Hub Headlines from the Johns Hopkins news network Hub Thu, 04 Feb 2016 14:30:00 -0500 Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator to pay visit to Johns Hopkins <p>Hours before the kickoff of the biannual <a href="">HopHacks hackathon</a> on Friday, organizers will welcome two members of the Silicon Valley tech accelerator <a href="">Y Combinator</a>, which has served as an incubator and fundraiser for tech giants such as DropBox, Airbnb, and Reddit.</p> <p>Y Combinator partner Dalton Caldwell and hardware specialist Luke Iseman will host a talk, followed by a Q and A session, at 5:30 p.m. at Hodson Hall. The speakers will also hold office hours and meet with students to discuss startup ideas before their scheduled talk.</p> <p>Caldwell is the founder of the music streaming service imeem—which was acquired by MySpace in 2009—and Mixed Media Labs. Iseman cofounded the soil sensor startup Edyn and specializes in hardware development.</p> <p>Event organizer Kasim Ahmad, a venture coordinator for Johns Hopkins University's own accelerator program, <a href="">FastForward</a>, says the goal is for the speakers to impart some of the secrets of their own successes.</p> <p>"I hope that attendees of the talk are inspired to take the next step in their entrepreneurial process," he says.</p> <p>Added Daniel Swann, a student founder of HopHacks who will graduate in May with a master's degree in computer science: "Y Combinator is all about the cutting edge of technology. They really like to see innovative ideas and innovative teams. They want to see people who are passionate about technology, who are really devoted to what they're working on, and people who think of alternative ideas. We hope to see that in our hackathon—really creative ideas that haven't been seen before."</p> <p>HopHacks is a 36-hour hackathon that brings together university students from around the country to take part in collaborative computer programming. The event is coordinated by a team of 13 students and is sponsored in part by <a href="">Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures</a>, the <a href="">Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory</a>, Google, Bloomberg, and AOL, among others. Winning teams are awarded cash prizes, and additional awards and honors will be given out by sponsors.</p> Thu, 04 Feb 2016 12:33:00 -0500 New interdisciplinary center at Johns Hopkins aims to reshape medical care <p>Johns Hopkins University today announced the establishment of a new collaborative research effort designed to enhance the efficiency, effectiveness, and consistency of health care.</p> <p>The Malone Center for Engineering in Healthcare, at the university's <a href="">Whiting School of Engineering</a>, will bring together engineers, clinicians, and health care providers to focus on three priority areas: data analytics, systems design and analysis, and technology and devices. Clinician-engineering teams will work together to help speed innovation and its impact on society by integrating their research-based advances with practical applications.</p> <p>Bringing engineers into all aspects of medical practice at Johns Hopkins will "enhance the impact of our already preeminent health sciences enterprises," JHU President <a href="">Ronald J. Daniels</a> said. "We are breaking down barriers and coming together as one university, dedicated to advancing wholly new approaches to health care."</p> <p>The center will be established through the support of Whiting School alumnus John C. Malone, who earned a master's degree and doctorate at Johns Hopkins. Malone has also supported the Whiting School with a gift for the construction of Malone Hall, a cutting-edge academic research facility that opened on JHU's Homewood campus in 2014, and a series of professorships associated with the new center. They include the Mandell Bellmore Professorship, named for Malone's PhD adviser at Johns Hopkins. <a href="">Gregory D. Hager</a>, a professor of computer science, is the inaugural Mandell Bellmore Professor and the center's founding director.</p> <p>The center aims to spark new collaborations at Johns Hopkins and will also help support research initiatives already taking place, including:</p> <ul> <li><p>Neurologist and Malone Professor <a href="">John Krakauer</a> has been leading a team that developed a computer game meant to help stroke patients recover by using their arms to control the movements of a virtual dolphin.</p></li> <li><p>Computer scientist <a href="">Suchi Saria</a> led work to develop an algorithm that identifies hospital patients at greatest risk of septic shock. Using records of thousands of patients at a Boston hospital, the method was able to predict septic shock before organ dysfunction two-thirds of the time, a 60 percent improvement over existing screening.</p></li> <li><p>Computer scientist <a href="">Ilya Shpitser</a>, who is being named a John C. Malone Assistant Professor, works on drawing intelligent conclusions from biased data, especially in complex multivariate settings, and then applying the data analysis to problems in health care, medicine, and epidemiology.</p></li> </ul> <p>Hager said that to be effective, innovation in health care must be a "team sport" involving engineering-clinician teams embedded at the Johns Hopkins schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health.</p> <p>"More than a decade of working with medical practitioners has taught me that silver bullets in health care innovation are few and far between—we have to build a culture of working together on a continuing and sustained basis to have real impact," Hager said. "The payoffs will be huge. We aim to make Johns Hopkins the national leader for technology innovation in health care."</p> <p>Added Paul Rothman, dean of the medical faculty: "The relationship between engineering and medicine is woven into the fabric of our schools, and where creative problem solving and a willingness to take risks are prized. It is clear that the juncture of technology and medicine will continue to reshape health care and will have enormous impact on how we diagnose disease, deliver care, and conduct health-related research."</p> Tue, 02 Feb 2016 15:00:00 -0500 Johns Hopkins students examine chocolate up close—for science, of course <p>Even the most die-hard chocolate lovers probably haven't considered what the confection looks like on a molecular level. Just ask Victoria Michael, one of the students who took "Chocolate: An Introduction to Materials Science" during Johns Hopkins University's intersession.</p> <p>"It's incredibly cool to get a totally new perspective like this on chocolate, which is something we see all the time and don't really think about," the junior international studies major said. With its craggy surface studded with crystals of sugar and chubby globules of cocoa butter, chocolate, under a scanning electron microscope, resembles the surface of an alien planet.</p> <p>Offered through the Whiting School of Engineering's <a href="">Department of Materials Science and Engineering</a>, the course introduced 20 students to basic concepts in materials science, including phase diagrams, crystallization, and various characterization techniques—all through one of humankind's favorite treats.</p> <p>"OK, I admit it—I am a bit of a chocoholic," said <a href="">Jennifer Dailey</a>, the course's instructor, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering, and a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow. She created the class in conjunction with the "Teaching as Research" program at the University's Center for Educational Resources, collecting data to ascertain whether teaching students scientific concepts through something that they are familiar with and excited about (in this case, chocolate) helps them learn and retain the material as well as or better than students who learn in a more traditional lecture class.</p> <p>"My goal for this course was to introduce students to materials science, and to make materials science and engineering more accessible," Dailey said. "It definitely worked. I think it's fair to say that the course got many students excited about science and engineering."</p> <p>The course worked so well, in fact, that one student switched her major from traditional biology to biomaterials, an option available within the School of Engineering's materials science and engineering major.</p> <p>"The data seem to indicate that when learning scientific concepts in the context of something fun, students who started at a lower level of knowledge were able to retain the same amount as students who came in at a higher level and were exposed to a more traditional lecture materials science class," she said. "Plus, they had fun!"