Friday, April 30, 2010

RISE teen awarded Gates scholarship

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Alyssia Clore, 18, became the sole breadwinner in her family recently after her father was laid off. ... A senior at South Atlanta School of Health, Medicine and Sciences, Clore believes her essay on leadership, one of eight that Gates scholarship recipients had to submit, helped win the judges over.

In it, she wrote about having to be a 'mother figure' to her little brother and earning her family's only income, money she makes from a paid internship at Emory University. ... Clore plans to major in biology and then pursue a Ph.D. so she can continue the stem cell research she has been doing at Emory the past three years.

Read the full AJC article.

Clore is a participant in Emory's Research Internship and Science Education (RISE) program. Her Gates Millennium Scholarship will covers the academic costs at any university, for any major, for as many years as it takes to graduate. Clore says she will pursue studies at Spelman that build on her work in RISE. The RISE program gives gifted students from inner-city high schools hands-on experience in the epigenetics lab of biology chair Victor Corces.

High school scientists thrive in lab culture

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Musical stars to appear at planetarium

Carina Nebula photo by NASA, ESA, M. Livio and Hubble 20th Anniversary Team.

The Emory Planetarium plans to celebrate the connections between Mother Earth and Father Sky with concerts under the stars. The performers are new age musician Jonn Serrie, a Billboard Top 10 artist, and Native American flutist John Winterhawk. The duo is known as "The Spirit Keepers."

Two performances will be held on Sunday, May 2, starting at 7:00 and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 each, and may be reserved by emailing:

Peptides may hold 'missing link' to life

Emory scientists have discovered that simple peptides can organize into bi-layer membranes. The finding suggests a “missing link” between the pre-biotic Earth’s chemical inventory and the organizational scaffolding essential to life.

“We’ve shown that peptides can form the kind of membranes needed to create long-range order,” says chemistry graduate student Seth Childers, lead author of the paper recently published by the German Chemical Society’s Angewandte Chemie. “What’s also interesting is that these peptide membranes may have the potential to function in a complex way, like a protein.”

Chemistry graduate student Yan Liang captured images of the peptides as they aggregated into molten globular structures, and self-assembled into bi-layer membranes. The results of that experiment were recently published by the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“In order to form nuclei, which become the templates for growth, the peptides first repel water,” says Liang, who is now an Emory post-doctoral fellow in neuroscience. “Once the peptides form the template, we can now see how they assemble from the outer edges."

Click here to watch the movies.

In addition to providing clues to the origins of life, the findings may shed light on protein assemblies related to Alzheimer’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, and dozens of other serious ailments.

“This is a boon to our understanding of large, structural assemblies of molecules,” says Chemistry Chair David Lynn, who helped lead the effort behind both papers, which were collaborations of the departments of chemistry, biology and physics. “We’ve proved that peptides can organize as bi-layers, and we’ve generated the first, real-time imaging of the self-assembly process. We can actually watch in real-time as these nano-machines make themselves.”

Chemistry grad student Seth Childers, left, discovered that if you just add water to simple peptides, you get the scaffold for life. Fellow graduate student Yan Liang, right, made the first real-time images of the peptides self-assembling into nano-machines. Photo by Bryan Meltz.

The ability to organize things within compartments and along surfaces underpins all of biology. From the bi-layer phospholipids of cell membranes to information-rich DNA helices, self-assembling arrays define the architecture of life.

But while phospholipids and DNA are complicated molecules, peptides are composed of the simple amino acids that make up proteins. The Miller-Urey experiment demonstrated in 1953 that amino acids were likely to be present on the pre-biotic Earth, opening the question of whether simple peptides could achieve supra-molecular order.

To test how the hollow, tubular structure of peptides is organized, the researchers used specialized solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) methods that have been developed at Emory during the past decade.

Working with Anil Mehta, a chemistry post-doctoral fellow, Childers tagged one end of peptide chains with an NMR label, and then allowed them to assemble to see if the ends would interact. The result was a bi-layer membrane with inner and outer faces and an additional, buried layer that localized functionality within the interior.

“The peptide membranes combine the long-range structure of cell membranes with the local order of enzymes,” Childers said. “Now that we understand that peptide membranes are organized locally like a protein, we want to investigate whether they can function like a protein.”

