Friday, August 30, 2013

Science a major draw at Decatur Book Festival

Many people would say that we are on the brink of using brain imaging to diagnose mental illness.  “I’m skeptical of that,” counters Emory psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, co-author of “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.”

Lilienfeld will be talking about the book as part of the Science Track of the AJC Decatur Book Festival on Saturday, August 31 at 3 pm.

“Neuro-imaging is an invaluable tool,” Lilienfeld says, “but like any tool, it can be overhyped. And I think overhyping can diminish a field’s credibility.”

He recalls when he was in graduate school during the 1980s, and the field of psychology was abuzz with the promise of the nuclear medical imaging technique known as positron emission tomography, or PET.

“A lot of people – smart people, actually – were saying that PET was going to replace the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness),” Lilienfeld says. “That, of course, never came to pass.”

The Science Track, sponsored by the Atlanta Science Tavern, has grown into one of the biggest draws for the festival, August 30 to September 1.  Some of 10 Science Track titles this year include “The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter than we Think,” co-authored by Brian Hare (an Emory alum); “My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs,” by Brian Switek; and “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates,” by Emory primatologist Frans de Waal.

Some intriguing science titles are also part of the book festival’s Atlanta Writers Showcase, including “Life Traces of the Georgia Coast,” by Emory paleontologist Anthony Martin, who will be speaking on Sunday, Sept. 1, at 3:00 pm.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Virtual Rome built from 17th-century map and computer gaming tool

In 1676, Giovanni Battista Falda published a detailed, bird's-eye map of Rome. Now, this celebrated map, along with Falda's architectural etchings and other historical materials have been transformed into a virtual, walkable experience of 17th-century Rome, using the computer gaming platform NVis360.

"I like to think of the way Falda drew Rome as almost anatomical," says Emory art historian Sarah McPhee, who headed up the project. "He wanted to show you the buildings in such crisp detail that they were essentially being taken apart on the anatomy table."

The NVis360 software, McPhee adds, "allows us eventually to take the layers apart and show the entire construction of a building. And that has huge potential for teaching and for understanding."

Watch the video, above, to learn more. You can use the gaming technology yourself to travel back to 17th-century Rome as part of the Michael C. Carlos Museum's special exhibition, "Antichita, Teatro, Magnifcenza: Renaissance and Baroque Images of Rome," from August 24 through November 17.

Optical experiment eyes Parthenon mystery
Chemistry of print bathing: A Harlot's Progress

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Joel Bowman's view from the top of theoretical chemistry

"Imagine how sensational it would be if we could predict where and when a cloud will form," says Joel Bowman. Photo by Bryan Meltz, Emory Photo/Video.

By Carol Clark

As Joel Bowman flew across the country recently, on his way to collect the Herschbach Prize for theoretical chemistry, his attention turned to the clouds outside the jet’s window. What’s happening at the molecular level, he wondered, in a cloud at 30,000 feet?

“As we all know, clouds are essentially water in the gaseous state,” says Bowman, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at Emory. “And, of course, it’s really cold at that altitude. So why do you find clouds at sub-zero temperatures? It’s an obvious but interesting question. The answer certainly has something to do with energy the cloud has absorbed from the sun and with potential energy surfaces: The delicate, attractive forces holding little water molecules together.”

Bowman’s work on developing potential energy surfaces is just one example of why he received the Herschbach Prize for Theory, presented in July at the Dynamics of Molecular Collisions 2013 Conference. The prize is named for Nobel Prize winning chemist Dudley Herschbach, who describes the award’s criteria as “bold and architectural work” that “addresses fundamental, challenging, frontier questions … and typically excites evangelical fervor that recruits many followers.”

The two-sided medal for the Herschbach Prize represents both theoretical (left) and experimental (right) molecular collision dynamics. The designer chose an angel for theory to symbolize “our yearning to attain an exalted, exhilarating comprehension."

Bowman was also recently elected to the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Sciences, and is lauded in the August 15 issue of the Journal of Physical Chemistry, the leading journal in its field. The cover art shows results from two of Bowman’s recent collaborations with experimentalists: One, concerning the dynamics of clusters of water molecules and another involving the complex kinetics of the chemicals in a comet. This special “Festschrift Issue” includes a tribute article to Bowman.

“These are all great honors to me,” says Bowman, who turned 65 this year and has no plans to retire. “Right now, I’m at the top of my game, the sweet spot of my career,” he says, citing four major research grants currently funding his group’s work.

