Monday, November 30, 2009

Scholar reads the classics -- and bones

By Carol Clark

Katy Marklein entered Emory with aspirations to go to medical school, but that changed when she took a freshman anthropology seminar, “Reading the bones of the ancient dead.”

"I was hooked," Marklein recalls of the first day of class, when she walked in and saw two skeletons laid out on a table. "I immediately wanted to understand and appreciate their lives. It's fascinating to learn about the person behind a skeleton."

The seminar is taught by anthropologist George Armelagos, one of the founders of the field of bioarcheology – the study of skeletal remains of past human populations. “I see her as one of the legacies of my teaching,” says Armelagos. “Katy will be able to pick up and carry on skeletal biology in a way that it should be carried on.”

Marklein, a senior majoring in classics and anthropology, recently received a Marshall Scholarship for advanced studies in Britain. She will use the all-inclusive scholarship to pursue two masters degrees over two years: the first in skeletal and dental bioarcheology at the University College London, and the second in osteology and funerary archeology at the University of Sheffield.

Started by a 1953 Act of Parliament, the Marshall Scholarships commemorate the humane ideals of the Marshall Plan, and are designed to give future U.S. leaders an understanding of British life.

While many bioarcheologists focus on prehistoric populations, Marklein is applying bone biology to unlock secrets of the classical era. She spent the summer working in the Weiner Laboratory at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.
“There was a big box of skulls, and my first task was to clean them with toothbrushes,” says Marklein, who was dubbed “the Skull Washer” by a graduate student in the lab. “It probably sounds like a bad horror movie to a lot of people,” she says, adding that for her, it was a dream come true.

Marklein is continuing to work on an analysis of those remains from the classical and Hellenistic periods. “I’ve found some interesting cases of pathologies, and I’m getting some good portraits of a few individuals,” she says, explaining that bones can provide clues of people’s diets, whether they suffered from a disease or trauma, and even what they did for a living.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Obama taps Emory president for bioethics panel

President Barack Obama appointed Emory President James Wagner as vice-chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, was named as chair of the commission, which will advise the president on bioethical issues.

“As our nation invests in science and innovation and pursues advances in biomedical research and health care, it’s imperative that we do so in a responsible manner," Obama said. "This new commission will develop its recommendations through practical and policy-related analyses."

Read the White House announcement.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'Monkey see, monkey do' spreads social customs

Capuchin monkeys have a capacity for social learning that allows them to create group-wide social traditions, according to researchers at Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Their finding, published by the Public Library of Science One (PLoS One), is the first study to experimentally demonstrate the spreading of two different traditions in different groups of monkeys and suggests certain behaviors are learned and spread socially, similar to the way humans and chimpanzees learn social customs.

For the study, the alpha male of each of two groups of capuchins was trained to open an artificial foraging device in a different way, using either a slide or lift action, then reunited with his group. In each group, a majority of monkeys subsequently mastered the task. Although a majority of the monkeys also discovered the alternative method, each monkey that successfully opened the device continuously imitated and adopted the technique seeded by the alpha male of the group as the primary method.

"Being able to understand and learn about another's actions and then adopt that behavior is how a tradition if formed," says lead Yerkes researcher Marietta Dindo.

"We previously assumed cultural transmission of behaviors is unique to humans and their closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees. Our findings suggest the underlying mechanism that supports culture may be based on a very simple principle of acting like and identifying with those around you."

Dindo trained under Emory primatologist Frans de Waal, who credits the study as a promising first step to take cultural studies from apes to monkeys.

Related stories:

Getting a grip on cultural evolution

The biology of shared laughter and emotion

Friday, November 20, 2009

Creationist drives readers bananas

Need a bookmark to go with your Ray Comfort edition of "On the Origin of Species?" The National Center for Science Education has thoughtfully provided one on its web site Comfort, a Christian evangelist, distributed 200,000 copies of "Origin" free at 100 colleges around the country this week, including Emory. The catch? Comfort wrote an outlandish introduction in the edition, denouncing evolution.

"They made this version of the book to pass out to unknowing people who are thinking that they're getting a copy of 'Origin of Species,' when they're really just advancing the creationist agenda," biologist Jacobus de Roode told the Emory Wheel. "It's very bad, and it makes me very angry."

"I think Darwin's rolling over in his grave right now," added freshman June Lee.

Read the full article in the Wheel.

Related stories:
A new twist on an ancient story
Icons of evolution

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Musician jazzes up space shuttle mission

Atlantis launch photo courtesy of NASA.

