Tagged: UNC Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • richardmitnick 10:26 am on July 20, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Elizabeth Davis spent 21 years trying to receive a correct diagnosis from doctors about her condition which prevented her toes from uncurling causing her to walk with crutches for the most of her life, , , GTPCH1 impairs her ability to produce dopa, , Mutagenesis, NCGENES project, They were able to treat it — with something as simple as a pill. A pill that has been on the market since 1988 used to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease, UNC   

    From UNC: “The Cure Code” 

    University of North Carolina

    July 18th, 2017
    Alyssa LaFaro

    1
    Davis can now walk fully unsupported and live a relatively normal life thanks to a correct diagnosis from UNC researchers within the NCGENES project. No image credit.

    “Consider this: In 1969, if a disease-linked gene was found in humans, scientists had no simple means to understand the nature of the mutation, no mechanism to compare the altered gene to normal form, and no obvious method to reconstruct the gene mutation in a different organism to study its function. By 1979, that same gene could be shuttled into bacteria, spliced into a viral vector, delivered into the genome of a mammalian cell, cloned, sequenced, and compared to the normal form.” —Siddhartha Mukherjee, “The Gene: An Intimate History”

    “I can move my toes,” Elizabeth Davis says.

    Her 9-year-old son looks at her in awe. The two stand, wide-eyed in the middle of a Verizon Wireless store in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Davis leans hard against her crutches, staring at her feet. She looks up and smiles.

    At age 37 — for the first time in 31 years — Davis can uncurl her toes from a locked position, the symptom of a condition gone misdiagnosed for just as long. Three months later, she sheds her crutches, walking fully unsupported — something she hasn’t done since she was 14 years old.

    In 1975, the same year Davis was born, UNC microbiologists Clyde Hutchison and Marshall Edgell experienced a different kind of life-changing event. They’d been working rigorously to isolate DNA within the smallest-known virus at the time, Phi-X174. More than anything, they wanted to understand how to read the genetic code. Then, later that year and across the pond at St. John’s College in Cambridge, Fred Sanger figured it out. The British biochemist became the first person to develop a relatively rapid method for sequencing DNA, a discovery that won him a Nobel Prize in Chemistry — for the second time.

    In response to Sanger’s discovery, Hutchison took a sabbatical and headed to England to work in his lab. During his first year there, he helped uncover the entire sequence of Phi-X174 — the first time this had been done for any organism. While there, he realized the new ability to read DNA could help him and Edgell solve a different problem they’d been having back in North Carolina: fusing two pieces of DNA code together to create an entirely different sequence.

    After returning to Chapel Hill, Hutchison continued his work with Edgell and also Michael Smith, a researcher at the University of British Columbia who he met while working in Sanger’s lab. Together, the trio successfully fused two differing DNA strands using a more flexible approach to site-directed mutagenesis — a technique that makes gene therapy possible today. They published their results in 1978. Smith would go on to receive the Nobel Prize for this work in 1992.

    —-

    The scientific breakthroughs of the 1970s changed the field of genetics forever. In 1980, Sanger received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his contributions, along with Walter Gilbert (Harvard), who discovered that individual modules from different genes mix and match to construct entirely new genes; and Paul Berg (Stanford), who developed a technique for splicing recombinant DNA.

    Meanwhile, researchers in Chapel Hill continued to chip away at the mysteries of the gene. Oliver Smithies, who came to UNC in 1987, would later win the Nobel Prize for his work in gene targeting using mouse models. That same year, UNC cancer geneticist Michael Swift and team discover the AT gene, which predisposes women to breast cancer; and George McCoy becomes the first clinical trial participant in the world to receive the genetically engineered Factor VIII gene to treat his hemophilia at the then UNC-Thrombosis and Hemostasis Center.

    Genetics was changing the world. And this was only the beginning.

    An unsolved mystery

    One year after Sanger won the Nobel Prize, Elizabeth Davis turned 6. She soon began walking on her toes, which had suddenly, one day, curled under in pain, making it nearly impossible for her to stride with feet flat on the ground. Her knees knocked together as she struggled to move with the swift pace characteristic of a child her age. Davis continued to walk on her toes for years.

    “I would even brace the school walls when walking down the hallway,” she says. Eventually, the pain became unbearable. By the time she was 12, she’d resigned herself to crutches.

    Doctors believed Davis’ condition could be treated with foot surgery, misdiagnosing her condition for years. By age 14, she had already undergone three procedures — two to lengthen her Achilles tendons and an experimental bone fusion. But each surgery offered little to no relief, and walking only grew more painful for Davis, both physically and emotionally. As her condition worsened, her classmates became cruel — so much so that she dropped out of high school when she was just 16.

    By age 20, Davis grew restless. “The pain was constant,” she remembers. “I could hardly move my legs — they just felt weak. I would drag them behind me as I used my crutches. I couldn’t even lift them.” Doctors suggested she undergo a third Achilles tendon lengthening surgery, the result of which minimally improved her condition.

    “By that age, I just wanted more,” Davis says. “I just wanted to do things, to go places. I wanted the surgery to work. But it didn’t. And the pain continued.”

    It would be another 17 years before doctors realized the problem was hidden in her genome.

    The birth of a department

    In 1990, the start of the Human Genome Project — an international research program to map out the 20,000 genes that define human beings — further fueled new discoveries in the field of genetics. So when Jeff Houpt, then-UNC School of Medicine dean, formed a research advisory committee in 1997 and asked his faculty what the number-one research program the university needed to focus on, they responded: genetics and genome sciences.

    Great minds think alike. At the same time, the College of Arts and Sciences was also hosting its own committee that vied to develop a genetics department. “At this point, I had a vision for a pan-university program,” Houpt shares. “This wasn’t just going to be a program of the medical school.”

    Along with the College, the schools of public health, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, and information and library science all wanted in, offering financial assistance to the program. Then-Provost Robert Shelton and Chancellor James Moeser both signed off on it as well. “What we wanted from Shelton and Moeser was more money and more positions,” Houpt remembers. “And they agreed to that.”

    By 2000, a hiring committee was ready to interview candidates to chair the new department and genomics center. Terry Magnuson quickly emerged as the lead candidate. He and his team had spent the past 16 years researching developmental abnormalities using genetics and mouse models, successfully changing the genetic background of a mutated gene.

    “It was obvious he was going to have a following,” Houpt remembers. “People were going to listen to him because he’s a good scientist. But more than that, it was pretty clear that Terry was interested in building a program, and this university-wide effort appealed to him.”

    Unanswered pain

    By the time she reached her 30s, Davis’ condition had spread to her arms. She underwent multiple MRIs, nerve and muscle testing, and a spinal tap. She even endured a fifth, unsuccessful surgery on her feet. Physicians misdiagnosed her yet again. A few believed she suffered from hereditary spastic paraplegia, a genetic condition that causes weakness in the legs and hips. Another told her she had cerebral palsy. “But I didn’t want to believe him,” she says — and it’s a good thing she didn’t.

    As Davis continued her search for answers, walking grew more and more painful. “I was always in pain,” she admits. “But some weeks were really, really bad — to the point where I couldn’t even move.” She finally succumbed to the assistance of a wheelchair. “I hated it so much. I barely went anywhere.” And when she did, she needed help.

    Her mother assisted her regularly with everyday tasks like grocery shopping. Her youngest son, Alex, learned to expertly navigate her around high school gyms, baseball fields, and the local YMCA pool so she could watch her other son, Myles, compete in the plethora of sports he participated in.

    “Myles really experienced the worst of it,” Davis says. “I remember one time, in particular. I was taking a shower and knew I was about to fall. I called for him and he came running. He was always there to pick me back up.”

    Sequences and algorithms

    After the Human Genome Project published its results in 2004, genomic sequencing became an option for people with undiagnosed diseases. But analyzing and understanding the 3 billion base pairs that make up a person’s genetic identity was an expensive process. As time progressed and technology improved, though, the technique became more manageable for both physicians and patients.

    Using these new genomic technologies for outpatient care intrigued UNC geneticists James Evans and Jonathan Berg. In 2009, after gathering enough preliminary data, the NIH granted the team the funds to start the North Carolina Clinical Genomic Evaluation by NextGen Exome Sequencing (NCGENES), which uses whole exome sequencing (WES) to uncover the root cause of undiagnosed diseases. Using just two tablespoons of blood, WES tests 1 percent of the genome — a feat that is both miraculous and controversial, creating a whole new wave of ethical questions.

    Simply put: “Some people want information that other people don’t,” Evans explains. Most people want to know about genetic disorders that have treatment options, but when it comes to those that don’t, they’d rather not hear it. “Navigating those different viewpoints can be a challenge,” he says. Privacy and confidentiality also present problems within the insurance world. Although protections exist in the realm of medical insurance, major genetic predispositions could have large implications for life, disability, and long-term care insurance.

    Today, upward of 50 researchers from across Carolina participate in NCGENES to study everything from the protection of data to the delivery of results. More than 750 people with undiagnosed diseases have undergone testing.

    NCGENES wouldn’t exist without the technical infrastructure that tracks, categorizes, and helps analyze genetic material as it makes its way through multiple laboratories — all of which is provided by UNC’s Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI). A developer of data science cyberinfrastructure, RENCI provides the software programming that helps the team at NCGENES analyze genomes more effectively.

    “You need new computer algorithms to solve new science problems,” RENCI Director Stan Ahalt says. “It takes a multidisciplinary team to understand science problems like genetics — and computer code to make that process go fast.”

    A transformative experience

    By 2013, Davis was in desperate need of a new algorithm. Thankfully, that year, she was referred to Jane Fan, a pediatric neurologist at UNC. After studying Davis’ file, Fan felt sure that the doctors who tried to diagnose her condition failed, making her the perfect candidate for NCGENES.

    Four tubes of blood, 100,000 possible genetic locations, and just over six months later, Fan called Davis. A single gene mutation called GTPCH1 impairs her ability to produce dopa, an amino acid crucial for nervous system function. “I had to hear it in person before I believed it,” Davis admits. “I had been misdiagnosed many times before.”

    Not only were UNC geneticist James Evans and his NCGENES team finally able to accurately diagnose Davis, but they were able to treat it — with something as simple as a pill. A pill that has been on the market since 1988, used to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease.

    And just like that, Davis ‘life was changed forever by genome sequencing.

    Three days after she took one-quarter of a pill, movement returned to her toes while standing in the middle of a Verizon Wireless store in Goldsboro. She began to cry.

    Top-five in the country

    UNC’s genetics department has ranked in the top-five programs for NIH funding across the nation every year since 2012 (and top-10 each year since 2006). “I think we’ve built one of the best genetics departments in the country,” Magnuson says. In 2016 alone, genetics department faculty brought $38 million to Carolina.

    Houpt agrees with Magnuson’s sentiment. “The genetics department is a great example of how universities should run,” he says. “People need to put aside their own interests and see what’s needed. Terry is a leader who’s made each school involved feel like it’s their program and not just a medical school program – which is why he’s now the vice chancellor for research.”

    Today, more than 80 faculty members from across campus conduct world-recognized genetics research in multiple disciplines.

