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Exoplanet is vanishing—and really fast

Thu, 2018-12-13 15:42

An exoplanet almost 100 light years away from Earth is disappearing, and—by cosmic standards—disappearing fast, astronomers report.

Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered GJ 3470b—a medium-sized exoplanet roughly the size of Neptune is evaporating at a rate 100 times faster than a previously discovered planet of similar size.

“This is the smoking gun that planets can lose a significant fraction of their entire mass,” says David Sing, professor of astrophysics at Johns Hopkins University and an author of the study.

This artist’s illustration shows a giant cloud of hydrogen streaming off a warm, Neptune-sized planet just 97 light-years from Earth. The exoplanet is tiny compared to its star, a red dwarf named GJ 3470. The star’s intense radiation is heating the hydrogen in the planet’s upper atmosphere to a point where it escapes into space. (Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Player/STScI)

“GJ 3470b is losing more of its mass than any other planet we have seen so far; in only a few billion years from now, half of the planet may be gone.”

The findings, which appear in Astronomy & Astrophysics, advance knowledge about how planets evolve.

Hard to watch

The study is part of the Panchromatic Comparative Exoplanet Treasury program, which Sing leads, which aims to measure the atmospheres of 20 exoplanets in ultraviolet, optical, and infrared light as they orbit their stars. PanCET is the largest exoplanet observation program run with NASA’s Hubble telescope.

One particular issue of interest to astronomers is how planets lose their mass through evaporation. Planets such as “super” Earths and “hot” Jupiters orbit closer to their stars and are therefore hotter, which causes evaporation to blow away the outermost layer of their atmospheres.

This graphic plots exoplanets based on their size and distance from their star. Each dot represents an exoplanet. Planets the size of Jupiter (located at the top of the graphic) and planets the size of Earth and so-called super-Earths (at the bottom) are found both close and far from their star. But planets the size of Neptune (in the middle of the plot) are scarce close to their star. This so-called desert of hot Neptunes shows that such alien worlds are rare, or, they were plentiful at one time, but have since disappeared. The discovery that GJ 3470b, a warm Neptune at the border of the desert, is fast losing its atmosphere suggests that hotter Neptunes may have eroded down to smaller, rocky super-Earths. (Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Field/STScI)

While these larger Jupiter-sized and smaller Earth-sized exoplanets are plentiful, medium Neptune-sized exoplanets (roughly four times larger than Earth) are rare. Researchers hypothesize that the atmospheres of these Neptunes get stripped off and they ultimately turn into smaller planets.

It’s difficult, however, to actively witness them doing so, because researchers can only study them in UV light, which limits researchers to examining nearby stars no more than 150 light-years away from Earth, not obscured by interstellar material.

Nothing but a rocky core

GJ 3470b is 96 light-years away and circles a red dwarf star in the general direction of the constellation Cancer.

Hubble found that exoplanet GJ 3470b had lost significantly more mass and had a noticeably smaller exosphere than the first Neptune-sized exoplanet studied, GJ 436b, due to its lower density and receipt of a stronger radiation blast from its host star.

GJ 3470b’s lower density makes it unable to gravitationally hang on to the heated atmosphere, and while the star hosting GJ 436b was between 4 billion and 8 billion years old, the star hosting GJ 3470b is only 2 billion years old. A younger star is more active and powerful, and, therefore, has more radiation to heat the planet’s atmosphere.

Sing’s team estimates that GJ 3470b may have already lost up to 35 percent of its total mass and, in a few billion years, all of its gas may be stripped off, leaving behind only a rocky core.

“We’re starting to better understand how planets are shaped and what properties influence their overall makeup,” Sing says. “Our goal with this study and the overarching PanCET program is to take a broad look at these planets’ atmospheres to determine how each planet is affected by its own environment. By comparing different planets, we can start piecing together the larger picture in how they evolve.”

Sing and the team hope to study more exoplanets by searching for helium in infrared light, which will allow a greater search range than searching for hydrogen in UV light.

Currently, the only way to study planets made largely of hydrogen and helium is through tracing hydrogen in UV light. Using Hubble, the upcoming NASA James Webb Space Telescope (which will have a greater sensitivity to helium), and a new instrument called Carmenes that Sing recently found can precisely track the trajectory of helium atoms, astronomers will be able to broaden their pursuit of distant planets.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Moving around now may improve your mood later

Thu, 2018-12-13 15:35

Increases in physical activity tend to be followed by increases in mood and perceived energy level, research finds.

This beneficial effect was even more pronounced for study subjects who had bipolar disorder.

Participants, 242 adults, ages 15 to 84, with an average age of 48 years, used activity trackers and electronic diaries for two weeks. The sample included 54 people with bipolar disorder.

The wrist-worn devices automatically recorded levels of physical movement in real time and diary entries assessed mood and perceived energy levels four times a day. Participants used a seven-point scale ranging from “very happy” to “very sad” for mood and from “very tired” to “very energetic” for energy.

“Systems regulating sleep, motor activity, and mood have typically been studied independently,” says Vadim Zipunnikov, assistant professor of biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. He led the data analysis. “This work demonstrates the importance of examining these systems jointly rather than in isolation.”

The findings show that, on average, a higher activity level at one time-point was associated with improved mood and increased perceived energy at the next time-point during the day. (The daily time-points were personalized according to the person’s daily schedule, with one each in the morning, at lunchtime, at dinnertime, and before bed.) Likewise, increased energy at one time-point was associated with increased activity at the next time-point. These associations were controlled for the current levels of mood, energy, and activity, respectively.

Activity was inversely associated with sleep duration—more activity tended to be followed by less sleep that night, and more sleep tended to be followed by less activity the next day.

Tracking sleep, activity, mood, and energy concurrently was particularly important in people with bipolar disorder because both sleep and physical activity strongly influenced the changes in internal psychological states. Many of the current interventions for mood, sleep, and physical activity focus on only one of these systems rather than considering the collective impact across multiple systems.

Bipolar disorder affects nearly 3 percent of the US adult population; depression is even more common, affecting about 8 percent of US adults in a given year. The research team is interested in applying this work to interventions that could offset depressive episodes in people with bipolar disorder.

“This study exemplifies the potential for combining the use of physical-activity trackers and electronic diaries to better understand the complex dynamic interrelationships among multiple systems in a real-time and real-life context,” Zipunnikov says.

The team is now exploring how physical activity and sleep interplay with pain, stress, and alcohol use through an international consortium, Motor Activity Research Consortium for Health.

The findings appear in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. Funding for the study came from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Mission finds watery ‘hydroxyls’ on asteroid Bennu

Thu, 2018-12-13 14:30

The OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu has discovered evidence of water molecules there, researchers report.

From August through early December, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft aimed three of its instruments toward Bennu and began making the mission’s first observations of the asteroid. During this period, the spacecraft traveled the last 1.4 million miles (2.2 million km) of its outbound journey to arrive at a spot 12 miles (19 km) from Bennu on December 3.

The information obtained from these initial observations confirms many of the mission team’s ground-based observations of Bennu and reveals several new surprises.

Hydroxyls in space

In a key finding for the mission’s science investigation, data from the spacecraft’s two spectrometers—the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer, or OVIRS, and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emissions Spectrometer—reveal the presence of molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together, known as “hydroxyls.”

The team suspects that these hydroxyl groups exist globally across the asteroid in water-bearing clay minerals, meaning that at some point, the rocky material interacted with water. While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding does indicate that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu’s parent body, a much larger asteroid.

“This finding may provide an important link between what we think happened in space with asteroids like Bennu and what we see in the meteorites that scientists study in the lab,” says Ellen Howell, senior research scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, and a member of the mission’s spectral analysis group.

“It is very exciting to see these hydrated minerals distributed across Bennu’s surface, because it suggests they are an intrinsic part of Bennu’s composition, not just sprinkled on its surface by an impactor.”

