Wednesday, April 29, 2009

First blush: When babies get embarrassed

Put on some music and invite a rambunctious 2-year-old to dance, and you'll likely get an unabashed show. But an intriguing transition occurs between the ages of 2 and 3, says Philippe Rochat, professor of psychology. Three-year-olds are more likely to hesitate before moving to the music. They may refuse and seek refuge in the bosom of their mothers. Those who dance may blush – especially if someone laughs at the performance.

"The fear of social rejection is the mother of all fears," Rochat says. "It's a very powerful phenomenon – I think it's probably even stronger than the drive for sex. It helps define us as a species, and it cuts across all cultures."

Rochat's latest book is called "Others in Mind: The Origins of Self-Consciousness."

What is your baby thinking?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Can science keep the faith?

Arri Eisen, director of the Science & Society program, co-authored a commentary in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education called, "Teaching Science, With Faith in Mind."

An excerpt:

Courts and classrooms have served as the arenas for the battle between evolution and creationism since the Scopes trial, in 1925. But why has the same match been fought, over and over, for the past 84 years? Why haven't we moved beyond such counterproductive contentiousness?

Science scholars and teachers have reacted to the various verdicts over the years by cheering or bemoaning them. It's time to stop simply reacting and really rethink the way we teach and communicate science to students and the public.

Continue reading.

Monday, April 27, 2009

From deadly flu to dengue fever: Rising risks

Uriel Kitron was in Australia last week, assisting health authorities in an outbreak of dengue fever in the state of Queensland, when news broke about the swine flu epidemic in Mexico.

Global travel and human alterations to the environment, such as rapid urbanization, are helping to fuel infectious diseases outbreaks, says Kitron, chair and professor of environmental studies. Kitron's research focuses on vector-borne diseases carried by insects and ticks and the zoonoses – diseases shared by humans and animals.

"In many developing countries, people are moving from rural areas to mega-cities, where they continue to practice subsistence agriculture," Kitron says. "Whenever you have large concentrations of people, domestic animals and poor sanitation and water supply, you have many opportunities for disease transmission."

Deforestation and other human changes to the landscape are other drivers of emerging infectious diseases, he added. "For example, when you bring agriculture into formerly forested areas, you change the migration patterns of animals and expose people and their livestock to more contact with wildlife," he explains.

Unusually hot, wet weather, a rapidly developing strain of the dengue virus, and a human traveler created "a perfect storm" for dengue fever in Queensland, Australia – which is experiencing its worst outbreak in two decades. About 1,000 people have become ill with the mosquito-borne illness. Dengue fever causes severe headaches and joint pain, and exposure to a second strain can result in hemorrhagic fever and death.

Kitron joined other experts in assisting Queensland health authorities. Kitron specializes in spatial epidemiology – using geographic information systems (GIS) and other methods to gather environmental data and create maps to pinpoint disease agents and their vectors in time and space.

The outbreak was traced to a patient who had recently traveled to Papua, New Guinea. "Although quite sick, he didn't go to a doctor for several weeks," Kitron says. "Whenever you have a lag time in diagnosis like that, you miss opportunities to prevent the spread of an outbreak."

Queensland's public health efforts – combined with cooler, drier weather – appeared to have stemmed the dengue fever outbreak for now. However, Kitron says the virus may be re-introduced, or could over-winter and re-emerge in the next hot season.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Drawing on Darwin

Click here to watch Ray Troll's Evolvo-Vision

Natural history artist Ray Troll recently visited Emory, to give his perspective on light, and on life. "Art relaxes me, and it's fun," said Julie Chang, a freshman biology major, during one of Troll's workshops. “I want to be a surgeon. I’m sure creativity will come into play because not all surgeries are the same, and not all bodies are the same.”

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Evolutionary eating

Two million years ago, our hominid ancestors experienced a decrease in the length of the large intestine, and an increase in the length of the small intestine, which forced the early hominids to rely on high-density foods, according to George Armelagos, chair of anthropology.

Armelagos' expertise was cited in a recent article, "Evolutionary Eating," in the journal Today's Dietitian.

