Thursday, May 27, 2010

'Orgasm Inc' takes on female Viagra

An Emory psychologist offers insights on the mysteries of female sexuality in the provocative new documentary “Orgasm Inc.” Following is an excerpt from a report on the film by Newsweek:

“Orgasm Inc,” which has its New York premiere May 27 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is a desperately needed antidote to all the hype generated by pharmaceutical companies pursuing their holy grail: a female Viagra. ... Filmmaker Liz Canner hopes the film will help women be more skeptical about drug-company claims. ...

What does make a woman more receptive to sex? That’s still something of a mystery. Emory University psychologist Kim Wallen, who is interviewed in the film, has been studying the interaction of hormones and social influences on sexual behavior for many years. Much of his work consists of observing monkeys at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. He has what could be the film’s best line. As Wallen and Canner watch monkeys engaged in an elaborate sexual dance, she asks him what he has learned about sex by studying primates. Wallen thinks for a moment and then says, “Pay more attention to females.” That’s better than a pill any day.

Click here to watch the film's trailer, it's hilarious.

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Buffalo wings, beer and brains

Mary Loftus writes in Emory Magazine:

A crowd is packed into the back room of Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta, an old-school watering hole known for its clientele of politicians and law enforcement. They are sharing pitchers of beer, noshing on nachos and wings, and waiting to see Emory neuroscientist Todd Preuss talk about brains.

Preuss, an associate research professor at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, is momentarily taken aback by how many people have shown up on a Saturday night to watch him give a PowerPoint on the evolutionary connections between human brains and those of other members of our extended primate family. “My mother would never believe it,” he says with a smile.

The Atlanta Science Tavern began in summer 2008. “We gather in a casual environment, like a cafe, restaurant, bar, or home, to share a bite to eat and pint to drink, and to discuss interesting news and views about scientific advancements and discoveries and how they affect our daily lives,” says co-founder Josh Gough, a technology professional in Atlanta. “The idea came from PBS and NOVA’s Science Cafe movement.”

The Science Tavern’s other co-founder, Carol Potter, is a high school biology teacher and an Emory parent to Cindy Potter. Emory scientists are regularly featured at Science Tavern gatherings, talking about topics from inaccurate movie “science” to the clash between dolphin intelligence and human ethics.

Marc Merlin, an Emory alum who works for an Atlanta nonprofit and writes the blog Thoughts Arise, joined the group about a year ago and enjoys discussing issues like climate change, vaccination safety, and the teaching of evolution. “The Science Tavern,” says Merlin, “has reaffirmed for me the existence of a community of people who hold well-reasoned, dispassionate argument in high regard.”

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Brain expert explores realm of human dawn

The A. Sediba cranium belonged to a juvenile that lived nearly 2 million years ago. Photo by Brett Eloff, courtesy of Wits University.

Emory anthropologist Dietrich Stout has been tapped to help analyze the skull of a newly discovered hominid species, dating back to the pivotal period when the human family emerged.

“This is a remarkably intact skull of a potential human ancestor from right around two million years ago, when we think the origin of our own genus was happening,” Stout says. “It’s exciting to learn that such a thing exists, let alone to be asked to work on it.”

Stout was chosen to join the team of researchers on the project due to his expertise on early brain function, particularly the relationship between the use of stone tools and brain evolution.

“Whatever story this skull has to tell, it will be interesting,” Stout says.

The fossilized skull was found last year in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, from the University of the Witwatersrand, and fellow researchers have since recovered skeletal remains of several other individuals belonging to the new species, named Australopithecus sediba.

Scientists estimate that the individuals lived 1.78 to 1.95 million years ago, when early species of the human genus Homo existed along with species from the more ape-like genus Australopithecus.

Attempts to narrow down the emergence of the human line have “always been a bit messy,” Dietrich says, noting that multiple candidate species have been identified – often from incomplete remains and sometimes based on a single individual. The numerous pieces emerging from the A. sediba site, however, already represent at least two individuals and are fitting together like a puzzle, giving researchers a clearer view back in time.

