Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Taking math by storm: Talea Mayo models how climate change may affect our coasts

"I use a computer to solve math problems surrounding the way that fluid moves during storms," says Emory mathematician Talea Mayo. "I don't study the atmosphere. I study the response of the ocean to the atmosphere."

By Carol Clark

Talea Mayo joined the Emory faculty in May as assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics. A computational mathematician, she specializes in developing numerical hydrodynamic models to help predict coastal hazards.  

By creating models for storm surge caused by hurricanes, for instance, she is able to investigate the potential impacts of climate change on coastal flood risks. The resulting data may help policymakers and others develop better plans for the safety and resilience of coastal communities. 

Among Mayo’s accolades are an Early-Career Research Fellowship from the National Academies of Sciences Gulf Research Program and the Early Career Faculty Innovator Award from the National Center for Atmospheric Research. 

In the following Q&A, Mayo talks about some of the environmental forces that helped shape her as a scientist and as an educator, and how she became what she describes as “a fierce advocate of accessible, inclusive science and education of all people.” 

You grew up in Littleton, Colorado. What were some of your early math and computer science influences? 

My mom was in software development and we always had a computer around. I don’t ever remember not having one nearby. Before I even started school, she bought me this really simple kid’s learning tool that was like a computer, with a keyboard and a screen. By the time I was in first grade, she was teaching me multiplication and I would practice on my “computer.” 

I liked school and most of the subjects. I especially liked that math and science subjects were objective. Your answer to a problem is either right or wrong. But I really thought I wanted to be a lawyer. 

How did you decide to attend Grambling State University in Louisiana? 

I wanted to go away somewhere different than Colorado. I applied to a few schools randomly but I got a scholarship to Grambling and so I went there. I loved being in the South. It was so green while Colorado is so dry. Also, Colorado’s population is about 4 percent Black. My experience with Black people was mainly limited to church and family. Grambling is an Historically Black College and University and probably 96 percent Black. It was nice to meet Black people from all over the country and from all different socio-economic backgrounds. I played the flute and piccolo and I joined Grambling’s famous marching band. The band is really tight knit and that made it easy for me to build community there. I really value that. 

I also valued how the professors interacted with students. I was a criminal justice major, but I took a high-level calculus class because math was important to me. The professor eventually called me into his office and said, “You should change your major to math.” I thought about it and I realized that he was right, so I did. 

What prompted your interest in modeling the coastal effects of hurricanes? 

I was a sophomore in 2005 when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. The university is in northern Louisiana and we didn’t deal with the storm surges, but I remember the rain. And a lot of students were from places along the Gulf Coast. That allowed me to see the personal impacts of hurricanes. One of the band members was from New Orleans and his sister was killed in a shelter. I realized that it was people who looked like me on the news, sitting on roofs, and seemingly not being taken care of. Seeing that societal impact, particularly for my community, sparked my interest in trying to do something about it. 

The following summer I got an internship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. I worked on a project to try to understand the relationship between the intensity of storms and atmospheric water vapor. I realized how much I loved research and doing something beyond analytical math that had a practical application. 

You went on to become the first African-American PhD student at what is now known as the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at the University of Texas. What was that experience like? 

The transition was very difficult. Initially, I felt isolated within the institute as the only Black person. You may not even be conscious of it, but if there is no one that looks like you who is studying or teaching in a program, it’s like a silent message. I had to get up to speed in computational math, there was this big learning curve, and I also was dealing with culture shock. I couldn’t relate to people on a personal level and I was intimidated, thinking everyone else was so far ahead of me. It took me a while to get myself together and adjust. 

UT Austin is mid-way between Dallas and Houston and near Louisiana, so it was relatively easy for me to connect with people that I knew, which was healthy for me. And once I got into my research things got much better. I loved working with mathematical models and computer coding. I had a really great advisor. The day I defended my dissertation went as smoothly as it could have gone. The timing, the way I answered questions, the way the sun looked when I walked out of the building. That was a perfect day. 

The net was positive. My initial struggles in graduate school make me a better mentor now. 

How do you sum up your research? 

I use a computer to solve math problems surrounding the way that fluid flows during storms. I work with a model that doesn’t have to depend on historical data from storms in coastal communities. I can change a variable in the model and determine how that may affect a storm’s impact. One of the scenarios that I look at a lot is variables due to climate change. 

I don’t study the atmosphere. I study the response of the ocean to the atmosphere. Many people get focused on the category of a hurricane, which tells you the wind strength. But there is also the hazard from water, via storm surge and inland flooding. The water hazards also pose a great threat to the built environment. And human deaths from hurricanes are usually related to water. 

What improvements would you like to see in national hurricane research?  

The hazards are multi-dimensional so we should not study the problems underlying them in isolation. Katrina was catastrophic not just became of the storm but because New Orleans is below sea level, it’s densely populated, and there was a failure of infrastructure. And there are bigger questions than those surrounding physical infrastructure. How do we develop the social infrastructure needed so that low-income people can evacuate in an emergency? How do we foster resilience? 

We need more science in politics if we want to protect coastlines. We need truly inter-disciplinary teams tackling the problems funded over 20-year timescales, so we don’t just do things halfway. As a nation, we’re so reactionary. But only one dollar in prevention equals six dollars spent on a reaction. 

Why did you decide to come to Emory? 

The faculty here really care about teaching and so do I. The students are well-supported, especially in the Department of Mathematics. And I feel valued as a truly inter-disciplinary researcher. I don’t belong in a box. Emory offers a lot of opportunity to grow as my interests evolve. I can collaborate with faculty from the Department of Environmental Sciences, the Department of Computer Science, the Rollins School of Public Health and elsewhere across campus. 

What do you hope will be your academic legacy? 

I want to make an impact scientifically. I want to write good papers and to advance knowledge. And, at the end of the day, I hope that people will say, “She was kind. She treated people well while she achieved those things.”

Related:

The Georgia Coastal Atlas: A portal to hidden stories

Climate change calls for a fresh approach to water woes

Responding to climate change

Monday, October 26, 2020

New lead screening method zooms in on highest-risk areas in Georgia

Click here to see an interactive version of the map of priority screening index scores for low-level lead exposure in Georgia. Emory researchers, in partnership with health officials, are offering free soil testing of lead levels for Georgia residents through November 15. Click here for details.

By Carol Clark

While many people think of lead poisoning as a problem of the past, chronic exposure still occurs in some communities that may be missed in limited screening programs for children’s blood lead levels. Now researchers at Emory University have developed a more precise screening index, illustrated with a map, which provides a fine-grain view of areas where children are most at risk for low-level lead exposure in the city of Atlanta and throughout the state of Georgia. 

Scientific Reports published their new method, including analyses that tested and showed its efficacy, using historical data. 

The new screening index is based on established risk factors for lead exposure, including poverty and housing built before 1950. The index pinpointed 18 highest-priority census tracts in metro Atlanta, encompassing 2,715 children under the age of six — or 1.7 percent of all children that age in greater Atlanta. 

These highest-priority areas include the historically black neighborhoods of English Avenue and Vine City, where Emory researchers had previously identified elevated levels of lead in the soil of some yards and vacant lots. 

“As we move forward into an age when acute lead poisoning is rare, we need better tools to monitor for chronic, long-term exposure to lead,” says Emory graduate Samantha Distler, first author of the paper. “We developed an interactive map that can be used by physicians and other health officials, and even by individuals who want to check their own children’s risk levels. You can easily zoom in to find an exact location, so there’s less guess work involved in assessing what is a high-risk area.” 