What’s it like to play a grand piano beneath a Saturn V rocket?

“It’s pretty incredible,” says Gary Motley, Emory director of jazz studies, and one of the few people who can answer that question. Motley traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida earlier this week, to perform at a send-off party for his cousin, astronaut Bobby Satcher, who is on the crew of the Atlantis space shuttle.

Satcher’s relatives flew in from around the country for the party arranged by his wife, D’Juanna. Motley (below right) played “How High the Moon,” and other jazz tunes for the event, which was held in a hangar of the space center. “They’ve got a Saturn V rocket mounted horizontally from the ceiling,” Motley says. “It’s unbelievably big. Just guessing, I’d say it’s the length of a 12-story building.”

Satcher was unable to attend the send-off in person, since he was undergoing flight preparation, but he spoke to the guests via phone. "He asked who was there, and 300 people cheered back," Motley says. "I think he was surprised by the magnitude."

It’s the first space flight for Satcher, who will be doing a space walk. For a relaxing diversion during the mission, the astronaut took along Motley’s latest jazz CD, a collection of original music entitled “Renaissance.”

“I’m thrilled!” Motley says. “I think it’s also special to him, because he’s taking that connection to the family with him into space.”

The highlight of the experience for Motley was the launch itself, on Monday at 2:29 p.m. “The sound! I’ve never heard anything like it,” he says. “When the smoke cleared on the launch pad and the Atlantis lifted off, it was so bright, it was like looking at the sun. It moved incredibly fast. They announced it was going 200 miles per hour, then 2,000 miles per hour, then 9,000. When somebody that you know and are connected to is on board, it’s overwhelming.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nazi medicine: A needle in history's side

The course “Nazi Politics and Medicine” is not for the faint of heart. “It isn’t easy to study atrocities,” says Astrid M. Eckert, assistant professor of history. “We’re looking at some really gruesome subject matter, and we all struggle in dealing with it.”

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum sponsors the course, which is offered through the Emory College history department, the Institute of Liberal Arts and the schools of medicine, nursing and public health. (USHMM collection graphics, above and below, are from a 1941 public health brochure, counseling couples to select marriage partners based on genetics.)

"The subject matter raises difficult questions, many of which we are still grappling with in a much different historical context," says Sander Gilman, professor of liberal arts and sciences, who co-teaches the course with Eckert.

Jacqueline Black, a senior majoring in American Studies, was shocked to learn during the class that several U.S. states had sterilization laws for criminals and the “feeble minded” before the Nazis. “Some of the exact wording of the Nazi law was taken from U.S. laws,” says Black, who is researching a paper on the topic. “That was a real wake-up call for me.”

"I was surprised that German physicians joined the Nazi party earlier and in greater numbers than many other demographics," says Luke Reimer, a sophomore majoring in biology and history who plans to go to medical school. “The medical field in Germany underwent a severe crisis and some physicians were living on the streets, selling sausages. For me, it’s an interesting story. Physicians should look at their responsibilities as a caregiver first and put their careers second. I think German physicians inverted this relationship during this phase of history.”

The course also delves into important science done in the totalitarian state. "All of the early work on the relation between cancer and smoking was done in Germany under the Nazis,"  Gilman says.

Would it be ethical for a modern geneticist to consider data gathered by the infamous Josef Mengele and his twin experiments? "These questions get really, really complicated," Gilman says.

Students read and watch videos of first-hand accounts by both perpetrators of atrocities, and survivors of pogroms against Jews, homosexuals and the disabled. The testimony of real people describing what happened to them is often more gut wrenching than photos of mutilated corpses, Eckert says.

“After we watched a clip of an elderly homosexual man recalling what he went through at Dachau, there was silence in the class,” she says. “That was a real game changer. I felt a rush of empathy come out of the students.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Her math adds up to a brilliant career

Emory math professor R. Parimala has received one of the highest honors in her field: Selection as a plenary speaker for the International Congress of Mathematicians, set for Aug. 19–27, 2010, in Hyderabad, India. The ICM is held only every four years, and is the most important activity of the International Mathematical Union. The 20 plenary speakers are chosen from top talent throughout the world.

It may be a lofty honor, but Parimala remains decidedly down to earth. “I’ve always been very comfortable with math,” she says, relaxing in her office after teaching a class. Her hair hangs down her back in a long dark braid and she looks casually elegant in a cotton tunic, shawl and pants.

The outfit is called a “salwar-kameez,” she explains, and is from northern India. She grew up in the southern tip of the country, in the state of Tamil Nadu, where the saree is the traditional dress. “I love to wear a saree, but it’s six yards of fabric and hard to maintain,” she says. “Ironing is a bit boring.”

