UWMadScience https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu Behind the science & research that makes the news at UW–Madison Mon, 27 Jul 2020 16:23:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.4.2 As monarchs arrive in their summer ranges, citizen scientists aid in monarch conservation https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/entomology/as-monarchs-migrate-north-this-spring-citizen-scientists-aid-in-monarch-conservation/ https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/entomology/as-monarchs-migrate-north-this-spring-citizen-scientists-aid-in-monarch-conservation/#comments Tue, 14 Jul 2020 13:30:22 +0000 https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/?p=3572 Student science writer Mary Magnuson wrote this post.

When spring turns to summer, there are three things to count on: longer days, warmer weather and the return of monarch butterflies.

Every year, thousands of monarchs make their way down south to Mexico in the early fall, where they wait out the winter in cool forests. In the spring, they come back up north, stopping to lay eggs along the way. They may not make it all the way back up north, but their offspring will continue their migration. This year, the first monarch in Wisconsin was spotted May 7 in Middleton.

Monarch butterfly on a blooming rough blazing star

Monarch butterfly on rough blazing-star. Photo by Heidi Neidhart/UW Arboretum.

Karen Oberhauser, director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum, is a renowned monarch expert. She’s studied the butterflies for 35 years, and knows all about the intricacies of their journey.

Oberhauser said the monarchs have a sophisticated internal clock they use to compare where the sun is in relation to their bodies. So if they keep the sun on their left in the morning and the sun on their right in their afternoon, they know they’re flying south.

But what Oberhauser and her colleagues don’t know is how they get to the same specific locations. Down in Mexico, there’s a few select spots with the same cool, mountainous climate where hundreds, even thousands, pack together, she said.

“We understand their compass system, but we don’t really understand their map system ⁠— how they get to these exact spots,” Oberhauser said. “It could be they just use really simple rules. They might follow mountain ranges. They might follow different topography on the land. But we just haven’t figured that out yet.”

The UW Arboretum runs a couple of citizen science programs to study monarchs. One, called Journey North, has run for 26 years, Oberhauser said. Program participants log their first monarch sighting in the spring. They also log their first sightings of other migratory birds and insects.

“[Journey North] engages people all over the country in observing monarchs during the breeding season, or during the time that they’re in the U.S,”  Oberhauser said. “There’s a map online … as monarchs move across the country, people track the first monarchs that they see. And there’s people just spread everywhere. There are literally hundreds of people.”

Monarch butterfly on blooming pasture thistle

Monarch butterfly on pasture thistle. Photo by Susan Day/UW Arboretum.

Oberhauser said she uses the data from Journey North in her own monarch research. Its data helps inform the monarch migration timeline, and researchers can determine whether it’s changing year to year, where monarchs head when they come north and other important metrics.

The other citizen science program, called the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, started at the University of Minnesota, where Oberhauser used to work. Citizen scientists in Madison and across the U.S. and Canada go individually to an assigned area every week, where they count the number of monarch caterpillars they see. They mark which instar, or life stage, the caterpillars have reached, and they count any adult monarchs or monarch eggs they see as well.

Retired attorney Martha Askins volunteers for the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project in Madison. She said she signed up for the program because she’s always loved wildlife, and she wanted to learn more about the butterflies and help monarch conservation efforts.

“I guess it just seemed so important to maintain spaces so that birds and butterflies and everything else have this environment or this habitat,” Askins said. ”It just sort of feels like a small thing that you can do to help preserve, or in the case of monarchs, actually try to reinvigorate the population. So it feels like a small thing that you can do about helping the environment.”

Oberhauser said monarchs face several threats today, including habitat loss, climate change, pathogens and insecticides. Since monarchs are a mobile species that migrate, they can find new habitats when they lose space in one area. But doing so requires a lot of energy and effort, and then they can’t lay as many eggs, which leads to population declines.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed leaf

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed leaf. Photo by Heidi Neidhart/UW Arboretum.

Climate change, Oberhauser said, also threatens monarchs, since they require a more temperate, cooler climate. Summers that are too hot or too dry can kill them, and climate change leads to patterns where these are common.

Another rising threat to monarchs, Oberhauser said, is insecticide use. Since monarchs are insects, any chemical designed to kill other insects like mosquitoes or agricultural pests will also kill them. And when monarchs lose habitat, they may be forced into pesticide-contaminated areas.

So what can those who want to help conserve monarchs do to help? Oberhauser said planting monarch habitat in your own yard or garden is a great way to start. Monarchs lay their eggs on a plant called milkweed, so planting milkweed, along with other kinds of flowers they can drink nectar from, helps restore some of their habitat.

Monarchs like any kind of milkweed, so try to find whatever kind grows best in your garden, Oberhauser said. And when planting flowers, choose a variety that bloom at different times between May and September, and make sure not to plant any that have been treated with insecticides.

While monarchs aren’t necessarily the most ecologically important species in Wisconsin, Oberhauser they’re still important to conserve because they’re a valid and beautiful part of nature. They’re also a species that gets many people excited about the natural world.

“We should feel that it’s just the right thing to do, to save the species,” Oberhauser said. “We should try to save things not just because they’re ‘important.’ But another reason that I think we should save monarchs, is that they are the species that connects people to the natural world.”

Illustrated life cycle and identificaiton of monarch butterflies

Life cycle of the monarch and how to identify males and females. Illustrations by Tessa Kraus/Scientific Illustration Distance Program.

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The Legacy of the 5307th Merrill’s Marauders: Wisconsin MIAs in Burma https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/archaeology/the-legacy-of-the-5307th-merrills-marauders-wisconsin-mias-in-burma/ https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/archaeology/the-legacy-of-the-5307th-merrills-marauders-wisconsin-mias-in-burma/#comments Mon, 13 Jul 2020 20:51:02 +0000 https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/?p=3551 This post was written by Vaneesa Cook, historical research fellow for UW–Madison’s Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project.

In the winter of 1944, while many Americans were tracing the progress of Allied island hopping throughout the Pacific, a special unit of U.S. soldiers set out on foot across hundreds of miles of mountains and thick jungle on a mission that commanders estimated would result in at least eighty-five percent casualties.

They were right. By the end of the summer, the nearly 3,000 infantrymen of the “Merrill’s Marauders,” the Army’s 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), had been reduced to about 200 survivors. And yet, their story — across Burma (now known as Myanmar), behind enemy Japanese lines, and into the hard-fought, costly Battle of Myitkyina — remains largely unknown, even among many history buffs.

One of those survivors is 96-year-old Robert E. Passinisi of Lindenhurst, New York, who has spent his life preserving the history and legacy of Merrill’s Marauders. As he told the UW-Madison Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project (UW-Madison MIA-RIP) in June, he believes the nature of the unit and its unique assignment has obscured its place of importance in the Allied victory in World War II.

“There were 15 million men in arms,” he said of the total deployment to Europe and the Pacific during the war, “[so] how important would a 3,000-man secret mission be?”

It was, indeed, extremely important for the long-term success of the war. Since the Japanese had seized Burma from the British in 1942, Allies had struggled to keep communication and supply lines open between India and China. The recapture of Burma, including its strategic airfields in the northern city of Myitkyina was considered crucial for establishing air supply in the effort to encircle and defeat Japan.

Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, left, and Gen. Joseph Stilwell. U.S. Army photo.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt and General George Marshall put out the call for volunteers to serve in a provisional unit of high value and high risk, they received the commitment of almost 3,000 volunteers, some who had been fighting on the islands of the South Pacific. Passinisi volunteered, though he knew nothing of the location or purpose of the mission. So did at least three soldiers who hailed from Wisconsin. They would eventually become the unit nicknamed “Merrill’s Marauders” after their original commander Brigadier General Frank Merrill.

Pvt. Richard H. Gunderson of Marshall, who worked for Oscar Mayer in Madison before enlisting, and Staff Sgt. Vilas D. Parker of Fond du Lac both signed up for the mission call and assembled for training in India.

Parker originally served with the 32nd Division in the Pacific, where he doubtless learned the difficulties of jungle combat. Despite their previous training and experience, however, the Marauders were intended to take part in operations that did not resemble typical combat engagements. As a light infantry unit, they had to move quickly, on foot and with light weapons and supplies, through rough terrain and behind enemy lines.

In early 1944, the Marauders, including Gunderson, Parker, and Passinisi, began their trek, guided by local Kachin scouts, across hundreds of miles of high mountains in northern Burma. A series of battles awaited them on the other side. In villages that most Americans had never heard of — Walawbum, Shaduzup, Inkangahtawng, Nhpum Ga — the Marauders engaged the Japanese in combat, earning success each time, and slowly reopening supply routes across the region.

Their culminating mission, to retake the all-weather airstrip on the outskirts of Myitkyina, was important for creating more direct and safer air supply routes across “the Hump” of the Himalayan mountains, a barrier range at the border of China that had cost the lives of countless U.S. pilots, including over a dozen from Wisconsin. One of those air casualties was Staff Sergeant Vilas Parker, whose C-47 crash site was discovered in the late 1980s by Kachin Burmese natives. It is unclear whether American investigators were allowed access to the area to search for the soldiers. Dozens of crash sites and the remains of their pilots are still hidden in the mountains and jungles in Asia.

soldiers cross river on bamboo bridge

Merrill’s Marauders cross a river in Burma (now called Myanmar) in 1944. U.S. Army photo.

The exhausted men of the Marauders were expecting much-needed rest and recovery after the capture of the airstrip west of the city of Myitkyina, which was heavily defended by well-trained Japanese soldiers. On May 17, the Marauders, aided by a Chinese regiment, seized the airstrip in a surprise attack that caught the Japanese off guard. But the Marauders’ mission did not end there. Instead of evacuating to India for recovery as promised, they were ordered by Gen. Joseph Stilwell, commander of the China-Burma-India theater, to advance into the city of Myitkyina, all the while defending the airstrip for Allied use.

The Marauders fought valiantly, though they suffered from low rations, little sleep and ongoing bouts of dysentery and malaria. As casualties increased throughout May, commanders realized that the Marauders were in desperate need of reinforcements. They sent out a new call for volunteers across all theaters and deployed reinforcements from engineer battalions working to repair roads and bridges in Burma. Wisconsinites John N. Brown of Rhinelander, Maurice E. Strutz, and Raymond P. Merchlevich found themselves fighting in Myitkyina by early June.

Sgt. Strutz and Pfc. Merchlevich likely knew each other, since they both served in the same battalion of the 209th Combat Engineers. Though they had little reason to fire their M-1 rifles since basic training, they were thrust suddenly into a chaotic and vital combat situation, ordered to advance into Japanese-controlled areas of Myitkyina. Caught behind enemy lines for 5 days during an operation in mid-June, Strutz and Merchlevich lost their lives within days of each other, June 13 and June 15, respectively. They were posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

State patrol officer and Marauders 2nd Lt. John Brown of Rhinelander was killed in the Battle of Myitkyina on June 28, 1944. He and other Wisconsin soldiers are still listed as missing in action. Photo courtesy Holly Bullamore.

Second Lt. John N. Brown had enlisted to serve in the US Army in February 1942, leaving behind a wife, a child, and a career as a state patrol traffic officer. After receiving officer’s training stateside, he answered the call for volunteers to reinforce the decimated Marauders in the spring of 1944. Assigned to a headquarters company, Brown was killed in action on June 28, circumstances unknown. He is also a recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and his name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing in the Philippines.

Throughout June and July, the reinforced battalions continued to advance on the city of Myitkyina, often yards at a time. On August 3, 1944, the Battle of Myitkyina ended with the collapse of organized Japanese defense. Clearance activities of remaining pockets of Japanese resistance continued until August 5, 1944. The capture of Myitkyina helped increase deliveries of supplies to China and meant that as soon as the fuel pipeline and Ledo Road reached the town, the Allies would have a major supply base squarely on the road and rail net of Burma, and within easy distance of China itself.

This achievement, however, was costly. Only about two hundred of the original 5307th Marauders soldiers survived the Burmese campaign.

Infamous 21-turn stretch of the Ledo Road used to support Army units during World War II in mountainous Burma. U.S. Army photo.

The soldiers who died during the Battle of Myitkyina were buried in temporary cemeteries outside of the city. However, after the war, Myitkyina became a centralized location for receiving the remains of Allies from throughout the region. Years of decay and hasty documentation efforts in the midst of battle made it difficult to keep accurate records. It is likely that is how Wisconsinites Strutz, Mechlevich, and Brown received their Missing in Action (MIA) status.

Though their remains may have been recovered and reburied at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Honolulu, HI) with their fallen comrades, the investigation into their whereabouts is ongoing. Since 2013, the UW–Madison MIA Project has worked to research and recover U.S. soldiers, mostly Wisconsin enlistees who served during World War II. The men who marched with the Marauders are included in that effort, as well as the engineers and airmen who lost their lives in Burma.

The MIA Project also strives to collect the stories of those who served, like those of veteran Marauder Robert Passinisi. When asked how the Marauders were able to achieve their legendary status, he said: “by the end we knew that we did the impossible.”

For their courage, endurance, and sacrifices, the members of the Marauders received the Bronze Star, and many were also awarded Purple Hearts. Passinisi is lobbying Congress to bestow the Congressional Gold Medal upon the 5307th Marauders unit.

“If you were to search all the unit’s military history from the beginning of time,” he said, “you won’t find another unit that fought behind enemy lines for so long under such adverse conditions and proved successful. If this is not deserving of the CGM award, then nothing is.”

The Congressional Gold Medal may bring more attention to the Marauders and this “forgotten” theater of the war. But the Marauders legacy lives on in the memory of survivors like Passinisi, in their re-designated unit (the 75th Rangers), and in the hearts of family members who await answers about what happened to their lost loved ones.

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Keep your distance from COVID-19 misinformation https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/uncategorized/keep-your-distance-from-covid-19-misinformation/ https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/uncategorized/keep-your-distance-from-covid-19-misinformation/#comments Fri, 10 Jul 2020 16:58:29 +0000 https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/?p=3529 This is the first blog post by student science writer Mary Magnuson.

It’s easy for anyone monitoring the pandemic through months of 24-hour news cycles to pick up on false information or conspiracy theories.

We talked to University of Wisconsin–Madison experts to figure out why global events like the COVID-19 pandemic might give rise to this on social media – and how to avoid sharing false information.