The method could be applied to any area in the United States, she adds. 

Distler led the work as an Emory undergraduate majoring in quantitative sciences on the neuroscience and behavioral biology track. She is now a graduate student of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. 

“Lead is a toxicant that is particularly dangerous to children and their developing brains,” Distler says. “Even low blood lead levels are associated with neurological deficits in children.” 

“One of the biggest problems concerning lead is that many people don’t know if their children are being exposed,” says Eri Saikawa, senior author of the study and associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Rollins School of Public Health. “Detecting lead exposure as early as possible is very important so preventative measures can be taken. The easiest way to do that is to screen the blood.” 

The Saikawa lab is offering free soil testing of lead levels for Georgia residents through November 15, in partnership with the Georgia Department of Health, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and Georgia Adopt-A-Stream. Click here for details of how to collect a sample and where to drop it off. 

In 2018, the Saikawa lab collaborated with members of Atlanta’s Historic Westside Gardens to test urban soil on Atlanta’s Westside for contaminants. That project uncovered high levels of heavy metal and metalloids in some yards, and even some industrial waste known as slag. The project led to an investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which in 2019 began decontaminating properties in the area by removing and replacing soil. 

In addition to neurological deficits, lead exposure is associated with immunological and endocrine effects and cardiovascular disease. Decades ago, federal regulations reduced lead in paint and gasoline and other common exposure sources. The resulting drop in children’s blood lead levels in the United States is considered one of the greatest public health achievements in the country’s history. 

Many people remain unaware, however, that lead persists in the environment. “It can linger for a really long time in everything from soil to water,” Distler says. “That puts some people at risk for chronic exposures to low levels over a long time.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that at least four million households in the United States have children living in them who are being exposed to high levels of lead. And about half a million of those children aged one to five years have blood lead levels above five micrograms per deciliter, the level at which the CDC recommends initiating public health action. 

Despite this alarming statistic, many children in higher-risk areas are not screened for blood lead levels. In Georgia, data from the period 2011 to 2018 show that the proportion in various ZIP code tabulation areas who have been tested range from 1 percent to 67 percent, with a median of 13 percent. 

The Emory researchers realized that one problem may be that health officials focus screening efforts on a county-wide basis, rather than zeroing in on the highest-risk neighborhoods within those counties. 

In 2009, a team led by researchers at the CDC developed and published a priority screen index for Atlanta neighborhoods based on housing age and percentage of residents enrolled in Georgia’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a proxy for poverty. 

For the current paper, the Emory researchers built on the efforts of the 2009 paper, drilling down from neighborhoods to more precise U.S. Census Bureau tracts. Data from the American Community Survey was used to assess the relative level of poverty and proportion of homes built before 1950. 

A priority screening index, ranging from two to eight, was applied to the census tracts. The areas of highest relative poverty and proportion of homes built before 1950 received the highest score. The researchers applied this index to census tracts across the state of Georgia and to the entire United States to identify tracts that consistently have the highest priority screening index values. 

“The visualizations of our priority screening index that we’ve created using interactive maps can empower physicians and health officials to better target children at high risk for lead exposure,” Distler says. “We hope our work will help lead to improved policies and actions to reach children who are most at risk for lead exposure and to improve their lives — not just in Georgia but throughout the United States.”

Related:

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Leading a new era in ancient DNA research

A new ancient DNA lab at Emory is mapping little-explored human lineages, studying genetics of the deep past to better understand modern-day populations of the Americas.

Emory junior Rosseirys "Ro" De La Rosa is helping analyze DNA that she extracted from ancient bones unearthed in Uruguay — the remains of an Indigenous people known as the CharrĂșa. “Very few remains of the CharrĂșa have been found,” De La Rosa says. “They were largely wiped out by colonialism and a lot of mystery surrounds them. Anything that we can learn is important.”

It may be possible to connect the ancient CharrĂșa to modern-day populations unaware of their link. “Culture matters,” says De La Rosa, who is continuing to work on the project remotely this semester. “Leaning about your own culture gives you a sense of unity and connection that you can pass down to others.”

De La Rosa is a member of the Lindo Ancient DNA Laboratory, headed by John Lindo, Emory assistant professor of anthropology. The state-of-the-art facility, funded by major grants from National Geographic Explorer and the National Science Foundation, opened in January in Emory's Psychology and Interdisciplinary Sciences Building. It is one of the few in the world involved in every step of the complex process of solving mysteries surrounding ancient remains. 

"We build projects from the ground up," Lindo says. "We extract DNA from ancient remains here, sequence it here, analyze it here, and publish the results."

Most previous ancient DNA work involves people of European ancestry. A focus of the Emory lab, however is exploring how environmental changes — including those caused by European contact — affected the biology of Indigenous and other populations of the Americas.

"Our work can connect people to ancestries they potentially don't know about," Lindo explains. "It can also give them insights into how historic, and even prehistoric, events may be affecting them today, especially in terms of health risks and disparities."

Read the full story.

Related:

'Potato gene' reveals how ancient Andeans adapted to starchy diet

DNA analysis adds twists to ancient story of Native American group

Bonding over bones, stones and beads

Monday, October 5, 2020

Gender parity review of psychological science shows progress and problems

Emory psychologists Sherryl Goodman and Stella Lourenco were among the 59 researchers, from nearly 40 different institutions, who co-authored a review of gender parity in psychological science.
 
By Carol Clark

When Sherryl Goodman joined Emory’s Department of Psychology in 1977, she was the sole female member of the faculty. “I was typically the only woman in the room,” recalls Goodman, now Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor Psychology. 

Things have changed over the decades, both nationally and at Emory — where the percentage of women faculty in the Department of Psychology is approaching half. Despite the great gains in numbers of women in the profession, much more work is needed to achieve true gender parity, Goodman says. 

Goodman and Stella Lourenco, Emory associate professor of psychology, are among the authors of a report on gender parity in psychological science, based on an extensive review of peer-reviewed studies. Perspectives on Psychological Science published the review, entitled “The Future of Women in Psychological Science,” co-authored by 59 researchers from nearly 40 different institutions from across the United States, Canada and Australia. 

The authors found that women are attracted to psychology in record numbers and earn more doctoral degrees in the field than men. And women who choose to enter the academy as assistant professors of psychology are even more likely than men to get hired and are as likely as men to obtain tenure. They also found, however, that women are less likely to apply for tenure-track positions. And fewer women attain the rank of full professor than men. 

Women also remain underrepresented in more senior ranks in psychology departments and they are less likely to receive salaries comparable to those of men in these senior positions. And women across their careers are less likely to submit, renew and hold grants or to have publication and citation rates comparable to their male colleagues. 

“When I was a graduate student, my adviser used to tell me about the gender discrimination she faced as a woman in science and how I had it so much better,” recalls Lourenco, who joined the Emory faculty just over 10 years ago. “She was right. There has been much progress in the field. At the same time, there is still much more to do.” 

Some well-intentioned policies may have even backfired for women, Lourenco notes. For instance, parental leave is now available for both female and male faculty. “There is evidence that men may benefit more from parental leave than women, with relatively more publications than their counterparts at institutions without parental leave,” she says. “To be sure, parental leave is a good thing. But if women take on more of the burden of childcare, they will publish less than men on parental leave. Institutions need to be aware of such issues when later evaluating women for tenure and promotion.” 