Sediba means “source” in Sotho, and A. sediba shows an interesting mix of characteristics. “They have primitive, ape-like long arms, but much more human-like bi-pedal legs and posture,” Stout says. “The skull looks to have the capacity for the size of brain you’d expect to find in a modern chimpanzee – or perhaps an early human ancestor. It appears to be on the cusp, giving us the potential to tease apart some of the really interesting questions about what got human brain evolution started, such as whether the size or structural changes were first.”

Stout will join other members of the team in Johannesburg and examine the fossils first hand. High-tech scans of the skull fossil are being used to create a virtual, 3-D “cast” of the cranium. “It’s not like working with an actual flesh brain, but it will give us information about the size and volume of what was inside the cranium, and some of the features of the surface morphology,” Stout says.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Synthetic cell: A step closer to 'recipe for life'

The creation of the first self-replicating, synthetic cell by the J. Craig Venter Institute is being hailed as a milestone in the history of biology and biotechnology. In the journal Science, the researchers described the steps to make a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome.

“It’s marvelous what they’ve done,” says Emory chemistry chair David Lynn. “They’ve taken a major step in defining a minimal set of chemical instructions for what we call living. This understanding, and the underlying technology, will certainly be extended and amplified into a synthetic biology. Their accomplishment also moves us that critical step closer to the definition of and a recipe for life. And that is profound.”

Watch the video, above, of Lynn explaining the discovery on CNN.

Lynn, professor of biomolecular chemistry, is working to understand supramolecular self-assembly, and how life may have originated on pre-biotic Earth.

“What Craig Venter and his team have done is taken the genome out of one organism and put it into another,” Lynn says. “Our group is coming at it from the opposite direction, of emergent life forms. Both approaches are trying to define the minimal chemical composition for life.”

Excitement over Venter's discovery should be tempered by caution, says Paul Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics. "Like any great scientific innovation, this has enormous promise and enormous peril," Wolpe said on ABC World News Tonight. "This may allow us to make more virulent viruses. This could unleash a bacterium on the world that has properties we didn't expect that could cause great disease and ecological damage."

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Prestige affects chimp behavior

When Brad Pitt begins sporting a fedora, chances are that many other young men will start wearing one, too. Anthropologists define this disproportionate influence as prestige, a trait that has been thought of as uniquely human – until now.

Emory researchers have discovered that chimpanzees prefer to follow the example of older, high-status individuals when it comes to solving a problem or adopting a new behavior. In a study recently published by PLoS One, chimpanzees from two separate groups watched two group mates, distinguished by status and experience, solve a foraging task, each using a different technique. When the observing chimpanzees were given the opportunity to solve the task, they overwhelmingly preferred the technique used by older, higher-status individuals with a proven track record of success.

“Because both techniques were equally difficult, shown an equal number of times by both models, and resulted in equal rewards, we concluded the most copied chimpanzee enjoyed more prestige than the other,” said Victoria Horner, from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory. “If similar biases operate in the wild, the spread of cultural behaviors may be significantly shaped by the characteristics of the original performer.”

The research team also included Darby Proctor and Frans de Waal from Yerkes; Andrew Whiten from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and Kristin Bonnie from Beloit College.

The researchers hope that further studies will shed light on the relative influence of age, dominance rank and experience, all of which may contribute to chimpanzee prestige.

Read more about the Yerkes experiment in Discover magazine.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Gritty childhood shapes criminologist

Robert Agnew wrote his first sociology paper while still in high school. Photo by Brian Meltz.

By Carol Clark

Emory sociologist Robert Agnew grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the 1950s and 1960s. It was the pre-casino era, and Atlantic City was a rundown, dying resort. Neither of Agnew’s parents finished high school and the family lived in the poorest section of town, known as the Inlet.

“It was the type of place where it’s easy to get interested in sociology,” Agnew says.

He attended Atlantic City High School, during an era of tense divisions of race and class. “There were regular fights,” Agnew says. He recalls an especially harrowing incident during a study hall, when he was sitting in the lower part of the auditorium. Students in the balcony began unscrewing large floodlights from the ceiling and throwing them down at the students in the lower seats.

