Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dalai Lama supports science education

His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama has schedued his next visit to Emory, from Oct. 17-19, 2010, to deliver more talks in his role as the University's Presidential Distinguished Professor. He also announced a gift of $50,000 to the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a landmark undertaking to bridge science and spiritutality.

"In just three years, the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative has made notable progress," says the Dalai Lama. "However, it is a large and far-sighted project that will require significant resources to ensure its success and sustainability."

Related stories:
Where science meets spirituality
Tibetan monastics contemplate science

Monday, September 28, 2009

Psychology celebrates new home

The psychology department dedicated its new building Sept. 25 by celebrating its past and the possibilities for the future.

“New technologies and sophisticated methodologies are allowing us to learn things about the human brain that were just unimaginable even a decade ago,” says Robyn Fivush, chair of the department.

Read more.

Related stories:
Psychology expansion boosts power for behavioral research
A dream space for studying the mind
Ants, floods and friendships

Friday, September 25, 2009

Gorilla vet tracks microbes for global health

Innocent Rwego’s hometown of Kisoro, Uganda, is nestled amid the volcanic mountains at the border of Congo and Rwanda – near the habitat of endangered mountain gorillas.

Growing up, however, he never saw a gorilla. “You have to pay to enter the national parks, and most of the locals cannot afford it,” says Rwego, a post-doctoral fellow in Emory's environmental studies department.

Following in the footsteps of his police detective father did not interest him: His childhood idol was the town’s sole veterinarian. When his family went to buy freshly slaughtered meat, he would see Dr. Bisangwa inspecting the carcasses for disease. When one of his grandfather’s cows fell ill, Dr. Bisangwa would be summoned. “I was impressed that he could treat an animal that was down, and it would be up on its feet again in a few hours,” Rwego says.

Dogs in the town were more guards than pets, prized for their ferociousness, and rabies was not uncommon. “Dr. Bisangwa seemed very brave to me,” Rwego says. “He knew how to grab a vicious dog, so that he could immunize it.”

Rwego attended college and veterinary school at Makerere University in Kampala, intending to become a village vet. But near the end of his schooling, he assisted in a mountain gorilla research project.

The researchers entered Bwindi Impenetrable National Park behind a machete-wielding guide who hacked out their path. After hours of hiking through the dense, hilly forest, they came upon a gorilla family, peacefully munching on leaves.

“I was amazed,” Rwego says. “The silverback male was a huge animal, but so quiet and confident.”

After he graduated, Rwego worked in the national park for four years as a mountain gorilla vet. He sometimes had to assist curious young gorillas that set off traps intended for antelope. It was a tricky task. Although gorillas are peaceful animals, the males will attack someone threatening their family members.

Once when Rwego darted a young one, a nearby silverback heard it cry out, charged in, grabbed the tranquilized youngster, and ran off. Rwego’s team followed the gorilla group, and eventually he managed to remove the wires that were cutting into the arm of the young one.

Rwego went on to become a lecturer at Makerere University. He also serves on the scientific committee of the UNESCO DIVERSITAS ecoHEALTH Cross-cutting Network, which is charged with protecting biodiversity.

“I care about the health of all animals – including man,” Rwego says. He studies how the overlap of humans, domestic animals and wildlife contributes to the transmission of disease and parasites.

At Emory, Rwego works with primate disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, who has established one of the world’s leading labs for the medical analysis of gorilla feces. The lab work is hardly glamorous, but intensely important. While the H1N1 flu outbreak started in pigs, ebola and HIV have been linked to wild primates, which are also susceptible to human diseases.

Tracking microbes that move amid species gives scientists a better chance of stemming the next pandemic – or preventing one. “Traditionally, vets work alone, medical doctors work alone and ecologists work alone,” Rwego says. “We need to work together to understand how pathogens are evolving and new diseases are emerging.”

No one is immune to the threat. “The world is becoming a village,” Rwego says. “A disease that breaks out in my hometown can be here within 48 hours.”

Mountain gorilla photos by Innocent Rwego.

