Friday, December 18, 2009

2010: A Science Odyssey

Crystal ball courtesy of Crystal Blue in Little Five. Photo by Carol Clark.

Anyone remember the Y2K scare? Fears that a fluke of technology would cause our entire digital world to crash with the 2000 calendar rollover were a mere distraction. As we enter 2010, we're hoping technology can save us from climate change.

The first decade of the 21st century flew by, with changes coming at breakneck speed. It's a good time to peer into the crystal ball of research. eScienceCommons asked Emory scientists for their views on key advances during the past 10 years, and what may be in store by 2020.

"The most important thing that's happened is the recalibration of our perception of the world, and a clarification of the real challenges," says David Lynn, chair of chemistry. "That relates to everything from how we understand the origins of life, to the emerging focus on predictive health, and our increased understanding of the need for renewable energy."

Lynn cited the sequencing of the human genome and the identification of new planets as two events that shook the foundations of our social structure.
NASA photo

“The existence of other planets was predicted decades ago, but now we’ve accumulated hard evidence that we’re clearly not alone – our solar system is not the only one,” he says. “And what are we going to look for on these other planets that could allow life to emerge and evolution to start? I think that is where the fun begins.”

The fast pace of discovery contributed to a polarization of views on research, particularly in areas such as stem cells and evolution.

“The theme of our recent Evolution Revolution conference was that the world is changing very quickly, and we need to understand what that means so we can make better informed decisions,” Lynn says. “The important problems, and the fact that many are interconnected, have become more clearly defined. This clarification attracts people’s attention, and means the chance of finding viable solutions goes way up.”

Emory chemists are using “directed evolution” to study ways to reprogram bacteria to perform useful tasks, from fighting disease to producing renewable hydrogen fuel.

"We are taking principles that are central to evolution and probing them to use in different ways," Lynn says.  "It's a great time to be a scientist -- the sky is no longer the limit."

For neuroscientist Elaine Walker, one of the biggest breakthroughs was the growing awareness of genetic plasticity, or the idea that DNA is not necessarily destiny. "In the past, it was generally assumed that with only a few exceptions the individual genotype was fixed at conception, and that its effects on human health and disease were relatively fixed across the life span," Walker says.

In recent years, however, we've learned that genetic mutations in the form of copy number variations and microdeletions occur much more frequently than was previously assumed. "It now appears that these mutations can occur in embryogenesis, and that they can confer risks for autism, schizophrenia and a range of other disorders," Walker says.
Adding to this paradigm shift is our understanding of epigenetics: changes in the expression of genes due to a person's physical and psycho-social environment. "I think during the next decade, we're going to see more focus on applications of epigenetics for the treatment of everything from cancer to heart disease," says Victor Corces, chair of biology and one of the pioneers of the field.

We have also learned that the brain changes significantly across the life span, a finding that overlaps with genetic plasticity. "These developments have made our research much more complex," Walker says, "but they also provide us with much more optimism about our opportunities to prevent illness."
Walker is studying whether it might be possible to identify the changes in gene expression occurring in some young people that are causing a change in brain funciton that can put them at risk for psychotic disorders.

The theory of grounded cognition has revolutionized studies of the mind during the past decade, says psychologist Larry Barsalou, a leading researcher in this field. "Previously, it was argued that you could study the cognitive system in isolation. Now we realize that you cannot understand cognition without grounding it into the body and the sensory motor system and the world," he explains.
When you think about walking, for instance, your brain fires the same parts that operate when you are actually walking.
Research is increasingly showing the impact of social processes, culture, development and emotion on cognition, he adds. “I think that during the next 10 to 30 years, theories and research of cognition processes and social processes will be increasingly integrated.”
Everything needs to be studied from an interdisciplinary perspective, Barsalou says. "A big question is how to build programs that foster this kind of work. Psychology departments are becoming very strange beasts."
Deboleena Roy’s research spans women’s studies, philosophy, neuroscience and bioethics. During the past decade, the long struggle of women and minorities to be included in clinical trials began paying off, she says. Studies of biological differences can raise thorny issues about race and gender, she adds, stressing that we need to move forward with knowledge of the mistakes of history.

"People who are the subject of research need to be involved in generating the research questions," Roy says. "The day of the scientist in a white coat working alone in a lab is over. Scientists have to learn to connect to the broader community."

Biologists Nicole Gerardo and James Taylor are taking DNA sequencing to the next level, by tapping cutting-edge technology to analyze the sequence of a complex system, the world of agricultural ants.


“We’re entering completely new territory,” says Taylor, a computer scientist specialized in bioinformatics. “DNA sequencing technology is becoming faster and cheaper, but this transition is just happening.”
Within five years, he adds, the complex data sets he is mining through a grant will likely become much cheaper and more easily obtainable.

Psychologist Joe Manns, whose work focuses on the biology of memory, views the use of genetically engineered mice and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as transformational. While both these technologies were developed prior to the past decade, they matured and hit their stride during the past 10 years, he says.

He believes that the emerging technology of optogenetics – using high-speed optics to control genetically targeted neurons – will likely help fuel memory discoveries in the coming decade.
 
“Now we can put a wire into a brain and induce neurons within a region of the brain to fire, but we can’t control which neurons,” Mann says. “Optogenetics gives you anatomical precision, allowing you to target a specific neuron, along with temporal precision, because the pulses of light operate in milliseconds.”

