Thursday, February 24, 2011

Meth: A global view of 'the most American drug'

A meth lab explodes: In some rural areas, the American dream also seems to be going up in smoke. (

From the Mideast to northern Africa and Wisconsin, extraordinary scenes of unrest are roiling the world stage. All of these political dramas stem from some of the same factors driving a methamphetamine epidemic in rural America.

People everywhere should understand that “our personal lives are tied to these tremendous global forces,” said Morgan Cloud, Emory professor of law.

Cloud is one of the founders of a new Emory course covering nearly every aspect of the meth epidemic. It brings together faculty and students from law, business, religion, economics, anthropology, biology, public health, neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology and more.

The course takes its name, and built its curriculum, from the book “Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town,” by Nick Reding. Through personal stories of people ravaged by meth, the author shows how 30 years of deregulation and globalization affected Oelwine, Iowa.

For more than 100 years, “there was no such thing as unemployment in Oelwine,” Reding said in a recent public talk at Emory.

The town’s long prosperity, built around farming, the railroads and meatpacking, began to change in the late 1980s. Agribusiness emerged to displace family farms. Local people no longer owned the land, the grain elevators or the stores where they shopped. A conglomerate bought up the meat packing plants, dissolving the unions: Workers who once earned $18 an hour were reduced to $5.60 an hour, without benefits.

The impact was “apocalyptic,” Reding said. A collective feeling of depression settled on the town. People fled in droves. Tax revenue dried up. Schools faced threats of bankruptcy and law enforcement staff was slashed.

Meth filled the vacuum, giving users the ability to stay awake through three shifts at the packing plant and make ends meet. “It’s the most American drug,” Reding said. “It helps you achieve the dream of superseding class through a lot of hard work, and you feel good while doing it.”

Other forces also fueled the drug epidemic and the changing way of life, Reding said. “Big pharma” lobbied against laws to change the ingredients of common cold medicine, used to make meth. Immigrants poured in to take the low-paying jobs. Five Mexican cartels took over 85 percent of all the U.S. drug trafficking business, channeling their distribution into the flow of immigrants.

When his book was published last year, Reding said he received death threats, and accusations that he had betrayed America. “A lot of people seem to resist the idea that drugs and poverty could go together in rural America the way they do in the inner cities.”

Reding, who teaches journalism at Washington University in St. Louis, is working on a new book, "Heartland," a portrait of what the Midwest might look like in 40 years.

Methland course sparks diaglogue
Blazing a new path for development work

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fishing for a living comes with a catch

Ocean fish, and independent fishermen, are threatened by overfishing.

By Carol Clark

Fishing for a living is tough, dangerous work. It’s easy to stereotype the rugged individuals who do it as callous exploiters of wildlife. But in the course of her research into New Zealand fisheries, Emory environmental studies professor Tracy Yandle has gotten a different picture.

“Most of the fisherman I've interviewed are wonderful guys who care about their resources and the sea,” Yandle says.

One told her about setting a net halfway across an inlet, only to return and find the net missing. His first thought was that someone had stolen it. “Then he looked across the harbor and saw a whale struggling, trying to make it out to sea with a net wrapped around its tail,” Yandle says. “The fisherman took off in a tiny boat with an outboard motor, caught up to the whale and managed to hack off the net. He described it as the greatest day in his life, to rescue this huge whale.”

But independent fishermen, like many of their catches, are becoming endangered. Both are the victims of overfishing, as the world appetite for fish keeps growing, and the technology to do mass harvests from the sea keeps improving.

“Fish is a vital food source, and fishing is an important way of life for many poor, rural communities,” Yandle says. “As we lose fisheries, there is going to be a lot of human suffering.”

She cites the collapse of the Atlantic cod industry in Newfoundland during the 1990s as one example of how large-scale fishing techniques can decimate a local way of life.

In the 1980s, New Zealand’s orange roughy stocks came close to crashing, as large trawlers and massive nets replaced smaller-scale fishing methods. “I interviewed some guys who said they were hauling in so much fish, the engines were having trouble getting the nets up onto the boats,” Yandle says.

