Monday, February 29, 2016

Pollinators vital to food supply facing extinction, U.N. report warns

“I hope this report will raise the visibility of this issue globally and help spur more efforts to reverse the trend of pollinator declines,” says Emory biologist Berry Brosi, shown tending his research hive. (Bryan Meltz, Emory Photo/Video)

By Carol Clark

A growing number of species key to the world’s food supply, including 40 percent of invertebrate pollinators, are headed towards extinction, warns a new United Nations report – the first global assessment of pollinators.

“If pollinator declines continue at this rate it will have serious implications not just for human food security and economics but also for biodiversity and the health of ecosystems in general,” says Berry Brosi, an assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences and one of the lead authors of the report.

Brosi, a biologist and ecologist whose research focuses on both managed honeybees and wild bees, was among 77 international experts who worked on the pollinator assessment for the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity Ecosystem Services (IPBES). They spent two years evaluating information from more than 3,000 scientific papers, as well as indigenous and local knowledge from more than 60 locations around the world. The summary of the report will be posted online February 29.

Seventy-five percent of the world’s food crops depend on pollination by at least one of the 20,000 species of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, birds, bats and other vertebrates. And yet, the report warns, more than 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species, particularly bees and butterflies, face extinction. And 16 percent of vertebrate pollinators are under threat.

“When we lose even one pollinator species from an ecosystem, it can degrade the functioning of the system overall,” Brosi says. “Studies have shown this relationship between biodiversity of pollinators and both agricultural productivity and plant reproduction in wild ecosystems.”

The report cites diverse pressures on pollinators, many of them human-made, including habitat loss; use of pesticides such as neonicotinoid insecticides; parasites and pathogens; and global warming.

“Pollinators are important to many of the foods that are key sources of the vitamins and minerals in our diets, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds,” Brosi says. “Nutritionally, the pollinator declines will likely have the biggest impact on the poorest people of the world.”

Many crops also represent an important source of income in developing countries, such as coffee and cocoa.

The report found that the annual total value of global crops directly affected by pollinators is between $235 billion and $577 billion.

“Pollinator decline is a multi-faceted issue with many drivers contributing to it,” Brosi says. “We can’t just fix one thing and have the problem go away.”

The report provides a portfolio of ways to reduce the risk to pollinators, including the promotion of sustainable agriculture, reducing pesticide use and maintaining patches of natural habitat amid agricultural fields.

“I hope this report will raise the visibility of this issue globally and help spur more efforts to reverse the trend of pollinator declines,” Brosi says. “We need a global-scale effort and coordination among different countries and regions.”

The global assessment follows several calls for action at a national level, including the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators launched last year by President Obama.

Some additional findings by the global assessment:

The volume of agricultural production dependent on animal pollination has increased by 300 percent during the past 50 years.

Nearly 90 percent of all wild flowering plants depend at least to some extent on animal pollination.

In addition to food crops, pollinators contribute to crops that provide biofuels (canola and palm oils), fibers (cotton), medicines, forage for livestock and construction materials.

Pollinators, especially bees, have also played a role throughout history as inspirations for art, music, religion and technology. Sacred passages about bees occur in all major world religions.

Biologist Berry Brosi on Obama's 'plan bee'
Bees 'betray' their flowers when pollinator species decline

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Zeroing in on 'super spreaders' and other hidden patterns of epidemics

A study in Iquitos, Peru, is focusing on how asymptomatic human carriers contribute to the spread of dengue fever, transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.  “This information is important," says Emory disease ecologist Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, "because Latin America is more than 80 percent urban and the Aedes aegypti mosquito is in every town.” (NASA photo)

By Carol Clark

Ebola. Chikungunya. Zika. Once rare and exotic pathogens keep popping up and turning into household names. It’s the new reality as the climate warms, humans expand more into wildlife habitats and air travel shrinks the distances across the globe.

“Africa and other parts of the developing world are undergoing rapid urbanization, so we are going to keep seeing more of these explosive epidemics,” says Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, a disease ecologist focused on mosquito-borne diseases in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences.