</p> Tue, 02 Feb 2016 11:30:00 -0500 Cancer cells travel in groups to forge metastases with greater chance of survival, study suggests <p>Apparently there's safety in numbers, even for cancer cells. <a href="">New research from Johns Hopkins</a> suggests that cancer cells rarely form metastatic tumors on their own, preferring to travel in groups to increase their collective chance of survival.</p> <p>In <a href="">a report on the study published online in the <em>Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</em></a>, the researchers say they also found that traveling cells differ from those multiplying within a primary tumor, and that the difference may make them naturally resistant to chemotherapy.</p> <p>"We found that cancer cells do two things to increase their chances of forming a new metastasis," says <a href="">Andrew Ewald</a>, professor of cell biology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "They turn on a molecular program that helps them travel through a diverse set of environments within the body, and they travel in groups."</p> <p>Metastasis, the complex way that tumor cells spread through the body, causes more than 90 percent of cancer-related deaths. Most chemotherapy drugs target proliferating cells and won't kill metastasizing cells, which leaves patients vulnerable to new tumors.</p> <p>Ewald and his team tested mice with a form of mammary gland cancer known to spread to the lungs. They found that fewer than three percent of the metastases came from a single cell, and discovered cell clusters at each step of the destination to the lungs—in tissue, blood vessels, and blood.</p> <p>Next, the researchers tested whether group travel gave the cells an advantage. In lab tests they found that clusters were at least 15 times better at forming colonies than single tumor cells. When they repeated the test in mice, the clusters were more than 100 times better at creating large metastases.</p> <p>"You can think of metastasis as <em>The Amazing Race</em>," says Ewald. "The cells encounter many different challenges as they attempt to grow and spread, and some cells are better at different events than others, so traveling in a group makes sense."</p> <p>The team also looked at whether traveling cells showed any particular molecular hallmarks that could be used to predict and ultimately prevent tumor spread. Building on previous research, they reaffirmed the role of the protein K14, which showed up in high levels in small, traveling cell clusters.</p> <p>K14 levels also helped identify different types of gene activity, revealing whether the cells were on a program for proliferation or metastasis. These findings, Ewald says, could eventually be used to develop new drugs to target metastasizing cells specifically.</p> Mon, 01 Feb 2016 16:15:00 -0500 Johns Hopkins biologist Scott Bailey receives $250,000 President's Frontier Award <p><a href="">Scott Bailey</a>, an associate professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health's <a href="">Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology</a>, says his work figuring out the nuts and bolts of cellular structures that nobody has seen before is driven by "just the curiosity of it all."</p> <p>That curiosity has led Bailey to breakthroughs in visualizing the atomic structure of a large multiprotein complex with a key role in bacterial immunity. It has set the stage for the development of new drugs to prevent antibiotic resistance and will foster progress in genome editing strategies that may someday lead to precision treatments for genetic disorders.</p> <p>Today, it also earned Bailey the second Johns Hopkins University President's Frontier Award.</p> <p>"This award is to just dream and follow wherever curiosity leads him in advancing his research agenda," university President <a href="">Ronald J. Daniels</a> said after surprising Bailey in his lab with the $250,000 award. Joined by Provost <a href="">Robert C. Lieberman</a>, the president congratulated Bailey on the transformative impact he has had on his discipline, adding "this is a vote of confidence in knowing the best is yet to come."</p> <p>The <a href="">Frontier Award</a> was made possible through a donation from two Johns Hopkins alumni: university trustee Louis J. Forster and alumna Kathleen M. Pike. The award will recognize one person each year for five years with funding for their research expenses. When it was <a href="">announced in October 2014</a>, the program was characterized as an investment in a researcher's future potential, rather than a lifetime achievement award.</p> <p>University leaders said that in addition to President's Frontier Award winner Bailey, three outstanding 2016 finalists are each being recognized with $50,000 presidential monetary gifts to fund their research and advance their academic pursuits. Those three finalists are <a href="">Xin Chen</a>, an associate professor of biology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences; <a href="">Michael Hersch</a>, a composer and pianist on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory; and <a href="">Shanthini Sockanathan</a>, a professor of neuroscience in the School of Medicine.</p> <p>Bailey, who also is affiliated with the Bloomberg School's <a href="">Malaria Research Institute</a>, says it was a shock to find his students and colleagues crowded into his lab with a large banner declaring him this year's winner.</p> <p>"It's phenomenal," he says. "It's very sort of Hopkins in the sense that it is like a family here. I feel it at all levels, from the department to the school to the university."</p> <p>Bailey says he is already thinking about what his team can do with the money, including "the ways we can push into new ground, to take on more risky projects. Government funding is more narrowly defined in what you can do. With this you can go after a problem and really take risks with it. … That is where the breakthroughs tend to come."  </p> <p>Bailey grew up in Sheffield, England, and earned his bachelor's and doctoral degrees at the University of Sheffield, U.K. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale before joining the faculty of the <a href="">Bloomberg School of Public Health</a> in 2008. In recent years Bailey's groundbreaking research has led him to be lauded as one of the best structural biologist of his generation.</p> <p>"As a researcher, Scott is incredibly gifted," says <a href="">Pierre A. Coulombe</a>, professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the Bloomberg School. "He's bold in the choices he makes, but steady and poised as he is pursuing a question. He also has been a very strong mentor to his students."</p> <p>Bailey works at the edges of scientific knowledge to understand at the molecular level how bacteria's immune systems fight off the threat posed by harmful viruses.</p> <p>Using x-ray crystallography, Bailey and his team have visualized the atomic structure of Cascade, a large multi-protein complex that binds to a DNA target. Cascade is a key element of the CRISPR system of bacterial immunity. CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.</p> <p>The breakthrough by Bailey's team allowed for a better understanding of the bacterial immune response and how it acts as a barrier to the transfer of genetic information that promotes virulence and antibiotic resistance among bacterial cells. This new insight about how CRISPR functions sets the stage for the development of new drugs to prevent antibiotic resistance. This is important because more bacterial infections are becoming immune to existing antibiotics, leading to a major public health crisis.</p> <p>Also, because the CRISPR system has been isolated and adapted for genome editing in a wide variety of species, including humans, the team's new findings have implications for emerging techniques used to correct genetic defects responsible for a broad array of diseases.</p> <p>Bailey said the CRISPR research is "a good poster child for basic research. It started with people looking at yogurt, trying to make yogurt more cost-effective, and all of a sudden we've got something that may be a cure for genetic disease."</p> <p>In a joint announcement to the university community today, Daniels and Lieberman said, "It is deeply gratifying to see our faculty move their innovative work forward with the support of the President's Frontier Award program as well as with the Discovery and Catalyst Awards. We look forward to all that lies ahead for Scott, for our finalists and, indeed, for the community of remarkable scholars of which they are a part."</p> Mon, 01 Feb 2016 11:15:00 -0500 A closer look at what goes wrong in the brain when someone can't spell <p>By studying stroke victims who have lost the ability to spell, researchers have pinpointed the parts of the brain that control how we write words.</p> <p>In the latest issue of the journal <em>Brain</em>, Johns Hopkins University <a href="">neuroscientists link basic spelling difficulties for the first time with damage to seemingly unrelated regions of the brain</a>, shedding new light on the mechanics of language and memory.