The New Zealand government moved quickly to limit catches and prevent a collapse, but the orange roughy populations have yet to fully recover.

Yandle is analyzing data going back to 1986 from New Zealand, to track how changes in regulatory policies are affecting fisheries there. New Zealand is one of the only systems in the world that privatized to allow fishermen to buy and sell the rights to catch a certain amount.

Emory's record-setting taco line, featuring sustainable Alaskan cod, aimed to raise awareness of the power of consumer choices.

At the global level, the problem of overfishing, much like climate change, is at a tipping point, Yandle says. Large predator fish are particularly at risk, according to a panel of experts during the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Think of it like the Serengeti, with lions and the antelopes they feed on,” panelist Villy Christensen of the University of British Columba was quoted by the Washington Post. “When all the lions are gone, there will be antelopes everywhere. Our oceans are losing their lions and pretty soon will have nothing but antelopes.”

Consumers can help by choosing sustainable fish from supermarkets and menus. Yandle recommends this link to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which gives a pocket guide to ocean-friendly seafood choices, and also lists the ones to avoid.

“I think awareness of the problem is growing,” Yandle says. “People used to ask me which fish they should avoid because of high mercury levels. Now they more often ask about fish they should avoid due to ethical concerns.”

The ripple effect of a Nobel in economics

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How a hike in the woods led to a math 'Eureka!'

Where do “eureka” moments come from? Emory mathematician Ken Ono found his on a hiking trail in north Georgia.

He and post-doctoral fellow Zach Kent were on the way to Tallulah Falls last October when the patterns they noticed in the trees, the leaves and the switchbacks on the trail suddenly revealed the mystery of the fractal repeating structure for partition numbers.

“We realized the process of these numbers folding over on themselves is very much like what you see in the woods,” Ono says. “It was kind of a poetic moment,” he recalls of looking out on a mountainous valley, knowing that nature had helped them crack a mystery that had baffled some of the greatest minds in math.
While on a hike, far from their desks and daily distractions, the mathematicians noticed patterns in the woods that solved their problem. Photo by Carol Clark.

“It’s been, honestly, my lifelong passion, this one question of the divisibility properties of these numbers,” Ono says.

Last year, the American Institute of Mathematics and the National Science Foundation funded a team led by Ono to tackle the problem. Ono, Kent and Amanda Folsom spent months building a theory to explain these divisibility properties, developing a framework that seemed to match the data.

“The problem for a theoretical mathematician is you can observe some patterns, but how do you know these patterns go on forever? We were, frankly, completely stuck. We were stumped,” Ono says.

The hike had been intended as simply a way to enjoy a beautiful day. “Going into the woods, escaping from day-to-day tasks, is actually vital for me and my work,” Ono says. “It gives me an opportunity to really focus on really difficult little questions that may fit into a bigger theory.”

So what is an “aha” moment? “The way I see it, it’s not something that happens to you instantly,” Ono says. “It just happens to be the moment that you realize the fruits of all your hard work.”

New theories reveal the nature of numbers
Ken Ono's public lecture on the new theories

Monday, February 14, 2011

A feminist lens on science

By Margie Fishman, Emory Report 

When Professor of Women's Studies Elizabeth Wilson was an undergraduate in New Zealand, a women's studies department did not exist. So she majored in psychology and championed feminist issues like reproductive rights outside of the classroom. 

Since then, a "bilingual" breed of feminist scientists (or scientist feminists) has emerged. They view the human body as more than a reliably rational machine.  Instead, they understand it to be a complex 
Elizabeth Wilson
system profoundly integrated with its environment. Today’s 18-year-olds “see a middle path, a way to incorporate both sides," Wilson says. "It's an important growth area in women's studies." 

