Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Trees and reality TV drive discovery in 2011

In 2011, flashes of inspiration made fundamental science at Emory seem almost easy. A hike in the woods sparked a breakthrough in number theory, while an episode of “American Idol” led to an insight about the human brain.

Actually, it takes a certain brilliance to find big ideas hiding amid trees and reality TV. To paraphrase Louis Pasteur, whether you are an athlete or a couch potato, chance favors a prepared mind.

Here’s a roundup of the hottest topics on eScienceCommons for 2011.

New theories reveal the nature of numbers: For centuries, some of the greatest names in math have tried to make sense of partition numbers, the basis for adding and counting. The eureka moment finally occurred when mathematicians were hiking through the fall foliage in north Georgia and noticed patterns in the trees and the switchback trail. Partition numbers are fractal, repeating in an infinite pattern, they suddenly realized.

Teen brains can predict pop song success: A neuroeconomist was watching “American Idol” with his two young daughters when a contestant started singing “Apologize” by One Republic. The song sounded familiar, and the scientist realized that he had used it in a study. That led to a re-analysis of brain-response data of teens listening to obscure songs. The results show that teen brain activity may help predict the popularity of music.

Dawn of agriculture took toll on health: Anthropologists confirmed that when populations around the globe started turning to agriculture around 10,000 years ago, regardless of the location or the types of crops, a similar trend occurred: The height and the health of the people declined. In modern times, the stature trend has reversed: The average human height is increasing, as food becomes increasingly commercialized and abundant. But is our health improving, in an era of obesity?

Anxious kids confuse ‘mad’ and ‘sad’:
Psychologists found that children suffering from extreme social anxiety are trapped in a nightmare of misinterpreted facial expressions: They confuse angry faces with sad ones. Non-verbal communication is a critical, but often overlooked, aspect of child development. The good news is that non-verbal communication skills can be improved at any age.

Chimps, bonobos yield clues to social brain: It’s been a puzzle why our two closest living primate relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, have widely different social traits, despite belonging to the same genus. Now, a comparative analysis of their brains shows neuroanatomical differences that may be responsible for these behaviors, from the aggression more typical of chimpanzees to the social tolerance of bonobos.

Chemists reveal the force within you: A new method for visualizing mechanical forces on the surface of a cell provides the first detailed view of those forces, as they occur in real-time. Mapping such forces may help to diagnose and treat diseases related to cellular mechanics. Cancer cells, for instance, move differently from normal cells, and it is unclear whether that difference is a cause or an effect of the disease.

Hominid skull hints at later brain evolution: An analysis of a skull from the most complete early hominid fossils ever found suggests that the large and complex human brain may have evolved more rapidly than previously realized, and at a later time than some other human characteristics. While some features of Australopithecus sediba were more human-like, most notably the precision-grip hand, the brain was more ape-like.

Biochemical cell signals quantified for first time: Just as cell phones and computers transmit data through electronic networks, the cells of your body send and receive chemical messages through molecular pathways. The term “cell signaling” was coined more than 30 years ago to describe this process. Now, for the first time, physicists have quantified the data capacity of a biochemical signaling pathway and found a surprise – it’s way lower than even an old-fashioned, dial-up modem.

Mummies tell history of a modern plague:
Mummies from along the Nile are revealing how age-old irrigation techniques may have boosted the plague of schistosomiasis, a water-borne parasitic disease that infects an estimated 200 million people today. An analysis of the mummies provides details about the prevalence of the disease across populations in ancient times, and how human alteration of the environment may have contributed to its spread.

Polar dinosaur tracks open new trail to past: Paleontologists discovered a group of more than 20 polar dinosaur tracks on the coast of Victoria, Australia, offering a rare glimpse into animal behavior during the last period of pronounced global warming, about 105 million years ago. The discovery is the largest and best collection of polar dinosaur tracks ever found in the Southern Hemisphere.

Beer, bugs and brains: Hot topics in 2010
2010: A science odyssey

Friday, December 16, 2011

Skeletons point to Columbus voyage for syphilis origins

"The evidence keeps accumulating that a progenitor of syphilis came from the New World with Columbus' crew and rapidly evolved," says anthropologist George Armelagos.

By Carol Clark

Skeletons don’t lie. But sometimes they may mislead, as in the case of bones that reputedly showed evidence of syphilis in Europe and other parts of the Old World before Christopher Columbus made his historic voyage in 1492.

None of this skeletal evidence, including 54 published reports, holds up when subjected to standardized analyses for both diagnosis and dating, according to an appraisal in the current Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. In fact, the skeletal data bolsters the case that syphilis did not exist in Europe before Columbus set sail.

“This is the first time that all 54 of these cases have been evaluated systematically,” says George Armelagos, an anthropologist at Emory University and co-author of the appraisal. “The evidence keeps accumulating that a progenitor of syphilis came from the New World with Columbus’ crew and rapidly evolved into the venereal disease that remains with us today.”

The appraisal was led by two of Armelagos’ former graduate students at Emory: Molly Zuckerman, who is now an assistant professor at Mississippi State University, and Kristin Harper, currently a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University. Additional authors include Emory anthropologist John Kingston and Megan Harper from the University of Missouri.

“Syphilis has been around for 500 years,” Zuckerman says. “People started debating where it came from shortly afterwards, and they haven’t stopped since. It was one of the first global diseases, and understanding where it came from and how it spread may help us combat diseases today.”

The history of syphilis, and society's reactions to the disease, have eerie parallels to the more modern story of HIV/AIDS.

"Syphilis was a by-product of two different populations meeting and exchanging a pathogen," says anthropologist Molly Zuckerman. "It was an adaptive event, the natural selection of a disease, independent of morality or blame."