The past decade saw wireless devices like iPods and iPhones become almost physical extensions of the human body. Google became a household word – both as a noun and a verb – as search engine technology connected our collective digital mind.

Search personalization, coupled with advances in wireless handheld devices and biometrics such as eye-tracking, will further speed changes in Web search, predicts Eugene Agichtein, who directs the Emory Intelligent Information Access Lab. “Ten years from now, computerized searches will look much different than they do today — you won’t be just typing words into a box on a screen,” he says.

Related:
Give your mind a hand
Daily pot smoking may hasten psychosis onset
DNA is not destiny
Can neuroscience read your mind?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Lottery study zeros in on risk

Most people know they are not going to get rich playing the lottery. But if you just want to buy some tickets for fun, can you improve your odds? Is a bigger jackpot a better bet? How big is big enough?

When lottery prizes climb into hundreds of millions of dollars, these are the kinds of questions Emory mathematicians Aaron Abrams (above, right) and Skip Garibaldi (above, left) get from their students. The pair decided to conduct an analysis, applying math and economic theory to analyze the rates of return and risks associated with lottery tickets. "We wanted solid numbers to help explain why playing the lottery is not a good plan," Garibaldi explains.

You can read their paper, "Finding Good Bets in the Lottery -- And Why You Shouldn't Take Them," in the January edition of the American Mathematical Monthly. Their results showed that, while a lottery ticket could theoretically be a good bet, it is always a bad investment.

Their mathematical models for the interstate lottery Mega Millions and its competitor, Powerball, demonstrated that as the jackpots grow and more tickets are sold, the extra tickets nullify the benefit of the bigger jackpot.

Smaller, single-state lotteries like Georgia's Fantasy 5 offered better rates of return, due to the larger ratio of jackpot size to total number of tickets sold, according to their analysis. "To our great surprise, in some cases single-state lotteries have had positive rates of return as high as 30 percent," Abrams says. "That is, for these drawings a $1 ticket would give you back $1.30 on average. We didn't expect this."


So why not buy lottery tickets instead of stocks? Because the odds are you won't win the lottery.

"The technical word for this is risk," Garibaldi says. "The high rate of return is only an average for all lottery tickets for a particular drawing, and most people in that drawing will not win the jackpot."

The two mathematicians applied modern portfolio theory, pioneered by economist Harry Markowitz, to compare the potential return and risk of a savings account, various stocks and bonds and lottery tickets. "When we ran the analysis, the result was: don't buy lottery tickets," Garibaldi says. "It's too risky. Even the enormous returns we found were not enough to counteract the enormous likelihood of not winning the lottery."

So most people already know this intuitively, right? What's the point of spelling it out in precise mathematical and economics terms?

"Most people don't fully understand risk," Abrams says. He points out that when people make decisions about how to allocate their money in an IRA, the prospectus gives the rate of return, but doesn't attempt to quantify the risks.

"I strongly feel that mutual fund prospectuses should include the risk data," Abrams says. "It's important for people to understand how they are spending their money."

The recent collapse of the financial system illustrates the importance of driving home the fundamentals of risk, say the two mathematicians, who both teach probability theory to freshmen.

"The field of probability has developed rapidly during the past 50 years, and we have a tremendous understanding of how randomness works," Abrams says. "But as our understanding of probability gets better, financial instruments keep growing increasingly complex."

To sum up the lesson in their lottery analysis for students: Math studies are a sure bet and a great investment.

Related:
Math's in your cards, so deal with it



Thursday, December 10, 2009

Transgenic voles key to pair bonding secrets

Emory researchers have generated the first transgenic prairie voles, a key step toward unlocking the genetic secrets of pair bonding. The advancement by Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center will enable scientists to perform genetic manipulations to help identify the brain mechanisms of complex social behaviors. The work, in the current issue of the Biology of Reproduction, may also have important implications for understanding and treating psychiatric disorders associated with impairments in social behavior.

The prairie vole is a naturally occurring monogamous rodent that is being used to discover the brain mechanisms underlying monogamous pair bonds.

"Domesticated lab rats and mice dominate biomedical research, but wild rodent species with more complex social behaviors are better suited for investigating the biology of the social brain. Until now, genetic engineering among rodents has been limited to lab mice and rats," says Zoe Donaldson, the lead researcher.

Watch a video of Donaldson explaining the process of creating the transgenic vole.

Single-cell prairie vole embryos were injected with a lentivirus containing a gene found in glowing jellyfish. The gene encodes a green fluorescent protein, which glows under the appropriate conditions. The prairie vole that developed from this embryo expressed the green fluorescent protein throughout its body, and the foreign gene was passed on to the offspring for multiple generations.

Larry Young, a senior investigator on the study and an expert in social behavior, will use this technology to determine whether monogamy and its associated social behaviors can be affected by manipulating a single gene. Researchers are also investigating ways to refine this technology in order to alter gene expression in certain brain regions as well as at certain developmental milestones.

Watch a talk by Young, featured speaker at Vole Conference 2009.

Related:
The science of love
How early nurturing affects adult love

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mosquito hunters invent better disease weapon

Emory researchers believe they have come up with the cheapest, most efficient way yet to monitor adult mosquitoes and the deadly diseases they carry, from malaria to dengue fever and West Nile Virus. Emory has filed a provisional patent on the Prokopack mosquito aspirator, but the inventors have provided simple instructions for how to make it in the Journal of Medical Entomology.