</p> <p>"When something goes wrong with spelling, it's not one thing that always happens—different things can happen, and they come from different breakdowns in the brain's machinery," said lead author <a href="">Brenda Rapp</a>, a professor in JHU's <a href="">Department of Cognitive Sciences</a>. "Depending on what part breaks, you'll have different symptoms."</p> <p><a href="">Rapp's team</a> studied 15 years' worth of cases in which 33 people were left with spelling impairments after suffering strokes. Some of the people had long-term memory difficulties, others working-memory issues.</p> <p>With long-term memory difficulties, people can't remember how to spell words they once knew and tend to make educated guesses. They could probably correctly guess a predictably spelled word like "camp," but with a more unpredictable spelling like "sauce," they might try "soss." In severe cases, people trying to spell "lion" might offer things like "lonp," "lint," and even "tiger."</p> <p>With working memory issues, people know how to spell words but have trouble choosing the correct letters or assembling the letters in the correct order—"lion" might be "liot," "lin," "lino," or "liont."</p> <p>The team used computer mapping to chart the brain lesions of each individual and found that in the long-term memory cases, damage appeared on two areas of the left hemisphere, one towards the front of the brain and the other at the lower part of the brain towards the back. In working memory cases, the lesions were primarily also in the left hemisphere but in a very different area in the upper part of the brain towards the back.</p> <p>"I was surprised to see how distant and distinct the brain regions are that support these two subcomponents of the writing process, especially two subcomponents that are so closely inter-related during spelling that some have argued that they shouldn't be thought of as separate functions," Rapp said. "You might have thought that they would be closer together and harder to tease apart."</p> <p>Though science knows quite a bit about how the brain handles reading, these findings offer some of the first clear evidence of how it spells, an understanding that could lead to improved behavioral treatments after brain damage and more effective ways to teach spelling.</p> Thu, 28 Jan 2016 12:00:00 -0500 To master skills faster, tweak your practice routine, researchers say <p>When practicing and learning a new skill, making slight changes during repeat practice sessions may help people master the skill faster than practicing the task in precisely the same way, Johns Hopkins researchers report.</p> <p>In a study of 86 healthy volunteers asked to learn a computer-based motor skill, those who quickly adjusted to a modified practice session performed better than those who repeated their original task, the researchers found. The results support the idea that a process called reconsolidation—in which existing memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge—plays a key role in strengthening motor skills, says senior study author <a href="">Pablo A. Celnik</a>.</p> <p>"What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row," says Celnik, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine..</p> <p>The work, <a href="">described in the Jan. 28 edition of the journal <em>Current Biology</em></a>, has implications not only for leisure skills, like learning to play a musical instrument or a sport, but also for helping patients with stroke and other neurological conditions regain lost motor function, he says.</p> <p>"Our results are important because little was known before about how reconsolidation works in relation to motor skill development. This shows how simple manipulations during training can lead to more rapid and larger motor skill gains because of reconsolidation," Celnik says. "The goal is to develop novel behavioral interventions and training schedules that give people more improvement for the same amount of practice time."</p> <p>For the study, volunteers came to Celnik's laboratory to learn and perform an isometric pinch task over the course of two or three 45-minute sessions. This entailed squeezing a device called a force transducer to move a computer cursor across a monitor. The screen test featured five windows and a "home space." Participants were asked to move the cursor from home to the various windows in a set pattern as quickly and accurately as possible.</p> <p>Gains in performance, such as a speedier and more accurate completion of the task, nearly doubled among those who were given a slightly altered second session, compared to those who repeated the same task, Celnik says. He adds that the alterations in training have to be small, something akin to slightly adjusting the size or weight of a baseball bat, tennis racket, or soccer ball in between practice sessions.</p> <p>Current studies by Celnik's team, still underway and not yet published, suggest that changing a practice session too much, like playing badminton in between tennis sessions, brings no significant benefit to motor learning.</p> <p>"If you make the altered task too different, people do not get the gain we observed during reconsolidation," he says. "The modification between sessions needs to be subtle."</p> Thu, 21 Jan 2016 15:55:00 -0500 Does Planet Nine really exist, or is it deep space fantasy? <p>New evidence suggesting the <a href="">existence of a massive ninth planet at the outer reaches of our solar system</a> made headlines Wednesday and captured the imagination of astronomers and space enthusiasts alike.</p> <p>The theory was put forth by California Institute of Technology astronomer Mike Brown—the scientist responsible for popularizing a revised classification of planets that excluded Pluto (which earned him the nickname "Pluto Killer")—and his colleague, Konstantin Batygin. The researchers <a href="">describe their work in an article published in <em>The Astronomical Journal</em></a>.</p> <p>For some perspective on the new evidence, the Hub turned to <a href="">Hal Weaver</a>, a planetary science expert at Johns Hopkins University, project scientist at the <a href="">Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory</a> and on NASA's <a href=""><em>New Horizons</em> mission to Pluto</a>, and part of the team responsible for the discovery of the extraterrestrial object 2014MU69, a distant object beyond Pluto that is <em>New Horizons'</em> next destination.</p> <p>Weaver discussed the possibility of the existence of the so-called Planet Nine—which he prefers to call the "fifth giant planet"—what its presence could mean to our understanding of the solar system, and his objections to the demotion of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet.</p> <p><strong>First, you say this isn't the ninth planet, because we already have a ninth planet. So you obviously disagree with the new classification of planets that excludes Pluto?</strong></p> <p>There's no doubt, after the <em>New Horizons</em> flyby, that Pluto is a planet. It has planetary processes coming out the wazoo. It's just a matter of how you define "planet." Just about everybody agrees that there's a category of objects called dwarf planets in the solar system. Most planetary scientists like to define planets by their geophysical processes instead of the rather esoteric definitions having to do with their orbital dynamics. From the perspective of some of us, it's a rather artificial definition that's almost specifically invoked to exclude a category of planets in order to keep the numbers down, but that's sort of an absurd proposition. Why do we need to do that?</p> <p>So a lot of us favor a geophysical definition, which is still very different from what we call the minor bodies of the solar system: the asteroids and the comets. There are all kinds of incredible things taking place on Pluto and [its moon] Charon that I think are planetary processes. Mike Brown has made a name for himself as the "Pluto Killer," and Mike is an incredible scientist—and I'm friends with him—but it's just provocative.</p> <p><strong>So what about this new planet that we began hearing about yesterday?</strong></p> <p>There's been no discovery of this bigger-than-Earth object, but there's intriguing evidence for the existence of such a body that was already known a couple years ago by Chad Trujillo and Scott Sheppard. They were the ones who proposed that maybe something interesting is going on—a large object in the outer solar system that may be creating an alignment of these other objects. They proposed several other explanations, but Brown and Batygin have gone significantly beyond what Sheppard and Trujillo had proposed with more simulations and have built a stronger circumstantial case. But it's still circumstantial because we don't have a discovery of the object yet.