The treponemal family of bacteria causes syphilis and related diseases that share some symptoms but spread differently. Syphilis is sexually transmitted. Yaws and bejel, which occurred in early New World populations, are tropical diseases that are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact or oral contact.

The first recorded epidemic of venereal syphilis occurred in Europe in 1495. One hypothesis is that a subspecies of Treponema from the warm, moist climate of the tropical New World mutated into the venereal subspecies to survive in the cooler and relatively more hygienic European environment.

The fact that syphilis is a stigmatized, sexual disease has added to the controversy over its origins, Zuckerman says.

“In reality, it appears that venereal syphilis was the by-product of two different populations meeting and exchanging a pathogen,” she says. “It was an adaptive event, the natural selection of a disease, independent of morality or blame.”

 A biopsy of Treponema pallidum spirochetes in tissue. In 2008, anthropologist Kristin Harper completed a comprehensive comparative genetic analysis of syphilis's family of bacteria. The results further supported the Columbus theory for its origins. (Image courtesy of CDC.)

Armelagos, a pioneer of the field of bioarcheology, was one of the doubters decades ago, when he first heard the Columbus theory for syphilis. “I laughed at the idea that a small group of sailors brought back this disease that caused this major European epidemic,” he recalls.

While teaching at the University of Massachusetts, he and graduate student Brenda Baker decided to investigate the matter and got a shock: All of the available evidence at the time actually supported the Columbus theory. “It was a paradigm shift,” Armelagos says. The pair published their results in 1988.

In 2008, Harper and Armelagos published the most comprehensive comparative genetic analysis ever conducted on syphilis’s family of bacteria.
The results again supported the hypothesis that syphilis, or some progenitor, came from the New World.

A series of 18th-century prints called "A Harlot's Progress" begins with innocent country girl Molly, left, arriving in London, where she is immediately procured by a madame. The lesions on the madame's face are the tell-tale signs of syphilis, which Molly tragically dies of in the last print of the series. Read more about this morality tale here.

But reports of pre-Columbian skeletons showing the lesions of chronic syphilis have kept cropping up in the Old World. For this latest appraisal of the skeletal evidence, the researchers gathered all of the published reports.

They found that most of the skeletal material did not meet at least one of the standardized, diagnostic criteria for chronic syphilis, including pitting on the skull known as caries sicca and pitting and swelling of the long bones.

The few published cases that did meet the criteria tended to come from coastal regions where seafood was a big part of the diet. The so-called “marine reservoir effect,” caused by eating seafood which contains “old carbon” from upwelling, deep ocean waters, can throw off radiocarbon dating of a skeleton by hundreds, or even thousands, of years. Analyzing the collagen levels of the skeletal material enabled the researchers to estimate the seafood consumption and factor that result into the radiocarbon dating.

“Once we adjusted for the marine signature, all of the skeletons that showed definite signs of treponemal disease appeared to be dated to after Columbus returned to Europe,” Harper says.

“The origin of syphilis is a fascinating, compelling question,” Zuckerman says. “The current evidence is pretty definitive, but we shouldn’t close the book and say we’re done with the subject. The great thing about science is constantly being able to understand things in a new light.”

Putting teeth into the Barker hypothesis
Dawn of agriculture took toll on health
Ancient beer brewers tapped antibiotic secrets

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Creativity: Science education's missing link

By Carol Clark

Memorizing facts and formulas may be the foundation of a good science education, but creativity also needs to be taught and encouraged in undergraduate classes, says Robert DeHaan, professor emeritus in Emory's School of Medicine.

An editorial by DeHaan, entitled “Teaching Creative Science Thinking,” will appear in the journal Science on December 16. DeHaan’s career as a researcher of cell biology, a professor of medicine and a science advisor for educational studies spans five decades.

“It’s unfortunate that we often teach science as if science only deals with neat problems with a single answer, and a single path to get to that answer,” DeHaan says. “But when you walk into a lab, you don’t know what problems you’re going to face, or how you’re going to arrive at solutions.”

Creativity is the most complex and abstract of the higher-order cognitive skills, according to the classification system known as Bloom’s taxonomy of learning skills. Other higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and abstraction are also key to solving ill-structured, or “messy,” problems in science, DeHaan says.

And yet, he adds, a recent national sample of 77 undergraduate life science courses, taught by 50 different instructors, found that fewer than 1 percent of the items on tests and quizzes required students to use any of these higher-level skills.

DeHaan advocates moving beyond just lecturing in science classes and getting students engaged in active learning modes that foster peer-to-peer reasoning and creative thinking for complex problem solving.

“Students need to be reminded that there may be other ways to view a problem than the way it is presented,” DeHaan says. “And they need to learn to generate many ideas about possible solutions before beginning to evaluate which of them may be best.”

Quick, how many uses can you think of for a plastic bottle? It's a simple way to test your creativity. Click here to see one of the most creative answers ever to this question, currently hanging on the Emory Quad.

Creative science thinking should not only be taught, it should be tested, he adds. A simple method, based on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, is to ask students to list all of the possible uses for an object such as a plastic bottle.

When DeHaan gives this problem to students, their lists range from four or five ideas to dozens. “Most of the ideas will be similar, but when you get a response that is limited to 5 percent or less in a group of 100 students, that’s an original idea,” he says.

More research is needed, DeHaan says, to find effective strategies to prepare the next generation of scientists for the complex, interdisciplinary problems that they will need to tackle.

“If more students learn to think like creative scientists, it will be worth the effort,” he concludes.

How a hike in the woods led to a math 'aha'
Cultivating brains for science
Math's in your cards, so deal with it
An idea that shifts with wind, water and light

Credits: Top and middle photos by Bottom photo by Carol Clark.

