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Duke Research - October 2010

Americans are getting shorter and wider

October 29, 2010

Getting Shorter and Fatter

“Height trends reveal hidden aspects of economic and social growth,” said Professor John Komlos, chair of the Institute of Economic History at the University of Munich, during his talk here on Thursday entitled “Economics and Human Biology: Why are Americans shorter and fatter?"  

Americans were the tallest people in the world during the colonial times and the Industrial Revolution. However, over time, their physical stature has gradually diminished, and now they are one of the shortest populations among all the advanced nations.

“There are three significant periods of interest in this study- Contemporary United States, Industrial Revolution and Antebellum United States.”

Height is a historical record of health and nutrition until age 20, and is an important indicator of biological well being, Komlos said. Eighty percent of a person’s height from conception till the age of 20 depends on genetics, while the other 20 percent depends on external factors. “It is this 20 percent which leads to the differences in heights from region to region.”

During the Colonial times, Americans were the tallest in the world. In the case of the Industrial Revolution and the Antebellum Era, the heights of people in the industrialized countries were shrinking even when the average incomes were increasing.

“Total average height decreased during these periods; however this was not the case if you consider only the richer people. This was primarily because they were able to pay for their nutrition even when the prices of food were going up.”

Thus, according to Komlos, income and other money measures do not completely reveal the well being of a nation. “Standard of living is multidimensional. Height, health and happiness are outcome measures of welfare, which are better and more direct than income.”

His research showed that the average height of the Dutch increased by almost 8 inches since the middle of the 19th century, compared to an increase of just 2 inches in the height of Americans.

A family’s socio-economic status, externalities in the society and regional economy and nutrient use are some factors that affect a person’s height.

“Americans are shorter because of the existence of inequality in the society, an uninsured safety net that is not as strong as that in other advanced nations, less robust health care system, and a poorer diet.”

These factors also explain why Americans are relatively fatter compared to their modern counterparts.

“Lack of consumer protection, bias towards the present (instant gratification), overindulgence, lack of will power and countervailing abilities, are other reasons for these anomalies.”

To read more about John Komlos’ anthropometric history, follow this link.

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Tags: biology, economics, health, lecture

sugar baby cupcake

October 29, 2010

"Food Fight" Comes to Duke

Guest Post by student Alice Yen

Ever since coming across his book “Food Fight,” I have wanted to meet Dr. Kelly Brownell.
It was such a great opportunity to hear about his work firsthand on Thursday during his lecture, “Bold Actions to Reduce Childhood Obesity,” sponsored by the Center for Child and Family Policy and Food Week.

Brownel, who is the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and professor of psychology, epidemiology and public health at Yale, called for action to address the global obesity crisis, introducing a model of optimal defaults promoting healthy behaviors.

Opening with a McDonald’s television ad, Dr. Brownell addressed the influence of food marketing targeted toward children.  Product placements and guerilla marketing tactics have reached kids at an early age, where even baby bottles are labeled with soft drink brands. 

“Children have become prey to the food industry,” he said. As portion sizes have risen, he pointed to the influence of the food industry in shifting the culture of eating.

Even food packaging has skewed the perception of what is considered healthy.  Presenting a case study, Dr. Brownell traced the health claims marketed on sugary breakfast cereals, where many consumers are unable to distinguish which food products are genuinely beneficial to their health.  Current policies in the United States generally allow the food industry to self-regulate itself, contrasting with other countries’ initiatives mandating standardized, color-coded front-of-package labeling.

Addressing hot topics ranging from the implications of a soda tax to current policy initiatives across the nation, Dr. Brownell gave an excellent perspective on how research can connect and influence policy, exploring the many facets linking food and public health.

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Tags: global health, lecture

Cod fishing in Norway

October 28, 2010

Think Global - Fish Local

“For the first time in our history, our food isn’t nourishing us. It’s killing us.”

That’s the warning Niaz Dorry issued to attendees of her recent talk at Duke on fishing policies, titled “Who Fishes Matters.”

Dorry, the coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, is a passionate defender of small-scale fishermen. After working with Greenpeace for 11 years, Dorry and her dog Hailey moved to a small fishing community in Gloucester, MA. Ever since, she has worked extensively with fishing policies

Lately, Dorry has been making rounds along the East Coast giving lectures around fishing and farming communities. In her talks, she advocates fishing policies that support local fisheries, as opposed to large-scale, consolidated industry.

Just as the Midwest faced the farm crisis in the 1980s, fishing communities and coastal regions will suffer from an impending fishing crisis should current policies continue, warned Dorry. Increased efficiency and access to fishing waters has allowed humans to act with less regard towards natural fishing seasons.

The problem started when we extended our ability to fish beyond the availability of fish, explains Dorry. We used to have to wait for cod season to fish cod. But now, we can just go out to deeper waters and fish cod whenever we want.

Naturally, the sharp increase in supply has resulted in a similar increase in demand, leaving fishing companies with no choice but to continue out-of-season fishing.

This approach, warns Dorry, lacks the food system context necessary for eco-friendly policies.

