Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Emora, the chatbot who cares for you

"We believe that Emora represents a groundbreaking moment for conversational artificial intelligence," says Jinho Choi, Emory associate professor of computer science.

A team of six Emory computer science students are helping to usher in a new era in artificial intelligence. They’ve developed a chatbot capable of making logical inferences that aims to hold deeper, more nuanced conversations with humans than have previously been possible. They’ve christened their chatbot “Emora,” because it sounds like a feminine version of “Emory” and is similar to a Hebrew word for an eloquent sage. 

The team is now refining their new approach to conversational AI — a logic-based framework for dialogue management that can be scaled to conduct real-life conversations. Their longer-term goal is to use Emora to assist first-year college students, helping them to navigate a new way of life, deal with day-to-day issues and guide them to proper human contacts and other resources when needed.

Eventually, they hope to further refine their chatbot — developed during the era of COVID-19 with the philosophy “Emora cares for you” — to assist people dealing with social isolation and other issues, including anxiety and depression. 
The Emory team is headed by graduate students Sarah Finch and James Finch, along with faculty advisor Jinho Choi, associate professor in the Department of Computer Sciences. The team also includes graduate student Han He and undergraduates Sophy Huang, Daniil Huryn and Mack Hutsell. All the students are members of Choi’s Natural Language Processing Research Laboratory.


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Diverse landcover boosts yields for major U.S. crops, study finds

"Landscape diversification appears to be an important piece for boosting our resilience to climate change, both as a country and at the farm scale," says Emily Burchfield, assistant professor of environmental sciences. 

By Carol Clark

Monoculture — or specializing in a single crop, covering larger fields, that can be harvested with bigger machines on a simplified landscape — is widely assumed to boost a farm’s production capacity. A major study encompassing the mainland United States, however, suggests that the opposite is true. 

Nature Food published the research. 

“We found that in more diverse systems, corn and wheat yields can be up to 10 percent higher,” says Emily Burchfield, assistant professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences and co-author of the study. “And if you combine high diversity of landcover with more complex landscape configurations, corn and wheat yields increase by more than 20 percent.” 
Burchfield’s research combines spatial-temporal, social and environmental data to understand the future of food and water security in the United States and the consequences of a changing climate. She shares authorship of the Nature Food paper with Katherine Nelson, from the Department of Geography and Geospatial Sciences at Kansas State University. 

The research has major implications for helping farmers adapt to climate change. “Farming is already one of the toughest jobs on the planet,” Burchfield says. “And many people’s lives depend on a cropping system that likely won’t be sustainable 30 years from now. Landscape diversification appears to be an important piece for boosting our resilience to climate change, both as a country and at the farm scale, in terms of extreme weather events.” 

Agriculture has radically transformed Earth’s landscape, the authors note. Globally, agriculture encompasses a third of all ice-free land. In the United States, agriculture covers more than half of the land area, more than two-thirds of which is cultivated with the commodity crops of corn, wheat or soy. 

It’s well-established that diverse landscapes are associated with healthier ecosystems, benefiting pollination, water retention and soil quality — environmental factors that are also important to agriculture. Small, field-scale trials have suggested that adding diversity and complexity to landscapes, such as hedgerows or a strip of natural habitat within a field, may also benefit crop yields. 

For the current paper, the researchers examined how such diversity and complexity affects crop yields from a large-scale, national perspective. They drew from publicly accessible data, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s CropScape Data Layer, daily weather data from the PRISM Climate Group, and soil and landscape properties from the Natural Commodity Crop Productive Index. They integrated the data into an analytical computer model of crops and crop yields for 3,100 U.S. counties, covering the entire contiguous United States, for the period 2008 to 2018. 

They then used this model to test the impacts of diversity and complexity of landscapes on the yields of the major U.S. food crops of corn, wheat and soy. The researchers controlled for factors such as weather, soil quality, water access and market fluctuations. 

The results showed that increased landcover diversity is associated with increases for corn and wheat of more than 10 percent — an effect similar to the impact of seasonal rainfall and soil suitability. And landscape configurations that are both moderately complex and also highly diverse are associated with yield increases of more than 20 percent for corn and wheat. 

The researchers are now digging into how landscape diversity and complexity could best be applied at a regional scale. 

“The United States is huge and there can be no one-size fits all strategy,” Burchfield says. “We plan to zoom into different regions and look at the barriers and bridges to diversification for each region. We hope that our work can provide data-driven evidence to help farmers diversify their landscapes in intentional ways to boost their livelihoods and their resilience to climate change, while also supporting the resilience of ecosystems.” 

The research was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture.


Monday, August 9, 2021

EPA funds project to measure environmental contaminants, exposures in West Atlanta

The research project grew out of a 2018 discovery of high lead levels in the soil of some residences in West Atlanta by Eri Saikawa (above), associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, and former student Sam Peters, who received a PhD from Rollins School of Public Health.

By Carol Clark

The Environmental Protection Agency awarded Emory University researchers $1.35 million to work with members of the West Atlanta community to better understand any potential risks in the area for exposures among children to lead and heavy metals and metalloids, along with other environmental contaminants. 