    Ned Sharpless, for example, focuses on cancer. Most recently, the director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center lead a study that paired UNCseq — a genetic sequencing protocol that produces volumes of genetic information from a patient’s tumor — with IBM Watson’s ability to quickly pull information from millions of medical papers. A procedure much too intense and time-consuming for the human mind, this data analysis can help physicians make more informed decisions about patient care.

    Another member of Carolina’s Cancer Genetics Program, Charles Perou uses genomics to characterize the diversity of breast cancer tumors — research that helps doctors guarantee patients more individualized care. In 2011, he cofounded GeneCentric, which uses personalized molecular diagnostic assays and targeted drug development to treat cancer.

    In 2015, geneticist Aravind Asokan started StrideBio with University of Florida biochemist Mavis Agbandje-McKenna. The gene therapy company develops novel adeno-associated viral (AAV) vector technologies for treating rare diseases. Although still in its infancy, the company has already partnered with CRISPR Therapeutics and received an initial investment from Hatteras Venture Partners. Asokan has spent nearly a decade studying AAV — and even helped to, previously, cofound Bamboo Therapeutics, acquired by Pfizer for $645 million just last year.

    In 2016, current genetics department Chair Fernando Pardo-Manuel de Villena challenged both Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s law of segregation through researching a mouse gene called R2d2. In doing so, he found that a selfish gene can become fixed in a population of organisms while, at the same time, being detrimental to “reproductive fitness” — a discovery that shows the swiftness at which the genome can change, creating implications for an array of fields from basic biology to agriculture and human health.

    A former student of Oliver Smithies, Beverly Koller uses gene targeting in mice to better understand diseases like cystic fibrosis, asthma, and arthritis — research that will ultimately lead to better treatments. Similarly, Mark Heise observes mice to study diseases caused by viruses including infectious arthritis and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Both researchers are part of the Collaborative Cross project, a large panel of inbred mouse strains that help map genetic traits — a resource that is UNC lead, according to Magnuson.

    Genetics research stems far beyond the UNC School of Medicine. In 2009, for example, chemist Kevin Weeks and his research team decoded the HIV genome, advancing the development of new therapies and treatments. UNC sociologist Gail Henderson runs the Center for Genomics and Society, which provides research and training on ethical, legal, and social implications of genomic research. In 2015, UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy Dean Bob Blouin helped the school become the first U.S. hub to join the international Structural Genomics Consortium — focused on discovering selective, small molecules and protein kinases to help speed the creation of new medicines for patients.

    From crutches to a 5K

    After just three months of treatment, Davis walked fully unsupported for the first time since she was 6 years old. She’s since traversed Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, strolled around the World Trade Center in New York, and regularly participated in yoga and spin classes. This past May, she walked her first 5K. “I have crazy endurance,” she says. “When your body feels good, you just want to keep on going.”

    Perhaps, more importantly, Davis is able attend Alex’s sports games without assistance. “When I used to walk into the gym on crutches to watch my oldest son play basketball, everyone would look at my crutches and my legs,” she says. “Now, when I go watch my youngest son play, I have so much more confidence walking in to the gym. People see me.”

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition</a

    U NC bloc

    U NC campus

    Carolina’s vibrant people and programs attest to the University’s long-standing place among leaders in higher education since it was chartered in 1789 and opened its doors for students in 1795 as the nation’s first public university. Situated in the beautiful college town of Chapel Hill, N.C., UNC has earned a reputation as one of the best universities in the world. Carolina prides itself on a strong, diverse student body, academic opportunities not found anywhere else, and a value unmatched by any public university in the nation.

    Advertisements
     
  • richardmitnick 4:28 pm on June 28, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Cheng Cao, Geological Sciences, UNC,   

    From UNC: Women in STEM – “Cheng Cao” 

    U NC bloc

    University of North Carolina

    June 28th, 2017

    1

    When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

    It varied — businesswoman, president, inventor, and scientist.

    Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose research as a career path.

    In 2015, during my junior year of college, I was fortunate enough to complete a summer internship at MIT. It was quite a challenge for me as I was the only Chinese undergrad, with no independent research experiences before then. But as I started to delve into the internship — learning lab skills, operating instruments, discussing data with my supervisor — I realized, for the first time, how much fun research is! At the end of the summer, I gave my first scientific presentation with confidence and passion. It inspired me to apply to graduate school.

    2
    On a visit to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, Cao says hello to a sea lion at the beach.

    What’s an interesting thing that’s happened during your research?

    One time, I was weighing a bunch of rock samples. For each one, I needed to weigh a few micrograms, wrap them in aluminum foil, and then put them into the sample rack in a specific order. Because they are so tiny, there was no label outside the wrap. After three hours of nonstop work, I was finally done. While relaxing my wrist, I accidentally elbowed the sample tray, spilling all the wraps onto the floor. Oops. I was lucky to have enough samples left for another round of measurements.

    What advice would you give to up-and-coming female researchers in your field?

    Be determined. Doing research is not always easy. You may get frustrated and lost. But don’t give up easily. Communicate with your supervisor as well as your colleagues. You can talk to them not only about your progress, but also about your confusions and problems. I benefited a lot from their support and constructive advice.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition</a

    U NC campus

    Carolina’s vibrant people and programs attest to the University’s long-standing place among leaders in higher education since it was chartered in 1789 and opened its doors for students in 1795 as the nation’s first public university. Situated in the beautiful college town of Chapel Hill, N.C., UNC has earned a reputation as one of the best universities in the world. Carolina prides itself on a strong, diverse student body, academic opportunities not found anywhere else, and a value unmatched by any public university in the nation.

     
  • richardmitnick 12:17 pm on May 25, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Galápagos Initiative, Galápagos Science Center, Hospital Oskar Jandl on San Cristóbal, , UNC, UNC School of Nursing   

    From UNC: “Nurses to Improve Training and Trust” A Great Story 

    U NC bloc

    University of North Carolina

    5.25.17
    Bradley Allf

    1
    Undergraduates in the UNC School of Nursing Noemi Arias (left) and Stefanie Esteves Rosado (right) traveled to the Galápagos with Harlan in 2016.

    On Jan. 1, 1933, a boy named Rolf was born in a cave on the island of Floreana, in an archipelago off the coast of Ecuador. He was the first child ever born in the Galápagos Islands. Rolf’s mother Margret Wittmer describes the experience in a book about her life as one of the first permanent settlers in the Galápagos.

    “This time I screamed so loud that I started in terror at my own voice. It echoed back through the cave, loud and empty. There was no answering call. I lay quite still. There was a rustling at the entrance to the cave, an eerie rustling. It was still dark outside. An owl hooted. I heard a bull bellow, the bellowing came nearer and nearer, must be here by now, somewhere very near me… Then I heard a cry. It didn’t come from me…”

    Rolf was born onto the wet cave floor that night without complications. But a day later, the placenta still had not been expelled. Wittmer’s husband sent for Friedrich Ritter, one of two other inhabitants on the island, who just happened to be a doctor. While Ritter was able to deliver the placenta—in return for a few sacks of pork— he had to do so without gloves, anesthesia or effective sanitation. Margret Wittmer was lucky not to have suffered a serious infection.

    A lot has changed in the Galápagos since 1933. There are now 30,000 people living on the archipelago—now an Ecuadorian province—and the famous islands attract more than 200,000 tourists each year. There are schools, bars, airports and surfing competitions. On the four inhabited islands, day-to-day life is in many ways a far cry from the Crusoe-esque world inhabited by Wittmer.

    But one thing that has changed comparatively little is healthcare. While babies are of course no longer being delivered in sea caves, the health infrastructure on the islands—largely made up of small, understaffed clinics— remains inadequate for the needs of the growing population. A new collaboration between the UNC School of Nursing, the UNC Center for Galápagos Studies, a hospital in the Galápagos, and the Ecuadorian university Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), is hoping to change that.

    2
    A sea lion pup on a beach in San Cristóbal. Wildlife in the Galápagos live in close proximity to humans, which poses some healthcare risks.
    Photo by Bradley Allf

    Sea Lions to C-Sections

    The idea for this new collaboration came about through UNC’s “Galápagos Initiative,” a partnership between UNC and USFQ to foster research, education and outreach on the islands. Professor of Geography and Director for the UNC Center for Galápagos Studies Stephen Walsh, PhD, co-started the Initiative back in 2006.

    Since then, the Initiative has accomplished a lot, including the construction of a brand-new 20,000 square-foot research facility on San Cristóbal Island called the Galápagos Science Center. This center, complete with full research laboratories and modern scientific equipment, hosts scientists from all over the world that are trying to better understand the Galápagos. Many of these researchers are interested in what researchers have traditionally been interested in on the islands: the biology of the iguanas, finches, sea lions and other wildlife that call the archipelago home.

    But the Initiative reaches far beyond just ecology and evolution. It also aims to better understand the human dimensions in the Galápagos, and how UNC and USFQ can work within the island communities to engage with the populations’ needs. Prominent among these needs is healthcare. And that’s where the UNC School of Nursing fits in.

    “Over time it was certainly impressed upon us that the Galápagos is in need of enhancements in healthcare and medicine,” says Walsh. “And part of the reason is a long-term legacy of ineffective healthcare.”

    That legacy can be traced all the way from Rolf Wittmer’s birth in a cave to now. Modern-day births on Isabela Island, for instance, take place in a clinic without fetal monitoring capabilities save one outdated ultrasound machine.

    So Walsh, along with the Dean of Public Health at USFQ Jaime Ocampo, MD, PhD, MBA, and UNC Professor of Nutrition and member of the UNC-USFQ Advisory Board for the Galápagos Science Center Peggy Bentley, PhD, started putting together a series of tactics for addressing the healthcare needs. Chief among these was bringing the School of Nursing on board.

    “It was clear to me that we would benefit from collaborating with the School of Nursing.” says Walsh. “And so I reached out to Gwen Sherwood about the advantages of getting them involved in Galápagos.”

    Gwen Sherwood, PhD, RN, FAAN, ANEF, is the associate dean for Practice and Global Initiatives in the UNC School of Nursing. Sherwood says she jumped at the opportunity to continue the School’s long legacy of international collaboration. With the administrative support and encouragement of then Interim Dean of the School Donna Havens, PhD, RN, FAAN, at her back, Sherwood began meeting with Walsh and the other partners to learn how her department could help.

    This delegation decided that Sherwood, accompanied by Bentley, should head down to the Galápagos to get a better idea of how the School of Nursing could use its resources to improve healthcare on the islands.

    4
    A marine iguana sitting on a beach in San Cristóbal. Photo by Bradley Allf

    The Role of the Environment

    In February of 2016, Sherwood boarded a plane headed to the Galápagos Islands. One of the first things that struck her upon arriving was how the human and natural worlds co-mingle.

    “You’re sitting having breakfast on a deck and the iguanas are right here and the sea lions are sitting in the chair next to you and they don’t even know to react. It’s amazing,” says Sherwood.

    But these same aspects of life that make the Galápagos so unique also create unique challenges for health. Those same friendly sea lions also defecate all over the island’s public beaches and boardwalks, presenting opportunities for the spread of disease. The bright equatorial sun, while pleasant on the beach, puts Galapagueños at increased risk for skin cancer. Water is often poorly filtered and almost all food must be imported from the mainland, driving up the cost of healthy perishables like fruits and vegetables.