Dorry advocates instead an ecosystem and community based perspective. Policies should be transformed to support community supported fisheries (CSFs), such as Cape Ann Fresh Catch, located in Gloucester. These fisheries are set in small, coastal communities, and catch only what’s needed to fit local demand.

CSFs, then, address what Dorry calls the triple bottom line. They practice environmental stewardship, their business boosts the local economy, and their activities bring the local community together.

We need to learn from the mistakes of the farming industry, says Dorry. The same crisis that plagued farmers 30 years ago will hit the fishing industry if we stay on our current track. It’s time for a paradigm shift.

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Tags: environment/sustainability, lecture

Anand Kornepati

October 19, 2010

Life as a Freshman Researcher

Many freshmen enter college with no idea what they want to do with their life. Not Anand Kornepati (KORN-nuh-pah-ti), a Trinity ’14 student who has long since decided on his future in the medical field.

An aspiring chemistry major with a concentration in biochemistry, Kornepati supplements his studies with extensive lab experience. Currently, he works as an undergraduate researcher at the Duke University Medical Center under Dr. Bryan Cullen. They're studying the role of virally encoded microRNAs in replication and pathogenesis, specifically in the Epstein-Barr Virus.

Sound intense? Not to Kornepati, who is no stranger to research. During his years at William G. Enloe High School in Cary, NC, Kornepati interned at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as a junior, studying a protein called inter-alpha-trypsin inhibitor. A year later, he studied tobacco plants and plant virology at NC State University.

After graduation, Kornepati plans to tackle medical school and complete a MD/PhD program, which involves both the medical training of a doctor and the scientific rigor of research. “[This program] allows me to look at the whole spectrum of treating a disease,” Kornepati says. "You treat patients by their bed, but at the same time you can investigate the disease more closely at the lab bench. It’s bench to bedside.”

Of course, that future is a long way off, and Kornepati still has his entire undergraduate experience to look forward to. An experience, he tells me, that he does not want to limit entirely to research.

In between his studies and lab work, Kornepati actively volunteers through Habitat for Humanity, goes to the gym, follows sports, and fosters an interest in economics and political science.

“From what I understand,” he says, “college is supposed to teach you how to be an individual. Graduate school makes you better at your profession, but your undergraduate years make you a better person.”

Naturally, Kornepati is eager to continue his journey to his future, and he makes no attempt to hide his excitement.

“Passion is the most important thing,” says Kornepati. “I want to live and die by passion.”

Posted by jcw46. 3 comments

Tags: chemistry, students

Open Access Week

October 15, 2010

How Will You Celebrate Open Access Week?

Hey, it's Open Access Week! How do you plan to celebrate?

Okay, so maybe it's not quite on a par with Spring Break, but Open Access Week is pretty important to some researchers and librarians who would like scholarly work to be just a little more free. 

Academic publishing has traditionally been dominated in many fields by expensive publications that hold very tight copyrights on the papers they publish, sometimes even charging the authors themselves to obtain reprints.

The advent of the Internet and its free-wheeling copying, pasting and modifying has given some of these publishing companies just cause to fear for their livelihoods. And it also has given birth to an entirely new model of publishing, so-called Open Access.

Rather than clamp down tighter on who can see the work, Open Access tries to publish as broadly as possible, in the belief that more eyeballs equals better work.

The journals are still relatively new, but early users of this form of publishing report higher citation rates and increased name recognition for going that route. That's Mohamed Noor's story, and he's sticking to it:

Open Access isn't exactly free, however. Some open access journals charge the authors thousands of dollars to publish their work. But once published, anybody in the world can see it, anytime. Increasing numbers of scholarly authors are justifying that cost (and most often charging it to their grants), in the interest of sharing their findings widely with the public, who quite often are the folks who paid for the research in the first place.

Learn more about open access at the Duke Library's special site

Younger scholars also like it, including our own Steve Stanton, and Stefan Boere, who recently earned an engineering degree from the School of Industrial Engineering of Eindhoven University of Technology (The Netherlands), seen below:



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Silky sifaka

October 15, 2010

Lemur play is on solid ground

Unless it leads to sex, adult male primates usually aren't very playful. Except if they’re Silky sifakas.

Lemur researcher Erik Patel, who was at Duke on Oct. 14, showed some of his new videos, in which the silky white, long-furred, tree-living lemurs can be seen in “terrestrial play bouts,” of up to 45 minutes. Patel, who has been leading lemur research and conservation efforts in northeastern Madagascar, is finishing up his doctorate at Cornell, and will become the Duke Lemur Center's first post-doctoral fellow.

The footage shown during Patel's talk was of two adult, male Silky sifakas romping and wrestling on terra firma. Patel said that the playful behavior is uncommon for adult male primates and happens in an uncommon environment for the particular type of lemur he studies.

Patel has watched between two and nine individuals engaging in this type of play. He’s also observed the lemurs eating dirt. And, he’s noticed that the Silky sifakas experience extensive pigmentation loss in their facial skin as they age. So far, they are the only lemurs that appear to show such signs of age.