Theoretical chemists do not work with chemicals: They write equations, analyze data and develop simulation models for molecular behaviors. It tends to be “a mature field,” Bowman says, where researchers hit their stride after years of experience, patience and perseverance.

Bowman is considered “one of the founding fathers of theoretical reaction dynamics,” the tribute authors write. (Click here to read the whole article, and more highlights from his career.) More recently, they add, he has made exceptional contributions to modeling potential energy surfaces, or PESs: “Without the PESs emerging from Joel’s group, many theorists would be unable to apply powerful methods of modern quantum dynamics to some of the most challenging problems of great current interest.”

Those problems include the molecular dynamics of water, a puzzle that particularly intrigues Bowman these days. During that cross-country plane flight, while most other passengers were probably trying not to think about things like turbulence and a stormy sky, Bowman took out his iPhone to make a video of lightning shooting through dark clouds (see below).

“What’s going on inside a cloud is extremely complicated, involving chemistry, physics, fluid dynamics and heat transfer, among other things,” Bowman says. “Clouds are full of energy, but parts of them can be cold while other parts are warming up. That’s a recipe for turbulence. Suddenly you can get a violent storm and boom! And all the action is taking place in what seems like just a simple little cloud. It’s mostly water.”

Currently, weather forecasting depends greatly on receiving continuous data from satellites and observing approaching fronts and other activity. “We can measure wind direction, high-and-low pressure, and use that information to create models, but that’s not nearly the level of data my research focuses on,” Bowman says.

Potential energy surfaces describe how water molecules bind together, and how much energy it takes to break them up into individual molecules.

“Imagine how sensational it would be if we could predict where and when a cloud will form,” Bowman says. “We’re getting closer to that ability, but we’re not there yet.”

Solving these kinds of puzzles could not only improve the accuracy of 10-day weather forecasts, it could help us predict long-term climate change, he says. “We don’t currently have the knowledge or the theoretical tools to fully understand what our climate will be like 20 to 30 years from now.”

Bowman is also exploring molecular mysteries underlying questions such as why we need water to live. “We know that we are made up of 70 to 80 percent water, and that without water, you cannot have life,” Bowman says. “And yet, from a chemical standpoint, we don’t really understand how water molecules interact with biological systems.”

"When I look at clouds, all kinds of questions come to my mind," Bowman says. Photo by Bryan Meltz, Emory Photo/Video.

Bowman joined Emory in 1986, during a time of rapid growth for the chemistry department. He has served as department chair, and helped establish Emory’s Emerson Center for Scientific Computation, becoming its acting director from 1991 to 1993. The center’s supercomputers are crucial to the Bowman Group’s work.

“Computer power has changed the field enormously,” Bowman says. “We can address problems and think about complicated chemical reactions in ways that people couldn’t dream of 20 years ago. Today, the computer winds up being almost like a laboratory where you can go in and do experiments.”

One challenge is to formulate the right question and get it onto the computer in a reasonable way, Bowman says. “Once you find the right question, and pose it correctly, getting the answer is often fairly straight-forward. Of course, then you have to interpret and understand the result that the computer spits out.”

While many of Bowman’s high-impact publications are collaborations with experimentalists, the theoretical work often begins with three or four members of his group sitting at a round table in his office, discussing a problem. “For me, the biggest joy is bouncing ideas around with my students and post-docs, questioning what’s known,” Bowman says. “And, of course, the discovery of things is a thrill. I get so excited they have to calm me down sometimes.”

Theoretical chemistry “is such a complex subject, involving math, physics, chemistry and computer science,” Bowman says. “Rather than intense focus on one thing, it involves carrying around a lot of data in your brain and thinking about many different things at the same time. That’s why when I look at clouds, all kinds of questions come to my mind and I start scratching my head.”

Behaviors of tiniest water droplets revealed
Chemists modify rules for reaction rates

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The diet debate: Cavemen vs. the Industrial Era

Kaley Todd wrote for the Nutrition Environmental Newsletter about the evolution of eating, and the current craze for the so-called "caveman" or "paleo" diet among some people who reject the menu of the Industrial Era. Below is an excerpt:

"'Evolutionarily, our bodies were designed to eat a variety of foods. Our hunter and gatherer ancestors ate a wide selection of whole foods often, to escape food boredom. Today, although it appears our food system offers a wide variety of ingredients, in reality, our diets are primarily composed of foods high in corn products and refined sugar,'" says anthropologist and Emory University professor, George Armelagos.