</p> <p>There have been many examples over the past century of people proposing Planet X out there for various reasons. In fact, Percival Lowell, around the turn of the 20th century, built a whole observatory to search for Planet X, and Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto as part of that quest. People were thinking that they saw perturbations of Neptune's orbit that could potentially indicate that there was a planet beyond Neptune's orbit, but it turned out that the data were wrong. There were no actual perturbations of Neptune's orbit.</p> <p>In this particular case, as you go farther out, you see this kind of strange handful of objects at the most outer regions of the solar system that we're dubbing the inner Oort cloud that indicate there does seem to be something going on, maybe.</p> <p>One potential explanation for how you get this particular alignment of these objects that have been discovered in the past decade is the existence of a fifth giant planet.</p> <p><strong>What are some of the other possible explanations?</strong></p> <p>Well, I'm not an expert in orbital dynamics, but one of the explanations that Sheppard and Trujillo investigated was that a passing star—because we're in the Milky Way galaxy—could have perturbed the orbits just temporarily as it passed through and produced the current distribution of orbits that we see. I don't think that's been ruled out. Or galactic tides from where we are and where our solar system is in the galaxy. The differential forces—because of the asymmetry of the galaxy—could have produced an effect that has this result. They didn't see that as a good explanation for what happened, but there are several other potential possibilities.</p> <p>Theorists who work on these projects come up with all kinds of ideas. I'm sure there are lots of people out there now who work on orbital dynamics that are investigating potential ways of producing what we're observing right now.</p> <p>If [the planet is] there, people will come up with an explanation for what makes it physically possible. This is by no means the only possible explanation, and until you actually see it, it's just a fantasy. It may turn out to be true, but we don't know that yet. And the cool thing about it is that it generates a lot of interest in both the theoretical scientists as well as the observational scientists who are out there looking for these things. Mike Brown is a part of both of those groups, actually, and he's one of the most important and prodigious surveyors of the outer solar system. He's certainly looking for it, and maybe he'll be the first to discover it. It'll be really neat if that happens.</p> <p>But the problem is that the orbit that they're proposing goes way out there. It's really far away, and space is huge, so maybe we just haven't looked in the right place. But people are going to be even more vigilant in these surveys that we're doing. There will be a couple of surveys using larger telescopes that can survey the whole sky and maybe it'll show up in the next few years. That'll be exciting if it does.</p> <p>There has just been a revolution in our view of how the solar system formed based on the discovery of the Kuiper belt, which started with Pluto in 1930. Nobody understood the real implication of the discovery of Pluto in 1930. It wasn't until the 1990s when we started seeing that there are other objects out there and real evidence for them. The three different populations of objects in the Kuiper Belt spurred a whole new generation of theoretical work on the formation of the solar system and it has completely changed our view.</p> <p>When I was taught in school about the architecture of our solar system, the giant planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune—we thought they were always in their current positions where you see them today. Now we know there was a lot of what we call radial migration of the planets in our solar system. Jupiter may have come in almost as close as Mars' orbit and then moved back out again. Uranus and Neptune may have flipped spots. As the giant planets start moving in and out, they interact with each other in bizarre ways and can produce all kinds of crazy configurations. Uranus' and Neptune's positions relative to the sun may have flipped several hundred million years after the formation of the solar system.</p> <p><strong>What sort of things could the existence of Planet Nine reveal?</strong></p> <p>Well first of all—how did it form and how did it get to where it is now?</p> <p><strong>Those are the next questions scientists will try to answer?</strong></p> <p>Yes, as we put together a theoretical picture of how our solar system formed—this has to be a part of it. You have to explain it. If we actually discover this thing, then we have to work backwards and say "OK, we have five giant planets in our solar system. How did we get there?"</p> <p>Similarly, the discovery of Pluto and all the other Kuiper belt objects spurred an investigation into how the solar system formed and how it evolved and produced a new idea about the radial migration of the planets during the early stages of the solar system's formation. All of that came out of the discovery of the objects in the Kuiper belt and the need to explain such an architecture in the solar system. The idea of radial migration—can that also explain the existence of this new object? Can we put together a completely consistent picture that explains all of the observational evidence?</p> <p><strong>How does a group of scientists go about searching for this thing?</strong></p> <p>The problem is the orbit of this fifth giant planet is huge! And it's inclined to be ecliptic, so we don't know where it is. It'll be brightest when it's at its closest spot to the sun, but it's probably not there because it spends most of its time at other points in its orbit. I'm sure Mike Brown and his team are already searching. They have theoretical orbits, but as you're looking out from Earth, the Kuiper belt takes up a lot of area.</p> <p>The observational revolution that has been happening is that we've got bigger and bigger telescopes with bigger and bigger cameras that can search larger regions of the sky at once. It also increases the data volume that you have to process, and we're figuring out ways to do that. It's pretty remarkable how much data you have to crunch through to search. It really is like searching for a needle in a haystack. The object could be in a relatively dense star field or a relatively sparse star field, and that also affects your ability to pick it out. Even though it's a very large object, it can be very faint and you have all these bright stars. It's like picking out a little firefly next to a bright lighthouse. If it were easy, it would've already been done.</p> <p>We're always trying to push forward that frontier. This theoretical work is motivated by the discovery of the objects in the bizarre region of the inner Oort cloud and the need to explain that in the context of the solar system's formation. They sort of motivate each other. The new observational discoveries motivate theoretical work, and then this theoretical work by Brown and Batygin is motivating further observational searches.</p> <p><strong>So what ramifications would there be for your work if this object is discovered?</strong></p> <p>The <em>New Horizons</em> mission, which I'm working on, is an <em>in situ</em> reconnaissance mission of this new region of the solar system. Seeing these objects as little points of light is one thing, but actually going out there and seeing them close up and personal helps us understand what are these objects. The exploration of Pluto and Charon and small objects in the Pluto system—this is the first time we've seen them as anything other than little pixelated blobs, and we've seen the complexity of these objects and how they're very different from the other objects. These are some of the most primitive objects in our solar system. Any comprehensive model of the solar system is going to have to explain not only the orbital dynamics but also the physical properties of the objects out there.</p> <p>The discovery of this fifth giant planet could influence our understanding of the inner Oort cloud objects. Our observation of the Kuiper belt is a different sort of investigation, telling us something more detailed about the composition and the true shapes of these bodies that you can only do in <em>in situ</em> investigations: through spacecraft flybys. That's the lesson we've learned, and we've now been doing it for 50 years. The very first flyby of an extraterrestrial object was in 1965, 50 years before <em>New Horizons</em> flew by the Pluto system. The flyby is an opportunity to see close up what the nature of some of these objects are. Otherwise we're relegated to observing them from 3 billion miles away.