Wilson joined Emory’s top-ranked women’s studies department in 2009. Her research explores the intersection of biology, psychoanalysis and evolutionary theory. In her "Introduction to Studies in Sexuality" course, she asks undergraduates to consider such questions as the biological theories of homosexuality or the "queer anti-marriage argument," exploring why gays and lesbians would want to join an intrinsically discriminatory institution. Her other intriguing courses include "Hysteria to Prozac: The Gender Politics of Mental Illness" and "A User's Guide to Freud: Gender, Sexuality and the Unconscious." 

Wilson's latest book, “Affect and Artificial Intelligence,” argues that pioneers in artificial intelligence from 1945 to 1970 were interested in developing agents that not only think, but also learn, feel and grow. 

"If you're trying to build an agent that works with humans on a regular basis, building an emotional robot makes the interaction more flexible and robust," she says. "These were concerns from the beginning." 

Her upcoming book, "Gut Feminism," applies a feminist lens to biomedical theories of depression. "Traditionally, men were seen as the mind and women as the body," Wilson says, adding that any attempt to forge mind-body connections across gender lines was greeted with hostility. 

Feminists have long been resistant to harnessing scientific data because they felt sidelined by the scientific community, while scientists have been suspicious of any attempt to introduce bias, she explains. 

Calling on extensive medical data about how antidepressants navigate their way through the body, Wilson argues that the neurological regulation of depression is not limited to the brain, but also involves an enormous network of nerves in the gut. "Antidepressants don't just go straight to the brain and nowhere else," she says. British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow argued in his influential work, "The Two Cultures," that the breakdown in communication between the sciences and the humanities was a major stumbling block to solving the world's most pressing problems. 

That debate has raged on for more than 60 years, notes Wilson, but the last few years have brought a renewed commitment to collaboration between the sciences and feminist theory, and a critical mass of literature to back it up. "Today, we are really in a good position to train students in both cultures," she says. Related: Dining with machines that feel Why robots should care about their looks

Friday, February 11, 2011

Elementary thoughts on love and kindness

A beautiful mind: Even among children, the practice of thinking kindly about others may help bring about more positive emotions and interactions.

By Paige Parvin, Emory Magazine

When Emory graduate student Brendan Ozawa-de Silva first walked into the classroom of five- to eight-year-olds at Atlanta’s Paideia School, he quickly despaired of ever achieving his goal: Getting the children to meditate.

Noisy and excitable, the kids could barely sit still, much less approach the state of utter calm and concentration that is central to the Buddhist tradition of compassion meditation. But Ozawa-de Silva captured their attention using an ancient technique: Telling them a story.

He told them about the sweater he was wearing, describing how his father gave it to him and explaining that it makes him happy because it is warm and makes him think of his father. Then he asked the children to consider the other reasons why he is able to enjoy the sweater—where it came from, who made it, and how it traveled to him. The kids rattled off answers: Wool, sheep, trucks, roads, stores, people.

“Finally, they shouted out, ‘It never ends. You need the whole world!’” recalls Ozawa-de Silva.

And just like that, the children understood, at least for a moment, the Buddhist concept of universal interconnectedness that undergirds compassion meditation.

The pilot program at Paideia, which Ozawa-de Silva codirected with graduate student Brooke Dodson-Lavelle, is part of a series of Emory initiatives studying the effects of meditation on physical and mental health. The protocol for the program was developed by Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership, using Cognitively Based Compassion Training, a technique drawn from Buddhism, but without the spiritual elements. Secular compassion meditation is based on a 1,000-year-old Tibetan Buddhist practice called lojong, which uses a cognitive, analytic approach to challenge a person’s unexamined thoughts and emotions toward other people.

The practice is designed to help participants recognize the interdependence of all creatures and cultivate compassion towards others, whether family, friends, or far-flung strangers. The comprehension of shared suffering is thought to reduce negative emotions, like anger and resentment, and help nurture positive ones, like kindness and gratitude.

“I really think it helps the kids to center,” says Jonathan Petrash, who teaches a class of five- to seven-year-olds at Paideia. “We have tried to make it part of our daily routine. There is a real calm, settled feeling in our classroom, with deeper and richer conversations. The kids are better able to show empathy, better able to show compassion.”