As the pandemic continues to affect people around the globe, conspiracy theories about the virus have spread through social media and the internet — the notable one a 26-minute long video called “Plandemic.”

In this video, a discredited scientist shares debunked conspiracies about how a group of elites used the virus and potential vaccines for profit. The information in the video was deemed markedly false by experts, and sites like YouTube, Facebook and others worked to take down every iteration of the video.

Ohio protestor holds sign promoting COVID-19 conspiracies

A protestor in Ohio wields a sign referring to at least one common COVID-19 conspiracy theory and a popular source of misinformation. Source: Flickr user Becker1999

But questions remain. How do conspiracies like this spread, especially in times of uncertainty, like a pandemic? And what can we do to stop them?

Two UW–Madison professors, Dietram Scheufele and Ajay Sethi, helped provide some answers. Scheufele works in the Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC), where he studies public attitudes around science and science policy. Sethi works in the School of Medicine and Public Health, where he studies the spread of infectious diseases.

How does what you typically study inform your expertise during the pandemic?

Scheufele: A lot of our work with the scimep group here in LSC tries to figure out how we all make sense of complex emerging science that we — in most cases — know little about. COVID-19 is exactly that. Not only are most of us not experts in virology, epidemiology or public health, but the science on COVID-19 is very much in flux, with new findings constantly proving yesterday’s science wrong.

Sethi: I’m an infectious disease epidemiologist. My research focuses on factors associated with the transmission and natural history of infectious diseases, including HIV and healthcare associated infections. Although I have not previously studied coronaviruses, common methods used in infectious disease epidemiology can be applied to the study of most if not all pathogens.

How do I know if the information I’m reading about COVID-19 is accurate and trustworthy?

Scheufele: The fact that much of the science on COVID-19 is far from conclusive at this point doesn’t mean that there is not good expert advice to go by. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), WHO (World Health Organization) and many other organizations are maintaining websites devoted to COVID-19. Those include advice and best practices related to wearing masks, social distancing, if it’s safe to get takeout, etc.

In spite of the bad rap they sometimes get, social media are also a great tool for learning from some of the best experts on COVID-19. Journalists like Helen Branswell or Maryn McKenna (who have actually been both science writers in residence here at UW) have spent their careers writing on and researching infectious diseases and routinely share their work on Twitter. I follow them there not just for their own work, but also because they do a great job vetting and contextualizing the constant stream of information that’s coming our way on corona.

Ajay Sethi

Ajay Sethi

Sethi: First, it is important to recognize that there is a lot of new information about COVID-19 coming out all the time. New knowledge learned is subject to change as the science and study of COVID-19 advances. So, what we thought was true yesterday is not necessarily so tomorrow. That can make it challenging to know whether what you are reading about COVID-19 is accurate. It’s important to evaluate the source to be sure it is reputable and unbiased. Look for peer-reviewed information when possible. When reading information found on a website, I suggest evaluating the website for its credibility, and there are a number of checklists and tools available to do that.

What determines what information people are drawn to consuming and sharing?

Scheufele: That’s a complicated question. We live in a time that is very paradoxical when it comes to the information we all receive. On the one hand, the internet has made it easier than ever before to find the best information quickly, no matter where we are and with little effort. What would have required a trip to the Library of Congress even just 25 years ago, is now one click and a couple of swipes away on our smartphones. On the other hand, apps and algorithms have also made it easier than ever before to avoid any information we don’t want to see or that doesn’t fit our worldview.

Sethi: We are all susceptible to living in bubbles, and getting comfortable in our echo chambers. It can be human nature to surround ourselves with people and ideas that confirm what we believe to be true about the world, which in turn makes us feel good about ourselves and reinforces our worldview.

Are outbreaks like this especially ripe for conspiracy theories?

Scheufele: There’s little systematic evidence that we’re seeing more or fewer conspiracy theories on COVID-19 that we normally do. Of course, it seems like they’re everywhere, but we also need to realize that there is very little news other than COVID-19 right now, and we’re all spending a lot more time online and on our phones than we usually do. But looney ideas like the idea that the Gates Foundation is promoting vaccines for population control or economic gain have been around for years. COVID-19 has just given them new visibility.

But it’s also important to keep in mind that this is a time with almost unprecedented uncertainty and unpredictability for most of us. We have little control over the emergence of viruses like COVID-19. We don’t know what our future holds. And there is no good way out of the crisis that doesn’t require disruptions to our way of life. As a result, it is not particularly surprising that many of us are trying to find ways of making sense of this highly uncertain and deeply unpredictable situation. In the 1940s, social psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel showed clips of animated geometric shapes to participants, only to find that many of them attributed human characteristics, motivations and intentions to what were randomly moving circles and triangles. That human tendency to attribute structure and meaning to fairly random sets of events is also what explains the intuitive appeal of movies like “Plandemic”: They give the appearance of meaning and convey a sense of control during a deadly pandemic which likely emerged somewhat randomly, and that has left us with limited control over the spread of a deadly virus.

Sethi: Yes, and there are many examples in history. During times of uncertainty and fear, we can have feelings of losing control. Denialism can also be a reaction. To make sense of stressful situations that develop suddenly with no signs of going away, like the COVID-19 crisis, we may be drawn to explanations to help us feel better about the realities of what we are facing.

I am not a psychologist by any means, but I read research related to the psychology of adopting and perpetuating conspiracies to include in my course, Conspiracies in Public Health. I also find it is useful to read the literature to keep myself from adopting misinformed views.

Why does misinformation about the virus spread so quickly?

Scheufele: There’s little social science that suggests that misinformation about COVID-19 spreads any faster or slower than correct information. In fact, I think we need to be very careful about how we talk about misinformation.

Of course there are things that are clearly wrong. Neither snorting cocaine nor injecting bleach will cure or prevent corona. And they were debunked pretty quickly on both social and legacy media.

What makes things more complicated for science during the current pandemic is what I would call the corona Catch-22: In the public arena, we can only get predictive modeling or mitigation right, but not both. The more successful we are at mitigation, the more inaccurate initial models will appear in hindsight. In other words, looking back people will think that initial models of how COVID-19 would spread had it wrong, precisely because those models encouraged the right policies that helped us avoid worst case scenarios.

The second problem is that there is little settled science on COVID-19. Much of the scientific work on the virus, its spread, and the effectiveness of different interventions is in flux, to say the least. New science constantly proves previous findings wrong. And that’s the way science is supposed to work. It’s supposed to self-correct and iterate toward the best possible explanations. During normal times, that’s just fine. Science plays out over long periods of time, with policy following in due course. For COVID-19, science and policy are emerging at the same time and with breakneck speed. This raises two problems: (a) The uncertainties surrounding science and policy end up overlapping in public perception, and science gets blamed for the inevitable missteps of public policy. (b) Battling misinformation on COVID-19 with science that itself might turn out to be wrong is not a winning proposition for the scientific community. We wrote about that here.

What should I do if someone I know shares or promotes misinformation or a conspiracy theory about the virus?