When she graduated from high school, her father sat her down and asked her what she wanted to do. “I said, ‘I want to continue with math. Period,’” Parimala recalls, adding that it was an unusual path for a female. “My father knew I had an aptitude for math and was very supportive of my higher studies.”

At Stella Maris College in Chennai, India, she says that she briefly considered focusing her studies on Sanskrit poetry, but math won out. “Math has the beauty of poetry. Its abstractions are combined with perfect rigor.”

For her doctorate, Parimala attended the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, one of the top institutes in India for the basic sciences. She spent most of her career on the faculty there, until she joined Emory in 2005.

“I’ve always enjoyed teaching,” Parimala says, “and it’s fun to work with undergraduate students. They are so enthusiastic.”

She also looks forward to new research challenges, primarily in algebraic groups, and quadratic forms. “There are many interesting questions that keep my attention,” she says. “Math is dynamic, not only internally dynamic, but across disciplines.”

Parimala was recently invited to speak at Nehru University in Delhi, during a conference aimed at inspiring more female students to focus on math.

“Most bright students in India choose another career over basic sciences,” Parimala says. “It’s a global phenomenon, actually, because they think there are more attractive jobs in other areas. But math offers a challenging and rewarding profession. If you have a love and a talent for it, you should come to math. That is my plea.”

Daily pot smoking may hasten psychosis onset

Progression to daily marijuana use in adolescence may hasten the onset of symptoms leading up to psychosis, an Emory study finds. The study was published in the November issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The researchers analyzed data from 109 hospitalized patients who were experiencing their first psychotic episode. The results showed that patients who had a history of using marijuana, or cannabis, and increased to daily pot smoking experienced both psychotic and pre-psychotic symptoms at earlier ages.

"We were surprised that it wasn't just whether or not they used cannabis in adolescence that predicted the age of onset, rather it was how quickly they progressed to becoming a daily cannabis user that was the stronger predictor," says Michael Compton, lead author and assistant professor of psychiatry in the Emory School of Medicine.

The Emory study focused on what is known as the prodromal period, when a person has symptoms such as unusual sensory experiences, which are often precursors to frank hallucinations and delusions. “The prodromal period is especially important because it’s considered to be a critical time for preventive intervention,” says Elaine Walker, a co-investigator of the study and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Emory.

Related story:
Study focuses on teens at risk for psychosis

Friday, November 13, 2009

Getting a grip on cultural evolution

How did humans go from the ability to make a stone axe to a computer mouse? Science writer Matt Ridley posed that question during his keynote for the conference on the Evolution of Brain, Mind and Culture.

Both objects are designed to fit into the human hand. “But the hand axe was made to a design that continued to be used for about one million years,” Ridley said. “There’s no continual innovation or progress.”

And while a hand axe was knapped by a single person, a computer mouse requires the efforts of many. “It’s not just the people in the computer mouse company that made it, it’s the people who drilled the oil well from which the oil came for making the plastic. The point is that human intelligence went from being individual to being collective. And that, I think, is the crucial thing that we have to try and understand about the human breakout from being just another species to being this extraordinarily ecologically dominant species.”

So why, when and where did human intelligence become collective?

Ridley argued that, just as sex and the exchange of genes is crucial to speeding up biological evolution, trade and the exchange of goods was the major driver of cultural evolution and the accumulation of innovations.

“The actual swapping of one object for another is unknown outside our species,” Ridley said.

Ridley is the author of “Nature via Nurture,” among many other science books, and the forthcoming “The Rational Optimist.”

Related stories:
Celebrating Darwin's legacy
'Monkey see, monkey do' spreads social customs

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Wolves in political clothing

Leaving everyone to fend for themselves is not natural, says primatologist Frans de Waal. He writes as a guest blogger for the Washington Post about animal empathy and its political implications:

"On its own, a wolf cannot bring down large prey, and chimpanzees slow down for companions who cannot keep up due to injuries or sick offspring. Why accept the assumption of cut-throat nature when there is so much proof to the contrary? Empathy is an ancient capacity found in all mammals, ranging from dogs to apes." Read the full article by de Waal.

Don't miss an informal, public discussion between Frans de Waal and Out of Hand Theater's Ariel de Man this Sunday, Nov. 15, at 4 p.m. at Dobbs University Center. They will be discussing the new play Hominid, opening on campus tonight.

De Waal will also be among the speakers at the Evolution of Brain, Mind and Culture conference, ongoing today and tomorrow in the Reception Hall of the Carlos Museum.