"There's no problem during the Paleolithic period, and probably not even in the Neolithic period," Armelagos says in the article, because there was never an abundance of high-density foods available. But with the industrialization of the food system, which happened only a few 100 years ago, "came the abundance of high-density foods, which can create problems for humans in terms of consumption," he notes.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A guide to the peaks of baked Alaska

Why does the ice cream in a baked Alaska stay cold in the oven? Physics professor Sidney Perkowitz, author of "Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos," explains meringue in this Popular Science article.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Study yields clue to how stem cells form

An Emory study shows some of the first direct evidence of a process required for epigenetic reprogramming between generations – a finding that could shed more light on the mechanisms of fertilization, stem-cell formation and cloning. Cell Magazine published the results of the study on nematode C. elegans in its April 17 issue.

"One of the most fundamental mysteries in biology is how a sperm and egg create a new organism. By looking at the process at the molecular level, we're gaining understanding of this basic question of life," says David Katz, lead author of the study. Katz is a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Bill Kelly, associate professor of biology at Emory and a co-author of the study.

Read more about their work in Emory Report.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Teen lab culture

It's a common complaint that America's public schools need more support – especially when it comes to developing young scientists. Chair of Biology Victor Corces is doing something about it: He's opened the doors of his epigenetics lab to inner-city high school students.

See how both the students and lab benefit:

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The grey matter of dolphins

Scientific American revisits the brain debate sparked by a researcher who called the bottlenose dolphin "dumber than a goldfish." Emory neuroscientist Lori Marino is among those who strongly disagrees.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Solving mysteries of the brain

“I’ve always felt there is a big disconnect between the amazing experiences of my patients and the knowledge of the average student — even the average medical student,” says neurologist Linton Hopkins. “It’s dramatic to undergo paralysis, or blindness, or suddenly not be able to control a part of your body. To watch how ordinary people are able to respond to this kind of stress is inspiring.”

Hopkins teaches a unique undergraduate course in clinical neurology for the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology program. He takes students under his wing and into his exam rooms, where they actually become involved in solving cases.

Read the full story in Emory Report

Friday, April 10, 2009

Pioneering Peeps Investigators

Two Emory scientists led the field in Peeps experimentation more than a decade ago. Their groundbreaking work remains popular on the Web at You may want to read it before gorging on what the bunny brings.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Somalia, pirates and global food relief

The first U.S. ship to be seized by pirates in the Horn of Africa, which happened to be bearing food aid, serves as a stark reminder of the long-simmering crises in the region. "If you blink, things change in Somalia, that's how rapidly events are happening there," says Peter Little, professor of anthropology and director of Emory's new Development Studies Program.

Little, an expert on the Horn of Africa and Somalia, will be one of the speakers at an April 15 seminar entitled "Beyond Relief: Food Security in Protracted Crises." The seminar, set for 2:30 to 5 p.m. in room 575 of the law school, is titled after a recently published book. Featured speakers include economists Luca Alinovi and Luca Russo, co-editors of "Beyond Relief" and leading experts in food aid at the UN Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome.

“Beyond Relief” presents case studies from three of the most protracted crises in the world: in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Sudan and Somalia.

“These are places where instability has become the norm, which raises challenging questions about how to deal with them,” says Little. “We want undergraduates at Emory to learn something about how problems of global poverty and violence are inter-connected with what goes on in the United States.”

Little is an expert on the horn of Africa, and contributed chapters on Somalia to “Beyond Relief.”

Short-term humanitarian aid often does little to alleviate the human suffering and political turmoil in regions of protracted crises, Little says. “We’re starting a dialogue,” he adds. “The solution is to think about these areas in much longer-term ways and start helping them build public and political institutions, or they are just going to continue to be in crisis.”

Other speakers planned for the seminar include Patience Kabamba, visiting lecturer at Emory; John Stremlau, vice president for peace programs at The Carter Center; and Daniel Maxwell, co-author of “Food Aid after Fifty Years: Recasting its Role.”

Economics and Social Psychology

"By the second half of the year we will likely see a recession trough and the beginnings of a recovery. Our projection of the recovery is very, very flat," Dennis Lockhart, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, told the economics department on April 7.

Rather than bouncing back, the economy will more likely undergo years of slow recovery, said Lockhart, who is also a member of the U.S. Federal Open Market Committee. "I venture into the world of social psychology to help form a picture for that scenario. The argument that I would make is that there are fundamental changes going on in consumer attitudes in the country – that the attitude towards spending is actually shifting to a more frugal approach. And, very importantly, the capital market's facilitation of living beyond your means as a consumer has completely dried up. … The institutional framework that allowed people to spend more than they earned will not come back for a number of years."

