William Rodríguez: Helping others broaden their horizons

William Rodríguez grew up resetting the family router and fixing all things technological in his home in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When the self-described computer junkie began to look at colleges, he knew that MIT was the right fit.

“I’ve always been interested in technology and in the different ways in which you can make people’s lives better through [technological] tools,” Rodríguez says. “MIT had that spirit of using technology and underscoring the importance of innovation.”

Once he arrived in Cambridge, Rodríguez followed his passion for computer science and majored in electrical engineering and computer science. After taking 14.73 (The Challenge of World Poverty) taught by Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics, Rodríguez decided to declare a minor in economics.

“I learned that economics was basically applying science to humans, to the systems we create, and to the ways we think,” Rodríguez says. “I enjoy engineering, but I also really enjoy the humanities and social sciences, so this pairing came naturally to me.”

Rodriguez’s dual interests in technology and in his fellow humans have also merged in his many extracurricular activities at MIT. Whether teaching entrepreneurship in Brazil, volunteering on campus, or helping to lead MIT’s Model UN organization, he is happiest when broadening his horizons and helping others do the same. 

Transcending languages

Before coming to MIT, Rodríguez studied French for five years. Determined to keep practicing the language, he studied conversational French during his first year at the Institute. Intending to learn more languages on top of English, Spanish, and French, Rodríguez scanned the language course offerings and enrolled in Portuguese for Spanish speakers. After practicing his Portuguese throughout the semester, he decided to pursue a summer internship in Brazil through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI).

Rodríguez interned at Take.NET, a mobile technology company based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. At Take.NET, he designed the marketing plan for the company’s new artificially intelligent chatbot. But that’s not all Rodríguez accomplished.

“There, I basically became fluent in the language. It was really funny — in the host family, the mother was trying to learn English, the father was trying to learn Spanish, and I was trying to learn Portuguese.” Rodríguez says. “We really complemented each other, and I became immersed in the language and culture.”

Rodríguez’s positive internship experience led him back to Brazil during his senior year Independent Activities Period (IAP) — this time to São Paulo to teach through the MIT Global Teaching Labs. Along with Massachusetts-area graduate and undergraduate students, Rodríguez served as a teaching assistant for a class on entrepreneurship. The class consisted of a series of entrepreneurship workshops targeted to approximately 100 Brazilian students, graduates, and professionals, covering topics “from the basics of choosing an idea and bringing an idea to market.”

In the future, Rodríguez says he could envision a future for himself in entrepreneurship.

“I believe it’s one of my long-term goals,” Rodríguez says. “I think it’s very powerful to choose an idea that you really believe in to help people in some way, and to have the tenacity, the perseverance, to build a team, lead a team, and bring the idea to market.”

But, before that, Rodríguez wants to learn at least two more languages, beginning with Japanese or Mandarin.

Service for all

Before beginning his first semester at MIT, Rodríguez participated in the MIT Office of Minority Education’s Interphase EDGE program, a two-year scholarship program that begins in the summer before students arrive at MIT and helps ease the academic and social transition from high school to college.

After students complete the program, they have the opportunity to serve as associate advisors for incoming students. As an associate advisor, Rodríguez checks in with a cohort of 16 students throughout their first few semesters at MIT, sometimes recommending classes, decoding internship applications, or lending a sympathetic ear when students need to talk.

 “I really valued the relationships I built, so I saw [advising] as a way to give back to the new students who were coming in through the program,” Rodríguez says.

Rodríguez has also helped organize the MIT-Harvard Relay for Life since his first year, and has served as vice president of team management, and later, director. In 2017, a joint MIT-Harvard Relay for Life event raised $50,000 for the American Cancer Society.

After Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept across Puerto Rico, Rodríguez teamed with fellow senior Gabriel Ginorio to organize a three-day donation drive in October through the MIT Association of Puerto Rican Students. The money and supplies gathered through the drive served over 5,000 Puerto Rican residents.

For his work in public service, Rodríguez was recognized as an MIT Distinguished Peer in Public Service this past October.

Developing global literacy

During high school, Rodríguez was an active member in Model United Nations, an international student organization that simulates the workings of the United Nations assembly. The experience sparked an interest in international affairs and policy that he wanted to continue during his time at MIT.

As part of the MIT Model United Nations Conference, Rodríguez now plans the competitions in which he once participated for high school students around the world. In the competition, students propose “tangible solutions that can ameliorate an issue or improve certain situations in different place around the world.”

Part of planning the competitions involves generating the prompts students compete with in competition. At MIT’s annual Model United Nations competition, students have worked on a wide range of issues, ranging from “the monetary challenge of cryptocurrency, nuclear power as a viable source of energy, and how governments tackle climate change.”