“The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics,” says Amy Simon, OVIRS deputy instrument scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Bennu’s shape

Additionally, data from the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) corroborate ground-based radar observations of Bennu and confirm that the original model—which OSIRIS-REx science team chief Michael Nolan, now based at LPL, and collaborators developed in 2013—closely predicted the asteroid’s actual shape. Bennu’s diameter, rotation rate, inclination, and overall shape presented almost exactly as projected.

Soon after the asteroid later named Bennu was discovered in 1999, Nolan’s group used the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to gather clues about its size, shape, and rotation by bouncing radar waves off of it during one of its close approaches to Earth, about five times the distance between Earth and the moon.

“Radar observations don’t give us any information about colors or brightness of the object, so it is really interesting to see the asteroid up close through the eyes of OSIRIS-REx,” Nolan says. “As we are getting more details, we are figuring out where the craters and boulders are, and we were very pleasantly surprised that virtually every little bump we saw in our radar image back then is actually really there.”

The mission team used this ground-based Bennu model when designing the OSIRIS-REx mission. The accuracy of the model means that the mission, spacecraft, and planned observations were appropriately designed for the tasks ahead at Bennu.

One outlier from the predicted shape model is the size of the large boulder near Bennu’s south pole. The ground-based shape model calculated this boulder to be at least 33 feet (10 meters) in height. Preliminary calculations from OCAMS observations show that the boulder is closer to 164 feet (50 meters) in height, with a width of approximately 180 feet (55 meters).

‘The right asteroid’

As expected, the initial assessment of Bennu’s regolith indicates that the surface of Bennu is a mix of very rocky, boulder-filled regions and a few relatively smooth regions that lack boulders. However, the quantity of boulders on the surface is higher than was expected. The team will make further observations at closer ranges to more accurately assess where a sample can be taken on Bennu for later return to Earth.

“Our initial data show that the team picked the right asteroid as the target of the OSIRIS-REx mission. We have not discovered any insurmountable issues at Bennu so far,” says Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at LPL. “The spacecraft is healthy and the science instruments are working better than required. It is time now for our adventure to begin.”

“What used to be science fiction is now a reality,” says Robert C. Robbins, president of the University of Arizona. “Our work at Bennu brings us a step closer to the possibility of asteroids providing astronauts on future missions into the solar system with resources like fuel and water.”

The mission is currently performing a preliminary survey of the asteroid, flying the spacecraft in passes over Bennu’s north pole, equator, and south pole at ranges as close as 4.4 miles (7 km) to better determine the asteroid’s mass. This survey also provides the first opportunity for the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter, an instrument the Canadian Space Agency contributed, to make observations now that the spacecraft is in proximity to Bennu.

The spacecraft’s first orbital insertion is scheduled for December 31, and OSIRIS-REx will remain in orbit until mid-February 2019, when the mission transitions into the next survey phase. During this first orbital phase, the spacecraft will orbit the asteroid at a range of 0.9 miles (1.4 km) to 1.24 miles (2 km) from the center of Bennu—setting two new records for the smallest body ever orbited by a spacecraft and the closest orbit of a planetary body by any spacecraft.

Team members of the mission presented the results at the Annual Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, DC.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Lauretta is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama manages the agency’s New Frontiers Program for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Source: University of Arizona

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Knowing just one gay person shifts attitudes

Thu, 2018-12-13 14:23

People who met and became acquainted with at least one gay person were more likely to later change their minds about marriage equality and become more accepting of gay and lesbian people in general, research shows.

Sociologists have long proposed that when people establish certain relationships, they may change their attitudes about issues, often referred to as the contact effect, explains Daniel DellaPosta, assistant professor of sociology at Penn State and an affiliate of the Institute for CyberScience.

For example, sociologists have debated whether knowing a person with a different sexual orientation can influence attitudes on larger issues, such as the acceptance of gay rights and marriage equality. However, prior to this study, the theory had yet to face rigorous testing.

“When you suddenly have to interact with someone from an outgroup as an individual, it forces you to reconsider your biases.”

“What I thought we needed in this area was a test of the contact hypothesis that was conservative—perhaps overly conservative—using the most stringent test we could possibly devise,” says DellaPosta.

DellaPosta examined data from the 2006, 2008, and 2010 editions of General Social Survey, or GSS, a sociological survey of opinions that Americans hold on a range of issues.

In 2006, about 45 percent of the people who had a gay or lesbian acquaintance expressed support for same-sex marriage. By 2010, that figure had increased to 61 percent. In 2006, only 22 percent people who did not have a gay or lesbian acquaintance said they approved of same-sex marriage. That number fell to 18 percent in 2010.

DellaPosta says that the survey data do not reveal exactly when these relationships began, which makes the test more rigorous.

“By taking people in that 2006 baseline who were acquainted with gay and lesbian people and comparing them with other people who were similar in all visible regards, including their measured attitude toward same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian people at that 2006 baseline, who were not acquainted with gay and lesbian people, you can get a really conservative test of the contact hypothesis,” says DellaPosta, who reports his findings in the journal Socius.

The findings could clarify how gay and lesbian people who come out affect the general acceptance of gay and lesbian people. In the 1973 GSS, just 11 percent of Americans felt “homosexuality is not wrong at all.” By 2016, that number had grown to 52 percent.

DellaPosta suggests that coming out may facilitate more contact with gay and lesbian people, which then accelerates an attitude change about issues that affect the gay community.

Further, DellaPosta suggests that the contact with a gay person does not even need to be especially deep for the contact effect to appear.

“If you have very superficial contact, like just seeing someone from an outgroup in the grocery store or on the subway, you may focus more on selective behaviors that reinforce your prejudices—like someone dressing, talking, or acting in a way that reinforces some negative stereotype of that group,” says DellaPosta. “But, if you take the next level to mere acquaintanceship—someone whose name you know, someone who, if you saw them on the street, you might stop and chat with them for a moment—the contact effect sets in because when you suddenly have to interact with someone from an outgroup as an individual, it forces you to reconsider your biases.”

According to DellaPosta, having a closer, deeper bond with a gay or lesbian acquaintance did not result in an even larger shift of attitude toward same-sex marriage. He adds that the contact effect is actually larger for people who have a low probability of having a gay or lesbian acquaintance.

The GSS, created in 1972, is a sociological survey that the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago conducts. About 2,000 people responded to the GSS 2006 survey, but only a smaller portion were asked about their acquaintances and re-surveyed in 2008 and 2010. Just over half—about 53 percent—of those surveyed said they had at least one gay acquaintance.

Computations for this research took place at Penn State’s Institute for CyberScience Advanced CyberInfrastructure (ICS-ACI).

Source: Penn State

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Your phone could work at extreme temps with new plastic

Thu, 2018-12-13 12:46

Researchers have created a new kind of plastic material that could help electronics function in extreme heat.

The new plastic material could reliably conduct electricity in up to 220 degrees Celsius (428 F), according to a paper in Science.

“Commercial electronics operate between minus 40 and 85 degrees Celsius. Beyond this range, they’re going to malfunction,” says Jianguo Mei, an assistant professor of organic chemistry at Purdue University. “We created a material that can operate at high temperatures by blending two polymers together.”

One of these is a semiconductor, which can conduct electricity, and the other is a conventional insulating polymer, which is what you might picture when you think of regular plastic. To make this technology work for electronics, the researchers couldn’t just meld the two together—they had to tinker with ratios.

A new organic plastic allows electronics to function in extreme temperatures without sacrificing performance. (Credit:John Underwood/Purdue)

“One of the plastics transports the charge, and the other can withstand high temperatures,” says Aristide Gumyusenge, a graduate researcher and lead author of the paper. “When you blend them together, you have to find the right ratio so that they merge nicely and one doesn’t dominate the other.”