“This device has broad potential, not only for getting more accurate counts of mosquito populations, but for better understanding mosquito ecology,” says Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, the invention’s namesake. Vazquez-Prokopec is a post-doctoral fellow working with Uriel Kitron, chair and professor of environmental studies.

“There is a great need for effective and affordable mosquito sampling methods. Use of the Prokopack can increase the coverage area, and the quality of the data received, especially for blood-fed mosquitoes. Ultimately, it can help us develop better health intervention strategies.”

In both field and lab tests, the Prokopack outperformed the current gold standard for resting mosquito surveillance – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Backpack Aspirator (CDC-BP). In addition to having a longer reach, enabling it to collect more mosquitoes than the CDC-BP, the Prokopack is significantly smaller, lighter, cheaper and easier to build.

Anyone with access to a hardware store, and about $45 to $70, can make the Prokopack, which uses a battery-powered motor to suck up live mosquitoes for analysis. Mosquito-borne diseases rank among the world’s top killers, and Vazquez-Prokopec hopes that more affordable and efficient surveillance methods will help save lives.

“I come from a developing country,” says the Argentine native. “I understand what it feels like to know that there is a health technology available, and to not have the money to access it.”

For decades, public health officials have struggled to conduct mosquito surveillance. One early method, with obvious drawbacks, was to expose a bit of skin and count the bites. Another low-tech method is to spray inside a home with insecticide, and gather the bugs that fall onto on a drop cloth.

Mosquito traps baited with a chemical that mimics human sweat are sometimes used to catch live adult insects. But these traps capture only females who are looking for a meal.

The CDC-BP can quickly vacuum up samples of live specimens, which can be analyzed in a lab to determine the source of blood they recently consumed. The drawbacks to the CDC-BP, however, include its heavy weight (25 pounds), its bulk and its price – about $450 to $750 in the United States.

Emory researchers used a CDC-BP in their study of West Nile Virus and urban mosquito ecology in Atlanta. They wanted to learn if mosquitoes that harbor the virus were overwintering in nooks near the ceilings of sewer tunnels. But the CDC-BP only reaches six feet, and the tunnels are 15-feet high.

With a bit of ingenuity and a few trips to the hardware store, the research team put together a solution: a plastic container, a wire screen, a plumbing pipe coupler, a battery-powered blower motor and painter extension poles. After some experimentation with these components, the Prokopack was born.

“It’s not like we woke up one day and said, ‘Let’s invent a mosquito aspirator,’” Vazquez-Prokopec explains. “It grew out of our needs during field research.”

Comparative tests with the Prokopack and the CDC-BP were conducted outdoors and in sewer tunnels during the Emory lab’s Atlanta research projects. Additional field tests were done during a dengue fever study in Iquitos, Peru, where public health technicians are trying to control mosquitoes in homes. The Prokopack, which weighs less than two pounds, collected more mosquitoes than the CDC-BP, and reached higher into ceilings and into foliage.

Collecting more mosquitoes in higher locations can give researchers more insights into their behaviors. Upper foliage, for instance, can yield more mosquitoes resting after feeding on birds. And upper walls and ceilings of homes may harbor more mosquitoes resting after a meal on humans.

Related:

Urban mosquito research creates buzz


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Monkeys can recognize faces in photos

Capuchin monkeys can recognize familiar individuals in photographs, a study by the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory has found. The discovery is in the current online edition of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The study not only reveals that capuchin monkeys are able to individually recognize familiar faces, but it also convincingly demonstrates they understand the two-dimensional representational nature of photographs,"
says lead researcher Jennifer Pokorny. "The fact these monkeys correctly determined which faces belonged to in-group versus out-group members, corresponding to their personal experiences, validates the conclusion that capuchin monkeys view images of faces as humans do -- as individuals they do or do not know.

For the study, the capuchins viewed photographs of four different faces. One of the four pictures was of a capuchin from their own group, which they needed to tell apart from three strangers. They also needed to do the reverse, differentiating one stranger from three familiar individuals.

“This required monkeys to look at similar-looking faces and use their personal knowledge of group mates to solve the task,” says Pokorny. "They readily performed the task and continued to do well when shown new pictures in color and in gray-scale, as well as when presented with individuals they had never before seen in pictures, though with whom they were personally familiar."

Researchers often use two-dimensional images in experiments, yet there is little conclusive evidence to suggest nonhuman primates, particularly monkeys, truly understand the image represents individuals or items in real life.

Pokorny trained under Emory primatologist Frans de Waal, who says the study is the first to show face recognition in monkeys is fundamentally similar to that in humans, indicating that face recognition is an evolutionarily ancient ability. De Waal is director of the Yerkes Living Links Center.

Related:

Study gives clue to evolution of face recognition

Chimps mirror emotions in cartoons

Monday, November 30, 2009

Scholar reads the classics -- and bones


By Carol Clark

Katy Marklein entered Emory with aspirations to go to medical school, but that changed when she took a freshman anthropology seminar, “Reading the bones of the ancient dead.”

"I was hooked," Marklein recalls of the first day of class, when she walked in and saw two skeletons laid out on a table. "I immediately wanted to understand and appreciate their lives. It's fascinating to learn about the person behind a skeleton."

