Top educators share success stories at Uncommon Communities session

“In America your zip code or your socioeconomic status should never determine the quality of your education.” — Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education

Education was the focus of the second mountaintop session of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Uncommon Communities program, a community and economic development initiative designed by the Institute in partnership with Dr. Vaughn and Sandy Grisham of the University of Mississippi and Dr. Mark Peterson of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and Dr. Roby Robertson of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Institute of Government. This might have seemed like a dramatic shift in topics to the participants from Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell counties, who during the first session learned about the power of good leadership and how simple improvement projects—a new coat of paint here, a few trees planted there—can lead to a town’s renaissance.

If the first session, held at the end of August, was about inspiration and motivation, this session was about getting down to some serious work. And where better to start than with education—after all, every town’s future depends on today’s children. Two keynote speakers on Saturday, Nov. 7, shared their approaches to the specific challenges of rural education in two very different rural environments: northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas Delta.

When Daisy Dyer Duerr took over as principal of the failing 199-student St. Paul elementary and high schools in 2011, she had two basic goals: to strengthen relationships and to use technology to provide a global education for a tiny town where dirt roads and generational poverty are the norm and graduating from high school, much less going to college, isn’t. After showing a (sometimes alarming) video that detailed the ways in which Generation Z—learners between the ages of 2 and 20 now—is growing up “technology complete,” she outlined how she became a “digital principal” and used that technology to rocket test scores and, ultimately, land the tiny St. Paul High School a Bronze rating from U.S. News and World Report, along with national acclaim.

It started with a $6,000 grant, which Duerr used to buy digital readers. She explained that the “cool factor” alone helped increase the number of male readers by more than 50 percent. When it turned out that Duerr had been the only Arkansas applicant for Title 1 grant money, that $6,000 turned into $50,000, and Duerr outfitted teachers and classrooms with iPads, sending the teachers home with them over the summer with a strict mandate that they immerse themselves in the technology and come back in the fall armed with innovative ways to employ them in their teaching.

Then Duerr did something really controversial: She told students to bring their smartphones to school. In a time when most schools have a no-tolerance policy regarding cell phones, Duerr saw an opportunity to increase her students’ access to information and electronic educational tools. In 2012, St. Paul Elementary was named one of 25 “Model Schools” by the International Center for Leadership in Education; St. Paul High School followed in 2014.

Following Ms. Duerr was Scott Shirey, the founder and executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools, who was named one of the world’s seven most powerful educators by Forbes Magazine in 2011. The KIPP Delta Schools—KIPP stands for “Knowledge is Power Program”—are a collection of six public preparatory schools in Arkansas: three in Helena-West Helena, two in Blytheville and one in Forrest City. Despite the fact that they are in some of the most resource-deprived counties in the state (the overwhelming majority of KIPP Delta students, at all grade levels, qualify for free and reduced lunches), these schools consistently outperform other public schools in the area.

The KIPP schools originated in Houston, Texas, where two Teach for America teachers were trying to find a way to keep students more involved in school and steer them away from any path leading to drugs, crime and prison. They invited 50 students to participate in an intensive program that included nightly homework assignments and Saturday school. Not surprisingly, test scores began to go up for these students.

The two teachers sensed that they were onto something, and the first two official KIPP middle schools were opened the following year, in Houston and New York City. By the end of the decade, the stellar performance of these schools had attracted the attention of 60 Minutes and of Gap Inc. founders Don and Doris Fisher. While the founders worked on creating a replicable blueprint for new KIPP schools to be founded elsewhere, the Fishers created the Fisher Fellowship, a one-year program that prepares founders to establish and lead KIPP Schools.

This is where Shirey comes in—with the founding of the first KIPP Delta middle school in 2002. When Shirey arrived in Helena, the word “preparatory” was misspelled on local school buses. Sixty-five fifth-graders entered the KIPP Delta College Preparatory School with collective math and literature test scores below the 20th percentile; by the end of the year, they were at the 49th percentile. In four years, by the time those fifth-graders were in ninth grade, their average had risen to the 91st percentile. The first KIPP Delta school had busted a long-held myth when it comes to low-achieving students by proving that “it’s not the kids.”