Scheufele: Debunking is a double-edged sword. It typically requires repeating and — especially on social media — giving additional visibility to misinformation. Some research suggests that this can reinforce rather than debunk inaccurate beliefs or even conspiracy thinking. This doesn’t mean that there is no value in pointing your friends or social media contacts to Snopes.com or any credible resource that debunks misinformation. The idea is to do it in a way that’s constructive, and to keep in mind that we’ve all shared misinformation at some point, even if we don’t remember it.

Twitter post with false information

Twitter post with false (but kind of believable) information

But all of that is based on the assumption that we’re sharing misinformation because we cannot tell that it’s fake. And sometimes that is true. But often, we share information without checking because it fits what we already believe. If I don’t like Trump, I am motivated to find information that makes him look bad. There was a Tweet about President Trump saying that “HUNDREDS of Governors” were calling him that made the rounds on my social media feeds recently, and was retweeted by many of my academic friends. It was fake of course, and a 3-second Google search would have shown that. So, it’s not that people couldn’t tell it was fake. They didn’t care, because it so perfectly fit their expectations and prior attitudes on Trump. One of our doctoral students and I wrote about many of those motivations that often make us believe in misinformation on an open-access article in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).


Sethi: I think it depends on your comfort level and how well you know the person. Some people might choose to avoid confrontation, which is understandable. If their actions cause your blood pressure to go up, it would be best to calm yourself down before saying anything. I also think it’s important to re-visit why you disagree with what they shared just to make sure you have your own facts straight. Things are rarely clear-cut.

So, after all that, if you decide to engage with them, I think it starts with active listening. As an aside, for a while after college (a long time ago!), I was a volunteer crisis counselor. So, my own instincts were formed from that training and experience. I’m no expert, but again, I know listening is important. So is asking questions. And then listening some more. Understand where they are coming from. Identify shared interests and emotions. You may or may not choose to volunteer your own views on the subject. It depends if you are asked for them and if you have established trust with them. That can take time to build, maybe many conversations. Avoid launching into explanations or proving how knowledgeable you are. It causes people to stop listening.

Science is filled with uncertainty, while misinformation often promotes concrete “facts” and “solutions.” Is there a way responsible science communication can achieve both?

Sethi: Understand your audience each time and start by asking what people want to learn from you. Go from there. Always be honest about what you know and what you don’t know. Be consistent, and don’t overstate findings. Learn to communicate nuance artfully. Avoid “dumping” information on people.

What can governments or corporations do to halt misinformation or conspiracies? In an ideal society, what should their respective roles be to curb conspiracies?

Sethi: All institutions have to decide when the spread of misinformed opinions and conspiracies require intervention. It’s important to respect people’s autonomy and rights to express themselves, but we should not tolerate the proverbial “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” I have my ideas as to where to draw the line and what institutions could do, but when I begin to apply them situation-to-situation, I realize it’s not an easy problem to solve.

What role does higher education play in creating citizens equipped to evaluate information? How will the pandemic inform your teaching going forward?

Dietram ScheufeleScheufele: My colleague Dominique Brossard has written extensively on the idea of deference toward scientific authority. Why do we have faith in experts? What is it about science as a way of producing knowledge that makes us follow it more than other ways of knowing? Is it peer review? The scientific process? Her work shows nicely that our faith in scientific institutions is strongly related to K-12 and even K-16 schooling. In other words, education is partly about learning facts, but those facts change over time, especially for COVID-19. Instead, the power of education comes from building faith in science as our best way of knowing.

We actually talk about that in my large undergraduate lecture course in Science, Media and Society. It enrolls students from five or six different colleges at UW who major in genetics, politics, business, engineering, and communication, to just name a few. And COVID-19 already ended up being a large part of this past semester, even before we shifted to online teaching after spring break. How do we all make sense of this global pandemic? How can societies navigate very difficult trade-offs between economic considerations, public health, and individual rights as we’re trying to contain its spread? And what does it mean for Google to work with government and academia to track citizens’ cell phones to model and monitor new infections? LSC 251 going to be offered again this summer and the fall, and I am pretty sure that COVID-19 will be a permanent and probably growing part of what we’ll be talking about.

Sethi: Institutions of higher education are places where ideas and knowledge are learned and exchanged. It’s where “sifting and winnowing” occurs. It begins with teaching and reminding ourselves how to be objective, curious learners.

I began teaching Conspiracies in Public Health three years ago because I grew increasingly concerned about the unraveling of longstanding public health achievements and how previously innocuous topics suddenly became hot button issues. Learning about popular and less popular conspiracies is not the focus of the course. I created the class so that students could explore the psycho-social basis for conspiracy thinking and develop or refine their skills in listening and talking to people with differing views on health and public health topics. Misinformation and conspiracies about COVID-19 provide opportunities for me to fortify the class with contemporary material and opportunities for students to draw connections between course content with what we are reading in the news every day.


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Addressing racism, equity and diversity in the sciences https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/dei/addressing-racism-equity-and-diversity-in-the-sciences/ Wed, 10 Jun 2020 06:07:02 +0000 https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/?p=3492 On June 10, researchers around the world undertook deliberate efforts to challenge systemic anti-Black racism in science and academia. In light of recent events, which follow patterns going back to the earliest days of our nation, people are seeking, with renewed vigor, ways to elevate and support the voices and contributions of Black people, Indigenous people and people of color.

University Communications, which publishes the UWMadScience blog, observed the call to action. Organizers of the day’s events asked scientists and academics to participate in a day of listening, education and reflection, and to develop plans to actively combat racial injustice. What follows are resources we use in our own work. We are sharing them with our campus community because they may be useful in your support of marginalized faculty, staff and students.

Many people on campus contributed to this post, and we welcome suggestions for additional resources. What you will find below is by no means exhaustive, and we acknowledge that resources alone won’t begin to address the challenges.

This is about centering the perspectives of our Black community and those whose voices have been underrepresented in science and academia at large.

Resources for Leadership, Mentorship and Teaching

In most research fields, racial minorities remain underrepresented, especially in leadership positions. Many changes must start at the top. The Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute offers workshops that provide people in positions of power with the resources they need to make smart hires and lead departments well.

  • The Searching for Excellence and Diversity workshop is a two-part, four-hour session dedicated to teaching search committees how to attract a diverse pool of qualified candidates and avoid unintentional biases that can weed out the wrong people. To address unique needs, it’s divided into sessions focused on the health sciences and non-health colleges.
  • The Assessing and Enhancing Department Climate workshop helps chairs survey the climate of their departments and collaborate with other chairs to address shortcomings. Across three sessions, chairs assess how welcome members of their department feel and brainstorm how to transparently improve department climate and avoid pitfalls that can push people, especially underrepresented groups, away.
  • Department leaders can also offer the WISELI workshop Breaking the Bias Habit, a three-hour session providing an introduction to assessing unconscious bias and teaching evidence-based strategies for reducing the impact of these biases on campus.

Successful mentorship is vital to early career researchers. The Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement offers a a six-hour workshop to improve mentorship to diverse trainees, interrupt implicit biases, and support greater diversity in research. The office also offers training for graduate students, many of whom work with undergraduate students. These workshops provide training in implicit bias and equity, best practices for inclusive teaching, and information about relevant laws and policies. Additional training is available for graduate students researching or teaching about race and ethnicity.