The seminar is taught by anthropologist George Armelagos, one of the founders of the field of bioarcheology – the study of skeletal remains of past human populations. “I see her as one of the legacies of my teaching,” says Armelagos. “Katy will be able to pick up and carry on skeletal biology in a way that it should be carried on.”

Marklein, a senior majoring in classics and anthropology, recently received a Marshall Scholarship for advanced studies in Britain. She will use the all-inclusive scholarship to pursue two masters degrees over two years: the first in skeletal and dental bioarcheology at the University College London, and the second in osteology and funerary archeology at the University of Sheffield.

Started by a 1953 Act of Parliament, the Marshall Scholarships commemorate the humane ideals of the Marshall Plan, and are designed to give future U.S. leaders an understanding of British life.


















While many bioarcheologists focus on prehistoric populations, Marklein is applying bone biology to unlock secrets of the classical era. She spent the summer working in the Weiner Laboratory at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.
“There was a big box of skulls, and my first task was to clean them with toothbrushes,” says Marklein, who was dubbed “the Skull Washer” by a graduate student in the lab. “It probably sounds like a bad horror movie to a lot of people,” she says, adding that for her, it was a dream come true.

Marklein is continuing to work on an analysis of those remains from the classical and Hellenistic periods. “I’ve found some interesting cases of pathologies, and I’m getting some good portraits of a few individuals,” she says, explaining that bones can provide clues of people’s diets, whether they suffered from a disease or trauma, and even what they did for a living.

Related:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Obama taps Emory president for bioethics panel

President Barack Obama appointed Emory President James Wagner as vice-chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, was named as chair of the commission, which will advise the president on bioethical issues.

“As our nation invests in science and innovation and pursues advances in biomedical research and health care, it’s imperative that we do so in a responsible manner," Obama said. "This new commission will develop its recommendations through practical and policy-related analyses."

Read the White House announcement.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'Monkey see, monkey do' spreads social customs

Capuchin monkeys have a capacity for social learning that allows them to create group-wide social traditions, according to researchers at Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Their finding, published by the Public Library of Science One (PLoS One), is the first study to experimentally demonstrate the spreading of two different traditions in different groups of monkeys and suggests certain behaviors are learned and spread socially, similar to the way humans and chimpanzees learn social customs.

For the study, the alpha male of each of two groups of capuchins was trained to open an artificial foraging device in a different way, using either a slide or lift action, then reunited with his group. In each group, a majority of monkeys subsequently mastered the task. Although a majority of the monkeys also discovered the alternative method, each monkey that successfully opened the device continuously imitated and adopted the technique seeded by the alpha male of the group as the primary method.

"Being able to understand and learn about another's actions and then adopt that behavior is how a tradition if formed," says lead Yerkes researcher Marietta Dindo.

"We previously assumed cultural transmission of behaviors is unique to humans and their closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees. Our findings suggest the underlying mechanism that supports culture may be based on a very simple principle of acting like and identifying with those around you."

Dindo trained under Emory primatologist Frans de Waal, who credits the study as a promising first step to take cultural studies from apes to monkeys.

Related stories:

Getting a grip on cultural evolution

The biology of shared laughter and emotion


Friday, November 20, 2009

Creationist drives readers bananas

Need a bookmark to go with your Ray Comfort edition of "On the Origin of Species?" The National Center for Science Education has thoughtfully provided one on its web site dontdissdarwin.com. Comfort, a Christian evangelist, distributed 200,000 copies of "Origin" free at 100 colleges around the country this week, including Emory. The catch? Comfort wrote an outlandish introduction in the edition, denouncing evolution.

"They made this version of the book to pass out to unknowing people who are thinking that they're getting a copy of 'Origin of Species,' when they're really just advancing the creationist agenda," biologist Jacobus de Roode told the Emory Wheel. "It's very bad, and it makes me very angry."

"I think Darwin's rolling over in his grave right now," added freshman June Lee.

Read the full article in the Wheel.

Related stories:
A new twist on an ancient story
Icons of evolution

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Musician jazzes up space shuttle mission


Atlantis launch photo courtesy of NASA.


What’s it like to play a grand piano beneath a Saturn V rocket?

“It’s pretty incredible,” says Gary Motley, Emory director of jazz studies, and one of the few people who can answer that question. Motley traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida earlier this week, to perform at a send-off party for his cousin, astronaut Bobby Satcher, who is on the crew of the Atlantis space shuttle.

Satcher’s relatives flew in from around the country for the party arranged by his wife, D’Juanna. Motley (below right) played “How High the Moon,” and other jazz tunes for the event, which was held in a hangar of the space center. “They’ve got a Saturn V rocket mounted horizontally from the ceiling,” Motley says. “It’s unbelievably big. Just guessing, I’d say it’s the length of a 12-story building.”

Satcher was unable to attend the send-off in person, since he was undergoing flight preparation, but he spoke to the guests via phone. "He asked who was there, and 300 people cheered back," Motley says. "I think he was surprised by the magnitude."

It’s the first space flight for Satcher, who will be doing a space walk. For a relaxing diversion during the mission, the astronaut took along Motley’s latest jazz CD, a collection of original music entitled “Renaissance.”

“I’m thrilled!” Motley says. “I think it’s also special to him, because he’s taking that connection to the family with him into space.”

