Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Henrietta Lacks' story opens minds

Laura Mariani, a graduate student in neuroscience, helped arrange the recent Emory visit of author Rebecca Skloot, whose new book tells the human story behind the HeLa cell line. Mariani wrote about Skloot's visit on her blog, "Neurotypical?"

Following is an exerpt from her posting:

"As a scientist, I've known about HeLa for a long time, and I was even told a brief version of the Henrietta Lacks story in my college biology lab, but I'd never felt personally connected to this chapter of scientific history. Reading "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" made me imagine how I'd feel if I learned that part of my father, who died of cancer when I was 17, was alive in a lab somewhere. It made me look up the origins of other immortalized cell lines that I have used, like SH-SY5Y cells. (Those cells were derived from a bone marrow sample from an anonymous four-year-old girl with metastatic neuroblastoma -- "After progressive debilitation and continued growth of tumor, the patient died in January 1971.") It made me re-evaluate every sarcastic conversation I've had with my fellow grad students about our required ethics training seminars. (Suggestion to ethics seminar organizers: Put this book on the syllabus.)"

Read the full account of Skloot's visit on Mariani's blog.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Going off the grid for spring break

Photo by Spencer Ramsey

From Emory Report:

“I want them to deal with the flies. I want them to understand the beginnings of medicine. I want them to experience an authentic Amazonian, shamanistic culture,” says Oxford College sociologist Mike McQuaide, explaining why he takes students into a remote village in Ecuador every spring break.

Students in his course Social Change in Developing Societies study sociology, psychology and anthropology in the classroom before heading to the field – the village of Rio Blanco, situated in the upper Amazon basin. The group flies to Quito, then travels by bus to Napo province, where they switch to small boats on the Napo River. The final leg of the journey is a three-hour hike through jungle.

In the village, the students stay with the local people, who are known as Quichua. The students sleep on the same rough-hewn beds, eat the same foods and see the daily life of the locals.

Photo by Michael Dale

“In Rio Blanco, they’re off the grid,” McQuaide says. “Most of them have never experienced that.”

No Internet. No electricity. No phones – although that’s starting to change during the years that McQuaide has been visiting the region.

Watch a video interview with McQuaide on cell phones and globalization:

Get a masters in sustainable development
Why Gen-Y can't read the 'silent language'

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The East-meets-West experiment

Tibetan prayer flags join the U.S. flag on the Quad during Tibet Week.

Word is spreading about the success of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, said Geshe Lhakdor, director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, who is on campus for Tibet Week. “Now, when I travel around the world, people ask me about this initiative at Emory, and whether they can start something similar at their universities."

The program to bring the knowledge of Buddhist meditative and traditional healing practices to Westerners, and the knowledge of modern science to Tibetan monastics, is now in its third year.

As Geshe Lhakdor explained: “Spiritual traditions, like Buddhism, help us to cultivate a proper perspective and mental outlook. If you don’t have that, your problems can’t be solved through technology. We need both science and spirituality. That is extremely clear. We must walk together, share our knowledge, and help each other.”

The Emory-Tibet Partnership has inspired several innovative projects. A study abroad program in Dharamsala, India, immerses Emory students in Tibetan mind-body sciences. The Emory Mind-Body Program is investigating the mental health benefits of meditation. Emory biochemist Raymond Schinazi is heading a project to analyze Tibetan medical compounds for anti-viral and anti-cancer properties.

His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama plans to return to Emory Oct. 17-19 for a series of public talks, in his role as Emory’s Presidential Distinguished Professor.

Where science meets spirituality
Tibetan monks contemplate science

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How we learn language

From the Quadrangle magazine:

“Humans have evolved with some general capacities to do things like remember, pay attention, recognize patterns,” says psychologist Laura Namy, who heads the Language and Learning Lab at Emory’s Child Study Center.

"Pattern recognition, for example, can help you see a tiger in the grass, which would have helped early humans, but that same cognitive capacity can lend itself to lots of other skills, including the trick of discovering how language works."