The researchers discovered a few properties that are essential to make this work. The two materials need to be compatible to mix and each should be present in roughly the same ratio. This results in an organized, interpenetrating network that allows the electrical charge to flow evenly throughout while holding its shape in extreme temperatures.

The most impressive thing about this new material isn’t its ability to conduct electricity in extreme temperatures, but that its performance doesn’t seem to change. Usually, the performance of electronics depends on temperature—think about how fast your laptop would work in your climate-controlled office versus the Arizona desert. The performance of this new polymer blend remains stable across a wide temperature range.

“A lot of applications are limited by the fact that these plastics will break down at high temperatures…”

Extreme-temperature electronics might be useful for scientists in Antarctica or travelers wandering the Sahara, but they’re also critical to the functioning of cars and planes everywhere. In a moving vehicle, the exhaust is so hot that sensors can’t be too close and fuel consumption must be monitored remotely. If sensors could be directly attached to the exhaust, operators would get a more accurate reading. This is especially important for aircraft, which have hundreds of thousands of sensors.

“A lot of applications are limited by the fact that these plastics will break down at high temperatures, and this could be a way to change that,” says Brett Savoie, an assistant professor of chemical engineering. “Solar cells, transistors, and sensors all need to tolerate large temperature changes in many applications, so dealing with stability issues at high temperatures is really critical for polymer-based electronics.”

The researchers will conduct further experiments to figure out what the true temperature limits are (high and low) for their new material. Making organic electronics work in the freezing cold is even more difficult than making them work in extreme heat, Mei says.

Awards from the Purdue University Startup fund, the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program, and the National Science Foundation CAREER program funded the work.

Source: Purdue University

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Exercise at night won’t mess up your sleep

Thu, 2018-12-13 12:37

Exercising at night doesn’t have a negative effect on sleep quality, according to a new study.

Researchers combed through the literature on the subject and analyzed all 23 studies that met their quality requirements. They conclude that exercising in the four hours before going to bed does not have a negative effect on sleep.

“If doing sport in the evening has any effect on sleep quality at all, it’s rather a positive effect, albeit only a mild one,” says Christina Spengler, head of the Exercise Physiology Lab at ETH Zurich.

Moderate intensity exercise shortly before bedtime does not negatively affect sleep. At most, vigorous exercise close to bedtime might have a negative effect. Each symbol in this overview represents one set of experimental data. (Credit: Jan Stutz/ETH Zurich)

By combining the data from the different studies, the researchers showed that in the night after study participants had done some sport in the evening, they spent 21.2 percent of their sleeping time in deep sleep. Following an evening without exercise, the average figure was 19.9 percent. While the difference is small, it is statistically significant. Deep sleep phases are especially important for physical recovery.

One exception

Vigorous training within an hour before bedtime is an exception to the rule. According to this analysis, it is the only type of evening exercise that may have a negative effect on sleep. “However, this preliminary observation is based on just one study,” Spengler says.

“As a rule of thumb, vigorous training is defined as training in which a person is unable to talk. Moderate training is physical activity of an intensity high enough that a person would no longer be able to sing, but they could speak,” Spengler says. One example of vigorous training is the kind of high-intensity interval training that competitive athletes often perform. In many cases, though, a longer endurance run or a longer ride on a racing bike would fall into the moderate training category.

As the analysis showed, it took study participants who completed an intensive training session shortly before bedtime longer to fall asleep. The study also provided insight into why this is the case: the test subjects were not able to recover sufficiently in the hour before they went to bed. Their hearts were still beating more than 20 beats per minute faster than their resting heart rate.

Don’t hesitate

According to the official recommendations of sport physicians, people should do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. Many may ask themselves: should I exercise in the evening if I didn’t have time during the day, or will that have a negative effect on my sleep?

“People can do exercise in the evening without hesitation. The data shows that moderate exercise in the evening is no problem at all,” says Jan Stutz, a doctoral student in Spengler’s research group and lead author of the analysis. Moderate exercise did not cause sleep problems in any of the studies researchers examined, not even when the training session ended just 30 minutes before bedtime.

“However, vigorous training or competitions should be scheduled earlier in the day, if possible,” Stutz says.

Stutz and Spengler point out that they examined average values over the course of their analysis, which made only general statements possible.

“Not everyone reacts to exercise in the same way, and people should keep listening to their bodies. If they notice they are having problems falling asleep after doing sport, they should try to work out a little earlier,” Stutz says.

“It is well known that doing exercise during the day improves sleep quality,” Spengler says, adding: “Now we have shown that, at the very least, exercising in the evening doesn’t have a negative effect.”

The research appears in the journal Sports Medicine.

Source: ETH Zurich

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Bees wearing backpacks could replace some drones

Thu, 2018-12-13 11:33

Engineers have created a sensing system small enough to ride aboard a bumble bee. The system’s tiny rechargeable battery lasts for seven hours of flight and recharges while the bees are in their hive at night.

The system could one day replace drones to soar over huge farm fields and monitor temperature, humidity, or crop health. Drones need so much power to fly they can’t get very far without needing a charge.

“Drones can fly for maybe 10 or 20 minutes before they need to charge again, whereas our bees can collect data for hours,” says senior author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.

“We showed for the first time that it’s possible to actually do all this computation and sensing using insects in lieu of drones.”

Vikram Iyer investigates how a bumblebee (flying inside the container) performs with the sensor package attached to its back. (Credit: Mark Stone/U. Washington) 7 grains of rice

While using insects instead of drones solves the power problem, the technique has its own set of complications: First, insects can’t carry much weight. And second, GPS receivers, which work well for helping drones report their positions, consume too much power for this application. To develop a sensor package that could fit on an insect and sense its location, the team had to address both issues.

“We decided to use bumble bees because they’re large enough to carry a tiny battery that can power our system, and they return to a hive every night where we could wirelessly recharge the batteries,” says coauthor Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the electrical & computer engineering department. “For this research we followed the best methods for care and handling of these creatures.”

Previously other research groups have fitted bumble bees with simple “backpacks” by supergluing small trackers, like radio-frequency identification, or RFID, tags, to them to follow their movement. For these types of experiments, researchers put a bee in the freezer for a few minutes to slow it down before they glue on the backpack. When they’re finished with the experiment, the team removes the backpack through a similar process.

These prior studies, however, only involved backpacks that simply tracked bees’ locations over short distances—around 10 inches—and didn’t carry anything to survey the environment around them. For this study, researchers designed a sensor backpack that rides on the bees’ backs and weighs 102 milligrams—about the weight of seven grains of uncooked rice.

“The rechargeable battery powering the backpack weighs about 70 milligrams, so we had a little over 30 milligrams left for everything else, like the sensors and the localization system to track the insect’s position,” says coauthor Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, a doctoral student in the Allen School.

‘Hey bees…’

Because bees don’t advertise where they are flying and because GPS receivers are too power-hungry to ride on a tiny insect, the team came up with a method that uses no power to localize the bees. The researchers set up multiple antennas that broadcasted signals from a base station across a specific area. A receiver in a bee’s backpack uses the strength of the signal and the angle difference between the bee and the base station to triangulate the insect’s position.

“To test the localization system, we did an experiment on a soccer field,” says coauthor Anran Wang, a doctoral student in the Allen School. “We set up our base station with four antennas on one side of the field, and then we had a bee with a backpack flying around in a jar that we moved away from the antennas. We were able to detect the bee’s position as long as it was within 80 meters, about three-quarters the length of a football field, of the antennas.”

Next the team added a series of small sensors—monitoring temperature, humidity, and light intensity—to the backpack. That way, the bees could collect data and log that information along with their location, and eventually compile information about a whole farm.

“It would be interesting to see if the bees prefer one region of the farm and visit other areas less often,” says coauthor Sawyer Fuller, an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department. “Alternatively, if you want to know what’s happening in a particular area, you could also program the backpack to say: ‘Hey bees, if you visit this location, take a temperature reading.'”