The complex properties driving today’s disease transmission – and the speed at which an epidemic can travel – call for new methods of surveillance, Vazquez-Prokopec says. He is lead author on an opinion piece proposing a novel way of developing mathematical models of infectious diseases to uncover hidden patterns of transmission, recently published by Trends in Parasitology.

For example, he says, disease surveillance tends to focus on people with symptoms, but in cases of many mosquito-borne viruses – such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika – many of the people infected have no symptoms. And these asymptomatic carriers have the potential to infect others. They may even play the role of super spreaders – those who contribute the most to the transmission of the pathogen.

“There is a gradient in the manifestation of disease, from no symptoms at all to death,” Vazquez-Prokopec says. “And during an epidemic of mosquito-borne disease, that spectrum of disease manifestation is coupled with variable factors such as the movement of people and mosquitoes and whether individual people are more attractive to the mosquitoes and get bitten more often.”

The so-called 80-20 rule – 80 percent of disease transmission events in an epidemic are caused by 20 percent of people – is a well-established phenomenon. “We know this pattern is prevalent across disease systems,” Vazquez-Prokopec says, “but we don’t know the variations that combine to make someone a super spreader. We need to determine if each variable is just noise or is contributing to transmission in a predictable way, so that we can target interventions that have more impact.”

The Belen Market in Iquitos, Peru, draws people from throughout the region. "The wealth of data that we've collected for dengue, combining the components of humans, pathogens, mosquitos and the environment, is giving us a detailed picture of the complexity of disease transmission across an urban landscape in the developing world," says Vazquez-Prokopec. (Image: Suedehead)

The uneven contribution of certain individuals, locations or reservoir hosts to the spread of a disease is known as transmission heterogeneity.

Vazquez-Prokopec and his co-authors propose a framework that moves beyond investigations of single sources of heterogeneity and accounts for the complex couplings between conditions that have potential synergistic impacts on disease transmission. This framework aims to uncover whether there is a hidden, unified process underlying the significant levels of heterogeneity for any infectious disease.

“The time is right to embrace the full complexity of transmission dynamics,” Vazquez-Prokopec says. “We now have enough baseline data, and the necessary computer power, to develop more complex models of disease transmission to help contain outbreaks.”

Vazquez-Prokopec specializes in spatial analysis of disease transmission patterns and has several research projects for dengue fever ongoing in Latin America. His work in the city of Iquitos, Peru, for instance, is focusing on how asymptomatic carriers contribute to the spread of an epidemic. Dengue is spread by the same mosquito species, Aedes aegypti, that spreads the Zika and chikungunya viruses, so the data his lab is gathering has the potential for broader applications.

“The wealth of data that we’ve collected for dengue, combining the components of humans, pathogens, mosquitos and the environment, is giving us a detailed picture of the complexity of disease transmission across an urban landscape in the developing world,” Vazquez-Prokopec says. “This information is important because Latin America is more than 80 percent urban and the Aedes aegypti mosquito is in every town.”

Vazquez-Prokopec’s co-authors on the Trends in Parasitology article include: Uriel Kitron, chair of Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences; Lance Waller, chair of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics in Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health; Alex Perkins from the University of Notre Dame; Alun Lloyd from North Carolina State University; Robert Reiner from Indiana University; and Scott Thomas from the University of California, Davis.

Human mobility data may help curb epidemics
How the dengue virus makes a home in the city

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A beginner's guide to sex differences in the brain

By Donna Maney, Emory Professor of Psychology

Asking whether there are sex differences in the human brain is a bit like asking whether coffee is good for you – scientists can’t seem to make up their minds about the answer. In 2013, for example, news stories proclaimed differences in the brain so dramatic that men and women “might almost be separate species.” Then in 2015, headlines announced that there are in fact no sex differences in the brain at all. Even as I write this, more findings of differences are coming out.

So which is it? Are there differences between men’s and women’s brains – or not? To clear up the confusion, we need to consider what the term “sex difference” really means in the scientific literature.