Early on, children use gestures spontaneously, Namy says. "They might make one hand motion for ‘more,’ another for ‘juice,’ or ‘up.’ Then as verbal vocabulary develops, the gestures sort of fall by the wayside. While it’s not anything we teach our kids, we want to learn what parents do to encourage this, either with their own gestures or by their responses.”

Our sensitivity to tone of voice is remarkable, too. “When we stress words in certain ways, for instance by saying ‘eNORmous’ or ‘teeny-weeny,’ we’re doing with our voice what we would call an iconic gesture with our hands. And kids get that,” Namy says. “Even with made-up words, pre-schoolers can reliably infer from these cues whether a word should mean big or small, hot or cold. We can even filter speech so that content is gone and all that’s left is tone of voice. And even then, people can guess.”

Sound symbolism goes further. In English, for example, sl words often refer to slippery or slimy things, and sn words to nasal things (think sniffle and snort). “And while that’s not true for all words in every language, there is something about certain sound clusters that makes them common carriers of meaning across languages,” Namy says. “If you play an Urdu word to native English speakers who’ve never heard Urdu and ask them to say if it means tall or short, they guess right more often than chance would allow.”

Emory recently brought together leading scholars in the emerging field of sound symbolism for a conference: “Sound Symbolism: Challenging the Arbitrariness of Language.”

Uncovering secrets of sound symbolism
Gestures may point to speech origins
What is your baby thinking?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Are labs creating mad scientists?

Photo by David Zeiger from Theater Emory's "Frankenstein."

“It seems scientists could use some religion, or at least some soul, or at least a moral compass to orientate themselves through the increasingly blurry lines that sketch out the day-to-day ethics of our labs and clinics,” writes biologist Arri Eisen in Religion Dispatches.

An excerpt from the article:

Army researcher Bruce Ivins commits suicide as the FBI closes in on him as a top suspect in the US anthrax mail deaths; University of Alabama biology professor Amy Bishop guns down her colleagues in a faculty meeting; top climate scientists’ hacked e-mail reveals childish bickering and apparent suppression of research that goes against global warming; Nobel-winning UN scientist Rajendra Pachauri accused of serious financial conflicts of interest; top university psychiatrists under Senate investigation for not disclosing significant cash payments from pharmaceutical companies whose drugs they are also researching.

Good Lord! Seems like hardly a week’s gone by lately without some new revelation about scientists gone mad or bad or both. What’s up?

First, top research scientists work in very intense environments that often ignore, or worse, reward narcissistic behaviors. In my quarter-century in science, I’ve seen many social behaviors (barely on the edge of what would normally be accepted) excused as long as those involved were bringing in a lot of money and prestige and publishing a lot of papers.

Second, and to add spice and challenge to this intense environment, the US Senate passed the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980. For the first time, universities and their researchers could financially benefit from their research and innovations. This is good, the reasoning went, because we not only want to keep our best minds in universities, but we also want scientists to reap the benefits of their own ideas. Of course, when big bucks are at stake humans have a tendency to behave badly and change priorities.

Read the full article.

Can science keep the faith?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rock climber takes on surfer's theory

By Carol Clark

The “exceptionally simple theory of everything,” proposed by a surfing physicist in 2007, does not hold water, says Emory mathematician Skip Garibaldi.

Garibaldi, a rock climber in his spare time, did the math to disprove the theory, which involves a mysterious structure known as E8. The resulting paper, co-authored by physicist Jacques Distler of the University of Texas, will appear in an upcoming issue of Communications in Mathematical Physics.

"The beautiful thing about math and physics is that it is not subjective," Garibaldi says. "I wanted a peer-reviewed paper published, so that the scientific literature provides an accurate state of affairs, to help clear up confusion among the lay public on this topic."

In November of 2007, physicist Garrett Lisi published an online paper entitled “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.” Lisi spent much of his time surfing in Hawaii, adding an alluring bit of color to the story surrounding the theory. Although his paper was not peer-reviewed, and Lisi himself told the Daily Telegraph that the theory was still in development and he gave a "low" likelihood to the prediction, the idea was widely reported in the media, under attention-grabbing headlines like “Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything.”

