Wednesday, April 29, 2020

How family stories help children weather hard times

Stories of family members — who persevered by simply putting one foot in front of the other and by maintaining loving bonds — reassure children that their family will also find a way to get through a situation, says Emory psychologist Robyn Fivush. (Getty Images)

By Carol Clark

In times of great stress, stories sustain us, says Robyn Fivush, director of the Family Narratives Lab in Emory’s Department of Psychology.

Family reminiscing is especially important, says Fivush, who is also director of Emory’s Institute for the Liberal Arts. When children learn family stories it creates a shared history, strengthens emotional bonds and helps them make sense of their experiences when something senseless happens — like the current global pandemic.

“When we don’t know what to do, we look for stories about how people have coped in the past,” Fivush says. “You can see that happening in the media now, in articles comparing today to historical events, like the 1918 flu pandemic and 9/11.”

She sums up the 9/11 narrative in the United States: “A horrific event happened; we were attacked. But we came together as a nation, persevered and rose back up together.”

Such narratives help build a shared capacity for resilience. “That’s true for nations and it’s true for families,” Fivush says.

Over decades of research, Fivush and Emory psychologist Marshall Duke developed a scale to measure how much children know about their family histories. Using this scale, they conducted a study that began just before 9/11 and continued for two years. “We found that in families that talked in more coherent and emotionally open ways about challenging family events with 10- to 12-year-olds, the children coped better over the two-year period than in families telling less emotionally expressive and coherent stories about their challenges,” Fivush says.

The families in the study were all comparable, middle-class, two-parent households.

Standardized measures showed that children in the families that told the more coherent family narratives had better self-esteem, higher levels of social competence, higher quality friendships, and less anxiety and stress. They also had fewer behavioral problems, as reported by parents.

Tips for telling family stories 

For families under quarantine together, opportunities abound to weave family stories into conversation, Fivush says. The stories need to be tailored to different ages, she adds, so that children are emotionally and cognitively able to understand them.

Elementary school children, for example, are not ready to digest complex family stories. “With younger kids, it’s really more about helping them structure their own experiences into stories that help them process their feelings,” Fivush says. “You want to start by asking them non-judgmental, open-ended questions like: ‘Why do you think you were upset yesterday? What could you have done to make yourself feel better? What can we do about this?'"

She uses an example of a little girl who left her favorite storybook at her school and was worried that it wasn’t going to be there when she went back. A mother could tell a story about how she left a favorite toy somewhere when she was little but later her father took her back and they found it.

“Tell them a story from your own life that provides a model for how everybody forgets things, but you can get them back,” Fivush says. “Or, ‘My brother used to tease me a lot, too. But now he’s your Uncle Bill and we love each other.’ Parents are identity figures. Little kids are fascinated by stories about their parents when they were little.”

Ultimately, the goal is to help children construct a coherent story that validates their feelings while helping them think of resolutions.

“Particularly with very young kids, don’t make assumptions about what they may be upset or sad about,” Fivush says. “You may be surprised. Stay open to what your children of all ages may be experiencing.”

Middle school children are starting to have more of an ability to understand the bigger picture. “By the age of 10, children are thinking in the abstract and because of that, they are likely to be anxious about the future,” Fivush says.

By this stage, children begin to understand stories on a deeper level. It’s not that every story needs a happy ending or a silver lining, Fivush stresses. “You can explain to your child, ‘We don’t know yet how this story is going to end but let me tell you about some challenging times I got through, or your grandparents got through.’”

Examples of family members — who persevered by simply putting one foot in front of the other and by maintaining loving bonds — reassure children that their family will also find a way to get through a situation.

When they reach adolescence, children are especially vulnerable. “High school is a time when children start to really think about themselves as a person and what their life is going to be like,” Fivush says. “They are mulling big questions, like ‘Who am I? What are my passions?’ And now the pandemic has pulled the rug out from under them.”

By the age of 16, parents can start talking to a teen-ager about their own vulnerabilities as people and as parents. “Emphasize how you can build strength together, as a family,” Fivush says. She suggests finding ways of giving teen-agers a role in supporting younger children in positive ways.