The highlight of the experience for Motley was the launch itself, on Monday at 2:29 p.m. “The sound! I’ve never heard anything like it,” he says. “When the smoke cleared on the launch pad and the Atlantis lifted off, it was so bright, it was like looking at the sun. It moved incredibly fast. They announced it was going 200 miles per hour, then 2,000 miles per hour, then 9,000. When somebody that you know and are connected to is on board, it’s overwhelming.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nazi medicine: A needle in history's side


The course “Nazi Politics and Medicine” is not for the faint of heart. “It isn’t easy to study atrocities,” says Astrid M. Eckert, assistant professor of history. “We’re looking at some really gruesome subject matter, and we all struggle in dealing with it.”

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum sponsors the course, which is offered through the Emory College history department, the Institute of Liberal Arts and the schools of medicine, nursing and public health. (USHMM collection graphics, above and below, are from a 1941 public health brochure, counseling couples to select marriage partners based on genetics.)

"The subject matter raises difficult questions, many of which we are still grappling with in a much different historical context," says Sander Gilman, professor of liberal arts and sciences, who co-teaches the course with Eckert.

Jacqueline Black, a senior majoring in American Studies, was shocked to learn during the class that several U.S. states had sterilization laws for criminals and the “feeble minded” before the Nazis. “Some of the exact wording of the Nazi law was taken from U.S. laws,” says Black, who is researching a paper on the topic. “That was a real wake-up call for me.”

"I was surprised that German physicians joined the Nazi party earlier and in greater numbers than many other demographics," says Luke Reimer, a sophomore majoring in biology and history who plans to go to medical school. “The medical field in Germany underwent a severe crisis and some physicians were living on the streets, selling sausages. For me, it’s an interesting story. Physicians should look at their responsibilities as a caregiver first and put their careers second. I think German physicians inverted this relationship during this phase of history.”


The course also delves into important science done in the totalitarian state. "All of the early work on the relation between cancer and smoking was done in Germany under the Nazis,"  Gilman says.

Would it be ethical for a modern geneticist to consider data gathered by the infamous Josef Mengele and his twin experiments? "These questions get really, really complicated," Gilman says.

Students read and watch videos of first-hand accounts by both perpetrators of atrocities, and survivors of pogroms against Jews, homosexuals and the disabled. The testimony of real people describing what happened to them is often more gut wrenching than photos of mutilated corpses, Eckert says.

“After we watched a clip of an elderly homosexual man recalling what he went through at Dachau, there was silence in the class,” she says. “That was a real game changer. I felt a rush of empathy come out of the students.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Her math adds up to a brilliant career

Emory math professor R. Parimala has received one of the highest honors in her field: Selection as a plenary speaker for the International Congress of Mathematicians, set for Aug. 19–27, 2010, in Hyderabad, India. The ICM is held only every four years, and is the most important activity of the International Mathematical Union. The 20 plenary speakers are chosen from top talent throughout the world.

It may be a lofty honor, but Parimala remains decidedly down to earth. “I’ve always been very comfortable with math,” she says, relaxing in her office after teaching a class. Her hair hangs down her back in a long dark braid and she looks casually elegant in a cotton tunic, shawl and pants.

The outfit is called a “salwar-kameez,” she explains, and is from northern India. She grew up in the southern tip of the country, in the state of Tamil Nadu, where the saree is the traditional dress. “I love to wear a saree, but it’s six yards of fabric and hard to maintain,” she says. “Ironing is a bit boring.”

When she graduated from high school, her father sat her down and asked her what she wanted to do. “I said, ‘I want to continue with math. Period,’” Parimala recalls, adding that it was an unusual path for a female. “My father knew I had an aptitude for math and was very supportive of my higher studies.”

At Stella Maris College in Chennai, India, she says that she briefly considered focusing her studies on Sanskrit poetry, but math won out. “Math has the beauty of poetry. Its abstractions are combined with perfect rigor.”

For her doctorate, Parimala attended the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, one of the top institutes in India for the basic sciences. She spent most of her career on the faculty there, until she joined Emory in 2005.

“I’ve always enjoyed teaching,” Parimala says, “and it’s fun to work with undergraduate students. They are so enthusiastic.”

She also looks forward to new research challenges, primarily in algebraic groups, and quadratic forms. “There are many interesting questions that keep my attention,” she says. “Math is dynamic, not only internally dynamic, but across disciplines.”

Parimala was recently invited to speak at Nehru University in Delhi, during a conference aimed at inspiring more female students to focus on math.

“Most bright students in India choose another career over basic sciences,” Parimala says. “It’s a global phenomenon, actually, because they think there are more attractive jobs in other areas. But math offers a challenging and rewarding profession. If you have a love and a talent for it, you should come to math. That is my plea.”

Daily pot smoking may hasten psychosis onset

Progression to daily marijuana use in adolescence may hasten the onset of symptoms leading up to psychosis, an Emory study finds. The study was published in the November issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The researchers analyzed data from 109 hospitalized patients who were experiencing their first psychotic episode. The results showed that patients who had a history of using marijuana, or cannabis, and increased to daily pot smoking experienced both psychotic and pre-psychotic symptoms at earlier ages.

"We were surprised that it wasn't just whether or not they used cannabis in adolescence that predicted the age of onset, rather it was how quickly they progressed to becoming a daily cannabis user that was the stronger predictor," says Michael Compton, lead author and assistant professor of psychiatry in the Emory School of Medicine.

