Monday, September 30, 2013

Celebrating 50 years of psychology at Emory

The old psychology building on the Quad, which served as headquarters for the department for decades.

By Carol Clark

In 387 BC, Plato proclaimed that the brain is the seat of mental processes. In 335 BC, Aristotle countered that all emotions originate in the heart, opening classical debates about the human mind and behavior.

“And the conversation continues,” said Marshall Duke, Candler Professor of Psychology.

Nowhere is that conversation livelier than Emory’s Department of Psychology, which recently celebrated its 50th year in its modern form with presentations on its evolution. Clinical work and research into depression, schizophrenia, autism-spectrum disorders, early childhood development, the mental health of families and the origins of human morality — those are a few of the areas in which Emory has, and continues, to make major contributions.

Duke, who joined the Emory faculty in 1970, kicked things off with a talk that sped through centuries of science.

During the 1830s, as German physician Ernst Weber laid a foundation for experimental psychology with his law of “just notable differences,” Emory College was founded.
Diagram of Phineas Gage's injury.

During the 1840s, Emory handed out its first diplomas and “Phineas Gage got impaled and his personality changed,” said Duke. Gage was a Vermont railroad worker, whose horrific injury revealed how damage to a specific area of the brain changes behavior.

Fast-forward to the 1860s, when Emory temporarily closed to serve as a Civil War barracks and hospital. Keep moving through the decades as scientists in Europe identified the Broca and Wernicke areas of the brain, data-based psychology began, Freud published his “Interpretation of Dreams” and Pavlov experimented with his dogs.

In 1911, a “professor of mental science” joined the Emory faculty, and in 1919, the college moved from Oxford, Georgia, to Atlanta.

Goodrich C. White, a native Georgian who graduated from Emory in 1908, returned as Emory’s first professor of psychology in 1927. “He ultimately became the dean of psychology and later the president of the university,” Duke said. “He transformed this place.”

Under White’s leadership, the college grew into a university. Emory launched graduate degree programs (psychology’s began in 1957) and acquired what is now called the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
Goodrich C. White

Meanwhile, clinical psychology came of age in the aftermath of World War II. Long before the term post-traumatic stress disorder was coined, the Veteran’s Administration recognized it needed help offering mental health care to returning soldiers and began investing in university’s that offered applied, clinical programs.

During the 1960s, Irwin Jay Knopf was named Emory’s chair of psychology, charged with establishing a department of the first rank. The newly formed department established the basis of three programs that are today known as Clinical Psychology, Neuroscience and Animal Behavior and Cognition and Development.

“The modern era began,” Duke said.

Stephen Nowicki, Emeritus and Candler Professor of Psychology, joined the clinical program in 1969. “The history of the clinical program is also my history. I lived it,” Nowicki said in his presentation. “I have met and worked with all of the people who have ever been on the faculty then or are on it now. We have much to be proud of in the clinical psychology program. We have built a tradition of excellence that rivals any program in the country.”

Over the years, the faculty has published more than 1,000 studies and dozens of books. More than 300 of their students have completed their clinical PhDs and have gone on to impact all aspects of clinical psychology, spread over 40 states and five foreign countries.

Polaroid snaps from 1975 show long-time friends and colleagues Duke and Nowicki, left, and faculty and students in front of the old psychology building.

But it wasn’t all work, Nowicki recalled. Early in the department’s formation many members of the psychology faculty were not much older than their students. “I think we had more fun, or at least we did different things for fun than faculty and students do now,” he said.

Among his most vivid memories was the clinical program’s annual gong show. “I remember a faculty member dancing in a tutu, an ugly dog named Pepper who supposedly was dressed as Linda Lovelace form the pornographic movie “Deep Throat,” and my all-time favorite, the Egg Man. He put his egg cartons down, took off his tie, and then proceeded to take one egg at a time and crush it against his body to the cheers of the audience.”

Darryl Neill, Goodrich C. White Professor of Psychology, talked about how he studied “biopsychology” at the University of Chicago, to become what was then known as a “physiological psychologist.”

When Neill joined the budding Neuroscience and Animal Behavior program at Emory in 1971, he recalled that the department had much less emphasis on biology and animal research. The NAB program has since grown to comprise about 30 percent of the department’s research, Neill said.