The goal is to direct molecules to perform as catalysts and create long-range order. “We’d really like to understand how to build something from the bottom up,” Childers says. “How can we take atoms and make molecules? How can we get molecules that stick together to make nano-machines that will perform specific tasks?”

The research is part of “The Center for Chemical Evolution,” a center based at Emory and Georgia Tech, for integrated research, education and public outreach focused on the chemistry that may have led to the origin of life. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy have funded the research.

Many groups studying the origins of life have focused on RNA, which is believed to have pre-dated living cells. But RNA is a much more complicated molecule than a peptide. “Our studies have now shown that, if you just add water, simple peptides access both the physical properties and the long-range molecular order that is critical to the origins of chemical evolution,” Childers says.

Synthetic cell: A step closer to 'recipe for life'
2010: A Science Odyssey
A new twist on an ancient story

Friday, April 23, 2010

Notes on the musical brain

Student musicians performed in the class.

Symphony conductor Yoel Levi has memorized more than 2,500 musical scores. “It’s an astonishing skill,” says Paul Lennard, director of Emory’s neuroscience and behavioral biology (NBB) program. “A score can be the size of a small telephone book.”

Levi, principal conductor of the Orchestre National d’Ile de France, was among the guest lecturers in a seminar Lennard taught this spring, “The Musical Brain.” When he conducts, Levi told the students, his mind projects semi-transparent notes of the score over the members of the orchestra. He described it like the heads-up display that pilots use.

The course featured more than a dozen such distinguished guests from the world of music. Emory’s director of jazz studies Gary Motley described the mental process of letting himself go during musical improvisation. Richard Kogan, a concert pianist and psychiatrist, discussed correlations between mental illness and creative genius.

Conduct your own experiment:
See if listening to some Emory jazz, below, changes your mood.

“Music provides a window into cognition and the human condition,” says Lennard, who tied the personal stories of the guests to his own lectures on the neural basis of musical perception and performance. Emory's Center for Mind, Brain and Culture funded the class.

“It was cool to interact with so many renowned musicians, and to learn about the union between music and science,” says sophomore Jonathan Lin, a double major in NBB and music, who has played the violin for 10 years. “I want to be a scientist and a musician, which is one of the reasons I came to Emory.”

Darwin theorized that music may have preceded language in human evolution, an idea that remains under debate today. “It’s remarkable how music is involved in so many parts of the brain, and that there seems to be an almost underlying neural basis for why it’s important to human culture,” Lin says.

Wenxia Zhao, a senior chemistry major and music minor, began playing the violin when she was six years old. “We learned that the brains of musicians are different from those of non-musicians, if they start playing before the age of seven,” she says.
Violinist Ayke Agus told the class about her own experiences as a child prodigy.

Zhao, who is headed for medical school in the fall, especially appreciated a lecture by music therapist Cori Snyder. “She explained how some patients who can’t speak after a traumatic brain injury are able to sing words,” Zhao recalls. “I think that’s amazing.”

This is the second semester that Lennard has offered “The Musical Brain,” which combines his own professional and personal interests. His wife, Ceylia Arzewski, is a former concert master for the Atlanta Symphony and spoke to the class about motor memory and performance.

“I’m immersed in the world of musicians,” Lennard says. “I love music and I believe it is an important route into understanding the brain.”

Where music meets technology
Musician jazzes up space shuttle mission

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earthy beliefs

Emory economist Paul Rubin marks Earth Day with an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal called “Environmentalism as Religion.” An excerpt from Rubin’s article:

Many observers have made the point that environmentalism is eerily close to a religious belief system, since it includes creation stories and ideas of original sin. But there is another sense in which environmentalism is becoming more and more like a religion: It provides its adherents with an identity. …

As the world becomes less religious, people can define themselves as being Green rather than being Christian or Jewish. …

There are no temples, but there are sacred structures. As I walk around the Emory campus, I am continually confronted with recycling bins, and instead of one trash can I am faced with several for different sorts of trash. Universities are centers of the environmental religion, and such structures are increasingly common. While people have worshipped many things, we may be the first to build shrines to garbage.