    Seeing all these issues for herself showed Sherwood what a significant impact well-trained nurses with adequate resources could have as the health interface between the public and their surroundings.

    “In nursing, we think about nurses as having a major role in helping people with the how they interact with the environment. Especially when we are working with people in community health settings, the social and environmental determinants of health play a major role in how people manage their health,” says Sherwood.

    So what can the School of Nursing do to improve this health interface? Sherwood decided, based on her firsthand experience in Galápagos, that the best way for the School to begin to get involved would be to start an ongoing professional development program for nurses in the Galápagos. Upon returning to Chapel Hill, she got in touch with another nurse at UNC with the skillset to begin implementing such a project.

    5
    Chris Harlan, RN, MA, in a blue shirt and red capris (it was the 4th of July!) standing with nurses from Hospital Oskar Jandl on San Cristóbal, Galápagos.

    A Hospital in the Shape of a Turtle

    That nurse was Chris Harlan. Harlan, RN, MA, is a clinical assistant professor in the School of Nursing. Harlan is fluent in Spanish, was a member of the Peace Corps, and has lived in Central and Latin America. She also has an anthropology background. Sherwood says she was the “ideal faculty member” for the collaboration.

    Harlan happily agreed to go to San Cristóbal to learn more about what nurses on the island would like to see in a professional development series. Specifically, Harlan would work with the nurses in the newly constructed medical facility on San Cristóbal, “Hospital Oskar Jandl”—built in the shape of a turtle, of course.

    Harlan brought with her two nursing students who were interested in getting involved in the project, and who were also native Spanish speakers. The main goal for this group was to interview the nurses at Hospital Oskar Jandl to see what they were looking for in a professional development series.

    One of the most common requests was for learning quality improvement strategies, specifically in maternal-child quality and safety developments. This is something UNC has been working to address in its own hospitals, so Harlan thought it could be a good starting point for creating a relevant professional development program going forward.

    While on the islands, the team also assisted Bentley with interviewing locals about their attitudes and perceptions regarding the new hospital. This aspect of the trip was particularly important because despite the hospital being, as Harlan puts it, “a huge improvement over what the island has had for forever,” few people seemed to be using it.

    “There is a big problem between the community and the hospital on San Cristóbal and that problem is called trust,” says Jaime Ocampo, dean of public health at USFQ. Ocampo states that, because of the legacy of poor healthcare on the islands, most people that can afford to travel seek their healthcare on the mainland.

    Beyond the legacy of ineffective care, this mistrust is fueled by the transience of healthcare workers in the Galápagos. By law, only native-born Galapagueños can live on the islands permanently. Thus, healthcare workers from the continent can only stay on the islands for a year or two. This obviously complicates continuity of care, and helps contribute to the local perception of these doctors and nurses as outsiders.

    But taking an airplane all the way to Quito or Guayaquil just to go to the doctor requires a lot of time and money. And relying solely on mainland doctors can be dangerous in emergencies, as it can take hours to get a plane to the mainland.

    Harlan hopes that the collaboration between Hospital Oskar Jandl and the UNC School of Nursing will lead to better training for the nurses, which will increase public trust in the hospital over time.

    There are, of course, myriad physical resources the nurses would like to have in the hospital, including a blood bank and an intensive care unit. However, at this stage the School of Nursing is keeping its focus on developing a highly effective professional development program.

    “The short-term vision is that we will develop a team of folks who will be able to travel once or twice a year to provide workshops or educational programs for the staff there,” says Harlan.

    Still Early Days

    Broadly speaking, Ocampo sees UNC’s involvement with improving healthcare in the Galápagos as having three main aspects: research, training and medical assistance. The School of Nursing will figure prominently into all three of these aspects.

    As the collaboration is still very much in its infancy, the research aspect is currently most central to the project. It answers the question: what is the need? The UNC nurses involved in the project will continue working with hospital staff to understand this need, and how the School of Nursing can most effectively address it.

    The second aspect of the School’s involvement on the Galápagos is training. How can the School of Nursing work with the Galápagos nurses to better equip them to provide healthcare? Harlan, Sherwood, and the others involved in the project are excited to implement their professional development series to begin addressing this goal.

    The third aspect, medical assistance, will eventually involve a nurse exchange program whereby nurses from UNC can stay in Galápagos for extended periods, and vice-versa. However, at this stage such a program is still a long way off.

    Collaborative, Community-Focused Care

    While making these plans, however, Sherwood stresses how important it is to ensure that this project is not ham-fisted in its approach—that it’s a collaboration with USFQ and the Galápagos healthcare workers in the truest sense of the word.

    “It’s not ‘go and do,’ it’s ‘how can we form teams,’” says Sherwood. “In nursing, we often rush into intervention and we rush to acute care whereas sometimes it would be helpful for us to step back and look at the community where populations reside and try to take time to understand what is behind the presentation of the illness. What’s the story that we could better understand in terms of how we coordinate health here?”

    Understanding that story starts with understanding the community, and that’s something central to the entire Galápagos Initiative.

    “Early on [in the Initiative], not only did we create a scientific advisory board made up of faculty from UNC and USFQ,” says Walsh. “We also created a community advisory board made up of local people—shop owners, restaurant owners— people that care about the question ‘what are you doing for us?’”

    The Galápagos Initiative team is even developing a community research symposium, where they plan to explain to the public every single project they’re involved in and how each one benefits those living on the island.

    Going forward, the School of Nursing wants to keep this sort of community focus at the center of their involvement on the islands. Additionally, Harlan and Sherwood are working to continue expanding the project’s intradepartmental breadth. For example, they have invited the new Dean of the School of Nursing Nilda Peragallo Montano, DrPH, RN, FAAN, to visit the islands this summer to learn more about the collaboration.

    It’s important to understand that the School of Nursing is by no means the only group in the Galápagos Initiative working to address the healthcare problems in the Galápagos. There are many other departments at UNC and USFQ working alongside the School of Nursing to bring better healthcare to the islands.

    With any luck, this collaborative approach will help facilitate a healthcare transformation on the islands to better meet the healthcare needs necessitated by such a unique place.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition</a

    U NC campus

    Carolina’s vibrant people and programs attest to the University’s long-standing place among leaders in higher education since it was chartered in 1789 and opened its doors for students in 1795 as the nation’s first public university. Situated in the beautiful college town of Chapel Hill, N.C., UNC has earned a reputation as one of the best universities in the world. Carolina prides itself on a strong, diverse student body, academic opportunities not found anywhere else, and a value unmatched by any public university in the nation.

     
  • richardmitnick 2:20 pm on May 22, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Elizabeth Olson, Geography, UNC, , Youth Caregivers   

    From UNC: Women in STEM – “Building Support for Youth Caregivers” Elizabeth Olson 

    U NC bloc

    University of North Carolina

    5.22.17
    Haley McDougal

    1
    After studying youth caregiving in the United Kingdom, Elizabeth Olson is exploring the topic here in the United States.

    For Elizabeth (Betsy) Olson, living an internationalized life was not unusual. Although she grew up in Denver, Colo., Olson has lived in many places around the world—from spending her college summers in the Philippines, where her father was country director of the Peace Corps, to living in Guatemala and small pueblos in Peru while conducting her doctoral research. Before she became an associate professor of geography and global studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Olson worked in the geography departments at universities in Lancaster, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland.

    But when she was offered a joint position at UNC, Olson said the move made sense for both her family and career.

    “UNC had the kind of reputation that I was happy to move for,” she said. “The geography department has really excellent, exciting scholars, some of whom I had worked with previously, and being able to work with global studies was a bonus.”

    Olson earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Colorado. When she was in Guatemala conducting dissertation research, her work focused on community management of water, but it took a turn when she realized the people she interviewed really wanted to talk about religion.

    “I was going around to different areas and talking to people about water, and they kept wanting to talk to me about religion, and so I ended up thinking, ‘Why in the world would I not study religion?’” Olson said. “It’s part of my duty as a participatory researcher to try and talk about things that are important and matter to people.”

    In the United Kingdom, her work shifted again to her current focus of young caregivers, a topic that would be the central focus of the next four-and-a-half years of the research program she is building.

    “My approach to geography is somewhat unique in the sense that I have actually taken on a lot of different themes through my career, and that reflects both sort of a clarification of my interests, but also new excitements in terms of what I want to look at and what’s compelling me at any given time,” Olson said.

    Supporting Youth Caregivers
    The shift to researching young caregivers began while she was working at the University of Edinburgh, where she was exposed to them as a recognized category of vulnerable youth in the United Kingdom. A youth caregiver is a person under age 18 who cares for a family member, close relative or friend who requires care because of a chronic illness, disability, addiction, mental illness or other characteristics. In the U.K., a caregivers’ bill of rights requires that every government organization abide by certain standards to ensure that the rights of caregivers are being protected, such as provisions that require schools to provide extra support. This could include sending kids to camp, giving them better transportation or providing counseling services.

    In the United States, the federal government only recognizes caregivers if they are over the age of 18. Yet Olson explained that while youth caregivers are often part of mutually beneficial relationships with those whom they care for, they still face challenges and responsibilities that their peers do not have to contend with.

    “A youth caregiver who gets up in the morning, perhaps helps grandma or grandpa get up out of their bed, gets themselves prepared for the day, helps them ensure that they’re getting breakfast, sits them down in a chair, checks their oxygen tanks and then leaves for school—even just working through that scenario, you can imagine the kind of stress that often goes with that job,” Olson said.

    Although people who serve as caregivers in their youth can go on to thrive as adults, Olson explained this added labor can also have negative impacts. Many suffer from high stress levels, depression, chronic tardiness and absenteeism, and may have difficult transitions into young adulthood. The added responsibility of caregiving may also cause this population to delay or decline to go to college.

    In the United States, the scope of youth caregiving and associated difficulties is unknown, largely due to the lack of information and data available. There has only been one national prevalence study that was conducted in 2005 on the topic. Olson is currently working with several collaborators around the world to adapt their models of research to conduct a prevalence study in North Carolina.

    “For youth caregivers, even just being acknowledged for the value of their caregiving is so important, but then taking that additional step and supporting them is what I think my collaborators and I are moving toward, hopefully,” she said.

    Advocating for Youth Caregiver Research
    Olson currently heads various research projects involving youth caregiving across the United States. She was recently named a recipient of the federally funded Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) Pipeline to Proposal Awards program, which will allow her to work directly with caregiving families who have youth caring for aging adults, known as “bookend caregivers.”

    The Caregiving Youth Research Collaborative (CYRC) is one of Olson’s projects that began with a small grant from the Odom Institute at UNC. In May 2015, Olson was able to gather U.S. researchers, advocates and practitioners for an interdisciplinary workshop that focused on improving research in the area of youth caregiving in the U.S.

    Olson said although the puzzle is always how to get research funded in an area that nobody knows about, she has felt fully supported by her colleagues at UNC.

    “What I do is I tend to walk into offices, and I say, ‘I’m researching this thing that isn’t even a category in the United States, and no one knows about it; can you help me?’ and the answer has consistently been yes,” she said.

    Olson will be a fellow of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies during the Spring 2017 semester and will be studying the transitions of young caregivers into adulthood.

    “That will be pretty exciting because I know that we have some young adult caregivers at UNC,” she said. “I don’t think we know how to support them in their studies, so I’m really hopeful that what this would do is think about barriers to higher education.”