The observations elicit questions about the primate's behavior, what makes them lose their color, and what makes them consume the specific reddish earth Patel has recorded the creatures eating. “They could be using it to detoxify or for parasites or to correct their gut chemistry,” he hypothesized during his talk. The pigmentation loss is not due to albinism, because the lemurs have the enzyme tyrosinase, which is lacking in true albinos. Instead, the Silky sifakas likely have a form of leucism, where the entire surface or patches of body surface lack cells capable of making pigment. These are hypotheses only, more research needs to be done, Patel said.

Conservation efforts are key to continued lemur research, he added. In 2007, eight of Madagascar's national parks were named as a single World Heritage Site. Patel said that if the areas losing habitat could be considered hot spots, then Madagascar is the “hottest hot spot” in the world, under threats from logging, accelerated nickel mining, and, for the Silky sifakas, bush meat hunting.

The outlook is not irreversibly bleak, though, due to Patel’s muti-year conservation and conservation education efforts, done with Malagasy Rabary Desire, the country's most experienced lemur guide. Desire recently won the Seacology Prize to fund his own nature reserve called Antanetiambo. Collaborating with the Duke Lemur Center, Patel and Desire hope to expand the lemur’s home country conservation effort.

Patel even hinted at the possibility of cultural tourism. It’s an easy sell, he said, that, if done properly, in combination with research, will help more than his lemur research.

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Tags: animals, behavior/pschology, biology, environment/sustainability, lecture, Lemurs, science communication & education

everyday test of relativity

October 13, 2010

Chemistry's Combs and the Dark Pulse

The National Institute of Standards and Technology may be “hitting the end of the road” when it comes to precision time-keeping, but “it really doesn’t matter because time is relative,” according to Steve Cundiff, a researcher at joint institute of the University of Colorado at Boulder and NIST.

He spoke about an ultra-precise timekeeping tool called a frequency comb at an Oct. 11 Duke chemistry seminar.

A "frequency comb" can be thought of as having teeth, or tick marks, made of a regularly spaced series of different frequencies, Cundiff said.

With a laser producing femtosecond -- 10-15s, or 0.000000000000001s -- pulses of light that can span the entire visible spectrum, researchers create a "comb" of colored lines. The effect makes a spectrum like the pattern you see when sunlight hits a raindrop and creates a rainbow.

Using such a precise and infinitesimal pulse, the laser frequency comb has increased the accuracy of atomic clocks. Groups at NIST have actually used the contraption to measure the effects of general relativity with only a third of a meter separation between clocks. Scientists were able to record a minute, relativistic change in time, despite the fact that it would take the elevated clock hundreds of millions of years to log a second before its lower counterpart.

So, the researcher may eventually use precision timepieces for prospecting, using the clock to map the ground’s gravitational potential. Or, they could look for extrasolar planets.

Or, they could study some completely new phenomenon called dark pulses. Cundiff described them as sustained streams, or repeated dips in light intensity, which are the opposite of the bright bursts in a typical pulsed laser. They might be useful in signal processing or could act like a camera shutter for a continuous light beam in optical networks or for telecommunications purposes. For now though, Cundiff and his collaborators are focusing on the basic science behind these counterintuitive bursts of light, or non-light.


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Tags: chemistry, computers/technology, lecture, physics

Europa by Galileo mission

October 6, 2010

Were the Building Blocks Delivered?

If we really care to find out whether we're alone in the universe, we shouldn't be looking for intelligent life.  "We have a much better chance of finding stupid life," says Lynn Rothschild, an astrobiologist with NASA's Ames Research Center, who also teaches at Stanford.  

Rothschild, who's evolutionary biology background is in microbes and other small, non-sentient things, was in Durham this week to meet with the folks at NESCent, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center.  She was here for meetings and a Wednesday brown bag seminar because NESCent would like to get into the Astrobiology business themselves, said NESCent director Allen Rodrigo.

"Astrobiology is evolutionary biology writ large," Rothschild said. It starts with figuring out the parameters of temperature, pH, pressure, salinity and so-on that Earth's biochemistry can tolerate, and then looking for other places that might fall within that range. Right now, she's leading a team to see if there's anything alive in Earth's near-space environment, 100,000 to 300,000 feet up.

"We're assuming at NASA that life is reliant on liquid water," Rothschild says. "I'm not as wedded to that as to carbon," the fourth most common element in the universe and a darn fine partner for all kinds of great chemistry. But water is a pretty good place to start, as it currently or formerly has been on several other orbs just within our own puny solar system.

Interstellar space isn't a perfect vacuum as you may have been taught. It's actually lousy with free-floating molecules as large as 13 atoms, enough to form myriad chemical building blocks, including amino acids. "This is really a universal vocabulary that is waiting to be built into life."

So there's lots of carbon and water out there, and even some precursors of biochemistry, and Earth's version of life turns out to have a very wide range of tolerance. "There are probably other places, even within our own solar system, that have potential for life," she says. " You've got to start thinking life is out there."

By the way, if they do find something on the Jovian moon Europa, the naming will be easy. They'd be Europeans, right?

See Also: Lynn Rothschild on this short video, narrated by Morgan Freeman.

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Tags: biology, field research


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