Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Is there a disease that makes us love cats?



Documented human cases of a disease called toxoplasmosis go back as far as ancient Egypt. The condition is caused by a parasite that can only reproduce in the intestines of cats. Today about one-third of the world’s population is infected with toxoplamosis, but most people who have it will never know it.

Emory evolutionary biologist Jaap de Roode, whose research focuses on the co-evolution of parasites and their hosts, worked with animators and writers at TED-ED to create the video lesson, above. Watch it to get a brief overview of what is known about toxoplasmosis, and some of the big questions that remain.

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Monarch butterflies use drugs

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Into the wilderness of Madagascar



Gabriel Andrle is a senior at Emory majoring in Environmental Sciences. He describes himself as “extremely passionate about learning and teaching others how humans can better share this planet with wildlife and with one another.”

He is also an excellent videographer.

Andrle is spending the summer in Madagascar, assisting with research into whether community conservation increases human and ecosystem health. The project is under the supervision of Sarah Zohdy, formerly a post-doctoral fellow in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences and currently an assistant professor of disease ecology at the University of Alabama.

Watch the video, above, that Andrle produced as he is exploring Madagascar with the research team. You will get a glimpse of why he is so passionate about protecting unique environments.

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For the love of lemurs and Madagascar
In Madagascar, a health crisis of people and their ecosystem

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Bridging ancient Tibetan medicine and modern Western science

Tawni Tidwell amid Tibetan prayer flags in eastern Tibet. Photo by Shane Witnov.

By Carol Clark

Tawni Tidwell is the first Westerner to be certified in Tibetan medicine by Tibetan teachers in the Tibetan language. The PhD candidate in Emory’s Department of Anthropology is now working on a dissertation about how Tibetan physicians diagnose diseases, especially cancer.

“I see myself as a bridge between Tibetan medicine and Western science,” says Tidwell, who became a Tibetan physician in 2015. “I feel like each has something to offer the other.”

Tidwell was born in Colorado but lived from the ages of two to five in South Korea, where her father was a U.S. Army surgeon. Tidwell and her mother lived in mainstream Seoul, which gave her an affinity for Asia when she returned to Colorado. She was also influenced by the Native American ancestry on both sides of her family and by the ecology of Colorado, where she became involved in rock climbing and winter mountaineering.

Tidwell has trained as an animal tracker, worked as a ranger at a biological preserve, taught wilderness survival lessons, and led gap-year students on trips to learn about traditional cultures through the “Where There Be Dragons” program.

Tidwell studied at the premier Tibetan medical school outside of Tibet, in northern India (the cultural and intellectual capital of the displaced Tibetan community). In order to enroll, she had to pass a five-day exam of memorized Tibetan grammar and Buddhist logic, as well as general Tibetan cultural knowledge. From there on, each year she had to recite from memory 115 pages of a medical textbook in Tibetan, considered one of the most difficult languages for non-native speakers to master. She also had to complete written exams, coursework and attend classes, all in the Tibetan language among Tibetan peers.

Below is an interview with Tidwell, covering some of the milestones of her long and winding road to becoming a certified Tibetan medical practitioner.

Where did you spend your undergraduate years? 

I went to Stanford, where I started out majoring in physics and pre-med, with the idea of a career focused on aerospace medicine, exploring questions like how the body adapts to space.

In physics, you take the extremes of a problem to understand how an average system operates. I thought if you studied how humans respond to extremes, then maybe you could find out more about how the human body works and responds to illness.

I was also really interested in the relationship between our bodies and the land. I eventually switched my major to Earth Systems. Stanford has a 2,000-acre biological preserve – ranging from redwoods to chaparral and perennial grasslands – where I worked as a docent and a ranger. I learned to identify dozens of different species of grass. I wanted to know why this grass species survives in the desert and another one doesn’t, and why the bobcat patrols this area and not another.

While ascending Illimani, a peak in western Bolivia, Tidwell pauses to take in the view.

When did you become interested in Tibetan culture?

I took a gap year after my freshman year and went to the Emory Tibetan Studies Program in north India, led by Tara Doyle (senior lecturer in Emory’s Department of Religion). I studied Buddhist philosophy and the Tibetan language, which is exquisite and poetic. The word for computer translates as “brain of light.”

The Tibetan language pays special attention to the sacred. It reminds you of the pursuit of understanding the reality we all experience and how one should live. It’s very specific about cognition and the mind and provides a much more detailed description of the trajectory of perception.

I feel different when I speak in Tibetan. People have told me that my whole body language changes.

Why did you enroll in an animal-tracking course?

I went to Washington, D.C., to work with an environmental organization. I realized that most of the environmental specialists in our nation’s capital had no time to spend in the natural world. They are completely disconnected from it. I wondered, what were humans like as foragers and what have we lost by being academic specialists without first-hand experience?

I went to New Jersey for a 10-day course taught by Tom Brown, Jr., an animal tracker and wilderness guru. He basically teaches what it takes to survive when you are butt naked in the woods and have nothing. In just the first class, you learn about wild edibles, how to make fire by friction, how to make two different traps and two different snares, and how to tan a hide. Other classes build on those basics.

