Friday, July 11, 2014

Apes vs. humans: Finding common ground



Is war ever truly inevitable?

That question is central to “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” opening this weekend. The movie is the latest in the “Apes” drama series featuring a character named Caesar, an ape raised by humans who leads a simian rebellion against the human race.

Fear and misunderstanding can easily lead to violence, says Emory political scientist Shawn Ramirez, an expert on conflict resolution. In this video, Ramirez considers the plot to “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” as a mirror to real-life situations.

“I think it’s really hard when one side sees the other as a lesser – a lesser species or a lesser race or a lesser ethnicity or religion,” Ramirez says. “It’s very hard to overcome that.”

What can one side do when they face that issue?

“I think Hollywood captures this, actually,” Ramirez says, “because usually it’s some central characters that move over to the other side and they start communicating to the other side and realize that there is something more valuable there.”

Related:
A wild view of "Planet of the Apes"

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Resilience: The new development buzzword in the era of climate change

Haile Gebrselassie, shown celebrating after winning a gold medal in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, rose from poverty in rural Ethiopia to become an international hero. (Photo by Darren England/AllSport.)

By Carol Clark

Haile Gebrselassie, the former Olympic long-distance runner, grew up poor in Ethiopia. He was one of ten children of a farmer, and developed his athleticism by running 20-miles, round-trip, from his rural home to school each day.

Now 41, Gebrselassie was a featured speaker at the 2020 Conference on Building Resilience for Food and Nutrition Security, held in Addis Ababa last month.

“We had just enough land,” Gebrselassie recalled of his subsistence childhood. The population of Ethiopia has since grown, the country is rapidly urbanizing, and the size of family farms are getting smaller. “On top of that, nowadays there are many other problems,” he said. “My province used to have very nice and cool weather, but the temperature has risen.”

Droughts and other extreme weather events are more frequent, and yet, Gebrselassie is returning to his roots, investing his earnings as an international sports star into an Ethiopian coffee plantation. “I’m doing the same thing I did before, that is farming,” he said in his address. “I’m planting coffee. It’s a better farm, a better way, a modern way.”

Anthropologist Peter Little and long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie at the conference in Addis Ababa.

“His personal experience of not just getting through a life of poverty, but becoming a holder of 23 world records and two gold medals in the Olympics, is a powerful story of resilience,” says Peter Little, an Emory anthropologist who was also a plenary speaker at the conference.

Little, who has been researching pastoralist communities in the Horn of Africa for three decades, gave a talk about the resilience of these nomadic herders over millennia, and how they face unique challenges today due to climate change, conflict, and loss of land. Pastoralists have managed to weather these new shocks and develop new markets. “A billion dollars in live animals and animal products are exported each year from the Horn of Africa,” Little noted in his talk. He added that pastoralism may evolve into new forms, but it will continue to remain a viable enterprise.

The tri-annual development conference is sponsored by the International Food Policy Research Institute, which is based in Washington, D.C., and part of an agriculture research network funded by governments, private businesses, foundations and the World Bank. Heads of state, academics, and representatives of non-governmental agencies and major corporations were among the 800 invited guests at the event.

“A lot of different actors from the international community are interested in issues of poverty eradication. They are searching for new ideas and new ways of doing development work,” Little says. “The conversation is moving away from the focus on crises, to looking at how to build and promote resilience, especially in terms of drought and other natural shocks.”

Watch Peter Little's conference keynote in the video below:


The Horn of Africa “could be the poster child for the effects of climate change,” he says. The region suffered a major drought and famine in 2011, killing an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 people.

While many presentations at the conference considered the effects of that disaster, the discussions also reflected optimism for the future of the region and for the continent as a whole. “Africa is coming up as a major player in the 21st century, whether you believe it or not,” Little says. About 200 million to 300 million Africans are expected to enter the middle class during the next 10 to 15 years.

“Despite massive problems of poverty and conflict,” Little says, “a growing middle class is making things happen, and a lot of people are focusing on the enormous potential of Africa.”

Related:
Climate change, from the hooves up
What we can learn from African pastoralists

Childhood memories: How stories make us who we are

Thinking back: As children acquire more ability with language, and a fuller sense of time and place, they can start to hold onto complex autobiographical memories.

Britt Peterson writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how the work of Emory psychologists Patricia Bauer and Robyn Fivush “has been crucial in understanding the highly philosophical mysteries of autobiographical memory: How our stories become our selves.”

An excerpt from the article:

“Patricia Bauer’s earliest memory comes from when she was just under 4. Her family had moved into a house with a concrete patio that was a few inches up from the lawn, and she rode her tricycle right off it. ‘Traumatic, right?’ she told me. “Everything before that is a blank—as it is for everyone. As Bauer said, ‘You can look at pictures of yourself as an infant, you can hear family stories about how you behaved as an infant, but you don’t know yourself as an infant. … And that’s kind of a little disturbing, when you think about it.’