By 2009, the KIPP Delta schools had more African-American students passing AP calculus and English than any other school in Arkansas, and they had the second-highest 11th-grade literacy scores (second to the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Science and the Arts, admission to which is dependent upon grades and test scores, unlike at KIPP). KIPP students have earned to date $6 million in college scholarships, and those students will graduate from college in numbers many times over the national average for students from low-income families. It’s worth noting here that the six Arkansas KIPP Delta schools are the only KIPP schools out of 183 nationwide that serve primarily rural students.

What the KIPP Delta and St. Paul schools demonstrate is that it doesn’t take big-city resources to achieve big-time educational success—just hard work by smart and dedicated people who firmly believe that Arne Duncan’s words above are, or at least should be, true.


Visions of nanoparticles dancing in my head

Nanoparticles dancing with cells in the brain. That was my scientific takeaway from the Fifth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference, held in April 2014.

As we gear up this week to host the Sixth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference, I’m reminded of that image, planted in my memory by Dr. Elena Batrakova, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It was during a reception last April that Batrakova was telling me and our executive director, Dr. Marta Loyd, about the nature of her research.

“So tell me, Dr. Batrakova, what’s the end goal of your research,” Loyd said.

Batrakova answered matter-of-factly in her rich Russian accent, “We hope to find better ways to treat and even reverse the effects of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”

So her research could change the world.

My mind was blown. Hers was at ease as she went on to describe the challenges in treating illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, those that affect the brain.

According to an article on Batrakova’s work by David Etchison, “Getting drugs into the brain is extremely difficult in general because it is protected and isolated from the rest of the body by the blood-brain barrier, which is extremely selective about what is allowed to pass through.”

The approach of Batrakova’s research, as Etchison describes it, is to load nanoparticles into macrophages—a type of white blood cell—which are able to bypass the blood-brain barrier. Another delivery method is to load the nanoparticles into exosomes—tiny bubbles of protein and fat produced naturally by cells, as Etchison describes them—that have been isolated from macrophages and deliver those through the blood-brain barrier. Batrakova’s description of the bypass was delightful.

“It’s like the macrophages and the cells of the blood-brain barrier are dancing,” she said, beaming.

Her use of visuals made it easy for us laymen to understand the nature of her work. In essence, the cells she injects with medicine to treat Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s function as sort of a Trojan horse. This has revolutionary implications for the medical field. And the gravity of the work is not lost on Batrakova.

“Every time we (she and her team) publish our next research paper, I receive hundreds of emails and calls from patients, from their relatives,” she said during a recent interview. “It’s so encouraging because they just ask ‘when, how?’

“I feel how important this research is.”

Batrakova presented on her research at the last Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference. Since then, she has collaborated with several scientists she met during her brief visit to Petit Jean Mountain. We take a lot of pride in identifying and convening leaders in science, policy, business and other fields, and we love hearing that the connections they make here have lasting effects in their work.

This year, we have an equally impressive lineup of speakers, including Sir Harold Kroto, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for his discovery of fullerenes.

I’ll be the first to admit that most of the science discussed at our conference is well beyond my capacity for understanding. But that image of cells doing a two-step with nanoparticles brings it home for me. What research will I learn about this week that could someday change the world? I can’t wait to find out.


How to solve our most important problems

Vaughn Grisham is a fixture in the area of community development. The founding director of the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement at The University of Mississippi, Grisham is a key partner for the Institute’s Uncommon Communities initiative.

“I grew up a citizen of the poor South. I always recognized the intelligence in the people I lived amongst but there just wasn’t a lot of opportunity,” Grisham said when I asked him about what got him interested in community development. “As a young person I wanted to leave the South, leave Mississippi. But my mother told me that we needed people who wanted to make the South a better place to stay. They were the ones who were going to transform the South. She pointed out that we had to work together to solve our most important problems.”