What was your favorite part of your survivalist training?

Fire. There is something so enigmatic about making fire by friction. The experience ignites something deep in our past. It’s almost like creating life. You have to get a feel for the spindle and the fireboard. You apply just the right speed and pressure and when the fire comes out it’s like magic. And you realize that you can have a relationship to everything like that in the natural world.

After I finished the initial course, I realized it was really about putting in the experiential “dirt time’ to learn the skills. I took more courses and helped with teaching. I lived in the New Jersey pine barrens for about a year in a pit shelter, which was dug about four feet into the ground and was about 10 feet in diameter. It was full-on immersion in ecology.

I saw how some people’s lives changed as their wilderness survival skills accumulated. It gives you a certain freedom. People realize they don’t necessarily have to live in the way that they thought they had to live.

Tidwell with classmates, gathering native plants from the Tibetan plateau.

Do you ever get scared being alone in the wilderness? 

Scary movies make me scared, but not being alone in the forest. I imagine, though, that I would be scared in grizzly bear or polar bear territory, since they hunt humans.

Wolves don’t scare me because I read everything I could about the Arctic wolf when I was in elementary school – I was that kind of kid – and I knew they weren’t a threat to humans.

It’s actually part of Buddhist philosophy: The more you learn about the world, the more you learn about what you should, and should not, fear.

How did you wind up in Tibetan medical school?

In 2008, Tara Doyle asked me to return as assistant director of the Emory Tibetan Studies Program in north India.

While working in South America, I had met a curandero in Bolivia who told me that his grandmother had known more than 5,000 healing plants, he knew 2,000 and his daughter would know a few hundred or even fewer. I realized that Tibetan medicine is really unique in that it is this ancient medicinal system connected to the land – using medicines made from plants and minerals gathered from the Tibetan plateau, the highest place in the world – and it is also written down.

I thought that if I had a chance to study Tibetan medicine I could really do something with it. Dr. Khenrab Gyamtso, the vice principle of the Men-Tsee-Khang medical institute in north India, agreed to tutor me for a few hours at the end of every day, after he and I had already put in a full day of work. He eventually encouraged me to apply for enrollment.

What did your studies involve?
Medicinal herb from the Tibetan plateau


The first few years were mainly memorization of parts of the medical canon, more than 100 pages a year. And then at the end of every year you recite them. At first I didn’t value memorization but I eventually realized that it’s an amazing technology. It feels like a profound meditation. It’s clever in the sense that it forces you to focus while also giving your mind a break. The text is written poetically and you start noticing associations and layers of meaning. Layers of your mind also start emerging. It’s a fascinating thing to observe.

After five years of classes, I transferred to eastern Tibet’s Tibetan Medical College of Qinghai University in Xining, China. Under the mentorship of senior doctors, I was able to do patient rounds in the gastroenterology department of the hospital there. All that memorization prepared my mind to have a strong presence with each patient and really focus on what each one said to me.

What are some of the distinctive aspects of Tibetan medicine? 

Tibetan medicine co-evolved with Buddhism. Contemplative introspection into the mind is complemented by introspection into the body. For example, in the case of chronic pain, Tibetan medicine prescribes medication along with recommendations for diet and ways to reduce mental distress and suffering. Research has shown that some meditators can identify physical pain locales on their body but they don’t have the same mental response that a lot of other people have to it.

We’re one of the few species in the animal kingdom that can evoke stress just by thinking about a threat. What are the changes in the mind when you become afraid, jealous, angry or sad? These emotions create biological changes in the body. Tibetan medicine treats the mind and the body at the same time. If you have diabetes or hypertension, it can get worse if you are highly reactive to circumstances in your life. This phenomenon is related to a concept called rlung (pronounced loong). These are wind pathways in the body that the mind rides on, which in Western medicine is related to the neuroendocrine system.

Connecting the mind and body to treat patients is ancient practice in Tibetan medicine, but it has only started gaining importance in Western medicine in the past decade or so.

Do you think Tibetan medicine is superior to Western medicine?

No. I feel like there is a lot of learning to do on both sides. My dad is an orthopedic surgeon. There are some things that Western medicine does very well.

Modern Tibetan medical practitioners don’t do surgery but they may advocate it at times – historically, we performed minor procedures like cataract surgery. Our canon says that anything that benefits a person is Tibetan medicine. So if the results of an X-ray or blood test could give you valuable information about a patient, you would welcome that. It’s a realist perspective more than anything else. And I would also say that it’s more holistic.

Some people have such a suspicion of anything that’s not Western medicine, they just refuse to consider it. I find that non-scientific. The research done on other medical systems is so poor we can’t say that we know whether these things don’t work on some level. Westerners sometimes forget that a human connection is healing and we try to operationalize everything. We’re not allowed to have art in medicine, but sometimes that art is what makes it more effective.