To illustrate the concept, I’ve used a web-based tool I helped develop,, to plot some actual data. The three graphs below show how measurements from a sample of people are distributed along a scale. Women are represented in pink, and men in blue. Most people are close to the average for their sex, so that’s the peak of each “bump.” People on the left or right side of the peak are below or above average, respectively, for their sex. I’ve added individual data points for three hypothetical study subjects Sue, Ann and Bob. Not real people, just examples. Their data points are superimposed on the larger data set of hundreds of people.

Before we get into the brain, let’s look at a couple of familiar sex differences outside the brain. Many of us, if asked to describe how men’s bodies differ from women’s, would first mention the sex difference in external genitalia. The graph below depicts the number of nontransgender adults that have a “genital tubercle derivative” (clitoris or penis) of a given size.

Size of human genitalia. Data from Wallen and Lloyd, 2008. (Graphic by Donna Maney.)

All of the women in this sample, including our hypothetical Sue and Ann, fall within a certain range. All of the men, including Bob, fall into a different range. With relatively rare exceptions, humans can be accurately categorized into sexes based on this measure.

Sex differences in human height. Data from Sperrin, et al., 2015. Graphic by Donna Maney. 

Next, let’s consider another difference that we can all see and understand: the sex difference in height. Here, we see overlap, depicted in purple. Unless a person is very tall or very short, knowing only that person’s height will not allow us to categorize that person as male or female with much certainty. Yet, even though we all know that some women are taller than some men, we would probably all call this a sex difference.

A typical sex difference in the human brain. Data from Tunc et al., 2016. (Graphic by Donna Maney.) 

Now let’s consider a typical sex difference inside the human brain. This graph depicts a sex difference in structural connectivity, or the degree to which networks of brain areas are interconnected, as reported in a recent study (the median effect size from the study is shown). The distributions of values for men and women are essentially the same; they overlap by 90 percent. Sue and Bob have fairly similar values, and Ann’s value is higher than the average man’s. We can see that this sex difference in the brain is quite different from the sex difference in genital measurements. With only the measurement of brain connectivity, the odds of correctly guessing a person’s sex might be as low as 51 out of 100. Since the odds aren’t perfectly 50:50, this is technically a sex difference. The term means that sex explains a portion of the variability in a trait, not that men take one form and women another. There may be a few more women at one end of the range and a few more men at the other, but for the majority, the trait is not that related to sex.

Small differences such as this one are important. The discovery of any sex difference is valuable for scientists and physicians because it points to other, more meaningful sources of variation. Because the sexes differ according to factors such as genes, hormones, and environment, a sex difference in the brain provides clues about the impact of these other factors on the brain. Following up on those clues helps us understand why susceptibility to disease, efficacy of drugs and even the course of normal development are different among all individuals, not just between men and women.

Despite their relevance to human health, the scientific value of sex differences is rarely discussed in the news media. Instead, sex differences become clickbait for promoting stereotypes. Small differences in the brain have been reported to explain a wide variety of presumably sex-typical behaviors, from hunting to cleaning the house. Although it makes intuitive sense that a difference in the brain must translate to a difference in behavior, there is very little evidence linking any sex difference in the human brain directly to a particular function or behavioral outcome. So think twice before you assume that greater brain connectivity confers better multitasking or map-reading skills.

The graphs above are meant to illustrate why it’s not particularly informative to ask a yes-or-no question like “Do the sexes differ?” We need to ask more sophisticated questions: to what extent do the sexes differ? How much do they overlap?

Any decent scientific report of a sex difference contains all of the information needed to answer these questions. But not many journalists look at the actual report; they often rely on press releases, which may misrepresent the nature and meaning of a difference. As a result, the headlines can turn out to be wrong. For example, in the 2013 study reportedly showing that men and women differ profoundly, the sexes overlapped by an average of more than 86 percent. And the 2015 study that supposedly showed no sex differences in the brain? The authors never actually made such a claim. In fact, they provided a long list of bona-fide sex differences.

