Hub Headlines from the Johns Hopkins news network Hub Wed, 25 Mar 2015 14:00:00 -0400 New genetic variant that causes autism identified by Johns Hopkins-led team <p>Using a novel approach that focuses on rare families severely affected by autism, a Johns Hopkins-led team of researchers has <a href="">identified a new genetic cause of the disorder</a>.</p> <p>The rare genetic variant offers important insights into the root causes of autism, the researchers say. And, they suggest, their unconventional method can be used to identify other genetic causes of autism and other complex genetic conditions.</p> <p>A report on the study was published today in the journal <em>Nature</em>.</p> <p>In recent years, falling costs for genetic testing, together with powerful new means of storing and analyzing massive amounts of data, have ushered in the era of the genome-wide association and sequencing studies. These studies typically compare genetic sequencing data from thousands of people with and without a given disease to map the locations of genetic variants that contribute to the disease. While genome-wide association studies have linked many genes to particular diseases, their results have so far failed to lead to predictive genetic tests for common conditions, such as Alzheimer's, autism, or schizophrenia.</p> <p>"In genetics, we all believe that you have to sequence endlessly before you can find anything," says <a href="">Aravinda Chakravarti</a>, a professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's <a href="">McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine</a>. "I think whom you sequence is as important—if not more so—than how many people are sequenced."</p> <p>With that idea, Chakravarti and his collaborators identified families in which more than one female has autism spectrum disorder, a condition first described at Johns Hopkins in 1943. For reasons that are not understood, girls are far less likely than boys to have autism. When girls do have the condition, however, their symptoms tend to be severe. Chakravarti reasoned that females with autism, particularly those with a close female relative who is also affected, must carry very potent genetic variants for the disease, and he wanted to find out what those were.</p> <p>The research team compared the gene sequences of autistic members of 13 such families to the gene sequences of people from a public database. They found four potential culprit genes and focused on one, called CTNND2, because it fell in a region of the genome known to be associated with another intellectual disability. When they studied the gene's effects in zebrafish, mice, and cadaveric human brains, the research group found that the protein it makes affects how many other genes are regulated. The CTNND2 protein was found at far higher levels in fetal brains than in adult brains or other tissues, Chakravarti says, so it likely plays a key role in brain development.</p> <p>While autism-causing variants in CTNND2 are very rare, Chakravarti says, the finding provides a window into the general biology of autism.</p> <p>"To devise new therapies, we need to have a good understanding of how the disease comes about in the first place," he says. "Genetics is a crucial way of doing that."</p> <p>Chakravarti's research group is now working to find the functions of the other three genes identified as possibly associated with autism. They plan to use the same principle to look for disease genes in future studies of 100 similar autism-affected families, as well as other illnesses.</p> <p>"We've shown that even for genetically complicated diseases, families that have an extreme presentation are very informative in identifying culprit genes and their functions—or, as geneticists are taught, 'treasure your exceptions.'" Chakravarti says.</p> <p>Other authors on the paper are Tychele N. Turner, Kamal Sharma, Maria X. Sosa, Dallas R. Auer, Stephan J. Sanders, Daniel Moreno-De-Luca, Vasyl Pihur, Christa Lese Martin, Matthew W. State, and Richard Huganir of The Johns Hopkins University; Edwin C. Oh, Yangfan P. Liu, and Nicholas Katsanis of Duke University; Ryan L. Collins, Harrison Brand, and Michael E. Talkowski of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School; Teri Plona, Kristen Pike, and Daniel R. Soppet of Leidos Biomedical Research; Michael W. Smith of the National Human Genome Research Institute; SauWai Cheung of Baylor College of Medicine; and Edwin Cook of the University of Illinois at Chicago.</p> <p>This work was funded by grants from the Simons Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, and an Autism Speaks Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship.</p> Thu, 19 Mar 2015 15:26:00 -0400 With mission's end in sight, Messenger marks four years in Mercury orbit <p>On the evening of March 17, 2011, the Messenger spacecraft—built and operated by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland—made history when it became the first to orbit Mercury. Over the past four years, Messenger's instruments have fully mapped the surface of our solar system's innermost planet and yielded discoveries that have changed views on how the inner planets formed and evolved.</p> <p>"Messenger truly is an extraordinary mission," said Peter Bedini, a senior management advisor and former project manager for the mission. "When it began its primary mission four years ago, the spacecraft had already traveled almost five billion miles and completed six planetary encounters. During its pre-orbital Mercury flybys alone, Messenger collected as much data as Mariner 10—the only other spacecraft ever to visit the innermost planet—and began addressing questions about Mercury that had remained unanswered for more than 30 years."</p> <p>After more than 10 years in flight, Messenger and its scientific instruments remain remarkably healthy, but the spacecraft's propulsion system is running on fumes. The force of solar gravity continues to perturb the spacecraft orbit in a manner that drives the probe downward toward the planet's surface with each approach, and the tanks of propellant, which needed to boost the spacecraft to higher altitudes, are running dry.</p> <p>On Wednesday, the team conducted the first of five final orbit-correction maneuvers designed to keep Messenger in orbit up to four weeks longer, possibly as late as April 30. But sometime within the next few months, Messenger will inevitably crash into Mercury's surface.</p> <p>"The success of Messenger is a direct result of the talent and dedication of the team that designed and built it more than a decade ago, and of those who have operated it and directed the science data collection since launch in 2004," said Helene Winters, Messenger's current project manager. "The results of this Discovery-class mission have rewritten the book on Mercury and filled an important gap in our understanding of our Solar System."</p> <p>The mission has also contributed to NASA's technology base, said David Grant, who served as the mission's project manager for five years, overseeing the development, integration, testing, and launch of the spacecraft and subsequent mission operations, including the Earth flyby and two Venus flybys.</p> <p>Grant offers two examples:</p> <ul> <li><p>Messenger is the first mission to utilize "solar sailing," that is, to correct the trajectory of the spacecraft with the Sun's radiation, saving propellant and extending mission operations.</p></li> <li><p>The project is also the first to use SciBox, an automated science planning and commanding tool, for all data acquisition. Given spacecraft operational constraints and instrument operational constraints and objectives, the tool provides the science planner with an optimized set of opportunities to take observations and produces an integrated command sequence for the payload.</p></li> </ul> <p>Messenger—short for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging—is a NASA-sponsored scientific investigation of the planet Mercury and the first space mission designed to orbit the planet closest to the sun. The spacecraft was launched on August 3, 2004.</p> Mon, 16 Mar 2015 14:45:00 -0400 Johns Hopkins-based startup Baton among participants in DreamIT Health Baltimore accelerator <p>For the second consecutive year, Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine are co-sponsors of DreamIt Health Baltimore, a four-month boot camp for entrepreneurs that prepares health information technology startups to present their innovative ideas to the world. is a four-month intensive boot camp for entrepreneurs,</p> <p>The program, designed to accelerate new product development for health IT startup companies, provides six new startups with access to top-tier legal and accounting services, along with opportunities to meet and pitch their ideas to angel investors and venture capitalists. Each startup also receives seed capital of up to $50,000.</p> <p>Among the companies selected is <a href="">Baton</a>, a Baltimore startup co-founded by Harry Goldberg, an assistant dean at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; Stephen Milner, chief of burn surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and Zack Goldberg, a former investment banker. Baton will develop a mobile application that ensures the seamless transition of patient care between hospital teams to avoid preventable medical errors.</p> <p>The capstone event of the program, DreamIt Demo Day, will be held in Baltimore on May 13. The one-day event affords each team the opportunity to share its progress and plans for the future with an audience of investors, industry leaders, and potential customers.</p> <p>"Our partnership with DreamIt is a demonstration of our commitment to the entrepreneurial ecosystem at Johns Hopkins and in Baltimore," said Christy Wyskiel, senior advisor to the president for enterprise development at Johns Hopkins University. "We are excited to continue building on Hopkins' tradition of innovation by helping entrepreneurs build promising health care technology startups from start to finish."