“Human beings are really altruistic and empathetic. We feel good when we help other people, particularly people that we love,” Fivush says. “That’s going to make every family member feel better about themselves and about each other.”

Silly, funny family stories are also valuable, along with small touchpoints about the past that emerge spontaneously, Fivush says. “When you’re cooking together with your children it’s a perfect time to say, ‘When I was a little girl, my mother taught me how to cook this dish. We used to have pot roast every Friday and I would peel the carrots.’”

Adolescents are especially hungry for these kinds of stories, she adds. “If they roll their eyes, so be it, they’re still listening,” Fivush says. “It’s the really mundane, everyday stories that reassure them that life is stable. It provides a sense of continuity, of enduring relationships and values. They need to know that they come from a long line of people who are strong, who are resilient, who are brave. And who can cook. The definition of who they are is not just something independent and autonomous, spun from nowhere. It’s embedded in a long, intergenerational family story.”

Stories your parents should have told you
Psychologists document the age our earliest memories fade

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Bat ecology in the era of pandemics

The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently appointed Emory graduate student Amanda Vicente to its Bat Specialist Group — global recognition for her expertise. (Photo by Neto Villalobos)

Bats are primarily creatures of the night. Their cape-like wings, alien faces and strange behaviors drive human fascination and fear.

“People have so many misconceptions,” says Amanda Vicente, who studies the disease ecology of bats as an Emory University doctoral candidate. “Bats are associated with dark things, like Dracula. They have never had a good reputation.”

Evidence linking viruses carried by bats to disease outbreaks, from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to SARS, Marburg, MERS, Nipah, Hendra and Ebola, is not helping their image.

“It’s important for people to know that our enemies are not the bats, but the pathogens,” Vicente says. “And in order to better fight these pathogens, we need to understand their evolutionary relationship with bats, and how that relationship is being altered by human behaviors.”

Read more about the work of Vicente, who is leading a team of Emory students to study cave bats in her native Costa Rica.

Spillover: Why germs jump from animals to people
Experts raise alarm for COVID-19 risk to endangered great apes

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Mathematicians unite faculty, students and countries to fight COVID-19

Emory math professor Alessandro Veneziani, left, visited his hometown of Bergamo, Italy, last year with his former student Alexander Viguerie, who received his PhD in math in 2018. Bergamo became ground zero in Italy for COVID-19.

By Carol Clark

Alessandro Veneziani loves numbers and he loves people. A professor in Emory’s Department of Mathematics and Department of Computer Science, he uses numerical analysis and computing for real-world applications — such as modeling blood flow through the vascular system to determine risks for an aneurysm or a stroke.

The pandemic shifted the focus of Veneziani — a native of Italy, one of the hardest hit countries — onto the rising number of new COVID-19 cases and the people affected by them. After the campus closed, Veneziani and colleagues launched an Emory student contest to create mathematical models that might yield useful data for controlling the pandemic. More than 90 students jumped in to form teams and take on the challenge.

“The students want to help, and this is a way they can use what they’re learning,” Veneziani says. “They are part of the Emory community and when you work as a community you have more power to make bigger contributions to the world.”

On February 19, only two cases had been detected in Italy, and COVID-19 still seemed a distant problem in the country. On that day, about 45,000 soccer fans from the region of Veneziani’s hometown, Bergamo, traveled to Milan to watch their elite team, Atalanta, beat the Spanish challenger in a Champions League match. They returned home to celebrate.

On February 20, in his adopted hometown of Atlanta, Veneziani celebrated the birth of a daughter, Eleonora, with his wife, Manuela Manetta. Manetta is also Italian, from Abruzzo near Rome, and is a lecturer in Emory’s Department of Mathematics.

On March 19, which is Father's Day in Italy, Veneziani celebrated at his home in Atlanta with his newborn daughter, Eleonora.

By March 19, Italy had become the country with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the world. And ground zero was Bergamo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Members of Veneziani’s family still live in the town. They are quarantined in separate homes where he stays in touch with them through Skype. His brother takes his mother meals and leaves them outside her door. “I’m mostly worried about my mom,” Veneziani says, “because she’s 78 and the most vulnerable.”

