Thursday, September 30, 2010

How do Obama-era children view race?


"I just want children to feel comfortable in their own skin," says Bentley Gibson, who is researching self-identity and race in preschoolers. Photos by Carol Clark.

Race has been a constant theme in the life of Bentley Gibson, an Emory graduate student in psychology. She grew up in White Plains, New York. “I was one of the very few African Americans in the advanced placement classes in my school,” she recalls.

Her father, who directs an after-school program for disadvantaged children, was one of the first African Americans to graduate from a public high school in Ocilla, Georgia. He left his all-black school to integrate the white one during his senior year. “They wouldn’t let him play on the basketball team,” Gibson says. “He told me that it was obvious that they didn’t want him there, and that they thought of him as lesser, even though he was at the top of his graduating class.”

Her mother, a dermatologist, wanted her daughter to build a strong and positive self-identity. She read her stories about African-American historical figures, and when Gibson went to see Santa Claus, he was always black. “Everything in my elementary school and on TV was white, but everything at home was black, including my dolls,” Gibson says.

She went on to Atlanta’s Spelman College, a historically black college for women, and her mother’s alma mater. She was suddenly surrounded by brilliant and talented African-American women. “I spent four years learning about my own culture and history. It was life changing,” Gibson says. While grades K-12 learn about African Americans primarily in the context of slavery and the Civil War, “there is so much more to us,” she adds.

A big revelation for her was learning about the black-and-white-doll experiments conducted by African-American psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark, beginning in the 1940s. The landmark research found that black children aged 3 to 7 more often preferred white dolls over black ones. The majority of the black children studied also more often associated positive attributes with the white dolls, such as “good” and “pretty,” and negative attributes with the black ones.

“It saddened me to learn that young children were already so aware of how society thinks of them as inferior, simply based on the color of their skin,” Gibson says. “I started wondering what was on my mind at that age. I remembered thinking, ‘I wish my hair was straight. I really want my hair blowing in the wind.’”

Which doll is your favorite, and why?

At Emory, Gibson joined the lab of psychologist Philippe Rochat, who studies the effects of culture and environment on early child development. For her master’s thesis, Gibson designed modern-day doll experiments for the lab, using black and white versions of Barbie. Her results are showing that about 60 percent of black children aged 3 to 5 choose the white doll when asked which one is their favorite.

These results are similar whether the black children attended a mainly white preschool, or a predominantly African-American preschool that celebrates African-American culture. “I’m surprised, I thought there would be different results for children in these very different schools,” Gibson says. She had theorized that being in a predominantly black school, surrounded by positive roles models who looked like themselves, most of the children would prefer a doll that looked similar to themselves. “Even with posters of President Obama and Martin Luther King on the walls, the black children are showing a white bias,” Gibson says.

She hopes her research will raise awareness of the need to foster positive identities in black children, and to counteract the mass media imagery that celebrates certain ideals. “The vast majority of Caucasian children in previous studies preferred the white doll – they go with their own racial in-group. ” Gibson says. “But all these years later, even with a black president in office, the black kids are showing a white bias.”

Gibson has expanded the research, adding a Hispanic Barbie to the mix to study the preferences of Hispanic children, who are showing a similar white bias. The researchers are also conducting the doll experiment with children in the South Pacific.

“This research is close to my heart,” Gibson says. “I think we need to develop curriculums and other sources that combat negative stereotypes and help change the mind-set of people. I just want young children to feel comfortable in their own skin.”

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Margaret Atwood on aliens and angels

What do flying rabbits and burning bushes have in common? They are both the subjects of upcoming talks by Margaret Atwood, at Emory October 24-26. A poet, environmental activist and novelist, Atwood is the author of the award-winning science-fiction books “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Oryx and Crake.”

Her latest novel, “The Year of the Flood,” imagines a country where genetic engineers have invented hybrid creatures like a lion-lamb mix, but most humans have been wiped out by an airborne plague.

Tickets are free but required for Atwood’s talks, the 10th series of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature. Click here for details of the talks.

Atwood once wrote in the Guardian that science fiction often contains theological narrative. “Extraterrestrials take the place of angels, demons, fairies and saints, though it must be said that this last group is now making a comeback,” she wrote.

