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Tom Brady without football: A look at the psychology of a retiring athlete

Twenty-three seasons and seven Super Bowl rings later, quarterback Tom Brady is hanging up his jersey and donning civilian clothes. His retirement announcement on Wednesday comes a year after the 45-year-old football star initially said he was stepping away from the sport before committing again to what would be a final season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Even a sporting megastar like Brady, widely considered the greatest quarterback of all time, faces uncertainty when making the  leap from public celebrity to private citizen.

But Brady, who for years has said he wanted to play football past the age of 40, has built a legacy on sporting longevity, planning for retired life while he was still chasing championships with the New England Patriots and Buccaneers, says Grayson Kimball, a psychology professor at Northeastern who also works as a mental performance coach.Dr. Greyson Kimball

“He has, over the last five or so years, laid out his post-retirement plan” while still playing, Kimball says. “He’s got the TB12 brand; he now has a clothing line. He knows what he’s doing. He’s been planning for this.”

It’s true. The success of Brady’s business ventures, coupled with the career earnings, more than ensures he will be financially comfortable in life after football—and perhaps even busier than he imagines. It’s a phase likely to be filled with new meaning and fulfilling replacement activities, the quarterback said over Instagram last year, when he first considered retirement, adding: “I have loved my [National Football League] career, and now it is time to focus my time and energy on other things that require my attention.”

But for many athletes, retirement can be sudden and unplanned, leading to higher rates of mental-health and substance-abuse issues. It’s more often the case that athletes are forced out of competition because of injury, or are discarded as has-beens and displaced by younger talent, Kimball says.

“It’s rare that an athlete goes out on their own terms,” he says. “Many times you’ll hear that so-and-so retired because of an injury. That they tried to come back and just couldn’t do it.”

The average career length for an NFL player is between three and four years, and about 78 percent of players go broke within three years of retirement, according to data from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Average career length is only slightly longer for National Basketball Association players—and for baseball players, it’s even less. While organizations like the NFL do have career-transition services in place to help players plan their post-football futures, they’re hardly used, Kimball says.

“There are services available,” Kimball says. “But do the athletes take advantage of it? The answer is no.”

The question of how athletes—professional and college alike—fare emotionally after they step away from sport is really a discussion about meaning and identity, says Jeff Levin, a psychotherapist and life coach who’s worked closely with Northeastern student-athletes.

“My feeling is that when you’re at a level like that, and your job depends upon success—when that goes away, it’s definitely a loss from the ego standpoint,” Levin says. “I think people need to go through a grieving process.”

Levin says the pressures on young athletes, such as those who have not yet turned professional, to succeed can have devastating consequences on their mental health. These pressures are a product of a culture of “hero worship,” he says. Even upper-echelon college athletes today can make money on “their likeness and image” in the ways professional athletes do, Levin says.

“The athletes I know, who are under the age of 30, have ‘outcome fever,’” he says. “They’ve been raised to put all of their eggs in the athletic basket. And when it doesn’t work out for them, they can get into serious trouble.”

So how will Brady do when his fame and popularity fade away?

“How the inside of his head works—I have no idea,” Levin says. “As much as he preaches about focus and humility, he’s clearly literally capitalized on his fame. I hope he can retain his humility and find peace.”

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images & Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

February 02, 2023

Can ‘digital traces’ from internet searches and social media predict outbreaks of COVID-19?

Your Google searches and Twitter accounts alert marketers about what items you might like to  purchase—could they also serve as an early warning system when COVID-19 levels are about to take off?

A team of scientists including Northeastern University machine learning expert Mauricio Santillana says internet users’ “digital traces” can be adopted to alert public health officials to sharp increases in COVID-19 at the county level one to six weeks ahead of a major outbreak.

In a paper published Wednesday, Jan. 18, in Science Advances, Santillana and other authors say digital data will help close information gaps left by existing surveillance methods.

Analysis of the data streams will allow policymakers to get a jump on decisions such as whether to reissue masking recommendations or bump up vaccination and boosting campaigns, says Santillana, director of the Machine Intelligence Group for the Betterment of Health and the Environment at the Network Science Institute at Northeastern

“What we aspire to do is to use the same information that Google or Amazon or any of these big firms use to send ads to you” to inform public health decisions early on in an outbreak, Santillana says.

COVID-19-related digital streams include internet searches for fever, clinician searches for COVID-19 treatments and Twitter users’ comments about being too sick to work, among other things.

The researchers also used machine learning methods that took historic information from outbreaks in 97 U.S. counties from Jan. 1, 2020, and 2022 and combined them to create a single predictive indicator.

“The goal is not necessarily to quantify how many infections there are but to quantify when sharp increases in infections will happen,” says Santillana, who participated in the research with scientists from Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Oklahoma State University and other organizations.

Researchers found that the predictive capacity at the state and county levels was roughly similar—the early warning system deployed at one to six weeks in advance at the county level and four to six weeks at the state level.

The study says the digital data will help fill in vital missing information for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which it says has failed to reliably forecast “rapid changes in the trends of reported cases and hospitalizations.”

