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SouthernProfiles Study: Prenatal Drinking May Affect Descendants You

might not ever have met your great-grand-

that connection is considered conclusive. Evidence that the same link exists in humans would take even longer to determine, though he says it is a possibility. Many women drink alcohol when they don’t yet know they are pregnant, at a time of crucial fetal development,

he says. He hopes these findings may one day lead to preventive measures and interventions. Nizhnikov also notes that further research in this area could address other questions, such as whether having a great-grandmother who drank while she was pregnant might be a factor for alcoholism. “It could also show that if you can keep a child away from alcohol until adulthood, he or she might not have any higher liability for alcohol abuse,” he says. “Every time you find an answer it opens up another five or six questions.” Nizhnikov says the combination of teaching and research is what attracted him to Southern. He plans to teach a seminar course next semester called “Neurobiology of Addiction.” Born in Russia, Nizhnikov immigrated to the United States at the age of 8. His parents were “Refuseniks,” activists denied exit visas before being allowed to leave Russia. His family settled in New York. He planned to be a classical guitarist, and later considered a career in clinical psychology. But after working in the lab, assisting with graduate research into cocaine addiction while taking an undergraduate psychology course at Colorado State University, he set his sights on his current career path. Nizhnikov received his M.A and Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience from Binghamton, mentored by the renowned scientist Norman “Skip” Spear, who conducted groundbreaking work in infant memory and the early developmental consequences of alcohol exposure. “I talk with my students about how there’s a lot of failure in science,” he says. “I’ve worked for months and months on experiments. At some point you have to step away and start something else. There is always a new question.”

ship and policy studies, had always been interested in the achievement gap between African-American males and their white peers. But rather than add to the piles of research that already existed about the reasons for the academic failures of black men, he wanted to find out why some managed to succeed despite overwhelming obstacles. He did his initial research in the Los Angeles Unified School District, visiting two failing schools in the throes of state takeovers to look for case studies. His sought out male students with at least a 3.0 GPA who were living with their birth mothers in homes that lacked the presence of an adult male for at least four years before the study. Mothers who were college graduates were excluded from the study. Through interviews, home visits and focus groups with five students and their mothers, a pattern emerged of mothers who “took full responsibility for raising their sons, encouraged them to do well at school, and held them to high standards in the classroom and at home,” according to the study. “These young men described anything but parents who

‘sit on the sidelines’ and allow their children to be victimized by an unsympathetic educational system.” Rather than using school-driven techniques to motivate their sons, the mothers used whatever methods they thought might work. One mom threatened to take away football – her son’s passion – if his grades slipped; another sought to influence her son through church. What surprised Robinson most was the mothers’ craving for guidance and advice. Because the mothers in the study lacked formal education, many said they felt intimidated by school officials or uncomfortable approaching school officials on their own, and felt educators were sometimes dismissive of their concerns. Yet, Robinson says, “these mothers wanted to engage with someone – they were looking for the opportunity.” “They were eager to talk about what they had been doing, and what they could do better,” he explains. “I think if we start working closely with parents, then they will start doing the heavy lifting for us down the road.”

mother.

But if you consume more alcoholic beverages than most people, you could try to blame that proclivity on her. While the connection among humans is still an open question, a new Southern faculty member found that among rats, those whose great-grandmothers drank while pregnant had greater appetites for alcohol, regardless of whether their mothers and grandmothers drank while pregnant. “Why do some people have increased alcohol abuse disorders as they go on to adolescence?” asks Michael Nizhnikov, assistant professor of psychology. “One of the reasons could be that it’s passed on across generations, that it is being set up when the great-grandmother drinks.” Nizhnikov conducted his study while a faculty member at Binghamton University in New York, along with Nicole Cameron and Daniel Popoola, an assistant professor and a graduate student at Binghamton, respectively. The study is currently under review by the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Research. The consequences of prenatal exposure to alcohol are well documented both in rats and humans, according to Nizhnikov. Even in small amounts, it can lead to birth defects, as well as physical and psychological impairments. But this kind of trans-generational effect of alcohol is a new area of research. In a previous study, Nizhnikov found a strong connection between grandmothers who drank while pregnant and a greater fondness for alcohol among the grandchildren. He says the third-generation connection is new territory, and while a statistically significant third-generation link exists among rats, additional studies need to be done before

Michael Nizhnikov, assistant professor of psychology, is studying the link between a person’s desire for alcohol and whether their great-grandmother drank while pregnant.

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Listening to Mom Statistically

speaking, Quintin Robinson should have been an academic failure. As a black male growing up in a single-parent home in rough-and-tumble Compton, Calif., just south of Los Angeles, Robinson had many of the well-known risk factors stacked against him. He gives much of the credit for beating the odds to his mother. “My father died when I was really young and my mother raised all six of us. She really pushed education and she pushed doing things for yourself,” says Robinson, the newest faculty member in Southern’s Educational Leadership Department. Robinson’s own life experience fueled his decision to focus his research on African-American males who were thriving academically, despite attending “failing” inner-city schools and living in homes with an absent father. Specifically, he wanted to examine the role their mothers played in their sons’ success. In every case, he found one common denominator: a mother who relentlessly pushed her son to achieve. His findings were published in the November 2013 edition of Multicultural Perspectives, the journal of the National Association for Multicultural Education. “These black mothers were very motivated toward seeing their sons be successful,” Robinson says. “They were looking at their sons as being the game-changer in the family. They felt that if they invested something in their child now, then later on these children would come back and help them and help the household out.” A record four in 10 births in the United States in 2008 were to unmarried women, up from 28 percent in 1990, according to U.S. Census figures. Of those, African-American women had the highest share of births to unwed mothers, at 72 percent. While research shows children in single-parent homes are more likely to live in poverty and do poorly in school, Robinson says his research suggests that investments in parental education and parent engagement programs can mitigate those disadvantages. “If these mothers were doing such a great job with these boys with no tools at all, then imagine what we could do if we started to really educate these mothers?” he asked. Robinson, an associate professor in educational leader-

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Quintin Robinson, assistant professor of educational leadership, has found a common thread among black single mothers whose sons succeeded in life despite growing up with considerable adversity in their lives.

SouthernLife • november 2014 SoLife1114_print.indd 5

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Southern Life, November 2014  

A newspaper for the SCSU campus community