The review cites a 2016 survey in which U.S. mothers reported spending 75 percent more hours per week on childcare than fathers did. 

Academic careers are still not seen as “woman friendly,” Goodman notes. “We still lose a number of talented Ph.D. graduates who don’t even bother applying because they don’t see viable careers in academics for women. That’s sad and a loss to the field of psychological science, and to the academy more broadly,” she says. 

Among the recommendations that the review urges universities to consider are: Offer high-quality, affordable childcare; supplement the cost of egg freezing to expand women’s fertility windows; and provide support through more partner hires or benefits packages that include employment for a spouse outside the university. 

The authors also called for enabling women to improve salary negotiation skills and for greater transparency related to compensation. They cite a 2018 National Science Foundation report that found, across all institutions, women’s full professor salaries were 88 percent that of men, and their associate professor salaries were 92 percent that of men. 

The review focused on women in general in psychological science, while noting that women of color and people who are a minority in terms of gender orientation face extra challenges that also need to be addressed. 

Although the review did not include the impact of COVID-19, the pandemic highlights the problem of gender disparity more broadly, Goodman says. 

“Women tend to share more of the burden of taking care of a family, and suddenly, many of them also had to become teachers of their children,” she says. “The pandemic compounds the impact of an already existing problem. It may be another factor that causes some women to have to opt out of the workforce or to become less productive in their jobs.” 

The review authors sum up their findings in a concluding statement: “The need to address the issues facing women in psychological science coincides with a particular cultural moment in U.S. and global social history, one in which women are speaking out and taking action in an unprecedented way to address sexual harassment, financial and social inequality and gender biases. As a field committed to the science of equality, psychology has the opportunity to lead other disciplines in how best to create and maintain a culture of inclusion.”

Related:

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

'Firefly' method makes cellular forces visible at molecular scale

The image on the left shows the force activity of a cell at a resolution of about 250 nanometers. The image on the right shows how much clearer the image becomes with the resolution of 25 nanometers that is now possible with the new technique. (Microscopy photos by Alisina Bazrafshan)

Scientists have developed a new technique using tools made of luminescent DNA, lit up like fireflies, to visualize the mechanical forces of cells at the molecular level. Nature Methods published the work, led by chemists at Emory University, who demonstrated their technique on human blood platelets in laboratory experiments.

"Normally, an optical microscope cannot produce images that resolve objects smaller than the length of a light wave, which is about 500 nanometers," says Khalid Salaita, Emory professor of chemistry and senior author of the study. "We found a way to leverage recent advances in optical imaging along with our molecular DNA sensors to capture forces at 25 nanometers. That resolution is akin to being on the moon and seeing the ripples caused by raindrops hitting the surface of a lake on Earth."

Almost every biological process involves a mechanical component, from cell division to blood clotting to an immune response. "Understanding how cells apply forces and sense forces may help in the development of new therapies for many different disorders," says Salaita, whose lab is a leader in devising ways to image and map bio-mechanical forces.

The first authors of the paper, Joshua Brockman and Hanquan Su, did the work as Emory graduate students in the lab. Both recently received their PhDs.

Read the full story here.

Related:

New methods reveal the biomechanics of blood clotting

T-cells use 'handshakes' to sort friends from foes

DNA origami takes flight in emerging field of nano machines


Thursday, September 10, 2020

Experiments reveal why human-like robots elicit uncanny feelings

"At the core of this research is what we perceive when we look at a face," says Emory psychologist Philippe Rochat, senior author of the study. (Getty Images)

By Carol Clark

Androids, or robots with humanlike features, are often more appealing to people than those that resemble machines — but only up to a certain point. Many people experience an uneasy feeling in response to robots that are nearly lifelike, and yet somehow not quite “right.” The feeling of affinity can plunge into one of repulsion as a robot’s human likeness increases, a zone known as “the uncanny valley.”

The journal Perception published new insights by Emory psychologists into the cognitive mechanisms underlying this phenomenon.  

 

Since the uncanny valley was first described, a common hypothesis developed to explain it. Known as the mind-perception theory, it proposes that when people see a robot with human-like features, they automatically add a mind to it. A growing sense that a machine appears to have a mind leads to the creepy feeling, according to this theory.

 

“We found that the opposite is true,” says Wang Shensheng, first author of the new study, who did the work as a graduate student at Emory and recently received his PhD in psychology. “It’s not the first step of attributing a mind to an android but the next step of ‘dehumanizing’ it by subtracting the idea of it having a mind that leads to the uncanny valley. Instead of just a one-shot process, it’s a dynamic one.”

 

The findings have implications for both the design of robots and for understanding how we perceive one another as humans.

 

“Robots are increasingly entering the social domain for everything from education to healthcare,” Wang says. “How we perceive them and relate to them is important both from the standpoint of engineers and psychologists.”

 

“At the core of this research is the question of what we perceive when we look at a face,” adds Philippe Rochat, Emory professor of psychology and senior author of the study. “It’s probably one of the most important questions in psychology. The ability to perceive the minds of others is the foundation of human relationships. ”

 

The research may help in unraveling the mechanisms involved in mind-blindness — the inability to distinguish between humans and machines — such as in cases of extreme autism or some psychotic disorders, Rochat says.

 

Co-authors of the study include Yuk Fai Cheong and Daniel Dilks, both associate professors of psychology at Emory.

 

Anthropomorphizing, or projecting human qualities onto objects, is common. “We often see faces in a cloud for instance,” Wang says. “We also sometimes anthropomorphize machines that we’re trying to understand, like our cars or a computer.”

 

Naming one’s car or imagining that a cloud is an animated being, however, is not normally associated with an uncanny feeling, Wang notes. That led him to hypothesize that something other than just anthropomorphizing may occur when viewing an android.

 

To tease apart the potential roles of mind-perception and dehumanization in the uncanny valley phenomenon the researchers conducted experiments focused on the temporal dynamics of the process. Participants were shown three types of images — human faces, mechanical-looking robot faces and android faces that closely resembled humans — and asked to rate each for perceived animacy or “aliveness.” The exposure times of the images were systematically manipulated, within milliseconds, as the participants rated their animacy.

 

The results showed that perceived animacy decreased significantly as a function of exposure time for android faces but not for mechanical-looking robot or human faces. And in android faces, the perceived animacy drops at between 100 and 500 milliseconds of viewing time. That timing is consistent with previous research showing that people begin to distinguish between human and artificial faces around 400 milliseconds after stimulus onset.

 

A second set of experiments manipulated both the exposure time and the amount of detail in the images, ranging from a minimal sketch of the features to a fully blurred image. The results showed that removing details from the images of the android faces decreased the perceived animacy along with the perceived uncanniness.

 

“The whole process is complicated but it happens within the blink of an eye,” Wang says. “Our results suggest that at first sight we anthropomorphize an android, but within milliseconds we detect deviations and dehumanize it. And that drop in perceived animacy likely contributes to the uncanny feeling.”


Related:

Schadenfreude sheds light on the darker side of humanity

How babies see faces


 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Study shows how a single gene drives aggression in wild songbirds

White-throated sparrows come in two different morphs, the white-striped (left) and the tan-striped (right). The morphs have both different plumage and behaviors, making these wild songbirds a good model organism for the genetic basis of behavior. (Photo by Jennifer Merritt)

By Carol Clark

A new study shows how differentiation of a single gene changes behavior in a wild songbird, determining whether the white-throated sparrow displays more, or less, aggression. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published the research, led by neuroscientists at Emory University.