Related stories:
Primate disease ecologist tracks germs in the wild
Why are so many infectious diseases jumping from animals to humans?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

'Sustainability is part of our DNA'

Photo by Carol Clark

Nature News writes about campuses going green:

On a typically muggy day in late August, some 1,300 incoming freshmen and their parents gathered for orientation weekend at Emory University, near downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Here, in the heart of the conservative Deep South, the students received their first lesson of the school year. They were served food that was locally or sustainably produced, which they ate with cutlery made from sugar cane. And they were handed reusable water bottles and compact fluorescent light bulbs, which they toted around in reusable grocery bags. Over the two days of orientation, the school composted nearly two tons of waste, making it Emory's first near-zero-waste freshman orientation.

"From the first time the students interact with Emory, we try to make it clear that sustainability is part of our DNA, that this is our expectation from them," says Ciannat Howett, director of the university's office of sustainability initiatives.

Read the full article in Nature News.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What's big, gaseous and stormy?

Emory’s Math and Science Center is now the planet Jupiter in the Metro-Atlanta Scale Model Solar System (MASS). Check out the new exhibit in the second floor atrium of the building, including depictions of Jupiter and its relation to the other planets.

MASS is the brainchild of the Bradley Observatory at Agnes Scott College
, to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy. The idea is to help Atlanta residents understand the size and scale of our solar system by mapping it to local landmarks. Starting with the Bradley Observatory as the sun, and working outwards, the downtown Decatur Library becomes the Earth, the Columbia Theological Seminary becomes Mars, and Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, also known as the "gas giant," is Emory’s MSC.

Which planet do you think is at Georgia Tech? Check out the full MASS map.

Jupiter is the fifth planet from the sun and has a diameter 11 times bigger than the Earth. The planet’s most famous feature, the Great Red Spot, is an anticyclonic storm.

NASA is planning a mission to study Jupiter, via the spacecraft Juno, to launch in 2011.

Take the New York Times "Beautiful Universe Astronomy Quiz." The Atlanta solar system is featured in the extra credit questions.

Photo of Jupiter and solar system montage courtesy of NASA.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Doing chemistry with the sun

"I derive great joy from teaching young scholars how to tickle out Mother Nature's secrets and how to invent," says Emory chemist Craig Hill, winner of the 2009 Herty Medal. During the Sept. 17-18 celebration of the prize, given to an outstanding chemist by the Georgia Section of the American Chemical Society, Hill will give a series of talks to young scientists.

The theme will be green energy, including a description of Hill's recent work on developing the first prototypes of stable, molecular water oxidation catalysts – a critical component to make solar energy cheap and efficient enough to go mainstream.

“People love the idea of doing chemistry with the sun to create a source of energy that is sustainable and not damaging to the planet,” Hill says. “It’s an idea at the nexus of need, scientific invention and creativity.”

Related stories:
Chemistry's crucial catalyst
A biochemical path to solar energy

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Forget sharks: It's Dinosaur Week!

Did you know that dinosaurs lived under water in Georgia? Have you ever heard of an Appalachiosaur?

In addition to such local oddities, Georgia Public Broadcasting's Dinosaur Week features NOVA and BBC programming of the greatest dinosaur finds of all time. Watch for a live interview of Emory paleontologist Anthony Martin between programs this evening.

Martin is a trace fossil specialist, known for the first discoveries of dinosaur burrows.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

News from the future

Emory is among a group of leading research universities behind Futurity, a new online research channel covering the latest discoveries in science, engineering, the environment and health. The idea is to share important breakthroughs in a way that stirs the imagination, raises questions, and makes readers want to learn more.

Emory discoveries featured on Futurity recently include everything from a new patch method for flu vaccines to programming bacteria to clean up pesticides.

Read more about Futurity in Scientific American, the Atlanta Business Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Get a masters in bioethics

Graphic from Emory Center for Ethics

Emory's Center for Ethics has launched a masters degree program in bioethics that provides advanced, interdisciplinary study of the social and ethical challenges facing the life sciences. "The program is so innovative and exciting, I wish I could take it myself," says Paul Root Wolpe, director of the center. Faculty in the program come from medicine, nursing, public health, law, theology, business, the life sciences, philosophy, religion, sociology and psychology.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The biology of shared laughter and emotion

"It's almost impossible not to laugh when everybody else is," writes psychologist Frans de Waal, in his new book "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society."