Back at the hive

After the bees have finished their day of foraging, they return to their hive where the backpack can upload any data it collected via a method called backscatter, through which a device can share information by reflecting radio waves transmitted from a nearby antenna.

Right now the backpacks can only store about 30 kilobytes of data, so they are limited to carrying sensors that create small amounts of data. Also, the backpacks can upload data only when the bees return to the hive. The team would eventually like to develop backpacks with cameras that can livestream information about plant health back to farmers.

“Having insects carry these sensor systems could be beneficial for farms because bees can sense things that electronic objects, like drones, cannot,” Gollakota says.

“With a drone, you’re just flying around randomly, while a bee is going to be drawn to specific things, like the plants it prefers to pollinate. And on top of learning about the environment, you can also learn a lot about how the bees behave.”

The research team will present its findings online and at the ACM MobiCom 2019 conference.

Source: University of Washington

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How to make STEM more inclusive of black women

Thu, 2018-12-13 10:31

There are concrete ways to promote black women in their efforts to study and work in STEM fields, a new study argues.

The National Science Foundation reports that women of color constitute fewer than 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers. And the women of color who are in STEM aren’t necessarily seeing their identities reflected and incorporated in STEM fields.

“Imagine walking into a lab or a classroom and seeing pictures of people on the walls that are nothing like you,” says Terrell Morton, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri. “People have a very narrow view of what science looks like, and right now, it’s older white men wearing goggles and holding beakers. When a young woman of color sees those images in a learning environment, it can make her feel unwelcome because there is nothing in that image that represents her.”

Morton says educators can help support women of color pursuing STEM degrees by creating inclusive classroom environments and prioritizing activities that intentionally and meaningfully incorporate students’ personal identities and experiences.

For example:

  • Being mindful of the images on the walls of classrooms and labs and the identities they represent.
  • Being mindful of the readings used, problems investigated, solutions generated in courses, and whose voice(s) and communities are and are not represented.
  • Asking students to share their stories, backgrounds, and goals with the class. This encourages community support and helps all students succeed.
  • Provide diverse historical and contemporary role models (their background and their work) in STEM classes through case studies, stories, films, guest speakers, and class instruction.

Morton interviewed 10 black women in STEM programs at two southeastern universities to hear their experiences of pursuing a degree in a field that is overwhelmingly white and male. Morton found that despite many alienating and isolating classroom experiences in pursuit of their degrees, all of the black women in the study firmly wanted to continue in the field.

“The women understand their identity to be both socially regulated and self-determined,” Morton says. “This means that they recognize that society feels a certain way about black women and pictures them in certain roles. However, the women also saw themselves as successful and resilient because they are thriving in a field that society tells them they shouldn’t be in.”

Morton says many of the women felt their career goals met challenges outside of the classroom as well, often by members of their immediate community. For example, one of the women Morton spoke with said a person in her church pulled her aside and told her that she was being too ambitious by pursuing a doctoral degree in a STEM field. The woman encouraged the student to think seriously about a plan B, in case things “went south” for her.

Morton says these micro-aggressive behaviors are reflective of the implicit biases that people develop and can hinder society’s progress over time. However, educators can use the tips above to create an inclusive and supportive environment for black women.

“People buy into these notions that only certain people can access certain spaces and do certain things,” Morton says. “When somebody tells a black woman that her STEM studies are too ambitious, they are inferring that STEM careers are reserved for people who don’t look like her. However, the women I spoke to were very strong-willed despite these challenges and asserted that they would write their own stories and not buy into other people’s narratives.”

The study appears in in Science Education. Eileen C. Parsons, professor of science education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is coauthor.

Support for the work came from the National Science Foundation. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agencies.

Source: University of Missouri

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Yes, protests really can sway elections

Thu, 2018-12-13 10:29

Protests really do have an effect on election results, according to a new study based on 30 years of data.

The study finds that spikes in both liberal and conservative protest activity can increase or decrease a candidate’s vote by enough to change the final outcome.

“Many people are skeptical that protests matter to electoral outcomes, but our paper finds that they have a profound effect on voter behavior,” says study coauthor Sarah A. Soule, a professor of organizational behavior and of sociology at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

“Liberal protests lead Democrats to vote on the issues that resonate for them, and conservative protests lead Republicans to do the same. It happens on both sides of the ideological spectrum.”

How big is the effect?

On average, a wave of liberal protesting in a congressional district can increase a Democratic candidate’s vote share by 2 percent and reduce a GOP candidate’s share by 6 percent. A wave of conservative protests, like those by the Tea Party in 2010, will on average reduce the Democratic vote share by 2 percent and increase the Republican share by 6 percent.

On top of that, big protests by progressives have spurred increases in the quality of Democrats who decide to challenge incumbents. (Conservative protests haven’t had the same impact motivating Republican challengers, however.) That seems to be what has happened in 2018, when record numbers of women both marched in the streets and decided to run as Democrats for Congress, but the pattern isn’t unique to this year.

The study is based on a detailed analysis of both local protest activity and voting patterns in every congressional election from 1960 to 1990.

The data on protests came from news reports. The researchers focused only on local protests, which they scored by both their ideological leaning and their intensity or “salience.”

“Protests are a way of signaling discontent, and they inform politicians about the most salient issues.”

To rate the protests on an ideological spectrum, the researchers looked at each protest’s focal issues. Not surprisingly, given the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, 90 percent of the protests during those decades were on the left side of the political spectrum. But the share of conservative protests increased gradually to 14 percent in the ’80s and 21 percent by 1990.

To rate “salience,” the researchers looked at whether the protests attracted large numbers of people; had organizational backing; attracted police presence; or resulted in damage, injuries, or death.

For example, in the 1968 election of Abner Mikva, a liberal challenger in Illinois, the district saw 40 protests that year, which the researchers scored at a salience level of 54—fairly high, but nowhere near as high as the protests during some other races. Mikva defeated both the Democratic incumbent in the primary and his Republican opponent in the general election.

Interestingly, conservative protests of similar intensity appear to give Republicans a proportionately bigger boost in vote share. The researchers say that probably reflects the fact that conservative street protests were rare until the 1990s, which probably made them more electrifying to Republican voters.

Multiple messages

The researchers argue that local political protests provide important signals to voters as well as to candidates and potential challengers. For voters, they can focus attention. To incumbent lawmakers, they are signals about intensity of local content or discontent. For prospective challengers, they can signal the incumbent’s vulnerability.

Indeed, the paper finds that an increase in liberal protest activity correlates with an increase in the number of “quality” Democratic challengers, such as those who have held elected offices before. The odds of a solid challenger entering a congressional race climbed from 20 percent to 50 percent as the intensity of protest activity increased.

“It’s a form of information-gathering,” says coauthor Daniel Q. Gillion, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. “When politicians run for office, they try to know every single issue in their backyard as well as the sentiments of their constituents. Protests are a way of signaling discontent, and they inform politicians about the most salient issues.”

Gillion adds that the volume and intensity of progressive protests have been higher in 2018 than at any time since the late 1960s.

Other studies have found that violent protests can lead people to think poorly of the protesters. However, Soule and Gillion say they found little evidence that protests produce a backlash in actual voting behavior.

Has it been enough to affect the 2018 midterm elections?

“Based on these findings, unequivocally, yes,” says Soule.

The research appears in Social Science Quarterly.

Source: Stanford University

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Microscopes offer peek at mosquito virus on the move

Thu, 2018-12-13 09:46

Researchers have developed a way to see how a virus moves within a mosquito’s body, which could lead to the prevention of mosquitoes transmitting diseases.

“Previously, the common understanding was that when a mosquito has picked up a virus, it first needs some time to build up inside the midgut, or stomach, before infecting other tissues in the mosquito,” says Alexander Franz, an assistant professor in the veterinary pathobiology department at the University of Missouri and corresponding author of the paper, which appears in Viruses.