Friday, December 9, 2011

An idea that shifts with wind, water and light

Art meets science on the Emory Quad, in the form of "Piedmont Divide."

By Carol Clark

As you approach the Emory Quadrangle on a sunny afternoon, you see what looks like a giant crystal chandelier floating amid the canopy of the oak trees. As you walk beneath it, the swaying “chandelier” appears as ephemeral as a cloud, or a seeding dandelion.

One thing that Emory’s new sculpture, called “Piedmont Divide,” does not resemble is the thousands of recycled plastic bottles that comprise it.

“I didn’t expect the sort of precious quality of the material, just how much the sunlight and wind would do this,” says the sculpture’s creator, environmental artist John Grade.

“It was remarkable to see the plastic bottles change from trash into these things that look so organic,” says Julia Kjelgaard, chair of the visual arts department.

The visual arts department invited Grade (pronounced “grotty”), a Seattle-based artist who draws from science and nature, to create a piece for Emory. After a whirlwind two-day visit, and many meetings with faculty, Grade decided to do a piece that would reflect the campus environment, as well as Emory’s research into West Nile virus and global water sustainability.

Grade returned to his Seattle studio to ponder what material he should use to tie all of those themes together. “It was an ‘aha’ moment,” Grade says of the idea of recycling plastic drinking bottles. “I realized that there was this relationship with Coca-Cola supporting the university, and I thought about how to use that product and transform it in some way for this environment.”

In November, Grade returned to Emory with two assistants: Seattle sculptor Dilyara Maganya and civil engineer Travis Stanley. Over 13 days, the three enlisted volunteers from across campus to melt down thousands of discarded drinking bottles and help assemble “Piedmont Divide.”

John Grade at work on the Emory Quad.

“I’ve had this desire to make something with many people,” he says of the group effort. “So I don’t have full control, and you actually have a social contract, a group of people crafting something together and figuring it out along the way. Your end result may not be perfectly made, but you have all these interesting decisions from different people along the way that completely change it.”

Each plastic bottle was cut into a spiral and melted into a long, curving stalk that curled into a dainty little cup at the end. The cups are designed to hold a few drops of rainwater. Click here to see a video of how the sculpture was made.

A tornado siren went off as Grade was standing on a 20-foot platform on the Quad, putting the final touches on the piece. He watched as a gentle rain began filling the thousands of little cups, and the ephemeral character of the sculpture shifted slightly as it took on the weight of the water. The tiny pools of water suspended by the sculpture are an allusion to incubators for mosquitoes.

On a far side of campus from the Quad’s floating chandelier, the second half of “Piedmont Divide” is set in the lake of Lullwater woods. There, the plastic stalks rise from the water like crystal reeds.

Grade says he wants “Piedmont Divide” to help people make connections, between different environments and between different water systems, and how both nature and man use them.

One of Grade’s greatest strengths as an environmental artist may be that he is not afraid of failure. He actually enjoys fielding the curve balls that nature throws at him.

He describes a sculpture he made in Arizona, elevated amid trees and made of edible bits that birds could eat. “The idea came to me because I feel like there’s a lot of ego involved inputting an object out into a landscape, when a lot of times the landscape is very interesting in and of itself,” Grade says. “So I liked the fact that these birds would pick apart this form that I made, and then just shit it all across the mesa.”

After the piece was installed, however, rodents crawled onto the sculpture’s guy wires and annoyed the birds to the point that they wouldn’t eat. “I thought, ‘Do I roll with what the environment comes back to me with, or try to change this,’” Grade recalls. In the end, a birder suggested that he spread a liquid form of jalapeno over the piece, which would thwart mammals but not birds.

As the “Piedmont Divide” shimmers on the Emory campus through spring, it will be interesting to see how the vision keeps shifting in the wind, water, light and creative spirit of a university.

Hal Jacobs contributed to this story through his video reports.

From Atlanta to Accra: The growing sewage problem
Add environmental artist to your resume
Sewage raises West Nile virus risk

Friday, December 2, 2011

Chemist recalls history of AIDS drugs

Every December 1 is World AIDS Day, a chance to unite in the fight against HIV, and to reflect on how the epidemic has changed medicine and society.

In 1987, AZT became the first drug for treating HIV infections. “There were issues in the supply of AZT at the time,” recalls Emory chemist Dennis Liotta. “And there were also issues around rapid development of resistance to the drug.”

Liotta’s lab decided to tackle the problem of coming up with a better treatment.

“We came in with a completely uninformed, but fresh, look at the problem,” Liotta recalls. “We had some very efficient ways of preparing compounds. We came up with a novel idea, and it actually worked the first time we tried it.”

The new approach resulted in two important anti-virals for HIV treatment. “First, they had limited side effects as compared to other drugs being used to treat HIV,” Liotta says. “That’s important, because people have to take these drugs every day of their life. The second feature is that they have good resistance profiles. When given in combination, they can dramatically suppress viral replication.”

The breakthroughs were a major game-changer for HIV, allowing infected people to live relatively normal lives by sticking to a treatment regimen.

About 94 percent of people who are being treated for HIV in the United States take one of the anti-viral drugs developed by Liotta’s team.

“Part of our success was due to coming at the problem from a different perspective than others,” Liotta says. “Another part was due to our skills in organic synthesis. And a third part was being in the right place at the right time. As Louis Pasteur said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’”

Ryan White: A leader forged by AIDS
AIDS: From a new disease to a leading killer

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Throwing linked to intelligence in chimps

From CBS News:

"Any zoo-goers so unlucky as to be on the receiving end of a poop-tossing chimpanzee may be excused for taking a dim view of that particular form of monkey mayhem. But don't let the gross-out aspect of the situation cloud your judgment about the perpetrator: New research suggests that a primate's ability to throw an object is actually a solid indicator of intelligence.