All photos courtesy of Tawni Tidwell

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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Measuring happiness and well-being across cultures and incomes

Emory anthropologist Peter Little visits with a family in Baringo, Kenya. He is studying low-income communities to understand the relationship between material well-being and reports of overall well-being.

By April Hunt, Emory Report

How is it that people living in rural, poor areas of the globe can report being happier than those who live in the relative affluence of the United States?

Emory anthropologist Peter Little and philosopher Mark Risjord aim to answer that question as part of a team that has been awarded a “Happiness and Well-Being” grant. Funded by the John Templeton Foundation and St. Louis University, their work is part of a larger research program in the growing field of well-being.

“The idea is to compare the subjective meaning of the good life and see if that affects the relationship between material well-being and reports of happiness and overall well-being,” says Little, the project’s principal investigator.

The project, which includes economist Workneh Negatu of Addis Ababa University, will study two specific low-income communities: South Wollo, Ethiopia, and Baringo, Kenya.

Little has long studied the politics, economy and ecology of eastern Africa. When he was completing his dissertation in 1983, there was only one college graduate in the Chamus Maasai community of Baringo, Kenya, where he studied. Since then, there have been significant social changes and there are now dozens of college graduates among the Maasai-related pastoralists population, he says.

That makes that area in Kenya a good place to understand relative well-being and poverty where, as in the U.S., people are poor relative to their neighbors. South Wollo, by contrast, remains populated by those in absolute poverty. A bad harvest there, or lost jobs, still can lead to dire hardships and even starvation.

The United Nations’ annual World Happiness Report this year ranked Ethiopia a dismal 115 out of 147 countries according to citizens’ happiness levels. The United States ranked 13th in the analysis, which looked at factors such as life expectancy, health and freedom from corruption in government and business.

Yet Ethiopia ranked 94th on the 2012 Happiness Index, the most recent available from the New Economics Foundation. The United States ranked 105th in that study, which included a factor called “life satisfaction.”

Kenya, likewise, ranked poorly in the U.N. report, at 122nd, but also bested the United States with a rank of 98 on the Happiness Index.

“This is huge for public policy,” Little says. “Kenya’s therapy industry is starting to emerge, because people’s expectations of what the good life is have changed drastically, and they’re not meeting those expectations.”

Risjord’s role will be to help provide a philosophical framework for the qualitative study. In his section of the project proposal, Risjord wrote that past study of well-being seems to take sides on longstanding philosophical disputes on whether it is a universal sense or different in different contexts.

Risjord, who is teaching philosophy of science in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in southern India as part of the Emory-Tibet Sciences Initiative, says his role will be to understand how the feeling varies with context based on historical, cultural and economic data gathered in both Ethiopia and Kenya.

“The philosophical contribution of this project will be to develop a more robust and articulate conception of how human well-being varies with social, economic and environmental context,” Risjord writes in his proposal section.

The study will become part of the larger Happiness and Well-Being project at St. Louis University, which is designed to promote dialogue and collaboration among well-being researchers across a broad range of disciplines. Little, whose proposal was one of just 21 funded from a pool of 300, says he hopes to begin travel under the $248,000 grant by August.

He will build upon that work back in Atlanta, too. Long-term, he plans to get students to look at the Ethiopian diaspora here, to gauge if their sense of well-being changes when they arrive in the U.S.

“To me, it’s really exciting to do cultural interpretations of well-being and poverty,” Little says. “It’s a fascinating way to look at culture.”

Related:
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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Memoir details the making of a mathematician

From the cover of a memoir by Emory mathematician Ken Ono, recently published by Springer.

Quanta Magazine interviewed Emory mathematician Ken Ono about his new memoir, “My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count,” which he co-authored with the late Amir Aczel. The book describes how Ono grew up under such relentless pressure to succeed that he developed a crippling fear of failure that caused him to drop out of high school. He eventually found his way to the path of a successful math career, guided by various mentors and by the story of Indian math genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, who endured struggles of his own.

As Ono explains in the Quanta interview:

“For whatever reason, we live in a culture where we think that the abilities of our best scientists and our best mathematicians are somehow just God-given. That either you have this gift or you don’t, and it’s not related to help, to hard work, to luck. I think that’s part of the reason why, when we try to talk about mathematics to the public, so many people just immediately respond by saying, ‘Well, I was never very good at math. So I’m not really supposed to understand it or identify with it.’ I might have had some mathematical talent passed through my father genetically, but that was by no means enough. You have to be passionate about a subject.

“At the same time, I want it to be known that it’s totally okay to fail. In fact, you learn from your mistakes. We learn early on if that you want to be good at playing the violin, you’ve got to practice. If you want to be good at sports, you practice. But for some crazy reason, our culture assumes that if you’re good at math, you were just born with it, and that’s it. But you can be so good at math in so many different ways. I failed my [graduate-school] algebra qualifications! That doesn’t mean I can’t end up being a successful mathematician. But when I tell people I failed at this, nobody believes me.”

Read the whole interview in Quanta.

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Templeton World Charity to fund 'Spirit of Ramanujan' fellows