Evidence at trial

Drs. Heather Hlavka and Sameena Mulla in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences share a research interest in sexual violence against women. A $100,000 National Science Foundation grant provided an opportunity for Hlavka, with a criminology perspective, and Mulla, with an anthropology one, to combine the tools of their disciplines to study how evidence is used in sexual assault trials.

Because 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted.

The data collection for their research, which was launched in 2013, concluded last spring. They plan to write a book on what they learned. “We’re hoping to shed light on how our institutions are responding to sexual assault, but we ultimately want to find ways we and these institutions can stop sexual assaults,” says Mulla.

Hlavka, Mulla and three undergraduate research assistants spent hours in Milwaukee courtrooms observing trials and proceedings. They documented courtroom elements not recorded by the stenographer, including facial expressions, gestures, emotions, family interactions and off-record dialogues, and analyzed court transcripts, media coverage, and their own interviews with attorneys, judges, forensic nurses and victim-witness advocates.

They studied how forensic evidence is used and the role voices play in the courtroom. How are victim and defendant testimonies used? How are expert witnesses presented to judge and jury, and how is their expertise proved or disproved?

One research discovery they weren’t expecting relates to how social media is used. Text messages, Facebook posts and cell phone tracking data are introduced by both sides to prove or disprove timelines, state of mind, intent, knowledge and character. Mulla says social media has become an accepted form of evidence in the court system; however, the standards of evidence for it have been unevenly adopted by civil and criminal courts.

Hlavka and Mulla implemented curriculum for undergraduate students to observe courtroom proceedings to learn qualitative and quantitative research methods, immerse them in the justice system, and instill a sense of civic responsibility.

They also partnered with community advocacy groups and hope their research will help move the discourse of sexual assault trial research forward. “It’s very important to us to work with the service providers, who work so hard for victims but don’t have the means we do, to share our data and results with these community partners and continue our dialogue on sexual assault with them,” Hlavka says. — SK


Rooftop harvest

Could 12 rice paddies on the roof of Todd Wehr Life Sciences point the way to a new cash crop for Wisconsin farmers? Dr. Michael Schläppi, associate professor of biological sciences, began growing rice on the roof four years ago with a goal of identifying a cold-tolerant variety suitable for growth in Wisconsin.


Wisconsin’s wide-ranging weather offers Schläppi, a geneticist, an interesting mashup. Grain production for rice is highly regulated by day length and temperature. Cold affects growth early in the cycle, and heat alters pollen growth at the end of the cycle. Though there are 40,000 strains of rice in the world, there are few strains that do well below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and rice won’t make seeds in too much heat.

In his quest to identify a species hearty enough to withstand Wisconsin’s cold springs and hot summers, Schläppi began working with 217 varieties provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To map cold tolerance genes, he crossed lines of rice, marrying matches to build increasing cold tolerance.

Amid the rooftop plants taking root in rows of 4×4-square-foot gardens, the star strain, the one Schläppi says shows the most promise, emerged. It comes from the Black Sea area of Russia. But even there, the climate isn’t quite as harsh as in Wisconsin. So he and his research students continued growing this strong strain this spring to select progeny with a high potential for survival in Wisconsin. The answer is near.

“Artificial human selection for a genetically improved strain is occurring,” Schläppi says, “and it gets even better over time.”

Rice is an important U.S. crop. Schläppi says 80 percent of rice grown domestically is used in this country and wants to promote rice in Wisconsin. “Now the top crops are corn, soybeans and wheat, but rice could be a new cash crop,” he says.

Schläppi is also working with the Fondy Farmers Market and Alice’s Garden, both community gardens serving residents in the city of Milwaukee. He planted rice on an acre of Fondy Farm to help small-scale farmers see how they could bring this produce to market. Students are working on feasibility studies to see what plants can be grown without a paddy and how much rice can be harvested from small gardens. — JMM


Lightning Round

Highlighting some faculty research and scholarly honors.


  1. Dr. Marilyn Frenn, professor of nursing, one of 168 nurse leaders inducted as members of the Class of 2015 into the American Academy of Nursing. Members are selected for “leadership in education, management, and policy and work to improve the health of the nation.”
  2. Dr. Joseph Schimmels, associate dean for research in engineering, professor of mechanical engineering and holder of five patents with a sixth patent pending, inducted into the prestigious National Academy of Inventors.
  3. Marquette’s Faculty Awards for Teaching Excellence recognize these scholars:Dr. Philip Voglewede, associate professor of mechanical engineeringDr. Andrew Starsky, clinical associate professor of physical therapyDiane Dressler, clinical assistant professor of nursingDr. Kristen Foster, associate professor of history
  4. Dr. Nabeel Demerdash, professor of electrical and computer engineering, received the Lawrence G. Haggerty Faculty Award for Research Excellence.
  5. Dr. Andrew Williams, principal investigator on a $500,000 NSF grant awarded to the Opus College of Engineering to create a curriculum to teach high school girls to program humanoid robots. Andrews is John P. Raynor, S.J., Chair and professor of electrical and computer engineering.

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