“We’ve taken for granted since the late 19th century that people don’t have a working memory before about 3 years of age. Freud thought that some memories were formed, but that ‘the remarkable amnesia of childhood, … the forgetting which veils our earliest youth from us and makes us strangers to it,’ was caused by repression. … The general theory on what came to be known as ‘childhood amnesia’ was that very young children were, as Bauer put it to me, ‘a turnip that sat in a car seat.'

“Her early work in memory helped challenge the ‘turnip in a car seat’ paradigm. It turned out the problem was language, not memory: When Bauer developed nonverbal tests of recall—using a new toy to demonstrate a sequence of tasks, then testing over time to see how that knowledge endured—she was able to show that children as young as a year were forming memories, even if they couldn’t yet describe them.”

Read the whole article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Photo: iStockphoto.com

Related:
Psychologists document the age our earliest memories fade
Stories your parents should have told you

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

In Emory's Math Circle, bubbles are square and equations are cool

This summer, math graduate student Sarah Trebat-Leder is working with elementary-age children at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta (above) and with advanced college undergraduates on the Emory campus. And during the school year, she organizes the Emory Math Circle for middle school and high school students. (Photos by Tony Benner, Emory Photo/Video.)

By Carol Clark

Each June and July, the Emory math department gathers a hive of brilliant minds from around the country for Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), a National Science Foundation initiative. The 13 participants at Emory this summer have come from Brown, Harvard, Indiana University, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Georgia and Yale. Number theorist Ken Ono heads up the Emory REU. He and the other instructors charge the group with problems relating to elliptic curves and Galois representations, mock modular and quantum modular forms, additive number theory and distribution of primes.

“This is one of the top REUs in the country, because of the research you get to do here,” says Sarah Trebat-Leder, an Emory NSF Graduate Fellow, who is an instructor for the group this summer.

Trebat-Leder, who graduated from Princeton in 2013, came to two of the Emory REU summer programs herself as an undergraduate. “I learned how to be a mathematician,” she says of the experience. “How to read technical math papers, how to give talks, how to write math and how to go about doing research.”

Ono put her to work on extending the findings of a major discovery in the area of partitions that he had just published with colleagues. “My first REU project was generalizing this major paper that a lot of people in the math world cared about,” Trebat-Leder says. “I had taken a lot of classes, but I had never worked on a problem that no one had solved. Ken is a great mentor because he knows how to develop projects that are accessible to students and yet important to math.”

Ever seen a square bubble? Emory graduate students are giving kids a new view of math, aiming to spark wonder and a desire to learn more.

Trebat-Leder is also devoted to making math accessible and inspiring, for everyone from young kids to adults. Her career goal is to become a college professor focused on teaching and community outreach. 

In January, Trebat-Leder launched the Emory Math Circle. The free program draws students from Atlanta middle schools and high schools to campus on Saturdays for challenging and fun math enrichment sessions led by Emory graduate students. This summer, in addition to teaching for the REU, she is spending several Saturday afternoons at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta alongside other Emory graduate students, including Amanda Clemm, a co-organizer of the Math Circle. They are immersing young children in math and physics through a hands-on activity they call “3D Boxes and Bubbles."

Trebat-Leder reshapes math education.
“Who doesn’t like bubbles?” says Trebat-Leder, explaining the activity’s appeal.

First the kids build a variety of geometric structures out of ZomeTools, interlocking plastic balls and tubes. Then they use the structures to create soap bubbles in crazy shapes: Squares, cubes, spirals, wormholes and parabolas.

While the kids are busy making bubbles, the graduate students are asking them questions about what they think is happening. The reason an odd-shaped bubble forms in the middle of a 3D geometic shape? "The bubble mix is kind of lazy," Trebat-Leder explains. "It wants to connect up without having to stretch a lot and it takes less stretch for it to connect in the middle than to stretch to the outside."

The idea is to strip out complex jargon and give kids glimpses into math and physics that help them to think both logically and creatively.

It’s a far different approach than multiplication drills.

Amanda Clemm is among the Emory graduate students who are volunteering their time to give kids positive early experiences with math.

“I was getting my hair cut the other day, and the hair dresser asked what I do. I told her and she said, ‘I hated math!’” Trebat-Leder says. “I get that reaction everywhere. Everyone is always telling me about their bad experiences with math. I’d like to change that, but it takes time.”

Trebat-Leder, who grew up in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, loved teaching even as a child. “It’s in my blood,” she says. By the time she was 11, she had earned her black belt in karate and was leading a karate class herself.

She also had an affinity for math. After her sophomore year in high school, she went to a summer math camp offered by Hampshire College in Massachusetts. “I spent six weeks doing nothing but math all day, and I got a strong sense of what it was all about,” Trebat-Leder says. “I love math because it’s both logical and creative. In science, you have a hypothesis and conduct an experiment that can strongly support your hypothesis. But math is more precise. You can actually prove something and be sure that it is true.”