“This award helps researchers at Emory University develop approaches to advance research that will help protect our children,” says John Blevins, the EPA’s acting region four administrator. “This EPA-funded research will further our understanding of children’s chemical exposures and potential strategies to reduce their impact on children’s health.” 

“A key part of this project is strong engagement with the community,” says Eri Saikawa, associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences, who is the lead contact and co-principal investigator on the grant. She notes that the researchers will hold regular meetings with residents to learn their needs and concerns before testing for environmental contamination and exposures, and to communicate findings as the project proceeds. 

“We want to make sure that community members are not just subjects of the research but are involved in ways that help them benefit from the science,” Saikawa says. “Ultimately, we want to raise awareness of the community members and provide them with educational materials specific to their needs to help lower the risks of their families being exposed to toxicants. We also hope our data will help in the development of holistic regulatory frameworks to prevent exposures to environmental contaminants in underserved communities around the country.” 

Dana Barr, professor of environmental health in Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, is co-principal investigator on the grant. Ziad Kazzi, associate professor in Emory Medical School’s Department of Emergency Medicine and an expert in medical toxicology, is a co-investigator. 

Historic Westside Gardens, made up of residents of the area, is a community partner for the project.

“This project is unique and important,” says Barr, who co-directs Rollins’ Laboratory for Exposure Assessment and Development in Environmental Research Lab (LEADER). “We’re not just analyzing environmental samples for toxicants, we’re also testing children for potential exposures and evaluating possible mitigation strategies. Our results will provide up-to-date information that is critical for the EPA to better regulate and mitigate the ongoing issue of environmental contaminants in urban areas.” 

“Good communication with our community partners is vital,” adds Kazzi. “As a physician specialized in toxicology, my main responsibility will be to answer any medical questions that may arise from community members and discuss their health concerns. We will also explain the science of environmental toxicants and help put our findings into context.” 

Emory research led to EPA investigation 

The health hazards of human exposures to heavy metals and metalloids — such as lead, cadmium, chromium and arsenic — are a globally recognized problem, and yet these hazards persist in many urban areas of the United States. Such contamination can accumulate through emissions from industry and power plants, the former use of lead in paint and gasoline, and through fertilizer, sewage sludge and pesticides. 

The community-based research project grew out of a 2018 discovery by Emory scientists of high lead levels in the soil of some residences of West Atlanta. Also known as the Westside, West Atlanta has a high poverty rate and is largely African American. Saikawa and Sam Peters, a PhD student at Rollins School of Public Health who has since graduated, were working with community members of Historic Westside Gardens to test their soil. 

The discovery of lead in some samples, along with deposits of slag — a waste byproduct of smelting and steel-making processes — led to a major EPA investigation and designation of parts of the area as a Superfund site. The EPA investigation now encompasses more than 2,000 properties. 

Issues of environmental justice 

Lead is a neurotoxicant that is especially harmful to children. Residents within the EPA investigation site, whose soil is found to be above the EPA threshold of 400 parts per million, are now able to have their soil removed and replaced for free, funded by Superfund appropriations. 

“This is an environmental justice issue,” Saikawa says. “Racial and class disparities for heavy metal and metalloid exposures are substantial, with African-Americans and the poor and the disenfranchised bearing the greatest risk.” 

Lead-exposure related cognitive impairments, she adds, are estimated to cost more than $50 billion annually in lost U.S. economic productivity. 

Expanded testing for harmful toxicants 

The new research project, funded by $1.35 million from the EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, will involve areas of the Westside outside of the current EPA investigation site. The research team plans to test the homes and yards of willing participants not just for heavy metals and metalloids but a total of 40 other organic and inorganic environmental toxicants. 

Young children may ingest significant quantities of soil and dust because they often play on the ground and put their hands and other objects into their mouths that can have dust or soil on them. Soil and dust ingestion can be a major route of exposure to chemicals such as lead, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos. 

The three-year project will also consider exposure pathways in addition to soil, such as household dust and paint. The team will seek to recruit 100 households to participate in environmental sampling. In addition, the team will seek parental permissions for 140 children ages six months to six years for biological samples of saliva, urine and blood, to test for exposures. 

Saikawa’s interdisciplinary research encompasses environmental health, atmospheric chemistry and environmental policy. She and her lab members will focus on recruiting participants, conducting surveys with community members, and gathering environmental samples of soil, household dust and paint chips. Her team will analyze these samples for heavy metals and metalloids, as well as modeling exposures from these various pathways. 

Barr’s lab will primarily focus on analyses of the biological and other environmental samples for a broader range of potential organic and inorganic toxicants. 

Kazzi, who specializes in the clinical assessment and management of toxicologic exposures, will help address health and medical concerns that may arise from the community. 

Emory is one of seven institutions across the United States that recently received STAR grants to help improve children’s health. The EPA’s STAR Program supports scientific research that advances EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment. It is a competitive, peer-reviewed, extramural research program that provides access to the nation’s best scientists and engineers in academic and other nonprofit research institutions. 

“It is our duty to protect the health of those most vulnerable among us, including our children,” says Wayne Cascio, acting assistant administrator in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “The researchers receiving these awards will improve our understanding of how children are exposed to chemicals, which will inform future actions to reduce these exposures and better protect their health.”


Emory soil analysis leads to EPA site investigation