Grisham has helped community groups and activist citizens work together for decades. His most recognizable work is “The Tupelo Model of Community and Economic Development,” which tracks the evolution of the poorest county in the poorest state in America to a community that eventually produces more jobs than they have citizens. If that kind of transformation can happen in a place like Tupelo, Miss., it can happen anywhere. It’s that kind of track record and commitment to citizen-led growth that brought him to Arkansas.

“I’ve long been familiar with Gov. Rockefeller. I admired his approach of pulling together people who have done extraordinary work and then determining how that can be applied to his beloved state. My connection to Arkansas goes back to that,” he said. “I eventually ended up working with the city of Morrilton in the early-to-mid-1990s when Barry McKuin called asking if I would help develop a leadership program for the city [Vision 2020/Conway County]. The timing turned out to be extremely fortuitous. In 1999, two factories closed within 10 days of each other. These closures cost the city approximately 1,300 jobs in a town of just over 6,500 and a county of just over 20,000 at the time. But because the community was already in the midst of proactive leadership and community development, and because they were developing leaders, they were able to mobilize quickly.” Within 60 days the Conway County Economic Development Corporation had two major job announcements. Recruitment and relocations continued to the point where the turnaround was dubbed the "Morrilton Miracle."

The Uncommon Communities initiative builds on these earlier efforts and what Grisham has done since then.

“We bring these teams [leaders from Conway, Perry, Pope, Yell and Van Buren counties] the best resources from all across the nation, but they have to do the work! They have to organize themselves and prioritize what’s important to their community,” he said. “I have to convince them they can do important things. I’ll tell them stories about communities in Appalachia, in small-town Michigan and other places that are doing tremendous things. They were able to transform their communities out of tragic circumstances ranging from underperforming education systems to countywide economic peril.”

The key, Grisham said, is that participants take all these great ideas and adapt them to fit their communities.

“What it takes is for someone to stand up and say, ‘This is intolerable. This will no longer stand,’ and then they have to be willing to do something about the problem.”

When it comes to community development, Grisham knows it’s all about people who want to make a difference coming together and making the commitment to make things better. Just like his mother said.


Uncommon Communities team up to ‘Paint the River Valley’

Approximately 30 residents of Pope and Yell counties gathered at Arkansas Tech University to learn about a new beautification initiative being undertaken jointly by the two counties. The initiative, called “Paint the River Valley,” has invited businesses in Russellville, Dardanelle, Atkins, Pottsville and surrounding areas to spruce up their properties with paint and other minor improvements the weekend of Nov. 14-15.

The initiative is an early result of Pope and Yell counties’ participation in the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Uncommon Communities program. Uncommon Communities is a yearlong community and economic development program that aims to equip community leaders with the skills and knowledge needed to effect positive change while opening eyes to the possibilities for a vibrant future. Conway, Perry and Van Buren counties are also participating in the program.

Tonya Gosnell, community education manager at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center and secretary of Pope County’s Uncommon Communities group, explained that the inspiration for “Paint the River Valley” came from Greenville, Kentucky. Greenville was featured in the inaugural meeting of the Uncommon Communities program, which was held at the Institute in August.

Against a backdrop of before-and-after photos of downtown Greenville, Gosnell told the story of a small town—population just over 4,000—that went from empty storefronts and a dwindling population to being named No. 4 on Budget Travel’s list of America’s Coolest Small Towns in 2013. And all Greenville started with was a few cans of paint.

“It just becomes contagious,” said Gosnell. “Whenever you become motivated about change, and volunteering and helping people, real change starts to happen. It’s an inspiring story, and it didn’t take much to get them started.”

