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Journalistic Integrity

Firsthand accounts of women on welfare challenge enduring myths

A fter much hard work, a mother is about to graduate from a computer repair course. With her new skills, she has a good chance of finding a solid, high-wage job, which will make her less dependent on her boyfriend and on the welfare checks she receives. But when her boyfriend finds out that she may suddenly need him less, he threatens to break her fingers.

This was the story Lisa Brush heard one day at a lunch meeting in Pittsburgh. Brush, an associate professor in Pitt’s sociology department, had been researching women, poverty, and violence for years. When she heard that story, she knew then that she had to find out more about what happens to women once they sign up for welfare. With her colleague and friend Lorraine Higgins, an associate professor in the English department, she devised a way of doing so. With funding from the National Institute of Justice and a Pitt Women’s Studies grant, the two of them created a writing group for eight Pittsburgh women who had received welfare.

There are dozens of scholars now researching welfare around the country, but the notion of asking recipients to write is innovative, and it’s easy to see why. The mythology of poverty says that welfare mothers are inarticulate and—even when they might want to speak for themselves—are too busy or lazy to do so.

Yet Brush and Higgins thought the women’s stories, if told in their own words, might puncture some of the welfare myths. So two nights a week, they met with the eight women at a computer lab on the city’s North Side. At the sessions, the women worked individually or in pairs for about an hour, scribbling in journals, tapping at keyboards, putting their experiences into words with guidance from the two professors. Then, everyone would assemble around the table. One of the women would volunteer to read her story aloud. As she read, the other women would listen, sometimes nodding sympathetically, but also at times interrupting, asking challenging questions: “Why did you make the decisions you did? How did your choices affect your children?”

This writing alone, followed by a group critique, continued from session to session until each woman had constructed a firsthand account of her life within the welfare system. These stories have great value, according to Higgins. “Writing elicits a lot of unspoken knowledge and expertise that can’t be captured by questionnaires or short, abstracted interviews,” she says. “By embedding the problem in a story, you can get a more holistic view and understand why people respond as they do, the logic and constraints behind their decisions and actions.”

Higgins and Brush have compiled an anthology of the women’s writings, Getting By, Getting Ahead: Women’s Stories of Welfare and Work, to serve as a resource for local activists, Washington policymakers, and educators nationwide. As one woman wrote: I sit watching each and every woman around the table. . . . I notice how different we seem—different lifestyles and backgrounds—all different kinds of shapes, colors, and sizes. . . . We are strong-willed women, beautiful, powerful, able to endure all things. In this we are about the same. Maybe someday some of us will be speakers, helping others learn about welfare, helping other women get ahead.

— Christopher Weber

Anthology Web site: By.pdf

Flesh Light

Surgical tool could revolutionize medical procedures

It is a sight most in the medical profession have never seen. In a laboratory on the seventh floor of Benedum Hall, a Pitt biomedical engineer holds what looks like an oversized crayon with a television screen attached to one end. Pointing the opposite end of the device between his thumb and forefinger, something amazing happens. A sonogram image of the inside of the bioengineer’s hand appears in real time on the very location being viewed.

The marvel that makes this image possible is called the Sonic Flashlight. “I thought of the name myself,” says George Stetten proudly, fiddling with the machine as the green glow of the screen reflects onto his glasses.

A name is one thing, but the assistant professor can boast more than creative flair. He can claim responsibility for the successful development of the device. The idea came to him during a meeting when he realized he could attach a half-silvered mirror perpendicularly to a small sonogram screen. The half-silvered mirror (which reflects light while allowing the user to see through it) would then reflect the image from the sonogram screen. Such a set-up would create the illusion of a sonogram image directly within the body part being explored. And—Eureka!—Stetten found the blueprint for a “flashlight” that could see through flesh.

Two years later, that idea has blossomed into a relatively modest-looking machine that has the ability to revolutionize certain invasive procedures. For example, a tumor biopsy would be simpler if the doctor could guide the needle while looking directly at the specific area of the body being explored. Currently, doctors must do such procedures by looking at a separate sonogram screen or using a series of still-picture x-rays.

Along with biopsies, Stetten says the Sonic Flashlight will improve any procedure that involves guiding needles into human flesh. It allows the doctor to project the image of a sonogram “slice.” Therefore, if subjects change positions, images move with them. Stetten finds himself in a critical stage of research—discovering whether the Sonic Flashlight is as accurate as originally hoped. “It hasn’t been tested on live humans yet,” he says, pointing out that it would be dangerous to trust the machine for any invasive procedures if it hasn’t been proven accurate. “It would be a bad idea to stick needles into dangerous places.” The only ones who have undergone a Sonic Flashlight test involving needles are a few cadavers and live pigs.

If clinical trials (testing on humans) for the Sonic Flashlight go as well as Stetten expects, he believes the tool could be in use within five years.

— Emily Schu

Breakthroughs In the Making

Magic Mixture: Turbocharging carbon dioxide with simple polymers results in a mixture that is more environmentally friendly than current solvents. The discovery by Eric J. Beckman, Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering and chairman of Pitt’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, means that jobs like cleaning electrical parts and recovering oil from older wells may reduce reliance on conventional industrial solvents, which can cause environmental problems.

Tobacco Road: Depression, anxiety, and a short abstinence period before surgery are among the reasons heart transplant patients resume smoking, according to University of Pittsburgh researchers. The findings will help caregivers come up with more effective ways of keeping transplant patients from smoking after surgery. Twenty-seven percent of 202 transplant patients studied over three years resumed smoking, according to a study directed by Mary Amanda Dew, professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine.

Problem Solvers: Reduced business costs and improved efficiency are among the benefits of the SAINT (Sponsor an Industrial Engineering Team) program, which places Pitt engineering students at FedEx Ground, Bombardier Transportation, and other companies. Under the program, teams of industrial engineering students are assigned to companies to solve specific problems, according to Bopaya Bidanda, the Ernest Roth Professor and chairman of Pitt’s industrial engineering department. Students gain real-world problem-solving experience. One student team came up with a better way to make a circuit breaker, for example, that is 59 times more efficient than the current method.

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