Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A taste of traditional Italian medicine

Medical Ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave collecting plant specimens in Italy.

By Carol Clark

“Ethnobotany is the science of survival,” Cassandra Quave told a group of Emory students when they visited her field research site in southern Italy recently.

Quave, a medical ethnobotantist with Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health, is documenting the traditional ways that people use plants in the Vulture-Alto Bradano region of Basilicata province, a landscape of rolling hillsides dominated by the dormant volcano Monte Vulture. She is also collecting specimens of medicinal plants that she will take back to her Emory lab for her drug discovery research projects.

The students were in Italy this June as part of the “Italian and Medical Humanities” course, a collaboration of Emory’s Italian Studies Program, the School of Medicine, the Center for Ethics and the Center for the Study of Human Health.

Their itinerary included a day with Quave, who immersed the students in the local life of the village of Ginestra. She took them on a walk through the surrounding countryside, identifying the traditional medicinal uses of plants they encountered along the way. A fourth-generation shepherd told the students about pastoral life, and truffle hunters demonstrated how they use dogs to hunt these gourmet delicacies.

Cassandra Quave takes students off the beaten track, to learn about agrarian life.

“The students got to see first-hand how important traditional knowledge of environmental resources can be to a community,” Quave says. “It would be very difficult for these people to survive without it.”

During a visit to a vineyard, Quave made a point of having the students pick and eat ripe mulberries off a tree. “Today, especially in the U.S., people are very disconnected from their environment and food sources,” she says. “For many of the students, this was the first time that they had ever eaten anything that they had harvested themselves.”

Basilicata is home to the Arbereshe ethnic minority in Italy, the descendants of Albanians who fled the Ottoman invasion of Albania five centuries ago. “They have maintained their language, which is very different from modern-day Albanian, and adapted to a new environment, while still keeping some of their homeland traditions alive,” Quave says. “Unfortunately, many of these practices are in a state of rapid decline. The Arbereshe language is listed as an endangered language and as the language disappears, so does much of the culture.”

Quave currently has a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to pursue her research into how an extract from the elm leaf blackberry, a tree common in forests across Europe, might help fight antibiotic-resistant staph. Click here to read more about her research.

Here are more photos of the students in Basilicata. 

Photos courtesy of Cassandra Quave.

A patient approach to health
The growing buzz on animal self-medication

Monday, June 24, 2013

Freshman friendship fuels bio-tech business

Watch a TEDxAtlanta talk by Solazyme co-founder Harrison Dillon, above.

Diane Cardwell wrote a feature for the New York Times about Solazyme, a company founded by two Emory grads who are using algae to create clean fuel and other products. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

"Starting when they became friends in freshman year at Emory University in Atlanta, Jonathan S. Wolfson and Harrison F. Dillon would take off into the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado for weeks at time. They spent their days hiking in the wilderness and their nights drinking bourbon by the campfire, talking big about how one day they would build a company that would help preserve the environment they both loved.

"They graduated, and the backpacking trips grew shorter and further between. Mr. Dillon went on to earn a PhD in genetics and a law degree, and ended up working as a biotech patent lawyer in Silicon Valley. Mr. Wolfson received law and business degrees from New York University and eventually started a software business. But the two still got together every year. And they kept talking about the company that, they imagined as time went on, would use biotechnology to create renewable energy."

Read the whole article in The New York Times.

Oil change

Friday, June 21, 2013

'Omic astronauts' blast off into a new genetic era

By Carol Clark

Ready or not, the ability to rapidly and cheaply sequence the human genome is set to shape our species, both biologically and socially. Some people are early adopters of the technology, eager to jump into this brave new world.

Kristopher Hite, a bio-chemist and a post-doctoral fellow working in a biology lab at Emory, is among these “omic astronauts.” He is heading into unknown territory, full of potential risks and rewards, by having his genome sequenced and added to the public database of the Personal Genome Project (PGP).

Are we on the road to “Gattaca?” The 1997 film is set in a future where genetic databases are used to bio-engineer “ideal” children and sort out the less ideal members of society. In the above video of a Google + Hangout, Hite discusses some of the potential scenarios of the emerging genetic era with Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist and director of the Emory Center for Ethics.

Hite’s interest in the Harvard-based PGP is both scientific and personal. He wants to learn more about his own ancestry while also adding to our general knowledge of genetics.

He checked with his closest family members before joining the project, and they all gave him a green light. Even future family members, however, could be affected by his decision.

“If I have kids, maybe they’ll think I’m crazy for doing it and maybe they’ll resent me,” says the 30-year-old Hite, adding that he could not resist the opportunity of having his genome sequenced for free.

Here is how the PGP sums up its aims on its Web site: “We are recruiting volunteers who are willing to share their genome sequence and many types of personal information with the research community and the general public, so that together we will be better able to advance our understanding of genetic and environmental contributions to human traits.”

Hite has yet to decide whether he will allow the PGP to attach his name to his genetic data. It was among the concerns he discussed in his conversation with Wolpe.