"Bill Hopkins of Emory University and his collaborators make that argument in a new paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Among other things, they find major overlap between brain areas which distinguish right- and left-handed throwing chimpanzees and the regions of the cortex involved in language processing by humans. The researchers concluded that the chimps which were better throwers also possessed more developed left brain hemispheres, the area where we process speech."

Read the full article at CBN News.

Gestures may point to speech origins
Brain trumps hand in Stone Age tool study
Top 10 facts about non-verbal communication

Monday, November 28, 2011

How far is Mars? It depends when you ask

To mark the recent liftoff of the space rover Curiosity, the 39th mission to Mars, Matthew Bell pulled together 39 interesting facts about the Red Planet for “The Independent” newspaper.

Here’s his fact number 13:

“Mars's distance from Earth changes by the second because the two planets are on different elliptical orbits. The distance between them ranges from 36 million miles to more than 250 million miles.”

Which leads to Bell’s fact number 14:

“You can see exactly how far Mars is from Earth in real time thanks to the physics department of Emory University in Atlanta, which has it displayed second-by-second on its website.”

Here’s a link to the Mars real-time distance calculator. It was created by Emory astronomer Horace Dale, to counter the crazy rumors that swirl around about Mars every August. You can read about the Mars rumor here.

The Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars in August of 2012. The rover contains a seven-foot-long robotic arm, which will allow it to drill into Martian rocks to take samples, and explore the geographic history of Mars. Check out the video (at the top of this post) featuring animations of how the 1-ton rover will touch down when it arrives at Mars, and how the robot will look as it goes about its mission.

The first manned mission to Mars is likely to be a one-way trip. An artist rendition, above, of what the first Martian outpost could look like. (Image by NASA.)

For Bell’s final fact, he notes that the U.S. plans the first manned mission to Mars for 2030: “President Barack Obama gave his support last year, saying he expected to see it happen in his lifetime. But, because of the expense of sending astronauts there and back, it's been proposed that whoever goes to Mars should stay there indefinitely.”

That means that the first people to call the Red Planet home, the first Martians, could be walking the Earth right now.

Scientist tackles ethics of space travel
August rumor swirls around Mars

Friday, November 18, 2011

From Atlanta to Accra: The growing sewage problem

Christine Moe shows the above video, produced by WaterAid, to first-year medical students at Emory. "I want students to think more about sanitation, and to understand why they should care about the enormous problems surrounding it," she says.

By Carol Clark

Christine Moe began researching human waste disposal during the 1980s, as a VISTA volunteer. She was sent to rural West Virginia to assist in coal mining towns that lacked sewage treatment plants.

“The valleys were incredibly steep and narrow, and septic tanks need to have flat land for the drain field,” Moe recalls. “So the septic tank pipes just emptied straight into the creeks. You could see toilet paper in the brush lining the water.”

Moe now works on sanitation projects around the world as a professor at the Rollins School of Public Health and the director of Emory’s Center for Global Safe Water.

November 19 is World Toilet Day, which aims to build awareness that 40 percent of the people on the planet use unsafe toilets or defecate in the open. It’s a fact of growing concern, to both human health and diginity, and to the environment: The developing world is rapidly urbanizing, and raw sewage is building up in high-population centers.

“When I walk through the slums of Accra, Ghana, I get really outraged at the conditions that I see people living in,” Moe says. “That passion motivates me to want to find solutions.”

World Toilet Day may finally gain momentum in the United States, since actor Matt Damon became a celebrity spokesperson for the cause, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began awarding major grants addressing sanitation.

The Center for Global Safe Water recently received $2.5 million from the Gates Foundation to study ways that people are exposed to human waste in cities of the developing world. The first phase of the research is focusing on Accra, which is typical of many rapidly growing cities in sub-Saharan Africa in its lack of sewage treatment plants. Tanker trucks suck up excreta from latrines and dump it into the coastal ocean.

“You have people literally surrounded by shit,” Moe says.

Public latrines in Accra are squat plates with a trench underneath, shared by hundreds of people. The latrines lack sinks, running water and soap.

People who can’t make it to a latrine may resort to squatting over a plastic bag, then tying up the excreta and tossing it into the household trash, or simply flinging it out a window. This method is known as the “flying toilet.”

Open drains line the unpaved streets where children play. “You’ll see children kicking a ball, and if the ball lands in the drain, one of the kids will climb in, get the ball out and they’ll just keep playing with it,” Moe says, pointing to a photo of a little boy rummaging amid raw sewage in a drain (see above).

Urban agriculture pops up in the slums wherever people can find a spot to grow a few vegetables. For irrigation, they dip containers into the drains and pour the water over the plants.

“There are so many ways that people can be exposed to fecal material, it’s hard to know how to prioritize an intervention,” Moe says. “In our study, we’re trying to get information that will help policy makers develop the most effective solutions.”

The sub-human conditions that Accra slum residents must endure are hard to imagine without seeing them, Moe says. She wants people in Atlanta to not only grasp the terrible toll of poor sanitation in the developing world, but to also understand the growing problem of sewage in the United States.

One-third of the water in a typical U.S. household is used to flush toilets. “We are using drinking water to remove excreta from our homes,” Moe says. “In a city like Atlanta, faced with water shortages every couple of years, I don’t think our system is sustainable.”

The Gates Foundation has launched a campaign called “Reinventing the Toilet.” The idea is to spur innovative toilet designs that do not require massive amounts of water and infrastructure.

China, for instance, is promoting the use of anaerobic digester systems to process waste in rural areas. Household toilets feed into the odorless digesters, which convert the waste into biogas used as an energy source.