Faith, fervor and environmentalism

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The fruits of play

Photo by Carol Clark

The Atlantic recommends the new book "The Evolution of Childhood" by Emory anthropologist and neuroscientist Melvin Konner. Following is an excerpt of a review by the magazine:

This monumental book—more than 900 pages long, 30 years in the making, at once grand and intricate, breathtakingly inclusive and painstakingly particular—exhaustively explores the biological evolution of human behavior and specifically the behavior of children. Konner weaves a compelling web of theories and studies across a remarkable array of disciplines, from experimental genetics to ethnology. ...

Konner is especially interested in play, which is not unique to humans and, indeed, seems to have been present, like the mother-offspring bond, from the dawn of mammals. The smartest mammals are the most playful, so these traits have apparently evolved together. Play, Konner says, “combining as it does great energy expenditure and risk with apparent pointlessness, is a central paradox of evolutionary biology.” It seems to have multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.

Read more.

What is your baby thinking?
The biology of shared laughter
How we learn language
When babies get embarrassed

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Who's more likely to fake it?

A behavioral model of "faking ecstasy," developed by Emory economist Hugo Mialon, is featured on the the New York Times blog "Freakonomics." Among Mialon's findings: more-educated men and women are more likely to fake it in the bedroom.

Read the post, and listen to a podcast on the many ways in which people "fake it."

'Orgasm Inc' takes on female Viagra
Economists do it with models

What is the impact of zoos?

A recent American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) study, which found that visits to zoos and aquariums have a positive impact on the conservation attitudes and understanding of adult visitors, is flawed and misleading, says Emory neuroscientist Lori Marino.

The journal of Society and Animals recently published a critical evaluation by Marino and colleagues of the 2006 AZA study “Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter.” (Download a PDF of the evaluation here.)

“There is no compelling evidence to date that zoos and aquariums promote attitude changes, education or interest in conservation in their visitors, despite some claims to the contrary,” Marino says.

“The impact of zoos remains an important, open question, deserving of a methodologically sophisticated study,” she adds.

Marino, an expert in dolphin and whale intelligence, believes that the high intelligence of these animals makes it immoral and cruel to use them as captive entertainers. She is set to give scientific testimony on April 27 before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, regarding the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The law, which establishes basic requirements for the display of captive marine mammals, dates back to 1972. The death of an animal trainer last February, after a killer whale pulled her into a tank, brought oversight of the law into the national spotlight.

“Some zoos do good conservation work, and I think their efforts should be applauded and supported,” Marino said. “But the public needs to know what is real education and conservation and what’s just entertainment.”

Marino takes particular issue with the AZA study because she says it was methodologically flawed, was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, and is cited by some zoos and aquariums as evidence of their educational impact.

The AZA study was based on surveys of more than 5,500 visitors to 12 zoos and aquariums over three years.

Marino evaluated the AZA findings along with Emory psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, an expert in self-report research methodology, and co-authors from three other Atlanta universities who specialize in the sociology and culture of zoos.

The researchers cited six major weaknesses that they found in the AZA study. For example, their analysis noted that survey respondents were simply asked to report their opinions of whether their zoo visits had been educational, rather than actually being tested for new knowledge.

“That’s like a teacher asking students at the end of the class if they learned anything, and if they say, ‘yes,’ giving them an A,” Marino says.

Should killer whales be captive?
Inside the dolphin's tool kit

Monday, April 19, 2010

Animal tracker on tap at Science Tavern

Emory paleontologist Anthony Martin will be speaking at Atlanta Science Tavern on Saturday, April 24. Martin is an expert in trace fossils, including tracks, trails, burrows and nests. He attributes his groundbreaking discoveries of dinosaur tracks, and the first dinosaur burrows, to his passion for tracking modern-day animals.

"I look for all kinds of animal tracks, across all kinds of substrates — beach sand, gravel, mud, pine needles and leaves," Martin says. "I track our cat across the carpet at home. It drives him nuts. I'll follow his little, round prints into the closet and he'll look up at me like, 'Wait a minute! You're not supposed to know I'm here!'"

Atlanta Science Tavern is a growing group of people from a range of backgrounds who enjoy having lively conversations with scientists in a friendly, casual setting. This Saturday’s event begins at 7 p.m. at Manuel’s Tavern. Click here for more details.