“However, our observations show that this process occurs at a much faster pace; in fact, there is only a narrow window of 32 to 48 hours between the initial infection and the virus leaving the mosquito’s stomach. For this field of research, that revelation is eye opening.”

Inside look

Researchers observed a mosquito infected with the chikungunya virus, which originated in Africa and was first found in the Americas in 2013. There is no vaccine to prevent or treat the virus, and while most common symptoms include fever and joint pain, they can be severe and disabling.

The researchers used three separate electron microscopes to view the virus traveling through the mosquito, beginning with its midgut, or stomach.

The first two microscopes provided different two-dimensional views of a single layer of tissue in the mosquito’s stomach. The third, a focused ion beam electron microscope, allowed researchers to see multiple layers of tissue.

Bug off

“We’re now visualizing a real virus with a three-dimensional model, at scale,” says coauthor DeAna Grant, a researcher with the Electron Microscopy Core Facility. “We can take a three-dimensional image showing the inside of a mosquito’s stomach and say that this dot is a virus particle; there is no guessing to what that dot is.

“In addition, with this technology we were able to track, in three-dimension, the virus traveling through the mosquito at 24, 32, and 48 hour intervals, and within 48 hours or less, we could see the virus particles leaving the mosquito’s midgut.”

Researchers say they hope to one day inhibit the genes involved with the release of the virus from within the mosquito’s stomach to prevent future transmission of mosquito-borne diseases.

The National Institutes of Health-National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the University of Missouri award for “Excellence in Electron Microscopy” funded the work. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agencies.

Source: University of Missouri

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Black teens deal with stop-and-frisk on way to school

Thu, 2018-12-13 08:35

Black Caribbean students in London and New York City say they’ve either witnessed or been subject to stop-and-frisk procedures on trips to and from school, according to a new small study.

Stop-and-frisk search and school safety are both subjects of frequent public debate, but the fact that students face these searchers on their way to school hasn’t gotten much attention, researchers say.

“Young people generally, and black young people in large city contexts particularly, all too often negotiate an intense set of anxieties around their safety in the company of law enforcement while traveling to and from school that goes unrecognized in public discourse” says Derron Wallace, an assistant professor of education and sociology at Brandeis University, who interviewed black Caribbean students in London and New York City high schools.

“This is a key dimension of young people’s educational experiences that researchers, policymakers, teachers, and youth advocates should take seriously,” he says.

Divided by an ocean, united by experience

From 2012 to 2014, Wallace conducted in-depth interviews with 60 black Caribbean high school students in New York City and London to better understand how they interact with police during their trips to and from school.

In all, 57 of the 60 participants reported having witnessed racial and ethnic minorities being frisked by police during their travels to and from school, and 25 of the 60 reported having been stopped and frisked themselves. Of those 25, 23 were males.

Wallace’s research, which is highlighted in Harvard Educational Review, includes interviews with 30 high school students from a large public high school in New York City, and 30 from a large public high school London. All of the students were black with at least one parent emigrating from a Caribbean nation. The study is part of a larger research project by Wallace examining the educational experiences of black Caribbean young people in both cities.

“A drop in reported incidents changes the public perception, but it doesn’t necessarily change the experiences of young people…”

The in-depth nature of the interviews allowed Wallace to pick up on common sentiments, to examine how public perceptions of Caribbean heritage differs in the two cities, and to understand how young people view police differently in the two cities.

Students at both public schools are required to wear uniforms, and they often remarked at how little those uniforms did to influence the way police treated them. They didn’t expect the uniforms to provide immunity, Wallace says, but they thought they would be treated like children because they were wearing them.

“They expected their uniforms to signal to law enforcement that they were children and that their engagement with police officers would at least be informed by the fact that they were young people,” Wallace says. “But according to participants, they were treated like adults.”

‘The police will come for you anyway’

Focusing on black Caribbean youth provided an opportunity for Wallace to examine processes of racialization and ideas of ethnic exceptionalism. In the United States, there are myths of ethnic exceptionalism for black immigrants and because of these myths, parents often encourage children to emphasize their Caribbean identities in interactions with authority, Wallace says.

In London, meanwhile, these myths of exceptionalism do not exist. Yet students from both cities told Wallace that their ethnicity didn’t seem to influence the way police treated them. For black Caribbean students, it was their race that mattered in the policing process.

“All the things my mother told me would help protect or cover me didn’t…”

“Participants revealed that their accents, deferential attitudes, and school attire did not save them from police scrutiny as they traveled through segregated and disadvantaged regions of global cities,” Wallace says. “Black Caribbean youth recounted being stopped, questioned, and searched in their local neighborhoods—at points for no clear or convincing reason.”

One student from New York told Wallace: “School clothes, Caribbean background… don’t really stop the police… The police will come for you anyway… All the things my mother told me would help protect or cover me didn’t… I showed respect, but that didn’t change nothin’.”

Statistics from the New York Police Department show a steep decline in stop-and-frisk searches after a Supreme Court ruling in 2013 limited their use, but police still stop black and Latinx people while walking on city streets at considerably higher rates than white people.

“A drop in reported incidents changes the public perception, but it doesn’t necessarily change the experiences of young people,” Wallace says.

Wallace says change will require more than traditional political action and court decisions; it will need grassroots movements where community stakeholders, parents, and schools are all involved.

“The results of this study show that we need to make sure we are thinking about the safety of young people beyond national crises,” he says. “Finding a safe route to school can matter just as much as the safety in London and New York City public schools.”

Wallace will continue his research and search for paths to improved experiences for students, as a fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research this coming spring.

Source: Brandeis University

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Clear expectations cut school suspensions

Wed, 2018-12-12 15:08

When students receive clear, consistent expectations of behavior, school suspensions drop by as much as 10 percent, a new study shows.

To put that in context, more than 2.75 million K-12 students were suspended during the 2013 to 2014 school year. A 10 percent reduction means 275,000 more students were in class learning.

A 2012 study by the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University found that when a high school freshman receives a single suspension, their chances of dropping out of school can increase by a third. Further, only 49 percent of students with three or more suspensions graduate high school. That’s nearly a flip of a coin on whether a student receives a diploma or not.

“A positive climate is one where educators and administrators create clear expectations for students, practice consistent discipline, and display supportive behavior,” says Francis Huang, associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Missouri.

“This study suggests that a positive school climate can be helpful for all students, regardless of their background.”

“This creates a positive school environment for students because they know what is expected of them, they feel respected and supported, and they expect that they will be treated equally and fairly.”

In addition to presenting clear rules to students and enforcing them consistently throughout the school, a positive school climate features an environment marked by supportive student-teacher relationships, Huang says.

For the study, which appears in Children and Youth Services Review, Huang and coauthor Dewey Cornell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, analyzed school climate survey responses from more than 75,000 students from 310 middle schools in Virginia to see the relationship between student behaviors, the likelihood of suspensions, and overall school climate.

Behaviors like fighting and bullying were the most powerful predictors of receiving a suspension. A positive school climate is associated with a reduction in a student’s likelihood of receiving a suspension, no matter their race, economic status, or behavior in school.

“Research shows that overwhelmingly, the students who are most at risk of receiving a suspension are either male, non-white, of low socioeconomic status, have a disability, or a combination of these characteristics,” Huang says. “This study suggests that a positive school climate can be helpful for all students, regardless of their background.”

The National Institute of Justice funded the work. The opinions, findings, and recommendations expressed in the study are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the funding institution.

Source: University of Missouri

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CO2-driven acidity hits oceans hard

Wed, 2018-12-12 15:00

Streams of gas-filled volcanic bubbles rising up to the surface off the rocky cliffs of Ischia, Italy are making the seawater acidic and radically changing life around them in the process.

Researchers studying species living near these gassy vents are learning what it takes to survive in acidic waters—and getting a glimpse of what future oceans will look like if the acidification continues.