Rodríguez served as chief operating officer of the student organization during his sophomore year, and as president during his junior year. Eager to bring the competition to the international stage, he founded the first international chapter of the conference, which was held in Shanghai, China, this past year.

“I really value the mission [of Model United Nations],” Rodríguez says. “You want to broaden the horizons so that students are exposed to problems and issues that they might never encounter in a typical classroom setting — problems involving countries and cultures different from their own.”

This coming August, Rodríguez plans to travel back to Shanghai for the second international conference. His involvement with international policy may not end there. “I’ve considered going into roles in economic development research and policy, whether it be a role in the United Nations or a government,” he says. “This could be the scope of things I’d be happy being involved with.” 

Topics: Profile, Students, Undergraduate, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), Contests and academic competitions, Economics, Global, Independent Activities Period, International development, Language, Leadership, MISTI, Brazil, School of Science, School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences


Health effects of China’s climate policy extend across Pacific

Improved air quality can be a major bonus of climate mitigation policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. By cutting air pollution levels in the country where emissions are produced, such policies can avoid significant numbers of premature deaths. But other nations downwind from the host country may also benefit.

A new MIT study in the journal Environmental Research Letters shows that if the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, China, fulfills its climate pledge to peak carbon dioxide emissions in 2030, the positive effects would extend all the way to the United States, where improved air quality would result in nearly 2,000 fewer premature deaths.       

The study estimates China’s climate policy air quality and health co-benefits resulting from reduced atmospheric concentrations of ozone, as well as co-benefits from reduced ozone and particulate air pollution (PM2.5) in three downwind and populous countries: South Korea, Japan, and the United States. As ozone and PM2.5  give a well-rounded picture of air quality and can be transported over long distances, accounting for both pollutants enables a more accurate projection of associated health co-benefits in the country of origin and those downwind.  

Using a modeling framework that couples an energy-economic model with an atmospheric chemistry model, and assuming a climate policy consistent with China’s pledge to peak CO2 emissions in 2030, the researchers found that atmospheric ozone concentrations in China would fall by 1.6 parts per billion in 2030 compared to a no-policy scenario, and thus avoid 54,300 premature deaths — nearly 60 percent of those resulting from PM2.5. Total avoided premature deaths in South Korea and Japan are 1,200 and 3,500, respectively, primarily due to PM2.5; for the U.S. total, 1,900 premature deaths, ozone is the main contributor, due to its longer lifetime in the atmosphere.

Total avoided deaths in these countries amount to about 4 percent of those in China. The researchers also found that a more stringent climate policy would lead to even more avoided premature deaths in the three downwind countries, as well as in China.

The study breaks new ground in showing that co-benefits of climate policy from reducing ozone-related premature deaths in China are comparable to those from PM2.5, and that co-benefits from reduced ozone and PM2.5 levels are not insignificant beyond China’s borders.

“The results show that climate policy in China can influence air quality even as far away as the U.S.,” says Noelle Eckley Selin, an associate professor in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), who co-led the study. “This shows that policy action on climate is indeed in everyone’s interest, in the near term as well as in the longer term.”

The other co-leader of the study is Valerie Karplus, the assistant professor of global economics and management in MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Both co-leaders are faculty affiliates of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. Their co-authors include former EAPS graduate student and lead author Mingwei Li, former Joint Program research scientist Da Zhang, and former MIT postdoc Chiao-Ting Li. 

Topics: EAPS, Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, School of Science, IDSS, School of Engineering, China, Climate change, Developing countries, Economics, Emissions, Environment, Global Warming, Greenhouse gases, Health, International initiatives, Pollution, Research, Sustainability, Earth and atmospheric sciences


Study in Antarctic waters reveals why Ross Ice Shelf melts in summer

Research News

Study in Antarctic waters reveals why Ross Ice Shelf melts in summer

Local factors influencing ice shelf’s stability refine sea level predictions

the edge of Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf

The edge of Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf, more than 80 feet above the ocean surface.

July 26, 2019

A new paper by NSF-funded researchers at the Earth Institute at Columbia University offers fresh insights into the forces causing the world’s largest ice shelf to melt.

The Ross Ice Shelf, a part of the Antarctic Ice Sheet that is floating on the ocean, measures several hundred meters thick and covers more than 480,000 square kilometers, approximately the size of Spain.

Its magnitude, and the fact that thinning of the ice shelf will speed up the flow of Antarctica’s ice sheets into the ocean, means that increased melting of the shelf carries significant potential for sea level rise. Therefore, understanding the factors that influence annual shelf melt rates is critical for predicting climate impacts on sea level changes over the next few centuries.