The next time you read about a sex difference, if you have access to the research report you can graph the difference yourself on Enter the average value (reported as the “mean”) and variance (reported as the “standard deviation”) for each sex. The tool will automatically draw a graph and calculate the degree of overlap. You can then see for yourself the extent to which the trait is related to sex.

Don’t be surprised if you can’t find the values you need to graph the difference. The authors may not report them, or they may not have actually compared the sexes. Take, for example, the report last year on thermal comfort in office buildings. The media were aflutter for days, explaining why women are always cold at the office. A quick look at the scientific paper itself shows that there were no men in the study at all! This makes calculating the overlap a bit problematic.

Overlap between the sexes may seem so obvious that it needs no discussion. But its underappreciation is leading educators to separate boys and girls into single-sex classrooms in order to accommodate their different brains, and physicians to consider sex, instead of more relevant factors such as body weight, when prescribing drugs. Although well-intentioned, these practices amount to stereotyping because they assume the distribution looks like the top graph above when it may look more like the bottom one.

Nearly every day, new research is published that, if overinterpreted, could be used to promote sex stereotypes. Most neuroscientists are not interested in doing that. The few neuroscientists who do overinterpret their data, often to the great delight of the media and the public, provide fuel for discriminatory practices and cast the entire field in a negative light. The best way to deal with dubious interpretations is to examine the data and draw our own conclusions. The data will speak for themselves.

This article was first published in The Conversation.

Top image:

Monday, February 22, 2016

Beauty and brains: Best-in-breed show dog assists with Emory neuroscience on the side

Emory alum Lindsay Fetters and her best-in-breed winning vizsla, Eli, enjoy their moment at the Westminster Kennel Club. (Photos by Teddy Lei.)

By Carol Clark

The crowd applauded as Atlanta resident and Emory alum Lindsay Fetters, clad in a powder-blue suit dress, dashed into the ring with Eli, a graceful, spirited vizsla with a golden-brown coat. It was the recent Westminster Kennel Club’s best sporting dog competition. Fetters and Eli had just won a best-in-breed event at the show – making Eli the top vizsla in the country. Fresh from this victory, the pair seemed to glow as they glided across the green carpet.

Dog lovers around the country were watching the TV broadcast from Madison Square Garden as the announcer gave a bit of backstory: “Eli’s a participant in the Dog Project at Emory University, which is where dogs go into MRIs fully awake and unrestrained so we can learn a little more about their intellectual and emotional abilities.”

That’s right. While Eli did not take the prize for best sporting dog, he did get a nod for being the only Westminster show dog that assists with neuroscience research in his spare time.

“After we won best in breed and moved on to the sporting event, I had to fill out a card for the announcer to say some unique things about Eli, so I put down the Dog Project,” says Fetters, who is the owner, breeder and handler of Eli. “The general public watches the show and I wanted people to know that these dogs are much more than just pretty faces. Many of these dogs do therapy work and other important things.
Celebrating with a high five

“Also, I love Emory, so I wanted to plug it as much as I could,” adds Fetters, who received her MBA from Goizueta Business School in 2014.

Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns watched the Westminster show from Atlanta. Berns is the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy and also heads up the Dog Project, which is researching evolutionary questions surrounding humans’ best, and oldest, friend. The project, which began with two dogs and has since expanded to 80, was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without restraint or sedation. The Dog Project has already identified regions of the canine brain associated with reward and processing faces and scents.

“Lindsay and Eli have been part of the Dog Project almost since the beginning and they have participated in four experiments,” Berns says. “Now that Eli’s won best in breed, I worry that maybe he will be having too much fun fulfilling his stud duties to stay involved in our research.”

Fetters was introduced to dog shows early by her mother, who specialized in Irish setters. “I started showing her Irish setters when I was four years old,” Fetters says.

By the time she was 15, she wanted her own dog to show, and chose the Hungarian vizsla, a medium-sized canine bred for hunting and pointing birds, known for its energy and intelligence. “I named my first vizsla Traitor, because I was cheating on the Irish setters,” Fetters recalls. (Eli, now six-and-a-half-years-old, is the offspring of Traitor.)