So far, businesses in Russellville, Dardanelle, Atkins and Pottsville have signed on, with other possible projects in Dover and Hector. Gosnell, who lives in Russellville, stressed the importance of regional collaboration in the endeavor. “This is a great opportunity for us to have unity within the county,” she said. “This doesn’t just mean Russellville or Dardanelle.”

While images of buildings slated for a face-lift were projected behind her, Gosnell explained some details of the proposed improvements, including color schemes and specific areas to be painted. Hobby Shop Deluxe, in Dardanelle, whose owners were present, is one such building. “They want the building to keep the old-school feel,” explained Rashad Woods, a reporter for the Dardanelle Post Dispatch and the publicity chair for Yell County’s Uncommon Communities group. “We’re not going to lime-green it up—we’re not going to scare you. We’re just going to bring it back to life.”

While many supplies, in-kind donations and discounts are coming from area businesses such as Lowe’s and Sherwin-Williams, along with other equipment from area residents, the work itself will be done entirely by volunteers—many of them students. Professional painters and other tradesmen will be on site to supervise the work. And for those who might be reluctant to take up a paint brush, yard work and cleanup will be done at several locations.

Dr. Mark Peterson of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, one of the creators and faculty members of the Uncommon Communities program, reiterated the importance of these seemingly small improvement efforts. “This is more than just a paint-up, fix-up. When you start to really spruce up your community, people get excited. And investors who are looking to start a business start to look seriously at your community…This is really a catalyst for a larger development process.”

For more information about “Paint the River Valley”—and to sign up to volunteer—visit the Uncommon Communities: Pope and Yell Counties page on Facebook.


Saving lives, one used bar of soap at a time

A used bar of soap can save a life. It’s true. Just ask Clean the World.

Clean the World is a nonprofit organization that collects used soap and toiletries from hospitality and corporate partners. They recycle the donated products to ensure they are completely safe for reuse and then distribute them to people in need around the globe. The ultimate goal is to prevent millions of hygiene-related deaths each year.

In August, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute became one of Clean the World’s hospitality partners. We’re one of more than 2,250 hotels and resorts working with them, 17 of which are in Arkansas.

“Often times when you recycle items, which we do a lot of, it certainly makes you feel good,” said Joel Smith, general manager of conference services at the Institute. “But this program is more tangible to me. You can see your efforts put to a good humanitarian cause.”

For instance, Clean the World responded to the Nepal earthquake in April 2015 and shipped 5 million soap bars to West Africa to help stop the spread of Ebola in 2014. Since 2009, they have distributed more than 22 million bars of soap in 96 countries.

But it’s more than just giving out soap, it’s teaching people how to use it properly. Their Global Soap Project focuses on improved hygiene practices, such as hand washing, in order to reduce the number of children who die from hygiene- and sanitation-related illnesses. (That number is more than 1.8 million each year.)

On top of the humanitarian benefit is the environmental benefit. Instead of sitting in a landfill, the discarded soap bars and plastic bottles get reused in a meaningful way.

“This is such an easy thing for us to do,” Smith said. “We just simply toss the used soap and shampoo left in our rooms.”

The only difference is now the soap is tossed into a bin that goes back to Clean the World instead of a trash can.

He continued, “The housekeeping team is glad we are doing it. They always advocate for a good cause. They feel like they have a part of helping someone who needs it.”

So the next time you visit the Institute, don’t worry about leaving the used soap or shampoo behind. It won’t go to waste. It will help save a life.


Brenda Cahill and the Dixie Mallard legacy

Thirty-seven years after my two failed duck hunting experiences, I’ve come to understand my biggest problem. I had no duck call. And a duck hunt without a call? We may as well consider that a snipe hunt.

If only I’d known about the Dixie Mallard duck call.

The Dixie Mallard was born in 1939 when Darce Manning “Chick” Major carved his first duck call from a piece of Kentucky walnut. He had a natural talent for it and soon began making calls for friends and local folks. By the late 1940s, Major opened a duck call workshop in his hometown of Stuttgart. Although Major continued to work his day job as a truck driver, duck calling was a passion he shared with his entire family.