Last spring, the department opened the Facility for Education and Research in Neuroscience, housing a Siemens Trio 3-Telsa functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Known as FERN, the facility is geared for using fMRI to explore the neural mechanisms of thoughts and behaviors, while also training students and faculty in the technology.

“We’ve made it,” Neill said of the burgeoning field of neuroscience. “We’re so successful, that the backlash is under way.”

He noted that Emory psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld is among the neuro-critics. Lilienfeld recently co-authored “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.” The book acknowledges the promise of brain imaging technology, while cautioning that it should be used in conjunction with other experimental techniques and face-to-face evaluations of people.

“It’s a thoughtful read, I recommend it,” Neill said.

Robyn Fivush, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology, joined the department in 1984. She talked about how the early years of what is now called the Cognition and Development program were greatly influenced by two faculty: Boyd McCandless and Dick Neisser.

McCandless had written “Children, Behavior and Development,” which Fivush described as “the seminal textbook that defined the field of developmental psychology.” He also founded the journal Developmental Psychology.

At Emory, he strived “to establish a program that approached educational and social issues in a truly scientific way,” Fivush said. “This was while Jay Knopf was establishing an accredited clinical program.”

In 1983, Dick Neisser joined the department. “Dick wrote the book that gave our field its name, ‘Cognitive Psychology,’ in 1966,” Fivush said. “Dick’s vision allowed us to create an amazing intellectual community of faculty from multiple departments, especially philosophy and English, and graduate students, to come together over important issues in cognition, most centrally memory and self.”

Another pivotal figure was Mike Tomasello, who started his career at Emory in 1980 before eventually leaving to become the director of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. “Mike was one of the first developmental psychologists to scientifically study relations between human and non-human primate development in controlled studies,” Fivush said. “He also was instrumental in creating more interaction between our programs in Cognition and Development and Neuroscience and Animal Behavior, something that we continue today.”

The names of many Emory psychology faculty are synonymous with cutting-edge specialties that they helped pioneer, Fivush said, as she flashed a few dozen examples across the screen.

The state-of-the-art Psychology and Interdisciplinary Studies building (PAIS) was completed in 2009.

“I knew that our department was rich in research, but I didn’t realize how rich,” said Cory Inman, one of several graduate students of psychology who gave presentations.

Among the highlights of his varied Emory experience is assisting with patients undergoing deep-brain stimulation for severe depression. “I’ve worked with 11 patients so far and it’s incredible,” Inman said. “I get to literally witness miracles. It’s influencing what I want to do with my future.”

Inman’s talk focused on networks, both neural and social ones. “Psychology and science in general are becoming more collaborative,” he said. “Innovations stem from connections. New niches bubble up and we gain new knowledge.”

So why has Emory forged such strong connections? “I think it’s about caring for one another more than you do your research,” Inman said. “My Emory network has shaped me in countless ways. When I come back for the 70th anniversary (of the psychology department), I hope to see continued commitment to working with and helping others succeed.”

Visit the department's web site to listen to podcasts with more details about the history of Emory psychology. 

Psychology expansion boosts Emory's power for behavioral research
fMRI facility signals new era for neuroscience

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Putting people into the climate change picture

A farmer examines a field baked dry by drought.

Forget the image of a polar bear stranded on a shrinking ice floe. “Climate change is not just about polar bears. It’s a societal issue,” said George Luber, associate director for climate change at the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.

Luber recently kicked off a fall lecture series on climate change put together by Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies. Luber is a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report.

“If you’re a people person, you ought to care about climate change,” he said.

Rising sea levels and more extreme weather events like floods, droughts, wildfires, major storms and heat waves are some of the better-known examples of how humans will be affected, he said.

What’s harder to grasp is how a warmer planet can cause catastrophic snowfall. Diminished ice coverage in the Great Lakes, Luber explained, makes more water available for evaporation, which can translate to heavier snowfall in the winter.

“Cities and climates are co-evolving in a manner that will place more populations at risk,” he said. He noted that, in 2008, the proportion of people living in cities reached 50 percent for the first time.