The Emory study focused on what is known as the prodromal period, when a person has symptoms such as unusual sensory experiences, which are often precursors to frank hallucinations and delusions. “The prodromal period is especially important because it’s considered to be a critical time for preventive intervention,” says Elaine Walker, a co-investigator of the study and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Emory.

Related story:
Study focuses on teens at risk for psychosis

Friday, November 13, 2009

Getting a grip on cultural evolution

How did humans go from the ability to make a stone axe to a computer mouse? Science writer Matt Ridley posed that question during his keynote for the conference on the Evolution of Brain, Mind and Culture.

Both objects are designed to fit into the human hand. “But the hand axe was made to a design that continued to be used for about one million years,” Ridley said. “There’s no continual innovation or progress.”

And while a hand axe was knapped by a single person, a computer mouse requires the efforts of many. “It’s not just the people in the computer mouse company that made it, it’s the people who drilled the oil well from which the oil came for making the plastic. The point is that human intelligence went from being individual to being collective. And that, I think, is the crucial thing that we have to try and understand about the human breakout from being just another species to being this extraordinarily ecologically dominant species.”

So why, when and where did human intelligence become collective?

Ridley argued that, just as sex and the exchange of genes is crucial to speeding up biological evolution, trade and the exchange of goods was the major driver of cultural evolution and the accumulation of innovations.

“The actual swapping of one object for another is unknown outside our species,” Ridley said.

Ridley is the author of “Nature via Nurture,” among many other science books, and the forthcoming “The Rational Optimist.”

Related stories:
Celebrating Darwin's legacy
'Monkey see, monkey do' spreads social customs

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Wolves in political clothing

Leaving everyone to fend for themselves is not natural, says primatologist Frans de Waal. He writes as a guest blogger for the Washington Post about animal empathy and its political implications:

"On its own, a wolf cannot bring down large prey, and chimpanzees slow down for companions who cannot keep up due to injuries or sick offspring. Why accept the assumption of cut-throat nature when there is so much proof to the contrary? Empathy is an ancient capacity found in all mammals, ranging from dogs to apes." Read the full article by de Waal.

Don't miss an informal, public discussion between Frans de Waal and Out of Hand Theater's Ariel de Man this Sunday, Nov. 15, at 4 p.m. at Dobbs University Center. They will be discussing the new play Hominid, opening on campus tonight.

De Waal will also be among the speakers at the Evolution of Brain, Mind and Culture conference, ongoing today and tomorrow in the Reception Hall of the Carlos Museum.

Related story:
The biology of shared laughter and emotion

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is hypnosis just hocus-pocus?

Dressed in a flowing cape, 16th-century physician Franz Anton Mesmer merely had to touch his suggestive patients with a magnetic wand for them to experience wild laughter, crying and shrieking. So what is hypnosis? Do hypnotized people enter a sleep-like state in which they forego their willpower, are oblivious to their surroundings and forget what happened afterwards?

video

Click on the box above to listen as psychologist Scott Lilienfeld explains the history of hypnosis, from Mesmer to Svengali and “The Manchurian Candidate.” Beware as you stare into the black box: You may get mesmerized. Hypnosis is one chapter in the new book he co-authored, “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior.”

Related story:
Test your behavioral IQ
The anger myth: Read this before blowing up

Friday, November 6, 2009

Celebrating Darwin's legacy

What is it that makes the human brain different from the brain of our closest relative, the chimpanzee, besides the larger size? What are the origins of empathy, fairness and cooperation? What constitutes culture in humans and other species, and how far back can we trace it?

Some of the world’s leading scholars of evolution – including many from Emory – will gather to discuss these questions during the conference on the Evolution of Brain, Mind and Culture Nov. 12-13. The free, public event – held in honor of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth – will give an overview of the latest discoveries in biological, cognitive and cultural studies of evolution.

“We are taking the conceptual and theoretical tools that Darwin gave us and putting them in the midst of contemporary thought and controversies,” said Robert McCauley, director of the Emory Center for Mind, Brain and Culture, which is hosting the event. “We’re taking a forward look at Darwin’s legacy.”

Award-winning science writer Matt Ridley, author of “Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code” and “Nature via Nurture,” will give the keynote, “Darwin in Genes and Culture,” at 1 p.m. on Thursday.

Click here for more details of the two-day event.

Related stories:
Getting a grip on cultural evolution
Ape murder-suicide leads to human drama
Icons of evolution

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gestures may point to speech origins

Did speech evolve from vocal chords or bodily movements?

Body movement, particularly with the hands, appears to be ingrained in human communication. “All humans gesture. They gesture when they talk on the phone, they gesture even if they know the other person can’t see them,” says primatologist Amy Pollick. She is studying evolutionary precursors to speech in chimpanzees at the Yerkes Living Links Center at Emory.

“Chimp vocalizations can actually be quite complex, but they don’t have as many vocalizations as they do gestures,” she says.

Watch an interview with Pollick in this excerpt from a Swedish documentary. Photo at top shows a scene from the documentary, "On the Road with Homo Sapiens."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ape murder-suicide leads to human drama

A conniving kingmaker and his young protégé conspire to overthrow a popular king. Their plot fails, so they murder him instead. The kingmaker then installs his protégé as ruler. The young king does not properly reward his mentor, however, so the kingmaker selects a new protégé. Together, they torment the young king to the point of madness. He throws himself into the palace moat and drowns.

The brutal power struggle reads like a Shakespearean tragedy, but it actually happened on an island of captive chimpanzees at a Holland zoo during the late 1970s. Emory primatologist Frans de Waal documented the events in his best-selling book “Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes."