</p> <p>Unfortunately, because these objects are so far away, it takes a long time to get to them. It took us 10 years to get to Pluto even though we were the fastest spacecraft ever to leave the Earth. But we've already sampled one of the resonant objects, the Rosetta mission is looking at one of the scattered disc objects, and now, if we're able to do the extended mission phase on <em>New Horizons</em>, it'll be the opportunity to see a cold classical object. This is really the only opportunity to do that in our lifetime.</p> Wed, 20 Jan 2016 11:45:00 -0500 Democracy in the digital age: When will online voting be possible? <p>Campaign season is heating up, and while pundits and spin teams dissect candidates' stump speeches and body language, technology writer David Pogue takes a closer look at <em>how</em> we vote in a pair of articles for <em>Scientific American</em>. More specifically, Pogue wonders <a href="">why online voting in elections isn't plausible</a>.</p> <p>For insight into the challenges of online and smartphone voting, he turns to <a href="">Avi Rubin</a>, technical director of the <a href="">Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute</a> and author of the 2006 book <em>Brave New Ballot</em>.</p> <p>Internet voting "is a nonstarter," says Rubin, because "you can't control the security of the platform." The results of an American presidential election—from a population of 220 million eligible voters with no federal ID cards—has unparalleled implications for global politics. Entrusting American votes to a hackable system is out of the question, Rubin says.</p> <p>In <a href="">a Q&A on the challenges of online voting</a>, Rubin shares his thoughts on a workable system:</p> <blockquote> <p>A voter-inspected paper record can overcome many of the weaknesses of electronic voting. There is no perfect voting system, but the best one that I know is where a touchscreen ballot marking machine is used for voters to make their selections. The machine then prints out a filled-out paper ballot. The voter takes this ballot, inspects it, challenges it and starts over if it is wrong (and reports it), and when a correct ballot is produced, submits it to the polls where it can be optically scanned.</p> <p>Some random sample of ballot boxes is counted manually and compared to the scanned results, and if there are problems, more stations are manually compared. In case of a very close election or any hint of foul play, the ballots can be counted by hand or by a different brand of optical scanner.</p> <p>We will never get this perfect. It's too hard a problem. But we can do a lot better than we have so far.</p> </blockquote> Wed, 20 Jan 2016 08:45:00 -0500 The voyage of a lifetime: Marking a decade since 'New Horizons' launch <p>Ten years ago Tuesday, one of the great robotic explorers of our age, <a href="">NASA's <em>New Horizons</em> spacecraft</a>, rocketed into the sky above the Florida coastline.</p> <p>The tiny probe—weighing barely 1,000 pounds—sped from Earth faster than any spacecraft before it, embarking on a 9.5-year voyage across more than 3 billion miles that culminated last summer in <a href="">the historic first reconnaissance of Pluto</a> and its family of small moons.</p> <p>"With that flyby, <em>New Horizons</em> completed a long-held goal of the scientific community and a five-decade-long quest by NASA to explore all the planets known at the start of the space age," said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, principal investigator of the <em>New Horizons</em> mission. "And that all got its start 10 years ago with our launch."</p> <p>Today, <em>New Horizons</em>, now far beyond Pluto, continues to send back data from that July 14 encounter, and the detailed views of these strange new worlds on the planetary frontier have amazed scientists and the public alike. The excitement of scientific discovery may have pushed the launch further back into collective memory, but the event that started <em>New Horizons</em> toward Pluto and the once-unexplored Kuiper Belt still has special meaning to the team that designed, built and then guided the spacecraft through the solar system.</p> <h4>We have liftoff</h4> <p><em>New Horizons</em> lifted off at precisely 2 p.m. aboard a Lockheed Martin Atlas V launch vehicle specially equipped with a Boeing third stage rocket, making it the most powerful rocket NASA's science program has used in this century. It hurtled from Earth at more than 35,000 miles per hour—the fastest departure of any spacecraft before or since.</p> <p>Just 13 months later, <em>New Horizons</em> flew past Jupiter, getting a gravity assist that added another 9,000 miles per hour to its pace toward Pluto, and giving the team a chance to train the spacecraft's instruments on the giant planet and its largest moons. The Jupiter flyby was a mission in itself, helping the team gain flyby experience and producing discoveries that included the first close-up looks at lightning near Jupiter's poles and the first motion-picture sequence of an erupting volcano on the moon Io.</p> <p>The spacecraft entered hibernation after the Jupiter flyby was complete, but mission activity barely slowed down from there. As <em>New Horizons</em> continued across the solar system at record speed, the science, spacecraft and operations teams designed and practiced the intricate activities of the upcoming Pluto encounter. The spacecraft spent more than two-thirds of its cruise between Jupiter and Pluto in hibernation, which saved wear-and-tear on its systems and required fewer tracking resources at home.</p> <p>"Mission Operations personnel always got the question, 'How are you going to keep busy and motivated for the nine and half years it's going to take to get to Pluto?'" said Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the <a href="">Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory</a> in Laurel, Maryland. "I don't know a single <em>New Horizons</em> operations person who was ever bored or unmotivated during the long cruise to the Pluto system. We have a small team, and there always seemed to be a technical challenge, a new moon [to include in the observation plans], or something else that kept us engaged. The time went by faster than expected."</p> <h4>Moving at Life Speed</h4> <p>Busy as they were, just as much was happening for the team outside of the major responsibility of moving <em>New Horizons</em> through space.</p> <p>"The 10-year launch anniversary to me is a time to reflect on how far we have come together as people," said Mission Operations Flight Control Lead Becca Sepan of APL. "I don't think it's a stretch to say that every single member of our team, across the science, engineering, operations, and outreach disciplines, experienced at least one major life event in the time <em>New Horizons</em> has been in flight."</p> <p>Sepan points out that she had been engaged for less than a month when <em>New Horizons</em> launched; she's now a married mother of two. Fellow flight controller Melissa Jones said her family "didn't exist" in January 2006; when the spacecraft flew by Pluto last July 14 she watched the festivities at APL with her husband and three children, ages 8, 6, and 4.</p> <p>Others on the team have lost family members, gotten engaged, married or divorced, had children and grandchildren, bought their first houses, earned graduate degrees.</p> <p>"While we were busy developing command sequences, planning science observations, testing on the simulator, we talked about these major life events and our daily happenings," Sepan said. "After 10 years of doing that together, it's hard not to feel like we have an extended family in the <em>New Horizons</em> team."</p> <h4>Making History</h4> <p>The Pluto encounter began in January 2015, with distant images of Pluto and Charon the team used mostly for navigation. As <em>New Horizons</em> sped closer and the Pluto system grew from a pair of tiny white dots into a dynamic, colorful system of worlds, the milestone that seemed so far away on that mild January day was becoming more and more real.</p> <p>And as <em>New Horizons</em> began delivering the data and close-ups of Pluto and Charon that have dazzled the world—and opened the door to a new realm of the solar system that is unlike anything seen before—the sense of anticipation that began at launch has given way to a sense of pride and accomplishment.</p> <p>"Looking at the images of Pluto, it is truly an amazing feeling to know that you helped make that happen," said Mission Operations team member Sarah Hamilton of APL. "When I reflect on the last 10 years it is the team that I think about. The success of this mission truly is a team effort and it's a privilege to be a part of it."</p> Mon, 18 Jan 2016 15:00:00 -0500 The brain on cocaine: Study shows drug's role in cell death, points to possible treatment <p>A new Johns Hopkins University study supports the idea that high doses of cocaine can cause brain cells to cannibalize themselves—but researchers have also identified an experimental compound that could be a possible antidote, able to prevent the damage.