A study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans reveals that local and regional factors influence the Ross Ice Shelf’s stability, and highlights connections between the Ross and Amundsen Seas, refining predictions of how climate may influence melt rates in the future.

The study comes out of the ROSETTA-Ice project, a three-year effort to collect geologic, oceanographic and glaciological data in the Ross Sea region funded by the NSF’s Office of Polar Programs. Using sensor floats deployed by airplane into the Ross Sea, the team collected first-of-its-kind information about Antarctica’s ice sheets, shelves and ocean currents.

The ROSETTA-Ice project has produced numerous findings about how the Ross Ice Shelf has changed over time. The results from this study highlight how local ocean currents and weather conditions can have significant impacts on a large mass of ice, indicating that models used to predict Antarctic ice loss in future climates need to consider both local and regional conditions.

—  NSF Public Affairs, (703) 292-8070 media@nsf.gov


Globally, more than 11 million years of healthy life lost due to childhood cancer in 2017

While the number of new cancer cases in children and adolescents (aged 0-19 years) is relatively low at around 416,500 globally in 2017, treatment-related ill-health and disability and fatal cancer are estimated to cause around 11.5 million years of healthy life lost globally every year, according to the first Global Burden of Disease Study (GBD) to assess childhood and adolescent cancer burden in 195 countries in 2017, published in The Lancet Oncology journal.

Children in the poorest countries face a disproportionately high cancer burden — contributing over 82% of the global childhood cancer burden — equivalent to almost 9.5 million years of healthy life lost in 2017. Most (97%) of this global burden is related to premature death, with around 3% due to impaired quality of life.

For the first time, researchers provide a complete picture of the global and regional burden of childhood cancer beyond incidence, mortality, and survival. The study estimates the number of years of healthy life that children and adolescents with cancer have lost due to illness, disability, and premature death — a measurement known as disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). One DALY is equivalent to one year of healthy life lost. However, disability in childhood cancer survivors was limited to the first 10 years after cancer diagnosis, rather than across the whole life course, so the global burden of DALYs associated with childhood cancer is probably underestimated, researchers say.

“By assessing the global burden of childhood cancer through the lens of disability-adjusted life-years, we can more comprehensively understand the devastating impact of cancer on children globally,” says Dr Lisa Force from St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the USA, who led the research in collaboration with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. “Our findings are an important first step in establishing that childhood cancer has a role in frameworks that address global oncology and global child health.”

Children with cancer who live in high-income countries tend to have good survival, with around 80% surviving 5 years after diagnosis. But these improvements have not translated to most low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where survival is approximately 35-40%, but some estimates suggest it could be as 20%. Around 90% of children at risk of developing cancer live in LMICs.

“Improving childhood cancer survival will require considerable planning by policy makers to ensure well-functioning health systems capable of early diagnosis and treatment,” says Dr Force. “Estimating the years of healthy life children have lost due to cancer allows policy makers to compare the lifelong implications of childhood cancer with other diseases, potentially helping them determine the most effective way to spend limited resources and identify high-impact cancer-control planning decisions.” 

In the study, global and regional estimates were analysed using socio-demographic Index (SDI), a measure based on rates of education, fertility, and income. Countries with high SDI have high levels of income and education and low fertility, whereas countries with low SDI have low levels of income and education and high fertility.

The study reveals striking inequities in childhood cancer burden between high and low SDI countries (table). High and high-middle SDI countries accounted for about 35% (147,300) of new cases of childhood cancer in 2017, but only 18% of DALYs (around 2 million years of healthy life lost), whereas low-middle and low SDI countries with 38% of global incidence (159,600 new cases) accounted for 60% of DALYs (almost 7 million years of healthy life lost).

Moreover, the research finds that childhood cancers are a major cause of global disease burden compared with both adult cancers and other childhood diseases. In 2017, childhood cancers were the sixth leading cause of years of healthy life lost out of all cancers globally (11.5 million), only lower than the burden from adult cancers of the lung (41 million), liver (21 million), stomach (19 million), colon (19 million), and breast (18 million). In low and middle SDI countries, childhood cancers were the leading cause of DALYs, higher than the burden attributable to any single adult cancer type.

The study puts the annual toll of childhood cancer at over 11.5 million years of healthy life lost in 2017. This compares with around 37 million years of healthy life lost globally due to malaria, and 7.6 million from tuberculosis. In 2017, childhood cancer was among the top four biggest contributors to the burden of general diseases of childhood in middle and high-middle SDI countries, ranking higher than malaria and HIV/AIDS.