The truth is, no one knows all of the future implications, Wolpe says. On the one hand, genetic data will likely boost opportunities for tailor-made medical treatments that will make today’s health care seem crude by comparison. But every new technology comes with a dark side.

“With your whole genome available to someone, and 20, 30 years from now with really more sophisticated DNA synthesizers, somebody could potentially clone you without your knowledge or consent,” Wolpe says. “As I tell my students, there is no science fiction anymore. There’s virtually nothing that I read about as a kid that I thought was whacky and way out that we’re not doing or trying to do. So I think that we’re opening up a whole new world of not only opportunity and potential but also legal problems and medical problems and certainly security problems.”

Clinical geneticists react to Supreme Court ruling
The science and ethics of X-men

Friday, June 14, 2013

Superman: Just another uptight guy in tights

Where would Clark Kent go to change into tights in the era of cell phones? Henry Cavill ponders many heavy, existential questions in "Man of Steel."

With today's release of the summer action flick "Man of Steel," Emory Looks at Hollywood focuses on the classic hero's journey of Clark Kent and Superman.

Sure, a lot of adolescents think that they're bullet proof and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But Clark Kent really possesses those special powers. Growing up with his "normal" parents, he embodies a super-sized version of adolescent angst, says Jared DeFife, an Emory assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Clark Kent's unique strength and talents are also the things that distance him from other people. Like most kids, he just wants to fit in. That adolescent identity struggle "is something we can all relate to," DeFife says. Watch the video below for his complete analysis.
A psychoanalysis of Jay Gatsby
Batman and the psychology of trauma

A wild view of medicine

What do chimpanzees, honey bees, wood ants and woolly bear caterpillars have in common? They all practice medicine without a license.

"These animals use medicines that they find in the environment they live in to fight their parasitic diseases," says Emory biologist Jaap de Roode. In a recent TedxEmory talk (see above video), de Roode describes recent findings about "animal doctors" in nature and the potential for humans to learn from them.

The growing buzz on animal self-medication
The monarch butterfly's medicine kit
Fruit flies use alcohol as a drug to kill parasites

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How a sleep walker stumbled into an asylum nightmare

Detail from the 1871 painting "The Somnambulist" by John Everett Millais.

In the 1830s, a 16-year-old girl became famous as a sleepwalker and an experimental patient of the early asylum movement. The curious case is one of many unearthed by Emory English professor Benjamin Reiss, the author of “Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture.”

Reiss was recently interviewed about the case on the public radio show “BackStory with the American History Guys.”

Jane C. Rider, from Brattleboro, Vermont, was a servant to a wealthy family who became a medical curiosity when she started to do her chores while sleep walking. “Some of the things that she would do included setting the table, perfectly, during the middle of the night,” Reis told “BackStory.” She’d wake up in the morning and wonder why someone else had done her job for her while she was sleeping.

A doctor seeking to cure Rider of her condition coaxed her into entering one of the newly opened lunatic asylums, which was mainly populated by the criminally insane.

“She was given everything from opium to ether to medications that would make her vomit,” Reiss said. “Leeches were applied, she was bled profusely. She was blistered, also. Puss would ooze out of her. Some thought it would draw out whatever fluids that would not harmonize with her body and were causing her to behave this way.”

Click here to listen to the “BackStory” podcast. 

Reiss’ current research focuses on a cultural history of sleep, from the industrial revolution in the 19th century to the present. “I’m interested in how sleep has become such a ‘problem’ in contemporary culture,” he says, “something in need of micro-management, medical advice and pervasive worry.”

Shedding light on a pre-electric sleep culture
Some eye-opening thoughts on sleep

Monday, June 3, 2013

Helping everyone see the light of evolution

"If we don’t help everyone understand what constitutes science and what constitutes faith, we’re bound to run into more problems," says evolutionary biologist Jaap de Roode.

By Carol Clark

Jaap de Roode likes to tell his Evolutionary Biology students: “I don’t believe in evolution.”

It gets their attention. Then he explains: “Evolution isn’t a belief, it’s a theory. You may believe in God and have faith in a religion, but when it comes to science, you look at the evidence for a theory and then decide whether to accept it.”

Any perceived conflict between science and religious beliefs often comes down to semantics, says de Roode, assistant professor of biology at Emory. “I want all of my students to understand the meaning of ‘scientific theory’ and why science is different from faith, but doesn’t have to be in conflict with it,” he says.

Adding to the confusion is the popular use of the word “theory” to describe a hunch or a guess. In science, a hypothesis is more akin to a hunch or a guess, while a theory refers to a body of knowledge supported by considerable evidence, such as gravitational theory or cell theory.

Despite his efforts, at the end of 16 weeks of teaching evolution theory, de Roode sometimes has one or two students complain on their class evaluation forms that he should include opposing views.