Garibaldi was among the skeptics when the theory hit the news. So was Distler, a particle physicist, who wrote about problems he saw with Lisi’s idea on his blog. Distler’s posting inspired Garibaldi to think about the issue more, eventually leading to their collaboration.

Lisi’s paper centered on the elegant mathematical structure known as E8, which also appears in string theory. First identified in 1887, E8 has 248 dimensions and cannot be seen, or even drawn, in its complete form.E8-inspired graph. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, J. G. Moxness, an emulation of a hand-drawn original by Peter McMullen.

The enigmatic E8 is the largest and most complicated of the five exceptional Lie groups, and contains four subgroups that are related to the four fundamental forces of nature: the electromagnetic force; the strong force (which binds quarks); the weak force (which controls radioactive decay); and the gravitational force.

In a nutshell, Lisi proposed that E8 is the unifying force for all the forces of the universe.

“That would be great if it were true, because I love E8,” Garibaldi says. “But the problem is, it doesn’t work as he described it in his paper.”

As a leading expert on several of the exceptional Lie groups, Garibaldi felt an obligation to help set the record straight.

"A lot of mystery surrounds the Lie groups, but the facts about them should not be distorted," he says. "These are natural objects that are central to mathematics, so it's important to have a correct understanding of them."

Using linear algebra and proving theorems to translate the physics into math, Garibaldi and Distler not only showed that the formulas proposed in Lisi’s paper do not work, they also demonstrated the flaws in a whole class of related theories.

“You can think of E8 as a room, and the four subgroups related to the four fundamental forces of nature as furniture, let’s say chairs,” Garibaldi explains. “It’s pretty easy to see that the room is big enough that you can put all four of the chairs inside it. The problem with ‘the theory of everything’ is that the way it arranges the chairs in the room makes them non-functional.”

He gives the example of one chair inverted and stacked atop another chair.

“I’m tired of answering questions about the ‘theory of everything,’” Garibaldi says. “I’m glad that I will now be able to point to a peer-reviewed scientific article that clearly rebuts this theory. I feel that there are so many great stories in science, there’s no reason to puff up something that doesn’t work.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

High school scientists thrive in lab culture

Maza Rose Tchedou, above, a high school senior who has participated in RISE for two years, won a spot in an international science fair with her project, “The Role of Nlp in Drosophila Oogenesis.”

The Research Internship and Science Education (RISE) program gives gifted students from inner-city high schools hands-on experience in the epigenetics lab of biology chair Victor Corces. Since Corces brought RISE to Atlanta three years ago, the program keeps growing and the awards keep coming.

High school freshmen, who see the success of juniors and seniors in RISE, now make getting into RISE one of their goals, says Margaret Rohrbaugh who manages the Corces lab and works closely with the high school teens.

“They are doing true research, studying things that no one has ever looked at before. We help them learn the techniques, but ultimately they are doing the experiments, and they find that exciting.”

Thirteen RISE students competed in the recent metro-Atlanta regional science fairs. “There were about 10 gold keys given out for Atlanta Public Schools and RISE students won half of them,” Rohrbaugh says. The two RISE students competing from Dekalb schools also won gold keys.

The gold key winners continue on to the state science fair in April. Two RISE students also took grand prizes for Atlanta and DeKalb schools, giving them the chance to compete in an international science fair in San Jose, California, this May.

Watch a video from last Spring to learn more about RISE:

RISE teen awarded Gates scholarship

Small steps lead to big career
Teen scientists bloom in lab
Bringing new blood to high school science

Monday, March 15, 2010

What is your baby thinking?

Rio Cros, six months, enjoys the thrill of discovery, whether he's assisting in psychology research or trying a new food. Photo by Carol Clark.

Some of the most valuable minds in research are only a few months old. They belong to the infants who participate in groundbreaking work at the psychology department’s Child Study Center.

How do children learn? What and how do they think and remember? How do children change as they grow older? Families from throughout metro Atlanta are helping scientists at the Child Study Center explore these questions and more.

“This is a volunteer activity, and it’s impressive to me the number of families that are willing to come in and give their time for the greater good of science,” says Kelly Yates, Child Study Coordinator.