</p> <p>The six startups were chosen from among more than 100 applications submitted from around the globe. This current group of startups is made up of entrepreneurs from around the world who seek to confront health care challenges by developing technologies that resolve a specific issue not yet addressed in the marketplace. Concepts in this year's group include patient-physician communication, simplified access to registered dieticians, mechanical devices for autotransfusion, and others.</p> <p>"This year's applications were some of the best we've ever seen," said Jason Hardebeck, managing director of DreamIt Health Baltimore. "I am excited to see new technologies unfold that will shape health IT."</p> <p>In addition to Baton, the remaining DreamIt Health Baltimore 2015 startups are:</p> <ul> <li><a href="">Decisive Health Systems</a> (San Francisco, California) helps physician practices increase revenue, improve outcomes and enhance patient satisfaction with software that supports shared decision making. </li> <li><a href="">InsightMedi</a> (Spain) is a photo-sharing network for health care professionals designed to enhance education and enable curbside consultations on a large scale. </li> <li><a href="">REAL Dietitian</a> (Chicago, Illinois) offers a next-generation telehealth platform focused initially on increased access to medical nutrition therapy for patients with chronic diseases across the U.S. </li> <li><a href="">Redox</a> (Madison, Wisconsin) enables software developers to rapidly integrate with installed legacy health IT systems through a modern application programming interface. </li> <li><a href="">Sisu Global Health</a> (Grand Rapids, Michigan) develops medical devices for the most challenging environments and markets. Its first product enables autotransfusion of hemorrhaging patients in the field with military and developing world applications. </li> </ul> <p>Other partners involved with DreamIt Health Baltimore include the University of Maryland, Baltimore; the Abell Foundation; the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore; BioHealth Innovation; and the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.</p> Mon, 16 Mar 2015 14:00:00 -0400 Online tool developed by Johns Hopkins undergrads could reshape gym experience <p>When Seal-bin Han, a self-proclaimed wimpy kid, hoped to bulk up in college, he hunkered down at Johns Hopkins University's O'Connor Recreation Center and went to work.</p> <p>But a hectic schedule, intimidating gym rats, and fleeting urges sometimes got in the way.</p> <p>He plans to squash these excuses, and countless others, with his latest enterprise, an affordable personal training platform that gives users their social fix while they get fit. That's the idea behind <a href="">ShapeU</a>, an online tool that uses a matching mechanism (think online dating) to form small workout groups and pair them with a personal trainer.</p> <p>ShapeU launched at Hopkins last spring in partnership with the O'Connor Recreation Center, promising to motivate students who need an extra push to avoid breaking fitness resolutions. Six small groups tested the service, working with personal trainers who tailored each session to match the groups' fitness goals—from getting ripped, to simply slimming down. Weekly progress reports detailed weight lost, BMI, and blood pressure.</p> <p>"I decided to give it a try because doing anything with friends makes it more fun," said Thomas Keady, a JHU freshman and ShapeU participant.</p> <p>"If you have an appointment, you're paying for it and your personal trainer and friends are waiting for you, then that's more motivation to go than if you were going to walk to the rec center by yourself."</p> <p>And it's affordable, even on a student budget. Splitting the cost of the trainer lowers the price to between $6 and $8 per student for a weekly session. They get personal training advice for the price of a burrito, says Han. What could be better?</p> <p>For Han and his six-person team, preserving health and well-being is the No. 1 goal. Specifically, they want to combat cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S., Han says.</p> <p>"Almost all cases are entirely preventable because healthy eating and exercise are very strong deterrents from getting it," says Han, who along with fellow undergraduates Richard Shi, Christine Situ​, Jordan Matelsky, Oneeb Malik, and Charlie McGeorge make up the ShapeU team. The group also works closely with Steven Moyo, an internal medicine resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital.</p> <p>This fusion of affordable personal training and social exercise <a href="">secured the group a spot in Accelerate Baltimore's 13-week startup program</a>. They received $25,000 in funding and the support to make the expansion possible.</p> <p>The next step, the team says, is to expand ShapeU's reach in the Baltimore area.</p> <p>"We're realizing that this isn't a student problem, it's a problem everywhere," Han says. "If we want to help people live healthier lives, we need to partner with the gyms that run Baltimore."</p> <p>Soon Merritt Athletic Club, Planet Fitness, and Brick Bodies will debut an advanced version of the ShapeU tool for a trial period. A more complex matching mechanism, smart scheduling app, and a pricing system that takes a cue from Uber are among the updates, Han says.</p> <p>"If Bill Gates can find the time to exercise, then so can anyone in the world. Period," says Han, who at 19 years old already has three companies to his name.</p> Wed, 11 Mar 2015 13:02:00 -0400 Drug may restore brain function, memory in patients at risk for Alzheimer's disease <p>A novel therapeutic approach for an existing drug reverses a condition in elderly patients who are at high risk for dementia due to Alzheimer's disease, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have discovered.</p> <p>The drug, commonly used to treat epilepsy, calms hyperactivity in the brain of patients with amnestic mild cognitive impairment, or aMCI, a clinically recognized condition in which memory impairment is greater than expected for a person's age and which greatly increases risk for Alzheimer's dementia, according to <a href="">the study published this week in <em>NeuroImage: Clinical</em></a>.</p> <p>The findings validate the Johns Hopkins team's <a href="">initial conclusions</a>, <a href="">published three years ago in the journal <em>Neuron</em></a>. They also closely match the results in animal studies performed by the team and scientists elsewhere. Next, neuroscientist <a href="">Michela Gallagher</a>, the lead investigator, hopes the therapy will be tested in a large-scale, longer-term clinical trial.</p> <p>Hippocampal over-activity is well-documented in patients with aMCI, and its occurrence predicts further cognitive decline and progression to Alzheimer's dementia, Gallagher said.</p> <p>"What we've shown is that very low doses of the atypical antiepileptic levetiracetam reduces this over-activity," Gallagher said. "At the same time, it improves memory performance on a task that depends on the hippocampus."</p> <p>The team studied 84 subjects—67 of them had the symptoms of pre-dementia memory loss defined as aMCI; the rest did not. Everyone was over 55 years old, with an average age of about 70.</p> <p>The subjects were given varying doses of the drug and also a placebo in a double-blind randomized trial. Researchers found low doses both improved memory performance and normalized the over-activity detected by functional MRI that measures brain activity during a memory task. The ideal dosing found in this clinical study matched earlier preclinical studies in animal models.</p> <p>"What we want to discover now is whether treatment over a longer time will prevent further cognitive decline and delay or stop progression to Alzheimer's dementia," Gallagher said.</p> <p>Other team members from Johns Hopkins included Arnold Bakker, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; Marilyn S. Albert, director of the Division of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Neurology; Gregory Krauss, professor of Neurology; and the clinical study coordinator, Caroline L. Speck.</p> <p>Gallagher, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, is the founder of, and a member of the scientific board of, AgeneBio, a biotechnology company focused on developing treatments for diseases that affect brain function. The company is headquartered in Baltimore. Gallagher owns AgeneBio stock, which is subject to certain restrictions under Johns Hopkins policy. She is entitled to shares of any royalties received by the university on sales of products related to her inventorship of intellectual property. The terms of these arrangements are managed by the university in accordance with its conflict-of-interest policies.</p> Wed, 11 Mar 2015 12:12:00 -0400 Rare split images of supernova put Johns Hopkins astronomer in spotlight <p>A Johns Hopkins astronomer played a key role in the recent discovery of a distant exploding star whose light split into four distinct images in a display just seen for the first time by scientists using the <a href="">Hubble Space Telescope</a>.</p> <p>The multi-image effect occurred when light from the exploding star passed through a cluster of galaxies located between the supernova and the Earth. The gravitational pull from one of the galaxies within the cluster is acting as a "cosmic lens," bending and magnifying the light, creating four separate images.</p> <p>Famed physicist Albert Einstein first predicted this effect, but it had never been observed before in the light of a supernova until late last year. The discovery was reported March 5 by a group of 31 researchers writing in <a href="">a special issue of the journal <em>Science</em></a> that paid tribute to Einstein's Theory of General Relativity.</p> <p><a href="">Steven A. Rodney</a>, a Hubble Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the <a href="">Department of Physics and Astronomy</a> at Johns Hopkins, was listed as second author on the <em>Science</em> paper. Rodney—who is supervised by a Johns Hopkins Nobel Laureate, Physics and Astronomy Professor Adam Riess—leads a research group called FrontierSN (the SN is short for supernova). This team, assembled two years ago, uses the Hubble Space Telescope to search for stellar explosions like this one behind massive galaxy clusters.