“Now we’re close to being in control of everything except earthquakes and the weather,” Atwood concluded in the article. “But it is still the human imagination, in all its diversity that directs what we do with our tools. Literature is an uttering, or outering, of the human imagination. It lets the shadowy forms of thought and feeling – heaven, hell, monsters, angels and all – out into the light, where we can take a good look at them and perhaps come to a better understanding of who we are and what we want, and what the limits to those wants may be. Understanding the imagination is no longer a pastime, but a necessity; because increasingly, if we can imagine it, we’ll be able to do it.”

What do you think? Does the imagination of writers and other artists have a place in science?

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Making childbirth safer in Ethiopia

Photo by Nathan Golon.

Poul Olson writes in Emory Report:

More than 100,000 newborns die each year in Ethiopia, many within the first 48 hours after delivery. The Maternal and Newborn Health in Ethiopia Partnership (MaNHEP) aims to improve the odds for babies and their mothers through a community-oriented program designed to bring health services into the home.

During the summer, nine Emory students, led by Emory anthropologist Craig Hadley and Rob Stephenson, from the Rollins School of Public Health, took part in surveys of more than 1,000 women and frontline health workers in the Amhara Region to understand patterns of childbirth and attitudes toward maternal and newborn health (MNH) services.

In Ethiopia, more than 90 percent of childbirths take place in homes with the aid of only family members or traditional birth attendants. Ethiopia’s fledgling Health Extension Program has been stymied because health workers receive limited training in MNH care and people don’t understand their value or roles.

MaNHEP is helping train frontline health workers to deliver a basic home-based package of interventions, including clean delivery and essential care in the immediate and early postnatal period. These workers will then share these practices with pregnant women, their families and traditional birth attendants, with the goal of building trained "birth teams."

One of the biggest risks to women during childbirth is excessive post-partum hemorrhaging. In their research, Emory anthropology students Jed Stevenson and Yemesrach Tadesse found that women typically associate this event with spirit possession and address it by cracking a whip, shooting a gun into the air, or making a loud noise.

“Part of our intervention is to provide the correct information about labor and delivery,” Hadley said. “We want them to understand that excessive bleeding is an emergency requiring transport to a health facility.”

Emory researchers found that most families already make at least some preparations for safe childbirth. This includes acquiring clean razor blades to cut the umbilical cord and soap to prevent infection. At the end of the project, Hadley expects to find changes in attitudes, priorities and practices around MNH services. “We know that delivery can be dangerous in Ethiopia,” Hadley said. “Hopefully, our follow-up research will reveal that more mothers are taking steps to make childbirth safer.”

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Scientist to reveal secrets of super heroes

Have you ever wondered how strong you would have to be to leap a tall building in a single bound? Was it the fall or the webbing that killed Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy? How does Kitty Pryde from the X-Men use quantum mechanics to walk through walls?

All these questions and more will be addressed in an Emory lecture by James Kakalios, a physics professor from the University of Minnesota and the author of “The Physics of Super Heroes.” The free talk, sponsored by the physics department, will be held Sept. 24, in White Hall 208 at 3 p.m.

“I get a lot of requests to give this talk,” Kakalios told eScienceCommons. “But with my daughter here, Emory’s request moved to the top of the line.” (Laura Kakalios is an Emory sophomore, majoring in neuroscience and economics.)

The following Q&A offers a taste of what’s to come on Friday.

eScienceCommons: How long have you been reading super-hero comics?

James Kakalios: I read them as a kid growing up in the 60s. I gave them up in high school when I discovered girls, but I picked up the hobby again in graduate school, and I’ve continued it ever since. My favorites are the Flash and the Fantastic Four. Both of these have leading characters that are scientists.

eSC: If you could have any super power, what would it be?

JK: I wish I had super speed. But writing the book, I realized all sorts of other things I would have to specify for the genie to grant this wish. I would need to be able to sustain super accelerations and ignore air drag. And if you’re running at super speed, moving electrical charges create enormous magnetic fields, so you’d be pulling after you every piece of metal not nailed down, and some that were.

eSC: Have you performed any super-human feats lately?

JK: Just last week I picked up an object that was going 600 miles per hour.

eSC: Really?

JK: Yes, I poured myself some ginger ale while traveling in an airplane. That’s the same principle of relative velocities that allows the Flash to pluck bullets out of the air.

eSC: Do you worry that comic-book analogies dumb down the subject of science?