While she was still in high school, Fetters began working part-time at a non-profit in Alpharetta called Canine Assistants, which trains service dogs for people with disabilities. She continued working there throughout her undergraduate years at the University of North Georgia, and even after she graduated.

“It was a great job,” Fetters says. “I trained the dogs, and I loved being with them. And then I trained the people how to use the dogs. It was really rewarding to know you were enriching someone’s life. People with disabilities are often used to having a caregiver. But having these dogs makes them a caregiver, in a sense, which is empowering. I saw some people who previously rarely left their house find a sense of purpose when they got the dog. They would start getting up to care for their dog and go for walks and then decide to start school or find a job.”

"It’s hard to explain the feeling of being recognized on a national level with a dog that you raised and trained," Fetters says.

By 2013, Fetters decided that, after 15 years at Canine Assistants, she wanted dogs to just be her passion and not her job. She had already started looking at MBA programs. She was studying for her GMAT at a coffee shop when another customer noticed her Canine Assistants t-shirt and told her about the Dog Project.

“I thought it was really fascinating,” Fetters says. “I like the science behind the Dog Project, and also the challenge of getting a dog to be still in an MRI machine with all the noise and distractions.”

Plus, Eli needed a job, she says. “He’s very task-oriented and needs a lot of interaction. He’s really energetic so staying very still in an MRI is difficult for him but he loves a challenge. He especially likes the treats he gets afterwards.”

During high school and her undergraduate years, Fetters had worked so she wanted to quit her job and devote herself fully to enjoying the student life while getting an MBA. She found her match at the Goizueta one-year MBA program, where she focused on business management.

“When I toured Emory, I knew it was for me,” Fetters says. “I immediately felt at home there: I love the Emory culture and the sense of community, especially within the business school.”

A highlight was her experience in the Gouizeta Advanced Leadership Academy. “For spring break, we went sailing in the British Virgin Islands,” Fetters says. “We worked in teams and were given new challenges every day.” One day she was a navigator and the next day the captain.

“The year at Goizueta changed my whole life,” Fetters says. “I met friends that I will have forever, along with top professors and alumni that I can learn from and call on for advice. It opened my eyes to all the opportunities out there.”

Fetters found a great job as an asset manager at the Goddard Investment Group, a commercial real estate investment firm. Eli is part of the team.

“He goes to work with me every day and sits at my feet in my office,” Fetters says. “My boss is a great dog person and all my co-workers love Eli. He sometimes delivers mail to people because he loves to carry things around. He also enjoys just visiting peoples’ offices to get a treat.”

Every workday, Eli stops in at the convenience store in the office building where the owner gives him a boiled egg. “He doesn’t even have to pay for his egg like everyone else,” Fetters says. “She peels it for him and breaks it into little pieces and hands it to him. His nickname is Prince Eli and he definitely lives up to that.”

When he’s not raising office spirits or assisting in neuroscience, Eli dabbles in acting. Watch for his subtle performances in the Sundance Original TV series, “The Red Road.” Going against type, Eli acted sad while sitting next to a tombstone and afraid as a policeman chased him off a porch.

When they returned to work, Eli and Fetters were greeted with flowers and a party. (Courtesy Lindsay Fetters.)

Eli already had a huge fan base as he set off to compete at the Westminster Kennel Club, the most prestigious dog show in the United States and one of the oldest of any sporting events, now in its 140th year. Fetters and Eli had spent many weekends during the past year competing at dog shows across the country. Eli ranked among the top five vizslas, earning him an invitation to Westminster.

He did not disappoint. “He was kind of a super star the day he won best of breed, happy and outgoing and just wagging his tail the whole time,” Fetters says. “He’s just a heck of a show dog and embodies the ideal vizsla: Light-footed, graceful, smooth and really muscled. He looks like a dog that could go out into the field and hunt all day.”

Fetters is no slacker herself. “Winning best of breed at the Westminster Kennel Club is the thrill of a lifetime, something I’ve dreamt of since I was old enough to watch TV,” she says. “I’m not a professional, but I was showing against professionals in that venue, so to win was a huge honor. It’s hard to explain the feeling of being recognized on a national level with a dog that you raised and trained.”