Related story:
The biology of shared laughter and emotion

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is hypnosis just hocus-pocus?

Dressed in a flowing cape, 16th-century physician Franz Anton Mesmer merely had to touch his suggestive patients with a magnetic wand for them to experience wild laughter, crying and shrieking. So what is hypnosis? Do hypnotized people enter a sleep-like state in which they forego their willpower, are oblivious to their surroundings and forget what happened afterwards?

Click on the box above to listen as psychologist Scott Lilienfeld explains the history of hypnosis, from Mesmer to Svengali and “The Manchurian Candidate.” Beware as you stare into the black box: You may get mesmerized. Hypnosis is one chapter in the new book he co-authored, “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior.”

Related story:
Test your behavioral IQ
The anger myth: Read this before blowing up

Friday, November 6, 2009

Celebrating Darwin's legacy

What is it that makes the human brain different from the brain of our closest relative, the chimpanzee, besides the larger size? What are the origins of empathy, fairness and cooperation? What constitutes culture in humans and other species, and how far back can we trace it?

Some of the world’s leading scholars of evolution – including many from Emory – will gather to discuss these questions during the conference on the Evolution of Brain, Mind and Culture Nov. 12-13. The free, public event – held in honor of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth – will give an overview of the latest discoveries in biological, cognitive and cultural studies of evolution.

“We are taking the conceptual and theoretical tools that Darwin gave us and putting them in the midst of contemporary thought and controversies,” said Robert McCauley, director of the Emory Center for Mind, Brain and Culture, which is hosting the event. “We’re taking a forward look at Darwin’s legacy.”

Award-winning science writer Matt Ridley, author of “Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code” and “Nature via Nurture,” will give the keynote, “Darwin in Genes and Culture,” at 1 p.m. on Thursday.

Click here for more details of the two-day event.

Related stories:
Getting a grip on cultural evolution
Ape murder-suicide leads to human drama
Icons of evolution

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gestures may point to speech origins

Did speech evolve from vocal chords or bodily movements?

Body movement, particularly with the hands, appears to be ingrained in human communication. “All humans gesture. They gesture when they talk on the phone, they gesture even if they know the other person can’t see them,” says primatologist Amy Pollick. She is studying evolutionary precursors to speech in chimpanzees at the Yerkes Living Links Center at Emory.

“Chimp vocalizations can actually be quite complex, but they don’t have as many vocalizations as they do gestures,” she says.

Watch an interview with Pollick in this excerpt from a Swedish documentary. Photo at top shows a scene from the documentary, "On the Road with Homo Sapiens."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ape murder-suicide leads to human drama

A conniving kingmaker and his young protégé conspire to overthrow a popular king. Their plot fails, so they murder him instead. The kingmaker then installs his protégé as ruler. The young king does not properly reward his mentor, however, so the kingmaker selects a new protégé. Together, they torment the young king to the point of madness. He throws himself into the palace moat and drowns.

The brutal power struggle reads like a Shakespearean tragedy, but it actually happened on an island of captive chimpanzees at a Holland zoo during the late 1970s. Emory primatologist Frans de Waal documented the events in his best-selling book “Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes."

And now, in a strange case of art aping life, the true story has been turned into a fictional play – with human actors taking the names and roles of the chimpanzee characters.

“We are all apes,” is the central message of “Hominid,” (photo at top shows a rehearsal) playing at Emory Nov. 12-22. Theater Emory commissioned Atlanta’s Out of Hand Theater to create the evolution-themed work – a collaboration of playwrights’ imaginations and de Waal’s research. Scenes from a documentary by Bert Haanstra of the chimpanzees are also woven into the stage performance.

“We tell the story as though it’s a human story,” says Ariel de Man, the play’s project director. After receiving her theater degree from Emory in 1998, de Man co-founded Out of Hand, which specializes in working with scientists to translate their research.“There is so much science happening right here in our midst in Atlanta that the general public doesn’t know about,” she says. “Scientists are trained to do research, but they’re not trained to communicate to a non-science audience.”

“Hominid” sets the murder-suicide in a 1920s garden party. “The characters are athletic and graceful and charming,” de Man says. “The point is, it doesn’t matter how educated or sophisticated you are – we are all apes. We are inviting the audience to think about what that means.”

Top evolution scholars from Emory and abroad will also be speaking on campus next week, during a conference, "The Evolution of Mind, Brain and Culture."

Related stories:
Learning morality from monkeys
A new twist on an ancient story
Icons of evolution