“We really need to start getting more creative when it comes to toilets,” Moe says.

Norovirus stays infective for months in water
Sewage raises West Nile virus risk

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Obama urged to act now on environment

A dump truck in the tar sands region of Canada. Credit:

Following is an excerpt from an opinion piece published in the New York Times, written by Emory psychologist Drew Westen, author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."

For some time the Obama administration had appeared to be signaling its likely approval of a plan to lay a high-pressure oil pipeline from Canadian tar sands right on top of the main water supply to much of the Midwest. Last week, however, after thousands of protesters — ranging from ranchers and farmers to ordinary Americans concerned about the catastrophic harm that could be done if that pipeline were to leak — surrounded the White House, the administration announced that it was delaying a decision until 2013. ...

The decision to put off a political decision has turned out to be a defining characteristic of this administration. Typically the magic number is 2013, although 2014 and 2020 are popular second-choices. Just two months ago, under heavy lobbying from polluters, the president took both supporters and members of his own administration aback with a decision to override a plan produced by his own Environmental Protection Agency to tighten the lax Bush standards on clean air to prevent toxic smog. The president who had campaigned on restoring the role of science in decision-making overrode the judgment of a unanimous panel of scientists, suggesting that he wanted to “study” the issue further — perhaps until 2013.

Read the whole article in the New York Times.

What happened to Obama's passion?
Oil spill may reshape environmental law

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

East meets West, at the cellular level

Prayer flags fly over a field in Dharamsala, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Following is an excerpt from an article written by Emory biologist Arri Eisen, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

To teach my biology class today, I took three planes for a total of 9,000 miles nearly halfway around the world. My students have left their sandals at the door. As I walk in, they sit, maroon-robed and expectant, cross-legged on the floor. My body clock registers 11:30 p.m. the day before. I write on the board: "Are bacteria sentient beings?"

This is my fourth year coming to Dharamsala, India, home of the Tibetan government in exile, in the foothills of the Himalayas, as part of an unusual collaboration—the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative—between the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and Emory University. About seven years ago, the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetans, invited Emory to develop and teach a contemporary science curriculum for the more than 20,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in exile. …

Over the years, I've come a long way from thinking that teaching science to Tibetan monks and nuns is just a cool thing to do. The monastics, on the whole, are astoundingly open-minded and approach problems with a thoughtful rationality that is, ironically, often missing from my Western colleagues' approach to science and the world. An ancient Zen koan goes something like: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. That is, destroy preconceptions, question everything—especially if you think you've figured it all out. Most of the monastics in my classroom embody that attitude.

They are busy integrating East and West at the cellular level, re-examining everything they thought they knew. For them, the question of whether bacteria are sentient has serious karmic implications. If these single-celled organisms are, indeed, sentient beings, then any other sentient being could be reincarnated as a bacterium. They face this question with calm, engaged clarity, ready to rethink and integrate whatever they may discover.

Read the whole article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Are hugs the new drugs?
Monks + scientists = a new body of thought
Monks study science, and campus life

Friday, November 11, 2011

Add environmental artist to your resume

By Carol Clark

Take an empty plastic bottle out of the trash. Slash the label and the top off with a knife, then use scissors to cut the base into a spiraling ribbon. Now clamp the plastic ribbon down and blast it with 1,000 degrees F. from a heat gun.

Voila! The plastic bottle becomes a long, slender stalk curving into a dainty little cup at one end, like a pitcher plant. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t done it myself.

Environmental artist John Grade glanced at my handiwork and noted that the cup at the end of the stalk is “to hold the mosquito larvae.”

Something unusual is under way on the Emory campus. And I mean unusual even by academia standards.

Grade (pronounced “grotty”) is a visiting artist at Emory, heading up a monumental public art project called “Piedmont Divide.” During the next 10 days, 20,000 plastic water bottles are being transformed into two massive sculptures. One of the sculptures will hang from the trees on the Quadrangle; the other will be suspended over the lake at Lullwater Preserve.

The results are bound to be interesting. Grade is internationally known for his immense installations. His piece “Seeps of Winter” was influenced by his curiosity about the remains of humans found in Irish bogs, and a beached humpback whale he came across one day walking on the Washington coast. His sculpture “The Elephant Bed” centered on Ice Age algae that forms the geographical bedrock of Brighton, England.

John Grade's sketch for "Piedmont Divide" on the campus Quadrangle.

For “Piedmont Divide” Grade is drawing his inspiration from Emory’s work on West Nile virus and global water sustainability.

"Piedmont Divide" needs volunteers daily through Saturday, Nov. 19, to help with the construction. If you love art and/or science, you don’t want to miss this chance to become an environmental sculptor, even if it’s just for a few hours. Click here for volunteer details.

Taking pieces of trash and changing them into pieces for a major artwork can alter your perspective. I will never look at a plastic bottle the same way.

Sewage raises West Nile virus risk
Norovirus stays infective for months in water
A few things you may not know about water

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Scientists weigh in on baby fat

From the Associated Press:

Researchers say there's a new way to tell if infants are likely to become obese later on: Check to see if they've passed two key milestones on doctors' growth charts by age 2.

Babies who grew that quickly face double the risk of being obese at age 5, compared with peers who grew more slowly, a study found. Rapid growers were also more likely to be obese at age 10, and infants whose chart numbers climbed that much during their first 6 months faced the greatest risks.

Contrary to the idea that chubby babies are the picture of health, the study bolsters evidence that "bigger is not better" in infants, said Dr. Elsie Taveras, the study's lead author and an obesity researcher at Harvard Medical School.

But skeptics say not so fast. Babies often grow in spurts and flagging the speediest growers could lead to putting infants on diets -- a bad idea that could backfire in the long run, said Dr. Michelle Lampl, director of Emory University's Center for the Study of Human Health.