"He believes that evolutionarily our bodies are not designed to process the poor quality foods--sugary foods and beverages, refined flours, processed snack foods--we currently consume in such high proportions, resulting in the nationwide dramatic rise in obesity and diabetes.

"Today, our food supply offers large amounts of calories that require very little energy to 'hunt and gather.' You can spot a food vendor just about everywhere--bookstores, gas stations, and workplaces--offering high-calorie, low-nutrient food for your convenience.

"There are even signs that moving away from hunter-gatherer diets to eating patterns based on cultivated crops, such as grains, caused nutritional problems among our ancestors, according to Armelagos' article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health."

Read the whole article by Todd in the Chicago Tribune.

Dawn of agriculture took toll on health
Brain vs. gut: Our inborn food fight

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How monkeys busted our biases about lust

Among rhesus monkeys, females are the main initiators of sex. Photo by Kim Wallen.

Daniel Bergner writes in the Washington Post about what rhesus monkeys are teaching us about human desire. Below is an excerpt from the article:

"From a platform on a steel tower, Kim Wallen, an Emory University psychologist and neuroendocrinologist who has been working for decades at the university’s Yerkes Primate Research Center outside Atlanta, gazed down at the habitat’s 75 rhesus monkeys. This is the species that was sent into orbit in the ’50s and ’60s as stand-ins for humans to see if we would survive trips to the moon.

"'Females were passive. That was the theory in the middle ’70s. That was the wisdom,' he remembered from the start of his career. ... 'The prevailing model was that female hormones affected female pheromones — affected the female’s smell, her attractivity to the male. The male initiated all sexual behavior.' But what science had managed to miss in the monkeys — and what Wallen and a few others were now studying — was female desire.

"And science had missed more than that. In this breed used as our astronaut doubles, females are the bullies and murderers, the generals in brutal warfare, the governors. This had been noted in journal articles back in the ’30s and ’40s, but thereafter it had gone mainly unrecognized, the articles buried and the behavior oddly unperceived. 'It so flew in the face of prevailing ideas about the dominant role of males,' Wallen said, 'that it was just ignored.'”

Read the whole article in the Washington Post.

Monkeys embrace 'friends with benefits'
'Orgasm Inc. ' takes on female Viagra

Friday, August 9, 2013

In Madagascar, a health crisis of people and their ecosystem

A Malagasy farmer tends his field on a misty morning at the edge of the rainforest. Photo by Emory graduate student Morgan Mercer.

By Carol Clark

Madagascar, an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, is a biodiversity hotspot. Most of its wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth, making the island a top destination for evolutionarily biologists, drawn to the exotic and endangered flora and fauna.

Visitors to a Madagascar rainforest are enthralled by creatures like the comically long-legged sifaka lemurs, jewel-colored chameleons, net-throwing spiders and giant comet moths streaming golden tails.

Meanwhile, much of the local populace is focused on staying fed, sheltered and alive. Houses, food crops and livestock bump up against remaining patches of wilderness. The country is one of the poorest in the world, with an annual per capita income of $400. About 160 children a day die in Madagascar from preventable diseases, according to UNICEF.

“Madagascar is famous for its wildlife, to the point that its people get overshadowed,” says Emily Headrick, a graduate student in Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. “When people’s children are dying of diarrheal diseases, their priorities are probably not going to include protecting biodiversity.”

"When you go into homes, you see the lack of possessions," says Headrick, above, performing a health assessment. Photo by Carol Clark.

Headrick is part of an infectious disease team, including Emory students from nursing, the Rollins School of Public Health, the Department of Environmental Studies and the Masters of Development Practice program, conducting research in Madagascar. The team, in the country for most of the summer, is gathering baseline data on the health of people, domesticated animals and wildlife in and around the Ranomafana National Park. This “one health” approach may be key to solving some of the complex problems facing the Malagasy people and their unique ecosystem.

“It’s been refreshing for me as a nurse to learn about the environment, and animal health and development policy from the other members of the team,” Headrick says. “No one person’s area of the work is more important than that of the others.”

Photo by Sarah Zohdy.
The project is part of a large-scale effort of conservation and global health being coordinated by Thomas Gillespie, an Emory professor of Environmental Studies and Environmental Health. Gillespie is also director of infectious disease research for the Centre Valbio, an international research consortium at the entrance of Ranomafana founded by Patricia Wright. The ultimate goal is to promote human and wildlife health, while also ensuring the sustainability of the ecosystem.