One confusing aspect of climate change is variation in the trend of warmer weather. Here's a great animation explaining the difference between trend and variation:

Heat waves are generally alleviated by cooler evenings, enabling people to better withstand the shock of extreme daytime temperatures. That’s changing, however, as urban heat island effects are allowing almost no cooling at night, Luber said. He cited a recent record high for a night-time temperature in Phoenix of 99 degrees.

A few other health impacts Luber noted:

Higher urban temperatures cause an increase in harmful ozone concentrations.

Wind-carried dust, including such dramatic displays as haboobs, help disperse fungal infections like Valley Fever.

Harmful algae blooms and their associated toxins could be spurred by warmer than usual water temperatures and other factors related to climate change.

Higher temperatures, drought and torrential rainfall stress plants and degrade agricultural cops. Elevated carbon dioxide levels also lower the protein concentrations in grains that feed the world.

Lyme disease, spread by ticks, and other vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever and West Nile virus, are expected to expand their prevalence and range.

A dust storm closes in on homes in Phoenix.

Mental health is another concern, as people deal with everything from the trauma of extreme weather events to the day-to-day stress of a booming population in a warming world. “Much like a previous generation feared nuclear annihilation, climate change weighs on kids today,” Luber said. “Paralysis is an easy consequence of all this fear.”

Uriel Kitron, chair of environmental studies, put together the lecture series for students in his Seminar on Environmental Studies. Others are welcomed to attend the talks, but be forewarned: It’s standing room only.

“The goal is to give a better understanding of the human impact on the environment and the acuteness of the problem of a changing climate,” Kitron says. “We can’t just sit back and watch.”

Five more talks are planned for the series, which continues through December 2. Upcoming speakers include Eri Saikawa, from Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies, Karen Levy, of Rollins School of Public Health, and Daniel Rochberg, an Emory graduate who is now with the U.S. State Department. Click for the full schedule: Talks begin at 4 pm in the Math and Science Center, room N306.

Crime may rise along with Earth's temperatures
Why the future of fuel lies in artificial photosynthesis

Photo credits: Top,; bottom, Wikipedia Commons.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Herty Medalist adds life to chemistry outreach

As David Lynn researches how life first evolved, he is finding ways to explain the complex science to the public. Photo by Ann Borden.

By Carol Clark

Georgia chemist Charles Herty applied his research to transform the economy of the South, and his charisma to become a crusader for the profession. Herty traveled the nation, from 1915 until he died in 1938, delivering spell-binding talks and sparking conversations about the importance of chemistry among politicians, academics, businessmen and women’s clubs.

His legacy lives on through the Charles H. Herty Medal, awarded this year to David Lynn, the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Chemistry and Biology at Emory. The gold medallion, inscribed with “pro scientia et patria” (for science and country), is given annually by the Georgia Section of the American Chemical Society (ACS) to recognize outstanding work and service of a chemist or chemical engineer from the 11 states of the Southeast.

“The award celebrates the ability of scientists to give back to a community in many different ways. That’s what makes it so special to me,” Lynn says.

“David was selected for his role in advancing the understanding of chemical evolution, and for his service in public outreach for the chemical sciences. He’s a true leader in both areas,” says Rigoberto Hernandez, a chemist at Georgia Tech and current chair of the Herty Award Committee.

The medal, one of the oldest awards of the ACS, and the highest honor given by the Georgia Section, was presented to Lynn at the 79th Annual Herty Award Celebration in Atlanta.

As the honoree, Lynn's talk for the event was entitled “Towards Intelligent Materials,” describing how, during the past decade, our understanding of evolutionary processes and the tree of life has changed more than at any time since Charles Darwin.

“The rate at which technological advances and insights are emerging,” Lynn says, “now demands that we reconsider several of the most fundamental and longstanding questions of our time: What is life, where might it exist, and what forms might it take?”

The Lynn lab is uncovering processes of molecular self-assembly that could boost our ability to engineer living systems. Lynn has served as chair of chemistry at Emory since 2006, and helped establish the Center for Chemical Evolution, a collaboration between Emory, Georgia Tech and other institutions, funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA. The center is testing theories for how chemical reactions may have led to life emerging on Earth some 3.5 billion years ago. Harnessing these forces of evolution could help in everything from drug design to genome engineering.