Dixie Mallard

Major’s stepdaughter, Brenda Cahill, recently talked with me about the business her father pioneered, and how it wasn’t a job; it was a “calling” (pardon the pun).

“We were somewhat of an attraction because at the time, young girls didn’t typically call ducks,” she explained.

For a period during the 1950s, the family toured together in Nashville and performed duck call routines at the Mid-South Fair in Memphis. Through the years, she and her sisters accumulated an impressive number of junior and international duck calling championship titles.

Forty-one years after Major’s death, Brenda and her husband, Don, continue to carry on the family business from their home in Morrilton. And they still use Major’s original jig. Calls are made from a variety of local wood including bois d’arc, cedar and cherry, as well as Dymondwood, a select hardwood veneer that finishes to a high polish and/or vivid color. Like any handmade work of art, no two calls are the same.

Although Brenda no longer competes, she is a passionate supporter of the industry and provides duck call lessons to children during the Wings over the Prairie Festival held annually during Thanksgiving week in Stuttgart. She also oversees the Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Duck Calling Contest that has awarded more than $84,000 of scholarship funds to high school seniors in 35 schools across 13 states.

Are you interested in owning a piece of Arkansas duck calling history? Dixie Mallards (now branded the Chick Major Don Cahill Dixie Mallard Duck Call) range from $50 to $150 and are only sold at two locations—in the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie in Stuttgart and at The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute Gift Shop, where Brenda volunteers a few times a month. If you are lucky enough to visit the gift shop when she’s working, she might even demonstrate for you.

“People are always astonished to hear me call,” she said.

When I asked her to share her duck-calling secret, she said, “Take wind from down low and grunt. With our calls you’ll produce a true Arkansas sound.”

She should know. Duck calling is an important part of her legacy.

Duck calls on display


Governor launches Healthy Active Arkansas

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson launched a statewide plan yesterday to improve the health of all Arkansans. The plan, titled Healthy Active Arkansas, contains nine focus areas all tied to increasing the health of Arkansans through healthy dietary choices and increased physical activity.

Healthy Active Arkansas press conference (click image to watch)

Gov. Hutchinson launches Healthy Active Arkansas

The nine focus areas are:

  • Physical and Built Environment
  • Nutritional Standards in Government, Institutions and the Private Sector
  • Nutritional Standards in Schools—Early Child Care Through College
  • Physical Education and Activity in Schools—Early Child Care Through College
  • Healthy Worksites
  • Access to Healthy Foods
  • Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Reduction
  • Breastfeeding
  • Marketing Program

The priority areas listed in the plan are modeled after Institute of Medicine goals outlined in their 2012 report Accelerating Progress in Obesity Preventions: Solving the Weight of the Nation. Each priority area outlines two-, five-, and 10-year goals to facilitate achievable successes in obtaining a healthier Arkansas. 

“Healthy Active Arkansas is about the future of our state. We want to create a state where all Arkansans can lead healthy, happy and fulfilling lives.” — Gov. Asa Hutchinson

The plan was developed via a series of facilitated discussions at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and included leaders in the field. It provides a framework of research-based strategies to guide community efforts to reduce obesity—a major factor in improving health. These are accompanied by recommendations for efforts that must be orchestrated on the state level.

The Healthy Active Arkansas plan is meant to be used by a wide range of stakeholders, including businesses, education centers, religious organizations, restaurants, city planners and more. 

To read or download the full plan, visit the Healthy Active Arkansas website.


To B Corp or not to B Corp

2015 has been a big year for companies looking to do more than just increase their bottom line.

Just last week, crowdfunding website Kickstarter announced it has reincorporated as a public benefit corporation, making it legally bound to look beyond just profit margins when making company decisions. In addition to holding Kickstarter to their new charter, becoming a benefit corporation also allows them to remain a certified B Corp. B Corp certification is handled by B Lab, a nonprofit organization that looks at a company’s social and environmental impact, accountability and transparency in the same way LEED certification looks at green building standards.