“It’s shocking to me that even some seniors, after taking many science courses, still don’t understand that scientifically, there is no alternative to evolution theory,” de Roode says. “They don’t want to fail the class, so they give me the answers they know that I want to see, but they remain skeptical. That bugs me as a scientist, and as a teacher.”

Forty-six percent of Americans responding to a Gallup poll in 2012 said that they believe God created humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years or so, a belief sometimes referred to as “creationism.”

While only a tiny fraction of Emory students report feeling that way to de Roode, even one is too many for him.

“Part of the reason that some of these students don’t want to accept evolution is fear,” he says. “They see and understand the evidence, but they are afraid that it means they will have to give up their faith. I feel strongly that it is my role to help students resolve this conflict.”

The issue came to a head last year, when Emory tapped Ben Carson for its 2012 commencement speaker. In addition to being a renowned neurosurgeon, Carson is a 7th Day Adventist and an advocate of creationism.

A student in de Roode’s class brought Carson’s views on evolution to his attention. De Roode joined with several other faculty to write a letter, published by the Emory Wheel, aimed not at disinviting Carson, but to call attention to Carson’s denial of evolution, and a statement he made implying that accepting evolution was akin to dismissing ethics.

The Emory faculty countered that evolution and the scientific method are not at odds with being moral or religious. “Dr. Carson insists on not seeing a difference between science, which is predictable and falsifiable, and religious belief systems, which by their very nature cannot be falsified,” they wrote. “This is especially troubling since his great achievements in medicine allow him to be viewed as someone who ‘understands science.’”

"Science doesn't invent nature. Science reveals nature," says Joel Martin, author of "The Prism and the Rainbow: A Christian Explains Why Evolution is Not a Threat."

Four hundred others from across the Emory community signed in support of the letter. De Roode points out that he is a great admirer of Carson as a physician. “But it’s important to pay attention to this issue of anti-scientific views,” de Roode says, “because it is standing in the way of scientific progress and the future of this nation. As a university, we are training the country’s future leaders.”

De Roode and other Emory faculty, including biologist Arri Eisen, biophysicist Ilya Nemenman and chemist David Lynn got together with Emory President James Wagner to discuss how to help students struggling to resolve any perceived conflict between scientific evidence and their religious beliefs. They launched a series of small, informal dinners and speaker seminars called “The Nature of Knowledge.”

Five students turned up to discuss evolution and faith at the first dinner, hosted by de Roode and Lynn, and including representatives from Campus Life and the Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life.

“I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family,” said a freshman majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology, explaining why he attended the dinner. “I asked my youth counselor in church about the science of evolution that I was learning in high school and he just said, ‘Don’t pay any attention to that.’ But as you grow older, you have to make your own decisions.”

The student added that he has long been a fan of Bill Nye “the science guy,” and a recent video by Nye called “Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children,” prompted him to think more deeply about the topic.

While he accepts evolutionary theory, he finds it odd that, “when high school teachers talk about it, they feel like they have to say, ‘I don’t want to offend anyone’s religious beliefs.’”

In the above video, Bill Nye "the science guy" gives his views on teaching evolution.

The first “Nature of Knowledge” seminar speaker, Joel Martin, drew a standing-room-only audience to Emory’s Harland Cinema last fall. Martin is both an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church USA, where he works with high school youth ministry. He published a book in 2010 called “The Prism and the Rainbow: A Christian Explains Why Evolution is Not a Threat.”

“When light hits a drop of water, it refracts. It’s a stunning natural spectacle,” Martin told the Emory audience, adding that knowing how a rainbow works does not have to remove God from the picture. “Science does not invent nature. Science reveals nature,” he said. “If this is God’s world, science can only reveal God’s world.”

Martin described a growing disconnect between youth, science and faith. He noted that most major Christian denominations in the United States officially accept the science of evolution, even though some of the members may not.

“The most respected theologians that we have need to come forward and be much more vocal on this issue,” Martin said.

Kyle Niezgoda, a junior majoring in environmental studies, found Martin’s talk beneficial, although he has never doubted evolution.

“I think it’s important to understand how others think and feel, so you can work towards a common goal instead of just arguing,” said Niezgoda, who plans to go to graduate school to study atmospheric science. “The more I get involved in science, the more I realize the importance of being able to translate what I learn to the public, especially when it comes to things like climate change.”

In the spring, a second “Nature of Knowledge” seminar featured Emory primatologist Frans de Waal, who talked about his new book, “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates.” He described the growing scientific evidence that morality predates religion.

“The Nature of Knowledge” program will continue the series in the fall, with plans to expand some of its events to involve resident life in the dorms.

“We don’t want to stage useless debates between evolution proponents and opponents,” de Roode said. “We’re trying to educate students about the wonderful world around us, rather than have fireworks. If we don’t help everyone understand what constitutes science and what constitutes faith, we’re bound to run into more problems and our children will suffer for it.”

Photos by iStockphoto.com

Teaching evolution enters new era
Brain trumps hand in Stone Age tool study
A brainy time traveler