“When CDC COVID-19 forecasts were shared with the public, they very frequently missed the timing of when outbreaks were starting,” Santillana says. He says by the time actual case numbers were tallied, surges were already well under way.

“The next chapter would be for the CDC to say, ‘We know that this is an alternative and complementary way to anticipate outbreaks. We will implement it inhouse, and we will have it as an additional tool in our toolbox,” Santillana says.

“He says the study is part of a new CDC initiative started by President Biden called the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics within the CDC.”

“It is within that effort that we did the work in this paper,” published in an open access journal of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, Santillana says.

He says he and his team already had been working with the CDC for three to four years on predicting flu incidence and flu hospitalizations, but he wasn’t satisfied with what he considered the CDC’s inability to incorporate novel Internet-based sources of information into their prediction systems.”

“When COVID hit, they called and said, ‘We need all hands on deck. So please do what you can.’”

“I asked if they could be flexible, because my team and I were interested in innovating rather than just continuing to implement the exact same models,” Santillana says.

“The model is not perfect,” he says

The counties studied were only a fraction of the 3,006 counties in the United States, according to the paper on using digital traces to build prospective and real-time county-level early warning systems.

“Our internet search-based methods may struggle to perform well in areas with poor literacy rates and limited access to internet resources,” the paper says.

The researchers say a possible solution for counties with poor internet access or literacy challenges may be to use state-level early warning systems to guide county-level decisions around outbreaks.

“When we navigate the internet on our computer or phone it leaves traces,” Santillana says.

“Whether we like it or not, the reality is that most companies use this information to increase their profit or their margins,” he says.

“Instead, we want to use that information to inform public officials when the next outbreak will happen.”

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global New

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University


January 18, 2023

The fungal zombies in HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ are based on real, horrifying biology

In the premiere of HBO’s big budget video game adaption “The Last of Us,” a scientist on a 1960s Dick Cavett-like talk show raises the idea that a fungal, not viral, infection will spell the end of humanity. On the surface, it’s laughable, and the idea is met with bemused laughter by the host and audience.

But as the scientist explains his theory, the energy in the room slowly shifts from amusement to horror. All it would take is for one gene in a fungus to mutate and suddenly it “could become capable of burrowing into our brains taking control not of millions but billions of us,” he says. “Billions of puppets with poisoned minds, permanently fixed on one unifying goal: to spread the infection to every last human alive by any means necessary.”

The scientist goes on to say there are no treatments or cures for this kind of infection. There’s only one possible conclusion: “We lose.”

In the world of “The Last of Us,” those words are prophetic. In 2003, a fungal infection ravages the world, turning humans into ravenous, mind-controlled zombies. HBO’s latest hit, and the game that it’s based on, might sound like pure science fiction, but it’s actually based on real, horrifying science.

The developer behind “The Last of Us,” Naughty Dog, took inspiration for its fungal zombies from the cordyceps fungus. A kind of parasitic fungus that infects insects and, in some cases, plants, it’s nature’s zombifying agents

The spores dispersed by the cordyceps sit in the soil and attach to the bodies of insects. Over the course of 24 to 48 hours, the parasite grows into the body of the insect, before spreading throughout the body over the course of a few weeks.

“It already starts changing the neurobiology of the host so that it basically makes it a zombie organism, meaning this parasite takes over, producing some kind of neurotoxins or neuromodulators that change the behavior of the host,” says Rebeca Rosengaus, associate professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern.

The parasite surrounds the muscles of an insect, affecting its motor neurons and turning the host into a marionette. David Hughes, an entomologist who consulted on “The Last of Us” game, says there are clear similarities between the fictional infected and how the parasite operates in the ants he studied.

At first, infected humans in “The Last of Us” don’t immediately display signs of infection. However, that quickly changes. They start twitching and become hyperaggressive and overly energetic. Survivors in “The Last of Us” call those infected in this stage “runners.”

This behavior is somewhat based in reality, Hughes says. The cordyceps parasite releases a chemical compound that causes insects to twitch and convulse.

“They do not enter the brain, but what they do is push chemicals into the brain across the blood-brain barrier so that they can control the brain at a distance,” Hughes says.

Ants infected with the cordyceps parasite also start becoming more antisocial, a notable shift in highly social ant societies, and wander off from the rest of the colony. Similarly, the show’s infected humans lose all ability to speak and, instead, scream and shriek in rage and pain.

But the parasite isn’t just forcing the host to wander mindlessly. There’s intent and purpose behind where infected ants—and their fictional counterparts—roam.

Ants are very adept at detecting infected members of their colony through changing chemicals and scents. If an ant is sick, it is killed and its body is deposited outside the colony. In order to circumvent that, the parasite needs to make its host die outside the colony if it has any hope of infecting more hosts.

This manifests in a behavior called summiting. The infected host will climb to a certain height before lodging its mandibles in a branch, stem or leaf. Up until this point, the host was still alive but totally unable to control its movement. However, at this point, the fungus starts eating the host alive from the inside before sprouting a long tendril-like stalk with a “fruiting body” that disperses spores. From on high, the spores catch on the wind and can infect an even larger area.