    Olson plans to continue to study geographies of religion and young caregivers in the future.

    “In my perfect world, we would all be talking about caregiving a lot more and how we are going to do it,” she said. For Olson, this would include federal recognition of youth caregivers and access to services to support them. But it would also mean creating an environment in which youth caregivers feel respected and their families feel both secure and proud of their accomplishments.

    Given that recognition and support, Olson believes youth caregivers would not only be empowered to make decisions based on their skills and ambitions as they transition to adulthood, but would be in a position to teach us something about caregiving.

    “We could all learn about care from them, both the challenging and the really rewarding dimensions of it,” she explained. Olson will be listening and learning from them. “I’ve been working at this for four-and-a-half years—I’m not about to give up now.”

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition</a

    U NC campus

    Carolina’s vibrant people and programs attest to the University’s long-standing place among leaders in higher education since it was chartered in 1789 and opened its doors for students in 1795 as the nation’s first public university. Situated in the beautiful college town of Chapel Hill, N.C., UNC has earned a reputation as one of the best universities in the world. Carolina prides itself on a strong, diverse student body, academic opportunities not found anywhere else, and a value unmatched by any public university in the nation.

     
  • richardmitnick 8:50 am on May 18, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute, UNC,   

    From UNC: “A Volcanologist’s Vigilance” 

    U NC bloc

    University of North Carolina

    May 11th, 2017
    Mary Lide Parker

    1
    Cotopaxi volcano. Photo by Mary Lide Parker
    The Cotopaxi volcano erupted on August 14, 2015 and continued to emit a mixture of ash and steam until December of 2015.
    From their analysis of the data thus far, Ruiz and his colleagues have uncovered an abnormal series of seismic events three months ahead of the eruption.

    As director of Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute, Mario Ruiz has monitored some of the most active (and potentially destructive) volcanoes in South America. After earning his PhD at UNC 10 years ago, Ruiz has come back to Carolina to sift through data from the recent eruption of the Cotopaxi volcano.

    On a warm morning in mid-October, Ecuador’s colorful capital, Quito, buzzes with activity. Throngs of people move through the market in the Mariscal, Yaraví music emanates from cars stuck in traffic, and street vendors sell fragrant salchipapas and empanadas to tourists and locals alike. The equatorial city basks in the abundant sunshine and crisp air of the Andes mountain range. But on this breezy, blue-sky day, Quito’s alpine skyline includes an alarming sight—the Cotopaxi volcano, a massive snow-capped peak located 30 miles outside the city, is smoking.

    Mario Ruiz, director of Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute, hunches over his desk, stressed and exhausted. Over the past several weeks, he has been fielding requests from reporters and government officials. He shuffles through papers, pushing aside a copy of last week’s El Comercio with the bold headline: Four Months on High Alert and Still No Agreement on Volcano Emergency Plans.

    Today is October 19, 2015. Cotopaxi erupted two months ago, spewing ash across the town of Latacunga and some southern neighborhoods in Quito. Ever since the eruption, the volcano has continued to emit ominous clouds of gas and steam, while the ground beneath it rumbles. Meanwhile, Ruiz and his team work around the clock to monitor Cotopaxi’s seismic activity, trying to figure out if the ash blast was a singular event — or is a bigger eruption building?

    Seismic rumbling is a regular occurrence around volcanoes — dozens of minor earthquakes (only detectable by highly sensitive instrumentation) can occur in a week. But now the instruments on Cotopaxi are picking up continuous seismic events — over 100 a week.

    Anticipating the timing of an impending eruption, however, is complicated. Ecuador’s geophysicists pore over their latest data, looking for patterns and clues, and compare them to past eruptions. Yesterday, Ruiz told a reporter from Cuenca High Life: “The historic record shows that there have been 20 large eruptions over the past 2,000 years, and we are overdue.”

    Studying South American Seismicity at UNC

    When Ruiz first started working at the Institute in 1987, many of Ecuador’s volcanoes were quiet. “I was in charge of monitoring active volcanoes that weren’t very active,” he says. But in 1999, two volcanoes, Tungurahua and Guagua Pichincha, erupted at the same time. Meanwhile Cotopaxi started to have more sustained seismic activity.

    To better understand the sudden rumblings of these volcanoes, Ruiz knew he needed to go back to school. He applied to two graduate programs in the United States, and was accepted to both. “We were fighting for him to come here,” says Jonathan Lees, chair of the department of geological sciences at UNC. “But he chose New Mexico.”

    The research at New Mexico Tech, however, was focused on Antarctica. “In Ecuador, we feel like we’re the center of the globe,” Ruiz says. “So the idea of going to the most southern volcano in the world was mind-boggling.”

    He ended up spending three months in Antarctica, but never turned his attention away from the volcanic activity in his home country. “We have so many volcanoes in Ecuador,” Ruiz says. “They produce beautiful landscapes and fertile soil but they also pose very real dangers—over half the country’s population could be affected by them.” In the middle of his Antarctica research, Ruiz went back to Ecuador to install more equipment on Cotopaxi.

    Meanwhile, Lees hadn’t given up on recruiting Ruiz to Carolina. “I got funding to work on volcanoes in Ecuador, and I wrote him a letter,” he says. “I told him ‘if you come to UNC, you can work on your data from Ecuador.’ I think that convinced him.”

    Ruiz finished his master’s degree at New Mexico Tech, then came to UNC in the fall of 2003 to complete his PhD in geophysics. Lees kept his promise. The two volcanologists traveled to Ecuador together to install seismic and infrasound equipment on Tungurahua — the same volcano that inspired Ruiz to go back to school. After writing his thesis on Tungurahua, Ruiz returned to the Geophysical Institute in Ecuador.

    2
    An image of an acoustic wave captured by an infrasound microphone on the Tungurahua volcano on July 3, 2010.

    Monitoring living mountains

    One of the most heavily monitored volcanoes in Latin America, Cotopaxi is home to 14 seismic stations, five infrasound sensors, four detectors of volcanic gases, and a system to detect whether or not magma is moving in the volcano’s conduit.

    Despite all of Cotopaxi’s instrumentation, all the modern advancements in seismology, and all the hard work conducted by Ruiz and his colleagues, predicting exactly when and how the volcano will erupt is a dubious process.

    In fact, most volcanologists avoid using the word “predict” at all — analyzing seismic activity is not like forecasting the weather.

    “People think everything in volcanology is so exact — that it’s like physics,” Lees says. “But there are so many things about volcanoes that we still don’t know.”

    When Lees was a PhD student at the University of Washington in 1984, he talked with Steve Malone, a research scientist involved in tracking the seismic activity leading up the massive eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980. Malone and his colleagues had made accurate estimates about when the volcano would erupt, but did not anticipate the nature of the eruption—a massive lateral blast that produced the largest debris avalanche in Earth’s recorded history.

    “He felt that he had failed,” Lees recalls. Malone blamed himself for the 57 people, including some close friends, who lost their lives on that fateful day. He told Lees, “we got part of it right, but lots of it wrong, and that’s why there were casualties.”

    Just a few years later, a lack of understanding mixed with some disagreement among authorities resulted in a massive loss of life from a volcano in Colombia. On November 13, 1985, one day after officials deemed there was no immediate danger, Nevado del Ruiz erupted. While the eruption was relatively small, its lava melted enough ice on the volcano’s high summit to create a major lahar, or mudflow, wiping out the town of Armero and killing over 20,000 people. “The politicians and agencies that are supposed to warn people in that valley had disagreements about whether there was danger or not,” Lees says.

    But the reverse — playing it safe and calling for a mandatory evacuation — produces different problems when an eruption doesn’t come. In 1982, USGS geologists issued a notice of potential volcanic hazard (the lowest level of alert) to the resort community of Mammoth Lakes, California. Perhaps the devastation caused by Mt. St. Helens two years earlier was still too fresh in peoples minds—after the notice was issued, housing prices dropped 40 percent overnight. The nearby Long Valley caldera continued to produce some small earthquakes, but no eruption came. By 1983, the seismic rumblings had quieted down, but it was another three years before the local economy began to recover.

    Contending with Cotopaxi

    All of these things weigh heavily on Ruiz as he and his colleagues try to make sense of the data streaming in from Cotopaxi. “We sit with this idea that a mistake in our job could bring about a similar result,” Ruiz says. “We are not able to understand 100 percent of the volcano, but we also know a failure in our understanding could result in the deaths of thousands of people.”

    Ruiz and his colleagues work over 12 hours every day. When something happens — a jump in the number of seismic events, for example — Ruiz’s team has to act fast. They evaluate the signals to the best of their ability, and then translate the data into a statement for the authorities and the general public.

    Cotopaxi’s last major eruption occurred in 1877 and caused massive destruction. If it were to erupt in a similar fashion today, the impact would be catastrophic. “The country would be broken into two parts,” Ruiz explains. “All of the infrastructure — the main roads, the water supply, the electricity lines, the gas pipelines — all of that could be affected.”

    At 19,347 feet, Cotopaxi is topped with a glacier year-round. Molten lava could melt that glacier and its surrounding snow and ice to create devastating lahar, similar to what happened on Nevado del Ruiz.

    Lahars are often referred to as mud flows, but they are much more than that. “It’s not just mud,” Lees says. “It’s this thick mixture of ash, mud and water, but can also include tree trunks and boulders — it’s very dangerous and moves very fast.” When the flow of destructive debris comes to a halt, it solidifies like cement.

    “So that happened in Armero,” Lees says. “And they’re very worried about that happening in Quito.”

    Cracking the volcano’s code at Carolina

    Because of the urgent need for information during Cotopaxi’s heightened activity, Ruiz and his team simply did not have time to comb through their data in the same way that they typically would.

    “We had to act fast — we couldn’t ask the authorities to give us more time,” he says. “It was very stressful to put out information as fast as possible while maintaining our scientific requirements.”

    Now, in early 2017, Cotopaxi has been quiet for over a year, and Ruiz has a robust set of valuable data. “I want to revisit everything we collected and try to find if we missed some clues, or if we overlooked something,” he says. “Now is the correct time to do that.”

    And the UNC Department of Geological Sciences is the place.

    “He could have taken his data to many different places,” Lees says, “But he came here because he knows that I’m also interested in discovering the patterns of earthquakes that lead up to an explosion. He knew he would have an ally here.”

    Thousands of earthquakes can occur on the day of a volcanic eruption. “When you have thousands of events, you can’t ponder each individual waveform,” Lees says. “You have to develop a kind of a robot to go through the data and extract the relevant information.”

    Lees does this using a statistical platform called R. “You have to decide what you’re looking for,” he says. He writes programs to identify patterns. The software can run through the data quickly and make a decision about whether it was run right, and then do it again — hundreds, or even thousands, of times.

    Over the last four or five years, Lees and his group have formalized their software development — one of their platforms has over 30,000 downloads. “Mario came back here because he knows that we have this in common — we’re both interested in developing computing codes that can objectively analyze large amounts of data.”

    One of the basic measurements they collect is the peak to peak amplitude — the size of the waveform generated on the seismograph. “It’s the simplest thing, and we store that for each event — so there might be 20,000 of those,” Lees says.