“I strongly believe in promoting research and the understanding of human development,” says Jill Woodard, a manager of research projects at the Rollins School of Public Health, who recently brought in her 9-month-old son, Bennie, to participate in a study. “I think it helped me understand my son better and how he interacts with the world,” she adds.

The center seeks participants ranging in age from newborns to adolescence. The number of children needed to complete a single study can range from 30 to 300. "All of the information in parenting books and child development textbooks comes from these kinds of studies," says Ayzit Doydum, a lab manager for Patricia Bauer at the center. "We're really grateful to the families who participate. We couldn't do our jobs without them."

Watch the video to learn more.

How babies use number, space and time
First blush: When babies get embarrassed
How we learn language

Stories your parents should have told you

Friday, March 12, 2010

Water oxidation advance aims at solar fuel

Liquid sunlight: Bubbles form during water oxidation, catalyzed by the new tetra-cobalt WOC. Photo by Benjamin Yin.

Emory chemists have developed the most potent homogeneous catalyst known for water oxidation, considered a crucial component for generating clean hydrogen fuel using only water and sunlight. The breakthrough, to be published in the journal Science, was made in collaboration with the Paris Institute of Molecular Chemistry.

The fastest, carbon-free molecular water oxidation catalyst (WOC) to date "has really upped the standard from the other known homogeneous WOCs," said Emory inorganic chemist Craig Hill, whose lab led the effort. "It's like a home run compared to a base hit."

In order to be viable, a WOC needs selectivity, stability and speed. Homogeneity is also a desired trait, since it boosts efficiency and makes the WOC easier to study and optimize. The new WOC has all of these qualities, and it is based on the cheap and abundant element cobalt, adding to its potential to help solar energy go mainstream.

Benjamin Yin, an undergraduate student in Hill’s lab, is the lead author on the Science paper. Emory chemists who are co-authors include Hill, Yurii Gueletii, Jamal Musaev, Zhen Luo and Ken Hardcastle. The U.S. Department of Energy funded the work.

The WOC research is a component of the Emory Bio-inspired Renewable Energy Center, which aims to mimic natural processes such as photosynthesis to generate clean fuel. The next step involves incorporating the WOC into a solar-driven, water-splitting system.

The long-term goal is to use sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen becomes the fuel. Its combustion produces the by-product of water – which flows back into a clean, green, renewable cycle.Three main technical challenges are involved: developing a light collector, a catalyst to oxidize water to oxygen and a catalyst to reduce water to hydrogen. All three components need improvement, but a viable WOC may be the most difficult scientific challenge. “We are aiming for a WOC that is free of organic structure, because organic components will combine with oxygen and self-destruct,” Hill says. “You’ll wind up with a lot of gunk.”

Enzymes are nature’s catalysts. The enzyme in the oxygen-evolving center of green plants “is about the least stable catalyst in nature, and one of the shortest lived, because it’s doing one of the hardest jobs,” Hill says.

"We've duplicated this complex natural process by taking some of the essential features from photosynthesis and using them in a synthetic, carbon-free, homogeneous system. The result is a water oxidation catalyst that is far more stable than the one we found in nature."

For decades, scientists have been trying to imitate Mother Nature and create a WOC for artificial photosynthesis. Nearly all of the more than 40 homogeneous WOCs developed by labs have had significant limitations, such as containing organic components that burn up quickly during the water oxidation process.

Two years ago, Hill’s lab and collaborators developed the first prototype of a stable, homogenous, carbon-free WOC, which also worked faster than others known at the time. The prototype, however, was based on ruthenium, a relatively rare and expensive element.

Building on that work, the researchers began experimenting with the cheaper and more abundant element cobalt. The cobalt-based WOC has proved even faster than the ruthenium version for light-driven water oxidation.

Bringing new energy to solar quest
Shining a light on green energy
Chemistry's crucial catalyst
Doing chemistry with the sun

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bringing new energy to solar quest

The search for clean, cheap energy sources is the biggest problem of our age, says chemist Brian Dyer, director of the Emory Bio-inspired Renewable Energy Center (EBREC). eScienceCommons interviewed Dyer about how the new center is carving out a unique niche in the development of solar energy solutions, through its work at the intersection of chemistry, physics and biology, and its outreach to the broader community.