And now, in a strange case of art aping life, the true story has been turned into a fictional play – with human actors taking the names and roles of the chimpanzee characters.

“We are all apes,” is the central message of “Hominid,” (photo at top shows a rehearsal) playing at Emory Nov. 12-22. Theater Emory commissioned Atlanta’s Out of Hand Theater to create the evolution-themed work – a collaboration of playwrights’ imaginations and de Waal’s research. Scenes from a documentary by Bert Haanstra of the chimpanzees are also woven into the stage performance.

“We tell the story as though it’s a human story,” says Ariel de Man, the play’s project director. After receiving her theater degree from Emory in 1998, de Man co-founded Out of Hand, which specializes in working with scientists to translate their research.“There is so much science happening right here in our midst in Atlanta that the general public doesn’t know about,” she says. “Scientists are trained to do research, but they’re not trained to communicate to a non-science audience.”

“Hominid” sets the murder-suicide in a 1920s garden party. “The characters are athletic and graceful and charming,” de Man says. “The point is, it doesn’t matter how educated or sophisticated you are – we are all apes. We are inviting the audience to think about what that means.”

Top evolution scholars from Emory and abroad will also be speaking on campus next week, during a conference, "The Evolution of Mind, Brain and Culture."

Related stories:
Learning morality from monkeys
A new twist on an ancient story
Icons of evolution

Thursday, October 29, 2009

An inside look at outrage

What makes a suicide bomber tick?

“Outrage is a distinct emotional state, but almost nothing is known about its physiological effect on functional systems of the brain,” says neuroeconomist Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy.

Berns is leading a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of the brain when sacred values are perceived as being attacked or diminished. The U.S. Air Force and Navy are funding the study, focused on beliefs about religion, government policy, and other values that evoke strong feelings.

“Given the importance of sacred values and the potential for triggering violent conflict, it is important to understand how sacred values become intertwined in decision making,” Berns says. He believes that knowledge of how the brain reacts to irreverence of closely held beliefs could help lead to peaceful solutions during conflict negotiations.

“The Department of Defense is aware that it does no good to bomb a building if it creates more terrorists,” Berns says, “so it is keenly interested in understanding what drives an emotional reaction that is so strong that it has the potential to obliterate rational thinking. The outcome of this study could be a fist step in bringing people together who have opposing value systems.”

Related stories:
"Decisions, Decisions: The biology behind the sometimes irrational, often emotional, choices we make"

Star-crossed queen gets twinkle in her eye

Cassiopeia, a vain queen in Greek mythology, bragged that she and her daughter Andromeda were so beautiful that they put the sea nymphs to shame. Naturally, this boast angered Poseidon, who sent a sea monster to destroy her realm. The queen’s disgrace is also evident in her constellation. She sits in a chair that rotates around the North Star, putting her in an undignified upside-down position half the time.

At least she has something interesting to look at – within her gaze lies a Delta Scuti variable star. Emory astronomer Horace Dale identified the star’s classification last week, during an exercise of the advanced astronomy lab he teaches, and it was officially entered into the Variable Star Index on Oct. 22.

A variable star is one that changes its luminosity over short periods of time. In layman’s terms: It twinkles. And we’re talking a true twinkle, as opposed to the false twinkle-effect that the Earth’s atmosphere gives stars. When the first variable star was identified in 1638, it disproved theories by Aristotle and others that the stars were eternally the same and fueled the astronomical revolution sparked by Galileo’s telescope in 1609.

A Delta Scuti pulsating variable is an older star with gases that are rapidly expanding and contracting in both spherical and oblong shapes. Out of the 200 billion stars in our galaxy, only about 400 are known Delta Scuti. Dale is credited with identifying two of them, including another one in the Cassiopeia constellation that entered the index in 2007.

“Not many people are looking for them,” Dale says, explaining that it's painstaking work to identify one. Changes in luminosity must be measured over time to produce a light curve, such as the graph, above, from Dale’s most recent find.

Dale is on a mission to identify more. “I think it’s very important,” he says. “If you want to find out who we are, you have to look at the stars first, because that’s where we came from. Where do you think you got all the carbon in your body? It’s a product of the nuclear fusion process of stars. Carl Sagan said it best: We are made of star stuff.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

No bones about it: A great place to work

The Scientist magazine's readers ranked Emory as the 5th Best Place to Work in Academia in the United States. The ranking was based on a survey of more than 2,350 life scientists with a permanent position in an academic, hospital, government or research organization. The scientists represented 94 US institutions and 25 institutions from the rest of the world.

Emory ranked especially high in the categories of "peers" and "job satisfaction." The top four institutions were Princeton University, University of California-San Francisco, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. The top international institution was the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics.

Read the full survey results.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A new twist on an ancient story

“Evolution is a theory that we have more experimental evidence for than any other theory, and yet 50 percent of the population of the United States doesn’t accept it,” said David Lynn, professor of chemistry and biology, during a recent Creativity Conversation with choreographer David Neumann. “Maybe we’ve taken the wrong path in talking about evolution. In science we do a good job of conveying facts, but not a good job of telling the stories – what makes it human.”

Lynn’s research focuses on the origins of life. His desire to find new ways to explain science to the public inspired him to collaborate with Neumann, and the Seattle troupe Lelavision, as they developed dance performances. Their works, including Lelavision's "Warm Pond" (see photo), recently premiered in Atlanta.