</p> <p>The research team hopes that this compound, called CGP3466B, eventually could lead to treatments that protect adults and infants from the devastating effects of cocaine on the brain. A summary of their recent findings will be <a href="">published online this week in the <em>Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</em></a>.</p> <p>Working with mice, the Hopkins researchers discovered that cocaine-induced brain cell death occurs through a process called autophagy, during which cells literally digest their own insides. They also found signs of autophagy in the brain cells of mice whose mothers received cocaine while pregnant.</p> <p>The process of autophagy is a normal and much-needed cellular "cleanup" that rids cells of accumulated debris. Only when this process accelerates and spins out of control does it cause cell death.</p> <p>"A cell is like a household that is constantly generating trash," says <a href="">Prasun Guha</a>, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins and lead author of the paper. "Autophagy is the housekeeper that takes out the trash—it's usually a good thing. But cocaine makes the housekeeper throw away really important things, like mitochondria, which produce energy for the cell."</p> <p>From their past studies the researchers already knew that nitric oxide, a gas which brain cells use to communicate, and GADPH, an enzyme, were involved in this process. They also knew that the experimental compound CGP3466B was proven to disrupt nitric oxide/GAPDH interactions. So they tested the compound to see if it could halt the cocaine-induced autophagy.</p> <p>Their results indeed confirmed that CGP3466B worked to protect the mice's nerve cells from death by cocaine.</p> <p>The researchers are hopeful that their continued work with CGP3466B could lead to treatments for brain damage associated with cocaine use. But they caution that many more years of studies, in both mice and humans, are necessary to show definitively whether the compound is effective for this purpose.</p> <p>CGP3466B is already known to be safe for humans, since it's been tested in past (though unsuccessful) clinical trials to treat Parkinson's disease and ALS.</p> <p>The Johns Hopkins research team had previously found that CGP3466B was able to protect the brain cells of live mice from the fatal effects of cocaine, but only in this new study did they connect that phenomenon to autophagy.</p> Wed, 13 Jan 2016 12:34:00 -0500 Scientists, educators present research on all aspects of how we learn <p>Distinguished scientists and educators gathered at Johns Hopkins University this week to highlight cutting-edge research on human learning, from pioneering neuroscience to novel pedagogical approaches.</p> <p>The <a href="">biennial Science of Learning Symposium and the fourth annual Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences</a> drew more than 600 registrants for two days of in-depth lectures from leading experts.</p> <p>In his keynote addresses both days, JHU Provost <a href="">Robert C. Lieberman</a> stressed the need for interdisciplinary approaches to understanding lifelong learning. The goals of the joint symposia, he said, were to foster deep and ongoing collaboration among scholars.</p> <p>Among the more compelling presentations across the two days were those about artificial intelligence and machine learning, talks suggesting that neurological research has applications not only in the health care sector but also in the world of technology.</p> <p><a href="">Alan Yuille</a>, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science, discussed deep networks, programs that mimic the architecture of the brain to run algorithms incredibly fast and apply increasingly specified filters to data. He spoke in particular about image recognition software, noting that computers can be trained to recognize certain shapes within an image and can automatically generate captions. The topic is the subject of research at places like Google and other Silicon Valley giants. It is also of particular interest to civil defense organizations for use in surveillance.</p> <p>However, Yuille said, the technology can be fooled, and relatively easily. To trick a computer into thinking a penguin is a human, for example, simply add a television to the image. The computer has to learn the context of certain images, and because penguins aren't typically near televisions—and humans are—the program misidentifies the shapes. These tricks, called adversarial tests, help improve the software, Yuille said. Because the computer's coding is based on the neural networks in the human brain, it has to learn to recognize shapes and contexts, just like people do.</p> <p><a href="">Jason Eisner</a>, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, explored how artificial intelligence can aid human learning of a foreign language. Computers can produce what is called Macaronic text, an amalgam of two languages in a single sentence that can be adjusted to fit the reader's language skill. For example, the French phrase "nous aurons besoin des gateaux" gradually breaks apart to become "we need-erons les gateaux." For a beginner, it can be entirely translated to "we will need the cakes." Macaronic text could be automatically produced by methods similar to those used by Google Translate.</p> <p>Rather than building a program as an "adult"—by writing into its code everything an adult would know—Eisner argued that it is better to build the software to be a <em>learner</em>. Smart software grows and adapts as it accumulates experiences—predictive text on a smartphone, for example. For macaronic text software to teach a human reader effectively, it must learn how the human learns, Eisner said. So the machine learning algorithm in this case needs to contain a model of the human learning algorithm.</p> <p>The first day of the joint symposia featured presentations on the neurological activity in the brain during learning or training. Advanced imaging techniques allow scientists to view learning as it happens in live test subjects. Scientists also lectured on linguistics and the way language and reading skills are learned in children and adults.</p> <p>Day two of the symposia centered on pedagogy and how to build curricula and classrooms that facilitate learning, especially in the STEM disciplines.</p> <p>The events were co-sponsored by the <a href="">Science of Learning Institute</a> and the <a href="">Gateway Sciences Initiative</a>, a multidimensional program to improve and enrich learning of gateway sciences at Johns Hopkins University.</p> Tue, 12 Jan 2016 08:25:00 -0500 Titanium implant unlocks new levels of operability for prosthetic arm <p>A pioneering surgical technique has allowed an amputee to attach the a prosthetic limb developed by the <a href="">Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory</a> directly to his residual limb, enabling a greater range of motion and comfort than previously possible.</p> <p>This is a first for the field of prosthetics, said Michael McLoughlin, chief engineer in APL's Research and Exploratory Development Department.</p> <p>"This accomplishment has eliminated one of the biggest gaps in prosthetic development: the socket," McLoughlin said.</p> <p>The socket—the part of the prosthesis that attaches to the body—is the most critical component of a prosthesis. If it doesn't fit correctly, the patient can experience pain, sores, and blisters, and the prosthesis will feel heavy and cumbersome, said APL's Courtney Moran, a clinical prosthetist who works closely with patients. Even with well-designed sockets, patients have reported problems with heat, sweating, and chafing, Moran said.</p> <p>"The sling does get a little uncomfortable after working with the Modular Prosthetic Limb for a while," said Johnny Matheny, one of several patients who have worked with the prosthetic over the years to help scientists, engineers, and physicians fine tune its capabilities and test its usability.</p> <p>Matheny, whose left arm was amputated in 2008 because of cancer, is considered a pioneer of advanced arm prosthetics. He was the first patient at The Johns Hopkins Hospital to undergo targeted muscle reinnervation, a surgical procedure that reassigns nerves that once controlled the arm or hand, which can make it possible for upper-extremity amputees to better use and control an advanced prosthetic device. In addition to the MPL, he has also test driven some of the most advanced, state-of-the-art prosthetic arms in the world.</p> <p>When introduced to the idea of undergoing a surgery that would allow him to mount the prosthetic arm directly to his residual limb, Matheny jumped at the chance. The procedure is called osseointegration: first, a custom titanium implant is inserted into the marrow space of the bone of the residual limb; over time, it becomes part of the bone. Several weeks after the first surgery, a titanium extension is attached to the implant and brought out through the soft tissues and skin. The prosthesis can then be directly attached to this extension.