"It reads like a very handy rule and sounds like it would be very useful -- and that's my concern," Lampl said. The guide would be easy to use to justify feeding infants less and to unfairly label them as fat. It could also prompt feeding patterns that could lead to obesity later, she said.

Lampl noted that many infants studied crossed at least two key points on growth charts; yet only 12 percent were obese at age 5 and slightly more at age 10. Nationally, about 10 percent of preschool-aged children are obese, versus about 19 percent of those aged 6 to 11.

Lampl and Edward Frongillo, an infant growth specialist at the University of South Carolina, voiced concern in an editorial accompanying the study in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, released online Monday.

Grandma was right: Babies really do wake up taller
That diaper is loaded with data
How childhood makes us who we are

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Science meets art in the park: Come and play

Soon clouds won’t be the only thing hovering over the lake in Emory’s Lullwater Preserve. Photo by Jon Martinson.

Environmental artist John Grade arrived on the Emory campus this week to begin orchestrating “Piedmont Divide.” A large-scale art installation in two parts, “Piedmont Divide” will reflect the university’s research into West Nile virus and global water sustainability.

“This is a creative project where everyone can play,” said Julia Kjelgaard, chair of the Visual Arts Department, during a welcome reception for Grade, a visiting artist at Emory.

Grade is soliciting volunteers to help in the building of the two large outdoor sculptures: One to be located amid the trees on the campus Quadrangle, and the other above the lake at the Lullwater park. The work will continue through Saturday, November 19. Click here for details of how to join in the effort.

“The plans are more or less free-form, like a jazz performance,” Grade said, adding that everyone who works on the project may influence the end result. “I hope that the work will mature and develop beyond what my vision is.”

A studio at the Emory Visual Arts Gallery is filling up with giant bags of clear plastic water bottles, the raw material for the sculptures. If you have some clear plastic bottles to recycle, drop them off at the gallery, which is still short of the 20,000 needed.

Rather than distinct masses, the two sculptures will be “cloud-like forms,” Grade said. “The clouds will start taking shape from center, where they will be most dense, and then spiral outward. The pieces will expand in an organic way. It’s a bit more risky to work this way, but I’m confident that the results will be interesting.”

The installation on the Quad will be suspended in the tree canopy in a spider-web-like network of lines. A pulley system will allow the sculpture to be lowered and raised.

The Lullwater piece will be suspended over the lake. A scaffold just below the water line will support the structure. Grade envisions dancers performing beneath the sculpture. “They will look like they're walking on water,” he says.

In addition to lending a hand in building the sculptures, the public is invited to a Creativity Conversation with Grade and Kjelgaard, on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 5 p.m. in the Carlos Museum Reception Hall.

On Thursday, Nov. 17 at 6:30 p.m., Grade will discuss the intersection of art, science and sustainability with Uriel Kitron, chair of environmental studies, and Christine Moe, director of the Center for Safe Water at Emory. Pizza will be served during the free public event, at the Visual Arts Gallery.

A few things you may not know about water

Monday, November 7, 2011

How much time do you have left?

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried in a race against time.

Imagine your arm is “tattooed” with a watch that shows how much time you have left to live. You can see the seconds ticking down.

That’s the premise of the new science-fiction thriller “In Time,” starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. It’s 2161 and genetic engineering stops people from aging after 25 years. One major downside of eveyone staying in their prime, of course, is over-population. So people die within a year of turning 25 unless they are strong enough to work for more minutes, or wealthy enough to literally buy more time. The poor live in a separate “time zone,” segregated from the zone of the rich, who can exist for millennia if they are sufficiently well off.

Even in the real world of today, statistics favor the wealthy for longevity.

"Here in the U.S., we have large and enduring economic inequalities in health," says Hannah Cooper, assistant professor at the Rollins School of Public Health. “People in the lower socio-economic strata tend to be two to three times more likely to die early than people who are in the highest economic strata."

Some of the factors that may play a role in how much time you have left include: whether you have health insurance, the crime rate and pollution levels near your home, your access to fresh fruits and vegetables, your mental state, and whether you are exposed to toxins or other hazards in your workplace.

Nazi eugenics versus the American Dream
AIDS: From a new disease to a leading killer
The science and ethics of X-men

Friday, November 4, 2011

Where's the beef? Mideast looks to East Africa

A herd of thirsty cattle arrives at a watering trough in Isiolo, Kenya. Much of the livestock from the Horn of Africa is destined for the Middle East. (

By Carol Clark

Muslims are gathering in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for hajj, an annual five-day pilgrimage, set to begin on Saturday. The largest pilgrimage in the world, the hajj draws millions of Muslims, and they will be feasting on ritually sacrificed meat.

Much of that livestock, more than two million animals, will come from the Horn of Africa.

“It’s big business, but it’s unclear how much small-scale livestock producers in East Africa really benefit from the growing demand for their products in the Middle East,” says Emory anthropologist Peter Little.

That’s one of the questions Little plans to tackle during the next phase of his research into how East Africa pastoralists make a living amid the vagaries of a harsh environment and climate change.

Little, who has been studying the region’s pastoralists for three decades, recently received an additional $700,000 from the Livestock-Climate Change Collaborative Support Program, to continue working on a joint project in the region. The LCC program, centered at Colorado State University, was established in 2010 through an agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Emory is partnering with Pwani University College in Kenya and Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia for the current phase of the project. In addition to Little’s deep experience in the region, Emory brings a strong public health component to the research, and the expertise of disease ecologist Uriel Kitron, chair of environmental studies.

“One thing we will be looking at is how the warming of East Africa is creating different kinds of disease vectors, affecting both livestock and humans,” Little says.