JK: No, I worry that physics is not accessible enough to the general public. When you tie a scientific principle into a Spider-man story line it helps people remember it. We are being called on more and more as citizens and voters to have opinions about scientific topics. Basic physics can be a useful thing to help understand everything from stem cells to climate change and alternative energy.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Baby boomers raise midlife suicide rate


Click on graph above to enlarge

Baby boomers appear to be driving a dramatic rise in suicide rates among middle-aged people, a new study finds. The journal Public Health Reports published the analysis by sociologists Ellen Idler of Emory and Julie Phillips of Rutgers University.

“The findings are disturbing, because they’re a reversal of a long-standing trend,” Idler says.

The suicide rate for the U.S. population overall has been declining for decades, Idler notes. And people aged 40-59, in particular, have long had a moderate suicide rate.

The baby boomers, people born between 1945 and 1964, have broken that pattern. By 2000, most people aged 40 to 59 were baby boomers and the suicide rate started climbing steadily for these middle-age ranges. The authors found significant increases of more than 2 percent per year for men, and more than 3 percent per year for women, from 1999 to 2005. (By 2005, all middle-aged people were baby boomers.)


Click on graph above to enlarge

The post-1999 increase has been particularly dramatic for those who are unmarried and those without a college degree, the analysis showed. For example, from 2000 to 2005, the suicide rate jumped nearly 30 percent for men and women aged 50 to 59 with some college but no degree. Middle-aged people with a college degree appeared largely protected from the trend.

The baby boomers also experienced higher suicide rates during their adolescence and young adulthood, doubling the rate for those age groups at the time. Their suicide rate then declined slightly and stabilized, before beginning to increase again in midlife.

“You might think that the higher rates in adolescence would lead to lower rates later because the most suicide prone people would be gone but that doesn’t appear to be the case,” Idler says. “Clinical studies often show that knowing someone who committed suicide is considered a risk factor for later doing it yourself, and that may be one factor here. The high rates in adolescence could actually be contributing to the high rates in middle age.”


Click on graph above to enlarge

Higher rates of substance abuse and the onset of chronic diseases are among other possible factors in the rising baby boomer suicide rate. “As children, the baby boomers were the healthiest cohort that had ever lived, due to the availability of antibiotics and vaccines,” Idler says. “Chronic conditions could be more of a rude awakening for them in midlife than they were for earlier generations.”

Traditionally, midlife has been considered a time when people are at their peak of social integration. “We need to pay attention to this new increase in suicides, during a period of life previously thought to be stable and relatively protected from suicide, and in an age group now occupied by extraordinarily large numbers of people,” Idler says.

Data for the study were drawn from the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. Preliminary data from 2006 and 2007, the latest time that statistics are available, indicate that the upward pattern in midlife suicide is continuing, Idler says.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Schizophrenia: What we know now


“Many people lament the slow pace of research progress on the causes of schizophrenia, and it is certainly true that far too many individuals continue to suffer from this debilitating disorder. But it’s also true that there have been significant scientific advances in recent years,” says Emory psychologist Elaine Walker.

Walker, who has studied the origins and precursors of psychosis for 30 years, edited a special issue of “Current Directions in Psychological Science,” summarizing the recent research on every facet of schizophrenia.

During the late 1800s, the syndrome was referred to as early-onset dementia, since the symptoms begin during the late teens or early adulthood. In the 1920s, schizophrenia was associated with a frail body type, another theory that soon bit the dust. By the 1950s and 1960s, psychosocial theories were popular, and schizophrenia was linked to mothers who were unduly cold and critical to their children.

“These ideas not only proved to be incorrect, but they also caused great distress for the parents who were being blamed,” Walker says.

“Scientists gradually gave up the search for the silver bullet," she adds. "They now have come believe that schizophrenia is not a single disorder, but rather a syndrome with multiple causes.”

The special journal issue, aimed at both scientists and the general public, gives overviews of prenatal factors, genetics, neurological development, brain abnormalities, social cognition and functioning and promising new avenues for treatment on these various fronts. “We hope that this special issue will inspire young investigators, who, in the future, will move us closer to solving the complex puzzle of schizophrenia,” Walker says.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Do monarch butterflies use drugs?


Photos by Jaap de Roode and Lisa Sharling.

By Carol Clark

Emory biologists are studying whether monarch butterflies can cure themselves and their offspring of disease by using medicinal plants. The National Science Foundation recently awarded Jaap de Roode a $500,000 grant to further his research, which focuses on the behavior of monarchs infected with a protozoan parasite.