If you go, be sure to ask Martin about how he tracked the swimming pattern of an ancient fish, in a lake that disappeared millions of years ago.

Photo by Steve Henderson shows Martin with an alligator trace on the Georgia coast.

Dinosaur burrows yield clues to climate change

Friday, April 16, 2010

The nature of an Emory education

Anna Snyder works on her laptop, amid the trees near Rich hall. Photo by Carol Clark.

“I love to study while hanging out in my hammock, because every once in a while I can stop and look up at the sky. It’s such a sane thing to do,” says Anna Snyder.

The junior ethno-musicology major carries her Skeeter Beater Pro in her backpack and strings it up during breaks between classes, in green spaces throughout campus. “All you need is two trees that are close enough together,” she says.

If it’s good weather on Earth Day, April 22, Snyder says she will definitely be enjoying some of it from her hammock. This year is the 40th anniversary of the day dedicated to raising awareness of the environment, and Emory has a lot to celebrate.

The university just adopted an ecological plan to nurture its woods and streams, including some of the best-preserved hardwood forests in the Piedmont province of the Southeast. Despite its location in bustling Atlanta, bio-diversity thrives on the Emory campus: 48 percent of the university's 700 acres is undeveloped land. (Photo of Lullwater forest, above, by Bryan Meltz.) In addition to its soaring trees, Emory stands out among U.S. campuses for its large square footage of buildings certified as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), and its commitment to sustainability.

The new Emory Bio-Inspired Renewable Energy Center is tackling one of the biggest challenges of our era: the quest for cheap, green sources of hydrogen fuel.

Many students realize that green jobs are the future, says Ciannat Howett, Emory director of sustainability initiatives. “When our students leave Emory’s gates, they are heading into a future that none of us can fully imagine,” she says. “But this we know: they will be confronted with the most significant environmental challenge faced by any modern civilization.”

Click here for the week-long schedule of Earth Day events.

How do you plan to celebrate?

A policy of 'No Child Left Inside'
Bringing new energy to solar quest

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A policy of 'No Child Left Inside'

An Emory Oxford College student takes notes during a recent geology field trip to the Georgia coast. Photos, above and below, by Carol Clark.

Ciannat Howett, director of sustainability initiatives at Emory, writes in Emory Report on the need to connect students with the natural world, starting in elementary school. An excerpt:

Emory has the longest-running faculty-development program in the country, the Piedmont Project, to encourage the use of nature as a classroom and the campus as a living laboratory.

In a course co-taught in Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health and the environmental studies department, students were asked to find a natural water source on campus and to calculate how much of their day they would need to set aside for hauling water just to meet their daily needs for drinking, bathing, and food preparation. They then were asked to test the quality of the water to see if it was something that they really would want to use. This simple lesson is a life-changer. Students from a land of safe and accessible water are awakened to the realities and hardships of water scarcity for millions of people around the globe.
Ideally, educating for a sustainable future begins early. Since 1992 Eloise Carter, an Emory biology professor, has taught K-12 teachers ways to integrate environmental education into their lesson plans and to develop their schoolyards into outdoor classrooms.

It is impossible to measure the impact on a child of being taken outside—away from the confines of a desk—to feel the wind and sun on her skin and to see nature as having important lessons to teach. Perhaps it is time to enact a national policy of “No Child Left Inside.” Here at Emory, the doors are thrown fully open—for 60-year-old professors or 18-year-old first-year students.

A creek runs through this classroom
'Sustainability is in our DNA'
Water policies flush with success

Water policies flush with success

Emory instituted a comprehensive water management plan in 2007. Since then, the university has reduced water consumption by more than 30 million gallons per year. Freshmen in the Few and Evans dorms make conservation look easy with dual-flush toilets that use recycled rainwater, pumped by solar energy from underground cisterns.

'Sustainability is part of our DNA'

Students present their research

Undergrads from biology, chemistry, neuroscience, psychology and other disciplines will be presenting posters of their work from April 19-26 in the DUC. Click here for the full schedule of events.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The pursuit of happiness

From Emory Health Now and Emory Report:

The ancient Greeks batted around the subject of mental health and happiness, says Emory sociologist Corey Keyes. Some championed emotions and pleasures as a path to happiness, others tranquility, freedom and reflection.

