Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Environmental Sciences: A new name and master's program

Caroline Schwaner, a senior majoring in environmental sciences, tests the water quality of a stream in Madagascar, where she spent last summer conducting research. Photo by Carol Clark.

By Carol Clark

Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies has a new name, the Department of Environmental Sciences, and a new master’s level degree program through the Laney Graduate School, which will start in the fall of 2014.

“We’re not changing our direction with the new name. We’re reaffirming it,” says Uriel Kitron, who has chaired the department since he arrived at Emory in 2008.

“We felt that ‘Environmental Studies’ did not really convey our strong orientation toward research,” he explains. “The majority of our 11 faculty are focused on the natural and health sciences. We also have a few faculty involved in the social sciences, and we plan to increase their number. ‘Environmental Sciences’ encompasses the full range of what we do.”

The department’s emphasis on research gives students many chances to become involved in analysis, lab and field-work early on, Kitron says. The department has projects based in Atlanta and throughout the world.

Another hallmark of the department is extensive collaborations that cut across the University, from public health to business, law, anthropology, biology and other specialties throughout Emory College. The adjacent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention further raises the collaboration quotient and opportunities for research experience.

Caroline Schwaner uses rapid detection tests in the field in Madagascar to screen fecal samples for adenoviruses and rotavirus. Photo by Carol Clark.

The Environmental Sciences masters program (ENVS MS) is being launched due to student demand, Kitron says. Major challenges facing society, including a burgeoning human population, dwindling resources, the growing need for renewable energy and climate change, have heightened interest in the environmental sciences.

“Our masters program will train the next generation of professionals to address the complex interactions between people and their environment, with a goal of advancing ecosystem health, sustainable global development and conservation,” Kitron says.

The program will emphasize research experience and the development of quantitative skills, and will require a thesis. The curriculum will be grounded in the social-ecological systems framework created by Elinor Ostrom. In 2009, Ostrom became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work “showing how common resources, such as forests, fisheries, oil fields or grazing lands, can be managed successfully by the people who use them, rather than by governments or private companies.”

In addition to drawing from resources of Emory College and Laney Graduate School, the ENVS MS will also tap the support of Emory Law, Rollins School of Public Health and Goizueta Business School.

The program will accept applications from environmental sciences majors in the spring of 2014, which will allow students to complete a BS in environmental sciences and an MS degree in five years, plus one summer to conduct research. By the fall of 2015, the ENVS MS program will open for students with a bachelor degree interested in a stand-alone, two-year ENVS MS degree.

The new program complements the existing programs of the ENVS BS/MPH and the joint ENVS/BBA Concentration in Environment and Sustainability Management.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What a big momma alligator in her burrow tells us about dinosaurs

What's safer for offspring than a gated community? A gatored one. Mother alligators fiercely guard their dens.

Emory paleontologist Anthony Martin writes for BBC Earth about his research on the Georgia barrier island of Saint Catherine. Below is an excerpt:

"Birds are dinosaurs. This scientifically correct statement has been said often enough during the past 20 years that even children understand it and have been teaching it to their parents, who somehow missed the memo.

"Yet in my experience, nothing transports people back to the Mesozoic Era quicker – in a retro sort of way – than a massive, scaly reptile with big teeth, powerful jaws, and the ability to make lunch of you.

"This is one of the reasons why I love the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), and you should, too. As a palaeontologist who also is an ichnologist – someone who studies tracks, burrows, nests, and other signs of life – I am fascinated with these reptiles and their traces, and began studying them as analogues for dinosaur-like behaviours. ...

"Fortunately, I live in Georgia (USA), which has no shortage of alligators, and most of my research on them and their traces takes place on the undeveloped Georgia barrier islands, which teem with these large predators."

Read the whole article at BBC Earth.

And check out Martin's blog, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, for more on his research.

Tell-tale toes point to oldest known fossilized bird tracks in Australia 

Photo: iStockphoto.com

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Atlanta Science Festival offers chance for interactive outreach

"Group Intelligence," which uses the science of molecular behavior to create a flash mob experience, is one of the many activities planned for the Atlanta Science Festival.