Their findings, which appear in Nature Communications, suggest ocean acidification driven by human-caused carbon dioxide emissions could have a larger impact than previously thought.

Volcanic carbon dioxide seeps from the ocean floor near Ischia, Italy. (Credit: Pasquale Vassallo, Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn)

“When an organism’s environment becomes more acidic, it can dramatically impact not only that species, but the overall ecosystem’s resilience, function, and stability,” says coauthor Fiorenza Micheli, a professor of biology at Stanford University. “These transformations ultimately impact people, especially our food chains.”

Real-life lab

Most ocean acidification studies take place in laboratories, which makes it impossible to assess how whole ecosystems that include multiple, interacting species are affected. The real-life laboratory provided researchers an opportunity to examine dozens of species, including sea urchins and marine snails, that live in areas of different acidity along Ischia’s volcanic carbon dioxide vents.

In addition to studying how species diversity changed with acidification, they analyzed species traits, such as diet and growth, that influence how well the ecosystem performs. For example, sea snails were smaller in more acidic water, as their shells take longer to grow and are thinner and more brittle.

These harmful effects on sea snails, a key food for animals higher up in the food chain, may affect fish populations.

Overall, researchers found that the active venting zones with the most acidic waters were home to not only the least number of species, but also the lowest amounts of “functional diversity”—the range of ecosystem-support services or roles that each species can provide.

“Studying the natural carbon dioxide vents in Ischia allowed us to unravel which traits from different species, like snail shell strength, were more vulnerable to ocean acidification. These results illuminate how oceans will function under different acidification scenarios in the future,” says lead author Nuria Teixidó, a marine biologist from Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Italy, who was a visiting researcher at Stanford during the research.

Ocean instability

Acidification in the waters of Ischia displaced long-lived species, such as corals, that form habitat for other species—a process already often witnessed on reefs across the world. The researchers also found that high levels of carbon dioxide and more acidity favored species with short life spans and fast turnover as they are the only species that can resist these environmental conditions. This change could lead to further diversity loss and instability in the oceans, as biodiversity tends to increase an ecosystem’s stability.

Localized case studies such as Ischia can shed light on how future global environmental conditions may affect ocean life. Beyond losing biodiversity, ocean acidification will threaten food security for millions of people who depend on seafood, along with tourism and other ocean-related economies.

“The effects of ocean acidification on whole ecosystems and their functioning are still poorly understood,” Micheli says. “In Ischia, we have gained new insights into what future oceans will look like and what key services, like food production and coastal production, will be lost when there is more carbon dioxide in the water.”

The National Geographic Society, the Total Foundation, a Maire Curie Cofund, and a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellowship funded the work.

Source: Stanford University

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How peace with FARC threatens Colombia’s forests

Wed, 2018-12-12 14:37

Fires that contribute to deforestation spiked six-fold in Colombia in the year after a historic 2016 peace agreement ended decades of conflict between Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and government forces, according to new research.

“This dramatic increase from trends in the last decade will boost the likelihood of deforestation in protected areas in the upcoming year,” says Laura C. Schneider, an associate professor in the geography department at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and coauthor of the paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Guerrillas often had their own forest conservation policies that they enforced episodically and at gunpoint.

The study reveals the unforeseen effects of guerrilla group demobilization on deforestation rates. The armed conflict kept farmers and ranchers from burning and converting forests into farm fields and pastures. Since the war ended, deforestation and threats to biodiversity have increased due to the absence of government or other stakeholders in land management in a country with some of the highest biodiversity in the world, according to Schneider.

The researchers recommend swift changes in Colombia: real-time forest monitoring, expanded programs to pay farmers and others to protect forested areas at the frontier, government integration of demobilized armed groups as staff in protected areas, and the establishment of a domestic market for frontier deforestation permits.

“The time for securing peace with the forest is now,” concludes the study by scientists at Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Rutgers, and Stony Brook University.

The late 2016 peace agreement ended a decades-long struggle between the government and FARC guerrillas across Colombia’s vast forested frontier.

While armed conflict and its end can have major impacts on natural resources, the influence of war and peace on highly biodiverse tropical forests remains disputed. Understanding how the transition from war to peace affects forests is crucial to mitigating carbon emissions and biodiversity loss in Colombia and in other biodiversity-rich areas plagued by conflict worldwide.

The researchers found a 600 percent increase in fires in protected areas across biodiversity hot spots following guerrilla demobilization in Colombia. They also calculated a 52 percent increase in the probability of deforestation within parks for 2018.

While the peace agreement includes language on sustainable development, guerrillas often had their own forest conservation policies that they enforced episodically and at gunpoint, so they would not be spotted easily by government airplanes and helicopters. Conservation may have been incidental to the FARC’s political and economic objectives at the forest frontier, but armed conflict that curbed the transformation of vast forests and deforestation hubs during peace were predicted, the study says.

Since the Colombian government lacks environmental or other law enforcement capacity at the frontier, enforcement is now up for grabs by small landholders, ranchers, land speculators, drug traffickers, and others.

The peace agreement promised land titles to former combatants, especially in areas controlled by guerrillas, including several protected areas. Demobilization can make the land accessible for cultivation and pasturing by former combatants who know the region and newcomers waiting to cash in on newly accessible land.

The findings suggest it is not enough to declare an area protected in countries rich with forests and natural resources, emphasizes coauthor Liliana Dávalos, professor in the department of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. Urgent shifts by government must include real-time forest monitoring, expansion of programs to pay for ecosystem services, and engaging local community including former combatants in conservation.

Partial funding came from the National Science Foundation and NASA.

Source: Rutgers University, Stony Brook University

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Your eyes are a window to your stress

Wed, 2018-12-12 14:13

Your eyes may offer a way to measure your stress while multitasking, according to a new study.

Previous studies on workload and productivity include physical aspects, such as how much a person walks or carries, but they do not take into account a person’s state of mind.

“If your vitals are bad, then something is wrong with your body and doctors will work to figure out what’s wrong with you,” says Jung Hyup Kim, an assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Missouri.

“What about your mental health? Many people multitask, but currently there is no measurement for someone’s mental well-being. However, we found that the size of a pupil could be the key to measuring someone’s mental state while they multitask,” Kim says.

Erratic eyes

Everyone experiences stress differently. Kim and graduate student Xiaonan Yang wanted to find a data-driven way for different industries—such as emergency communicators, office workers, industry and manufacturing factory workers—to universally measure the levels of stress in their employees while they are multitasking, or performing work-related duties with simultaneous low and high complexity tasks.

To do this, they compared data from a workload metric NASA developed for its astronauts with their observations of pupillary response from participants in a lab study. Using a simulated oil and gas refinery plant control room, Kim and Yang watched, through motion-capture and eye-tracking technology, as the participants reacted to unexpected changes, such as alarms, while simultaneously watching the performance of gauges on two monitors.

“…if we can monitor a worker’s mental well-being, then we can hopefully prevent future mistakes from happening.”

During the scenario’s simple tasks, the participants’ eye searching behaviors were more predictable. Yet, as the tasks became more complex and unexpected changes occurred, their eye behaviors became more erratic.

Through the use of the data from this lab study and a formula Kim and Yang applied called “fractal dimension,” Kim and Yang discovered a negative relationship between the fractal dimension of pupil dilation and a person’s workload, showing that pupil dilation could be used to indicate the mental workload of a person in a multitasking environment.

Preventing mistakes

Kim and Yang hope this finding can give a better insight into designing systems to avoid mentally overloading workers and building safer working environments. One day, this finding could give employers and educators a tool to determine the maximum stress level a person can experience before they become fatigued, and their performance begins to negatively change.

“It would be great if people could work perfectly every time,” Kim says. “But when you’re tired, you often make a mistake. So, if we can monitor a worker’s mental well-being, then we can hopefully prevent future mistakes from happening.”