This summer, the students are focusing on six villages and the fields and forests bordering them. For weeks, they have camped out and hiked up and down the steep trails of the region, often slogging through rain and mud, forging on even while occasionally suffering from bouts of the intestinal diseases they are there to investigate.

“One minute you’ll be struggling up a steep path, brushing back vines with thorns that tear at your hands,” says Sarah Zohdy, a post-doctoral FIRST fellow in the Gillespie lab who is leading the team in the field. “But then you’ll round a corner and see a beautiful waterfall. Or you’ll look down at your boots and notice that the mud caking them is sparkling with flecks of gold.”

The field work began in 2011. The work this summer was largely funded by the Jim and Robin Herrnstein Foundation and Emory’s Global Health Institute and Masters of Development Practice program. The data the students are gathering will be used to implement a system of health care services through a new non-profit agency called PIVOT.

Following are brief bios of the 2013 team members, and their perspectives on the project.

The black-and-white ruffed lemur is known for its loud, raucous calls. Photo by charlesjharp via Wikipedia Commons.

Sarah Zohdy is a biologist who began doing research in Ranomafana six years ago, drawn by her fascination with lemurs.

About 65 million years ago, a small, primitive primate made its way to the island, perhaps on a raft of floating vegetation, and diverged into dozens of species of lemurs, which today are found only in Madagascar.

“When I first came here, I thought the whole island would look like a BBC nature special,” Zohdy recalls. Instead she was stunned during the 10-hour drive from the capital of Antananarivo to Ranomafana to see a largely treeless landscape of terraced rice paddies and the occasional smoke from slash-and-burn agriculture. More than 90 percent of the original forest of Madagascar is gone.

“I just wanted to study aging in mouse lemurs,” Zohdy says. “I didn’t go into this wanting to be a conservation biologist, but I realized that was necessary.” Photo by Carol Clark.

Since humans began settling in Madagascar, about 1,500 years ago, much of the wildlife has disappeared, including at least 17 species of lemurs. About 100 lemur species survive, but many are teetering of the brink of extinction due to loss of habitat.

The issue is critical for people as well as animals, Zohdy says. “When you have humans encroaching on wildlife habitat you have huge potential for zoonotic diseases, and the emergence of new diseases.” Pneumonic plague and virulent strains of flu are examples of deadly outbreaks that have occurred in Madagascar in recent years.

Part of the work of the infectious disease team involves gathering fecal samples of lemurs, people and their livestock. These samples, along with mosquitos and ticks the team is collecting, will be sent back to Atlanta for analysis of pathogens they may contain. “To really understand human health, animal health and environmental health, you have to study all three at once,” Zohdy says.

The strange, clown-like face of a chameleon. More than half the world's chameleons are unique to Madagascar. Photo by Sarah Zohdy.

Emily Headrick is a nurse who prefers being in the field to hospitals. She’s worked as a health educator for refugees in Atlanta and at a clinic in Uganda.

In Madagascar, she is conducting health assessments of families that are randomly selected from the villages in the study. Few people she has surveyed own shoes or toothbrushes. One family, for example, consists of 13 people living in a 10-by-12-foot mud-brick home with a thatched roof, a dirt floor and little else.

Headrick treats a wound. Photo by C. Rist.
In addition to asking questions about the health history of family members, Headrick’s role is to measure and record people’s height and weight and other vital signs and to test their blood for malaria. Most people have never been to a dentist and some report debilitating tooth pain.

“I worked really hard to prepare myself for the fact that we are here to do research, and not to provide health care,” Headrick says.

Determined to do what she can, however, she bought drugs to treat anyone who tests positive for malaria. She also put together a comprehensive first-aid kit, and spends much of her free time cleaning and bandaging wounds.

The simple act of touching someone and taking the time to listen to them talk about their pain is part of the role of a nurse, Headrick says. “It has a different kind of therapeutic value. And it helps build trust in people. This is a long-term project.”

Cassidy Rist is a veterinarian who is now enrolled in the masters in public health program at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. She also works part-time in the CDC’s One Health Office.

Too many public health programs leave pets and livestock out of the equation, Rist says. “We need more projects like this, where people from different specialties work together and talk to each other." Photo by Carol Clark.

Rist is interviewing people in village households about the animals they own, mainly poultry, pigs and zebu – a hardy, humped-back breed of cattle. In a typical village, ducks, chickens, zebu and pigs wander amid the mud houses, defecating near water sources and on the same paths where people walk barefooted. People often cage their free-roaming chickens and bring them inside the family home to sleep at night.