</p> <p>Richard McGough, chief of the <a href="">Division of Musculoskeletal Oncology</a> at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, performed the stage one surgery on Matheny in March 2015 and stage two in June of 2015, making Matheny the first patient in the United States to receive targeted muscle reinnervation and osseointegration. Four months later, Matheny traveled to APL and attached the MPL directly to his body for the first time.</p> <p>"Boom!" Matheny said, when asked to describe the almost immediate transformation in his ability to control the prosthetic. "Before, the only way I could put the prosthetic on was by this harness with suction and straps; but now, with osseointegration, the implant does away with all that. It's all natural now. Nothing is holding me down. Before, I had limited range; I couldn't reach over my head and behind my back. Now, boom, that limitation is gone."</p> <p>Over the course of three days, Matheny went through a series of exercises in APL's prosthetics laboratory to determine the limits of his new-found control and range of motion.</p> <p>"What he's been able to do without that socket interface has been unbelievable," said Moran.</p> <p>Moran and the team were planning to take it slow and easy, she said.</p> <p>"We were conservative in our expectations," she said, "because we wanted to be cautious about how much load we were putting on the implant, how much we were asking him to do and make sure that we had a number of safety considerations in place and somewhat temper expectations for him."</p> <p>However, Matheny had done his research and was more than prepared, she said.</p> <p>"He had configured a weighted attachment for the implant that was about three pounds, and he had been doing exercises on his own with this weighted implant, which really put us at a position to do more right from the get go."</p> <p>"What ultimately happened was that Johnny met all of my planned goals within two hours of arriving," she said.</p> <p>So for the rest of the visit, they just threw more challenges at him. He was able to demonstrate individual finger control, simultaneous finger control, two degrees of freedom at the wrist, multiple grasps, and worked through simulated activities of daily living.</p> <p>Matheny's achievement "moves the whole field forward, and not just a small step," said McLoughlin. "I mean, it is a really big jump in it. The challenge for us next is to really figure out how to get this technology out of the laboratory and into the hands of people that need it. For all the incredible things that we see Johnny doing with the MPL, when we're finished here in the lab, he has to leave it here and go home. We really want to enable him to leave with that arm and to use it every day. And that's what Johnny wants, too.</p> <p>"That's the great thing about APL," he continued. "We don't stop at the laboratory. We show things work on the bench as a way of getting them into the field. And it's no different in this instance. Unless that technology gets in the hands of the injured war fighter, the elderly person who's having trouble living independently, unless that happens, we haven't really fulfilled our mission."</p> Tue, 05 Jan 2016 10:50:00 -0500 Johns Hopkins PhD candidate among 30 young scientists honored by 'Forbes' <p><a href="">Guy Marcus</a>, a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, has been selected by <em>Forbes</em> magazine as <a href="">one of 30 young scientists</a> who are "discovering new worlds, in our cells and outer space."</p> <p>The publication's annual "30 Under 30" list recognizes up-and-comers in 20 fields ranging from finance, media, and venture capital to sports, education, and health care. Each "30 Under 30" cohort is selected by a panel of experts in their fields. The cohort is described by <em>Forbes</em> as "600 of the brightest young entrepreneurs, breakout talents and change agents."</p> <p>Marcus, 24 and an NSF Graduate Research Fellow studying under <a href="">Collin L. Broholm</a> at the <a href="">Institute for Quantum Matter</a>, researches quantum magnetism and the properties of quantum materials. He uses neutron scattering, in concert with theory and other experimental techniques, to study the impact of magnetic and electronic structure on quantum materials. According to <em>Forbes</em>, "this field of physics has demonstrated ability to develop new materials with a variety of potential applications, from high-temperature superconductors for transmitting power more efficiently to chemically-tuned magnetic materials that could enable new kinds of computing."</p> <p>Marcus has twice been awarded JHU's <a href="">Nathaniel Boggs Memorial Fellowship</a>, awarded annually to students who received an undergraduate degree from a historically black college or university and who wish to pursue graduate work in select fields within the natural or physical sciences at Johns Hopkins University's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.</p> <p>The 30 individuals recognized in the science category were chosen by judges Konstantin Batygin, who works to understand how solar systems work; Feng Zhang, who helped developed technologies in optogenetics and CRISPR, a biological editing system; and Sarah Parcak, a space archaeologist who uses satellites to scan landscapes to identify potential archaeological sites.</p> Wed, 30 Dec 2015 13:18:00 -0500 Humans aren't alone in our ear for pitch <p>Humans apparently aren't alone in the ways we perceive pitch. A <a href="">new Johns Hopkins study</a> finds evidence that marmoset monkeys share distinct features with humans in the way they distinguish between high and low notes.</p> <p>The research sheds light on the evolution of vocal communication and song, suggesting that aspects of pitch perception might have developed over 40 million years ago. A summary of the findings was published this week in the <a href=""><em>Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</em></a>.</p> <p>Though pitch perception has been found in other animal species, humans have always stood out as unique in their specialized abilities. "Until now, we didn't think any animal species, including monkeys, perceived it the way we do," says <a href="">Xiaoqin Wang</a>, professor of biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "Now we know that marmosets, and likely other primate ancestors, do."</p> <p>Marmosets, small monkeys native to South America, are known as highly vocal and social creatures. <a href="">A decade ago Wang and his research team discovered</a> that the monkeys are able to process pitch. They located a region in the marmoset brain where nerve cells "fired" after exposure to sounds with pitch, like a melody's shift from high to low notes. Human brains show similar activity in that region, Wang notes.</p> <p>What researchers were missing, though, was behavioral evidence that the marmosets could perceive and respond to pitch in the same way humans do. Wang's team spent years developing ways to test that, including training a group of marmosets to lick a waterspout only after hearing a change in pitch.</p> <p>Those waterspout licks ended up providing solid evidence that marmosets share the three specialized features of pitch perception once thought to be unique to humans. Humans first of all are better at distinguishing pitch at low frequencies rather than high. Second, they're able to pick up on subtle changes in the spread between pitches at low frequencies. And lastly, a person's sensitivity to rhythm appears to dictate their ability to detect pitch differences among simultaneous tones.</p> <p>Wang says it's possible these specialized abilities with pitch evolved in ancient marmosets over 40 million years ago, remaining present throughout primate evolution until humans inherited them. He says more tests are needed to explore whether the mechanisms evolved in parallel between the African continent and the land mass that split away to become the American continent.</p> <p>On top of the evolutionary implications of this study, Wang says the doors are open to learn more about human pitch perception "now that we have a primate relative we can study behaviorally and physiologically." Such research, he says, could investigate tone deafness and whether "perfect pitch" is an inherited or learned trait.</p> Fri, 18 Dec 2015 11:45:00 -0500 Johns Hopkins-built rocket gets brief glimpse of a galaxy far, far away <p>Rocketeers led by Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist <a href="">Stephan R. McCandliss</a> today launched the most sensitive instrument they've ever used to explore outer space, seeking clues to how galaxies grow with the birth of new stars, and how they stop growing.