</p> <p>The recent "multiply-imaged" supernova, named "Supernova Refsdal" for Norwegian astrophysicist Sjur Refsdal, is one of about 50 supernovae that the FrontierSN team members have located.</p> <p>"This is by far the most spectacular object we've found so far," Rodney said.</p> <p>Rodney likened the four different supernova images detected by Hubble to four different trains, leaving a station simultaneously and traveling at the same speed, but moving along different tracks. The massive cluster of galaxies between Earth and the supernova causes a gravitational warping of spacetime, which is akin to different landscapes that these trains must pass through. Each takes a different route, some more direct than others, so the trains do not all pull into the final destination at the same time. For Supernova Refsdal, each of the four different images must have first appeared at slightly different times. Rodney's team was not lucky enough to catch those initial flashes, but the researchers are currently using the Hubble Space Telescope to monitor the supernova, waiting for the four images to fade away.</p> <p>"It's as though we just walked up to the train station and saw these four trains passing through," Rodney explained. "We didn't get there in time to catch the arrival of the engines in front, but we're watching now to see when each caboose goes by."</p> <p>By measuring how much time elapses between the fading of each image and analyzing the paths these light beams pursue, Rodney and his collaborators hope to learn more about the distribution of the mysterious dark matter that dominates the mass of the lensing galaxy cluster. Gravitational lenses like this cluster are one of the primary tools that astronomers use for studying dark matter, which makes up large portions of the universe but cannot be seen. The research may also yield clues concerning the expansion rate of the universe.</p> <p>The four time-delayed images of this supernova would have already made Supernova Refsdal an unprecedented discovery. But in this case the universe has more in store because the supernova is expected to make a return appearance within the next five years.</p> <p>"My team," Rodney said, "will continue to monitor this galaxy cluster with Hubble, watching for the appearance of that fifth and final image. We're hoping this time we can catch it early, as it first arrives, to get an even better measurement of this unique explosion."</p> Thu, 05 Mar 2015 09:00:00 -0500 New reality: Climate change will bring storm-related power outages <p>Until recently, residents of Northeastern cities like New York, Hartford, or Philadelphia could reasonably assume that chances were small that they'd lose power when a hurricane struck the Atlantic coast. Originating in the warm waters of the tropics, most hurricanes lost much of their potency by the time they'd churned as far north as New York or New England. This will not likely be the case much longer.</p> <p>A study conducted by Whiting School Associate Professor Seth Guikema indicates that as the climate continues to change, many cities that have considered themselves unlikely to face storm-related power outages need to prepare for a new reality. "As these storms become more intense, they penetrate further [north and] inland before dying out, and you have new areas getting storms that haven't experienced blackouts before," says Guikema, who teaches in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. "Utilities that haven't had to think about hurricane-induced outages now
have to think about them."</p> <p>Guikema developed his first blackout-forecasting tool, a short-term model, back in the mid-2000s and used it to predict power outages for Irene and Sandy days before those hurricanes came ashore. The latest version of the tool takes a longer-term look. While most climate change researchers agree that hurricanes will intensify as warmer sea surface temperatures give them more fuel, they disagree about whether storms will also become more frequent and whether the distribution of their landfall locations will be affected.</p> <p>As a result, Guikema and his
team strove to account for climate change with more of a scenario-based approach. They created a baseline case by applying Guikema's short-term model to a simulation of the storm variability observed over the last 112 years. Then, they altered the parameters of the baseline case to create 12 plausible climate-change scenarios, looking at what would happen if storm intensities were to decrease by 20 percent or increase by 20 and 40 percent. They also adjusted the model to account for potential changes in storm frequency and landfall locations and ran each scenario for the equivalent of 1,600 years' worth of hurricane activity.</p> <p>According to the model, the 10 cities most likely to experience more power failures due to intensifying hurricanes are, in order of likelihood: New York, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Virginia Beach, Hartford, Orlando, Tampa, Providence, Miami, and New Orleans. Other metro areas that should expect increased sensitivity include (in the same order) Boston, Houston, Richmond, Birmingham, Austin, Baltimore, Washington, 
and Raleigh.</p> <p>The team was not surprised to find that hurricanes will continue to pummel areas like Miami and New Orleans. (These cities fall relatively low on the top-10 list, Guikema explains, because their sensitivity is already at such a high level it doesn't have much room for growth.) What did surprise them was that many cities that have avoided hurricane damage thus far—because they lie so far inland or so far north, or because they have other geographic protection—are likely to face threats in
the future. Guikema was especially shocked to realize that cities situated as far inland as the Appalachians may start seeing damage from hurricanes. "It stands out that the top five or so are cities you don't really think of as being target hurricane areas," says Andrea Staid, the Johns Hopkins doctoral student who authored the report. "If we choose to ignore climate change, our study shows the impacts could be quite severe going forward."</p> <p>The two most at-risk cities, New York and Philadelphia, will likely see a 50 percent increase in the number of people who lose power during a 100-year storm (that is, a storm
with a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year) due to climate change. "In historical hurricane environments, hurricanes tended
to be dying out or weaker by the time they reached New York," Guikema says. "But if hurricanes get even 20 percent more intense, you're going to get more intense, stronger storms surviving into the city, and it's such a densely populated area [that] the potential is there for worse impacts. The biggest message for the cities in the top 10 is they've got to be thinking about this."</p> <p>Guikema hopes his work will guide cities as they consider how to prepare their power grids for the future through methods that may include burying power lines, replacing wooden utility poles with cement, flood-proofing substations, and fine-tuning emergency response plans. Power outages have cascading effects on other infrastructure systems, like telecommunications and water networks, as well as on economics and human health. While the study will likely give some cities a wake-up call,
it may prevent others from overreacting. The data show, for instance,
 that Nashville, Memphis, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta will likely remain in relatively safe zones. "If places don't have good estimates of what might happen," Guikema says, "there's the risk of preparing for very bad cases that may not be the best use of their resources."</p> Thu, 05 Mar 2015 09:00:00 -0500 APL's Fifth Period comic targets the next gen of STEM talent <p><em>Frame one</em>: Meet Dwight Carr, a middle-aged African-American man with a shiny bald head and affable manner. He sits in his office in the Applied Physics Laboratory, wearing a short-sleeve white shirt and nondescript tie, staring upward, lost in thought. On his desk there's a small placard, STEM Outreach Manager, and a dusty black-and-white newspaper clipping with a photo of Sputnik and the headline, Race to Space. "It's been 50 years since teenagers really got excited about engineering and science," Carr muses. "We've got to find new ways to engage young people."</p> <p><em>Frame two</em>: Annie Marcotte, a young artist dressed all in black, with an asymmetrical short haircut and glasses perched halfway down her nose, sits sketching on a digital tablet in APL's communications offices. She's on deadline for her next installment of <a href=""><em>Fifth Period</em></a>, a comic strip that follows four appropriately diverse teenagers—Sophie (for science), Tomás (technology), Emma (engineering), and Marcus (math)—along with their enthusiastic (yet close to retirement age) science teacher, Mr. Kepler. At Carr's request, Marcotte, in collaboration with technical writer Anne King and art director Don Vislay, has been creating the strip for three years, drawing on the interests and experiences of her co-workers and her father, brother, and sister, who are all engineers. She hopes she's making science and scientists seem more fun than nerdy, the subject matter more appealing than challenging. Today she's sketching an adventure for Sophie, her favorite character (the two share a love of dinosaurs, <em>Jurassic Park</em>, and learning new things), and she's working to get the voice of the dialogue and accompanying lesson just right—friendly and lively but not dumbed-down.</p> <p><em>Frame three</em>: Back in Carr's office, where he's studying analytics on his computer. We see that the <em>Fifth Period</em> pages on APL's STEM website average about 400 unique views a month. It's not quite the thousands that Carr would love to see. "I have grandiose ideas," he says with a half smile. 