Veneziani felt frustrated being so far away as Bergamo struggled. “I was awake late at night, my wife was feeding our baby, and I was thinking and thinking,” he recalls. That’s when he got the idea for the math modeling contest.

“The spirit of the initiative is that it is less a competition than a collaboration,” Veneziani says. “We are coming together to fight a common enemy, a virus. And our weapons are differential equations.”

Jim Nagy, chair of the Department of Mathematics, supported the idea and three faculty immediately volunteered to help manage the initiative: Manetta, Longmei Shu, a visiting faculty member, and Maja Taskovic, an assistant professor. They are pulling together other faculty from related disciplines across campus to select the top three student groups in May. Veneziani also enlisted entrepreneur Russell Medford as a judge. A former physician at Emory, Medford is now chair of the board of the Center for Global Health Innovation in Atlanta and is always on the lookout for a fresh perspective.

Students from all majors were welcomed into the initiative, from first years on up.

The sun rises over the ancient, fortified city of Bergamo, in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. (Photo by Sven Manguard)

Veneziani tells stories of hope and resilience from Bergamo to inspire the students, who are all dealing with their own concerns surrounding the pandemic. Bergarmo is situated on a hill and surrounded by stone fortress walls dating to 1500. “Bergarmo is very beautiful and very old,” Veneziani says. “Its people are tough. And they are also generous.”

Bergarmo is known for skilled builders from a range of construction trades. As the existing medical facilities reached peak capacity, people from the region adopted the slogan “Bergarmo, don’t give up” and came together to build a new hospital. “Bergamo was under a storm and people volunteered to help. They built a hospital in just six days,” Veneziani says. “That’s incredible. That’s what a community can do when it comes together.”

Now the pandemic curve is showing signs of flattening in Bergamo and across Italy. On April 11, the United States surpassed Italy as the country with the most deaths from COVID-19.

The Emory student teams are finishing up their projects, including 20-page papers. Students were given free rein to pursue any kind of mathematical modeling project to help understand the spread of the pandemic and make useful predictions.

“The main aim of this initiative is educational,” Veneziani says. “I want students to understand that developing a mathematical model is a creative process. You come up with an idea, introduce some assumptions and then check them with reality to see if you’re on the right track. You have to keep refining your model, keeping it as simple as possible but complex enough to learn something useful.”

Veneziani celebrates with Alexander Viguerie as Viguerie receives his PhD at Emory Commencement in 2018.

“I’ve loved math since I was very young,” says Sanne Glastra, a sophomore majoring in qualitative theories and methods who is involved in the contest. “This is a chance to apply data science to a real problem that everyone is facing right now.”

Her team is modeling COVID-19 through the lens of nursing homes. “I’m learning a lot about how to collect data on health and demographics and work with a team to figure out what’s relevant,” says Glastra, who is quarantining with her family in Boston.

“The students have fresh energy and fresh minds,” Veneziani says. “They may come up with new ideas that deserve further exploration after the competition ends.”

Veneziani also has a math modeling project for COVID-19 underway with one of his former students, Alexander Viguerie, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pavia, near Milan. Viguerie, a native of Atlanta, began his academic career at Oxford College before coming to the Emory campus for his undergraduate degree and his PhD in math, which he received in 2018.

Viguerie still has collaborations with Veneziani. He flew into Atlanta on February 20 so the two could work on a project, unrelated to COVID-19, that was expected to last a few weeks. It was the day Veneziani’s daughter was born and the news reported a confirmed COVID-19 case in Italy not related to travel, meaning the virus was on the loose in the country.

“It was surreal, the timing of everything,” Viguerie says.

A simulated outbreak in Georgia using artificial data. Viguerie is leading a team that's attempting to model COVID-19 transmission using Georgia as a framework. The work is still in the preliminary stages.

He and Veneziani soon scrapped their planned collaboration and began to work on modeling COVID-19 transmission. From his parents’ home in Georgia, where he is spending quarantine, Viguerie pulled together an international team for the project. Members include an expert in supercomputing in Germany; an expert in disease modeling from the University of Texas; students from the University of Pavia; and three undergraduates from Emory: Glastra, Kasey Cervantes and Shreya Rana.