The researchers singled out an estrogen receptor from a complex of more than 1,000 genes known as a “supergene,” or genetic material inherited together as a block. The work provides a rare look at how genomic divergence can lead to behavioral divergence in a vertebrate.

“Evolution has tinkered with the DNA sequence of a gene of this songbird, and we demonstrated that those little changes affect both the expression of the gene and the bird’s behavior,” says Emory graduate student Jennifer Merritt, first author of the paper.

Merritt is a PhD candidate in the lab of Donna Maney, senior author of the paper and an Emory professor of psychology.

“White-throated sparrows are common backyard birds found through most of North America,” Merritt says. “What’s remarkable about them is that they occur in two different morphs that have not only different plumage, but also different strategies for maximizing reproductive output. Both types of differences are caused by genetic differentiation of only one region of a single chromosome, and we know exactly where it is.”

At some point during the evolution of a species, a chromosome can break and flip. This process, called an inversion, isolates the genes that are trapped inside, producing a supergene. In some cases, supergenes have led to distinct morphs within a single species — individuals with the supergene and those without it.

In the case of the white-throated sparrows, the white-striped morph sports bright yellow, black and white stripes on its crown while the tan-striped morph has more muted, tan and grayish stripes. The white-striped birds, which all possess at least one copy of the rearranged chromosome, tend to be more aggressive and less parental than the tan-striped birds, which do not have the rearranged chromosome.

“Scientists have hypothesized for 100 years that inversions are important for the evolution of some of the complex behaviors that we see in nature,” Maney says. “But inversions are challenging to understand because, when they turn into supergenes, all of the genes are inherited together. We already knew a lot about the natural history of the white-throated sparrow, as well as the biological mechanisms underlying its aggression. Using that knowledge, we were able to finally show the evolutionary role of a supergene at the molecular level.”

The current paper builds on previous work by the Maney lab, a leader in connecting gene sequence with behavior in free-living animals. In 2014, the lab identified a hormone receptor —estrogen receptor alpha (ER-alpha) — that appeared connected to the differences in the sparrows’ aggression and parenting behaviors in the wild. The white-striped birds express this receptor at much higher levels than the tan-striped birds, and the more the expression, the more aggressive the bird.

“For this paper, we wanted to follow the genetic variation of ER-alpha all the way up to where it’s expressed in the brain, and then to behavior, to see if we could trace the behavioral variation to variation in this one gene,” Merritt says.

The birds sing to establish a territory. The rate at which they sing gives a measure of their level of aggression, along with the frequency at which they charge, or “attack,” animals encroaching on what they consider their territory.

In field studies of white-throated sparrows in their natural habitat, the researchers showed that the more a bird expresses the supergene version of the estrogen receptor, the more vigorously it defends its territory.

The researchers then moved beyond the correlational work by taking an experimental approach. White-throated sparrows in the lab were given a substance to block expression of the ER-alpha gene and their aggression levels were measured. The results showed that when expression of that one gene was blocked, the aggression of the white-striped birds went down so they behaved like the tan-striped ones.

“We believe this is the first demonstration of how a single gene within a supergene drives changes in a social behavior in a wild vertebrate,” Merritt says. She gives an analogy for the challenge involved: “Imagine each of the genes within a supergene as tributaries converging into a river, the behavior. And then taking a sample of water from the river and determining which tributary the sample came from.”

The Maney lab is continuing to investigate a suite of other neuroendocrine genes captured by the chromosome rearrangement in the white-throated sparrow that are thought to be important players in the regulation of social behavior.

Co-authors of the PNAS paper include Eric Ortlund, a biochemist and an expert in the ER-alpha gene at the Emory School of Medicine; Kathleen Grogan and Wendy Zinzow-Kramer, former post-doctoral fellows in the Maney lab; and Dan Sun and Soojin Yi, from Georgia Tech. The work was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Related:
Wild sparrow study traces social behaviors in the wild to a single gene
Birdsongs study pecks theory that music is uniquely human

Friday, August 7, 2020

Emory students win Amazon's Alexa Prize for AI with strategy of caring about others

Jinho Choi (center), the faculty advisor for the Emory Alexa Prize team, with graduate students James Finch (left), and Sarah Fillwock, the team leader.

A team of Emory University students won Amazon’s 2020 Alexa Prize, a global competition to create the most engaging chatbot to advance the field of artificial intelligence. The team earned $500,000 for taking first place with their chatbot named Emora.

The students designed Emora to provide comfort and warmth to people interacting with Amazon’s voice-activated Alexa-enabled devices, whether they wanted to discuss movies, sports and their pets or their concerns for themselves and their families amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Emory team consisted of 14 students led by graduate student Sarah Fillwock and faculty advisor Jinho Choi, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science. They christened their chatbot Emora because it sounds like a feminine version of “Emory” and is similar to a Hebrew term for a sage skilled in eloquence.

Even as they celebrate their win, the Emory team is looking ahead to how they can apply the concepts they developed to benefit everything from education to people suffering from depression and social isolation.

The annual Alexa Prize, launched in 2016, challenges university students to make breakthroughs in the design of chatbots, or social bots — software apps that simplify interactions between humans and computers by allowing them to talk with one another. Emory used a unique strategy to beat out nine other universities and take the top spot in this year’s competition, the most hotly contested ever. 

“Normally people think of a chatbot as being an intelligent assistant, to answer questions or provide a customer service,” Fillwock says. “We designed a more socially oriented chatbot that could actually show interest in an individual user and provide comfort to people if they wanted it.”

Read the full story.

Related:
Emory team vies for best social bot via Amazon's Alexa Prize

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Butterfly genomics: Monarchs fly differently, but meet up and mate

An eastern monarch butterfly rests in Saint Marks, Florida, on its way to overwinter in Mexico. (Photo by Venkat Talla)

Each year, millions of monarch butterflies migrate across eastern North America to fly from as far north as the U.S.-Canadian border to overwinter in central Mexico — covering as much as 3,000 miles. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, western monarchs generally fly 300 miles down to the Pacific Coast to spend the winter in California. It was long believed that the eastern and western monarchs were genetically distinct populations.

A new study, however, confirms that while the eastern and western butterflies fly differently, they are genetically the same. The journal Molecular Ecology published the findings, led by evolutionary biologists at Emory University.

“It was surprising,” says Jaap de Roode, Emory professor of biology and senior author of the study. His lab is one of a handful in the world that studies monarch butterflies.

“You would expect that organisms with different behaviors and ecologies would show some genetic differences,” de Roode says. “But we found that you cannot distinguish genetically between the western and eastern butterflies.”

Read the whole story here.

Related:
Mystery of monarch migration takes new turn
The monarch butterfly's medicine kit

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Beautyberry leaf extract restores drug's power to fight 'superbug'

"We decided to investigate the chemical properties of the American beautyberry because it was an important medicinal plant for Native Americans," says Emory ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave, a senior author of the study. (Photo by Tharanga Samarakoon)

By Carol Clark

Scientists discovered a compound in the leaves of a common shrub, the American beautyberry, that boosts an antibiotic’s activity against antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria. Laboratory experiments showed that the plant compound works in combination with oxacillin to knock down the resistance to the drug of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

The American Chemical Society's ACS Infectious Diseases published the finding, led by scientists at Emory University and the University of Notre Dame.

The American beautyberry, or Callicarpa americana, is native to the southern United States. Prolific in the wild, the shrub is also popular in ornamental landscaping. It’s known for showy clusters of bright purple berries that begin to ripen in the summer and are an important food source for many species of birds.