Becoming a certified B Corp and being incorporated as a benefit corporation are separate yet complementary endeavors. While any business in the world can apply for certification through B Lab, benefit corporation status is not as widespread. Just like Kickstarter, though, any certified B Corp operating where the law allows them to incorporate as a benefit corporation must do so. Etsy, the online crafting marketplace, is one such B Corp.       

Etsy’s case is interesting, however, as earlier this year it released its IPO and became publicly traded. Though Etsy is not the first B Corp to go public (it is preceded by Brazilian cosmetics company Natura and Colorado software company Rally Software), it has drawn a lot of attention as a well-known company plotting uncharted waters. Etsy is certified as a B Corp through Delaware, which passed benefit corporation legislation in 2013. According to B Lab’s rules, Etsy has until 2017 to reincorporate in order to maintain their B Corp eligibility. The decision will not be an easy one, but whatever the potential pitfalls might be, it has brought more attention to B Corps and benefit corporations and can serve as lesson for likeminded B Corps in the future.

Looking to the future of B Corps, another company could someday eclipse Natura as the largest publicly traded B Corp: consumer goods producer Unilever. Shortly after Natura became certified as a B-Corp in December 2014, Unilever CEO Paul Polman began talking about possibly pursuing the status for his company. Unilever currently is invested in its Sustainable Living Plan and owns one of the earliest B Corp adopters, Ben & Jerry’s, so becoming certified as a B Corp seems like a natural fit.

As larger and larger companies look for ways to be socially conscious and accountable, it is important to note that entrepreneurs in Arkansas can do the same. Arkansas is one of 31 states in the United States that has passed benefit corporation legislation, so the stage is set. Perhaps the next big news involving a socially and environmentally minded company will come from our own backyard.


Seeing a city through new eyes

Here’s a little thought experiment for you: Imagine that you are a stranger visiting your town for the first time. What do you see? Does it look inviting, cared for, and vibrant? Is it easy to find your way around? Does anything catch your eye and make you want to stay a little longer or come back again?

Fourteen Conway County residents put the city of Morrilton to the “visitor” test on a tour that spanned city limits by bus in all directions, focusing on the view from the city’s points of entry and main thoroughfares, and ended on foot for a closer look at several downtown blocks.

The tour was a product of Conway County’s participation in the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Uncommon Communities program, a community and economic development initiative that will take participants from Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell counties through an intensive, nine-month curriculum of workshops and trainings designed to jump-start development at the grass-roots level.

Cody Hill, director of events and membership for the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce and chair of the steering committee for Conway County’s Uncommon Communities program, said that the idea for the bus tour came from the steering committee itself.

“We were having our first big follow-up meeting to the first session at WRI, and a couple of people just said, ‘Let’s take our blinders off’” and see what other people see when they visit, Hill said.

We departed from the Chamber and headed west on U.S. 64, and it wasn’t long before the first noteworthy sight was announced by Mayor Allen Lipsmeyer, who took to the bus PA system to call the group’s attention to a faded wooden “Welcome to Morrilton” sign—that appears, bewilderingly, on the way out of town. Plans are underway to refurbish the sign and move it to a more welcoming location.

Vacant buildings and overgrown lots passed by the windows. Suddenly, one brave soul volunteered himself as a guinea pig, pointing out a lot of his own with a vacant building that he’d been unable to sell. “So, what do I do with that?” he said. “Well,” said Hill, “you’re keeping it mowed. That helps.”

This example of a property owner taking the trouble to keep tidy a property he isn’t even using seemed to set off a light bulb inside the bus, and now nearly every building we passed elicited a chorus of “Who owns that one?” People were complimenting one another on how nice everything looked, but a pervasive awareness of the special kind of accountability a person can feel in a small town where everybody knows your name—and your address—hung in the air.