"The atmosphere wasn't conducive to learning, but at the same time I was exposed to a lot of things that most people aren't, and I benefited from that," he says. "It became clear to me that social location has a large effect on one's behavior and views."

Agnew went on to develop one of the leading theories on the causes of crime and delinquency: General strain theory (GST).

Classic strain theory had focused on the inability to achieve middle class success. For his 1980 dissertation, Agnew expanded this line of thought into GST, which focuses on a range of additional strains or stressors. Those most strongly related to crime are high in magnitude, perceived as unjust, associated with low social control, and create some pressure or incentive for criminal coping. Examples include parental rejection, bullying, chronic unemployment, discrimination and criminal victimization.

Agnew’s 2007 book on the theory is called “Pressured into Crime.”

Over the years, GST has been further developed and tested, and is regularly cited in criminology textbooks. The entire May 2010 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice is devoted to the topic.

“It’s gratifying that researchers keep applying general strain theory to new issues,” Agnew says. He served as co-editor of the special issue, along with Paul Mazerolle of Griffith University in Australia. “We solicited a wide range of articles that didn’t simply test the theory, but took it into new directions.”

One of the articles compared the effects of traditional bullying with cyber bullying -- the harassment of a child through a computer or cell phone. "I was surprised that the authors found that cyber bullying has a stronger association to crime than the traditional, face-to-face variety of bullying," Agnew says.

Listen to a podcast on bullying and cyber bullying, moderated by Agnew.

He’s currently working on a chapter for a forthcoming book, “The Origins of American Criminology,” summarizing GST and how it has developed and expanded over time. “I’m sure that additional revisions and extensions of the theory will continue to emerge,” Agnew says. “Crime theories are ongoing creations, reflecting the particular experiences, as well as the strengths and weaknesses, of their creators.”

In the coming year, Agnew plans to focus on climate change – including its potential impacts on crime. “Climate change is probably going to become THE major issue for everyone,” he says. “Very little research has been done on the possible social consequences of climate change, so I’d like to try to make a contribution.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

Faith, fervor and environmentalism

“If you really believe in trees and recycle paper, an economist will tell you that the long-run effect is going to be to reduce the number of trees,” said Emory economist Paul Rubin, during a guest appearance on the Canadian program “The Agenda” with Steve Paikin.

Rubin was part of a panel discussing the parallels between religious belief and devotion to the environment.

“Nuclear power is the cleanest power we know, and yet environmentalists will stand back in horror when they hear nuclear power,” Rubin said. “I think there are irrational aspects to environmentalism.”

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, called Rubin’s arguments “nonsense.” What do you think?

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

The sociology of 'Sex and the City'

Carrie Bradshaw owes a huge debt to Mary Richards of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” says Emory sociologist Tracy Scott.

“The late ‘60s and early 70s was the time that things really changed for women, both in terms of work roles and images on television,” says Scott, who researches culture, gender and occupations.

While cable opened the door for racy content, Scott contends that the career women in “Sex and the City” are in many ways less cutting edge than the characters in vintage sit-coms like “Mary Tyler Moore” and “That Girl.”

“’Sex and the City’ goes along with feminist notions of career women and being sexually liberated,” Scott says. “But in other ways it’s quite traditional, in its focus on women in romantic relationships.”

That ambiguity may explain why fans wearing flip-flops, sneakers and heels are expected to go see Carrie Bradshaw and her beloved Manolo Blahniks in “Sex and the City 2.”

“’Sex and the City’ is what we call an open cultural product, meaning that many people can look at it and enjoy it for different reasons. And those are usually the cultural products that are most successful,” Scott says.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Linking science and social justice



“As a freshman, I had just come out of the closet,” says Scot Seitz, a graduating senior who majored in biology and women’s studies. At Emory, you can feel comfortable no matter what your identity, says the winner of the 2010 Lucius Lamar McMullan Award, one of the university’s biggest student honors.