“The ants are forced every day to go out looking for food, so as they go out, they walk underneath a sniper’s alley of their dead siblings, which are hanging underneath the underside of the leaf, producing spores,” Hughes says. “You can imagine a dome of death which is surrounding the colony that the ants have to pass through every day, and this is why the fungus is winning.”

Although the 2013 video game featured spores as a method of infection, HBO’s adaptation of the “The Last of Us” has done away with them, marking the biggest departure from its scientific inspiration.

As for whether we’ll ever have to face a fungal zombie outbreak, Hughes says there’s no reason to worry. The motor systems of ants and humans are different enough that the cordyceps can’t make the leap into humans—but that doesn’t mean fungi can’t affect our behavior or even infect our bodies.

LSD is, of course, derived from hallucinogenic fungi. But other kinds of fungi can have a much more dangerous effect. The coccidioides fungus causes a condition called Valley Fever when inhaled and has been found, notably, in California prisons.

In 2022, the World Health Organization released its first list of health-threatening fungi, which included 19 fungi that “represent the greatest threat to public health.” According to the report, fungal infections kill about 1.6 million people per year and present a particular danger for severely ill patients who are already immunocompromised. The frequency and geographic range of fungal diseases are also on the rise, due to global warming and an increase in international travel and trade.

Emerging from the shadows of the bacterial antimicrobial resistance pandemic, fungal infections are growing, and are ever more resistant to treatments, becoming a public health concern worldwide,” says Dr. Hanan Balkhy, WHO’s assistant director of antimicrobial resistance

While fungal infections are becoming more common, the idea of a fungal apocalypse is still the stuff of science fiction, Hughes and Rosengaus agree. However, Rosengaus says fungal parasites can still provide a new lens through which to look at more common viral infections like the flu or even COVID-19. There’s a reason we sneeze and cough while we have the flu.

“The word that we call ‘symptoms,’ yes, they’re symptoms of the disease, but the question I think is interesting to ask is, are these symptoms really the reflection of the [virus] manipulating our physiology, our behavior, in order to be more helpful in transmitting the disease?” Rosengaus says. “It’s astonishing the kind of evolutionary back and forth that these parasites have been able to manage in order to manipulate the behavior of the host.

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News.

Photo By HBO Max


January 18, 2023

Dates, times finalized for Northeastern’s 2023 Boston commencements and college celebrations

For the third year in a row, Boston’s iconic Fenway Park will be home to Northeastern University’s commencement exercises.

Graduate and undergraduate students from the Class of 2023—except those in the College of Professional Studies—will participate in ceremonies on Sunday, May 7.

The graduate ceremony will take place on Fenway’s outfield at 10 a.m., while the undergraduate ceremony will follow at 4 p.m.

CPS undergraduate and graduate ceremonies will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday, May 10, at Matthews Arena. CPS doctoral students will graduate at 10 a.m. the next day, also at Matthews.

Fenway, located a short distance from Northeastern’s Boston campus, received rave reviewsfrom the 40,000 graduating students, families and friends who attended the 2022 commencement exercises.

“Commencement represents a seminal moment in the academic calendar,” says David Madigan, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern. “The 2022 commencement at Fenway was a spectacular and joyous event and I am thrilled that we will return in 2023. Rain or shine, see you there!”

Commencement week will also include celebrations and ceremonies held by the university’s nine schools and colleges. Most of these will be held inside Matthews Arena on the Boston campus.

Bouvé College of Health Sciences 

Doctorate: Wednesday, May 3, 10 a.m.

Undergraduate and graduate: Wednesday, May 3, 2:30 p.m.

Nursing pinning ceremony: Thursday, May 4, 4 p.m. (Blackman)

College of Arts, Media, and Design 

Undergraduate and graduate: Saturday, May 6, 5 p.m.

College of Engineering 

Undergraduate: Friday, May 5, 9 a.m.

Graduate 1: Thursday, May 4, 7 p.m.

– Chemical engineering

– Mechanical and industrial engineering (data analytics engineering, human factors)

Graduate 2: Friday, May 5, 1:30 p.m.

– Bioengineering

– Civil and environmental engineering (engineering and public policy)

– Electrical and computer engineering (robotics)

– Multidisciplinary master’s (MS in cyber-physical systems, data architecture and management, information systems, software engineering systems, and telecommunication networks)

College of Science 

Undergraduate and graduate: Thursday, May 4, 9 a.m.

College of Social Sciences and Humanities 

Undergraduate and graduate: Friday, May 5, 6:30 p.m.

D’Amore-McKim School of Business 

Graduate: Tuesday, May 2, 4 p.m. (Reception in Cabot)

Undergraduate: Thursday, May 4, 2 p.m.

Khoury College of Computer Sciences 

Graduate: Saturday, May 6, 9 a.m.

Undergraduate: Saturday, May 6, 1 p.m.

Planning for graduation ceremonies across Northeastern’s global network of campuses is also underway.


This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global New

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

January 17, 2023

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