By Carol Clark

“We’re building momentum,” says Jordan Rose, who is heading up community outreach for the first Atlanta Science Festival, set for March 22 to 29. “We have a lot to celebrate in Atlanta and Georgia when it comes to science and innovation. It’s important for the public to be aware of all the activities and career opportunities here related to science, technology, engineering and math.”

Two information sessions about the festival are coming up on the Emory campus, for faculty, staff and students who want to get involved as an exhibitor or as a science ambassador. The first session will be held on Thursday, November 14 at 5 pm in Atwood, room 316. The second session is set for Friday, November 15 at 1 pm in the Whitehead Biomedical Research Building, room 600.

The idea for the Atlanta Science Festival was sparked at Emory, says Rose, one of the co-founders of the event and associate director of Emory’s Center for Science Education. Joining Emory as founding partners are Georgia Tech and the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

More than 57 partners will be putting on events at more than 30 locations during the eight-day festival, including lectures, films, performances, exhibits, trivia contests, demonstrations, workshops, guided walks and more. Events at Emory will include public talks, tours of labs and LEED-certified buildings, and a special Theater Emory performance.

The festival will conclude on March 29 with the Exploration Expo in Centennial Olympic Park. “It will be a big, family-friendly science carnival,” Rose says.

About 100 exhibits, activities, demonstrations and performances are expected for the Expo, and the organizers are accepting proposals for booths through December 13. “We’d really like to see a strong Emory presence,” Jordan says. “We’re hoping for lots of hands-on activities, geared toward kids of different ages, that directly connect to Emory research.”

He notes that Emory exhibitors can apply for special funding being offered through the Center for Science Education and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to cover most of their costs for participating.

Science students and faculty are also being recruited to visit K-12 classrooms during the festival. “The idea is for scientists to talk to kids about their passion for their careers and some of the unsolved questions and problems of the future,” Rose says. “We want to inspire the next generation of students to address some of those problems.”

Financial sponsors of the festival include the founding partners, as well as Mercer University, Mercer Health Sciences Center, the Center for Chemical Evolution, Georgia Bio, the Atlanta Science Tavern, Captain Planet Foundation and Women in Technology.

The Atlanta Science Festival joins a trend for cities across the country holding similar events, including the World Science Festival in New York. “The Atlanta festival is unique in its real focus on local resources and expertise,” Rose says. “We will also have a strong emphasis on the links between science and the arts,” he adds.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Organic chemists now forming global bonds

"When I return to Japan, I'm going to be bringing back a lot of new ideas," says Atsushi Yamaguchi, at work in an Emory lab. Chemistry labs in the NSF Center for Selective C-H Functionalization are boosting their power by collaborating instead of competing. Photo by Carol Clark.

By Carol Clark

Atsushi Yamaguchi, a graduate student of chemistry from Nagoya University in Japan, is spending most of the fall semester as an exchange student, working in the Huw Davies lab at Emory.

“In Nagoya, you only see buildings,” he says. “In Atlanta, I can see lots of trees and squirrels.”

But the best part of the exchange experience, Yamaguchi adds, is the insider’s view he’s getting of top organic chemistry labs throughout the United States that are part of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Selective C-H Functionalization (CCHF).

“Before I came here, I only talked about chemistry with my other lab members, who have my same specialty,” Yamaguchi says.

Now, he’s learning new techniques of hands-on chemistry at Emory, while also joining in regular video conferences with chemists from the 14 top U.S. research universities involved in the CCHF. “When I return to Japan, I’m going to be bringing back a lot of new ideas,” Yamaguchi says.

The CCHF, headquartered at Emory, is pioneering a whole new way for organic chemists to teach and do research. A National Center for Chemical Innovation, the CCHF is funded through a $20 million NSF grant.

“We’ve gotten used to collaborating nationally through video-conferences,” says Huw Davies, the CCHF director and Emory professor of organic chemistry. “Now we’re going international.”

Video conference sessions link the Emory lab to other top organic chemistry labs around the country through the CCHF, which is now poised to connect labs globally.

Boosted this fall by an additional $635,000 from the NSF program Science Across Virtual Institutes (SAVI), the CCHF is expanding to include organic chemistry labs in Nagoya University, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in South Korea, Cambridge University in England and the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Each year, students and post-docs from Emory and other universities involved in the CCHF can spend several months doing chemistry abroad, while foreign students spend time at labs in the United States.