“I was deeply influenced by the manner in which evolution operates and using those structures – contingencies and chance operations – in the structure of the dance,” Neumann said. “Sometimes when you utilize chance there’s a fantastic discovery.”

Watch a video of the conversation between Lynn and Neumann:


Related story:
Dancing with the scientists

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Cascade Range: Chemistry to climbing

Can you combine a high-powered career in chemical cascade research with a mountaineering hobby and still have time to form human bonds? Sure, if you rope colleagues into both adventures.

Emory’s Albert Padwa (above at Mount Rainer in 1984) gives a perspective of his 48-year career in a recent issue of the Journal of Organic Chemistry. The cover (see below) was designed by Emory chemist Stefan Lutz and features Annapurna, Nepal, the site of Padwa's latest climb.

What makes for excellence in science? “To me, it’s pushing out into completely new territory,” Padwa says.
Here’s an excerpt from the JOC article:

“I associate the top of mountains with success, achievement and freedom. In contrast, the lower part of the mountain possesses many obstacles and challenges which need to be overcome. This is really not so different from bringing a chemical project to fruition and getting it published…

“Because of the rate at which they increase molecular intricacy, cascade reactions have received considerable attention from my research team over the past 25 years. The development of sequences that combine transformations of differing fundamental mechanisms broadens the scope of such procedures in synthetic chemistry and provides me with continuing challenges for reaching an ‘ideal summit.’”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bug splatter study is data driven

The next time you take a road trip, think before you clean the bug splatter off your car. Those insect remains may actually be more interesting than your vacation photos.

“It turns out that your car is a sampling device for understanding the biodiversity of all the places you’ve been,” says James Taylor, a computational biologist at Emory.

Genome Research recently published a paper by Taylor and collaborators that applied advanced DNA sequencing techniques that are traditionally used on microbial samples to look at insect biodiversity. “We were curious whether these techniques would work for more complex organisms,” Taylor says.

To collect genetic material for the study they used the bumper and windshield of a moving vehicle. Two samples were collected: on a drive from Pennsylvania to Connecticut, and on a trip from Maine to New Brunswick, Canada.

“We found that there is a huge amount of insect diversity, but what was really surprising was to see the enormous amount of novel sequence,” Taylor says. “It’s indicative of how poorly we have sampled the whole tree of life in genome research so far. There’s an enormous amount of species out there.”

Road tested

Taylor is a co-developer of Galaxy, an open-source software system for analyzing genetic data. The Galaxy developers recently refined the system, creating the Galaxy metagenomic pipeline that allows a research team to integrate all of the data, analyses and workflows of a study, and then publish this material as a live online supplement.

The bug splatter paper served as the first test of the metagenomic pipeline.
“I believe that this study is one of the most transparent and reproducible bioinformatics papers ever,” Taylor says. “Anyone can go online, follow links and see every step of our analysis and exactly what parameters were used. And they can take our data and do their own analysis of other questions.”

No computational experience is required to use the free Galaxy system, Taylor says. “All of science is becoming computationally intensive, so tools like this are needed to improve transparency.”

DNA sequencing technology is getting cheaper, opening more doors for research by small investigators, and Taylor is focused on serving this niche.

“Nowadays, you can have a crazy idea like studying bug splatter and without a lot of money or work, you can go out and do it just to see what’s there,” he says.

Related story:
Mapping genomics of complex ant system
Plug your data into the Galaxy

Monday, October 19, 2009

Icons of evolution

Nancy Lowe goes to church more often than most. All she has to do is step outdoors, where she finds the sacred in nature. During breaks from her job as a lead research specialist in biology, you might see her sketching a leaf or a bug somewhere on campus.

“I’m an artist and a naturalist,” she says. “Working as a lab technician is my day job.”

Lowe’s art is featured in the ongoing exhibit at Emory Library’s Schatten Gallery, marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” The eclectic show includes original editions of “Origin,” panoramic “nanoscapes” captured by electron microscopes and a retrospective of how poet Ted Hughes’ work evolved.

Lowe’s contribution is a series of luminous paintings called “Species Icons.” On canvases glinting with gold leaf, a pitcher plant wears a halo and tube worms are strung with jewels.

“Medieval religious icons seem to glow with a certain power,” Lowe says. “They’re old and precious. I wanted to combine that feeling with the careful attention to detail in scientific illustration of organisms. For me, that’s what’s sacred – the amount of geological time that it has taken to evolve these species.”

The paintings also grew out of a question that Lowe says she’s pondered for years: “Now that evolution has become our primary creation story, what should we put on our stained glass windows?”

After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago, Lowe worked in video and film before discovering her love of illustrating nature. She volunteered as an artist for a species inventory project in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She regularly teaches art, in addition to making her own. The name of her web site, "look at your fish", comes from 19th-century naturalist Louis Aggasiz. He would give his students a pan containing a pickled fish and leave them alone to stare at it for hours.

Careful observation is important to art, as well as science, she says. “I want my students to ask, ‘What’s this little bristle for on this bug?’ and realize that every structure is connected to some function. It all comes back to evolution.”

A microscope can distance scientists from their subjects, Lowe says. “We’re looking at things now through a molecular and a genetic lens. That is a more cerebral pursuit. I think we’ve lost something about teaching students to love the organism.”