Inclusive teaching can dramatically affect the experiences of students. The Collaborative for Advancing Learning and Teaching offers training in inclusive teaching that teaches, among other skills, how to interrupt biases in the classroom.

The BEAM Initiative in the School of Medicine and Public Health and the UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research pairs underrepresented first-year medical students with diverse faculty mentors. The Native American Center for Health Professions promotes the health and wellness of American Indian people by: enhancing recruitment of Native students to UW health professional schools and programs, improving the experiences of Native students in health professions,  enhancing Native health education opportunities, supporting and increasing Native faculty, and growing Native health academic and educational programs with tribal communities. In addition, Angela Byars-Winston at ICTR leads the National Institutes of Health-funded Culturally-Aware Mentorship Initiative and recently chaired the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Math Committee on The Science of Effective Mentoring in STEMM.

UW–Madison also runs the PEOPLE Program, the Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence, for traditionally underserved students, which often includes Black students and other students of color.

Allyship and Self-Education

The Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement offers a wealth of resources intended to help White community members educate themselves about the systems of racial oppression that undergird American institutions and victimize people of color, and for effectively allying with the cause of anti-racism. DDEEA also offers the annual Diversity Forum. This year’s event will take place in October, and Robin DiAngelo, author of the book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism,” is the keynote speaker.

UW Libraries offers a commitment to diversity and inclusion and a host of anti-racism resources and materials, including an Undergraduate Resource Guide to the Black Lives Matter Movement.

PBS Wisconsin has a brief, interactive guide on race and racial history in the U.S.

A number of professional academic communities also make available resources and information specific to their fields, though most are also broadly applicable. Some of these can be found below:

Student, School, College, and Department-Led Efforts

School of Veterinary Medicine: Has pledged a commitment to diversity and includes a local chapter of the VOICE Club. VOICE stands for Veterinarians as One Inclusive Community for Empowerment and is dedicated to raising awareness of social and cultural issues.

Department of Astronomy: Includes graduate student statements on racism and, on June 10, the department is hosted a town hall event on diversity, equity and inclusion from 10 until noon. The department also hosts the Gender Minorities & Women of Wisconsin Strengthening Astronomy program, which fosters mentoring, networking and inclusion in astronomy and related fields.

School of Medicine and Public Health: The local Student National Medicine Association has created a White Coats for Black Lives chapter, part of a national movement aiming to eliminate racial bias in medical practice. WC4BL is hosted an event at the Wisconsin State Capitol on June 13, which will included faculty mentors, members of the School of Pharmacy, and others. They have also created a list of anti-racism sources for White people.

Department of Chemistry: Has engaged in a variety of efforts to improve diversity and inclusion and lists a number of resources.

Department of Geoscience: Includes the Association for Women Geoscientists UW–Madison chapter, along with the Earth Science Women’s Network and the UW–Madison Geoscience Graduate Student Association’s GeoPath. Among the opportunities offered are “Diversi-tea hangouts,” geared toward first-generation students, students of color, and other underrepresented students. Additionally, a group of Geoscience graduate students, faculty and researchers at UW–Madison and other institutions created GeoReadingForEquity, a repository of materials for sharing educational resources about equity and dedicated to improving access to the field for people from underrepresented communities.

School of Nursing: Offers the Wisconsin Network for Research Support to help researchers effectively communicate and reach project participants and other stakeholders, particularly those from underrepresented communities.

College of Agricultural and Life Sciences: The CALS Equity and Diversity Committee hosts an ongoing Lunch and Learn series, with archived past events and/or materials and planned online offerings in light of COVID-19. An upcoming workshop on July 21 called “Allyship: Reflecting on systems and biases” will provide opportunities for participants to better understand individual bias and the the ways in which individual, interpersonal and systemic oppressions connect.

Additional groups may be found at the Wisconsin Involvement Network.

Additional Information and Resources

Many of these were contributed as suggestions to the UWMadScience blog, some specific to #ShutDownSTEM and #ShutDownAcademia:

Medium: 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice

Science: Researchers around the world prepare to #ShutDownSTEM and ‘Strike For Black Lives’

Gizmodo: Scientists Call for Academic Shutdown in Support of Black Lives

The National Association of Science Writers: NASW Stand in Solidarity with the Black Community | #SciWriDiversity

Nature: Grieving and frustrated: Black scientists call out racism in the wake of police killings

Cell Press: Commentary – Race Matters

The American Society for Cell Biology: An essay from Professor of Genetics Ahna Skop, which includes tips for creating inclusive environments. Skop also leads the UW–Madison chapter of SACNAS, the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, Inc.

Ologies podcast: Very Special Episode: BlackAFinSTEM with Various Ologists. Website includes list of Black scientists and students to follow and a host of additional resources.

We especially thank Ankur Desai, Robyn Perrin, Angela Byars-Winston, Erika Marín-Spiotta, Mary Carr Lee, Ahna Skop, Carrie Eaton and others for their contributions. University Communications science writers Eric Hamilton and Chris Barncard also assisted in compiling and editing this post.

Toasters repurposed for PPE in fight against COVID-19 https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/health/toasters-repurposed-for-ppe-in-fight-against-covid-19/ Tue, 21 Apr 2020 02:32:19 +0000 https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/?p=3479 Story by David Tenenbaum —

A University of Wisconsin–Madison alumnus is converting toasters into a conveyor-belt device that may be capable of sterilizing up to 150 face masks per hour using ultraviolet light so they can be reused. The intent is to aid frontline medical workers responding to COVID-19 by helping to alleviate shortages of personal protective equipment.

Bruce Winkler, founder of Innovation Strategies, LLC, is overseeing development of the new sterilizers and is offering one unit free to frontline health care facilities treating COVID-19 patients.

Ultraviolet light is the invisible part of sunlight that causes sunburns. The sterilizers contain 48 light-emitting diodes and mercury vapor lamps that emit a high-intensity form of UV light called UV-C, which sterilizes by destroying the genetic molecules DNA and RNA.

Face masks are sterilized with UV-C light in a device made from a toaster

Bathed by ultraviolet light from 48 sources, these face masks are sterilized in six seconds. Photo: Innovation Strategies, LLC

The virus that causes COVID-19 is new to science and few studies have validated its response to UV-C sterilization. But Winkler says there are many reasons to expect it to work, including recent evidence from the University of Nebraska, which is using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation to sterilize N95 respirators in health care settings.

Additionally, the International Ultraviolet Association recently said it believes that “UV disinfection technologies can play a role in a multiple barrier approach to reducing the transmission of the virus causing COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, based on current disinfection data and empirical evidence.”

The exposure in Winkler’s system is calculated — based on UV-C intensity, duration, and proximity to the masks — to kill more than 99.99 percent of pathogens during a six-second exposure. “Studies have shown that UV-C can be used against other coronaviruses, such as SARS, and a concentrated form of UV-C is now on the front line in the fight against COVID-19,” Winkler says. “In China, whole buses are being lit up by the ghostly blue light each night, while squat, UV-C-emitting robots have been cleaning floors in hospitals.”

Winkler has been developing UV-C products to kill viruses and bacteria in medical settings for 10 years.