Are hugs the new drugs?
Escaping mental prisons
Monks + scientists = a new body of thought
The biology of shared laughter and emotion

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Legacies of slavery move into the light

One hundred and fifty years after the U.S. Civil War started, the impact of slavery in institutions of higher education remains largely unexamined. As part of the movement to change that, hundreds of scholars came together for Emory’s “Slavery and the University” conference Feb. 3 to 6.

“We learned a lot about the political and economic connections. So many major universities, both north and south, were funded by the Atlantic slave trade,” says anthropologist Mark Auslander of Brandeis University. “And we learned about how violent the slavery system had been, even at colleges.”

Auslander, who formerly taught at Emory’s Oxford College campus, is working on a book about Catherine “Miss Kitty” Boyd, a well-known, yet mysterious, historical figure in the Oxford community. Miss Kitty was an enslaved woman owned by Methodist Bishop James Osgood Andrew, the first president of Emory’s board of trustees. Andrew’s ownership of Miss Kitty helped triggered the 1844 schism of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which is considered one of the templates in the forming of the confederacy.

While trying to sort fact from myth in her complicated life story, Auslander tracked down Miss Kitty’s descendants.

“I’m still grasping with the reality of it all,” says Darcel Caldwell, who learned that she was Miss Kitty’s great-great-great granddaughter when she got a phone call from Auslander.

“I had no idea that I had ancestors that had such an impact on this country,” she said. “It helps me figure out where I fit in, and I think that’s one great advantage that a lot of black Americans don’t have.”

Caldwell was among those who gathered at Emory’s Old Church in Oxford, built in 1841, for the concluding ceremony of the conference, and to honor Miss Kitty’s legacy.

“By focusing on institutions of higher education as one critical place where enslaved labor played an important role, and where arguments for and against African slavery were developed, discussed and debated, we begin to understand how central slavery was to society as a whole,” says Emory history professor Leslie Harris. “By knowing these histories we can better address the issues with us today.”

Slavery, power and the myth of Miss Kitty

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Students tackle tough bioethics questions

Should scientists be allowed to cultivate custom cellular machines? Students (left to right) Sarah Chambers, April Dworetz, and Maryam Daroudi present their findings. Their answer: Yes, but carefully. Photo by Ann Borden.

Paige Parvin writes in Emory Magazine:

What if scientists could create a real, live Neanderthal person, using knowledge of a genome sequenced from prehistoric DNA?

That might seem like something from a Michael Crichton novel, but there is evidence that it’s closer than you might think. That’s why it was the first test problem put to students in a new, experimental course on bioethics—specifically, what Roberta Berry, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, calls “ethically fractious problems.”

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the course brings together students from Emory, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University College of Law and Morehouse School of Medicine. Berry, director of Georgia Tech’s Law, Science, and Technology Program, conceived of the course to address emerging problems that meet five criteria: They are novel, complex, ethically fraught, divisive, and unavoidably of public concern.

“The point of the grant proposal is that these problems will keep coming up, and we need to find ways to deal with them,” Berry says. “What caught the interest of the NSF was the idea of future scientists and engineers developing a particular set of skills necessary to deal with these issues at a policy level. The NSF also found the diverse mix of students very promising.”

The students are placed on teams of five to six members, with representatives from the biosciences, public policy, law, engineering, and even the humanities. There are no textbooks or assigned readings. The teams are given a series of three problems and set loose (guided by a faculty facilitator) to develop policy recommendations, which they ultimately present to invited stakeholders and policymakers including scientists and engineers, patent attorneys, law professors, judges, legislators, and legislative staffers.

"It’s a fascinating way to learn, and much truer to the way the students will work in the realms they are moving into,” says Kathy Kinlaw, associate director of Emory's Center for Ethics and a facilitator for the course.