Fetters’ cell phone and email were soon flooded with messages of congratulations. The Wall Street Journal ran a photo of Eli giving Fetters a high five and the Denver Post ran of a photo of him holding his best-of-breed ribbon.

When Fetters and Eli finally returned to the humdrum work-a-day world of their office, they were greeted with a surprise celebration party.

You will be glad to learn that Eli remains grounded. Yes, he’s in demand for stud services. To Eli, however, sex is not as important as relationships.

“We plan to keep doing the Dog Project,” Fetters says. “Both of us are at our best when we’re busy and interacting with others. And Eli enjoys learning the tasks and getting the attention from the people involved. He’s a little bit of a ham.”

What is your dog thinking? Brain scans unleash canine secrets
Scent of the familiar: You may linger like perfume in your dog's brain
Dogs process faces in specialized brain area, study reveals

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Computer scientist Li Xiong considers the human element of cyber security

"Cyber security is vital to everyone because so much personal data is out there," says computer scientist Li Xiong. "Every single day, for almost everything that you do, data is being collected and stored somewhere digitally." (Emory Photo/Video)

By Carol Clark

Li Xiong is Winship Distinguished Research Associate Professor in Emory University’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science and its Department of Biomedical Informatics. She directs Emory College’s Assured Information Management and Sharing (AIMS) research lab, focused on cyber security issues.

One of the lab’s long-term goals is to improve ways to manage health-care data records that benefit biomedical research while also guaranteeing individual patient privacy. “My research has a strong human element in the sense that it’s person-oriented,” Xiong says. “I want to aggregate your data in ways that protect your confidentiality and also benefit you and society as a whole. Basically, I want you to tell me everything about you, without telling me anything about you. It sounds impossible, but like most computer science problems it’s really a matter of optimization.”

In this interview, Xiong talks about current challenges in cyber security and her career as a computer scientist.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Wuhan, China. If you put a map of China on top of a map of the United States, Wuhan would be in roughly the same spot as Atlanta. Wuhanese like spicy food and their personalities can be a little bit spicy, too. But they are very kind and warm-hearted. 

My parents are regular, middle-class people who had and continue to have a great influence on my life. They instilled in me the notion of knowledge for the greater good. My dad works for the government and my mom works for a bank.

How did you get interested in computer science? 

In high school I liked math and physics. I love logic and analysis. And I enjoy finding the fastest, most elegant, way to solve a problem. When I started applying to colleges, a recruiting professor and a high school alumni from the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) advised me to consider computer science. My dad also had a major role in my decision. He read a lot and believed that computers had a bright future.

I was accepted in the computer science department at USTC.

How did you wind up in the United States? 

I actually hadn’t thought about going to the United States until I had almost graduated. At that time, we were not really exposed to the outside world. These days, of course, the world is really small.

The year I graduated, in 1997, the Internet was just becoming ubiquitous. I didn’t sign up for an email account until I was a senior. We had really slow Internet connections. I remember getting a big book, called Pearson’s Guide, which was like the Bible for how to apply to U.S. universities. I used the limited information resources that I had and typed my applications on a typewriter.

I got accepted into the Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University. I sometimes call myself a Hopkins dropout because I left after 1.5 years when I finished my master’s degree. It was the Internet boom period and I wanted to see what it was like to work in industry.

I worked for a few years with a private company on projects like analysis of stock market data to detect fraud and suspicious transactions. I found cyber security interesting, but private industry was not as intellectually challenging as research. I realized I wanted to go back to school and I was accepted at Georgia Tech.

How important is cyber security to the average person?

Cyber security is vital to everyone because so much personal data is out there. Every single day, for almost everything that you do, data is being collected and stored somewhere digitally. Information on your movements is collected on your smart phone. When you visit a doctor, your symptoms and prescriptions are being recorded. Your Internet search terms are being tracked and recorded. So are demographics from your voter registration and details of your purchases when you shop.