“Any pathogens these animals have can easily be shared by the whole village,” Rist says.

Some people tell her that their chickens died of malaria. She explains to them that chickens don’t get malaria. She then asks the symptoms of the birds, so that she can give them information about the likely culprit.

Dogs are also in the mix, often scruffy with ribs showing, and rarely vaccinated for rabies. Rist asked if she could treat the badly injured paw of one dog. The villagers told her that it was fady, or taboo, to restrain a dog so she was unable to help the animal.

Kristin Derfus takes a GPS reading after setting up a mosquito trap. Photo by Carol Clark.

Kristin Derfus is a graduate student in the Rollins School of Public Health, focused on Global Environmental Health. She has done DNA extraction and PCR analyses for diarrheal diseases in the Gillespie lab, and also trained in a CDC lab that researches malaria and mosquitoes.

“Studying diseases in a lab or a classroom is a lot different than seeing people affected by them in real life,” Derfus says. “No one should be dying from these diseases. They’re treatable.”

Derfus is collecting ticks and mosquitoes in each of the villages of the Madagascar study, which are being sent to the CDC for analysis. Cumbersome light traps, with lots of working parts, are used to capture the mosquitoes.

“A lot of things go wrong when you’re working in the field. I’ve learned to think creatively,” Derfus says. She was using plastic bags to keep the batteries of the light traps dry, but the bags leaked where the wires connecting them to the trap protruded. Zohdy grabbed a large banana leaf, slit it up the middle and fitted it over the batteries. “The leaves work perfectly, and you don’t even have to carry them around,” Derfus says.

Malagasy entomologist Tovo Mbolatiana Andrianjafy shows villagers how to identify the type of mosquitoes that can spread malaria. Photo by Carol Clark.

She places the traps under the eaves of a home, near a livestock enclosure, in an agricultural field and in the surrounding forest. Each morning, the captured bugs are counted and identified: Only the female Anopheles mosquito can transmit malaria to humans.

Identifying “hot spots,” where malaria-infected mosquitoes are the most abundant, can help in the development of targeted interventions, she explains.

Derfus says she is learning more about the insects by working in the field with Tovo Mbolatiana Andrianjafy, a Malagasy graduate student at the University of Antananarivo. “When I entered school, I wanted to be a medical doctor, but then I started learning about the role of bugs in disease, and I decided to become a medical entomologist,” he says. “Malaria is a big, big problem in Madagascar, even in Tana (the capital).”

Masters of Development Practice students Morgan Mercer, left, and Paul Kennedy in the field with local guide and technician Rakotonjatovo Justin. Photo by Cassidy Rist.

Morgan Mercer is an Emory graduate student in the Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) program. She has a degree in political science and experience working with international non-profits in Washington, D.C. on HIV-AIDS and community health programs.

In Madagascar, she is using GPS technology to survey and map the villages and their agricultural sites, along with Paul Kennedy, another Emory MDP student.

“We are mapping the layout, and including water sources, latrines, livestock enclosures, streams and roads,” Mercer explains. They will then map the GPS coordinates and data gathered by other team members on households, livestock, and surrounding forest, and any pathogens detected through analyses. The result will be a collection of data visualizations that can be viewed individually, or layered atop one another, using free Adobe Reader software, to show the spatial relationships between all the information.

Conservation, health and development specialists need to take the time to understand and work with people's complex views about their environment, Mercer says. "The Malagasy farmers work their land, feed themselves from it, feel tied to it, and ultimately should be the ones who have say over how it is managed."

A woman goes about her daily chores with her toddler strapped to her back. Photo by Carol Clark.

Mercer hopes to return to Madagascar to work on the implementation phase of a health system. “I want to help deliver a tangible benefit to these villages,” she says.

She recalls visiting one home and noticing that among the few personal effects of the family was a single, tiny photograph of just one of their six children. “I have albums full of photos from when I was a baby, documenting my progress as a human being,” Mercer says.

She snapped a picture of the five-year-old in the family, printed it out in town and returned to the village to give it to him. “I’ll never forget the delight in his eyes when he looked at the photo and recognized himself,” Mercer says.

A family gathered in front of their home. Photo by Carol Clark.

Paul Kennedy served in the Peace Corps in Jamaica and earned a degree in nursing before entering Emory’s MDP program. Kennedy read up on the history of Madagascar before arriving. He finds the Malagasy people exceptionally kind, and is fascinated by their culture.