The project ultimately aims to increase incomes and food security in the extremely vulnerable Horn of Africa. The region is currently confronting yet another drought disaster, and violent conflict between Kenya and Somalia.

“It’s a challenge working in the Horn of Africa on many levels,” Little says. “But the research questions are exciting, and so is the potential to have an impact. It’s a worthy goal.”

Small-scale livestock keepers have managed climate variability and many other challenges by moving to new sources of water and pastures. Fences and settlements are increasingly restricting their moves, however, while new technologies, such as cell phones and trucking of water and feed, have expanded access to information and resources. Little is known about the current market risks facing mobile pastoralists, although the livestock trade continues to be an integral part of the economies of the region.

Students from Emory and the African universities will also be involved in the project, which includes training local counterparts to continue the work of pastoralist development in the region after the project ends in 2015.

What we can learn from African pastoralists
Famine in Somalia driven by conflict

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Express your love of chemistry

Have you ever dreamed of dancing on the periodic table? Now you have your chance. The Emory chemistry club, ChEmory, is sponsoring "Transform Chemistry into Art," a contest in celebration of the International Year of Chemistry.

Members of the Emory community from across campus are invited to use drawing, photography, sculpture, film, song and dance to express their passion for chemistry. Entries are due by Wednesday, Nov. 16 to or Atwood 308. The works will be on display, and the winners announced, on November 19. Prizes will be awarded.

For inspiration, watch the video below of FoSheng Hsu from Cornell, doing an interpretative dance of the the world of x-ray crystallography and a 3-dimensional protein structure. Hsu won the chemistry division for the 2011 "Dance Your Ph.D" contest, an international event sponsored by the journal Science. A record number of 55 dances were submitted to the contest this year, and you can check them out here.

The Holy Grail to X-ray crystal structure of human protein phosphatase from FoSheng Hsu on Vimeo.

Sparking a love of chemistry in teens
Rappers find their elements

Monday, October 31, 2011

Chemists reveal the force within you

By Carol Clark

A new method for visualizing mechanical forces on the surface of a cell, reported in Nature Methods, provides the first detailed view of those forces, as they occur in real-time.

“Now we’re able to measure something that’s never been measured before: The force that one molecule applies to another molecule across the entire surface of a living cell, and as this cell moves and goes about its normal processes,” says Khalid Salaita, assistant professor of biomolecular chemistry at Emory University. “And we can visualize these forces in a time-lapsed movie.”

Salaita developed the florescent-sensor technique with chemistry graduate students Daniel Stabley and Carol Jurchenko, and undergraduate senior Stephen Marshall.

“Cells are constantly tugging and pushing on their surroundings, and they can even communicate with one another using mechanics,” Salaita says. “One way that cells use forces is evident from the characteristic architecture of tissue, like a lung or a heart. If we want to really understand cells and how they work, we have to understand cell mechanics at a molecular level. The first step is to measure the tension applied to specific receptors on the cell surface.”

The researchers demonstrated their technique on the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), one of the most studied cellular signaling pathways. They mapped the mechanical strain exerted by EGFR during the early stages of endocytosis, when the protein receptor of a cell takes in a ligand, or binding molecule. The results showed that the cell does not passively absorb the ligand, but physically pulls it inside during the process. Their experiments provide the first direct evidence that force is exerted during endocytosis.

"Once a force is applied to the polymer, it stretches out,” Salaita explains. “And as it extends, the distance from the quencher increases and the fluorescent signal turns on and grows brighter." Graphic by Daniel Stabley.

Mapping such forces may help to diagnose and treat diseases related to cellular mechanics. Cancer cells, for instance, move differently from normal cells, and it is unclear whether that difference is a cause or an effect of the disease.

“It’s known that if EGFR is over-active, that can lead to cancer,” Salaita says. “And one of the ways that EGFR is activated is by binding its ligand and taking it in. So if we can understand how tugging on EGFR force changes the pathway, and whether it plays a role in cancer, it might be possible to design drugs that target this pulling process.”

Several methods have been developed in recent years to try to study the mechanics of cellular forces, but they have major limitations.

One genetic engineering approach requires splitting open and modifying proteins of a cell. This invasive technique may change the behavior of the cell, skewing the results.

The new technique for visualizing cellular forces uses a standard fluorescence microscope.

The technique developed at Emory is non-invasive, does not modify the cell, and can be done with a standard fluorescence microscope. A flexible polymer is chemically modified at both ends. One end gets a fluorescence-based turn-on sensor that will bind to a receptor on the cell surface. The other end is chemically anchored to a microscope slide and a molecule that quenches fluorescence.

“Once a force is applied to the polymer, it stretches out,” Salaita explains. “And as it extends, the distance from the quencher increases and the fluorescent signal turns on and grows brighter. We can determine the force being exerted by measuring the amount of fluorescent light emitted.”

The forces of any individual protein or molecule on the cell surface can be measured using the technique, at far higher spatial and temporal resolutions than was previously possible.

Many mysteries beyond the biology and chemistry of cells may be explained through measuring cellular forces. How does a cancer cell crawl when a tumor spreads? What are the forces involved in cell division and immune response? What are the mechanics that allow groups of cardiac cells to beat in unison?

“Our method can be applied to nearly any receptor, opening the door to rapidly studying chemical and mechanical interactions across the thousands of membrane-bound receptors on the surface of virtually any cell type,” Salaita says. “We hope that measuring cellular forces could then become part of the standard repertoire of biochemical techniques that scientists use to study living systems.”

