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The Flashlight: Spring 2018

Esport championship, an Oprah Moment, and a (somewhat) daring neurologist — News from around campus

Campus News  |  May 1, 2018  |  By UNLV News Center
esports arena competition

(Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

Basketball, Football, Overwatch?

OK, so big-ticket college athletics might not include esports just yet, but UNLV is right there at the start of what might be a revolution.

Smack in the middle of basketball’s conference championships — UNLV hosted the first-ever Mountain West Esports Showdown March 8-10. The event pitted UNLV’s team, called 8-Bit, against rivals from Boise State, the first varsity esports team in the conference.

The two squads squared up in three common esports games, with UNLV proving to have the fastest thumbs in the West, capturing the inaugural title with wins in both League of Legends and Overwatch.

The event was streamed live on Twitch (replays are still available) and played in front of a healthy crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center’s Strip View Pavilion.

In what could be a sign of things to come for 8-Bit, Boise is building what will be the largest college esports facility, a 100-seat training center, broadcast facility, and spectator arena. So by the time the Las Vegas Stadium gets built for the NFL’s Raiders and our own Rebels, UNLV may be filling it with two teams. — Jason Scavone

An American Moment

Tayari Jones isn’t new to nabbing literary awards — from the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award to becoming a Shearing Fellow at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute — but getting a nod from Oprah Winfrey is a whole new experience.

She learned that her fourth novel, An American Marriage, was to be a 2018 Oprah Book Club selection as she drove down Maryland Parkway one day. “I had [my phone] hooked up to my radio, so after I said, ‘Hello,’ a voice in surround sound said, ‘HELLO, THIS IS OPRAH.’ I would know that timbre anywhere. I must admit that my response wasn’t exactly dignified.”

The novel, weaving together a meditation on mass incarceration and a love triangle, was inspired by a couple she overheard arguing in a mall one day. “They were in love and in trouble,” she said. “I heard her say, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ And after that, it was off to the races!”

Her book has catapulted up the international best sellers’ list and sent her on a 35-stop book tour. There’s a special responsibility that comes with the Oprah honor, she noted. “When she put that ‘O’ on my book cover, she was lending me her good name to support this project. I want to make sure that my travels with this book help further her mission of literacy. But more specifically, I hope that this book increases our empathy and concern for incarcerated people and their families.”

—Karyn Hollingsworth

Three Things About: Dr. Abraham "Jim" Nagy

Chair of neurology, UNLV School of Medicine

By age 15, Nagy had racked up enough credits to graduate, but he stuck around Bishop Gorman High School because attending college before he was old enough  to get his driver’s license would have been “a bit awkward.” The intrepid student went on to Columbia University soon enough. And then medical school in Reno, a residency at Yale, and a fellowship in London. But Las Vegas called him back home.

1. He’s like his mother: She’s a psychiatrist whose field inspired his path to neurology. “So many people do thing so differently, yet we share the same basic anatomy. I thought that was fascinating. My area of specialty is headache. People who don’t suffer from migraine or other headache disorders don’t understand the disability. [The World Health Organization] compares a day of migraine as being equivalent to a day of quadriplegia.”

2. He's like his father: “My father was the first oncologist to move to Las Vegas. So I got to see [the community’s medical infrastructure] evolve, and I’ve always wanted to do something similar. I’m really quite passionate about increasing the volume of pediatric neurologists in Las Vegas because we only have two. Wait times are months and months. It’s horrifying. Yesterday my neighbor was telling me about his best friend’s child who is 4. He’s suffered through multiple seizures and can’t get in to see a neurologist.”

3. He doesn’t consider himself daring: “Neurologists by nature really aren’t daring people.” But maybe Nagy undersells himself. He vacations by backpacking for weeks at a time through some of the world’s most remote places. So far he's trekked through Patagonia in South America and through Iceland with plans for Jordan one day.

Nevada has 2.6 neurologists per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 4.6, according to 2018 data from the American Academy of Neurology. 

—Paul Joncich

Distinguished with a Capital ‘D’

UNLV doesn’t hand out the Distinguished Professor title every year and seldom does it recognize three at once. It takes racking up a long list of research, teaching, and community service achievements to earn the university’s highest honor, not to mention getting past a vote of the faculty. Here how these three profs earned the honor.

The Bone Collector: Debra Martin

Violence is in our bones. So say the skeletal remains of our ancestors across the long plane of history, across continents and cultures.

Anthropologist Debra Martin and her students examine the bones of people who lived in ancient times to figure out why violent behavior in societies — including our own — is culturally sanctioned. Their studies identify those in power who used violence as forms of social control and the subgroups at risk of experiencing raids, small-scale warfare, gender violence, massacres, and enslavement.

Violence, Martin notes, can be part of cultural identity. From ancient practices of human sacrifice to modern gang life, violent acts can be the vehicle by which individuals earn their place in the group. “The more we understand about violence and who benefits, the more we can learn about intervention and prevention today,” she said.

Martin is credited with creating an internship program with the Clark County coroner/medical examiner’s office that allows students to use their skills and forensic techniques to track patterns of violent death in Southern Nevada. Among the things they're looking into: whether factors such as the recession or hotter weather have had an effect on rates of violent death. “My students want to give back and want to help living people.”

The Game Changer: Gabriele Wulf

Coaches are coming to regard Gabriele Wulf as the athlete whisperer. The kinesiology professor 30 years of research has recently culminated in the first theory published in 40 years that attempts to truly explain motor learning.

The work is helping coaches change their approaches, including what they should say to motivate a player and exactly where they should focus an athlete’s attention. Interestingly, Wulf said, instructors who focus too much on correcting body movements could be undermining the progress they hope to see in motor learning.

Wulf is in high demand internationally as a speaker and author. That, in turn, has helped elevate UNLV’s profile globally. “Since her work is so well known, she has been able to recruit great international students to our master’s and Ph.D. program, which further enhances our reputation,” said Brian Schilling, chair of her department.

The arrival of professional teams to Southern Nevada, Wulf said, will boost the work of her colleagues in related fields all across campus. “It’s an exciting time,” she said. “(We) all have much to offer in terms of consulting or performance testing, and hopefully we will have the opportunity to include more high-level performers in our research studies.”

The Innovator: Kwang Kim

Engineering’s Kwang Kim has taken a multi-disciplinary turn into the field of “soft robotics,” where he and his students are developing engineering structures from materials that can function like artificial muscles. His work led to a $3.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation and to his induction into the National Academy of Inventors.

“He has even been able to transition his research into useful solutions, including an active micro-catheter system that can potentially save lives,” said Rama Venkat, dean of the College of Engineering “His ground-breaking and innovative research, as well as the international collaborations and industry partnerships he has forged, continue to bring prestige to the College of Engineering and UNLV.”

Looking ahead, Kim said he is energized by growing interest in the field, noting that multi-disciplinary training is becoming increasingly important to succeeding in the world of soft robotics. One of his students is exploring applications of soft robotics technology to help control twitchy eyelids. Others are experimenting with possible underwater uses.

“Twenty years ago, there were only a handful of people looking at this,” he said. “Now, there are lots of young people with really dynamic, progressive ideas. And that triggers more ideas for me to see how I can keep making improvements.”

— Juliet V. Casey