("I have a tiny following among my friends," says Marcotte with a laugh.) On a shelf behind him, we see a stack of <em>Fifth Period</em> compilations, like graphic novels, that he has distributed to schools and career fairs by the thousands. An engineer by training, he likes to measure. But he doesn't have a good way of knowing how many readers are trying the experiments attached to each comic strip, or how many teachers may be working those experiments into their lessons. The teachers who come to APL STEM Outreach programs are all hungry
 for real-life examples of science at work that they can bring back to their classrooms, he says. "The question that students are always asking is, 'How am I going to use this in the real world?'"</p> <p><em>Frame four</em>: Carr stands in APL's parking lot, watching colleagues head for their cars as the sun sets. He tells
a visitor that he has two focal points for outreach this year: helping teachers adjust to the problem-based learning style promoted by the national Common Core standards, and helping to fill corporate job needs in STEM fields. It's a numbers game, he says, thinking of all the baby boomers inspired by Sputnik who entered science and now are starting to retire. He sweeps one arm to take in a wide swath of the parking lot. "APL has some 5,000 employees, and more than two-thirds of them hold STEM-related degrees. We handle a lot of unique work for the Department of Defense. We can't continue to do those jobs if we can't keep filling the pipeline. So just from a self-preservation standpoint, we need to do something."</p> <p><em>Frame five</em>: The sun has set, but we see Annie Marcotte still in her office. Like Carr, she knows that if she can find ways to share the excitement and appeal of science and technology fields, she might just hook a few bright young minds. So she returns to her drawing board.</p> <p><a href="">To read <em>Fifth Period</em>, click here.</a></p> Thu, 05 Mar 2015 09:00:00 -0500 Hopkins team seeks to improve reconstructive surgeries <p>Justin Sacks, a plastic surgeon at Johns Hopkins, has performed thousands of reconstructive surgeries. But he could not accept being unable to make a person whole again. For example, women in treatment for early-stage breast cancer often consider tissue-conserving lumpectomies or partial mastectomies, in which surgeons remove the tumor and some surrounding tissue. While therapeutically effective, such procedures can leave visible defects. Yes, the cancer has been removed. The patient has been healed. But part of her is missing. Similarly, soldiers wounded in battle may live out the rest of their lives with visible reminders of what was taken from them.</p> <p>Sacks envisioned a three-dimensional soft tissue—a polite term for fat—that physicians could cut to order to fill a cavity. In July 2013, he and like-minded surgical resident Sashank Reddy reached out to engineering colleague Hai-Quan Mao, who initially wondered whether the idea was feasible. Any doubts were short-lived, however, as Mao and his team embraced the challenge and made Sacks' vision a reality. A team of Johns Hopkins biomedical engineers, led by Mao, has developed a synthetic, implantable 3-D soft tissue scaffold, for which they've applied for a provisional patent. In rodent studies, the composite material has served as a framework for the body's native fatty tissue and blood vessels to grow and fill in the defect. Afterward, the implanted scaffolding naturally degrades, leaving the new tissue intact. "I like to think of the material as a conducive template, attracting both growth cues and cells from the surrounding tissue to regenerate," Mao says.</p> <p>Composites, both biological and synthetic, have become a prime target for tissue engineers. The Johns Hopkins team opted for a synthetic material made from degradable polymer nanofibers that look like a nest of sticklike filaments, suspended in a viscous and biodegradable hydrogel commonly used in injectable cosmetic fillers to erase wrinkles and plump up lips. The nanofiber substrate provides a framework that can hold the shape and size of the defect while cells grow in, and the hydrogel component promotes the growth of new blood vessels from pre-existing ones. The nanofibers provide a sufficiently strong matrix for fat stem cells to "walk" along and differentiate, a bit like making rock candy along a piece of string. The nanofibers also have a predictable and slow rate of degradation, says lead researcher Georgia Yalanis, a doctoral student who has spent the past year testing the new material. Plus the biodegradable polymers used to generate the nanofibers have a strong track record of safety; they have been widely used in many FDA-approved devices such as degradable sutures. "You don't want the material to break down too quickly, as you're not giving the body enough time to regenerate and reproduce those nice, new, healthy fat cells," Yalanis says. "While [the composite] degrades, your body's own fat grows into it. [Eventually] it will shrink with you, enlarge with you, depending on how your weight fluctuates. That is all very appealing."</p> <blockquote> <p>The team wanted to give patients the best of both worlds, the immediate replacement shape that an implant provides and the natural feel of a tissue transfer—without any of the cons.</p> </blockquote> <p>Sacks and Yalanis said the team wanted to give patients the best of both worlds, the immediate replacement shape that an implant provides and the natural feel of a tissue transfer—without any of the cons. Current nondegradable implants may generate inflammation and scarring, Yalanis says, and tissue transfer is a long, invasive surgical process that essentially robs Peter
to pay Paul by taking tissue from one part of the body and planting it in another. In the rodent study, the procedure did not cause inflammation or fibrosis. Now, the team wants to conduct large-animal studies and work on an injectable model that would allow the gel to fill up a cavity and initiate fat growth in vivo. For off-the-shelf utility, the material can be poured into molds and dehydrated. Surgeons can later rehydrate the material and cut it into whatever shape is needed.</p> <p>For Yalanis, the research has been personal. She chose plastic surgery as a discipline following her time at the University of Southern California's Master of Science in Global Medicine program. At USC, she researched victims of acid violence—women who had been sprayed with sulfuric or nitric acid by a husband or boyfriend as punishment for a perceived transgression. "The disfiguring is horrific," she says. "That was one reason reconstruction became interesting to me. We place high value on our physical appearance, not just beauty but small things that people take for granted. How you present yourself to the world has value. That initial presentation is something you only get to do once and greatly impacts your confidence."</p> Thu, 05 Mar 2015 09:00:00 -0500 The science behind 'going with your gut' <p>Ignorance may be bliss, but partial ignorance—or at least ignoring a glut of information and going instead with instinct—may be the best way to make certain vital decisions. So goes the argument put forth by Shabnam Mousavi, an assistant professor at the Carey Business School and a fellow at Berlin's Max Planck Institute for Human Development. Mousavi, who has studied classical decision-making theory, recently co-authored with Planck's Gerd Gigerenzer, a <em>Journal of Business Research</em> paper titled "Risk, Uncertainty, and Heuristics." The gist of the paper is that, in business at least, many decisions fall into a gray area of uncertainty. While it's tempting to do all that's possible to reduce that uncertainty by applying sophisticated computer models, opting instead for simple rules of thumb— known in Mousavi's field as heuristics—can produce decisions that outperform complex algorithms in real-world situations.</p> <p>It's clear that many business leaders believe there's a time to
put big data aside when thinking through a problem. Mousavi's paper cites 2012 research that found "almost half of the managers ([defined here as] subscribers to <em>Chief Executive</em> magazine, <em>CFO</em> magazine, <em>CFO Asia</em>, and <em>CFO Europe</em>) consider their
'gut feel' an important or very important factor in making capital allocation decisions."</p> <p>Whether data wonks or those who fly by the seat of their pants make better decisions may depend on
the problem's category. Traditional decision-making theory considers dilemmas that involve certainty and risk. "Under certainty each action is known to lead to a certain outcome. Under risk all outcomes as well as the probabilities of each outcome are known," writes Mousavi. For decisions that fall into either of these categories, taking the long route and applying extensive statistical analysis can bear fruit. But what about problems involving uncertainty, where the probabilities of outcomes are unknown? Here, Mousavi, who has