Tara Wabbersen is an Emory graduate student working in cell and developmental biology. Faced with the first question of the course, she says it was fairly easy for her team to come up with the answer: No, scientists should not create a Neanderthal man. The challenge, though, was explaining why. “There were too many big questions,” she says. “Would it be defined as a person? Would there be social and class issues? The law student wanted to know what its rights would be.”

This year’s teams were assigned final problems with a focus on synthetic biology, so their work resonated with many of the key issues discussed by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which met at Emory in November.

One team analyzed the potential impact of cultivating emergent behaviors of differentiating cells, basically the production of biological “machines” through steering the differentiation of interacting stem cells. The second team worked on a real-life project that is actually in development, led by a Harvard researcher—the creation of a cellular system designed to detect glucose levels in the blood and then instruct other systems to produce and secrete insulin, to be used in treating type I diabetes patients.

Both teams drew on the highly controversial use of human embryonic stem cells to illustrate their points, noting the ongoing debate over the definition of life and when it begins. They covered religious and ethical implications, the need for balance between private innovation and public interest, the possibility for dual use if the advances fall into the wrong hands, and the importance of public perception in the success of new biological technologies. Ultimately, the teams found that researchers in these areas should be encouraged to proceed—but with caution, and overseen by regulatory agencies and clear, restrictive policies. Still, the potential for health benefits far outweighs the risks, the teams said.

Melissa Creary, an Emory graduate student of public health, ethics, and history, has worked in the Division of Blood Disorders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the past six years. “In my work, ethics comes up all the time,” she says. “If I were to rely on what I knew before this class, it was basically gut reaction and instinct. I was not really looking at the problem in a systematic way, which is what this class teaches.”

Synthetic cell: A step closer to 'recipe for life'
Obama awaits report on synthetic biology

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Disease trackers take aim at dengue fever

Click on the animated map above to watch how a dengue epidemic spread to 390 confirmed cases over 25 weeks. New cases are shown in red, and previous cases in blue.

In late January of 2003, a woman returned from an extended holiday in Papua, New Guinea, to her home in Cairns, Australia, a tropical town in northeastern Queensland. The woman was sick with a fever and went to a clinic, which gave her pills to treat malaria.

It was a misdiagnosis. She actually had dengue fever, another vector-borne disease spread by mosquitoes. Global trends in population growth and travel have expanded the range of dengue transmission risk, and yet little is known about dengue epidemics in an urban environment.

In this case, the woman lived in an older neighborhood of Queenslander-style homes that have lots of unscreened windows with wooden shutters, kept open to let in the breezes. It was the steamy wet season. Within a few weeks, mosquito bites had spread the dengue virus within the neighborhood and beyond.

“It was a perfect storm for an outbreak,” says Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, an Emory disease ecologist.

The dengue virus was soon confirmed as the culprit, and Queensland health authorities began aggressive intervention measures. By the time the outbreak ended several months later, there were 390 confirmed cases among Cairns residents, and one death.

Vazquez-Prokopec and Uriel Kitron, chair of environmental studies at Emory, conducted a statistical analysis of the Cairns outbreak, recently published in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. They combined detailed data gathered by Queensland health authorities with geographic information system (GIS) technology and space-time analysis to plot the interventions alongside the spread of the virus. Click on the animated map above to watch the progression from the first to last case, during the course of the outbreak.

When a disease breaks out in an urban area, health officials must act fast, but they often have limited resources. The analysis honed in on key transmission patterns. The results showed that spraying 60 percent of the homes in close proximity to a home with a confirmed case of dengue was effective in reducing transmission.

"A big problem with mosquito control is there is not enough personnel to spray everywhere, so you need to strategically choose your targets during an outbreak. It's like fighting a forest fire," Vazquez-Prokopec says. "Our goal is to use spatial analysis as another tool to improve disease control and prevention where resources are limited."

New methods of dengue control are desperately needed, Vazquez-Prokopec says. An editorial he wrote on the rising threat of dengue epidemics will appear in the March issue of Future Microbiology.

Mosquito monitoring saves lives and money
Urban mosquito research creates buzz
From deadly flu to dengue fever: Rising risks