“The idea is to have cultural exchanges while also building collaborative research,” Davies explains. “It’s an incredibly valuable experience for students, who will ultimately be involved in research in a global environment as organic chemistry enters a new era.”

Traditionally, organic chemistry has focused on the division between reactive, or functional, molecular bonds and the inert, or non-functional bonds carbon-carbon (C-C) and carbon-hydrogen (C-H). The inert bonds provide a strong, stable scaffold for performing chemical synthesis on the reactive groups. C-H functionalization flips this model on its head.

Watch a video on how the CCHF is changing chemistry research and education:

“Governments around the world are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into C-H functionalization research,” Davies says. “In terms of organic synthesis and new methods of synthesis, it’s where the action is.”

C-H functionalization holds the potential to make organic synthesis faster, simpler and greener, and could open up whole new ways to develop drugs and other fine-chemical products, for use in everything from agriculture to electronics.

Many challenges remain, however, before C-H functionalization can be fully optimized for broad applications. The global network forged by the CCHF brings together leading players from around the world, representing a range of specialties that will be required to make the critical breakthroughs necessary to bring C-H functionalization into the mainstream of chemical synthesis.

The CCHF’s new model for research, breaking down individual lab walls to create a global collaboration of chemists taking different approaches to similar problems, has already resulted in dozens of research papers.

The journal Science recently published a CCHF finding that resulted from a collaboration between the Davies lab at Emory and the lab of John Berry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Davies lab has developed a powerful rhodium catalyst to drive chemical reactions for C-H functionalization, and a special class of highly reactive dirhodium carbene intermediates. The lab has been refining these carbenes for more than 25 years, to tame their reactivity so they can be used to perform selective, controllable reactions.

Watch a video of the reaction involved in the research paper, above.

Efforts by the Davies lab and others to isolate and study the intermediate steps of the dirhodium metal complex reactions have been hindered by their extreme efficiency and speed, since they react at about 300 times per second.

The Berry lab found a way to freeze and stabilize one step of the process long enough to get an actual glimpse into the workings of the mechanism. Ultraviolet-visible spectrometry showed the formation of a new molecule as the green starting material changed to a blue color that faded over time.

More collaborators helped give an even fuller picture of the intermediate compound. Jochen Autschbach from the University of Buffalo used density function theory to predict the nuclear magnetic resonance features of the compound, and Kyle Lancaster from Cornell University elucidated the compound’s structure using a series of X-ray absorption spectroscopy experiments.

“This is a seminal paper for the fundamental understanding of this chemistry, and it could not have been done without the ability to collaborate across a wide range of specialties,” Davies says. “Our lab has been broadly making C-H bonds functional for years, but there was always this mysterious black box that we couldn’t see into during the reactions. Now we can test the theoretical, computational models we’ve developed against the actual reactions. We can gather more information about bond strength and electron properties, so we’re not doing research in the dark.”

Davies expects the breakthrough to speed up the process of refining and improving the rhodium catalyst, one of the most promising and versatile of the multiple approaches under way to bring C-H functionalization to the forefront of organic chemistry.

NSF chemistry center opens new era in organic synthesis

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The math of peer pressure

Peer pressure on decision-making begins when individuals directly connected to each other first reach agreement, then – under the influence of peers not directly connected to them – the entire social group eventually tips into a social consensus.

An analysis of this process conducted by Ernesto Estrada, a visiting scholar at Emory’s Institute for Quantitative Theory and Methods (QuanTM), was recently published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

“Consider a teenager who is pressed by her friends into binge-drinking on a Saturday night,” says Estrada, noting that this represents direct pressure from peers. “However, she is also under indirect pressure, by seeing that many teenagers are doing the same thing every Saturday.”

This indirect pressure can make the difference in whether an individual copies a given attitude.

Using mathematical models, Estrada analyzed data taken from 15 networks – including U.S. school superintendents and Brazilian farmers – to outline how peer pressure shapes consensus, leadership and innovations in social groups.

“Reaching consensus about vital topics – such as global warming, the cost of health care and insurance systems, and healthy habits – is crucial for the evolution of our society,” says Estrada, who is a mathematician based at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland.

Read more at the University of Strathclyde’s web site.