The tour continued through town to have a look at the city’s entrance from the south, coming over the river bridge on Route 9. “Think about how many people come this way from Petit Jean,” Lipsmeyer said. “There’s no ‘Welcome to Morrilton’ sign.” On Route 9 at the north entrance to the city, “There’s no welcome sign, but there’s a huge Petit Jean Liquor sign,” Hill said with a laugh.

Back at the Chamber, the group prepared for a short walking tour. “For so many years, I only ever saw Morrilton from the front seat of a car,” Hill said. “Now that I’ve taken up jogging, I’ve noticed so much more on foot.” One thing everyone noticed right away is that the north side of Broadway has a sidewalk and no trees, and the south side has the reverse—which you might not pay mind to in the car, but seems patently unfair as you make your way down the street on foot on a blinding, 95-degree day. It was agreed that Morrilton needs more trees.

Around the corner was an example of a building that’s been painted to highlight historical architectural details and to complement the surrounding buildings. Across the street, a vacant building stood with peeling paint, rotting wood, and windows clouded with dust. “Even vacant buildings need to be kept up,” said Darryl Rhoda, who is on Conway County’s steering committee for the Uncommon Communities program. “Potential buyers drive on by a building that’s sad and dirty.”

As we passed by empty storefronts and recently closed businesses, a combination of hometown pride and HGTV fever seemed to overtake the group, and attractive features on abandoned buildings were pointed out, and improvements were enthusiastically suggested. The tour concluded at the Chamber, where a quick wrap-up produced one of many “assignments” for the group: Based on what was seen on the tour, come up with a list of three simple improvements that could be made in one afternoon, possibly during a clean-up day that is tentatively scheduled for one weekend in October. “We’ve got a lot of momentum,” Hill said. “The iron is hot, and it’s time to strike.”


Health roundup: lasers, conferences and Arkansas' growing problem

A quick rundown of recent health-related news with ties to the Institute:

Dr. Vladimir Zharov (pictured above on the left), a renowned researcher at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), was recently awarded a $1.7 million grant by the National Cancer Institute for his work in using lasers to detect and destroy melanomas without damaging normal tissue cells. Zharov served as co-chair of the Fifth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference, which was held here at the Institute in April 2014. Read more about the grant and Dr. Zharov’s work here.


Back in May, the Institute collaborated with UAMS to bring the Conference On Normal Tissue Radiation Effects and Countermeasures (CONTREC) to Petit Jean Mountain. Led by Dr. Martin Hauer-Jensen, one of the world’s foremost authorities on radiation injury research, CONTREC attracted scientists from all over the world. Many of those same scientists may soon travel to San Antonio, Texas, for the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) conference.

ASTRO is a radiation oncology (study of cancer) membership organization comprising more than 10,500 doctors, nurses, biologists, medical physicists and others who work to treat cancer.

Before having the privilege of working with Dr. Hauer-Jensen, we honestly didn’t think much about radiation unless someone we knew happened to be receiving it as treatment for cancer. Even then, we didn’t think about all of the effects of radiation for the patient and all that goes into it for the health care provider. ASTRO exists to address both of these viewpoints to ensure scientists and practitioners have the best education and tools at their disposal and that the patients are receiving the best possible care and are ensured the best chance of survival.

ASTRO’s annual meeting will be held Oct. 18-21.


And finally a bit of bad news. Various outlets recently reported on The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, a report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The report lists Arkansas as having the highest rate of obesity in adults in the United States at 35.9 percent. Right on our heels are West Virginia at 35.7 percent and Mississippi at 35.5 percent.

The Institute has been working for more than two years with the state’s top health care leaders and advocates for reducing obesity rates, including the State Health Department, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, UAMS and the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention. The result of our collaboration will be a plan to improve overall health and reduce obesity rates by setting strategies to help people eat healthier and be more active. Watch for updates on this initiative in the coming weeks and months.