“Everyone jumped right in to help,” Viguerie says.

“We’re really pumped about this project,” says Cervantes, a junior majoring in biology and minoring in computer science who is quarantined with his family in Chicago. Cervantes previously worked on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention project to model malaria transmission and plans a career in computational biology or epidemiology.

Rena is a sophomore, majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology and minoring in computer informatics. She is quarantined with her family in the San Francisco Bay area. “The more information we have on how a virus spreads through a community, the more prepared we can be in the future,” she says.

The researchers are modeling the spatial-temporal spread of COVID-19. The team chose the state of Georgia as the framework for their model, which they hope could eventually be applied elsewhere.

Health data is collected at the county level, Viguerie explains. Georgia happens to have a high number of counties that are relatively small compared to other states, or to Italian provinces, which yields a greater level of spatial precision for the modelers.

“This is a long-term project, not intended for decision-making today,” Viguerie stresses. “We want to create a tool for down the road. We might learn something useful, for instance, that could help in the case of later waves of the outbreak.”

Georgia happens to have a high number of counties that are relatively small, making it easier for the researchers to generate rich special resolution as the basis for their model.

The researchers created a digital map of Georgia and broke it into a mosaic of 100,000 individual points in space. They wrote differential equations for variables related to COVID-19 transmission and created a computer program including all the equations. They are now running preliminary simulations to test various scenarios and see if the model works.

“You start with a simple model and progressively make it more and more complex,” Viguerie explains. “Our model seeks to describe the spread of COVID-19 across time and space. And from there, we can hopefully use the model to learn some mechanistic natures of the spread.”

By comparing the data on symptomatic spread to actual new cases, they can make assumptions to test. “Certain things, like asymptomatic cases, are difficult to measure but possible to simulate using a model,” Viguerie says. “Good models and simulations are crucial with a disease like COVID-19.”

For Veneziani, who officially became a U.S. citizen in February, the Emory student competition and the international project with his former student are both “emergency” measures and business as usual. He has long used math to tackle healthcare problems and to forge bonds between people and countries.

Emory has many specialists working on various aspects of COVID-19, from nurses and medical doctors to researchers specialized in biology, chemistry, epidemiology, virology, infectious diseases and vaccine development, as well as experts in social, historical, cultural, mental well-being, legal and ethical aspects of disease.

“Math is a common language that joins all these forces so we can all communicate,” Veneziani says. “The enormous problem of this pandemic is truly interdisciplinary. Emory is working together, and the whole world needs to come together. We will fight this virus together and we will win. Like in Bergarmo, at Emory we don’t give up.”

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Monday, April 6, 2020

Pandemic lockdowns set up 'natural experiment' on air pollution

Graphic shows the change from January to February in China's levels of nitrogen dioxide, which primarily gets into the air from the burning of fuel by motor vehicles and power plants. (European Space Agency)

By Carol Clark

For years, Eri Saikawa has tracked growing levels of dangerous greenhouse gases and researched ways to reduce them. As an associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences, she trains students to do the same. Together, they’ve held conferences, published papers and served as delegates at the annual U.N. global climate talks.

Now the COVID-19 lockdowns have slashed air pollution levels faster than Saikawa or her students could have imagined. First in China, where COVID-19 was reported in December, then across Europe, and now in the United States.

“It’s an interesting natural experiment, for sure,” says Saikawa, an expert in public policy and the science of emissions linked to global warming. “Since not every industry has shut down, it may help us to better understand what emissions are coming from what sources. That could help guide the best strategies to improve air quality when the pandemic is over.”

This natural experiment has now become the focal point for Saikawa’s class “Introduction to Atmospheric Chemistry.” Previously, the students were set to do outreach projects for the Atlanta Science Festival, at K-12 schools and in Atlanta neighborhoods. COVID-19 changed those plans as the festival and other events were cancelled and schools and universities shifted to remote learning. 

Saikawa is now asking her students to track current greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants and compare them with levels for the same period in previous years, based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and global sources.