    3
    Mario Ruiz (right) and Jonathan Lees discuss acoustic waves recorded from their infrasound equipment.

    Ruiz and Lees will apply five or six parameters to each of those 20,000 figures, plot them in a line, and analyze how they change over time. “So we’re looking for the patterns in space and time that show a progression towards the eruption,” Lees says. “That’s what we’re trying to find.”

    Living in a real-world laboratory

    In June, Ruiz will return to Quito to teach at the National Polytechnic School, the institution that houses the Geophysical Institute. But his collaboration with Lees will continue. “Jonathan’s expertise is very useful for monitoring active volcanoes,” Ruiz says. “The whole country benefits from his research goals.”

    Located on the border of the Nazca plate and the South American plate, Ecuador is one of the world’s premiere locations to study not just volcanism but plate tectonics, mountain building processes, and earthquakes. “It’s one of the critical localities on the planet to do earth science,” Lees says. “It’s like a laboratory for us.”

    A laboratory that provides unique opportunities for students in the department of Geological Sciences. “I’m recruiting graduate students right now,” Lees says. “And one of the projects I can offer them is the opportunity to work in Ecuador.”

    In addition to working on volcanoes near the country’s capitol, like Tungurahua and Cotopaxi, Lees and Ruiz have colleagues and research interests across Ecuador, including the Galápagos Islands. Wherever they are, Ruiz notes they usually receive a warm welcome.

    “The population is very friendly to volcanologists,” he says.

    There’s a reason for that — Ecuador’s people are at the heart of Ruiz’s work. “We have a responsibility to the communities that live around our volcanoes — to provide them with reliable monitoring,” Ruiz says. “Our dream is to one day be able to understand everything a volcano can do.”

    Jonathan Less is the Chair of the Department of Geological Sciences.

    Mario Ruiz is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Geological Sciences.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition</a

    U NC campus

    Carolina’s vibrant people and programs attest to the University’s long-standing place among leaders in higher education since it was chartered in 1789 and opened its doors for students in 1795 as the nation’s first public university. Situated in the beautiful college town of Chapel Hill, N.C., UNC has earned a reputation as one of the best universities in the world. Carolina prides itself on a strong, diverse student body, academic opportunities not found anywhere else, and a value unmatched by any public university in the nation.

     
  • richardmitnick 11:02 am on March 8, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Gulden Othman, , , , UNC,   

    From UNC: Women in STEM – “Gulden Othman” 

    U NC bloc

    University of North Carolina

    1
    Gulden Othman is a third-year graduate student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. She currently works in the Experimental Nuclear and Astroparticle Physics group and is also on the executive board of UNC Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). Her research focuses on observing the interactions of the building blocks of matter to understand how the universe has evolved from the Big Bang to present day.

    March 8th, 2017

    When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

    I always wanted to be an astronaut. I grew up in west Texas in an area where there was not very much light pollution. I spent a lot of time musing at the stars, imagining the vast unknown. I decided that, one day, I would go to the stars and discover the unknown myself.

    Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose research as a career path.

    When I began my involvement in research as a sophomore undergraduate, I was astonished at how much work was still being done to understand physics. What was even more amazing was that I was able to make a contribution, although small, to this field — to working toward a better understanding of our universe. The more I progressed through my undergraduate coursework, the more certain I was that I would not be done learning by the time I graduated. Now that I am in graduate school, I know that I am still not done learning and never will be.

    What’s an interesting thing that’s happened during your research?

    I spent a few months designing a large electromagnet that will be used in an experiment I am no longer involved in. Because of the complexity of the design, we could not build it on campus and needed to submit the design to a vendor. I was very worried that the magnet would be built and come nowhere near the specifications I intended it for. After double-checking my design, though, the vendor believed it would meet the specifications we desired. It’s surreal to think that my design will actually be built and functional someday soon.

    In honor of Women’s History Month, share an anecdote that shows why women need to continue breaking barriers.

    Upon beginning to do research my sophomore year, an upperclassman tutored me on advanced physics topics that I had not yet taken courses on, but that would be necessary for my research. He quizzed me on courses I had already taken and asked me to write down equations from memory. Being put on the spot was difficult, and I could not write down most of what he asked for. He responded by telling me I wasn’t smart enough to be a physicist and that I should consider other career options in sciences that are “less difficult.” He believed he was being helpful. I was distraught and, for one night, considered changing my major. But I couldn’t think of any subject I wanted to study more than physics.

    The next day, I talked to the professor who was advising my research about what happened. I told him that I was fine with not being the best physicist, as long as I could study physics, and that I would work hard and not give up or change my major. He was very supportive of me, even after I chose to leave his group and transition into the field of research I am in now — experimental nuclear and particle physics. Almost six years later, I now have a prestigious fellowship and am working toward my PhD in physics. I am glad I did not let someone else’s view of me discourage me from reaching my goals.

    What advice would you give to up-and-coming female researchers in your field?

    If you love science, never give up pursuing it. You may at times, as I did, feel like everyone around you is so naturally brilliant, and that you will never be able to be as smart or talented as them. That is never the case. Hard work means a lot more than you might think. Always have a support group. At UNC, two great places to find support are the local Women in Physics group and the Society of Physics Students chapter.

    UNC Research is proud of every scientist on this campus, but we are especially excited to promote our female researchers in 2017. Each week this year, we will publish a short Q&A feature on one of them — whether she is an undergrad, PhD candidate, or full professor.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition</a

    U NC campus

    Carolina’s vibrant people and programs attest to the University’s long-standing place among leaders in higher education since it was chartered in 1789 and opened its doors for students in 1795 as the nation’s first public university. Situated in the beautiful college town of Chapel Hill, N.C., UNC has earned a reputation as one of the best universities in the world. Carolina prides itself on a strong, diverse student body, academic opportunities not found anywhere else, and a value unmatched by any public university in the nation.

     
  • richardmitnick 12:50 pm on January 24, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Glioblastoma — an aggressively cancerous brain tumor, , Neural stem cells sense the growing tumor, Shawn Hingtgen, Survival rates shrink to just one year, Tumor-homing stem cells, UNC, You are your own best source for stem cells   

    From UNC: “A Living Scalpel to Fight Brain Cancer” 

    U NC bloc

    University of North Carolina

    January 10th, 2017
    Nicole Baker

    1
    UNC pharmacy professor Shawn Hingtgen engineers a new technique to treat glioblastoma, a deadly brain tumor.

    In February 1937, the famous American composer George Gershwin proudly stood before the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. During his performance of Concerto in F, the smell of burning rubber hit his nostrils hard and he fumbled on stage, ultimately blacking out. After seeing a doctor who found no sign of serious illness, he went on to complete the musical comedy “A Damsel in Distress” and resumed his normal activities. By June, though, he regularly suffered from headaches and dizzy spells. Then, in July, he slipped into a coma and died.

    Today, a diagnosis of glioblastoma — an aggressively cancerous brain tumor — is often equated with a death sentence. It marks what can become a long descent into cognitive impairment, excruciating headaches, personality changes, failing motor skills, and an inability to speak. For the patient who arrives at their primary care physician reporting recurrent headaches and then eventually learns they have a glioblastoma, they may be told that they have a 5 percent chance of survival for the next five years. For patients with especially aggressive tumors, survival rates shrink to just one year.

    Few treatments exist for glioblastoma and the need for better patient care is dire. Typically, surgery is performed to extract a tumor several centimeters in size from the brain, and then patients are administered chemotherapy or radiation. Even so, most patients with the disease have little hope of long-term remission. Shawn Hingtgen, an assistant professor in the UNC Department of Phamacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceuticals, is dedicated to reversing the grim prognosis faced by these patients.

    Rallying healthy cells to fight cancer

    “We’re making tumor-homing stem cells that act as drug carriers to target brain cancer,” Hingtgen explains with enthusiasm. “These stem cells can seek out the tumor and deliver drugs to destroy cancer cells in a way that other drugs cannot.”

    While surgical removal of the tumor followed by chemotherapy or radiation can be moderately successful for some patients with glioblastoma, the trouble is often that surgeons can neither locate nor remove all of the elusive patches of cancer woven throughout the brain tissue. Glioblastomas typically do not metastasize to other organs of the body like breast, lung, or pancreatic cancers, but the tumor cells can penetrate deep into inaccessible regions of the brain, far from their origin.

    “The patient is going to come in and have surgery if they can, then they’ll receive oral chemo and radiation,” Hingtgen says. “But due to the nature of this disease, and many other cancers, the surgeons can never get the entire tumor out. They can’t see every piece of it, so they never know what they’ve missed.”

    While the site of the primary tumor is cleared during surgery, there is no safe or effective way to seek out and destroy the spidery tendrils of cancer tissue that wind away from the initial tumor without damaging a patient’s brain. But hope is on the horizon. Where even a surgeon’s most meticulous scalpel is unable to remove a sliver of tumor, a type of stem cell designed by Hingtgen and his colleagues are able to clean up the rest.

    Hingtgen’s stem cells are derived from skin cells that are transformed through manipulation of gene expression into neural, or brain, stem cells. In effect, the cells lose some of the characteristics that make them specific to skin tissue and gain a more rudimentary and flexible nature, reverting back to a state where they have the potential to become any type of neuronal cell.

    Stem cells lend surgeons a hand

    Stem cells are especially adept at sensing the chemical signature given off by cancer cells. “Neural stem cells sense the growing tumor and are attracted to it,” Hingtgen says. “Our neural stem cells will migrate toward and bump into the tumor tissue, but won’t be able to kill the tumor by themselves, so that’s why we have them carry and deliver anti-cancer drugs.”

    These cancer-fighting molecules consist of both current clinical candidates used in other types of cancer treatment as well as experimental agents. They can severely curtail the growth of cancer and lead to tumor cell death. It’s often difficult to treat brain tumors with drugs because of the blood-brain barrier — a difficult-to-penetrate membrane that keeps harmful toxins away from the brain. This prevents successful delivery of anti-cancer agents. Neural stem cells loaded with drugs and inserted directly into the brain act as ground forces that deliver these cancer-toxic agents directly to the tumor.

    A bumpy journey

    The road to a scientific breakthrough is often paved with difficultly. So far, experiments with mice have proven successful, but using both skin and glioblastoma tissue from actual humans has been fraught with minor difficulties. “Every person and every case of glioblastoma is different, so the tissue we’ve received to work with comes with its own set of challenges,” Hingtgen says. “The good news is that we are figuring out how to overcome these tissue-specific differences.”

    Early in development, the stem cells also had trouble growing inside the brain tissue of mice following surgical removal of the main glioblastoma tumor, according to Hingtgen. In some cases, surgical removal of the primary tumor allowed its hidden margins to fill in the empty space and grow better. Like a malignant rosebush that blossoms more robustly after pruning, these diffuse wisps of tumor can grow with a vengeance after surgery. The neural stem cells in the surgical cavity need to stay there long enough for them to deliver drugs to remaining tumor cells.

    “The stem cells were being washed away or destroyed by the immune system, so we turned to the expertise of the joint UNC and NCSU Biomedical Engineering department. They fashioned a flexible scaffold on which to embed the stem cells before inserting them into the mouse brain,” Hingtgen says.