“These light sources were intended for use in hospitals and clinics, and that experience made for a natural pivot to assist in the pandemic,” he says. “It’s hard to argue that re-using a mask for an entire week, or having no mask at all, is preferable to using one that has undergone intense UV-C cleansing or sterilization treatment.”

The heart of the sterilizer reflects a shotgun wedding of two unrelated products: a conveyor system from commercial toasters used in hotels, and the UV-C light sources.

A person clad in protective gear feeds a face mask into a prototype sterilizer

The conveyor-sterilizer places the familiar hotel toaster in a whole new light. Here, during tests, a protected operator feeds masks into a prototype. Photo: Innovation Strategies, LLC

“Putting these existing components together cut months out of the development process,” Winkler says.

An operator, clad in personal protective equipment and wearing UV-blocking goggles, feeds masks into the system, one by one, at a rate of 150 per hour. Other objects, such as gloves, keyboards and computer mice could also fit inside the converted toaster.

A person stands in a sterilization chamber during tests using UV-C light on personal protective equipment

In a system under development at Innovation Strategies, UV-C light is used to sterilize protective gowns and other larger PPE components. Photo: Innovation Strategies, LLC

Winkler is also working on a system to decontaminate protective gowns, using similar UV-C technology, inside a purpose-built tent.

Despite the high intensity of the UV light, the system uses far less electricity than a regular toaster, and the masks warms only slightly. In contrast, the heat of standard autoclave sterilizers would destroy masks.

Winkler, founder of Innovation Strategies, received a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from UW-Madison in 1983. Since then, he has invented, designed and developed products and equipment for an international clientele, ranging from scientific and medical devices to entertainment systems and consumer products. He has particularly emphasized lighting, both for artistic and industrial purposes.

As COVID-19 became pandemic, Winkler saw his expertise as a natural fit for medical needs. “Small businesses can do extremely quick development turn-around on an idea like this – going from concept to plan to implementation and testing in weeks instead of years.”

Virtual teams work best to meet this type of urgent need, Winkler adds. Assembly will start this week at Electronic Theatre Controls, in Middleton, Wisconsin.

Based on industry connections, Winkler recruited component suppliers to provide key parts at no cost. These include Clark and Associates, which supplies the commercial toaster conveyor units; BOLB, which contributes the UV-C LED arrays specific to medical and sterilization applications; W.L. Gore and Associates, which supplies advanced reflective materials to optimize the UV-C optics; and Germbot, LLC, which provides UV-C lamps, expertise and project funding.

Though he will ultimately offer the devices at cost, “we all know that time is pressing. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It makes more sense to re-purpose what already exists. And the price — $0 – is right.”

Laser focused on Alpha Centauri https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/curiosities/laser-focused-on-alpha-centauri/ Fri, 31 Jan 2020 19:50:33 +0000 https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/?p=3472 Shine a laser pointer at a cat, and the cat may see and try to catch the light, but it certainly won’t feel it.

What if that light were not a milliwatt laser, but one hundred trillion times stronger — and the cat were essentially weightless, floating in space?

“Normally, optical forces are zero — you don’t feel light pushing on you. But with a very strong laser on a very light object, the forces start to be measurable and significant, and we are interested in studying those forces,” says Victor Brar, assistant professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “A new idea called laser sailing is one area where these optical forces become relevant.”

Laser sails are a proposed type of spacecraft that could take us to new stars, including our closest neighboring star system, Alpha Centauri, and then send images back to Earth. But Alpha Centauri is four lightyears (nearly 24 trillion miles) away. A conventional spacecraft would take around 100,000 years to reach it. Laser sailing could reduce travel time to as little as 20 years.

a cartoon of the 3D donut laser, looking a bit like a volcano, is shown pointed toward the disc-like laser sail. In three panels, the sail is shown moving outside the exact center of the beam, or tilting so as to not be perfectly perpendicular to the beam.

The laser sail in space (grey circles) is propelled by the optical force of a laser pointed toward Alpha Centauri from Earth, (color gradient volcano-like structure). The center, completely opaque to the laser, contains the camera and equipment to transmit photos back to Earth. The outer ring is comprised of a ‘metasurface’ that can self-correct to remain in the laser beam, even when it shifts to the side (middle image) or tilts (right image). Modified from Siegel et al., ACS Photonics

By aiming 100 gigawatts of laser power at our neighboring star system, then placing an ultralight, four-by-four meter laser sail in the beam’s path, the optical forces would be strong enough to propel the spacecraft at one-fifth the speed of light.

“That’s one of the problems: there is no way to steer the spacecraft. Once it’s going, it’s going,” says Joel Siegel, a physics graduate student in Brar’s group. “We were inspired by recent interest in laser sailing to design something that traps itself in the beam.”

So Brar, Siegel and colleagues set out to design a “metasurface:” a nearly two-dimensional array of tiny silicon unit cells that are positioned across the sail so that they reflect light in a way that allows it to remain in the laser’s trajectory. When the laser loses focus — about as far away as Mars — the sail is traveling along the correct path at nearly one-fifth the speed of light.

In a study published last year in ACS Photonics, Siegel and his colleagues conducted two main sets of computational simulations to design a stable, self-correcting sail.

A schematic of the 2D sail, looking from the side,

A view from the side of the sail, with a cross-section of the laser beam. The “inverted cateye” means that the center of the sail is non-transmissive, and light that hits it perpendicular to the sail surface reflects straight back, pushing the center of the sail straight forward. The outer ring of the sail is the metasurface. Depending on the layout of the individual silicon units, light reflects at an angle. Modified from Siegel et al., ACS Photonics

In the first, Siegel used what he calls a perfect optical model: without worrying about if the metasurface could be constructed, he first wanted to find which sail parameters and laser beam configurations could combine to construct a stable sail.

“This first part was all done with a simple MATLAB program: you just calculate at each point what the optical forces are, you sum them up, you get a net force, and then you can time evolve the system using equations of motion,” Siegel says.

The calculations suggested that the best design was an “inverted cat-eye” sail deign with a “doughnut” laser (the most intense light is a circle, with intensity dissipating inside and outside the circle). Siegel could then continue to play around with beam configurations, eventually landing on conditions that produce the stability and velocity the sail needs.

“From there, we can ask, ‘If we have this specific design with these beam parameters, what gets us the best structure?’” Siegel explains. “I know exactly what the reflection profile looks like, now how do I actually make the metasurface?”

two graphs of sail simulation results of distance as a function of time are shown, with 4 lines in each graph representing the sail's location in the simulation.. The top graph looks at distance from center, the bottom graph looks at tilt angle. In both situations, some sail designs immediately fly out of the beam, but some are able to withstand slight perturbations and self-correct.

In the first set of computer simulations, different sails, represented by the different colored lines, were measured for their location with respect to the center of the laser beam (top graph) or the angle they tilted from horizontal (bottom). In both situations, some sail designs immediately fly out of the beam, but some are able to withstand slight perturbations and self-correct. Modified from Siegel et al., ACS Photonics

Siegel and his colleagues next virtually designed the metasurface, arranging those tiny silicon unit cells in various arrangements and simulated how the laser light would reflect and apply force to the sail. When they compared this metasurface to the perfect optical model, they found they were in close agreement. In other words, the self-stabilizing sail is technically achievable.