“It is interesting, a man taking women’s studies courses. Most people wouldn’t expect that,” Seitz says. “At its core I think women’s studies is looking at issues, ideas, from a different perspective. It encourages you to be creative in your thinking.”

Seitz’ creative path through Emory included working in the lab of chemist Lanny Liebeskind, and at the Emory Center for Global Safe Water, under the direction of Christine Moe and Juan Leon in the Rollins School of Public Health. He traveled to Bolivia his sophomore year, to research ecological sanitation.

“I’m interested in ways to reduce health disparities,” Seitz says. He wrote an honor’s thesis on the disproportionate rates of HIV infection in African American women. After working for two years with Teach for America in Atlanta, Seitz plans to pursue a master’s in public health and a doctorate in epidemiology.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Biology grad bridges lab and patient care


Biology graduate Ramone Williams, winner of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, says watching the dissection of a lizard in a high school science class sparked her interest in medicine. During her sophomore year at Emory, the Jamaica native began doing biomedical research on triple negative breast cancer at the Winship Cancer Institute.

She learned that triple-negative breast cancer spreads quickly and is more often fatal. “Breast cancer rates in general are higher in white women, but for this particular cancer it’s higher in African-American women,” Williams says. “I felt a personal connection with the people who were suffering behind the disease that I was researching.in the lab.”

Williams will use the scholarship to pursue a masters in philosophy and translational medicine at Cambridge University. “Translational medicine aims to bridge the gap between research in the lab and the implementation of those innovations in the clinic,” she explains.

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Friday, May 7, 2010

'Survivor': The marsh episode

Jenifer Hilburn, center front, and her merry band of clam diggers. From left: Rachel Harris, Sam Harrison, Andrew Fraser and Corbin Gleason. Photos, above and below, by Kathryn Henderson.

How do you separate the gung-ho students from the merely adventurous during a field trip to the Georgia coast?

You offer to take them on a sunset clam dig, in a marsh full of alligators – and the even more dreaded no-see-‘em gnats. Out of nine students on a recent trip to St. Catherines Island, only three hardy souls accepted the challenge.

“I stepped in the mud and I was immediately up to my crotch – and I’m six-foot-two,” says Andrew Fraser, a graduating senior, majoring in environmental studies. To keep from completely disappearing in the muck, “you had to kind of lean over and try to spread out your weight, like snowshoes,” he explains.

They used a noodling technique to gather the clams. “We put our hands into dark, muddy water and felt around,” Fraser says. “If you felt something rough, you knew it was an oyster. But if it was smooth and rounded, it was a clam and you pulled it out.”

Corbin Gleason, a sophomore from Oxford College, swatted at gnats with his hands, resulting in a mud beard that not only looked dashing, but blocked insects. Mud has its uses: It was the only bug protection available to the Guale Native Americans who once inhabited the island.

When the mud sucked the rubber boots off the feet of St. Catherines naturalist Rachel Harris, the students launched a valiant search-and-rescue mission. “All three of us were shoulder deep in the mud, trying to get her boots out,” says Sam Harrison, a graduating senior in environmental studies. “It was hard, but fun. I feel like anyone who has lost touch with their inner child and playing in the mud should go clam digging.”

The sun was long gone by the time they harvested a bucketful of the finest quahog clams. “The marsh is filtered out by all the land around it, and it’s blocked off from the outside world, so no pollutants can get inside it,” Harrison says. (St. Catherines is a privately owned island, and access to it is restricted.)

St. Catherines ornithologist Jenifer Hilburn led the expedition, and gave the students a cooking lesson. She sautéed the clams with olive oil, garlic, chives, cherry tomatoes and a little white wine, and served them over pasta.
“They were amazing, the best clams I’ve ever had,” Harrison says.

“They were delicious, so fresh and pure,” Fraser agrees. “There really is no better way to eat a clam than to harvest one and eat it right afterwards.”

The joint field trip was organized by paleontologist Anthony Martin from Emory environmental studies and geologist Stephen Henderson from Oxford College.

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Lake-bed trails tell ancient fish story

Graphic by Anthony Martin.