“I get bored watching lemurs after about a minute-and-a-half,” he says. “I appreciate the beauty of the environment, and it’s definitely a key component to this project, but I’m more into the people.”

Like Mercer, he is eager to see the project move into the implementation phase. “It’s important that our data don’t just end up as statistics in a report,” he says.

While Kennedy is not working as a nurse in Madagascar, he wields duct tape like a roll of bandages. A lot of his down time from field work is spent on odd jobs like patching a team member’s leaky rain boot or repairing a village child’s homemade spinning top. Need an extra mosquito trap? He’ll improvise one from available materials. “I like tinkering with things and building things,” he says.

"I'm learning a lot about how to develop research methods in the field," says Caroline Schwaner. Photo by Carol Clark.

Caroline Schwaner is an Emory senior majoring in environmental studies. Her favorite professor is Eloise Carter, a biologist at Emory’s Oxford campus who is well-known for her class field trips to the streams and woods of Georgia. “Dr. Carter’s really inspiring,” Schwaner says, “because she loves what she’s doing even though she’s been doing it for a long time.”

Working in the Gillespie lab piqued Schwaner's interest in the infectious disease side of conservation biology. She also spent a semester gaining experience in PCR analysis at the CDC.

Rainforest frog. Photo by S. Zohdy.
In Madagascar, Schwaner is applying a low-tech method to assess the water quality of streams running through the villages. She uses a net to scoop out invertebrates – insects, worms and snails – both upstream and downstream from villages and agricultural sites.

“Certain bugs are usually found only in cleaner water, and others thrive more in pollution,” Schwaner explains. Caddis fly larvae, for example, are indicators of clean water while beetles tolerate dirtier conditions.

Schwaner is also using rapid detection tests in the field to screen the human fecal samples the team is collecting for adenoviruses and rotavirus, two common causes of diarrhea. Back in Atlanta, as part of her honors thesis, she will do PCR analyses of the fecal samples from humans, lemurs and livestock to test for a broader range of pathogens.

Madagascar is Schwaner’s first experience in the developing world, and she admits to culture shock. “One of the hardest things for me was getting used to using a latrine shared by a whole village,” she says.

The benefits far outweigh that inconvenience, she adds. “One day we saw four species of lemurs, just while we were walking to work.”

Ashlee Espensen with a village midwife. Photo by Carol Clark.

Ashlee Espensen is a senior from the University of Arizona, Tucson, majoring in biological anthropology. She volunteered to work with the infectious disease team, and covered all of her own expenses.

Although Espensen started off assisting with the lemur research in the forest, she also became interested in human health. “What sparked it was encountering a child in a village who looked two years old, but she was actually five,” Espensen says.

The child had been orphaned as a baby, and had been raised on cans of condensed milk.

“That got me thinking about who cares for a child after a mother dies,” Espensen says. She started a research project to interview midwives of the villages to learn more about maternal and child health.

“When you come here and meet the people and spend time in the forest, you understand why this work is so important,” she says.

How germs jump species
Gorilla vet tracks microbes for global health
Mountain gorillas: People in their midst
Primate disease ecologist tracks germs in the wild

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Can you identify these animal teeth and tusks?

Emory's Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL) contains a lot more than just old papers and books. For example, some unidentified animal tusks and teeth from the Congo (above). You can explore some of the unusual artifacts in the library through its blog, The Extraordinary World of MARBL.

Here's a post by Alyssa Stalsberg Canelli, a MARBL research services assistant and PhD candidate in English, about the Congo artifacts:

If you are researching the papers of Methodist minister and missionary Thomas Ellis Reeve, Sr. and his wife, Etha Mills Reeve, you might be a little surprised by the contents of Box 22. The Reeves were assigned to the Methodist Episcopal Congo Mission (South) at Wembo-Nyama, Tunda and Minga (1921-1929). Thomas Reeve wrote a book, In Wembo-Nyama's Land, detailing his experiences in the Congo—a book which was quite critical of the colonial Belgian government. When the Reeves returned to the United States, they also brought back artifacts which included a set of tusks, snake skins and animal teeth. Pictured here are the tusks and three of the largest teeth, all unidentified.  At MARBL, we are librarians, archivists and historians, not biologists—so if you have any ideas or tips about the identification of these items, please let us know!