All this information is a really valuable resource that can benefit you. You may receive coupons targeted for you, or good recommendations for books on Amazon. You can access maps quickly and locate nearby restaurants or get directions.

The information can also benefit society at large. Public health officials, for instance, might be able to identify an emerging flu epidemic by aggregating data streams from drugstores. They could then use an algorithm to predict where the outbreak will spread and proactively intervene.

On the other hand, there are a lot of dangers associated with misuse of data. There is the potential for theft and for an individual’s rights of privacy to be violated.

As a cyber security expert, do you do anything differently than most consumers? 

I mostly disable the location access on my phone. By default, when you download an app it asks if it can use your location. So if you go to “Settings” on your phone, then to “Privacy” and “Location Services,” you will probably find that a lot of your apps are accessing your location.

Your location traces are scraped and collected and they can be used to build a profile of you. That profile could identify where you live and work, your movement patterns and even your religious and political views.

I’m not very paranoid, but I’m probably more cautious than most people. I disable the location services for most, but not all, of my apps. You may think there is no risk, but there is always some risk.

In fact, a major project of my research group is building privacy-ensuring location mechanisms. We are trying to cloak a user’s location by making it a bit less precise, but still viable for applications. This is where the human element comes in. It’s a tradeoff between usefulness and protecting privacy.

You recently received a $1.06 million funding award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute. Can you talk about your lab’s work on that project? 

All medicine is empirical, based on certain characteristics of patients, their symptoms, their prescribed treatments, and the patient outcomes. If detailed data is collected electronically for every patient that comes into a hospital or clinic then you can build a huge dataset. When a new patient comes in, you could type in their characteristics to compare it to this huge dataset. You could get a customized solution, so-called precision medicine, based on each individual patient’s characteristics. 

We’re looking at ways to do this kind of data analysis while preserving the privacy of each individual in the data. And we need to make sure that when we aggregate the data, that the quality of the data is ensured.

One way to protect an individual’s privacy is to perturb the data by adding some noise. But when you perturb data, its quality suffers. So you have to figure out how to perturb it just enough to obfuscate an individual’s identity without sacrificing the value of the data.

Another challenge is efficiency of use. Hospitals can encrypt data before storing it to make sure that it’s not misused. But analyzing encrypted data requires a lot of computation making it impractical in the real world.

We’re trying to design protocols that combine confidentiality with utility and ease of use. And instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, our project takes a patient-centered approach. We are focused on establishing data registries with formal privacy guarantees that are tailored to be useful while taking into account individual patient privacy preferences and risks. Again, the human factor is very important: We want to enable social good without personal risk. The long-term goal is to promote sustainable and scalable biomedical research involving large amounts of health-care data while also empowering patients with more rigorous and transparent privacy control.”

Pioneering work on the causes of crime

"Climate change will impact most of the leading causes of crime," says criminologist Robert Agnew. (Emory Photo/Video)

By April Hunt, Emory Report

Robert Agnew, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Sociology, recently won the American Society of Criminology’s highest honor, the 2015 Edwin H. Sutherland Award, for his pioneering work on the causes of crime. Agnew developed General Strain Theory (GST) — one of the leading explanations of crime and its causes. GST states that certain strains or stressors, such as economic problems and peer abuse, increase the likelihood of crime. These strains create negative emotions, including anger and frustration. Individuals sometimes cope with these strains and negative emotions through crime as a way to reduce or escape from them. Examples include crimes such as theft to obtain money, revenge against the source of strain or related targets (such as assaulting abusive peers), or use and abuse of illicit drugs to alleviate negative emotions.

Agnew, who served as president of the American Society of Criminology in 2012-2013, is currently working on a book exploring the social consequences of climate change, including the effects of climate change on crime.

In this interview, Agnew explains the basics of GST and why climate change is the greatest threat of our time.

What are the major causes of crime in General Strain Theory?