While four of the five countries with the highest childhood cancer burden were in Asia and Oceania (India, China, Pakistan, and Indonesia), the USA had the sixth largest burden in 2017, and sub-Saharan Africa had the biggest DALY burden for more childhood cancer types than any other region.

Cancers of the blood (leukemias) were the main contributors to overall DALYs, accounting for 34% of the total childhood cancer burden worldwide, followed by brain and nervous system cancers (18%). In 2017, the proportion of both leukemia and brain cancer burden differed by almost 3 times between regions. The proportional burden of leukemias was highest in central and Andean Latin America (49% of all childhood cancers) and the greatest absolute burden was in south Asia (954,000 DALYs).

The authors highlight the fact that mechanisms for addressing cancer burden in adults, which focus on risk-reduction strategies and screening interventions, are not as relevant to childhood cancers given that childhood cancers generally progress rapidly, are not amenable to screening programmes which aim to identify pre-cancerous growths, and are fatal without swift diagnosis and treatment. This emphasizes the crucial role early diagnosis and treatment will play in order to reduce the global burden of childhood cancer.

Despite these important findings, the methodology used to estimate childhood cancer burden has several limitations that need to be addressed, say the authors. While the study uses the best available data, predictions are constrained by a lack of high-quality cancer data, particularly in developing countries — highlighting the need to expand the quality and quantity of population-based cancer registration systems and to include data from paediatric-specific cancer registries. They also note that the current anatomical site-based system of reporting adult cancer leaves over 26% of the childhood cancer burden (3 million DALYs) linked to cancers that are uncategorised, a challenging category for policy, financial, and clinical decision making.

In an accompanying editorial, the editors of The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal write: “The universal language of data offers a substantial opportunity to those fighting the global burden of childhood cancer. Analysis of the DALY burden by individual country and cancer subtype shows the significant need for investment in data capture. Quality data collection and standardised reporting are crucial early strides towards better care provision for children with cancer in LMICs. Capture of national childhood cancer data can guide investments in training of specialists to ensure earlier diagnoses, providing equitable access to medicines, reducing deaths, and improving survivorship care and quality of life.”

Writing in a linked Comment, Charles Stiller from Public Health England, UK, discusses what can be done to mitigate or even reduce the global burden of childhood and adolescent cancer. He writes: “Early diagnosis can bring substantial reduction in mortality and long-term morbidity. Although gains from early diagnosis should be greatest in lower-resource countries, where too many cases are diagnosed at a late stage, they should be felt even in affluent countries, notably for people with low-grade brain tumours, survivors of which bear a considerable burden of disability. For the benefits of early diagnosis to be fully realised worldwide, it must be accompanied by improved diagnostic and treatment facilities with universal access. International collaboration will be an essential component of the necessary capacity building. It is to be hoped that the present study will help to stimulate the necessary improvements, and future iterations can monitor their success.”


ANYWHERE Final Conference – 29-30 October 2019, Brussels, Belgium

The EU-funded ANYWHERE project aims to enable PPDR (Public Protection and Disaster Relief) institutions as well as society as a whole to enhance their responsiveness in front of extreme weather-induced events and to better cope with the high social, environmental and economic impacts related.

The project works are being held by means of a co-creation and co-ownership framework among the organisations involved, including Universities and research centres, developers of forecasting techniques, national, regional and local emergency management authorities, and also technological companies (both industry and SMEs).

The developments achieved include operational platforms for decision-support currently running operationally in real-time in 7 pilot sites across Europe. The platforms integrate state-of-the-art forecasting products for a variety of hazards (floods, flash-floods, snowfall, convective storms, severe winds, heatwaves, forest wildfires, droughts, marine storms, among others). After four years of working collaboratively, the project Consortium wants to showcase the major outcomes to an interested audience.

The Final Conference will include a Hands-on demonstration and the Final workshop. Round tables to promote discussion among participants plus parallel live exhibits showing the ANYWHERE tools and impact forecasting products / services will also be included.

We are looking forward to welcoming you at the Final Conference!



News 10 July 2019

Commission launches mission on cancer

Cancer affects everyone regardless of age, gender or social status and represents a tremendous burden for patients, families, and societies at large. If no further action is taken, the number of people newly diagnosed with cancer every year in Europe will increase from the current 3,5 million to more than 4.3 million by 2035. The Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation launched preparations for a mission on cancer to set clear common goals aiming to reverse this frightening trend. By joining efforts across Europe, more people would live without cancer, more cancer patients would be diagnosed earlier, suffer less and have a better quality of life after treatment.


Gauging language proficiency through eye movement

A study by MIT researchers has uncovered a new way of telling how well people are learning English: tracking their eyes.