“We decided to investigate the chemical properties of the American beautyberry because it was an important medicinal plant for Native Americans,” says Cassandra Quave, co-senior author of the study and an assistant professor in Emory University’s Center for the Study of Human Health and Emory School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatology. Quave is also a member of the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center and a leader in the field of medical ethnobotany, studying how indigenous people incorporate plants in healing practices to uncover promising candidates for new drugs.

Micah Dettweiler, a recent Emory graduate and a staff member of the Quave lab, is first author of the study. Christian Melander, professor of chemistry at Notre Dame, is co-senior author.

The Alabama, Choctaw, Creek, Koasati, Seminole and other Native American tribes relied on the American beautyberry for various medicinal purposes. Leaves and other parts of the plant were boiled for use in sweat baths to treat malarial fevers and rheumatism. The boiled roots were made into treatments for dizziness, stomachaches and urine retention, while bark from the stems and roots were made into concoctions for itchy skin.

Previous research found that extracts from the leaves of the beautyberry deter mosquitoes and ticks. And a prior study by Quave and colleagues found that extracts from the leaves inhibit growth of the bacterium that causes acne. For this study, the researchers focused on testing extracts collected from the leaves for efficacy against MRSA.

“Even a single plant tissue can contain hundreds of unique molecules,” Quave says. “It’s a painstaking process to chemically separate them out, then test and retest until you find one that’s effective.”

The researchers identified a compound from the leaves that slightly inhibited the growth of MRSA. The compound belongs to a group of chemicals known as clerodane diterpenoids, some of which are used by plants to repel predators.

Since the compound only modestly inhibited MRSA, the researchers tried it in combination with beta-lactam antibiotics.

“Beta-lactam antibiotics are some of the safest and least toxic that are currently available in the antibiotic arsenal,” Quave says. “Unfortunately, MRSA has developed resistance to them.” 

Laboratory tests showed that the beautyberry leaf compound synergizes with the beta-lactam antibiotic oxacillin to knock down MRSA’s resistance to the drug.

The next step is to test the combination of the beautyberry leaf extract and oxacillin as a therapy in animal models. If those results prove effective against MRSA infections, the researchers will synthesize the plant compound in the lab and tweak its chemical structure to try to further enhance its efficacy as a combination therapy with oxacillin.

“We need to keep filling the drug-discovery pipeline with innovative solutions, including potential combination therapies, to address the ongoing and growing problem of antibiotic resistance,” Quave says.

Each year in the U.S., at least 2.8 million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection and more than 35,000 people die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Even in the midst of the COVID-19, we can’t forget about the issue of antibiotic resistance,” Quave says. She notes that many COVID-19 patients are receiving antibiotics to deal with secondary infections brought on by their weakened conditions, raising concerns about a later surge in antibiotic-resistant infections.

Co-authors of the study include Emory post-doctoral fellow Gina Porras; Emory graduate students Caitlin Risener and Lewis Marquez; Tharanga Samarakoon, collections manager of the Emory Herbarium; and Roberta Melander from the University of Notre Dame.

The work was supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the Jones Ecological Research Center and Emory University.

Related:
Chemicals in a noxious weed 'disarm' deadly bacteria
Civil War plant medicines blast drug-resistant bacteria
The plant hunters

Friday, July 10, 2020

Georgia Coast Atlas: A portal to hidden stories

The rich biodiversity of the Georgia coast includes the roseate spoonbill, shown in a marsh on Sapelo Island. Photo by Anthony Martin.

The Georgia Coast Atlas is a public, online gateway to the dynamic ecosystems and intriguing history of the state’s 100-mile-long coast and barrier islands. Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences and the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship launched the ambitious project. It showcases scholarship in science and the humanities, weaving together research, fieldwork and technology to create an unprecedented resource for educators, conservationists, students and the general public.

The interactive trove — made up of stunning flyover video, oral and written stories and annotated maps — keeps expanding through the efforts of Emory students and faculty.

“The main aim of the Atlas is to show how special the Georgia coast is as a place,” says Anthony Martin, a professor of practice in Environmental Sciences. “Secondly, it documents how the region is rapidly changing.”

Read the whole story here.

Related:
Ecology of Georgia's St. Catherines Island
Fossil tracks mark student's passage into New World of discovery

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

World Zoonoses Day: 'We have to act now to avoid even bigger catastrophes'

"The primary risks for future spillover of zoonotic diseases are deforestation of tropical environments and large-scale industrial farming of animals, specifically pigs and chickens at high density," says Emory disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie. (Getty Images)

By Carol Clark

On July 6 in 1885, Louis Pasteur successfully administered the first vaccine against rabies, one of the most feared diseases of that time. The bite of an infected animal transmits the rabies virus to humans, leading to an agonizing death without the vaccine.

World Zoonoses Day, held July 6 every year, marks this major breakthrough in the fight against zoonoses — diseases caused by germs that spread between animals and people. And yet, 135 years later, despite tremendous advances in science and medicine, the world is struggling to respond to the novel coronavirus — the latest devastating pathogen to spill over from animals.

“We are at a crisis point,” says Thomas Gillespie, associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Rollins School of Public Health. “We have to act now. We cannot forsake this moment. If we don’t radically change our attitudes toward the natural world, things are going to get much, much worse. Pandemics will become increasingly common. What we are experiencing now will seem mild by comparison.”

Gillespie served as an expert reviewer for a report by the United Nations Environmental Program and partners, “Preventing future zoonotic disease outbreaks: Protecting the environment, animals and people in a post-COVID-19 world,” to be released July 6.

“The primary risks for future spillover of zoonotic diseases are deforestation of tropical environments and large-scale industrial farming of animals, specifically pigs and chickens at high density,” Gillespie says.

A disease ecologist, Gillespie studies how germs jump between wildlife, domesticated animals and people. Through this “One Health” approach, he aims to protect humans, ecosystems and biodiversity.

"We're all feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic," Gillespie says. "That's created a sense of urgency that we haven't seen with past discussions of climate change and land-use change."

While vaccine development is important, pathogens can leap from animals to humans much faster than scientists can develop vaccines and treatments. “We also need complementary approaches that focus on the environment,” Gillespie notes. “It’s far cheaper to invest in the prevention of infectious disease outbreaks than to deal with the consequences of a pandemic.”

Gillespie is contributing his “One Health” expertise to an upcoming United Nations forum on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

“The silos have broken down,” Gillespie says. “There is growing awareness that we don’t need a separate forum on climate change and another one for pandemics. Discussions about the environment and health should be integrated and not considered separately so that we can gain momentum. We really need to be sprinting right now. Climate change and the increase in pandemics are both signals that we have reached a tipping point.”

Genetic sequencing links the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to horseshoe bats in China. The first detected outbreak sprang from a live animal market in Wuhan. Gillespie points out, however, that the coronavirus may have been circulating in remote, rural areas before it was detected in Wuhan, a city of 10 million where population density fueled rapid transmission.

He notes that no one has studied the ecological impacts of China’s Three Gorges Dam project. The world’s largest hydroelectric power station, it was built on the Yangtze River on what was previously a mix of secondary forest and agricultural land.

“Live animal markets are definitely dangerous places when it comes to spillover events,” Gillespie says, “but shutting all of them down won’t solve the bigger issue. The markets are just a small piece of a much bigger problem.”

Deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations, which changed the roosting habits of bats, was linked to a major Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia. Evidence suggests that similar deforestation in West Africa for palm oil production may have played a role in outbreaks of Lassa fever and Ebola.

A meta-analysis by Gillespie and colleagues quantified how fragmentation of forests by agriculture facilitates the spread of pathogens from wildlife. Optimal rates of spillover occur once 40 percent of the forest cover disappears. “That opens a window where you’re going to see more germs jumping species,” Gillespie says. “And tropical environments are at primary risk for pathogen spillover due to simple mathematics — there is a much richer diversity of species living in the tropics than in other environments.”

In the developed world, and rapidly developing parts of the world, people are eating more animal protein and fried food than is recommended for human health. To meet the demand, corporations are clearing natural habitats for cattle ranches, for soybean fields to feed the cattle, and oil palm plantations for cooking oil.

Many species are endangered by these actions. Habitat loss, poaching and disease are the primary threats to the remaining great apes, Gillespie says. COVOID-19 poses a particularly dire situation for apes in danger of extinction, he adds, including bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. Due to genetic similarities, they are highly susceptible to human respiratory diseases. Gillespie serves as an adviser on great apes to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and has worked to develop IUCN guidelines during the pandemic to limit human contact with the animals while also protecting them from poachers. Gillespie and colleagues created the “Non-human Primate COVID-19 Information Hub” to serve as a real-time resource on the issue.

Current policies fail to factor in the costs of wholesale extraction of resources and the destruction of natural habitats, Gillespie warns. Nature will persist, he adds, even as biodiversity diminishes.

“Nature will push forward, evolution will happen, without regard to human suffering,” Gillespie says. “Meanwhile, we’re ignoring how dependent we are on nature and how fragile we are in the grand scheme of things.”

Gillespie starts off his undergraduate Conservation Biology class with a quiz. Among the questions: How many people are there on the planet? Has the world reached its human carrying capacity?

The last item on the quiz asks students to list 10 species that occur in Atlanta. “None of the students ever writes Homo Sapiens,” Gillespie says. “Many people don’t think of themselves as part of nature anymore. They have this artificial sense that we’re apart from it.”

The pandemic is shifting perspectives. “We’re all feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gillespie says. “That’s created a sense of urgency that we haven’t seen with past discussions on climate change and land-use change. People are recognizing the linkages between our financial and agricultural systems, the environment and our health. It’s critical right now to make the message as understandable as possible to as many people as possible.”

Follow Thomas Gillespie on Twitter: @BiodiversHealth.

Related:
Great apes and COVID-19: Experts raise the alarm for endangered species
Spillover: Why germs jump species from animals to people
Bat ecology in the era of pandemics

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Emory-led consortium explores brain and behavior, across the tree of life

“Our consortium will create tools to study motor control in any species or behavior,” says Emory biologist Samuel Sober, co-director of the new consortium, funded by the Simons Foundation.

By Carol Clark

The Simons Foundation awarded scientists from Emory University and their collaborators $2.5 million to develop new tools to study how the brain controls behavior in vertebrates. Named the Simons-Emory International Consortium on Motor Control, the project brings together eight research groups from three countries that use cutting-edge techniques to explore connections between the firing of neurons and the movement of muscles. Their work spans a range of behaviors in an array of species, from songbirds and monkeys to rats and mice.

The consortium will kick off with a virtual symposium on Friday, June 26, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. EDT. Eight neuroscientists will each give a 10-minute talk about a not-yet-invented tool they wish they had today to transform the field. The speakers will include Chethan Pandarinath and Lena Ting (both from Emory and Georgia Tech), Amy Bastian (Kennedy Krieger Institute), Rui Costa (Columbia University), Amy Orsborn (University of Washington), Andrew Pruszynski (Western University) and Philip Sabes (from the University of California San Francisco and Neuralink). The talks will stream live on YouTube, and registrants from around the world can ask questions in real-time via an online chat feature.

The symposium’s theme reflects the ambitious goals of the consortium. “Often in neuroscience, labs are working on one species in relative isolation,” says Samuel Sober, director of the new consortium and an Emory associate professor of biology. “Our consortium is unique because our members are investigating not just different species but different motor skills, from how songbirds vocalize to how monkeys move their arms. And we’re working together to develop new methods and apply them to a really wide range of problems.”

Sober’s lab, for instance, developed technology for recording and analyzing how the precise timing of neurons firing controls vocal behavior in songbirds. “Our consortium will create tools to study motor control in any species or behavior,” Sober says. “We will provide a framework to allow researchers to reveal the mechanisms of motor agility across the tree of life.”

The Simons Foundation is a leading, private philanthropical organization dedicated to advancing research in basic science and mathematics.

Solving mysteries about how the brain and muscles of different animals work together may one day benefit humans dealing with neural system injuries, says Gordon Berman, co-director of the consortium and an Emory assistant professor of biology.

“Motion and movement are the basic building blocks of behavior,” he says. “I view the consortium’s work as a critical, early component to ultimately map what you’re thinking in your head to actually producing a movement. Such insights could help in the design of prosthetic limbs that move in response to a person’s thoughts or computer interfaces that assist people with spinal cord injuries.”

Berman’s research group uses tools from theoretical and computational biophysics to understand how changes in neural activity affect how animals move and vice versa.

“One thing I’m particularly interested in is how those patterns change over the course of learning a skill,” Berman says. “I play the piano. As I learn a new piece of music how does the code between my brain and my fingers change?”

Other members of the consortium include Chethan Pandarinath, assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Neurosurgery and in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. His group is using sophisticated methods of artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand how large networks of neurons in the brain encode information and control behavior.

A fourth consortium member from Emory is Ilya Nemenman, professor of physics, and a pioneer in developing algorithms for analyzing the information content of biological signals.

Additional members include Megan Carey (Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Portugal), Rui Costa (Columbia University), Abigail Person (University of Colorado, Denver) and Andrew Pruszynski (Western University in Canada).

“By sharing new tools, algorithms and ideas through research collaborations, group meetings and a joint post-doctoral training program, we will transform how neuroscientists explore motor behavior,” Sober says.

In addition to streaming live, the June 26 symposium, “The Inaugural Simons-Emory Workshop on Motor Control,” will be recorded and remain on YouTube for future reference. The symposium will be the third in a series of virtual events sponsored by the Emory College of Arts and Sciences’ Theory and Modeling in Living Systems initiative.

Related:
BRAIN grant to fund study of how the mind learns
Birdsong study reveals how brain uses timing during motor activity

Monday, June 15, 2020

Cleaning tips from a chemist who researches disinfectants

“I doubt that many people read the directions carefully on the cleaning products they use, but it’s important to do so,” says Emory chemist Bill Wuest, an expert in disinfectants.

By Carol Clark

Many household cleaners, once ubiquitous and taken for granted, are flying off store shelves faster than they are restocked, as people strive to keep surfaces free of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a survey on consumer knowledge and practices for disinfecting coronavirus and found that 39 percent of the respondents had misused cleaning products.

“This pandemic has caused me to think more about the knowledge of cleaning protocols of the everyday person,” says Bill Wuest, an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who studies disinfectants. “It’s important to communicate our research to the general public to generate clear messages.”

An active ingredient commonly seen in household cleaners, including some disinfectant sprays and liquids, and anti-bacterial sanitizing wipes and soaps, are quaternary ammonium compounds, or QACs.