a PhD in statistics and economics, writes that "calculations can provide illusory certainty." The illusion, she says, is based on the fact that there's zero evidence that decision-making models involving certainty or risk translate to those pesky (and common) uncertainty problems. "To even use a risk model [in those situations] is absolutely useless," says Mousavi.</p> <p>Which brings us back to heuristics as a better way to solve problems of uncertainty. Some economists and others frown on heuristics, such 
as psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who noted in his <em>New York Times</em> best-selling book <em>Thinking, Fast and Slow</em> that they lead to errors and biases in judgments. But Mousavi says that what heuristics need is more study rather than scorn. Her approach is to reverse-engineer 
an uncertainty problem, starting with the solution, noting whether it was effective, then seeing which heuristics were applied to come up with it. She focuses on so-called "fast-and-frugal heuristics" and lists a dozen that have received considerable study. These are more than shortcuts. They involve what she calls "tools from the adaptive toolbox," which in humans evolved as survival skills. These include "imitating the successful," "imitating the majority," and the "recognition" heuristic. For the latter, one exploits partial knowledge to make a decision from among alternatives of varying degrees of familiarity. In business, that might mean deciding to place a satellite office in a city you've repeatedly visited versus one you've never seen.</p> <p>"The study of fast-and-frugal heuristics has shown that less effort can lead to more accurate judgments. Heuristic strategies use learned and evolved core capacities such as memory and recall. This is why they are fast," Mousavi writes. The snap judgments that come from these core capacities may deliberately ignore other available information— "That's called irrational in standard decision-making theory," notes Mousavi—but these near-instantaneous judgments and decisions may nonetheless be correct.</p> <p>To better understand heuristics and why we use them, Mousavi is going places that statisticians usually fear to tread, delving into fields that include psychology, sociology, and anthropology for clues. "Now we're using psychological insights and foundations to see what people are thinking, what beliefs they are holding, and what kind of information they're drawing on when they make decisions," she says. The real question is whether she can parse the best time to use a heuristic and whether that information can be modeled and taught. Mousavi says she thinks this can be accomplished; she has a book in the works.</p> Thu, 05 Mar 2015 09:00:00 -0500 Relatives of horses & rhinos found in Indian mine <p>An active, open-pit coal mine is an unconventional place to conduct a paleontological dig. But for a team of Johns Hopkins researchers and native colleagues working in India, one such coal mine has been a gold mine of fossilized bones and teeth that have led to a breakthrough: the first concrete proof that the closest relatives of horses, rhinos, and other members of the mammalian order Perissodactyla were present on the Indian landmass more than 50 million years ago while it was an island and not yet joined to Asia.</p> <p>Fossilized remains of the order—also known as odd-toed ungulates owing to their unique foot structure—are found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Scientists have long understood much about their evolution, but the fossil remains
from the Indian pit (those that weren't pulverized by mining machinery) form the likeness of a forebear more primitive than anything yet discovered. The animal has been named <em>Cambaytherium thewissi</em> and probably weighed between 50 and 70 pounds. "We have more than half of the skeleton, and we can make a reasonable life restoration," says team member Ken Rose, a professor in
the School of Medicine's Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution. "What we are speculating is that it
 is a descendant of the ancestral form that would have given rise to all Perissodactylas. It's never been found anywhere but India."</p> <p>Scientists date the remains to around 54.5 million years ago. While anatomically the least evolved of Perissodactylas, they are not the oldest. Older remains of more developed members of the order have
 been discovered as far from India as Wyoming. For a theoretical explanation of this seemingly odd dispersion, you have to go back much further in time, some 80 or 90 million years, when plate tectonics broke the Indian landmass away from the erstwhile supercontinent Gondwana and 
India began to drift northward
 as an island. Animals confined to
this orphaned landmass would have been subject to unique evolutionary forces. "It's often thought that when areas are isolated, new life forms evolve," Rose says. "Something was going on in India, something really interesting, and it could be related 
to the isolation."</p> <p>Rose and others further theorize that India's isolation might have had periodic interruptions during its 30– 40 million year migration northward. Before India slow-crashed into Asia (an event that produced the Himalayas), temporary land bridges might have periodically formed between it and Africa or the Arabian Peninsula to the west. These would have provided Indian animals with migratory contact with the wider world prior to the collision with Asia. "And so animals got on India, evolved to the forms that we recognize, and then got off again and repopulated the Northern Hemisphere," Rose says.</p> <p>While the large mine where these unique fossils were discovered has been closed and sealed over, Rose will be visiting smaller Indian mines nearby this spring to continue searching for clues. "It's noisy and hot, so we don't work there very long at a stretch because it's probably not very healthy," Rose says of their work, done on small patches of exposed earth to which mine operators grant them brief access amid the tumult of coal extraction. "There are occasional landslides of loose material, and probably each one of us has been hit by some falling debris. Fortunately, nothing too big."</p> Thu, 05 Mar 2015 09:00:00 -0500 Short of breath <p>For 50 years, public health experts have believed people living in cities were more likely to develop asthma. New research has found that in children, at least, there is no difference in the incidence of the disease in urban, suburban, and rural residents. Race, ethnicity, and income appear to play a bigger part. <a href="">Read more here.</a></p> <p>The vapors of e-cigarettes impair the immune responses in mice. Public health researchers found that the alternatives to tobacco compromised the immune systems of the lab animals' lungs and generated some of the same dangerous chemicals found in standard nicotine cigarettes. <a href="">Read more here.</a></p> Thu, 05 Mar 2015 09:00:00 -0500 Tactile science <p>Linden convincingly argues that our tactile ability is the one sense we couldn't live without in his new book <em>Touch</em> (Viking, 2015). And he does it by navigating two gardens of forking paths. One is the neural highway that sensation travels along from skin to the brain. The other is the library of scholarship that has studied that pathway: research that looks at touch both biologically and socially. "Why are emotions called <em>feelings</em> and not <em>sightings</em> or <em>smellings</em>?" he asks in the prologue. Linden doesn't want to explicitly answer that question as much as demonstrate how intertwined emotion and touch are.</p> <p>A School of Medicine professor of neuroscience, Linden is an ideal Virgil for this adventure. He conveys in clear prose both scientific research and basic human biology, such as a cellular account of how the two skin types—glabrous (aka hairless, as found on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, for example) and hairy—transmit sensation to the brain from various nerve endings. It's an episodic book, allowing for brief tangents—if both fingertips and genital skin have similar touch sensors, can both read Braille? (anecdotal tests suggest no)—en route to charting the sophisticated way the brain uses skin to orient and protect the body. Plus, he's conversational; his expertise is fun to read. He's willing to discuss sexual sensation in lab-coated language <em>and</em> attempt humor: "In addition, [the clitoris and the penis] have a specialized type of nerve ending consisting of a coiled axon wrapped by a few non-neuronal encapsulating cells. These have been called genital end bulbs (or, in the wonderful original German term, <em>Genitalnervenkörperchen</em>)."</p> <p>This accessibility is <em>Touch</em>'s sneaky power. Linden is most curious about how so much of our emotional life uses metaphors for tactile sensations. Warm and cool describe impressions about people and subject matter as much as temperature registering on the skin. The clumsy are tactless (lacking touch). Social rejection hurts (a pain response). He notes that scientific research has proved how important touch is to successful human development, though it's less assured about why. As he notes, much of everyday language is a reflection of tactile processes, and in <em>Touch</em> Linden presents enough data to wonder how much of our emotional landscape might be wired into our neural pathways.</p> Thu, 05 Mar 2015 09:00:00 -0500 Got DIBs? <p>Ninety-three years ago, astronomer Mary Lea Heger discovered diffuse interstellar bands, DIBs, in the spectra of stars. Some sort of mysterious molecules in the interstellar space between stars and Earth were causing lines to appear