“I’m a scientist first, and I’m most excited about the discoveries we’re making,” Lynn says. “But it’s equally important to find ways to capture the imagination of the public and explain the meaning of our new knowledge.”

Lynn considers Charles Herty an inspiring role model, both as a chemist and a science ambassador.

Born in Milledgeville in 1867, Herty was a research chemist at the University of Georgia and the University of North Carolina. In 1903 he developed a simple cup-and-gutter system to collect resin from pines without killing the trees. The invention is credited with saving both the southern pine forests and the turpentine and rosin chemical industry. Herty later developed methods to make paper from young, fast-growing pine trees, laying the foundation for a forest products industry in the Southeast.

During World War I, Herty served as ACS president and helped organize chemists to work on critical defense problems like German poison gas attacks. After the war, he lobbied for the expansion of the U.S. chemical industry, and played a key role in its development into an economic powerhouse.

“He used his expertise in chemistry to identify ways that he could contribute to the Southeast, and to the country, at a time when it was really needed,” Lynn says.

Lynn was born in North Carolina, but he spent the bulk of his career at the University of Chicago. He returned to his home region when he joined Emory in 2000.

“We’re entering a challenging time in science communication, because advances are happening so fast,” Lynn says. “Meanwhile, much of the nation, particularly the Southeast, is still struggling to understand scientific theories like evolution.”

Lynn used a $1 million award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to create a program for graduate students to teach freshmen about their research, so that they learn to explain their science while doing it.

He frequently taps the visual arts, music and theater to get across key concepts. “Group Intelligence,” in collaboration with Out of Hand Theater for instance, involves children and adults from all walks of life in a flash mob that simulates the interactions of molecules.

“I want to spark conversations about scientific theories like evolution in unexpected places, such as a concert hall, a shopping mall, an art gallery or a park,” Lynn says. “The idea is to use art to create dialogue about the beauty and science of the world that we inhabit.”

Peptides could be 'missing link' to life
Chemists fine-tune ideas on how life evolved
Teaching evolution enters new era

Monday, September 9, 2013

Testes size correlates with men's involvement in toddler care

“Mothers definitely have more of an impact on child development, but fathers are also important and their role is understudied,” says anthropologist James Rilling.

By Carol Clark

Men with smaller testes than others are more likely to be involved in hands-on care of their toddlers, finds a new study by anthropologists at Emory University. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published the results of the study on Sept. 9.

Smaller testicular volumes also correlate with more nurturing-related brain activity in fathers as they are looking at photos of their own children, the study shows.

“Our data suggest that the biology of human males reflects a trade-off between investments in mating and parenting effort,” says Emory anthropologist James Rilling, whose lab conducted the research.

The goal of the research is to determine why some fathers invest more energy in parenting than others. “It’s an important question,” Rilling says, “because previous studies have shown that children with more involved fathers have better social, psychological and educational outcomes.”

Life History Theory posits that evolution optimizes the allocation of resources toward either mating or parenting to maximize fitness. “Our study is the first to investigate whether human anatomy and brain function explain this variance in parenting effort,” says Jennifer Mascaro, who led the study as a post-doctoral fellow in the Rilling lab.

“Although there are more households with no fathers, when the fathers are around, they tend to be much more involved than in previous decades,” Mascaro notes.

While many economic, social and cultural factors likely influence a father’s level of caregiving, the researchers wanted to investigate possible biological links.

They knew that lower levels of testosterone in men have been correlated with greater paternal involvement, and that higher levels of the hormone predict divorce as well as polygamy.

The testes, in addition to producing testosterone in males, also produce sperm. “Testes volume is more highly correlated with sperm count and quality than with testosterone levels,” Mascaro says.

The study included 70 biological fathers who had a child between the ages of 1 and 2, and who were living with the child and its biological mother.

The mothers and fathers were interviewed separately about the father’s involvement in hands-on childcare, including tasks such as changing diapers, feeding and bathing a child, staying home to care for a sick child or taking the child to doctor visits.

The men’s testosterone levels were measured, and they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity as they viewed photos of their own child with happy, sad and neutral expressions, and similar photos of an unknown child and an unknown adult. Then, structural MRI was used to measure testicular volume.