That’s right. Using data generated by cameras trained on readers’ eyes, the research team has found that patterns of eye movement — particularly how long  people’s eyes rest on certain words — correlate strongly with performance on standardized tests of English as a second language. 

“To a large extent [eye movement] captures linguistic proficiency, as we can measure it against benchmarks of standardized tests,” says Yevgeni Berzak, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and co-author of a new paper outlining the research. He adds: “The signal of eye movement during reading is very rich and very informative.”

Indeed, the researchers even suggest the new method has potential use as a testing tool. “It has real potential applications,” says Roger Levy, an associate professor in BCS and another of the study’s co-authors. 

The paper, “Assessing Language Proficiency from Eye Movements in Reading,” is being published in the Proceedings of the 16th Annual Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies. The authors are Berzak, a postdoc in the Computational Psycholinguistics Group in BCS; Boris Katz, a principal research scientist and head of the InfoLab Group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); and Levy, who also directs the Computational Psycholinguistics Lab in BCS.

The illusion of continuity

The study delves into a phenomenon about reading that we may never notice, no matter how much we read: Our eyes do not move continuously along a string of text, but instead fix on particular words for up to 200 to 250 milliseconds. We also take leaps from one word to another that may last about 1/20 of a second.

“Although you have a subjective experience of a continuous, smooth pass over text, that’s absolutely not what your eyes are doing,” says Levy. “Your eyes are jumping around, mostly forward, sometimes backward. Your mind stitches together a smooth experience. … It’s a testimony to the ability of the mind to create illusions.”

But if you are learning a new language, your eyes may dwell on particular words for longer periods of time, as you try to comprehend the text. The particular pattern of eye movement, for this reason, can reveal a lot about comprehension, at least when analyzed in a clearly defined context.

To conduct the study, the researchers used a dataset of eye movement records from work conducted by Berzak. The dataset has 145 students of English as a second language, divided almost evenly among four native languages — Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish — as well as 37 native English speakers.

The readers were given 156 sentences to read, half of which were part of a “fixed test” in which everyone in the study read the same sentences. The video footage enabled the research team to focus intensively on a series of duration times — the length of time readers were fixated on particular words.

The research team called the set of metrics they used the “EyeScore.” After evaluating how it correlated with the Michigan English Test (MET) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), they concluded in the paper that the EyeScore method produced “competitive results” with the standardized tests, “further strengthening the evidence for the ability of our approach to capture language proficiency.”

As a result, the authors write, the new method is “the first proof of concept for a system which utilizes eye tracking to measure linguistic ability.”

Sentence by sentence

Other scholars say the study is an interesting addition to the research literature on the subject.

“The method [used in the study] is very innovative and — in my opinion — holds much promise for using eye-tracking technology to its full potential,” says Erik Reichle, head of the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, who has conducted many experiments about tracking eye movement. Reichle adds that he suspects the paper “will have a big impact in a number of different fields, including those more directly related to second-language learning.”    

As the researchers see it, the current study is just one step on a longer journey of exploration about the interactions of language and cognition.

As Katz says, “The bigger question is, how does language affect your brain?” Given that we only began processing written text within the last several thousand years, he notes, our reading ability is an example of the “amazing plasticity” of the brain. Before too long, he adds, “We could actually be in a position to start answering these questions.”

Levy, for his part, thinks that it may be possible to make these eye tests about reading more specific. Rather than evaluating reader comprehension over a corpus of 156 sentences, as the current study did, experts might be able to render more definitive judgments about even smaller strings of text.

“One thing that we would hope to do in the future that we haven’t done yet, for example, is ask, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, to what extent can we tell how well you understood a sentence by the eye movements you made when you read it,” Levy says. “That’s an open question nobody’s answered. We hope we might be able to do that in the future.”

The study was supported, in part, by MIT’s Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines, through a National Science Foundation grant.


Neuroscientists identify brain region linked to altered social interactions in autism model

Although psychiatric disorders can be linked to particular genes, the brain regions and mechanisms underlying particular disorders are not well-understood. Mutations or deletions of the SHANK3 gene are strongly associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and a related rare disorder called Phelan-McDermid syndrome. Mice with SHANK3 mutations also display some of the traits associated with autism, including avoidance of social interactions, but the brain regions responsible for this behavior have not been identified.

A new study by neuroscientists at MIT and colleagues in China provides clues to the neural circuits underlying social deficits associated with ASD. The paper, published in Nature Neuroscience, found that structural and functional impairments in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of SHANK3 mutant mice are linked to altered social interactions.