“The students will be among the first to study this,” Saikawa says. “That’s so much different than answering questions from a textbook. When you’re doing actual science, unexpected things happen that open up new questions. The students will be taking on real questions as they come up in real time.”

At the end of the class, in early May, plans call for the students to hold a webinar so that anyone interested in learning how the novel coronavirus impacted air quality and climate change can tune in and learn from it.

The pandemic also affected projects of Saikawa’s graduate students in Asia. Her lab has collaborations with universities in Nanjing, China, Tokyo, Japan and Yongsei, South Korea. “Our focus was looking at air emissions in East Asia in relation to climate change,” Saikawa says. “Now we are broadening that to also look at how a pandemic affects air quality, climate and economies.” 

The researchers may be better able to pinpoint the impact of emissions from different sectors, including industries that are major users of fossil fuels, such as steel-making, oil, natural gas and mining; electricity and other sources of power; and transportation in the form of motor vehicles, shipping and tractors.

“China is the largest emitter in the world of carbon dioxide and most other air pollutants,” Saikawa says. Even with the dramatic drop in pollution, as China ground nearly to a halt following the initial outbreak of COVID-19, the country had dangerously high levels of air pollution on some days. “That shows that the background level of pollution is really high, and how far China needs to go to clean its air,” Saikawa says.

She worries that all the gains made around the world could boomerang into even worse conditions than previous norms if economies go into overdrive to recover. The 2020 U.N. climate talks, set for Scotland in November, have been postponed until 2021. The conference venue in Glasgow where the conference was to be held is now a field hospital for people with COVID-19.

And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a sweeping waiver of its enforcement of regulations, due to the pandemic.

“Those that are hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic are those who are the most vulnerable in society,” Saikawa says. “The suspension of environmental laws makes them even more vulnerable.”

Follow Eri Saikawa on Twitter: @esaikawa.

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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Beware false 'cures' for COVID-19

Cinchona is toxic and self-medication with it or any other unproven "cures" should be avoided.

Following is an excerpt from an article in The Conversation, co-written by Cassandra Quave, an ethnobotanist at Emory University; Kim Walker, from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; and Nataly Olivia A. Canales, from the Natural History Museum of Denmark. 

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are [antimalaria drugs that are] currently being researched as potential treatments for COVID-19. …

False links are now being made [on social media networks] between another source of antimalarial compounds, cinchona bark, as a natural or alternative source of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine. As quinine from cinchona bark is an ingredient in tonic water (in very low amounts), there have been rumors that it could also protect against SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19.

Since its discovery in the 17th century, the bark of the Andean cinchona tree and its chemical constituents, known as quinoline alkaloids (quinine, quinidine, cinchonine and cinchonidine), provided the only treatment for malaria for over 300 years. In 1934, scientists developed the first synthetic antimalarial, later known as chloroquine. Although chloroquine was inspired by the antimalarial activity of quinine, its chemical structure (and pharmacological properties) are quite different from the natural compounds found in cinchona bark.

To date, there is no laboratory or clinical evidence that quinine or any other cinchona bark compounds exhibit activity against COVID-19. Also, not everything that is natural is safe. Cinchona and quinine are toxic and can cause serious side-effects known as “cinchonism” which can include hearing and vision loss, breathing issues, and heart and kidney issues. It can also lead to a coma.

While quinine pills were once sold over the counter in the US to treat night leg cramps, they were pulled from the market by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006 after serious side effects and death were reported.

History is full of examples of people profiting from the public’s panic and fear during unstable times. The European Union law enforcement agency has already seized 48,000 packages of potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals, including unauthorized chloroquine, as well as fake masks and bogus coronavirus cures.

The benefits, if any, of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19 are still not fully understood. Cinchona bark does not contain either of these compounds, and the alkaloids in the bark bear no relation to them. Likewise, there is no evidence of cinchona being able to prevent or treat COVID-19.

Cinchona is highly toxic and self-medication with it or any other unproven cures should be avoided. Protect your health and don’t waste money funding unethical people and companies profiteering off fear in these uncertain times.