By Carol Clark

Is it possible to track the movements of an extinct fish in a long-gone lake? It is if you are Emory paleontologist Anthony Martin. He's found that wavy lines and squiggles etched into a slab of limestone near Fossil Butte National Monument are prehistoric fish trails, made by Notogoneus osculus as it fed along a lake bottom.

"This is a fish story, about the one that got away 50 million years ago," Martin says. "And I can tell you that the fish was 18-inches long, based on good evidence."

He led a detailed analysis, published in PLoS One, that gives new insights into the behavior of the extinct N. osculus, and into the ancient ecology of Wyoming’s former Fossil Lake.

“We’ve got a snapshot of N. osculus interacting with the bottom of a lake that disappeared millions of years ago,” Martin says. “It’s a fleeting glimpse, but it’s an important one.”

Fossil Lake, part of a subtropical landscape in the early Eocene Epoch, is now a sagebrush desert in southwestern Wyoming, located in Fossil Butte National Monument and environs. The region is famous for an abundance of exquisitely preserved fossils, especially those of freshwater fish.Graphic by Michael Page shows site where fish trail was found.

Trails left by these fish, however, are relatively rare. The National Park Service had identified about a dozen of them and asked Martin to investigate. Martin specializes in trace fossils, including tracks, trails, burrows and nests made by animals millions of years ago.

One of the fish trace fossils especially intrigued Martin. In addition to apparent fin impressions of two wavy lines, it had squiggles suggesting oval shapes. “The oval impressions stayed roughly in the center of the wavy lines and slightly overlapped one another. I realized that these marks were probably made by the mouth, as the fish fed along the bottom,” Martin says.

He then deduced that the trace was likely made by N. osculus – the only species found in the same rock layer with fossils showing a mouth pointing downward.Photo of N. osculus body fossil by Arvid Aese, U.S. National Park Service.

Martin brought his detailed notes, photos and sketches of the trace fossil back to Atlanta, where he enlisted the aid of disease ecologist Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec and geographer Michael Page, two of his colleagues in Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies.

Vazquez-Prokopec, who does digital spatial analyses of geographic patterns of diseases and pathogens, applied similar techniques to the trace fossil data. The results showed a mathematical correlation between the trace impressions and the mouth, tail, pelvic and anal fins of an 18-inch N. osculus.

“This provides the first direct evidence of N. osculus bottom feeding,” Martin says. “Not only that, the fish was bottom feeding in the deepest part of the lake. Previous research had suggested that the bottom of the lake had such low levels of oxygen that it was hostile to life. Our analysis indicates that, at least seasonally, some fish were living on the lake bottom.”Page created a Web site that allows viewers to zoom in on different aspects of the fish trace.

The scientists were also able to calculate how the fish was moving, and the pitch and yaw of its swimming motion. “The trace fossil lines look simple, but they’re not so simple,” Martin says, explaining that even the gaps in the lines carry information. "As the British say, 'Mind the gap.'"

“All three of us believe in making scientific data as open and assessable as possible,” Martin says, adding that he thinks it may be the first collaboration between a paleontologist, a disease ecologist and a geographer. “This opens up a new technique for studying trace fossils that we hope other people will try and test.”

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Is 'Iron Man' suited for reality?

Robert Downey Jr., who gets our vote as the best-dressed super hero, will be stepping out in “Iron Man 2” on May 7.

We asked Emory’s resident sci-fi movie expert, physicist Sidney Perkowitz, if Iron Man is suited for reality. We were a bit surprised by his answer:

“The idea of an Iron Man suit actually is in the works,” Perkowitz says. “The U.S. military has put plenty of money into building something called an exo-skeleton. A walking kind of Iron Man that is stronger than the average soldier, I think can happen.”

Injuries from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are spurring research into mechanical limbs that are integrated into neurons, he adds.

What about the arc reactor used in Iron Man? Sci-fan fans should watch the video interview, above, with Perkowitz.

Perkowitz is on the advisory board of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences program that aims to make mass entertainment more scientifically accurate. He’s also the author of “Hollywood Science: Movies, Science and the End of the World.”

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