The rare book that changed medicine
Objects of our afflictions
Digitizing the mind of Salman Rushdie

Sunday, August 4, 2013

He took the psychedelic pop path to math

Robert Schneider in a promotional photo for The Apples in Stereo. "I love music, but I'm also really obsessed with math," he says. "That's my focus now." (Photo by Adam Cantor.)

By Carol Clark

By the numbers, Robert Schneider is not your average PhD student of math. He is 42 years old and just finished his first year of graduate school, working under Emory number theorist Ken Ono. Schneider didn’t even enroll in college math classes until 2004, when he was in his mid-30s.

“I’m rough around the edges. I’m an untamed mathematician,” he says, “but I’m working on that.”

Schneider’s bright blue eyeglasses, pink hoodie jacket and buoyant personality give further clues that he is not your typical academic.

In fact, Schneider is a well-known figure in the underground music scene as the co-founder of the Elephant Six Recording Company and the indie band The Apples in Stereo. He’s a composer, sound engineer, producer, singer, songwriter and musician. He played at the Democratic National Convention where Barack Obama was first nominated for president and has made guest appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the Colbert Report. In addition to having a cult following, Schneider’s music has enjoyed broader commercial success, and can be heard on the sound tracks of dozens of commercials.

“The cheesiest thing was when the contestants on ‘American Idol’ sang my song ‘Energy,’” Schneider says. “That’s probably the thing that impressed my mom the most.”

It’s an understatement to call Schneider’s career “eclectic.”

A Powerpuff Girls character has been named after him (Robin Schneider, the one with an apple on her t-shirt) and The Apples in Stereo's music has been featured on the Cartoon Network series.

Actor Elijah Wood (best known for playing Frodo in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) is among the fans of Schneider’s music. Wood founded a record label, Simian Records, and one of the label's albums is New Magnetic Wonder by The Apples in Stereo, released in 2007. Schneider and Wood are also friends, and have collaborated on a series of YouTube videos, including a few that feature Schneider as a musical mad scientist (see above).

Schneider has now put his music career on the back burner in order to get a PhD at Emory. Schneider the successful pop musician sits at a tiny cubicle, surrounded by other graduate students in their cubicles, and dreams of becoming a mathematician. He’s decorated his workspace with pictures of his idols, including Benjamin Franklin, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and pioneering Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler.

“I love music,” he says, “but I’m also really obsessed with math. That’s my focus now. I have a desk! It seems so romantic to me. As you walk down the hallways of the department, you can hear people talking loudly, almost arguing, about math. It’s all around me, ringing in the hallways!”

In the fall, Schneider looks forward to teaching freshman calculus. “I want to turn the students on to the magic and the history of the subject,” he says. “I plan to add some dramatic flourishes to accomplish that goal.”

Shortly after arriving at Emory, Schneider, above left, found himself riding an elephant in India with his math mentor Ken Ono. They were both speakers at conferences surrounding the 125th anniversary of mathematician Ramanujan's birth.

Schneider was born in South Africa. He moved to the small town of Ruston, Louisiana, when he was seven years old and his father took a job teaching architecture at Louisiana Tech.

“Ruston was like Mayberry,” Schneider recalls. “It’s a super square town, about 30 years behind the times.”

Schneider amused himself by writing songs, playing the guitar and tinkering with gadgetry. Although living in rhythm and blues country, he was into the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground.

Schneider found a few other musical kindred spirits and started helping them record their sounds, using a four-track tape machine and a synthesizer. His friendship with Jeff Mangum, who would gain fame with the indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, goes back to the second grade. Schneider’s other Ruston childhood friends included Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart, who formed the band Olivia Tremor Control.

Schneider attended Centenary College in Shreveport for a couple of years, focusing his studies on music composition, philosophy and poetry. He moved to Denver to continue his studies at the University of Colorado, but decided to take his junior year off to devote himself full-time to music.

Public transportation brought Schneider together with musician Jim McIntyre.

“We were always waiting at the same bus stop and I’m chatty,” Schneider says. McIntyre, however, wasn’t so chatty and when Schneider asked him what music he liked, McIntyre said the Beach Boys, thinking that would stop the conversation cold.

“It was super unhip to like the Beach Boys in the early 1990s,” Schneider explains, “but they were like my gurus. I had a religion and mythology based around them.”

Schneider and McIntyre, together with Hilarie Sidney and Chris Parfitt, launched The Apples, named after the Pink Floyd song “Apples and Oranges.”

“It wasn’t a commercial venture,” says Schneider, the lead singer and songwriter for the group. “We were just having fun and trying to blow people’s minds.”