Q: How is EBREC tackling the technical problems of clean energy?

Dyer: We want to create a completely green, cheap and sustainable energy cycle, using just sunlight and water to generate hydrogen fuel. We are trying to mimic the way that plants use photosynthesis to capture sunlight and store it as fuel, and also harness the power of anaerobic bacteria to generate hydrogen.

Q. Is Emory competitive with other institutions at work on these problems?

Dyer: Emory brings together leading expertise in key areas: quantum dot technology, to absorb light and drive reactions; water oxidation catalysis, to split water into oxygen and protons; microbial catalysis by the protein hydrogenase, to convert protons into hydrogen; and protein re-engineering, to evolve the needed properties in hydrogenase.

All of these areas need a lot more refinement in order to cheaply and efficiently produce hydrogen fuel, but a water oxidation catalyst, or WOC, is considered the most difficult and crucial piece of the puzzle. Craig Hill’s inorganic chemistry lab just led the development of the best homogeneous WOC known, with the highest potential for getting hydrogen fuel from water, using only solar energy. This breakthrough puts Emory and our energy center in a very strong position.

Emory has a good track record of bringing together interdisciplinary teams, and tremendous strengths in the biological sciences, as well as the physical sciences. Most of the advances in renewable energy are going to be made at that interface.

But we’re not just a bunch of nerdy scientists tinkering in our labs. We’re thinking about the human implications of our work.

Q. How do you view your role beyond the lab?

Dyer: We realize that renewable energy is much more than just a science problem. It’s a political problem, an economic problem, an environmental problem, a health problem, a cultural problem and even a peace problem.

EBREC needs to engage resources throughout the University to further the cause of clean energy, as well as local, national and international communities. You can come up with great technology, but it doesn’t do any good if you don’t change the way people think. We need political will, economic incentives and public outreach to help people understand that our collective future depends on clean, renewable energy.

So in addition to building on our foundation of interdisciplinary science, EBREC plans to leverage Emory’s tremendous strengths in community engagement and global initiatives that span disciplines.

Q: How urgent is this issue?

Dyer: Energy underlies everything, from the quality of our daily lives, to our industrial capacity, our transportation and our security. Our current worldwide energy use is equivalent to about 100 billion 100-watt light bulbs that are on all the time: 24/7, 365 days of the year. Our energy use is expected to double within the next 40 years. So how are we going to get there without running out of fossil fuels, further warming our climate and destroying the environment?

While the United States is distracted by the health care debate, China is building coal-fired plants as fast as it can. At the same time, China is investing billions of dollars in renewable energy technology, in an attempt to dominate that market. In 10 years, I believe that it will. The United States is falling behind in this critical area, which in the long run could endanger our economy as well as the fate of the planet.

It’s going to take an enormous collective effort to solve the scientific and social problems surrounding renewable energy. EBREC is working to make a difference in both of these areas.

Water oxidation advance aims at solar fuel
A biochemical path to solar energy
Shining a light on green energy
Chemistry's crucial catalyst

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Men like power more than they admit

Photo of male chimpanzees by Frans de Waal

Emory primatologist Frans de Waal has a new blog in Psychology Today called "Monkey on my Shoulder." Following is an excerpt from a recent post:

"The power dimension is totally underestimated and neglected by the social sciences. We all know that it exists, but there is remarkably little serious research on it. I challenge you to find much on power, dominance, or social hierarchy in any social psychology textbook. If it is mentioned at all, it's usually in negative terms, such as 'power abuse.' Even political candidates prefer to tout their interest in education, health care, fiscal responsibility, but have you ever heard one of them say 'I love power' as the reason why they are entering the mudslinging arena? It is a total taboo.

"The vertical dimension of social life is blindingly obvious in every primate society, however. Chimpanzee form coalitions specifically for this purpose: to overthrow the leader."

Read more.

The bi-polar ape, in love and war
Ape murder-suicide leads to human drama
A brainy time traveler

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Digitizing the mind of Salman Rushdie

“I might have been a physicist,” wrote Salman Rushdie, adding that he was instead influenced by an idol and went for history and French. “This is an example of non-causal life-changing; and so I can now examine a different path. And the scientist who wrote to me about quantum theory in “Grimus,” and about the Dancing Wu Li masters, showed me that such matters have been my concern from the very start.”