Natural History Magazine offers an excerpt of the book:

"The infectiousness of laughter even works across species. Below my office window at the Yerkes Primate Center, I often hear my chimps laugh during rough-and-tumble games, and cannot suppress a chuckle myself. It’s such a happy sound. Tickling and wrestling are the typical laugh triggers for apes, and probably the original ones for humans. The fact that tickling oneself is notoriously ineffective attests to its social significance. And when young apes put on their “play face” (as the laugh expression is known), their friends join in with the same expression as rapidly and easily as humans do with laughter.

"Shared laughter is just one example of our primate sensitivity to others. We aren’t Robinson Crusoes, sitting on separate islands; we’re all interconnected, both bodily and emotionally. This may be an odd thing to say in the West, with its tradition of individualism and liberty, but members of the species Homo sapiens are easily swayed in one emotional direction or another by their fellows.
"That is where empathy and sympathy start—with the synchronization of bodies—not in the higher regions of imagination, or in the ability to consciously reconstruct how we would feel if we were in someone else’s 'shoes.' And yet empathy is often presented as a voluntary process, requiring role taking, higher cognition, and even language. Accordingly, most scholarly literature on empathy is completely human centered, never mentioning other animals. As if a capacity so visceral and pervasive could be anything other than biological! To counter such widespread views, I decided to investigate how chimpanzees relate to and learn from one another."
Read the full excerpt in Natural History. You can also read reviews of "The Age of Empathy" in the Economist and New Scientist.

Related story:
Wolves in political clothing

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Chimps mirror emotion in cartoons

Animation by Devyn Carter, lead research specialist, using LightWave 3D, NewTek, Inc.

Emory researchers have documented the first example of chimpanzees empathizing with computer animation. The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is part of an effort to learn more about the impact of cartoons and video games on the human brain.

“Humans experience emotional engagement with animated characters, empathizing with happiness, sadness or other emotions displayed by the characters,” said Matthew Campbell, a post-doctoral fellow in psychobiology, and the lead researcher. “Previous studies have suggested this type of emotional engagement may be to blame when children mimic violent video games and cartoons, so we thought it important to learn more.”

Yawns were chosen for the chimpanzee study, since they are large, unmistakable expressions, and they are contagious – the way that smiles, frowns and fear are contagious.

The chimps yawned significantly more in response to 3D animations of yawning than they did to animated chimps making control mouth movements.

“Next, we want to study what aspects of animation make it more or less likely to be mimicked,” Campbell said. “One of the first things we’re going to look at is whether realism is important for the chimpanzees to empathize with what they’re seeing."

The knowledge gained could help in the design of animation to promote imitation, such as therapies for children with autism, or to limit imitation, such as violent video games.

Campbell’s advisor is psychologist Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

Monkeys can recognize faces in photos
Study gives clue to evolution of face recogntion

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Child soldiers of Nepal inspire film

Brandon Kohrt received his PhD from Emory anthropology in 2009, and writes in the department newsletter:

"After a few months of fieldwork in Nepal, I learned that there were large numbers of child soldiers being sent home from the Maoist Army after the conclusion of the People’s War in 2006. I had not even known that child soldiers existed in Nepal. I had thought of child conscription as predominantly a human rights violation in African conflicts. However, the mental health and psychosocial care of former child soldiers quickly became central to my research and intervention work."

Kohrt teamed with an Atlanta filmmaker to tell the children's stories in "Returned: Child Soldiers of Nepal's Maoist Army." The award-winning documentary will be shown on campus on Thursday, Sept. 24. Kohrt also graduated from Emory's School of Medicine in 2009, and is now completing his residency in the department of psychiatry.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Undergrads bring new ideas to labs

“It’s almost like being immersed in a different country,” says Zach Rahm, a biology major who is working in an HIV lab, in conjunction with the Emory Vaccine Center. “It's being immersed in the science that’s being taught in the classroom. It’s very hands-on, and it's a very different environment."

Rahm is among the fellows in the Summer Undergraduate Science Research at Emory (SURE) program featured in the above video.