“We have shown that some species of milkweed, the larva’s food plants, can reduce parasite infection in the monarchs,” says de Roode, (in photo, at left) assistant professor of biology. “And we have also found that infected female butterflies prefer to lay their egg on plants that will make their offspring less sick, suggesting that monarchs have evolved the ability to medicate their offspring.”

Few studies have been done on self-medication by animals, but some scientists have theorized that the practice may be more widespread than we realize. “We believe that our experiments provide the best evidence to date that animals use medication,” de Roode says.

Take a video tour of the monarch butterfly lab.


“The results are also exciting because the behavior is trans-generational,” says Thierry Lefevre, a post-doctoral fellow in de Roode’s lab. “While the mother is expressing the behavior, only her offspring benefit.”

Monarch butterflies are known for their spectacular migration from the United States to Mexico each year, and for the striking pattern of orange, black and white on their wings. That bright coloration is a warning sign to birds and other predators that the butterfly may be poisonous.

Monarch caterpillars feed on any of dozens of species of milkweed plants, including some species that contain high levels of cardenolides. These chemicals do not harm the caterpillars, but make them toxic to predators even after they emerge as adults from their chrysalises.

Previous research has focused on whether the butterflies choose more toxic species of milkweed to ward off predators. De Roode wondered if the choice could be related to the parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. The parasites invade the gut of the caterpillars and then persist when they become adult monarchs. An infected female passes on the parasites when she lays her eggs. If the adult butterfly leaves the pupal stage with a severe parasitic infection, it begins oozing fluids from its body and dies (see photo, at right). Even if the butterflies survive, they do not fly as well or live as long as uninfected ones.

Experiments in de Roode’s lab have shown that a female infected with the parasites prefers to lay her eggs on a toxic species of milkweed, rather than a non-toxic species. Uninfected female monarchs, however, showed no preference.

The Emory scientists will use the NSF grant to see if the lab results can be replicated in nature, across different populations of monarchs in various regions of the world. De Roode’s collaborator, chemical ecologist Mark Hunter of the University of Michigan, received $150,000 from the NSF to identify the chemicals that account for the medicinal properties of the milkweed plants.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Blazing a new path for development work

Photos by Carla Roncoli.

Emory’s master’s degree in development practice (MDP) launched this semester, and the 13 graduate students in the inaugural class have hit the ground running. “It’s exciting to meet so many diverse people who have had so many different experiences,” said MDP candidate Stephanie Stawicki of her classmates, who come from around the United States, and the French West Indies, Kenya, the Ivory Coast and Burma.

The University was flooded with expressions of interest, says David Nugent, professor of anthropology and the director of the MDP program at Emory. “We looked for students who are gifted and accomplished and, even more importantly, who have a burning passion to do development work,” he says.

Emory was among the first 10 universities awarded a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for the program. The foundation has committed more than $15 million to create MDP programs at more than 20 universities worldwide. The grants are part of a significant, worldwide effort by the MacArthur Foundation to promote more effective, sustainable development for the poorest of the poor.

“I’ve always loved what I do,” says Nugent, “but this undertaking has got me so charged up and engaged, it’s like somebody took my batteries and plugged them into the sun. This is a chance to help craft new ways of approaching a problem that is really of major importance to everybody.”

In recent years, recognition has been growing that single-factor approaches to alleviating extreme poverty are mostly ineffective, and that more holistic, integrated methods are needed, Nugent says. “We’re trying to train students to recognize the context-specific forces in different parts of the world that make it impossible to come up with a single answer to poverty.”

The MDP program will draw from resources across the University, including the Global Health Institute, the Institute for Development Nations, the Rollins School of Public Health, Goizueta Business School, Emory Law, the school of Nursing, anthropology, economics, environmental studies, history, political science, sociology, women’s studies and more. In addition to internal resources, Emory will draw on its strong working relationships with other Atlanta universities and organizations such as The Carter Center, CARE and the CDC.

During the fall and spring, the students will combine intensive classroom training with local field experience. The Office of University and Community Partnerships will place the students with Atlanta organizations involved in urban development.

During the summers, the students will do field work with international development projects. “We’re placing the students in different contexts in different parts of the world,” Nugent says. “When they come back, they can compare notes on what they have done and everyone can learn from the experiences of the entire group.”

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