Of course, technically achievable in computer simulations is not the same as achievable in the real world. Brar and Siegel next want to construct a scaled-down version of their sail and test it in an ultrahigh vacuum chamber in the lab that mimics conditions in space. The sail also needs to be designed to not fold on itself, and to dissipate the heat from the powerful laser.

But with a good start to the sail design, and a mere 20-year travel time (plus around four years to transmit the images back to earth), it is not out of the question that Brar, Siegel, and many people alive today will see close-up images of our nearest star system in their lifetimes.

UW–Madison associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, Mikhail Kats, and research assistant Anthony Wang were co-authors of the study.

Watch Mercury transit the Sun on Monday, Nov. 11! https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/astronomy/watch-mercury-transit-the-sun-on-monday-nov-11/ Fri, 08 Nov 2019 21:02:13 +0000 https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/?p=3440 This is a guest post by Jim Lattis, the director of UW Space Place

Drop by the Washburn Observatory on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus from 6:30 a.m. to noon on Monday, Nov. 11, to get a safe, rare glimpse of Mercury as it crosses the face of the Sun. This free event is hosted by the Astronomy Department and is weather permitting.

The Washburn Observatory, 1401 Observatory Dr., is located at the peak of a hill overlooking Lake Mendota. Public parking is limited. Visit the parking website to find a nearby lot or the Metro Transit website to find a convenient bus route.

In 2004 and 2012, we saw our neighboring planet Venus transit the bright disk of the Sun in the form of a small, black disk crossing the star’s face. Transits of Venus are rare, and there won’t be another until December 2117. These events are analogous to a solar eclipse, in which the Moon crosses the face of the Sun. But while the Moon can completely block the sun — creating the unique effects of a total solar eclipse — no planet’s disk can do the same.

A Mercury transit is similar to a Venus transit, but Mercury makes a much smaller disk on the face of the Sun, because it is both smaller than Venus and farther away from Earth. Another difference is that Mercury transits are much more common than Venus transits, happening 13 or 14 times per century compared to over a century between pairs of Venus transits.

Mercury transits typically occur in pairs: one in May followed by one in November, about three and a half years apart. The May transit is often skipped. The most recent transit of Mercury was in May, 2016. After this year’s event, the next Mercury transit will occur on Nov. 13, 2032.

Seen against the solar disk, Mercury’s disk is so small that a telescope is required to make it visible. In fact, it would take over 190 Mercury disks to span a solar diameter! In contrast, Venus’ disk could be seen on the Sun without magnification. The diagram shows the path that Mercury’s disk will take across the face of the Sun and gives times local to Madison.

So come out Monday to take in this special event. In case of extensive cloud cover, this event will be canceled.

We want to remind you that  aiming a telescope or binoculars at the Sun is a dangerous operation, requiring special equipment and techniques, and therefore best left to experienced observers. At the Washburn Observatory event, we’ll be able to view the transit safely.

Diagram showing the times of the 2019 Mercury transit

The 2019 Mercury transit across the Sun will start just before sunrise and end around noon on Monday, Nov. 11.


Helping doctors keep their patients strong enough to recover https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/health/helping-doctors-keep-their-patients-strong-enough-to-recover/ Thu, 12 Sep 2019 15:39:39 +0000 https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/?p=3427 This guest post comes to us from Jevin Lortie, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at UW–Madison.

Just before Christmas last year, Grandma Barbara, or Ba as we affectionately call her, had finally decided to let us admit her to the hospital. She had come down with what she thought was pneumonia six months ago. She was weak, coughing and had fluid in her lungs. She had been getting progressively worse: her legs were swollen, and she had lost a lot of weight. These symptoms told us that she was actually suffering from heart failure, which is often confused with pneumonia.

By the time we got to the hospital, the concerned nurses scolded us for not calling an ambulance and whisked her to the emergency room. She was given a barrage of tests, many of which required fasting, so it was hard for her to get enough to eat during the day. I had recently joined a lab studying nutrition, and I started to worry about how her body was going to recover without enough food.

After a few days in the hospital, Ba was struggling to breathe on her own. The doctors decided she needed a breathing tube and to be put in a medically-induced coma. While unconscious, she could have been fed by either a feeding tube or IV, but it took several days for this to start. These both carry some risks and are currently only given if absolutely necessary. Yet science has begun to demonstrate that the benefits of immediate nutrition by tube-feeding may outweigh the risks. Hospitalized patients lose 1 to 2 percent of muscle per day. Therefore, a patient in the hospital for a month can lose over half of their muscle.

Nutrition does not get the attention it deserves in medical training, which makes problems like malnutrition — a lack of adequate nutrients — hard to spot. A 2006 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that medical schools on average spend just 24 hours on nutrition, and only 30 percent have a separate nutrition course. Doctor and author Rupy Aujla says, “I’m often met with disbelief when I describe the mere 10 hours of lectures on the subject that I received during my five-year medicine degree.” A 2016 study by Marigold Castilo found that fourth-year medical interns answered only half of a series of basic nutrition questions correctly.

My new lab, led by Adam Kuchnia at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is investigating new imaging techniques to help doctors assess nutrition earlier and more accurately so they can provide the best care for patients like Ba. Kuchnia believes this problem can be solved by modifying a technology that has been in use for years: ultrasound. “It’s an ideal modality for all patients, no matter what their condition is,” Kuchnia says.

Ultrasound works by using sound waves to create an image, which in our case shows the thickness of a muscle and if it has more fluid or fat than it should. Research is beginning to show that before there is a change in muscle mass, this fat and fluid buildup may be signs the muscle is beginning to break down. These early signs could allow us to identify muscle loss much sooner than it can be detected by physical inspection.

An ultrasound image showing the composition of a quadriceps muscle.

An ultrasound image showing the composition of a quadriceps muscle.

Identifying signs of malnutrition could help doctors evaluate whether to ask a patient to fast for another test or wait and eat dinner instead. Kuchnia wants to help clinicians with this decision, and our lab focuses on identifying and preventing malnutrition. Malnutrition is especially important during illness, as additional protein is needed to repair damaged tissues and fight infection. If adequate nutrition is not available, the body will use what is available— fat, muscle, and as a last resort, organ tissue. While stored fat can provide energy, it lacks the amino acids, the building blocks of protein, we need to build and repair cells. Therefore, if we aren’t eating protein, muscles must be broken down to help the body recover. “There are several definitions of malnutrition, but at the core of each one is loss of muscle, which is particularly bad for patients,” says Kuchnia.

Our lab’s next goal is to investigate ways to help patients when we see early muscle loss, such as more immediate tube or IV feeding or additional protein supplementation. Kuchnia says that this research “can be extended to benefit anyone. Through nutritional intervention we are hoping to maintain muscle health in order to lengthen years of quality life.”

In Ba’s case, she made an amazing recovery. But after being bedridden for a month, and a week of that spent fasting in a coma, she needed to re-learn how to do everything — including walking, dressing, and feeding herself. However, her recovery could have been helped by nutritional intervention that allowed her to maintain the muscle she had, instead of being broken down to help her body repair itself. Research from the Kuchnia lab may help implement changes in nutritional interventions, resulting in better patient success and quicker recovery times, preventing others from the same difficult recovery as Ba.

Ba at the author's wedding after recovering from her hospitalization.