in the stars' spectra. Scientists still are not sure what produces the bands, but now they have a map of where the enigmatic molecules are in space. By analyzing massive amounts of data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a team of Johns Hopkins astronomers produced this map. Red indicates areas with the most abundant DIB molecules, blue the least.</p> Fri, 27 Feb 2015 14:08:00 -0500 Johns Hopkins ophthalmologist explains the science behind The Dress <p>Blue and black, or white and gold? That is the question, apparently.</p> <p>Yes, we are still talking about <a href="">The Dress</a>, if you can believe it (even though we are secretly convinced that the white/gold camp is just having a laugh at our expense—it's clearly blue and black).</p> <p>To (ahem) shed some light on this great color caper, we turned to <a href="">Neil Miller</a>, an ophthalmologist at the <a href="">Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute</a> (<a href="">HT @HopkinsMedicine</a>). His answer:</p> <blockquote> <p>"It has to do with the individual's color perception. Presumably, the cones—the photoreceptors in the retina—that see the primary colors (red, blue, and green) either are functioning differently in different individuals or the information that gets to the area of the brain that interprets color (V4) is interpreted differently by different individuals.</p> <p>"What is interesting in either regard is that apparently people see the dress either as black/blue or white/gold—nothing in between. Thus, there must be a very consistent difference between these two groups, whether at the retinal level or at the level of the cerebral cortex."</p> </blockquote> <p>So there you have it—it's all in the eye of the beholder, which means we're all correct! Go us!</p> <p>Oooh, look—<a href="">more llama videos</a>!</p> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>What Colors Are This Dress?&#10;<a href=""></a> <a href=""></a></p>— BuzzFeed (@BuzzFeed) <a href="">February 26, 2015</a></blockquote> <script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script> <p><script type="text/javascript" src=""></script><a class="OPP-powered-by" href="" style="text-decoration:none;"></p> survey solutions <p></a></p> Tue, 24 Feb 2015 14:01:00 -0500 Researchers look to Twitter to better understand vaccine refusal <p>A Johns Hopkins computer scientist is part of a team of researchers that has developed a new way to understand vaccine refusal by studying an unlikely resource: Twitter.</p> <p>The researchers will combine Twitter analyses with traditional survey techniques to study why people refuse vaccines and how these reasons vary among communities. The focus on vaccination is particularly timely, with a severe flu season underway and recent well-publicized outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses, including a measles outbreak that has sickened people in 17 states and Washington, D.C., and several cases of mumps among National Hockey League players.</p> <p><a href="">Mark Dredze</a>, assistant research professor in the <a href="">Department of Computer Science</a> at Johns Hopkins University, will develop new computer algorithms to support the team's research.</p> <p>"We hope to gain insights into people's reasoning about vaccines by automatically processing millions of Twitter messages," Dredze said.</p> <p>Dredze has previously worked on studies that analyzed tweets to help track flu outbreaks and mental illness trends. He will use similar techniques to help researchers from two other universities—George Washington and Georgia—gather data on messages mentioning concerns about vaccines.</p> <p>"People really do tweet about everything, and conversations about vaccines are no exception," said David Broniatowski, assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the George Washington University, who will co-lead the study on vaccine refusal patterns. "Parents and patients freely share their fears and concerns about vaccines. While it typically takes years to collect meaningful information about why people refuse vaccines, using surveys and searching Twitter brings immediate results."</p> <p>Added Karen Hilyard, assistant professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia, who also will lead the study: "Survey data tend to draw from older, white, rural households, whereas younger, urban minorities are overrepresented on Twitter. These two techniques complement each other perfectly."</p> <p>Since receiving a grant last month, Broniatowski, Hilyard, and Dredze have already analyzed millions of tweets to gather information on sentiment toward flu vaccinations. The team identified tweets, geo-located the messages, and compared their findings to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System. Their results show that states with a higher number of residents who received the flu shot had a higher number of vaccine-positive messages on Twitter.</p> <p>"This was really surprising and exciting," Hilyard said. "It shows that we can get this type of information from Twitter faster, cheaper, and more easily. Frankly, it's a game changer when it comes to health surveys, especially as we dig deeper to examine more complex attitudes and beliefs among different demographic groups."</p> <p>Using social media to reveal thinking about vaccines in real time will help health officials to better respond to the next outbreak, saving lives and keeping people healthy. It will also be a boon for science, helping researchers quickly home in on those tough questions that need further examination.</p> <p>"The dream would be to get ahead of the next outbreak," Broniatowski said. "How can we take what we learn here and better educate parents about the merits of vaccines and other public health decisions that seem risky? If we could do that, then hopefully we'd be able to prevent the next measles outbreak."</p> <p>Other researchers in the study include co-investigators Eili Klein, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; Joshua Epstein, professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins; and a consultant, Sandra Quinn, professor of family science at the University of Maryland. The award was funded by a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.</p> Tue, 24 Feb 2015 10:43:00 -0500 Scientists trap electron twisters to keep supercurrents flowing at top speed <p>Superconductor materials are prized for their ability to carry an electric current without resistance, but this valuable trait can be crippled or lost when electrons swirl into tiny tornado-like formations called vortices. These disruptive mini-twisters often form in the presence of magnetic fields, such as those produced by electric motors.</p> <p>To keep supercurrents flowing at top speed, Johns Hopkins scientists have figured out how to constrain troublesome vortices by trapping them within extremely short, ultra-thin nanowires. Their discovery was <a href="">reported last week in the journal <em>Physical Review Letters</em></a>.</p> <p>"We have found a way to control individual vortices to improve the performance of superconducting wires," said <a href="">Nina Markovic</a>, an associate professor in the <a href="">Department of Physics and Astronomy</a> in the university's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.</p> <p>Many materials can become superconducting when cooled to a temperature of nearly 460 below zero F, which is achieved by using liquid helium.</p> <p>The new method of maintaining resistance-free current within these superconductors is important because these materials play a key role in devices such MRI medical scanners, particle accelerators, photon detectors, and the radio frequency filters used in cell phone systems. In addition, superconductors are expected to become critical components in future quantum computers, which will be able to do more complex calculations than current machines.</p> <p>Wider use of superconductors may hinge on stopping the nanoscopic mischief that electron vortices cause when they skitter from side to side across a conducting material, spoiling the zero-resistance current. The Johns Hopkins scientists say their nanowires keep this from happening.</p> <p>Markovic, who supervised the development of these wires, said other researchers have tried to keep vortices from disrupting a supercurrent by "pinning" the twisters to impurities in the conducting material, which renders them unable to move.</p> <p>"Edges can also pin the vortices, but it is more difficult to pin the vortices in the bulk middle area of the material, farther away from the edges," she said. "To overcome this problem, we made a superconducting sample that consists mostly of edges: a very narrow aluminum nanowire."