“Neurobiological mechanisms of social deficits are very complex and involve many brain regions, even in a mouse model,” explains Guoping Feng, the James W. and Patricia T. Poitras Professor at MIT and one of the senior authors of the study. “These findings add another piece of the puzzle to mapping the neural circuits responsible for this social deficit in ASD models.”

The Nature Neuroscience paper is the result of a collaboration between Feng, who is also an investigator at MIT’s McGovern Institute and a senior scientist in the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, and Wenting Wang and Shengxi Wu at the Fourth Military Medical University, Xi’an, China.

A number of brain regions have been implicated in social interactions, including the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and its projections to brain regions including the nucleus accumbens and habenula, but these studies failed to definitively link the PFC to altered social interactions seen in SHANK3 knockout mice.

In the new study, the authors instead focused on the ACC, a brain region noted for its role in social functions in humans and animal models. The ACC is also known to play a role in fundamental cognitive processes, including cost-benefit calculation, motivation, and decision making.

In mice lacking SHANK3, the researchers found structural and functional disruptions at the synapses, or connections, between excitatory neurons in the ACC. The researchers went on to show that the loss of SHANK3 in excitatory ACC neurons alone was enough to disrupt communication between these neurons and led to unusually reduced activity of these neurons during behavioral tasks reflecting social interaction.

Having implicated these ACC neurons in social preferences and interactions in SHANK3 knockout mice, the authors then tested whether activating these same neurons could rescue these behaviors. Using optogenetics and specfic drugs, the researchers activated the ACC neurons and found improved social behavior in the SHANK3 mutant mice.

“Next, we are planning to explore brain regions downstream of the ACC that modulate social behavior in normal mice and models of autism,” explains Wenting Wang, co-corresponding author on the study. “This will help us to better understand the neural mechanisms of social behavior, as well as social deficits in neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Previous clinical studies reported that anatomical structures in the ACC were altered and/or dysfunctional in people with ASD, an initial indication that the findings from SHANK3 mice may also hold true in these individuals.

The research was funded, in part, by the Natural Science Foundation of China. Guoping Feng was supported by NIMH grant no. MH097104, the  Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research at the McGovern Institute at MIT, and the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at the McGovern Institute at MIT.


Clues found on how soils may respond to climate change

Research News

Clues found on how soils may respond to climate change

Researchers looked back millions of years for possible view of the future

red, purple and orange Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum soil horizons

Scientists collected rock samples from Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum soil horizons in Wyoming.

July 26, 2019

Rock core samples from a period of warming millions of years ago indicate that soils contributed to a rapid rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases and suggest that modern climate models may overestimate Earth’s ability to mitigate future warming, according to an international team of scientists.

Researchers at Penn State and other institutions discovered a drastic drop in organic material preserved in sections of core samples from the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, a global warming event 55.5 million years ago that’s considered the best analog for modern climate change.

The findings, according to the scientists, suggest that ancient soils from a site in modern-day Wyoming acted as a source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, emitting the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, not a sink (trapping and storing carbon underground).

That could mean that global climate models may overstate the ability of terrestrial ecosystems to lessen the impacts of climate change. However, additional studies are needed to see how soils reacted to the PETM in other parts of the world, the researchers said.

The team reported their findings in the journal Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology.

The cores, drilled in the Bighorn Basin in Wyoming, are the first terrestrial core samples of the PETM. The samples contained less organic matter than expected, but, at the time, the team lacked tools with enough sensitivity to measure specific biomarkers.

The researchers spent four years improving the sensitivity of their instruments and, using the new tools, collected the first biomarker record of the PETM from terrestrial core samples.

“This research on warm periods preserved in the rock record will help us learn about the effects of current warming on modern ecosystems,” says Dena Smith, a program director in NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the study.

—  NSF Public Affairs, (703) 292-8070 media@nsf.gov


Sizzling Southwest summers can cause pavement burns in seconds

When temperatures throughout the sizzling Southwestern U.S. climb to over 100 degrees, the pavement can get hot enough to cause second-degree burns on human skin in a matter of seconds.

In a new study published in the Journal of Burn Care & Research, a team of surgeons from the UNLV School of Medicine reviewed all pavement burn admissions into a Las Vegas area burn center over five years. The team compared the outdoor temperatures at the time of each patient admission to, in essence, determine how hot is too hot.

“Pavement burns account for a significant number of burn-related injuries, particularly in the Southwestern United States,” the study authors wrote. “The pavement can be significantly hotter than the ambient temperature in direct sunlight and can cause second-degree burns within two seconds.”

For the study, researchers identified 173 pavement-related burn cases between 2013 to 2017. Of those, 149 cases were isolated pavement burns and 24 involved other injuries, including those from motor vehicle accidents. More than 88 percent (153) of related incidents occurred when temps were 95 degrees or higher, with the risk increasing exponentially as temperatures exceeded 105 degrees.