Ba at the author’s wedding after recovering from her hospitalization.

CBD: what researchers and medical professionals do and don’t know https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/health/cbd-what-researchers-and-medical-professionals-do-and-dont-know/ Fri, 14 Jun 2019 14:32:38 +0000 https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/?p=3408 This post comes to us from departing science writing intern Tyler Fox, who graduated in May. Congrats, Tyler! And thanks for a year of great stories.

Cannabidiol, better known as CBD, is everywhere. Walgreens and CVS now offer lotions and snacks containing CBD. Local restaurants sell cocktails with CBD infusions. Brewers are adding it to their beers. The maker of Oreo and Chips Ahoy cookies is looking into incorporating it into their products.

As these products become more accessible, consumer interest continues to grow.

CBD is being credited with curing a wide range of ailments from chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, and even acne. But with all this excitement about this seemingly miraculous new health trend, how much do we really know about CBD’s effects?

“There’s a lot of claims made about CBD’s effects with low amounts of research to back them up,” says Dipesh Navsaria, a UW Health pediatrician at American Family Children’s Hospital. “What’s really important to remember about these products is that they’re entirely unregulated, which means these products don’t need proof that they do anything.”

These CBD products are now more readily available since the 2018 Farm Bill and state legislatures have allowed for wider agricultural production of hemp. Hemp is a strain of cannabis plant that contains a higher concentration of CBD but lower amounts of THC, an active ingredient in marijuana that causes its characteristic high.

CBD is a chemical compound naturally derived from the plant, which is perhaps more often associated with marijuana. But CBD is unique in how it acts on endocannabinoid receptors in humans to affect certain physiological processes. These receptors contribute to our appetite, pain sensation, mood and memory, which is why CBD products have a wide range of effects.

Only recently has the FDA specifically approved a medication containing CBD, which is used to treat rare epilepsy disorders. Beyond that, there is still too little evidence to confirm its touted effects. And with its connection to THC and marijuana production, the FDA has not yet classified CBD as a food or as a drug, so it isn’t regulated as such.

This means that supplement shops are making their own recommendations on what and how much consumers should use.

“Asking someone who sells CBD oils about how much to take can be a dangerous thing,” says Navsaria. “And we don’t have clinical trials on dosages, so it’s difficult to discuss with patients.”

Early research indicates that CBD is relatively safe, explains Natalie Schmitz, a UW–Madison School of Pharmacy researcher and former medical cannabis pharmacist at the University of Minnesota.

“It’s always better to start low and go slow with dosages, but right now the most common reported side effect with increased dosages is diarrhea,” says Schmitz.

However, without regulations, there is no guarantee that the labels of CBD products accurately represent the amount of CBD they claim. A 2017 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that of the 84 CBD products they tested, 26 percent contained less CBD than the label stated. And while most CBD products claim not to contain any THC, 21 percent of the products tested positive for the psychoactive THC compound.

This means that athletes who may be interested in using CBD in sports medicine applications should be very cautious in which products they choose.

With these concerns, Schmitz advises patients that are interested in trying CBD to do so cautiously and with frequent check-ins and communication with their healthcare providers.

Research confirms that long-term exposure to THC can affect memory and cognition, but these long-term studies haven’t yet been performed with CBD, which makes it more difficult for medical professionals to recommend its use.

While the FDA works to more closely regulate CBD products, it’s important to remember that there is no miracle drug. With wide and untested claims made about the compound, history reminds us that there is no cure-all. With every medication there are limitations and for CBD, we just don’t know them yet.

“Prescription medications cost what they do because we know what they’ll do,” says Navsaria. “I hope people wait to see how the research clarifies what CBD actually does.”

Greater well-being when awareness of stress aligns with the heart https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/neuroscience/greater-well-being-when-awareness-of-stress-aligns-with-the-heart/ https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/neuroscience/greater-well-being-when-awareness-of-stress-aligns-with-the-heart/#comments Fri, 10 May 2019 21:18:09 +0000 https://uwmadscience.news.wisc.edu/?p=3400

Adapted from original story by Brita Larson, Center for Healthy Minds:

We can feel stress in the body through common sensations: sweaty palms, racing heart and shallow breathing.

Some people cope with signs of stress in their lives by ignoring it. Some may not recognize these as signs of stress. What if the key to well-being during stressful periods in our lives involved syncing our physical and mental experiences of stress?

For the first time, a study from researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds published in Psychological Science suggests that people whose reported stress levels aligned more with their heart rate — called “stress-heart rate coherence”— also had higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of inflammation.

Sasha Sommerfeldt2

“This study suggests that it’s good to tune into your emotions and your body because it seems like the more those two things track together, the better off you are,” says Sasha Sommerfeldt, a graduate student at the Center and lead researcher on the project. “In other words, it’s not just whether someone experiences more stress or less stress, or whether their heart rate increases a lot or a little under stress. Rather, it is a person’s awareness of his or her stress levels and how consistent that is with heart rate that is linked to psychological and physical well-being.”

The team analyzed data from 1,065 participants in the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study, a longitudinal effort looking at well-being as adults age. Participants completed a series of stressful computer tasks, including a mental math task and a color identification task.

Before, during and after the tasks, researchers measured participants’ heart rate and asked them to rate their stress on a scale of one to 10.

After the participants completed the stress tests, researchers compared each person’s heart rate to the stress levels they reported and found that some people’s stress levels aligned with their heart rate better than others.

To examine the link between stress-heart rate coherence and people’s emotional well-being, researchers used psychological questionnaires focused on well-being, depression, anxiety and coping as well as blood samples measuring inflammation markers. Researchers found that people with greater stress-heart rate coherence had fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, greater overall psychological well-being, and lower levels of inflammation.

Sommerfeldt says it’s unclear which comes first: good stress regulation or high stress-heart rate coherence.

“If people can recognize that they’re stressed and have a good relationship between their bodies and stress levels, then maybe it’s less likely that their stress will spill over and affect their mood and behavior,” says Sommerfeldt. “At the same time, if you have higher levels of emotional well-being, then you’re probably better at regulating your emotions. For example, you might say: ‘Yes, I’m stressed, but I know what to do with it and I can accept my stress.’ You use less denial in coping with it.”

Sommerfeldt says teaching coherence could begin with helping a person recognize their emotions, which might be an important part of the therapeutic process. Future research may explore whether coherence might be enhanced by interventions or practices like mindfulness or cognitive behavioral therapy. She says that for now, researchers do not know whether these findings can be applied to other emotions, since the team focused only on stress.

Richard Davidson, the senior author of the study and director of the Center for Healthy Minds, is excited about these new findings.

“The data support the potentially beneficial role of awareness in psychological well-being and physical health,” Davidson says. “And since we know that awareness can be enhanced through training, it raises the possibility that stress-heart rate coherence can be learned.”

This work was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network, the National Institute on Aging (P01-AG020166, U19-AG051426), the NIH National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) program (UL1TR001409 [Georgetown], UL1TR001881 [UCLA], 1UL1RR025011 [UW]). Sommerfeldt was also supported by a University of Wisconsin – Madison University Fellowship, and a Pre-Doctoral Fellowship through the Training Program in Emotion Research (NIH T32MH018931-28).

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