GST does not state that all strains or stressors increase crime, only some do. Those strains most likely to increase crime have several features. Among other things, they are high in magnitude, seen as unjust, associated with low social control, and readily resolved through crime. Let me give an example. Many professors face a good deal of strain; they work long hours, their research papers are rejected, and their grant applications are denied. But these strains typically do not lead to crime, partly because they are associated with high social control. These professors have prestigious jobs and they have worked very hard for a good many years to get these jobs. So they have much to lose by engaging in crime. But other strains do increase the likelihood of crime. These strains include parental rejection, child abuse, abusive peer relations, severe economic problems including chronic unemployment, criminal victimization, homelessness, discrimination and the inability to achieve certain goals. I detail and explain all of these strains in my book, “Pressured Into Crime: An Overview of General Strain Theory” (Oxford, 2006).

Not everyone who experiences something like a violent childhood or poverty reacts to that strain with crime. Does your research indicate what factors account for this? 

Most people do not cope with strains through crime; they cope in a legal manner. For example, they cope with economic problems by cutting back on expenses, working longer hours or borrowing money from others. Criminal coping is more likely when people lack the ability to cope in a legal manner. For example, they lack problem-solving skills and have no one they can turn to for support. Criminal coping is more likely when the costs of crime are low. For example, people are in environments where the likelihood of being sanctioned for crime is low and they have little to lose if sanctioned. And criminal coping is more likely when people are disposed to crime. For example, they believe that violence is justified if you are insulted, they associate with others who encourage criminal coping, and their personalities are such that they are quick to anger and tend to act without thinking.

You have argued that climate change is likely to become one of the major drivers of crime. How would that work? 

Climate change will impact most of the leading causes of crime. It will increase strain, reduce social control, weaken social support, foster beliefs favorable to crime, contribute to traits conducive to crime, increase certain opportunities for crime, and create social conflict. Climate change will increase exposure to strains, including extreme weather events (such as heat waves, flooding, droughts), food and freshwater shortages, the loss of livelihood, health problems, forced migration, poverty and inequality, and exposure to armed conflict. We are already starting to see many of these effects, and research suggests that these strains will increase the likelihood of crime. I plan to further examine the negative social effects of climate change, including the effects on crime, in a book project. Indeed, I feel a special obligation to do so. I have no doubt that climate change is the greatest threat to confront humanity, with the lives and well-being of billions at stake, especially the poor and those in developing countries.

Gritty childhood shapes criminologist

Monday, February 8, 2016

Zika virus raises issues of both abortion rights and disability rights

Women in 2015 protest a bill in North Carolina to increase restrictions for women seeking abortions.

Chloe Angyal writes in the Huffington Post about how the Zika virus may put abortion rights and disability rights on a collision course (although the causal connection between Zika and birth defects has not been established). Below is an excerpt from the article:

"While abortion rights advocates might well point to Zika-linked microcephaly as evidence that the U.S. needs to liberalize abortion laws, disability rights advocates might argue otherwise. On the issue of abortion, the feminist and disability rights movement often come into uncomfortable conflict as they struggle to accommodate both the rights of a woman to control her own fertility and the rights of people with disabilities to exist.

"Now, with the threat of Zika-linked fetal abnormalities looming, that fault line could well crack open, and at least one thought leader in disability rights is concerned by the hastiness with which calls for loosened abortion restrictions are being made.

"There are clear parallels between the experiences of women and those of people with disabilities (not to mention overlaps between the two groups), noted Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a professor of English at Emory University and a pioneer of the discipline of disability studies. Through much of history, she said, able-bodied women were not allowed to control their own reproduction.

“'There’s a long, deep and troubling history of women’s reproduction being taken over by men and by a variety of other cultural institutions,' she told HuffPost. Likewise, people with disabilities have long been subject to reproductive coercion, from the abandonment of newborns with disabilities to mandatory sterilization of women with disabilities. They have, said Garland-Thomson, 'been eugenically eliminated from the world through selective abortion and other biomedical practices.' 

"Both groups have similar histories of subjugation, particularly around medical decision-making. And on the issue of access to abortion, particularly in the age of prenatal fetal testing, those histories collide."

Read the whole article in the Huffington Post.

Why we stare at those with disabilities