During her Princeton undergraduate years, Trebat-Leder participated in a Boston University summer program called PROMYS, or Program in Mathematics for Young Scientists. PROMYS immerses both high school students and teachers in the creative aspects of math and original research.

CBS46 News

Trebat-Leder drew on all her varied experiences to launch the Emory Math Circle. More than a dozen Emory graduate students responded to her call to lead the free math enrichment sessions on Saturday afternoons, and about 30 middle school and high school students attended throughout the spring semester.

Math Circle is not free tutoring for students who are struggling in their classes, Trebat-Leder stresses. “We’re looking for kids who really want to be here and who enjoy our sessions,” she says. “Our aim is to get the students excited about math and let them see how interesting it can be by exposing them to things they don’t learn in school.”

The middle-school level sessions might introduce the students to graph theory by showing how it can be used to model Facebook networks or to play “Cops and Robbers,” a game that explores how many policemen you need to catch a criminal in different scenarios. Another popular game in the Math Circle requires students to keep four colors from touching one another. “The four-color theorem was one of the really deep problems in combinatorics,” Trebat-Leder says. “It took a lot of computers and people to prove it. But it’s also super visual and it doesn’t require a lot of technical language and symbols to convey.”

Kids grasp the idea of math hidden in shapes.
The students that attended the Math Circle sessions last spring came from a range of races and about half were girls, Trebat-Leder says. She notes that girls were the first- and second-place winners of a problem-solving contest organized for the Math Circle middle school students.

“The kids get to learn some really cool math and see what it’s like to actually discuss it themselves and not have it lectured to them,” Trebat-Leder says. “It’s really beneficial to have graduate students, who have studied a lot of math and understand it deeply, interact with kids.”

She cites an article she read recently comparing math to art. “If art classes consisted of just reproducing other people’s paintings, than the experience wouldn’t be nearly as fun or creative,” Trebat-Leder says. “And yet, that’s the way most schools teach math.”

She hopes to keep expanding her influence as an educator, and come up with more ways to improve the math experience of kids. “I think schools are emphasizing the wrong things in an era when computers drive a lot of the work,” she says. “We’re still having kids spend a lot of time practicing long division when we should be focusing more on concepts. Technology has changed so much, and I think that what we’re teaching should be adapting to that.”

Related:
The math of card tricks, games and gambling
How culture shaped a mathematician

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

From baseball to dogs and the field of his dreams

Having a ball: Brian Hare with his dog Tasmania. Hare began researching dogs as an undergraduate at Emory and went on to found the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University. (Photo by Nick Pironio.)

By Paige Parvin, Emory Magazine

As an Emory undergraduate in the 1990s, Brian Hare led and published a study showing that dogs can follow a human hand pointing—something that chimpanzees, longtime stars of cognitive research, were much less capable of doing.

It all started when Hare didn’t make the baseball team.

An Atlanta native, Hare attended the Lovett School, where he claims he was “not a particularly good student.” But he did get the chance to intern at Zoo Atlanta, working with drills, baboon-like primates who evolved to have dramatically colorful rear ends so their companions could follow them in the jungle.

So when he arrived at Emory (which his mother and uncle also attended), “I was already really excited about animal behavior and studying primates,” Hare says.

He was also really excited about baseball—what he calls his first love. When he wasn’t allowed to try out for the Emory team because he was three minutes late to practice, it was a crushing blow. “But it was actually the hugest favor anyone ever did for me,” Hare says. “Because it gave me a year to think about it, and meanwhile I took classes with professors like Frans de Waal and discovered that I really loved psychology and evolutionary anthropology and studying primate behavior and cognition. I was hooked.”

In his sophomore year, Hare met Michael Tomasello, then a professor of psychology. That connection was a game changer. Tomasello immediately recognized Hare’s spark, and kindled it by encouraging him to participate in serious research. Hare was blown away.

“We had one conversation, and he said, here’s an idea we’ve been thinking about for a research project. What do you think?” Hare says. “And I was like, what? Did he just ask me what I think? This is the coolest guy I have ever met in my life. Right from the beginning, I was part of the team.”

At the same time, Hare had a choice to make about another team—the Emory baseball team, which was holding fall tryouts again. “I was this eighteen-, nineteen-year-old, starting to realize what science is really all about,” he says. “I was like, wait, you want to study animals to better understand people? I didn’t even know people did that. I had a new love. So the calculation was this—I could try out for baseball, maybe sit on the bench, or I could work with Mike Tomasello and do what I actually thought might be my dream. I could play science like I thought I was going to play baseball. So that’s what I did. I played science like other people play sports.”

Hare’s next breakthrough moment came when he started studying dogs.

Read the whole article in Emory Magazine.

Related:
What is your dog thinking? Brain scans unleash canine secrets
How dogs love us