The note is part of an exhibit at Woodruff Library, to celebrate the opening of the Rushdie papers. His eclectic art, life and imagination make Rushdie a true author of our times, spanning continents, cultures and disciplines in an increasingly complex world. It also makes him an ideal test case for how to curate hybrid collections of artifacts – spanning print, physical and virtual realms.

“The imprint of the writer’s personality lies within his computer,” says software engineer Peter Hornsby, who extracted data from Rushdie’s hard drives.

Using Rushdie’s works, Emory’s Manuscript, Artifacts and Rare Books Library is leading the nascent field of archiving “born-digital” materials. Watch a video of the pioneers of "digital archeology" discussing some of the technical challenges:

Emory Magazine describes the interactive approach of the project:

“Soon, you will be able to peruse the e-mail correspondence between Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Salman Rushdie and U2’s Bono. Or quick-search how many times the words ‘tequila’ and ‘rock goddess’ appear in the first draft of Rushdie’s novel ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet.’

“You even will be able to log on to a laptop as Sir Rushdie himself, tinkering with a sentence, adding an embellishment, or marking a particular spot of interest in a manuscript.”

Friday, March 5, 2010

Climate change a factor in malaria spread

Climate change is one reason that malaria is on the rise in some parts of the world, according to new research by Emory environmental studies' Luis Chaves, but other factors such as migration and land-use changes are likely also at play. The Quarterly Review of Biology recently published the findings by Chaves and an associate at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Their review of 70 studies aimed to sort out contradictions that have emerged as scientists try to understand why malaria has been spreading into highland areas of East Africa, Indonesia, Afghanistan and elsewhere in recent decades.

Malaria, a parasitic disease spread to humans by mosquitoes, is common in warm climates of Africa, South America and South Asia. The development and survival, both of the mosquito and the malaria parasite, are highly sensitive to daily and seasonal temperature patterns and the disease has traditionally been rare in the cooler highland areas.

After careful examination of the statistical models of previous studies, the researchers concluded that climate change is indeed likely playing a role in highland malaria. "Even if trends in temperature are very small, organisms can amplify such small changes and that could cause an increase in parasite transmission," Chaves said.

Additional research should combine climate change data with other possible factors in the spread of malaria, Chaves added.

Mosquito hunters invent better disease weapon
From swine flu to dengue fever: Rising risks

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Health volunteers battle odds in Ethiopia

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, volunteers from low-income, local households are lending a hand to impoverished AIDS patients. They visit patients in their homes, help them get to clinics, and assist them with getting medication.

Kenneth Maes, an Emory graduate student in anthropology, is researching the work of the volunteers, and the paradox of AIDS treatment amid poverty so extreme that food is scarce.

As one AIDS patient asked a volunteer: “With what food can I take this medication? My insides are burning with medicine only inside me.”

Get a masters in sustainable development
Averting the next food crisis

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Stories your parents should have told you

Photo by Michael Marfione from Emory's "Picturing Home" juried exhibit.

Do you know how your parents met? How about your grandparents?

Children who know more stories about relatives who came before them have better emotional well-being, according to Emory psychologists Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke. Their analysis of dinner-time conversations and other measures of how well families work is now available in the Journal of Family Life.

The psychologists, and former Emory graduate student Jennifer Bohanek, developed a scale to measure how much kids know about their family histories. Teens who knew more stories about their extended family showed higher levels of well-being and identity achievement, even when controlling for general levels of family functioning, the study found.

What is your baby thinking?
What's your family's story?

Your money and the herd mentality

Fear operates all the time in the financial markets, Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy, told PBS Nightly Business Report. The herd mentality, or the idea that other people know more than you do, is “extremely potent, extremely hard to resist,” he says.

Berns’ neuroeconomics research includes brain-imaging studies of how other people’s opinions shape an individual’s perception.

Can neuroscience read your mind?
From cattle to cash: Money is on our minds
Financial advice can 'off load' decision process