One of the first QACs to enter the marketplace as a cleaning agent was benzalkonium chloride. Known as BAC for short, it was introduced in Lysol around the beginning of the 20th century, became widely adopted by the manufacturers of a range of cleaning products, and has remained a staple ever since.

In fact, if you read the labels of the cleaning supplies in your household, you will likely see benzalkonium chloride listed among the active ingredients on at least one of them, if not more. “There are basically four or five QACs, including BAC, that have been the workhouse disinfectants for around 100 years, on the frontline of most homes and hospitals,” Wuest says. “Very little has been done to change them around, because they work so well against many common bacteria, viruses, molds and fungi and they’re so simple and cheap to make.”

QACs are surfactants, or surface-acting agents, he explains. Their molecules have an ammonia atom at the center of two methyl stubs and two long carbon chains. In the simplest terms, the positively charged heads of the carbon chains are drawn to the negatively charged fatty membranes encasing many bacteria and viruses, including coronaviruses. The heads of the carbon chains act like spearpoints, breaking apart the fatty membranes and causing the pathogens to disintegrate.

The Wuest lab is a leader in studies of QACs. One issue Wuest and his colleagues have identified is the fact that a few bacteria strains are slowly developing some resistance to BAC. If that trend continues, it could cause serious problems years down the road for sanitation in hospitals. In the U.S. alone, at least 2.8 million people get antibiotic-resistant infections, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, leading to more than 35,000 deaths.

Research has frequently confirmed that QACs work against influenza viruses as well as bacterial strains and coronaviruses that have similar outer membranes as SARS-CoV-2.

Wuest offers the following tips for consumers.

Avoid “antibacterial” sanitizers and soaps 


BAC is the active ingredient in most “antibacterial” wipes, hand sanitizers and soaps. Wuest recommends choosing plain soap or plain alcohol-based sanitizers whenever possible, to avoid potentially contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. While products containing BAC are convenient and practical, especially for cleaning large surfaces, plain soap and water also work well against coronaviruses and other common pathogens.

Follow instructions closely 


“I doubt that many people read the directions carefully on the cleaning products they use, but it’s important to do so,” Wuest says. He notes that some products state that, after application, the cleaning agent needs to stay on the surface being sanitized for several minutes before being wiped off.

Never mix cleaning agents 


Consumers should never try to mix cleaning agents to try to “improve” them, Wuest stresses. Bleach combined with ammonia, for example, generates toxic chloramine vapor, which will cause chemical burns to the eyes and lungs and can permanently damage the respiratory system. Even mixing bleach with the seemingly innocuous ingredient of household vinegar is dangerous, as that combination creates deadly chlorine gas.

“Never mix any cleaning product with another cleaning product,” he says. “It’s an extremely dangerous thing to do, as many of the ingredients are hazardous if not used as directed.”

Check latest CDC recommendations


For more guidance on cleaning in the era of COVID-19, Wuest points to a web page, Cleaning and Disinfection for Households, outlining current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Related:
Getting back to chemistry basics: How simple soap saves lives
Chemists teach old drug new tricks to target deadly staph bacteria

Monday, June 1, 2020

First-year students' stories of a pandemic: Study seeks data to help them flourish

The data gathered from student stories "may help us to create interventions to support students who may be struggling as they navigate disruptive and stressful events," says Emory psychologist Robyn Fivush.

By Carol Clark

The Silent Generation grew up dealing with the Great Depression and World War II. Now the first-year college students of Generation Z are coming of age amid climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The whole world was opening up to students that started college last fall,” says Robyn Fivush, an Emory professor of psychology and director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts. “They reached the threshold of adulthood. And then the pandemic hit, pulling the rug out from under them. What does it mean for their dreams of research, of travel, of what they want to do with their lives? It creates an even more uncertain future at a point when they were just starting to home in on their passions and form their adult identities.”

Emory University is one of five universities across the country collaborating on a study focused on narratives written by first-year college students from last fall about their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The longitudinal study will follow the students for a year or more to track their psychological well-being and academic performance. The goal of the study is to determine whether the self-narratives can predict better outcomes for the students, and to gather data for any interventions that may be needed to help students to have more rewarding and successful academic experiences.

Fivush, director of the Family Narratives Lab in Emory’s Department of Psychology, is a leader in the field of narrative identity — how we use stories to understand ourselves and to make sense of the world and our place within it. She launched the student narratives study in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri, the University of Utah and Western Washington University.

“I’ve become particularly interested in college-age individuals because it’s such an important time in the formation of identity,” Fivush says. “Even though the majority of Americans do not go away to college, the ones that do are living away from home for the first time, learning time management, how to feed themselves, how to interact with peers and how to make their own decisions.”

The researchers are recruiting students from all five of the universities now for the study. They hope to enroll between 600 and 1,000 participants to write two detailed narratives. The first narrative asks them to describe an event that best captures the challenges they have faced as a result of COVID-19. The second narrative focuses on an event that best captures what they have learned about themselves as a result of COVID-19.

Participants will also fill out questionnaires at the start of the study, and at periodic intervals during the course of it. The questions cover the participants’ living situations and their physical health. They also aim at assessing the participants’ levels of anxiety, stress and depression, whether they are flourishing, and whether they are experiencing positive personal growth and making academic progress.

The hypothesis is that more coherent, positive narratives will be predictive of better mental health, more effective identity processing and better academic progress. “The data may help us create interventions to support students who may be struggling as they navigate disruptive and stressful events,” Fivush says.

Students from lower-income families and first-generation college attendees were already more at risk for not making it to graduation so the fallout from the pandemic may be especially difficult for them to navigate, Fivush says. “If we don’t get some really deep data about what they are experiencing and how they are making decisions we are not going to be able to help them to stay the course and graduate,” she says. “It’s vital to understand and support them. Education remains the single most important path to upward mobility and for resolving inequalities.”

The researchers launched the study with available funds as a year-long project, and they will release useful data as it becomes available. They are currently writing grants to secure funding to extend the study for longer.

Fivush has served in administrative roles at Emory designed to create more integrated and reflective experiences for undergraduates. “I really enjoy administrative work because it’s a chance to think strategically about education and what it is that we’re trying to accomplish,” she says. “Emory is well-situated in terms of its resources and its commitment to the undergraduate experience. We are teaching the change agents and the leaders of tomorrow. The role we play as educators is critical for the future of the world.”

Generation Z, or those born from around the mid-1990s to early 2010s, now make up the largest segment of the population and are the first true “digital natives” — those who have never known the world without the Internet.

“Every college student has a smart phone and is continuously flooded with information,” Fivush says. “That has broken down and fractured shared social narratives. It may give you more leeway to create your own story. On the other hand, it makes the world more complicated, more ambiguous and uncertain. And all of those things can make the identity journey more challenging.”

Related:
How family stories help children weather hard times
Psychologists document the age our earliest memories fade

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Behavioral studies in era of COVID-19 raise new concerns about diversity

"The digital divide is undoubtedly going to get worse during this pandemic," says Emory psychologist Stella Lourenco. "This is a huge problem for ensuring equal access to education and to work, not just for ensuring diversity in scientific research."

By Carol Clark

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating an ongoing trend in cognitive psychology to conduct human behavioral experiments online.

“The world has been growing increasingly digital for a while,” says Stella Lourenco, a developmental psychologist at Emory University. “The global pandemic has turbo charged the move towards virtual connection in most areas of life, including psychology research.”