Undersea cables add twist to DNA research
Biochemical cell signals quantified for first time

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The spirit of Emory came from a lab

From Emory Magazine:

Does any other university have a biology lab skeleton as its mascot? We think it unlikely. As mascots go, Emory’s is on the eccentric side. Dooley made his first appearance in 1899 in the “Phoenix,” Emory’s literary journal at the time, with an essay titled “Reflections of the Skeleton.” Writing as a specimen from the Science Room, Dooley was a mournful character, complaining about the high spirits of the “college boys” who disturbed his rest.

He showed up again a decade later and remained a kind of campus commentator, but his physical presence was not observed until 1941, when the Board of Trustees first allowed dancing on campus. That seems to have cheered him up.

Now known as James W. Dooley (he takes his first name and middle initial from the current university president), Dooley is represented on campus by a student – whose identity is kept secret – dressed as a skeleton in a black cape, a black top hat, and white gloves.

He has become a Lord of Misrule, the instigator of the festive Dooley’s Week – traditionally ushered in by the skeleton himself – who has arrived by helicopter, motorcycle and vintage car, accompanied by his entourage of student bodyguards.

Dooley is part of the rich history that Emory is celebrating during its 175th anniversary year, including many major science milestones. During the past 10 years alone, Emory researchers have made 1,418 invention disclosures and applied for 968 patents. The university has seen 32 products reach the market and launched 55 start-up companies. Read more in Emory Magazine.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Are we turning Steve Jobs into a saint?

Is that a MacBook Air Steve Jobs is presenting to the masses, or a bible for the cult of mass celebrity? (Photo credits, above and below:

Gary Laderman, chair of religion at Emory, writes on CNN's Belief Blog:

Steve Jobs has been the object of numerous memorials, and tributes - more than a million - are being posted on Apple’s “Remembering Steve” webpage, with condolences as well as testimonials about how Jobs and his products have touched and indeed transformed the lives of countless individuals.

Make no mistake about it, the veneration we are seeing in the aftermath of Jobs’ death is religious through and through - not “kinda” religious, or “pseudo” religious,” or “mistakenly” religious, but a genuine expression for many of heartfelt sacred sentiments of loss and glorification.

It is not tied to any institution like a church or to any discrete tradition like Buddhism; it is, instead, tied to a religious culture that will only grow in significance and influence in the years ahead: the cult of celebrity.

As more and more people move away from conventional religions and identify as “nones” (those who choose to claim “no religion” in polls and surveys), celebrity worship and other cultural forms of sacred commitment and meaning will assume an even greater market share of the spiritual marketplace.

In life Jobs may have been something of an enigma who maintained his privacy and generally stayed out of the public limelight. In death, Jobs now is an immortal celebrity whose life story, incredible wealth, familiar visage, and igadgets will serve as touchstones for many searching for meaningful gods and modes of transcendence.

It has been said that death is the great equalizer - rich and poor, successes and failures, the powerful and the disempowered cannot escape the one inevitable fact of human existence.

Jobs and other celebrities cannot escape this reality, but unlike you and me, they live on in the memories of fans and followers and become guiding lights in the mundane darkness of our ordinary lives.

Read more on the CNN Belief Blog.

Dining with machines that feel
Steve Jobs inspires prize-winning short film

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dalai Lama leads talks on ecology and ethics

“The slow meltdown of Earth’s capacity to sustain much of life, as we know it, poses an urgent challenge for both spiritual traditions and science.”

That’s the introductory statement to the conference on Ecology, Ethics and Interdependence, held Oct. 17-21 in Dharamsala, India. The Dalai Lama, Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory, led the meeting, hosted by the Mind and Life Institute.

Emory religion scholar John Dunne moderated a session called “A Role for Theology," which is summed up on the conference web site:

“If our world view is one based on contemporary science as well as the deepest wisdom of many religions, a world view that claims we are radically interrelated and interdependent with all other forms of life, then we will, or should, respond to our present crisis with similarly radical changes in our thinking and behavior. But do we? This is the critical question for all fields of concern with climate change, including the religions – and it is a very difficult one. What causes people to change at a deep enough level so their behavior changes as well? The shock of climate change may be the catalyst to awaken us from the lie of the current world view of individual fulfillment through consumerism, to the reality of fulfillment by sharing with needy fellow creatures and the Earth itself, through religious understandings of limitation, detachment and self-emptying.”

The video of the session is above. Here's a link to videos of all the sessions of the conference.

Monks + scientists = new body of thought

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Happy Mole Day!

If you have to ask, chances are you are not celebrating Mole Day, an unofficial holiday for chemists, on October 23, between 6:02 AM and 6:02 PM. The time and date are based on Avogadro's number, which defines the number of particles in one mole of substance. Emory chemists celebrate in a big way. Their tradition involves a pinata, this year hand-crafted into an actual garden-variety mole by Charlene Chan and Yoshie Narui, and some initiation rites for new faculty members (see Chris Scarborough in action in the video below). Cheers to Avogadro, and to scientists everywhere today.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Norovirus stays infective for months in water

Transmission electron micrograph of Norovirus particles in feces. (Graham Colm, Wikipedia Commons.)

From Science Daily:

Researchers from Emory University have discovered that norovirus in groundwater can remain infectious for at least 61 days. The research is published in the October Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

Human norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis.The disease it causes tends to be one of the more unpleasant of those that leave healthy people unscathed in the long run, with diarrhea and vomiting that typically last for 48 hours. Norovirus sickens one in 15 Americans annually, causing 70,000 hospitalizations, and more than 500 deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The results answer a question of great importance to public health, which had driven researcher Christine Moe and her colleagues to conduct this research: If well water becomes contaminated with noroviruses--perhaps from leaking sewer lines or a septic tank -- how long do these noroviruses survive in water, and when would it be safe to drink from that well?

Read the full article in Science Daily.

A few things you may not know about water
Sewage raises West Nile virus risk