaged groups in the US – have a higher level of exposure to toxic substances and criticized the model minority myth, which has created a false impression that all Asian Americans are financially well-off. From the global perspective, she said the coastal cities of Southeast Asia are under the threat of being submerged due to rising sea levels and a huge number of people live in these cities, so it is high time to demand for changes.

She also questioned the ethics of individual responsibility. “We now know that the richest 10% are responsible for half of lifestyle emissions,” Chu said. “But we have been going after individual consumption of people who may not have the time or the capacity to think about something like recycling, which we don’t make easy for anybody in this country.”

She said that protests to shut down a polluting pipeline or seeking greener policies will go far and have a more immediate impact on preventing global warming.

At the workshop, participants criticized the current U.S. attitude on
emissions and President Donald Trump’s decision to walk away from the Paris Agreement on global climate change mitigation. “When I was in school, the American media had this narrative that we are doing the right thing, but India and China won’t play nice and lower their emissions,” said Chu.

However, participants discussed how that narrative ignores that the U.S. has pumped out more carbon dioxide per capita than any other country since the Industrial Revolution. The history of colonization in Southeast Asia has left many countries stuck in time, critics said. They also agreed on the imbalance between the East and the West in terms of population. Chu illustrated this with a study showing that an average American currently leaves more carbon footprint than people belonging to other nations.

Seventeen-year-old Suzy Schlosberg, who participated in the  workshop, moved to the U.S. from China when she was only eight years old. She has been an environmental activist for the past four years. “But, I didn’t identify as an Asian-American environmental activist because I didn’t know what that part of my identity could mean for the movement. As someone who grew up in China and belongs to the immigrant community, I can now work not only for the environment but also for my community,” she said.

Peter Cheung, who works for the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club,
became interested in the workshop because “I am often the only Asian American in the room and currently, the only Asian American on staff at the chapter level (of the Sierra Club).”

He said he is working on political organizing in the northwest suburbs to turn the tide in favor of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a state-level bill pushing for sustainable energy development.

Photo at top: The new advocacy group Asian Americans and Environmental Justice is calling on residents of Chinatown and Bridgeport to have their garden soil tested for lead, one of several priorities of the organization. (MEDILL)

The ancient art of henna: Immigrant women create couture designs for a new generation of customers

By Madhurita Goswami
Medill Reports

Twenty-four-year-old Juna Syakya can draw intricate flowers or butterflies on your hands with her henna cone in less than 20 minutes. Mehndi, or henna, is a form of body art that uses a plant-based dye and Syakya brings the ancient art form to the Deeba Beauty Salon on Devon Avenue where she works.

The plant, Lawsonia inermis, grows in hot climates. Its leaves, flowers and twigs contain tannins, which are natural dyes used across the ages to create the intricate lace-like designs of henna.
“Henna is best for people who don’t want permanent tattoos. Also, it doesn’t cause infections and is way cheaper,” said Syakya’s colleague, Farzana Mirza, who is from Pakistan.

Heeba Khan draws a floral pattern for a customer. (Madhurita Goswami)

Traditionally, henna artists have been women and only women would get henna on their hands and feet. Costs range from $10-$40 depending on the area covered. Usually, henna gets washed away in less than 10 days. The dye doesn’t penetrate the skin and is safe.

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Glaciers as “global thermometers” show us the pace of melting in a warming world

By Madhurita Goswami
Medill Reports

Glaciers across the globe behave in a synchronized manner, said geologist Thomas Lowell at the recent Comer Climate Conference, an annual national conference held in Southwestern Wisconsin. Not only does he study glaciers around the world to reach this conclusion but also compared data obtained by separate dating techniques.

Sounding the alarm for the present, he said that, as we change temperatures, the glaciers retreat faster. This, in turn, would change the sea levels in coming years by a greater extent than people imagine now, Lowell added.

The results show that incoming solar radiation, which varies seasonally in the two hemispheres, is not the major factor affecting climate change and has implications for identifying other factors.
“I have looked at glaciers from central-northern Greenland to Antarctica,” said Lowell, a professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati. “They were universally behaving in the same way during the last glacial maximum. They were out, bounced around a little bit and receded at the same time.”


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