    This scaffold is essentially a tiny, disc-shaped platform made of fibrous protein on which the stem cells can attach and grow. Following surgical removal of a glioblastoma, the cup-like structure is positioned in the place where the tumor was previously growing. The scaffold has so far proven successful at retaining the neural stem cells long enough for them to seek out and destroy glioblastoma in mice. In fact, the survival rate nearly tripled for mice that received the treatment.

    It takes a village to treat a disease

    Hingtgen credits the hard work of his team for the success of this potential therapy. From the folks in his lab, to the bioengineers, his FDA contacts, collaborators at other universities, and perhaps most importantly, the surgeons and clinicians from whom he’s sought advice, it’s proof that conquering one of the most foreboding human maladies requires a team of dedicated experts.

    As a relatively new assistant professor, Hingtgen acknowledged early on that he would need some help to see his vision through. Before he moved to UNC, he recalls nervously calling Matt Ewend of the UNC Department of Neurosurgery to ask for some advice. Ewend was on a ski lift with his family when he received the call, but Hingtgen’s vision excited him enough to schedule a meeting.

    “From the beginning, Matt has been a massively helpful member of the team,” Hingtgen says. “In our first meeting, he said to me, ‘We’ve got to make these stem cells from the patients themselves, and you’ve got to get these cells to me so I can put them into the patient.’”

    Personalized patient care

    Taking Ewend’s advice to heart, Hingtgen is trying to bring stem cell therapy to the personalized medicine front. “You are your own best source for stem cells, and using your cells will limit the trouble of tissue rejection following implantation. We can’t just go in and lop cells out from a person’s brain, though, so the skin gives us a more readily available source of cells to transform into neural stem cells,” he says.

    Hingtgen originally started using mouse skin in his experiments, but has since been able to extend his work to human skin and clinical samples from the brains of patients with cancer. Published work from his lab demonstrates that his neural stem cells loaded with the anti-cancer molecule, TRAIL, can drastically halt the growth of a tumor and can almost triple the survival of mice implanted with glioblastoma tissue.

    The stem cells and scaffold would both be classified as “first-in-human” trials by the FDA, and deciding which drugs the stem cells should carry adds yet another layer of complication to getting this treatment approved for human trials. Hingtgen works closely with experienced individuals to help his research navigate the careful rules established by the FDA to determine whether a treatment is both safe and effective for human patients.

    He remains hopeful that FDA approval for clinical trials will be swift: “We are working on making our final product, and we’re lucky to have a good team, so we can move quickly.”

    From the breast to the brain

    In the future, Hingtgen sees potential to use stem cells for other types of cancer treatment. He’s already got plans in motion to try his system with tumors that start in the breast and spread to the brain. Additionally, he’s working with pediatric neurosurgeons to evaluate the potential of neural stem cell therapy for medulloblastoma, a type of brain cancer that primarily affects children.

    The ominous portent of these life-taking tumors does not dim the hope or the resolve of Hingtgen. It’s comforting to know that patients suffering from the nefarious ordeal of brain cancer have such an energetic and dedicated ally. “The main thing I’ve always wanted to do — and still want to do — is put this technology to use in patients and make a difference in their lives.”

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition</a

    U NC campus

    Carolina’s vibrant people and programs attest to the University’s long-standing place among leaders in higher education since it was chartered in 1789 and opened its doors for students in 1795 as the nation’s first public university. Situated in the beautiful college town of Chapel Hill, N.C., UNC has earned a reputation as one of the best universities in the world. Carolina prides itself on a strong, diverse student body, academic opportunities not found anywhere else, and a value unmatched by any public university in the nation.

     
  • richardmitnick 5:10 pm on January 3, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Atacama Desert in Chile, , , , UNC   

    From UNC via WRAL: “UNC student astronomers use remote technology to touch the stars” 

    U NC bloc

    University of North Carolina

    1

    WRAL

    December 23, 2016
    DeLaney McGuire / UNC-CH

    NOAO/ Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope (SOAR)telescope situated on Cerro Pachón - IV Región - Chile, at 2,700 meters (8,775 feet)
    NOAO/ Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope (SOAR)telescope situated on Cerro Pachón – IV Región – Chile, at 2,700 meters (8,775 feet)

    It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is quiet. Classrooms are empty; doors are locked. A few faint stars peek out from behind thick clouds. In a small room in Chapman Hall, two students have just sat down to begin their work. Projected on the wall are a series of graphs, diagrams and data, all accompanying an impressive image of a large, white star surrounded by hundreds more. A monitor in the corner streams live footage from a telescope control room in northern Chile. On the screen, a mustached man wearing glasses and headphones whistles to himself. Behind him on yet another monitor, fans explode with excitement after a soccer star scores a goal for his team.

    From the top of Cerro Pachón, more than 4,500 miles from Chapel Hill, an endless sea of mountains expands in every direction. The vast, desert landscape is otherworldly with its rocky, Mars-like terrain. The sinking sun blankets the region with an orange glow, and its rays glint off large metal domes – giant telescopes that dot the surrounding mountaintops.

    Indigenous peoples of Latin America studied the stars long before the European influence of modern astronomy reached the New World. They memorized the changing constellations and planetary rotations to track time. Long ago, the southern sky was so clear the Incas could pinpoint what they called “dark constellations,” the black undulating formations found in the sparkling band of the Milky Way. The night sky once revered by the Incas has since been tarnished with light pollution emanating from the modern world. Today, that age-old, heavenly scene is visible only from the heights of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

    Listed by National Geographic as the number one stargazing spot on the planet, the Atacama has drawn astronomers from around the globe and is home to some of the world’s most powerful telescopes. Here, a pristine view of the southern sky reveals cosmos unseen from the Northern Hemisphere. Each year, the dry desert air offers more than 200 clear nights, and there are some places in the Atacama where rainfall hasn’t been recorded in more than 500 years. These conditions, along with minimal pollution, make the Atacama Desert a prime location for major international research telescopes.

    Observatories started to crop up in the Atacama in the 1960s when modern astronomy began to flourish. Today, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, or CTIO, includes seven telescopes on two adjacent mountains, Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachón. Headquartered in the nearby coastal city of La Serena, CTIO was one of the first major observatories in Chile.

    CTIO  Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory
    CTIO Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory,approximately 80 km to the East of La Serena, Chile, at an altitude of 2200 meters

    The largest CTIO structure is the Víctor Blanco 4m Telescope, built in 1974.

    NOAO/CTIO Victor M Blanco 4m Telescope which houses the DECam at Cerro Tololo, Chile
    NOAO/CTIO Victor M Blanco 4m Telescope which houses the DECam at Cerro Tololo, Chile

    Although it stands at nearly twice the size of CTIO’s Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope, known as SOAR, it’s no more powerful than its shrunken counterpart. That’s because workers built SOAR nearly 30 years after Blanco, the same 30-year stretch that saw a transformation from large, clunky desktop computers to portable laptops. Technology had changed drastically, and the “bigger and better” mentality was on its way out.

    Size, however, isn’t the only thing that’s changed.

    Patricio Ugarte, observer support at SOAR since 2003, strokes his white mustache as he thinks back to his days working at Blanco. “When I arrived at Tololo, we didn’t have telephones. The only way to communicate to La Serena was through a radio station. When my first son was born, I knew it two days after because my wife had to send a telegram,” he said. “In the 70s, you needed to work in the darkness – on the platform, attaching the telescope, feeling the weather, the cold in the night.”

    Today, Ugarte sits in a room lined with computer screens. A camera connects him to astronomers in other parts of world and, at the touch of a button, he can move the telescope without ever leaving his seat.

    Ugarte, in his old age, appreciates the convenience of today’s astrotechnology. “Now, you can work inside of this building. There’s a heater in the winter, you can use the web, you can watch the news. Now, you can go outside, take a look at the sky. You can go to the kitchen to make tea. You know, you can make a lot of things. I have Netflix so I can see some movies,” he said.

    3

    Also in the Atacama,

    ESO/CerroLaSilla 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres
    ESO/CerroLaSilla 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres

    ESO VLT
    ESO/VLT at Cerro Paranal, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level

    ESO/Vista Telescope  at Cerro Paranal, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level
    ESO/Vista Telescope at Cerro Paranal, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level

    ESO VLT Survey telescope
    ESO VLT Survey telescope, at Cerro Paranal, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level

    ALMA Array
    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

    ESO APEX
    APEX Atacama Pathfinder 5,100 meters above sea level, at the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory in the Atacama desert

    And soon to be in the Atacama

    ESO E-ELT
    ESO/E-ELT to be built at Cerro Armazones at 3,060 m

    LSST

    LSST telescope, currently under construction at Cerro Pachón Chile
    LSST telescope, currently under construction at Cerro Pachón Chile

    “So what is the reward of being a scientist? Why would you ever spend all this time and all this effort to do something like look at points of light that we call stars? Well, there’s this moment when you look deeply into something and you have a special tool that you built, so you can see things for the first time that no one else knows. So the moment of scientific discovery that excites most scientists, that keeps them going, is when you learn something about this universe, and for a little bit of time, only you know that. You have possession of knowledge no one else on earth has, you know something about the universe – maybe it’s not significant, maybe it is significant – but you alone know it. And before you tell anybody, you get to enjoy a few minutes in possession of profound knowledge that you got through your own hard labor, that only you possess. That’s why people are scientists.” Dr. Chris Clemens, UNC astronomy professor and SOAR board member, says. (Photos by Aly Moser)
    Most of the workers inside the SOAR telescope have been around SOAR ever since its existence. “There’s something special about it, it draws you in and you can’t stop.” Mauricio, a SOAR mechanic, says about his passion for astronomy and love for the SOAR telescope. The team is small and works long hours together has created a family relationship among them. (Photos by Aly Moser)

    SOAR technicians take a special trip inside the telescope wiring after a malfunction with the system alerts the control room. “We don’t usually do this.” Ian, the lead technician says. “It’s no big deal, something is wrong and we simply need to figure it out. I am not panicked. I am just doing my job.” The technicians tinker with the telescope’s calibration until they receive a call from the neighbouring telescope’s staff alerting them that there it is a power outage which is what likely caused the malfunction. The team rushes to a different room and turns on a generator. Problem solved. (Photos by Aly Moser) 9

    Map Marker Find News Near Me

    By DeLaney McGuire / UNC-CH

    Chapel Hill, N.C. — It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is quiet. Classrooms are empty; doors are locked. A few faint stars peek out from behind thick clouds. In a small room in Chapman Hall, two students have just sat down to begin their work. Projected on the wall are a series of graphs, diagrams and data, all accompanying an impressive image of a large, white star surrounded by hundreds more. A monitor in the corner streams live footage from a telescope control room in northern Chile. On the screen, a mustached man wearing glasses and headphones whistles to himself. Behind him on yet another monitor, fans explode with excitement after a soccer star scores a goal for his team.

    From the top of Cerro Pachón, more than 4,500 miles from Chapel Hill, an endless sea of mountains expands in every direction. The vast, desert landscape is otherworldly with its rocky, Mars-like terrain. The sinking sun blankets the region with an orange glow, and its rays glint off large metal domes – giant telescopes that dot the surrounding mountaintops.

    There are two telescopes here on Cerro Pachón and another underway, eight across the valley on top of Cerro Tololo and, deeper in the desert, dozens more.

    Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope

    As the sun drops below the horizon, the first glittery stars emerge in the cobalt sky. Soon, millions will burn through the darkness and, once again, ignite a curiosity that has captivated people for thousands of years.

    Indigenous peoples of Latin America studied the stars long before the European influence of modern astronomy reached the New World. They memorized the changing constellations and planetary rotations to track time. Long ago, the southern sky was so clear the Incas could pinpoint what they called “dark constellations,” the black undulating formations found in the sparkling band of the Milky Way. The night sky once revered by the Incas has since been tarnished with light pollution emanating from the modern world. Today, that age-old, heavenly scene is visible only from the heights of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

    Listed by National Geographic as the number one stargazing spot on the planet, the Atacama has drawn astronomers from around the globe and is home to some of the world’s most powerful telescopes. Here, a pristine view of the southern sky reveals cosmos unseen from the Northern Hemisphere. Each year, the dry desert air offers more than 200 clear nights, and there are some places in the Atacama where rainfall hasn’t been recorded in more than 500 years. These conditions, along with minimal pollution, make the Atacama Desert a prime location for major international research telescopes.

    Observatories started to crop up in the Atacama in the 1960s when modern astronomy began to flourish. Today, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, or CTIO, includes seven telescopes on two adjacent mountains, Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachón. Headquartered in the nearby coastal city of La Serena, CTIO was one of the first major observatories in Chile.

    SOAR work takes place in absolute dark

    The largest CTIO structure is the Víctor Blanco 4m Telescope, built in 1974. Although it stands at nearly twice the size of CTIO’s Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope, known as SOAR, it’s no more powerful than its shrunken counterpart. That’s because workers built SOAR nearly 30 years after Blanco, the same 30-year stretch that saw a transformation from large, clunky desktop computers to portable laptops. Technology had changed drastically, and the “bigger and better” mentality was on its way out.

    Size, however, isn’t the only thing that’s changed.

    Patricio Ugarte, observer support at SOAR since 2003, strokes his white mustache as he thinks back to his days working at Blanco. “When I arrived at Tololo, we didn’t have telephones. The only way to communicate to La Serena was through a radio station. When my first son was born, I knew it two days after because my wife had to send a telegram,” he said. “In the 70s, you needed to work in the darkness – on the platform, attaching the telescope, feeling the weather, the cold in the night.”

    Today, Ugarte sits in a room lined with computer screens. A camera connects him to astronomers in other parts of world and, at the touch of a button, he can move the telescope without ever leaving his seat.

    Ugarte, in his old age, appreciates the convenience of today’s astrotechnology. “Now, you can work inside of this building. There’s a heater in the winter, you can use the web, you can watch the news. Now, you can go outside, take a look at the sky. You can go to the kitchen to make tea. You know, you can make a lot of things. I have Netflix so I can see some movies,” he said.

    Patricio Ugarte
    However, some astronomers miss the adventure of the old days.

    Dr. Wayne Christiansen and his colleague Bruce Carney, who at the time were the only two researching astronomers in the astronomy department at UNC-Chapel Hill, proposed the creation of SOAR in 1986. Although remote observing was one of the futuristic features that helped sell the telescope to wary donors 30 years ago, Christiansen prefers to observe in person.

    “I mean, you don’t need to be there,” Christiansen said. “But, emotionally, if you will, it’s not the same. It’s not the same as going on that pilgrimage to the mountain and going out on the mountaintop and seeing the sky and saying, ‘I’m doing something big here.’”

    Ugarte agreed, but said although modern technology might weed out some of the exciting challenges that marked the old days of astronomy, it comes with the potential to take astronomers to places they’ve never imagined.

    “The old astronomy was more romantic because you saw with your eyes, you touched with your hands. It’s more impersonal [now],” Ugarte said.

    4

    But, he said today’s astrotechnology has its own kind of magic. Not only can remote observing connect astronomers from thousands of miles away to a telescope in the Atacama, but modern telescopes can connect astronomers to worlds from farther away than ever before. Today, optical telescopes can capture images of stars that are tens of thousands of times fainter than those seen with the human eye.

    In fact, these stars are so far away that it can take billions of years for their light to reach Earth. That means what an astronomer sees when looking at a faraway star is actually what the star looked like billions of years ago. The telescope basically serves as a rudimentary time machine.

    “Everything you look at at night – those stars belong to our galaxy, and it’s part of our past,” Ugarte said. “When you look through the biggest telescope, you are getting one step closer to the beginning of the universe because you can look deeper into the sky.”

    The farthest view into space, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, reached 13.2 billion years into the past. Some scientists believe the universe itself has existed for 13.7 billion years.

    A new space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, will be able to see even further into our past. The telescope is scheduled to launch in October 2018. Scientists expect it to see the very first galaxies, which formed just a couple hundred million years after the Big Bang. Whereas the Hubble showed astronomers the toddler stage of the universe’s life, Webb can reveal its infancy.

    While the future of astronomy is both impressive and exciting, scientists are making new discoveries everyday with the technology we already have. Telescopes don’t need to be launched into space or able to see the beginnings of the universe to have an impact. Research astronomer Kathy Vivas has spent the past year observing at SOAR to investigate the formation of our own galaxy.

    “Today, we believe that [large] galaxies form from the merger of many small galaxies,” she said. “That means small galaxies start merging together and, finally, they make a big galaxy like the Milky Way.”

    To prove this theory, Vivas has been searching for the remains of small galaxies that were destroyed by the tidal forces of the Milky Way. If confirmed, the theory could also be used to explain the formations of other large galaxies like ours.

    “For me, the most important reason why we are doing astronomy is because we can tell you where we are in the universe, what is our place in the universe,” Vivas said. “The fact that you can say, ‘Okay, we are here, this is the place we live, these are the surroundings we have, these are the dangers we may have in the future.’”

    5

    North of the equator, at UNC-Chapel Hill, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers are using SOAR to study distant, extinct solar systems. Chris Clemens, astrophysicist and senior associate dean for Natural Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill, built SOAR’s Goodman Spectrograph. One of the telescope’s most crucial instruments, the Goodman Spectrograph is utilized during nearly 80 percent of SOAR research.

    Clemens leads a UNC-Chapel Hill project on exoplanetary rubble. “When the sun is done being a regular star it will become a white dwarf, which is a very small, dense object about the size of the Earth,” he said. “Some of the leftover debris in the solar system will get crushed if it gets close enough, and then it’ll fall down onto the white dwarf.”

    Clemens’ team examines the debris to determine which materials, such as iron or calcium, made up the planets that once orbited stars like our sun. Like Vivas, Clemens compares astronomical systems separated by space and time in order to help us better understand our surroundings in the past, present and future, and to discover more about our place in the universe.

    It’s 7:15 a.m. on Thursday, the two students in Chapel Hill emerge from Chapman Hall. The sun is shining and the campus is coming alive with students headed for class. Tonight, another astronomer in another part of the world will sit down in a small room and stare at a series of graphs, diagrams and data, all accompanying an impressive image of a large, white star surrounded by hundreds more. In the corner, a screen will show a mustached man wearing glasses and headphones, whistling to himself as he aims the telescope toward the stars.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition</a

    U NC campus

    Carolina’s vibrant people and programs attest to the University’s long-standing place among leaders in higher education since it was chartered in 1789 and opened its doors for students in 1795 as the nation’s first public university. Situated in the beautiful college town of Chapel Hill, N.C., UNC has earned a reputation as one of the best universities in the world. Carolina prides itself on a strong, diverse student body, academic opportunities not found anywhere else, and a value unmatched by any public university in the nation.

     
  • richardmitnick 12:46 pm on June 9, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Another Piece of the Puzzle, , , UNC   

    From UNC: “Another Piece of the Puzzle” 

    U NC bloc

    University of North Carolina

    June 9, 2016
    Mark Derewicz

    1
    UNC researchers continue to discover new pieces of the autism puzzle. Most recently, they’ve collaborated with the Simons Foundation to take part in its SPARK initiative — a genetic study that would recruit thousands of families for autism research. Illustration by Corina Cudebec

    UNC clinical researchers begin the largest-ever genetic study of autism to elucidate the complex genetics of the condition

    If a child has autism, the condition is uniquely their own. The genes involved, how those genes are expressed to give rise to the proteins his or her brain cells need to function, how the neurons are wired to articulate thoughts or navigate social interactions or think through a problem — all of these things are unique to this child.

    “No two children with autism are the same,” UNC-Chapel Hill researcher Gabriel Dichter says, “but the way we try to help kids now is with a one-size-fits-all approach. We use a trial-and-error approach and try to help them with the same interventions to see what works and what doesn’t.” It would be better to know more about what intervention would work best for each child as quickly as possible.

    That’s why UNC — along with 20 other research institutions — is taking on the largest genetic study of autism ever attempted. Researchers will collect DNA and other information from 50,000 people with autism and their immediate family members. UNC was one of three pilot institutions tasked with making sure such an ambitious project was even possible. “It will be the first opportunity the research community has had to understand autism genetics in a way that will allow us, in the future, to match a person’s specific genetic profile with a specific treatment plan,” Dichter says. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

    Dichter, Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) Director Joseph Piven, and colleagues across the state are recruiting families with children with autism to be part of this study, called the SPARK initiative (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge). The UNC team hopes to recruit thousands of families — perhaps even 10,000 — of which they would have access to their full genome sequences.

    To date, approximately 50 genes have been identified that almost certainly play a role in autism, and scientists estimate hundreds more are involved. By studying these genes, their biological consequences, and how they interact with environmental factors, researchers could better understand the condition’s causes, and link possible underlying causes to the spectrum of symptoms, skills, and challenges of people affected.

    Piven’s team at CIDD, home to the federally funded Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, is no stranger to this kind of work. For more than 15 years, his group — together with the UNC TEACCH Autism Program — has been building a research registry of families with at least one child with autism (whom have all consented to being contacted by UNC researchers conducting studies).

    These North Carolina families, now more than 6,000 strong, have made it possible for UNC researchers to deepen their understanding of this complex condition and provide numerous intervention strategies, support systems, and diagnostic tools. Piven and Dichter’s team will now tap into that registry to recruit these families, while continually working to add more to the list.

    Mark Zylka is a cell biologist and the incoming director of the UNC Neuroscience Center, which is supporting the SPARK initiative with funds for personnel to boost recruitment efforts. “Those of us in the basic sciences want to partner with clinicians in research projects we hope will ultimately benefit people,” he says. Zylka knows better than most what access to genetic information can mean to a researcher and people with the condition.

    A previous group of scientists discovered through genetic analysis that nearly 1,000 genes are potentially linked to autism in some way. Of those genes, Zylka researched UBE3A, a protein coding gene associated with Angelman Syndrome — a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by severe intellectual and developmental disability, sleep disturbance, seizures, jerky movements, and a typically happy demeanor. He observed cells from a child with a mutated UBE3A gene and cells from the child’s parents.

    Jason Yi, a postdoctoral fellow in Zylka’s lab, found that a child had a “hyperactive” version of UBE3A. It’s like a broken water faucet — the gene can’t be shut off. In normal brain development, that gene has to be turned on to produce an enzyme that targets proteins to be broken down within cells. It then has to be shut off to avoid too much production of the enzyme. In a child with the UBE3A mutation, the faucet is never turned off. In his parents, the gene works normally.