</p> <p>These nanowires, Markovic said, are flat strips about one-billionth as wide as a human hair and about 50 to 100 times longer than their width. Each nanowire forms a one-way highway that allows pairs of electrons to zip ahead at a supercurrent pace.</p> <p>Vortices can form when a magnetic field is applied, but because of the material's ultra-thin design, "only one short vortex row can fit within the nanowires," Markovic said. "Because there is an edge on each side of them, the vortices are trapped in place and the supercurrent can just slip around them, maintaining the resistance-free speed."</p> <p>The ability to control the exact number of vortices in the nanowire may produce additional benefits, physics experts say. Future computers or other devices may someday use vortices instead of electrical charges to transmit information, they say.</p> <p>The lead author of the <em>Physical Review Letters</em> article was Tyler Morgan-Wall, a doctoral student in Markovic's lab. Along with Markovic, the co-authors were Benjamin Leith, who was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins when the research took place; Nikolaus Hartman, a graduate student; and Atikur Rahman, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Markovic's lab.</p> <p>This research was support by National Science Foundation grants.</p> Fri, 20 Feb 2015 15:45:00 -0500 Star-struck: Hubble telescope inspires symphony <p>When the space shuttle <em>Discovery</em> lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on April 24, 1990, many things weren't around that are today: a commercial Internet, smartphones, Justin Bieber. We also didn't know a single planet outside our Milky Way solar system (today, astronomers have identified thousands). We didn't know how old the universe was (about 13 billion to 14 billion years, turns out). And we didn't know that flattened disks of gas and space dust form the building blocks of everything—planets, matter, us.</p> <p>Those scientific clarifications and findings are in part or whole thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, which <em>Discovery</em> placed in orbit.</p> <p>Two upcoming concerts celebrate Hubble's 25th anniversary this year with music pieces inspired by the telescope's discoveries and by human drive that seeks to know more. On March 7, Jed Gaylin leads the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra through Los Angeles–based composer Russell Steinberg's <em>Cosmic Dust</em> at Homewood's Shriver Hall in a program that includes Ravel's <em>Mother Goose</em> Suite and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor with soloist Clipper Erickson. And on March 29, <em>To See the Stars</em>, a multimedia song cycle composed by Fay Chiao, a DMA composition student at the Peabody Institute, will be debuted at the Maryland Science Center's Davis Planetarium.</p> <p>Humans have always been inspired by the heavens, but "what has become more powerful with modern science is that we now actually know for a fact that we literally are stardust, that all of the elements that are in our bodies were forged in the nuclear furnace of stars," says Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble, during an interview in his office on Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus. Livio, who was joined for the interview by HSO music director Jed Gaylin, will give a talk about the science of stars before the March 7 HSO concert, and he points out that artists have been inspired by space for centuries, and that elements of mythology have been mapped onto the sky.</p> <p>"When the universe started, there were only hydrogen, helium, and a trace of light elements," Livio continues. "All the other elements, including everything that is in us—carbon, iron, oxygen—were formed inside of some stars. And when those stars die, they either explode or eject their layers, and those materials are returned into interstellar medium, and new stars and planets and humans form from those."</p> <p>Understanding this origin of everything initially inspired Steinberg to compose <em>Cosmic Dust</em>. He had heard a rabbi speak about death, pointing out that because we say "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" at burials, we might assume it means returning to the earth. "But he said the idea of dust is about our origins; it's about coming into contact with what we've always been—stars," Steinberg says by phone. "And when he said that, it just clicked for me about how profound those Hubble images have been."</p> <p><em>Cosmic Dust</em> debuted last year in Los Angeles in a performance by the New West Symphony, which had commissioned it along with the HSO and the Bay-Atlantic Symphony. Steinberg considers it a 14-minute symphony that evokes our fascination with the cosmos, and its performance is paired with images of space, many of which come from Hubble. "I think what's so profound about this realization that we're part of [the cosmos] is one of the reasons I believe we're so infatuated with the work the Hubble has done," Steinberg says, adding that when he looked over the list of projects associated with Hubble, he was struck by how many of them pursue some human connection.</p> <p>"Like the search for exoplanets," he says. "What are we looking for? We're not looking for any types of rocks. We're looking for rocks that could support life, that could hold human beings in the future. We're looking for a human connection to something that's so outside our regular understanding of time that it almost makes us cower it's so powerful. We're trying to find a way that we can really connect this with our humanity."</p> <p>Exploring that emotional connection with the unfathomable is one way that art complements scientific discovery. "To me, scientists and artists try to do the same thing but from a very different perspective," Livio says. "For scientists, it is to understand why and how things work. Artists try to give their emotional response to the same things that scientists do."</p> <p>Gaylin agrees. "Creativity, whether in art or in science, involves a fierce dedication, a pushing and pushing and pushing," he says. "That kind of perseverance, that kind of willingness to fail in the arts and sciences is part of what it is. It reminds me of that line attributed to [pianist and Peabody faculty member] Leon Fleisher about Leonard Bernstein—he brought you to the edge of the abyss and sometimes you fell in there with him, but didn't you want to know what it looked like?"</p> <p>The human curiosity to see what's in the abyss or the outer reaches of the universe is what inspired Chiao. Her <em>To See the Stars</em> is a celebration of the coordinated human labor behind Hubble, the drive to seek answers to new questions. Last year she had the chance to interview a number of people who work on Hubble, including Holland Ford, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Physics and Astronomy and an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute; and Ken Sembach, the mission head of Hubble, and she was struck by their common sense of purpose.</p> <p>"Each one of them really talked about how they go into work every day with a strong sense of mission," Chiao says. "That really inspired me, this sense of being part of this huge endeavor dedicated to study beyond what we already know. I latched onto this aspiration: What compels people to look at a body of knowledge, to understand that there are questions that can't be answered in their lifetime, and to say, I'm going to go for it anyway"?</p> <p>Chiao tapped a number of her Johns Hopkins peers for <em>To See the Stars</em>. The libretto was penned by Dara Weinberg, who received an MFA from the Krieger School's Writing Seminars, and will be performed by the Lunar Ensemble, the Baltimore-based new music group co-founded by, and filled out with, Peabody alumni, graduate students, and faculty members. The roughly 45-minute piece is divided into two parts with an instrumental interlude, a structure Chia says is somewhat informed by how technological advances, such as Hubble, catalyze huge jumps in knowledge.</p> <p>Those huge jumps come about through human labor, and gaining an understanding of the mammoth collaboration that went into starting and sustaining Hubble left an impression on Chiao. She says that during her interviews, she asked Sembach if working on Hubble prevented him from pursuing more of his own research. "And he said, 'Yeah, but I don't mind that I publish less papers if this can succeed,'" she says. "That really inspired me, so I wanted to try to contribute to their mission in my own way."</p> <p>And for Livio, the public accessibility of Hubble makes it unique among science experiments. For 25 years now, the telescope has captured images that reach and captivate the lay person, providing the opportunity to appreciate the epic human achievement behind our tiny place in time. "We have learned in some sense that our physical existence is very small," Livio says. "We live on a rather small planet around a rather ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy. And with Hubble we now know, even in just the observable universe, there are hundreds of billions of galaxies like ours.