The findings showed that both testosterone levels and testes size were inversely correlated with the amount of direct paternal caregiving reported by the parents in the study.

"Previous studies have shown that children with more involved fathers have better social, psychological and educational outcomes," Rilling says.

And the father’s testes volume also correlated with activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a part of the brain system associated with reward and parental motivation. “The men with smaller testes were activating this brain region to a greater extent when looking at photos of their own child,” Mascaro says.

While testosterone levels may be more related to pre-copulatory, intrasexual competition, testicular volume may reflect post-copulatory mating investment, the researchers theorize.

Although statistically significant, the correlation between testes size and caregiving was not perfect.

“The fact that we found this variance suggests personal choice,” Rilling says. “Even though some men may be built differently, perhaps they are willing themselves to be more hands-on fathers. It might be more challenging for some men to do these kinds of caregiving activities, but that by no means excuses them.”

A key question raised by the study findings is the direction of casualty. “We’re assuming that testes size drives how involved the fathers are,” Rilling says, “but it could also be that when men become more involved as caregivers, their testes shrink. Environmental influences can change biology. We know, for instance, that testosterone levels go down when men become involved fathers.”

Another important question is whether childhood environment can affect testes size. “Some research has shown that boys who experience childhood stress shift their life strategies,” Rilling says. “Or perhaps fatherless boys react to the absence of their father by adopting a strategy emphasizing mating effort at the expense of parenting effort.”

The study focused only on direct paternal care, and not indirect forms of care, such as protecting children and earning a living to provide for them.

In the decades since the 1960s, the number of women raising children on their own in the United States has risen dramatically. “Although there are more households with no fathers, when the fathers are around, they tend to be much more involved than in previous decades,” Mascaro says.

Much of the existing scientific literature on nurturing is focused on mothers, Rilling notes. “Mothers definitely have more of an impact on child development, but fathers are also important and their role is understudied,” he says.

A brainy time traveler
The science of love and bonding

Photos by

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

New human health major aims at culture change

“Health is something that’s not just physical,” says Brooke Healey, a junior at Emory. “It’s so much more than that.”

Healey is majoring in human health, an interdisciplinary degree launched this fall at the university that aims to give students practical skills to develop health-related careers, along with a holistic understanding of physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

“We are offering the only bachelors of human health in the country, at a time when health is being redefined,” says Michelle Lampl, director of Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health. “For too long, our concept of ‘health’ has been limited culturally by our construct of what it is not: The disease state. We are on the cutting edge of using science not just to cure disease, but to identify, predict and support health.”

Emory is uniquely suited to pioneer the human health major, Lampl says, drawing on expert faculty and resources from throughout the humanities and sciences. The first cohort of majors includes students interested in law, political science, economics and business, as well as public health and medicine.

“Human health is a major global issue, and at the same time is a leading sector for job growth,” Lampl says.

The human health graduates, she notes, will help expand and change not just what we mean by the word “health,” but what it means to have a health-related career.

The new major builds on the Center for the Study of Human Health’s programs such as its Health 100 course, launched in 2011, that all Emory freshman are required to take. The course, rooted in predictive health research at Emory, includes classes on topics like nutrition and exercise, as well as small-group discussions to help students manage the stress of college life. Trained upperclassmen serve as mentors, in the form of peer health partners and healthy eating partners.

“The students aren’t just gaining a new perspective on their own health,” says Lisa Dupree, the center’s associate director. “They’re learning how to help their friends, families and others change their behaviors.”

College has long been associated with burning the candle at both ends, Lampl notes, a compressed time when young people are expected to achieve a great deal, while also learning to navigate daily life on their own.

“It’s such a critical period,” she says. “We want to help students step off the moving pathway, take stock of their daily decisions, and get on the right road to true well-being.”

“My peer health partner was great,” says Healey, who recently underwent training to become one herself. “A lot of the things taught to me were valuable in terms of health, stress management and adapting to the college lifestyle.” (Watch the videos, above, to hear more feedback from the students about Emory’s human health classes.)

Lesson No. 1: Learn to relax
A personalized approach to health education
Hydroponic lettuce offers a taste of green food
A healthy business is in his cards
Tapping traditional remedies to fight modern super bugs