New institute taps the power of ‘big data’

Image: iStockphoto.com 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Grandiose narcissism reflects U.S. presidents' bright and dark sides

Narcissus was doomed to pine away his life, riveted by his own reflection.

By Carol Clark

Narcissus, the physically flawless character of Greek mythology who wound up falling in love with his own reflection, hardly seems like a good role model. For those dreaming of becoming president of the United States, however, some narcissistic traits may be worth fostering, suggests an analysis by Emory psychologists.

They found that grandiose narcissism in U.S. presidents is associated with ratings by historians of overall greatness of presidencies, as well as high marks for public persuasiveness, crisis management, risk-taking, winning the popular vote and initiating legislation. On the flip side, the study showed that grandiose narcissism is also associated with some negative outcomes, such as presidential impeachment resolutions, cheating and bending rules.

The journal Psychological Science is publishing the results of the analysis, led by Ashley Watts, a graduate student of psychology at Emory, and Scott Lilienfeld, Emory professor of psychology. Co-authors included Emory psychologist Irwin Waldman and graduate student Sarah Francis Smith, as well as University of Georgia psychologists Joshua Miller and Keith Campbell, both recognized experts on narcissism.

“Most people think of narcissism as predominantly maladaptive,” Watts says, “but our data support the theory that there are bright and dark sides to grandiose narcissism.”

Lyndon B. Johnson scored highest on markers of grandiose narcissism, followed by Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

Lyndon B. Johnson was known both for getting tough legislation passed, and for being "a bit of a bully," Lilienfeld says.

“It’s interesting to me that these are memorable presidents, ones that we tend to talk about and learn about in history classes,” Watts says. “Only rarely, however, do we talk about most of those who had low ratings for grandiose narcissism, like Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.”

The researchers also found that presidents exhibit elevated levels of grandiose narcissism compared with the general population, and that presidents’ grandiose narcissism appears to be rising over time.

“As the importance of television and other media has grown in presidential elections, this could be giving an edge to those with the attention-seeking, outgoing personalities associated with grandiose narcissism,” Lilienfeld says.

In psychology terms, narcissism comprises at least two largely distinct patterns of behavior associated with different traits. Vulnerable narcissism is marked by excessive self-absorption, introversion and over-sensitivity. Grandiose narcissism, on the other hand, is characterized by an extroverted, self-aggrandizing, domineering and flamboyant interpersonal style.

“We don’t believe there is a specific dividing line between normal and clinical narcissism,” Lilienfeld says. “It’s probably inherently blurred in nature.”

A queen obsessed with being "the fairest of them all" illustrates a worst-case scenario of narcissism and leadership in the classic fairy tale "Snow White."

Their analyses drew upon personality assessments of 42 presidents, up to and including George W. Bush, compiled by co-authors Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer for their book “Personality, Character and Leadership in the White House.” More than 100 experts, including biographers, journalists and scholars who are established authorities on one or more U.S. presidents, evaluated their target presidents using standardized psychological measures of personality, intelligence and behavior.

For rankings on various aspects of job performance, the analysis relied primarily on data from two large surveys of presidential historians: One conducted by C-SPAN in 2009 and a second conducted by Siena College in 2010.

Lyndon Johnson’s mixed presidential legacy reflects both positive and negative outcomes tied to grandiose narcissism, Lilienfeld says. “Johnson was assertive, and good at managing crises and at getting legislation passed. He also had a reputation for being a bit of a bully and antagonistic.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, he adds, was also a highly assertive, dominant personality, but not particularly antagonistic or impulsive.

“In U.S. history, there is an enormous variety in presidential leadership style and success,” Lilienfeld says. “One of the greatest mysteries in politics is what qualities make a great leader and which ones make a disastrous, failed leader. Grandiose narcissism may be one important part of the puzzle.”

The study of narcissism and the presidency follows an earlier analysis by Lilienfeld and colleagues that showed that the fearless dominance associated with psychopathy may be an important predictor of U.S. presidential performance.

Psychopathic boldness tied to U.S. presidential success

Credits: Top image shows detail from painting "Echo and Narcissus" by John William Waterhouse; LBJ photo from official White House photo collection; engraving of "Snow White" queen from the Project Gutenberg archives.