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Chemistry's crucial catalyst

Imagine if all of the fuel to power our homes and our cars came from sunlight. “Think of what kind of world that would be,” says Craig Hill, Goodrich C. White Professor of Chemistry.

Hill is at the forefront of scientists working to make this vision a reality. Along with colleagues from Emory and Germany's Institute of Solid State Research, he developed a stable, tunable water oxidation catalyst – a crucial component needed to generate solar energy cheaply and efficiently enough to go mainstream.

The idea is to eventually turn every home and car into an “artificial leaf,” by mimicking natural photosynthesis. “Geothermal power and wind power are great, but the most abundant source of energy is light,” Hill says. “Sunlight is the key to solving the dual problems of decreased fossil fuel resources and environmental pollution.”

Hill grew up in sunny Southern California. “I have always been inspired by the beauty and creativity that is intrinsic in nature,” he says, explaining what drew him to science. At the beach, he admired the action of waves, but surfing was not an option.

“I can get sunburned in minutes, literally,” says the red-headed Hill, who has survived two bouts of melanoma. “I got good at winter sports, like speed skating and skiing. I enjoy doing fast things.”

His work style also seems based on efficient movement. Munching on handfuls of organic mixed nuts in his Atwood office, he swivels to take calls, check e-mail and sign papers brought in by an assistant.

Hill just returned from a national lectureship in Switzerland, followed by talks in the Caribbean and Salt Lake City. At age 60, his star keeps rising. Among his many honors, he’s been elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Distinguished Fellow of the Victorian Institute of Chemical Sciences and co-chair of the National Science Foundation Workshop in Inorganic Chemistry for 2007–2009.

Hill joined Emory in 1983. Decades ago, he imagined many practical applications for catalysts to speed up gradual natural processes — like the oxidization of metals. “The red in Georgia clay is basically rust,” he says, explaining that iron in the soil, exposed to water and oxygen over time, becomes iron oxide. “We live in an oxidizing planet.”

Hill borrowed from nature’s principles to create complex molecular clusters called polyoxometalates, or POMs — inorganic catalysts for “greener” industry. He put together a consortium of scientists to develop an environmentally friendly paper production process — using POMs to break down wood pulp without discharging the usual toxic byproducts.

His love of nature helps fuel his interest in green chemistry. Hill is among a group of Emory scientists who go mountaineering together. “I like being in the outdoors and pushing the envelope,” he says. “When you get to the top of a really high mountain, it’s such a sense of accomplishment.”

His current research is focused on tapping sunlight for artificial photosynthesis, in collaboration with Tianquan Lian, William Henry Emerson Professor of Chemistry, and Jamal Musaev, director of the Cherry L. Emerson Center for Scientific Computation.

“We want to use sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen,” he explains. Hydrogen becomes the fuel. Its combustion produces the by-product of water — which flows back into a clean, green, renewable cycle.

“The cycle is simplicity itself, but it’s not that easy to do,” Hill says. “Hydrogen is what we want — that’s the fuel. But you can’t get it without releasing oxygen. It has to be a balanced reaction.”

Three main technical challenges are involved: developing a light collector, a catalyst to oxidize water to oxygen and a catalyst to reduce water to hydrogen. All three components need improvement, but a viable water oxidation catalyst, or WOC, is the most difficult scientific challenge, Hill says. “You can’t have any organic structure in a WOC, because it will combine with oxygen and self-destruct. You’ll wind up with a lot of gunk.”

Hill and his team may have found a solution in the first prototype of a stable, molecular WOC. The chemists now plan to work with physicists and biologists at Emory and beyond, to find ways to refine and integrate all three of the components needed for artificial photosynthesis.

“Each of the three problems is sufficiently complex that no one research group can solve them all,” Hill says. Top scientists from around the world are racing for solutions. “Energy is one of the hottest topics in research right now,” Hill says. “It’s such a compelling area, it’s hard not to want to get involved.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A date with Saturn

The Emory Planetarium celebrates the International Year of Astronomy with an open house on Friday, April 3 from 8 to 10:30 p.m. Drop by to get a glimpse of Saturn and the first quarter Moon.