    “We think it may be possible to tamp down UBE3A in some autism patients to restore normal levels of the enzyme in the brain,” Zylka explains. It’s a long way from the clinic, but his and Yi’s work shows it’s possible to affect the basic biology that plays a role in autism.

    From one generation to the next

    Piven, along with the CIDD, has begun to study the link between autism and Parkinson’s disease. In two small, preliminary clinical studies, he and colleagues found that Parkinson’s disease may occur much more commonly in older adults with autism than in those without autism.

    He and his team identified 20 adults with autism who were not taking atypical neuroleptic drugs. Four of them were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This 20 percent rate of diagnosis was 200 fold higher than the normal rate of incidence — one in 1000 or 0.1 percent — among the general population of people ages 45 to 65. There was an even higher rate of Parkinsonian symptoms among participants with autism who were taking neuroleptic drugs, which can cause the neurological problems seen in Parkinson’s disease.

    The study needs to be replicated in a larger pool of people with autism. “We think these findings are the tip of the iceberg,” Piven says. “Studying older populations of people with autism is a new frontier, and we think this continued work will uncover very important information all of us need in order to better care for people with autism as they age.”

    And that’s a big deal.

    “By and large, what autism is like for older adults is still a mystery,” Piven adds. “Many of these people were misdiagnosed years ago, and there’s nearly nothing in the medical literature about these older people with autism.”

    As UNC basic science researchers delve into the genetics of autism and the potential environmental triggers, UNC behavioral researchers are focused on developing and disseminating community-based services. UNC TEACCH Autism Program director Laura Klinger is busy documenting the needs of adults with autism.

    Research conducted by Julie Daniels at UNC in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control shows that the prevalence of autism in 8-year-olds has risen from 1 in 150 in 2002 to 1 in 68 in 2012. The first cohort of 8-year-olds is now 22 years of age.

    “So, we can look ahead and expect a large increase in the number of adults with autism in the coming decade,” Klinger said. “Yet, we know very little about how to support a good quality of life for adults with the disorder. We’ve learned so much about autism in children in the past decade. We can diagnose autism earlier than ever before, and we have witnessed firsthand how earlier interventions can make a difference in children’s lives. Now, we need to focus on supporting individuals with autism across the entire lifespan.”

    There is much work to be done in developing vocational, residential, medical, and mental health services to support adults with autism, Klinger adds. “The longevity of autism services and research at UNC gives us a unique opportunity to lead the world in understanding aging in autism.”

    Right now, scientists don’t understand the underlying genetics well enough and don’t have a good enough handle on potential environmental causes, according to Piven. Clinicians are limited in their ability to help some of the more severe cases, though they’ve made strides in the past decade. And the medical community doesn’t have a good concept of what it’s like to live with autism for many decades into old age.

    “The good news is that UNC is one of the few places in the world capable of tackling these and other issues facing the autism community,” Piven says. “We have the scientific and clinical expertise, and we’re making progress every day.”

    Gabriel Dichter is an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology, and also the director of the Clinical Affective Neuroscience Lab at UNC-Chapel Hill.

    Joseph Piven is the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychology; director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities; and director of the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, which is funded through the National Institute of Child Health and Development.

    Mark Zylka is the incoming director of the UNC Neuroscience Center. He is also a professor of cell biology and physiology and an adjunct associate professor of pharmacy.

    Laura Klinger is an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and the director of the TEACCH Autism Program.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition</a

    U NC campus

    Carolina’s vibrant people and programs attest to the University’s long-standing place among leaders in higher education since it was chartered in 1789 and opened its doors for students in 1795 as the nation’s first public university. Situated in the beautiful college town of Chapel Hill, N.C., UNC has earned a reputation as one of the best universities in the world. Carolina prides itself on a strong, diverse student body, academic opportunities not found anywhere else, and a value unmatched by any public university in the nation.

     
  • richardmitnick 11:57 am on April 18, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , UNC   

    From UNC: “Scientists use brain stimulation to boost creativity, set stage to potentially treat depression” 

    U NC bloc

    University of North Carolina

    April 16, 2015
    Mark Derewicz, 919-923-0959, mark.derewicz@unch.unc.edu

    A UNC School of Medicine study has provided the first direct evidence that a low dose of electric current can enhance a specific brain pattern to boost creativity by an average of 7.4 percent in healthy adults, according to a common, well-validated test of creativity.

    This research, published in the journal Cortex, showed that using a 10-Hertz current run through electrodes attached to the scalp enhanced the brain’s natural alpha wave oscillations – prominent rhythmic patterns that can be seen on an electroencephalogram, or EEG.

    “This study is a proof-of-concept,” said senior author Flavio Frohlich, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry, cell biology and physiology, biomedical engineering, and neurology. “We’ve provided the first evidence that specifically enhancing alpha oscillations is a causal trigger of a specific and complex behavior – in this case, creativity. But our goal is to use this approach to help people with neurological and psychiatric illnesses. For instance, there is strong evidence that people with depression have impaired alpha oscillations. If we could enhance these brain activity patterns, then we could potentially help many people.”

    1
    Flavio Frohlich, PhD (Photo by Max Englund, UNC School of Medicine)

    Frohlich, who is also a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, is now in collaboration with David Rubinow, MD, chair of the department of psychiatry, to use this particular kind of brain stimulation in two clinical trials for people with major depressive disorder and premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD – a severe form of premenstrual syndrome. Participant enrollment is now underway for both trials.

    “The fact that we’ve managed to enhance creativity in a frequency-specific way – in a carefully-done double-blinded placebo-controlled study – doesn’t mean that we can definitely treat people with depression,” Frohlich cautioned. “But if people with depression are stuck in a thought pattern and fail to appropriately engage with reality, then we think it’s possible that enhancing alpha oscillations could be a meaningful, noninvasive, and inexpensive treatment paradigm for them – similar to how it enhanced creativity in healthy participants”

    Brain Rhythms

    At the center of Frohlich’s research are neural oscillations – the naturally occurring rhythmic electrical patterns that neurons generate and repeat throughout the brain. Alpha oscillations occur within the frequency range of 8 and 12 Hertz 9 (or cycles per second). They were discovered in 1929 by Hans Berger, who invented EEG. Alpha oscillations occur most prominently when we close our eyes and shut out sensory stimuli – things we see, feel, taste, smell, and hear.

    2
    An EEG of a naturally occurring alpha oscillation in a human brain. Enhancing these electric oscillations may help treat people with depression.

    “For a long time, people thought alpha waves represented the brain idling,” Frohlich said. “But over the past 20 years we’ve developed much better insight. Our brains are not wasting energy, creating these patterns for nothing. When the brain is decoupled from the environment, it still does important things.

    When alpha oscillations are prominent, your sensory inputs might be offline as you daydream, meditate, or conjure ideas. But when something happens that requires action, your brain immediately redirects attention to what’s going on around you. You come fully online, and the alpha oscillations disappear. Other oscillations at higher frequencies, such as gamma oscillations, take over.

    Knowing this, other researchers began associating alpha oscillations with creativity. Frohlich set out to find evidence. His idea was simple. If he could enhance the rhythmic patterns of alpha oscillations to improve creativity, then it might be possible to enhance alpha oscillations to help people with depression and other conditions of the central nervous system that seem to involve the same brain patterns.

    For three years, his lab has used computer simulations and other experiments to hone a technique to improve alpha oscillation.

    For the Cortex study, Frohlich’s team enrolled 20 healthy adults. Researchers placed electrodes on each side of each participant’s frontal scalp and a third electrode toward the back of the scalp. This way, the 10-Hertz alpha oscillation stimulation for each side of the cortex would be in unison. This is a key difference in Frohlich’s method as compared to other brain stimulation techniques.

    Each participant underwent two sessions. During one session, researchers used a 10-Hertz sham stimulation for just five minutes. Participants felt a little tingle at the start of the five minutes. For the next 25 minutes, each participant continued to take the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, a comprehensive and commonly used test of creativity. In one task, each participant was shown a small fraction of an illustration – sometimes just a bent line on a piece of paper. Participants used the line to complete an illustration, and they wrote a title when they finished.

    In the other session each participant underwent the same protocol, except they were stimulated at 10 Hertz for the entire 30 minutes while doing the Torrance test. The tingling sensation only occurred at the start of the stimulation, ensuring that each participant did not know which session was the control session.

    Because rating creativity or scoring a test can involve subjectivity, Frohlich sent each participant’s work to the company that created the test. “We didn’t even tell the company what we were doing,” Frohlich said. “We just asked them to score the tests.”

    Then Frohlich’s team compared each participant’s creativity score for each session. He found that during the 30-minute stimulation sessions, participants scored an average 7.4 percentage points higher than they did during the control sessions.

    “That’s a pretty big difference when it comes to creativity,” Frohlich said. “Several participants showed incredible improvements in creativity. It was a very clear effect.”

    Pattern Specific

    But there was a question. What if the electrical stimulation merely caused a general electric effect on the brain, independent of the alpha oscillation? To find out, Frohlich’s team conducted the same experiments but used 40 Hertz of electrical current, which falls in the gamma frequency band typically associated with sensory processing – when the brain is computing what we see or touch or hear.

    “Using 40 Hertz, we saw no effect on creativity,” Frohlich said. “The effect we saw was specific to the 10-hertz alpha oscillations. There’s no statistical trickery. You just have to look at each participant’s test to see these effects.”

    Frohlich said he understood some people might want to capitalize on this sort of study to boost creativity in their everyday lives, but he cautioned against it. “We don’t know if there are long-term safety concerns,” he said. “We did a well-controlled, one-time study and found an acute effect.”

    “Also, I have strong ethical concerns about cognitive enhancement for healthy adults, just as sports fans might have concerns about athletic enhancement through the use of performance-enhancing drugs.”

    Instead, Frohlich is focused on treating people with depression and other mental conditions, such as schizophrenia, for which cognitive deficits during everyday life is a major problem.

    “There are people that are cognitively impaired and need help, and sometimes there are no medications that help or the drugs have serious side effects,” Frohlich said. “Helping these populations of people is why we do this kind of research.”

    This study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the department of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine, and the Swiss National Science Foundation.

    Flavio Frohlich’s research was featured in Endeavors, UNC’s online research magazine.

    The current clinical trial for depression is funded through an independent investigator award from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation (formerly NARSAD).

    The first author of the study is Caroline Lustenberger, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in Frohlich’s lab; graduate student Michael Boyle, a graduate student in the biomedical engineering department; Alban Foulser, an undergraduate double major in psychology and German; and Juliann Mellin, a research assistant in the Frohlich lab.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition</a

    U NC campus

    Carolina’s vibrant people and programs attest to the University’s long-standing place among leaders in higher education since it was chartered in 1789 and opened its doors for students in 1795 as the nation’s first public university. Situated in the beautiful college town of Chapel Hill, N.C., UNC has earned a reputation as one of the best universities in the world. Carolina prides itself on a strong, diverse student body, academic opportunities not found anywhere else, and a value unmatched by any public university in the nation.

     
c
Compose new post
j
Next post/Next comment
k
Previous post/Previous comment
r
Reply
e
Edit
o
Show/Hide comments
t
Go to top
l
Go to login
h
Show/Hide help
shift + esc
Cancel
%d bloggers like this: