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Retirement? Problems with Social Security and a troubled economy have left many middle class baby boomers skeptical about when, and if, they will be able to retire. For low-wage service workers, saving adequate funds for retirement is an even greater problem, according to Judith Gonyea, an SSW associate professor of social work and chairperson of the department of research. With the shift in the workplace from a system that “looked after employees,” she says, to one of “individual choice and responsibility,” accumulating enough resources for retirement may now be beyond the reach of many -- and especially challenging for the rising numbers of part-time workers.

In a recent study, Gonyea surveyed 168 full-time and 151 part-time lower-wage workers at a large Northeast medical center, gathering data on financial resources, financial literacy, retirement expectations, and demographic characteristics.

The researchers found significant differences between the two groups. Only 25 percent of part-time workers reported saving for retirement, compared to 61 percent of full-timers.

Financial resources are a key determinant for both groups. Without an adequate income, workers are unable to set aside funds for retirement. Of the part-time workers in the study, 41 percent had annual household incomes of ,000 or less, versus only 7 percent of the full-timers. Higher income part-timers were almost three times more likely to have started to save, and higher-income full-timers were two and a half times more likely to report saving.

Even among savers, it was striking how little they had been able to set aside. A quarter indicated that they had accumulated less than ,500. Slightly less than half had retirement funds of ,000 or more.

Perceived financial knowledge also proved to be significant. Almost half the workers cited lack of knowledge of how to make a savings plan as a reason they had failed to save more. The majority of workers rated their understanding of savings and investment options as only fair or as poor. This finding underscores the importance of employer-provided financial education for lower-wage workers, who are interested but generally cannot afford to hire a professional financial planner. Offering work-based financial education may also be of value to employers since workers’ financial worries negatively affect their work productivity.

The study also raises policy concerns about the rise in part-time employment in the United States. Without legislation to address the needs of part-time workers, particularly in regard to health insurance and pension coverage, a significant segment of America’s workforce is likely to face problems preparing for retirement.

Measuring with microneedles. Muscle is composed of cells that contract in response to stimulus. They lie within a matrix of other cells that connect them and make up the shape of the muscle mass. Understanding how the muscle cells bind, spread, and contract within this matrix has important implications for developing better treatments for diseases, such as asthma and high blood pressure, that involve malfunction of smooth muscle tissue.

Then working at Johns Hopkins, Joe Tien, an ENG assistant professor of biomedical engineering, was one of a team of scientists who engineered a microdevice to precisely measure the minute forces exerted by individual muscle cells interacting with the surrounding extracellular scaffolding.

The researchers fabricated tiny beds, each made up of thousands of silcone microneedles. Fibronectin, a protein that forms part of the natural scaffolding of muscle tissue, was precisely applied to the tips of the needles, providing a surface to which the muscle cells could attach. Since each of the needles could move independently, and the force needed to move the needle was known, the scientists were able to measure the direction and magnitude of deflection for each needle. They could then use this information to calculate the cellular forces exerted as the muscle was stimulated to contract.

These studies revealed that the shape of a cell was significant -- cells that were confined to a small area (grown on a bed where fibronectin was applied to a small number of needles that were surrounded by untipped needles) were shown to exert very little force. They also found a correlation between the size of the area grasped and the force exerted -- the greater the area, the greater the force -- although there was a specific area below which this did not hold true.

The next steps for the device include measuring the effects of various proteins thought to stimulate or reduce contraction of muscle cells and experiments with different types of cells.

This research was reported in the January 28 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

"Research Briefs" is written by Joan Schwartz in the Office of the Provost. To read more about BU research, visit


15 May 2003
Boston University
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