</p> <p>"So in physical terms we appear to be insignificant, but in terms of what we have learned, our knowledge has basically expanded just as fast as we say our universe expanded," Livio continues. "Before we discovered that we are on this small planet, we didn't know any of that—everything I just told you is a discovery of humans. That puts us in a different perspective. Physically, we're not that important, but from an intellectual perspective, we are very important because we know all this—we have learned all of this."</p> <p><em>The HSO performs</em> Cosmic Dust <em>twice at Homewood's Shriver Hall: at 8 p.m. on March 7 and at 3 p.m. on March 8 in the free 22nd Annual Concert for Children and Families. The Lunar Ensemble performs</em> To See the Stars <em>twice on March 29 at the Maryland Science Center—at 4 p.m. (general admission) and 7 p.m. (RSVP only); more information at <a href=""></a>.</em></p> Fri, 20 Feb 2015 15:45:00 -0500 Applied Physics Laboratory receives $4M to develop a retinal prosthesis <p>The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory has received $4 million in funding from the Mann Fund to develop a next-generation retinal prosthesis system. The Mann Fund was created by philanthropist Alfred E. Mann 15 years ago to support the development of biomedical technologies.</p> <p>This work will be conducted in close collaboration with Second Sight Medical Products, a Sylmar, California–based company that develops, manufactures, and markets implantable visual prosthetics for blind individuals.</p> <p>APL will be developing the next-generation glasses with embedded vision- and eye-tracking sensors. Using these sensors and onboard hardware, the system will identify potential obstacles, doorways, hallways, and household objects and their relative positions. This information will be distilled into a format that can be projected into the retinal prosthesis, bypassing the damaged rods and cones in the retina.</p> <p>The components of this retinal prosthesis will enable APL's broader vision of a semiautonomous controller for assistive robotic manipulators and remote devices, the Hybrid Augmented Reality Multimodal Operation Neural Integration Environment, or Harmonie.</p> <p>Harmonie is the latest spinoff effort from the Laboratory's Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program. As part of that effort, researchers investigated a number of different control modalities for moving a modular prosthetic limb and were able to achieve impressive control. But they discovered that users had to remain very focused on what they were doing, creating a lot of cognitive burden.</p> <p>Harmonie came about as a way to remove that burden. The basic idea behind the system is to combine elements of computer vision (i.e., identification of objects and where they are), autonomous manipulation (how do I move the arm to the desired object's position, what's the best grasp to use?), and a user interface (how do I tell what actions to perform on the object?).</p> <p>The current implementation uses off-the-shelf components such as the Microsoft Kinect for the vision system, but Harmonie project manager Kapil Katyal says that the ultimate goal is to integrate these technologies into a small form factor glasses-type device.</p> <p>The Harmonie system has been deployed in clinical settings at Caltech and Johns Hopkins and is undergoing additional testing as part of an internally funded project, the Clinical Evaluation of Emerging Rehabilitative Technologies. It also was demonstrated in December 2013 at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Exposition, where the Lab's RoboSally used the technology to semiautonomously reach and grasp a fire extinguisher.</p> <p>Katyal says that the developers hope to have a prototype ready for market in three and a half years.</p> <p>"This system would enable a broad base of users to efficiently and effectively control dexterous manipulators like the [modular prosthetic limb] and would also allow APL to develop innovative solutions in contemporary general purpose human-computer interaction technologies such as head-mounted displays, augmented reality, eye-tracking, and brain-computer interfaces," he says. "Moreover, the synergies between the Harmonie system and Second Sight's next-generation retinal prosthesis provide an opportunity for the Laboratory to expand its footprint in neuroprosthetic research and development and enhance our reputation in this field."</p> <p>Michael McLoughlin, Harmonie program manager and principal investigator for the Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program, says that the Harmonie project is synergistic with ongoing, independent research and development efforts at APL. "It's an extension of what we've been trying to do with the prosthetics program from the beginning, and promises to address the needs of a whole new class of patients," he says.</p> Fri, 20 Feb 2015 15:45:00 -0500 Ask an Expert: Johns Hopkins professor explains why some people choke under pressure <p>We've all been there, with our toes on the proverbial free-throw line, mere dribbles away from either the glory of sinking the game-winning basket or tossing a big old brick instead.</p> <p>Athletes aren't the only people who wrestle with performance anxiety. Choking anecdotes abound, from playing a sour note during an audition, to bombing a job interview, to failing a final exam.</p> <p>Despite this nearly universal experience, it turns out that failing in high-pressure situations is an individual phenomenon, based on what scares each of us the most, according to new research findings by Vikram Chib, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.</p> <p>Chib and his team studied 26 people, ages 20 to 30, as they played video games over two consecutive days; the first included learning how to play the games, and the second involved playing while in an MRI machine so the researchers could study brain function. Winners were paid up to $100, and Chib found that whether the jackpot was high and whether the stakes were described as a potential gain or loss had a profound effect on participants' gameplay. But players choked depending on their own personal aversion to loss.</p> <p>So how do you nail that next foul shot, note, or test? Knowing what causes you to panic under pressure and then reframing the story as it unfolds could lower your chances of dropping the ball, Chib says.</p> <p><strong>What factors into the likelihood that someone will choke under pressure?</strong></p> <p>There are many factors. As an example, if large amounts of money are on the line, it could be that your concerns about the possible financial incentives could cause choking. If you're performing in front of a big audience, it could be your worry about how you're perceived by others. However, there doesn't seem to be a single factor that causes choking; rather it could be caused by a combination of factors or interactions between factors.</p> <p><strong>During your study, some people performed better when they stood to lose a lot of money. But others performed better when offered the chance to win a lot. Can this be used to our advantage?</strong></p> <p>The critical point about this was that we were able to determine who would do better or worse in these contexts based on an independent measure of how "loss averse" they were. Loss aversion refers to how people value losses relative to gains. Most people value avoiding losses twice as much as acquiring equal-magnitude gains.</p> <p>It is possible that if individuals know the extent to which they are loss-averse, they could use some cognitive strategies to frame tasks in such a way that they are less focused on losing or winning—depending on the extent of their loss aversion—and this might help reduce their chances of choking.</p> <p><strong>Beyond video games, can we extrapolate your findings into other areas like professional athletics, students taking final exams, a scholar defending her doctoral thesis, actors auditioning for a starring role, or someone who has a big job interview?</strong></p> <p>I think the take-home message from our findings is that framing of tasks, whether it is in terms of gains or losses, can have a profound impact on performance. While we only looked at the case in which people were playing for money, we think that such cognitive strategies could have a big impact on how you perform during the examples you mentioned. We still have a lot of work to do to determine the common neural and behavioral markers influencing performance in these other contexts, but it seems that framing could have a big impact.</p> <p><strong>In terms of March Madness, can your research help both the athletes and the fans who fill out their brackets for the office pool? Are some players or gamblers at an advantage based on how they are wired for loss aversion?</strong></p> <p>If only I could use this information to fill out my bracket! We still need to figure out if the relationship between loss aversion and choking generalizes to other types of tasks and when different incentives are on the line.</p>