Kim and Yang plan to apply this finding to further research involving different age groups and certain biometric measures such as heartbeat, brain signals, and muscle or nerve reactions.

The study appears in the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction. A University of Missouri Research Board Grant provided funding for the work. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agencies.

Source: University of Missouri

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2 proteins decide whether cells become placenta or baby

Wed, 2018-12-12 13:27

Researchers have pinpointed two proteins that are the keys to deciding which cells turn into placenta and which turn into a baby.

Mammalian embryos are unlike those of any other organism in that they must grow within the mother’s body. While other animal embryos grow outside the mother, their embryonic cells can get right to work accepting assignments, such as head, tail, or vital organ. By contrast, mammalian embryos must first choose between forming the placenta or creating the baby.

The process of assigning cells to placenta or baby is important because that is when pluripotent cells are made. These adaptable pluripotent cells are critical to stem cell research, and these two proteins could be the key to deciphering how pluripotent cells are born, says senior author Amy Ralston, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Michigan State University.

“Pluripotent cells are the progenitors of embryonic stem cells, and they are famous because they can become any part of the body,” she says. “We have discovered a process that regulates the balance between pluripotent and placenta, and it works by changing the physical location of cells within the embryo’s ball of cells.”

Inside vs. outside

To form this wondrous ball, the mother packages two closely related proteins into her eggs, which help oversee this decision-making process. The scientific team used genetic tools to eliminate the proteins YAP1 and WWTR1 from mouse eggs and embryos. The team discovered that these two proteins first position these cells into distinct inside and outside locations, which then decides their fate: placenta or pluripotent.

Each phase of Ralston’s research peels back a layer into the creation of stem cells, a process that nature performs with 100 percent efficiency. On the other end of the spectrum, researchers create stem cells in the lab with 1 percent efficiency.

“Obviously, our understanding of how nature creates stem cells is incomplete,” says Tristan Frum, a biochemist and molecular biologist, who performed the study along with Tayler Murphy, a genetics graduate student. “We’ve suspected these proteins were involved in creating stem cells, but our work reveals that they do so in a surprising way.”

Cells of the early embryo express proteins that make them “stick” to the outside of the embryo.

“We’ve identified a way that cells evade this stickiness, crawl inside the embryo, and acquire the properties that make stem cells so interesting and useful,” Frum says.

New frontiers

The study highlights the properties of the cell membrane in stem cells, which determines where they stick.

“When we make stem cells in the lab, they must acquire a unique cell membrane. Our work shows how nature does this and provides clues that can guide us to control stem cells more efficiently for use in medicine,” Frum says.

For example, the team’s discoveries could lead to advances in stem cell technologies using organoids, which are stem-cell-derived mini organs. Organoids are an exciting new paradigm in stem cell and regenerative medicine, Ralston says.

“The similarities between embryos and organoids are remarkable,” Ralston says. “Therefore, by studying how the mouse embryo builds itself, we may one day build organs from human stem cells.”

The research appears in the journal eLife. Funding came from the National Institutes for Health.

Source: Michigan State University

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Computer model flags aggressive prostate cancer

Wed, 2018-12-12 11:26

Researchers have developed a computer model that can predict the course of a patient’s prostate cancer.

More than one million men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year. One of the key challenges is to differentiate between aggressive and non-aggressive disease. The new model could help solve this issue.

In a new study in Cancer Cell, the researchers collected patient data from close to 300 men who have had their entire cancer genome sequenced to characterize all mutations present in the tumor.

“If we have a patient with a particular set of mutations, we can use the model to predict the most likely next mutation that the patient will experience at some point—and how it will affect the patient’s clinical situation,” says coauthor Joachim Weischenfeldt of the Biotech Research & Innovation Centre at the University of Copenhagen.

“As an illustration, we can predict with some probability that if you have mutation A, you are likely to get mutation B before you get C. We can also predict if the next mutation is likely to change the clinical outcome of the disease. So far, our data sets comprise around 300 patients, but we expect to collect data from several thousand patients in the coming years. The model will be better the more data it can learn from,” Weischenfeldt says.

Early onset

A clinic in Germany has started using the computer model. The researchers expect it to take two to three years to have the model fully implemented as an integral part of the clinic’s processes.

The approximately 300 patients from the study all had their entire genome sequenced, which makes it possible to tailor treatments to individual patients. Early onset patients—men who are diagnosed before age 55—provided most of the data.

“Prostate cancer develops over many years. We have therefore been particularly interested in the group of patients where the cancer is detected at young age as this allows us to analyze the tumor at an early stage,” says coauthor Clarissa Gerhauser of Rigshospitalet, the German Cancer Research Center. “This is an important element because in this way we get a cleaner picture of the first mutations and alterations that occur in the tumor, to find out what is the initiating factor.”

How does it start?

It remains unclear precisely what initiates prostate cancer, but focusing on the earliest detected tumors uncovered a mutational mechanism involving an enzyme called APOBEC. This enzyme may help trigger some of the very first mutations in prostate cancer.

“We hypothesize that this enzyme mutates the prostate cells at a low but constant rate. Each time the cell divides, APOBEC is likely to cause mutations. If you have early-onset prostate cancer, you may have a couple of mutations caused by APOBEC. Twenty years later, you may have 10-20 mutations,” says coauthor Jan O. Korbel, group leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

“The most common oncogene in prostate cancer involves a certain fusion gene. The APOBEC enzyme may contribute to the formation of this fusion gene. We cannot say that there is causality, but there is a strong correlation between mutations caused by APOBEC and other alterations such as this fusion gene,” Weischenfeldt says.

The researchers also found a putative oncogene in prostate cancer—ESRP1—which is associated with very fast-dividing and highly aggressive prostate cancer. It is located closely to an already known oncogene, which could be why it wasn’t discovered until now, the researchers believe.

The oncogene ESRP1 could detect whether a patient will have aggressive prostate cancer. The researchers validated the theory using a cohort of 12,000 other patients with the same type of cancer.

The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the Arvid Nilsson Foundation, Rigshospitalet’s Research Foundation, the ERC Starting Grant, the Sander Foundation, the Helmholtz International Graduate School at the German Cancer Research Center, the Norwegian Research Council, and the American National Institute of Health funded the work.

Source: University of Copenhagen

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Learning genetic risk can change how your body works

Wed, 2018-12-12 10:58

Simply learning of a genetic risk can alter your physiology, research shows, causing lower performance on exercise tests or altering hormones that indicate fullness after a meal.

Millions of people in the United States alone have submitted their DNA for analysis and received information that not only predicts their risk for disease but, it turns out, in some cases might also have influenced that risk.

The team, led by Alia Crum, assistant professor of psychology Stanford University, found that when people learned of a genetic propensity for either obesity or lower exercise capacity, it altered the way their bodies responded either to a meal or to exercise. The work appears in Nature Human Behavior.

“Receiving genetic information doesn’t just make you more informed,” Crum says. “What this study shows is that it can also have a physiological impact on your body in a way that actually changes your overall risk profile.”

Crum and the study’s lead author, graduate student Bradley Turnwald, say that the results don’t suggest that DNA testing is bad or good, just that when delivering information, genetic counselors or personalized genetic testing companies need to be aware that the mere knowledge of the test result could influence a person’s risk.

Real and fake genetic results

To carry out the research, the group first took DNA samples from people who were told they were participating in a study about the relationship between DNA and diet. Later, the participants returned and 116 of them carried out an exercise test, while 107 of them ate a meal. After the meal, the researchers measured levels of molecules in the blood that indicate hunger or fullness.

“…the mindset that you put people in when you deliver genetic risk information is not irrelevant.”

Unbeknownst to the participants, Crum and Turnwald had tested the participants for one of two genes—one that research has associated with obesity and one with exercise capacity. During that first round of tests, the researchers could see small differences in either exercise capacity or satisfaction after the meal, depending on which version of the gene the people carried. People with the protective version of the exercise gene did have slightly better exercise capacity, for example.