That’s because pavement in direct sunlight absorbs radiant energy, making it significantly hotter and potentially dangerous. Study authors say that pavement on a 111-degree day, for example, can get as hot as 147 degrees in direct sunlight. For reference, a fried egg becomes firm at 158 degrees.

And while it seems like a no-brainer to stay off a hot sidewalk, for some it’s unavoidable — including victims of motor vehicle accidents, people with mobility issues or medical episodes who have fallen to the ground, or small children who may not know better.

The takeaway — summer in the desert is no joke, and more education is needed to warn people of the risks of hot pavement, particularly as temperatures creep above 100 degrees.

“This information is useful for burn centers in hotter climates, to plan and prepare for the coordination of care and treatment,” says study lead author Dr. Jorge Vega. “It can also be used for burn injury prevention and public health awareness, including increased awareness and additional training to emergency medical service and police personnel when attending to pavement burn victims in the field.”

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Save the date for the All-Atlantic Ocean Research Forum – 6-7 February 2020, Brussels, Belgium

Join us to witness what policymakers, stakeholders from many Atlantic coastal countries and beyond, and our many EU funded projects have achieved since we navigated together on our Atlantic Journey in 2013 with the signing of the Galway Statement and the signing of Belém Statement in 2017.

 The All-Atlantic Ocean Research Forum will gather political and community leaders, researchers, industry, Youth Ambassadors and, inspirational speakers from along and across the Atlantic, from the Arctic to Antarctica, to showcase the results of cooperation and their impact on the citizens living on the shores of the Atlantic.

 So save the date and spread the word: we already look forward to welcoming you to the All-Atlantic Ocean Research Forum on 6 – 7 February 2020!


Astronomers see evidence of Einstein’s theories in star orbiting massive black hole

Research News

Astronomers see evidence of Einstein’s theories in star orbiting massive black hole

Two-decade study tracked light traveling from the center of the Milky Way, confirms Einstein’s predictions

star known as S0-2 (the blue and green object in this artist's rendering)

Light from a star orbiting the black hole at Milky Way’s center shifts as Einstein predicted.

July 26, 2019

More than 100 years ago, Albert Einstein predicted that light is deflected by extremely massive objects, but there is no way to test such powerful effects on Earth. Instead, astronomers turn their attention to where the action happens, such as stars orbiting black holes.

The star S0-2 is a perfect test candidate, as it orbits the supermassive black hole at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy once every 16 years. After 24 years of observations that measured the star’s precise positions and the wavelengths of its light, astronomers have shown Einstein’s predictions, once again, hold up.

An international team of astronomers co-led by UCLA professor Andrea Ghez published the results of the study in Science.

“Einstein’s right, at least for now,” said Ghez. “Our observations are consistent with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. However, his theory is definitely showing vulnerability. It cannot fully explain gravity inside a black hole, and at some point we will need to move beyond Einstein’s theory to a more comprehensive theory of gravity that explains what a black hole is.”

The researchers primarily used the W.M. Keck Observatory, as well as the Subaru Telescope and the NSF-supported Gemini Telescope to conduct the observations.

“Making a measurement of such fundamental importance has required years of patient observing, enabled by state-of-the-art technology,” said Richard Green, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, which funded the research. “Through their rigorous effort to define in detail the three-dimensional orbit of that star around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, Ghez and her collaborators have verified with a high level of confidence Einstein’s idea about strong gravity.”

For more than two decades, the division has supported Ghez’s research, along with technical elements critical to the research.

—  NSF Public Affairs, (703) 292-8070 media@nsf.gov


Innovative flood mapping helps water and emergency management officials

When Jude Kastens was developing a new floodplain mapping model more than a decade ago as part of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Kansas, he aimed to address a critical information gap that often hindered officials during major flooding events: the lack of real-time, wide-area predictions for floodwater extent and depth.

Dependable, detailed inundation estimates are vital for emergency managers to have enough situational awareness to quickly get the right resources and information to flood-impacted communities. In 2007, severe flooding in southeastern Kansas put a spotlight on the lack of timely, reliable projections for floodwater spread.

With heavy rains this spring (May 2019 was the wettest month ever recorded in Kansas), officials at the Kansas Water Office and Kansas Division of Emergency Management worked with Kastens, now a KU associate research professor with the Kansas Applied Remote Sensing Program at the Kansas Biological Survey, to get a more precise read on where floodwaters could rise to, based on his approach to integrating data from elevation maps, stream gauges and National Weather Service river stage forecasts.