But only during the last 10 to 15 years has there been a fresh focus on what good mental health, or happiness, means. “For me, the presence of good mental health and bringing together those two traditions of happiness, is to flourish,” Keyes says. “And to flourish means to feel good about life and to function well. But we have to start looking at people who feel good but aren’t functioning well, and that’s half of the adult American population.”

Keyes has studied the role of mental well-being in predictive health and disease prevention. He is affiliated with the Emory/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute and “The Pursuit of Happiness” project run by Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

Data suggests that lawyers have almost twice the rate of mood disorders and anxiety than other professionals, notes Edward Craighead, Emory chair of child psychiatry. He suspects that in law students, this is largely driven by high rates of dysfunctional perfectionism.

Craighead and Keyes recently participated in a forum for law students, to help them understand their risk for unhappiness.

“Students think that feeling good about life is far better than functioning well in it,” said Keyes, who urged professors and students to “prioritize flourishing” in their lives.

Breathe in, breathe out, be happy

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The best zoo drama, bar none

A scene from the Emory staging of "Hominid." Photos, above and below, by Daniel Weiss.

Most actors dream of Broadway, but Adam Fristoe is thrilled about his debut at a zoo on May 27. The star of “Hominid” will be playing a human, who is really a chimpanzee, at Burgers Zoo in Arnhem, Holland.

"The audience will be able to walk nearby and see several of the actual chimpanzees from the story that inspired the play," says Fristoe, an instructor of theater studies at Emory.

Burgers Zoo is the site of the true-to-life chimpanzee murder-suicide drama observed several decades ago by a young Dutch psychologist, Frans de Waal. De Waal went on to write his seminal book “Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes.” He is now director of the Living Links Center at Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
Adam Fristoe, center, in a scene from the Emory production.

Theater Emory commissioned the play “Hominid,” written by Out of Hand Theater and Ken Weitzman, and based on de Waal's books. Last year, “Hominid” was performed on campus in a co-production of Out of Hand and Theater Emory.

“We hope to affect people’s imaginations by linking science and art,” says Fristoe, who is co-artistic director of Out of Hand Theater.

Listen to a podcast on "Hominid" by Public Radio International:

A European tour this summer takes "Hominid" to Germany and several places in the Netherlands, in addition to Burgers Zoo. The European shows, in collaboration with a Dutch company called “The Lunatics,” will be large outdoor spectacles.

"We're going to build a chimp colony compound at each of the locations, complete with a moat and a three-story steel tree that shoots sparks when it gets electrified," Fristoe says.

All of the European dates are expected to draw large crowds, but Fristoe says he is most excited about bringing "Hominid" to Burgers Zoo. “It’s an odd journey for a story to take.”

Ape-murder suicide inspires human drama
A brainy time traveler
Learning morality from monkeys

Friday, April 2, 2010

Inside the chimpanzee brain

Emory MRIs of chimp (left) and human heads reveal differences and similarities.

Science magazine writes about pathbreaking brain studies at Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center:

Lying inside the missile-like MRI tube this morning while foghorn-like blasts of sound fill the room is a 26-year-old female chimpanzee named Melinda. The 74-kilogram, hairy hulk rests on a gurney, with a heating pad over her chest and an intubation tube delivering a sedative gas. The only thing visible is the top of her skull, which has been outfitted with a helmet called a "head coil" that transmits and receives the radio frequencies. ..

This bizarre scene might look like something out of a sci-fi horror flick, but as Yerkes neuroanatomist Todd Preuss emphasizes, appearances can be deceptive. The MRI emits no radiation and is something of a gentle giant, affording researchers a unique view into the hidden architecture of the body's soft tissues without causing harm. "This is completely noninvasive," says Preuss. "It's the kind of procedure we'd do with a human."

Melinda is the 29th chimpanzee that Preuss and anthropologist James Rilling of Emory have scanned as part of a study that will examine the aging of their brains in relationship to humans, including people with Alzheimer's, a disease that does not appear to afflict chimps. "No one has ever compared human brain aging with brain aging in our closet living relative to identify what's really distinctive about humans," says Rilling.

Read the full article in Science.

A brainy time traveler
Brain expert explores human dawn