“If you have an interest, and there’s somebody here studying that interest, you can get involved,” says Pat Marsteller, director of the Center for Science Education and founder of SURE.

To learn more, visit:
Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Exploring our brains: 'The internal frontier'

“I’m a great fan of physics and astronomy. I think of that as the great external frontier. One can really say that brain science is the great internal frontier,’’ says Dennis Choi, director of Emory’s Neuroscience, Human Nature and Society Initiative.

How does the mind emerge from the brain?

That question particularly intrigues Choi: "As we really begin to understand the biology of the brain, one has to hit this question. So, okay, we know what this molecule is doing, we know what this cell is doing and we know what this circuit is doing – how do I come out of that? Where does my sense of being come from? How do I develop a consciousness? Where are my thoughts, where are my memories?"

Watch the video interview with Choi, known for his groundbreaking research into brain and spinal cord injuries, and his insights into the mind-brain relationship.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

NSF Center aims to simplify drug synthesis

Emory chemist Huw Davies has received $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation to establish an NSF Center for Chemical Innovation. Davies will lead a team of scientists from four universities to develop the center, focused on stereoselective C-H functionalization.

One of the aims of the researchers will be to speed up and simplify the synthesis of new classes of pharmaceuticals, to make their production affordable and scalable.

“We want to develop more efficient ways of cooking,” Davies explains.

Carbon-carbon (C-C) and carbon-hydrogen (C-H) bonds are generally the strongest bonds of an organic chemical, providing a stable framework for a molecule. For decades, the main strategy of organic chemistry was to leave these stable bonds alone, and focus on modifying more reactive bonds.

“C-H functionalization involves a paradigm shift,” Davies says. “We’re trying to modify the C-H bonds, while leaving alone the reactive groups. It can be tricky, but it has the possibility of giving you more flexibility for the type of structures you can access.”

The NSF Centers for Chemical Innovation program addresses major, long-term basic chemical research problems that have a high probability of both producing transformative research and leading to innovation.

Davies lab has done groundbreaking work in C-H functionalization, including developing methods of stereoselective methods, which control the three-dimensional shape of a molecule.

His lab focuses on streamlined synthesis methods for drug discovery and has garnered 10 patents, more than 180 peer-reviewed publications, ongoing funding from the National Institutes of Health and the NSF, and collaborations with scientists working on therapies for everything from cancer to drug addiction.

The American Chemical Society recently named Davies one of the inaugural class of ACS Fellows.

The team for phase I of the NSF Center in Chemical Innovation at Emory includes Simon Blakey, assistant professor of organic chemistry at Emory, and Jamal Musaev, director of Emory’s Cherry L. Emerson Center for Scientific Computation, in addition to chemists from Stanford, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Scripps Research Institute.

After three years, the center can apply to become a phase II center, and additional NSF funding of $20 million.

Take a video tour of the Davies lab.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How early nurturing affects adult love

Emory researchers have demonstrated that prairie voles may be a useful model in understanding the neurochemistry of social behavior. In a recent study, they compared prairie vole pups raised by single mothers to pups raised by both parents to determine the effects of these types of early social environments on adult social behavior.

"Very simply, altering their early social experience influenced adult bonding," said Todd Ahern, a graduate student in neuroscience.

The pups raised by single mothers "were slower to make life-long partnerships, and they showed less interest in nurturing pups in their communal families," said Larry Young, who directs a lab in social neurobiology at Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

The researchers also found differences in the oxytocin system. Oxytocin is best known for its roles in maternal labor and suckling but, more recently, it has been tied to prosocial behavior, such as bonding, trust and social awareness.

Read the published study in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

Transgenic voles key to pair-bonding secrets

Computer games called 'future of education'

In case you missed it this morning, here's the link to a great NPR interview of evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson by game designer Will Wright, covering everything from ants to education:

Computer games are "the future of education," Wilson said. "We're going through a rapid transition and we're about to leave print textbooks behind. For example, I envision visits to different eco-systems that the student could actually enter, taking this path into that hill, with an instructor. It could be a rainforest, it could be a tunda, it could be a Jurassic forest."