A week later, when participants returned for their second test, they received a genetic result that might or might not have been true. Some of those with genes that protect them from obesity or gave them higher exercise capacity were told they had a higher risk version of the gene, and vice versa.

People also received reading material that helped explain the effects of having a particular form of the two genes. In the obesity group, participants read research summaries and lay research articles suggesting that one version of the gene made them produce less of a hormone that relays an “I’m full” signal to the brain. In the exercise group, participants learned that people with a particular gene variant wouldn’t perform as well during exercise.

After being told their randomly generated genetic results, the people then carried out exactly the same test as on their first visit—either eating a meal or running on a treadmill.

Second test results

What the researchers found is that the information alone changed how people performed.

Those who were told they had a version of the gene that made them less prone to obesity actually performed better after the second meal. They produced two and a half times more of the fullness hormone, even though the meal was identical to the one they’d eaten the week before.

“It was really a much stronger and faster physiological satiety signal, and this mapped on to how much more full participants said that they felt,” Turnwald says.

People who were told they were genetically prone to obesity saw little or no change in how full they felt or in their hormone levels.

By contrast, people told they had a gene that made them respond poorly to exercise then went on to do much worse on a challenging treadmill test. Their lung capacity was reduced, they were less efficient at removing carbon dioxide, and they quit the treadmill test sooner. All indications were that the people were in worse shape than they were before learning of their fictitious genetic risk, in accordance with what participants were told about their genetic risk for exercise capacity.

People told they had the protective gene variant performed about the same as in the first test.

Mindset matters

“It’s interesting that in the exercise study we saw a negative effect for those who were told they had the high-risk version, but in the eating study we saw a physiological improvement in people who were told they had the protective gene,” Turnwald says. “What was consistent in both studies was that those informed that they had the high-risk gene always had a worse outcome than those informed that they had the protective gene, even though we essentially drew out of a hat which information people received.”

Those differences between groups were in some cases even stronger than the real differences they saw as a result of people’s actual genetic results. All this underscores the fact that the act of receiving genetic information and the resulting mindset can have as much of an impact as the genes themselves in some instances, according to Crum.

“The take-home message here is that the mindset that you put people in when you deliver genetic risk information is not irrelevant,” she says. “The mindset of being genetically at risk or protected can alter how we feel, what we do, and—as this study shows—how our bodies respond.”

Immediately after the testing, Crum and Turnwald told participants about the research goals and revealed their actual genetic risk if the participant still desired.

“We took a lot of steps to conduct the research ethically and ensure participants’ safety,” Turnwald says. “For example, we chose genes related to obesity and exercise capacity because we knew that information would be meaningful but less emotionally charged than genes related to diseases like cancer, and participants only held a potentially false belief about their genetic risk for one hour while under our supervision before being fully debriefed.”

Next, the researchers are interested in exploring whether there are ways to explain genetic risk that eliminate the effects they saw in this study.

“How can you deliver genetic information in a way that has the beneficial effects in terms of motivating people to change their behavior but that doesn’t provoke a negative effect on physiology, emotions, and motivation? That’s where I think a lot of really good work can be done,” Crum says.

Funding for the work came from the Foundation for the Science of the Therapeutic Encounter, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Stanford University

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Parents talk to kids about tech but not what they watch

Wed, 2018-12-12 10:47

Parents spend more time talking with children about the mechanics of using their mobile devices than about what their kids watch and download on them, according to a new study.

The findings came from a small, recent study of 75 children and their families in which the children wore recording devices at home. The devices recorded talking, conversations, or other sounds nearby, as well as audible screen media use.

The findings reveal some concerning trends in how families and children communicate about media today, says Sarah Domoff, who was then a postdoctoral fellow at University of Michigan’s Center for Human Growth and Development and now an assistant professor at Central Michigan University. Specifically, the researchers observed minimal conversation about the content of programming that children were watching.

Additionally, they learned that other family members appear to play an important role when content is discussed. Children—not parents—initiated most conversations about content, and older siblings played a much bigger role than parents in content mediation for younger siblings. Also, the study finds that children as young as toddlers were exposed to multiple media sources at one time, or media multitasking.

Other findings include:

  • Negotiations and conflict are common among parents and children.
  • Parallel family media use is common, meaning different family members use their own devices at the same time.

“One of the most challenging aspects of parenting today is being aware of what children are exposed to online, particularly content delivered via mobile devices,” Domoff says. “Thus, it is critical that parents utilize privacy settings and restrictions to protect children from certain content. Ideally, this would occur before the child received their own mobile device.”

Domoff recommends developing a family media plan. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a tool that helps families set different goals and media use rules based on individual needs, she says.

It’s also troubling that some apps that children download include advertising or request in-app purchases, she says. Parents can identify these apps by using Common Sense Media’s app review.

Parents can also recruit older children to help younger siblings make good content choices.

The study aimed to identify themes of parental mediation and family communication around mobile media devices. There’s a dearth of scientific data in this area compared to television and video games, but studies show that parental mediation leads to better outcomes for children.

The new study appears in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

Source: University of Michigan

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Most Americans are clueless about state government. You?

Wed, 2018-12-12 09:02

Americans trust their state governments to handle issues as important as education and health care and pay them more than a trillion dollars in taxes annually. And yet, they know very little about state government, a new survey finds.

Almost half of those surveyed couldn’t say what their state spent the most on; even fewer knew which state issues were most controversial. Fewer than 20 percent could name their state legislators. A third couldn’t even name their governor.

“Most people say they like their state leaders, and a large majority even remembers learning about state government in school,” says political scientist Jennifer Bachner, a senior lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and one of the researchers. “Despite this, most people are not aware of who exactly represents them and the significant decisions made by their state government.”

Bachner and Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science, surveyed 1,500 people in the United States this fall. With states collecting an estimated $1.7 trillion in tax dollars and spending about $1.9 trillion on everything from education to health care, they wanted to find out how much Americans actually knew about this level of government.

“Everything from driving a car to opening a business puts Americans into contact with their state governments. It’s a bit discouraging to discover how little citizens know about the states that govern them,” says Ginsberg, who expects the findings will be the basis for a book.

The survey reveals:

  • Most respondents didn’t know if being a state legislator was a full-time job.
  • Nearly a third of respondents didn’t know which state officials they voted for beyond governor, lieutenant governor and members of the legislature. (Depending on the state, other elected officials might include the state attorney general, comptroller, treasurer, agriculture commissioner, land commissioner, etc.)
  • Most people surveyed had no idea if the chief judge of the state’s highest court is elected or appointed.
  • More than half didn’t know if their state had a constitution.
  • About half couldn’t say if their state had a one or two-house legislature.
  • More than half didn’t know who came up with the boundaries of legislative districts.
  • About 25 percent didn’t know who ran elections.
  • More than half didn’t know if their state allowed ballot initiatives.
  • About a third didn’t know if absentee voting was an option.
  • More than half didn’t know if their state ever held special elections.
  • About 75 percent didn’t know if their state had special purpose districts.
  • About a quarter of respondents wasn’t sure if it was federal or state government that was mostly in charge of law enforcement.
  • Thirty percent didn’t know who made zoning laws.

But despite not knowing much about state government, Americans seem to be content with it.

They tend to like their governors and feel their state economy is in good shape. Most of them say they trust state government to handle problems. Nearly 70 percent think their state government does a better job than the federal government.

“One reason citizens know so little is lack of media coverage of state affairs,” Ginsberg says. “The media focus on Washington, even though essential services like law enforcement and education are handled by the states. A lack of attention could lead not just to an uninformed public, but to an environment where special interest politics and corruption flourish.”

For the October 2018 survey, the researchers contracted with Qualtrics. They surveyed a nationally-representative sample of 1,500 individuals via the internet with a 3 percent margin of error.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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