While the Internet offers a powerful tool for collecting data during a time of social distancing, it also raises new concerns regarding the diversity of study participants. Trends in Cognitive Sciences published an opinion piece outlining these concerns, authored by Lourenco and Arber Tasimi, a developmental psychologist at Stanford University who will be joining the Emory faculty in August.

The authors warn that as more research moves online, a growing lack of Internet access among low-income and minority communities may reduce the diversity of study samples, which would limit the ability to generalize scientific findings. As unemployment soars, more people may be forced to choose between paying their rent and buying food or paying for Internet service.

“The digital divide is undoubtedly going to get worse during this pandemic,” Lourenco says. “This is a huge problem for ensuring equal access to education and to work, not just for ensuring diversity in scientific research.”

In their opinion piece, Lourenco and Tasimi urge scientists and grant-funding agencies to join lobbying efforts for government subsidies for Internet service, and “perhaps even advocate for universal availability of Internet access, which is essential for living and operating in contemporary times.”

In some ways, the challenges to diversity presented by the pandemic are a new twist on an old problem, Lourenco says. In recent years, concerns were raised that participants in some in-person psychology studies were mainly college students who are younger than the general population and also tend to be better educated and from higher-income backgrounds and industrialized countries.

A move towards online experiments of human subjects, using crowdsourcing tools such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, was helping alleviate this problem. Online experiments can allow researchers to tap large numbers of participants in an efficient and cost-effective way. “With crowdsourcing tools, you can potentially reach adults from all over the United States, and in other countries, as long as they have Internet access,” Lourenco says.

Children present unique research challenges, Lourenco says, so studies involving them have remained largely in-person. For instance, children tend to grow restless more quickly than adults when they are asked to sit in front of a computer to perform tasks for experiments.

The pandemic, however, is driving more child development laboratories to go online for the first time, Lourenco notes. Platforms such as the Parent and Researcher Collaborative, an online crowdsourcing tool where labs can post studies for families to participate in, are providing infrastructure to support this trend.

As more studies go online, the pandemic is likely impacting Internet access among some groups. In the pre-pandemic era, even low-income people without home Internet might be able to visit a library, a coffee shop or even the parking lot of a restaurant with free wireless service to connect to high-speed Internet. The current situation makes those scenarios less likely to occur.

And the current situation may represent the start of “a new normal,” Lourenco and Tasimi write, “in which threats of disease may require long-term social distancing practices and may differentially impact those in low-income and minority communities.”

They recommend that researchers strive to provide temporary Internet connection to low-income participants, by purchasing mobile hotspots that could be mailed to them or dropped off at their homes. They also recommend that more scientific journals require authors to report detailed demographic information of study participants, whether the studies are conducted online or in person.

They further recommend considering the development of more mobile laboratories, equipped with personal protective equipment and disinfection protocols. Portable labs would allow off-site testing to reach participants in low-income and minority communities.

“I hope that the pressure that the pandemic puts on behavioral research will ultimately create positive changes in the field,” Lourenco says. “Ultimately, it highlights the need to become more sensitive about the demographics of participants involved in psychological studies and about any claims that are made about the generalization of data.”

Related:
Skeletal shapes key to rapid recognition of objects
Babies' spatial reasoning predicts later math skills

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Scientists identify chemicals in noxious weed that 'disarm' deadly bacteria

"Nature is the best chemist, hands down," says Emory ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave, shown with berries from the Brazilian peppertree. The plant is native to South America where traditional healers in the Amazon have used it as a treatment for skin infections. 

By Carol Clark

Scientists have identified specific compounds from the Brazilian peppertree — a weedy, invasive shrub in Florida — that reduce the virulence of antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria. Scientific Reports published the research, demonstrating that triterpenoid acids in the red berries of the plant “disarm” dangerous staph bacteria by blocking its ability to produce toxins.

The work was led by the lab of Cassandra Quave, an assistant professor in Emory University’s Center for the Study of Human Health and the Emory School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatology. The researchers’ laboratory experiments provide the first evidence that triterpenoid acids pack a punch against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA.

The Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolia), native to South America, is also abundant in Florida, where it forms dense thickets that crowd out native species. “It is a noxious weed that many people in Florida hate, for good reason,” Quave says. “But, at the same time, there is this rich lore about the Brazilian Peppertree in the Amazon, where traditional healers have used the plant for centuries to treat skin and soft tissue infections.”

Brazilian peppertree
Quave, a leader in the field of medical ethnobotany and a member of the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center, studies how indigenous people incorporate plants in healing practices to uncover promising candidates for new drugs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest public health challenges of our time.” Each year in the U.S., at least 2.8 million people get antibiotic-resistant infections, leading to more than 35,000 deaths.

“Even in the midst of the current viral pandemic of COVID-19, we can’t forget about the issue of antibiotic resistance,” Quave says. She notes that many COVID-19 patients are receiving antibiotics to deal with secondary infections brought on by their weakened conditions, raising concerns about a later surge in antibiotic-resistant infections.

In 2017, the Quave lab published the finding that a refined, flavone-rich mix of 27 compounds extracted from the berries of the Brazilian peppertree inhibits formation of skin lesions in mice infected with MRSA. The extract works not by killing the MRSA bacteria, but by repressing a gene that allows the bacteria cells to communicate with one another. Blocking that communication prevents the cells from taking collective action, which essentially disarms the bacteria by preventing it from excreting the toxins it uses to damage tissues. The body’s immune system then stands a better chance of healing a wound.

That approach is different from the typical treatment of blasting deadly bacteria with drugs designed to kill them, which can help fuel the problem of antibiotic resistance. Some of the stronger bacteria may survive these drug onslaughts and proliferate, passing on their genes to offspring and leading to the evolution of deadly “super bugs.”

For the current paper, the researchers wanted to narrow down the scope of 27 major compounds from the berries to isolate the specific chemicals involved in disarming MRSA. They painstakingly refined the original compounds, testing each new iteration for its potency on the bacteria. They also used a series of analytical chemistry techniques, including mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and X-ray crystallography to gain a clear picture of the chemicals involved in the anti-virulence mechanism.

The results showed that three triterpenoid acids worked equally well at inhibiting MRSA from forming toxins in a petri dish, without harming human skin cells. And one of the triterpenoid acids worked particularly well at inhibiting the ability of MRSA to form lesions on the skin of mice. The researchers also demonstrated that the triterpenoid acids repressed not just one gene that MRSA uses to excrete toxins, but two genes involved in that process.

“Nature is the best chemist, hands down,” Quave says. She adds that weeds, in particular, tend to have interesting chemical arsenals that they may use to protect them from diseases so they can more easily spread in new environments.

The research team plans to do further studies to test the triterpenoid acids as treatments for MRSA infections in animal models. If those studies are promising, the next step would be to work with medicinal chemists to optimize the compounds for efficacy, delivery and safety before testing on humans.

“Plants are so incredibly complex chemically that identifying and isolating particular extracts is like picking needles out of haystacks,” Quave says. “When you’re able to pluck out molecules with medicinal properties from these complex natural mixtures, that’s a big step forward to understanding how some traditional medicines may work, and for advancing science towards a potential drug development pathway.”

First authors of the current paper are Huaqiao Tang — a former visiting scholar at Emory and a veterinarian at Sichuan Agricultural University in China — and Gina Porras, an Emory post-doctoral fellow. In addition to senior author Quave, co-authors include Francois Chassagne and James Lyles, who are both members of the Quave lab; John Basca, director of Emory’s X-ray Crystallography Center; and Alexander Horswill and Morgan Brown from the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

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