“I worked with the Kansas Water Office in May,” Kastens said. “The ground was saturated, and the reservoirs were getting full, and with a lot more rain in the forecast, major flooding across central and eastern Kansas was looking imminent. Some years ago we’d developed this inundation library largely in collaboration with the Water Office and the Kansas GIS Policy Board but had never had the chance to put it through its paces in real time. It was based on the approach that I developed for my dissertation, and we had flood libraries for the greater eastern half of Kansas, based on the gauged stream network. For instance, if you drive south of Lawrence on Highway 59, you’ll see a USGS stream gauge box by the bridge over the Wakarusa River. There are about 200 gauges in Kansas that collect real-time stream stage information, and in times of flood, the National Weather Service provides stage forecasts several days out for a lot of these. We can take these data and map estimated current or future flooding, between gauges or around one.”

Kastens’ model (called FLDPLN, or “Floodplain”) maps potential inundation as a function of stage height using basic hydrologic principles and gridded elevation data. Because the approach requires so few inputs and little supervision, it has significant advantages for real-time mapping over existing methods such as the more precise but more complicated hydrodynamic models that FEMA uses to map 100-year floodplains.

Working with Kansas officials as historic rainfalls of 2019 threatened several areas of Kansas with flooding, mapping efforts were focused on three critical locations.

“We modeled the Neosho River south of John Redmond Reservoir in Coffey County down to Oklahoma, which is about a 100-mile stretch,” Kastens said. “We also modeled the Neosho and the Cottonwood rivers above John Redmond, centered around Emporia close to where those two rivers come together in Lyon County. The third area was around Salina, where flooding along the Saline River and Mulberry Creek was approaching historic levels.”

When John Redmond Reservoir just above Burlington on the Neosho River was nearly at capacity and the Army Corps of Engineers was planning the release of large volumes of water, Kastens’ efforts helped inform local leaders of the potential flooding extent — and they shared his flood maps with the public.

“Using projected discharge and stage information from the Corps, we modeled Neosho River flooding at Burlington and down through the rest of Coffey County,” Kastens said. “John Redmond was built by the Corps in the early 1960s to provide flood control along the Neosho, but the reservoir flood pool had reached capacity and needed to have some pressure released to avoid compromising the dam. With the Neosho already running high, city managers and commissioners had a lot of concern with how bad it was going to get because the Army Corps was going to have start releasing a very large quantity of water out of the reservoir. I made some maps using Corps projections supplied by the Kansas Water Office and also by the Coffey County GIS coordinator, Cara Mays. It helped greatly that Cara recently completed her master’s thesis at KU using the FLDPLN model to simulate the historic 1951 flood in Burlington, so she was well aware of its capabilities.”

Going forward, Kastens — who did a lot of this work during his free time in the evenings and weekends as a public service — hopes to automate the task of generating flood maps to lessen the workload when streams and rivers threaten to overspill their banks.

“With my other obligations at KBS, a lot of off-the-clock effort was needed to see this through,” he said. “Time is of the essence during major flood events. We need to develop software tools to help automate the mapping process and hand it off to these other agencies so they have the freedom to map whichever scenarios they want. I think our work in May demonstrated the value of our mapping approach, and hopefully we can pull together a project to help us move forward with the automation. So, when that next flood hits, emergency response personnel can just run the models as they see fit. That’s how we always envisioned this thing — we construct the inundation libraries for others to use during flood emergencies or simulations.”

Kastens’ novel approach to flood mapping has proven to be such an improvement, recently he’s worked with a private firm to commercialize the technology and provide services outside of Kansas to emergency management officials and entities with property in flood-prone areas.

“In 2015, we entered an agreement with Riverside Technology Inc. based in Fort Collins, Colorado, working through KU Center for Technology Commercialization to try to commercialize this stuff,” Kastens said. “They did their homework and market research and saw a real opportunity to develop inundation mapping solutions built around our flood libraries. Our contract with Riverside expires next year, so we will just have to see what happens after that. We made sure we carved out Kansas from the agreement, which allows us the freedom to provide direct assistance during flood events like we did in May.”

Kastens likens the projected inundation maps to predicted storm tracks or tornado watch or warning maps.

“They are never perfectly accurate, but then again neither are more sophisticated models. No two floods are the same, and a lot of resources are being expended in the public and private sectors to do what we are already capable of doing cheaply and efficiently right now here in Kansas.”

The Kansas Biological Survey, a KU Designated Research Center, was established at KU in 1911. It houses a diverse group of environmental research and remote sensing/GIS programs. The survey also manages the 3,700-acre KU Field Station, established in 1947; it offers sites for faculty and student study in the sciences, arts, humanities and professional schools.