He describes their early music as “raw and loud, distorted guitars,” that later became “more psychedelic and otherworldly.”

Schneider also loved producing music, so he co-founded the Elephant Six collective, along with his core group of childhood music friends from Ruston. The collective launched many notable psychedelic and experimental groups of the 1990s.

As a producer, Schneider may be best known for the Neutral Milk Hotel’s critically acclaimed record “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” for which he also played bass and keyboards and wrote many of the horn parts.

“My main goal was to not get mixed up in the music industry and become slick,” Schneider says. “I wanted to create songs that are musical and catchy but at the same time would be interesting to underground musicians, my own scene.”

An obsession with vintage recording equipment led Schneider to buy an early 1970s Ampex MM-1200. “It’s a legendary tape machine, the size of a washing machine and heavy as a piano,” he says. “It uses two-inch tape, shiny and thick, beautiful to look at. And the sound quality was fantastic.”

The downside to the Ampex, however, was its instability. “It blew out diodes all the time,” Schneider recalls. “I’d hear it go ‘pop,’ and it would shut down and have to be fixed again.” A repairman told Schneider that it was a fatal flaw of the machine, and he would have to learn to maintain it himself.

“Fixing this tape machine became a big part of my life,” he says. “The guts of it were often sprawled out on my floor. It had an instruction manual the size of a dictionary, filled with fold-out schematic drawings.”

Schneider started reading books about electronics, which is how he came across Ohm’s law. “It says,” he explains, “that the voltage, the current flow and the resistance are intimately connected in an electrical circuit.” The law is named after the German physicist Georg Ohm, who provided a mathematical equation to describe his discovery.

“I had this revelation,” Schneider says, “that all things in the universe that flow through electricity are tied to this equation. It was like the ceiling opened up and all this golden sunlight was pouring onto me. I realized that all the stuff that was important to me – synthesizers, microphones, the experience of listening to music, playing in a band, my relationships with my friends and band mates – all of these things somehow had this equation in the background. Even your brain itself is an electrical system of sorts. It blew my mind!”

The math bug had bitten Schneider. “My world view just changed,” he says. “I realized that math had all of this depth, beauty and poetry.”

He started teaching himself number theory, and reading up on famous mathematicians in history, like Euler and Ramanujan.

He eventually moved to Kentucky, where he met his wife, Marci Schneider, who runs the independent label Garden Gate Records.

Schneider continued his music career, while also finding a math mentor in David Leep, a professor at the University of Kentucky. “He was amused by me because I was self-taught and so enthusiastic,” Schneider says. “He let me come by every couple of weeks and share ideas with him.”

Schneider subsequently enrolled part-time at the University of Kentucky. He received a BS in mathematics in 2012 with departmental honors, on top of touring with his band and making records. “When I turned 40, I realized that, statistically, I had reached half of my life span,” he says. “I never really imagined my whole life would be about just one thing. I’m so into music, but I need to step away from being a full-time musician if I want to make real progress as a mathematician.”

He has managed, however, to incorporate some music into his math. One of his side projects was the invention of what he describes as “a Non-Pythagorean musical scale based on logarithms.” Watch an explanation of it in the video below:

He has also composed a score based on prime numbers for a play by number theorist Andrew Granville. (This month, he’s going to Banff, Canada as an artist-in-residence at the Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery where he will record the score with classical musicians for a documentary about the play.)

Schneider was mulling offers from several graduate schools to pursue his PhD in analytic number theory when he met Emory’s Ken Ono during a visit to Atlanta. The two immediately hit it off. Schneider enrolled in Emory, relocating to Atlanta with Marci and his son, Max, 12.

“Ken is so charged up about math, he’s electrified,” Schneider says. “It’s amazing to study under him. He’s teaching established knowledge in number theory, and almost in the same breath explaining his results from that day that aren’t known to anyone else yet.”

As he forges a new life path into math, Schneider hopes it will be as unusual and creative as his musical career. He describes Ono as an explorer who inspires him to follow him into new territory.

“Ken sees the wilderness of math and he wants to conquer it,” Schneider says. “Once he finds a beautiful, green pool in the mountains, he wants to swim in it and move on to find the next pool. I’m more like a naturalist. I want to camp out by the new pool to gaze into it and admire its beauty.”

How culture shaped a mathematician
New theories reveal the nature of numbers
Math theory gives new glimpse into the magical mind of Ramanujan