</p> <p>Hours before dawn on Friday they fired a 58-foot unmanned rocket from the <a href="">White Sands Missile Range</a> in New Mexico more than 170 miles up for a brief but clear look at the <a href="">Great Barred Spiral Galaxy</a>. Using an onboard spectrographic telescope built at Hopkins, <a href="">the McCandliss team</a> recorded ultraviolet light observations of hydrogen gas, the main fuel of star formation, that surrounds the galaxy.</p> <p>The parabolic flight lasted about 15 minutes from liftoff to the time the rocket parachuted back to Earth. That gave the telescope containing an intricate array of tiny light-admitting shutters about six minutes above the Earth's atmosphere—where light from the far ultraviolet light end of the spectrum is not filtered out—for a clear view of the target galaxy 56 million light years away.</p> <p>"We're happy, and we're getting ready to go on recovery," McCandliss said Friday morning, minutes before he was to board a Black Hawk helicopter for the flight about 50 miles down range to pick up the instrument dubbed FORTIS for "Far ultraviolet Off-Rowland circle Telescope for Imaging and Spectroscopy."</p> <p>The rocket flight was part of <a href="">NASA's Sounding Rocket Program</a>, which supports about 20 missions a year, exploring space at relatively low cost.</p> <p>With NASA's support, McCandliss and his rocketry team at Johns Hopkins took about six years through early 2013 to build the $3.2 million telescope launched on this flight. FORTIS is the most sensitive instrument the group has ever used for a couple of reasons. The instrument's array of light-reflecting mirrors "bounces" the light only twice, meaning less light is lost before it reaches the telescope's detector. FORTIS also can simultaneously target and record many spectra from several targets automatically.</p> <p>This was the third FORTIS mission, and promised to return the most useful information. In two previous attempts in 2013—one aimed at observing a different galaxy, another targeting the <a href="">Comet Ison</a>—technical problems affected the quality of the information returned. Each mission, however, achieved enough to be considered a substantial success.</p> <p>This time, McCandliss said it all appeared to have worked as planned.</p> <p>"We got data, we got spectra," said McCandliss, adding that there was still a lot of information to be downloaded from the instrument. He said a couple of grids used to filter out charged particles were lost, but that did not appear to have compromised the information collected.</p> <p>The rocket launched right on schedule at eight minutes to midnight New Mexico time, soaring into the darkness at a top speed of about 5,100 miles an hour. After separating from the motor, the payload section carrying FORTIS continued the ascent, reaching a high point of about 173 miles—a zone between the range of weather balloons and satellites.</p> <p>FORTIS sent down a stream of information about the light from bright spots in the spiral arms of the galaxy being fed by gas flowing in from the surrounding circumgalactic medium. That's the region showing significant gas ebb and flow—the activity that feeds star formation.</p> <p>It will take months to analyze the information, potentially adding to scientists' understanding of how galaxies sustain themselves and what causes them to stop producing new stars. The team's hypothesis is that ultraviolet radiation from new stars temporarily stifles star formation, regulating the rate at which stars form.</p> <p>The FORTIS spectrographic element splits the light captured by the telescope into segments of varying wavelength intensity, which help scientists discern hydrogen emission and absorption.</p> <p>McCandliss, who now has completed 17 sounding rocket launches since his first in 1989, has co-written a number of published papers based entirely or in part on information collected on these missions. He said two of the most cited papers involved observations of a nebula in the constellation Orion, and of <a href="">the Comet Hale Bopp</a>.</p> <p>McCandliss hopes that the success of the microshutter array in a far ultraviolet application will qualify its use on larger orbital missions, such as a newly conceived ultraviolet/optical High Definition Space Telescope (HDST), which was proposed this summer by an international consortium called the <a href="">Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy</a>. Planned as larger and offering images many times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope, the HDST could be used to study relatively near Earthlike planets for signs of life.</p> Fri, 18 Dec 2015 09:45:00 -0500 Johns Hopkins hackathon lets Baltimore high school students indulge their 'inner nerd' <p>Choosing a career path can be a daunting task, as Damien Myers can attest. As a teacher at Baltimore's Western High School, the nation's oldest all-girl public high school, he leads a program for students interested in biomedical careers and is constantly looking for ways to expose his students to new career paths.</p> <p>Myers brought 21 of his students to the <a href="">Carey Business School</a> on a Saturday for HackCarey, a daylong hackathon designed to expose high school students to technology careers through hands-on computer coding and app development. The high school students spent the day learning HTML and JavaScript to build their own video game.</p> <p>Krystal Ragoonanan, a freshman at Western, enjoyed the opportunity to write code for the first time.</p> <p>"It's really cool. I loved learning a new way to do things," she said. "I hope it will give me an idea of what I want to do with my career."</p> <p>Shamariah Walker, a junior at Western who has studied computers and robotics in school, was equally enthusiastic.</p> <p>"I enjoyed it a lot," she said. "I know that I want to go into the engineering field and to be a programmer. I've been thinking about programming and designing websites for video games. The volunteers and mentors have been great today."</p> <p>Myers believes the HackCarey event offers his students a unique experience.</p> <p>"Opportunities like this are priceless to get students out of the classroom environment and they can see how the skills we are teaching them in school are applicable to career choices," Myers said. "The gap between industry and academics can be wide at times, but I think programs like this can bridge that gap."</p> <p>This is the <a href="">second year for HackCarey</a>, which was the brainchild of <a href="">Dan Givol</a>, a 2016 Global MBA candidate at the Carey Business School. He organized the event with the help of classmates from the student organizations NetImpact and Innovation Factory. Givol also brought in sponsors, including Facebook and Deloitte, as well as outside volunteers to work with the students from Western, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, and Digital Harbor High School.</p> <p>Mindgrub, a Baltimore-based technology innovation agency, brought 12 employees to HackCarey to teach coding to the high school students. Andy Felix, of Gensuite, also volunteered to work with the students. Facebook donated 20 Macbook computers, which were divided among the participating schools.</p> <p>For Givol, HackCarey has been a rewarding experience.</p> <p>"This was by far my favorite experience at Carey. I'm very proud of it," he said. "Business is about people. You get to interact with them and you get to connect on a personal level. We have 50 people here having fun connecting with their inner nerd."</p> Tue, 15 Dec 2015 14:34:00 -0500 JHU's Charles Bennett and Andrew Feinberg named Bloomberg Distinguished Professors <p>One is <a href="">exploring the origin and evolution of all of space</a>; the other is floating in its simulated conditions to develop pioneering <a href="">genetic sequencing techniques at zero gravity</a>. Johns Hopkins' two newest <a href="">Bloomberg Distinguished Professors</a> are definitely out of this world.</p> <p><a href="">Charles "Chuck" Bennett</a>, currently the Alumni Centennial Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Gilman Scholar in the <a href="">Krieger School of Arts and Sciences</a>, will be the first Bloomberg Distinguished Professor to hold a joint appointment with the <a href="">Applied Physics Laboratory</a>, as a senior scientist. In step with <a href="">One University goals</a> to foster interdisciplinary collaboration across divisions, Bennett will direct Space@Hopkins, a new space studies initiative. Space@Hopkins will unify space-related activities across the institution in robotics, astronaut health, planetary sciences, solar physics, Earth science, spacecraft engineering, sensors, and astrophysics.</p> <p><a href="">Andrew "Andy" Feinberg</a> will now be appointed in the <a href="">Bloomberg School of Public Health</a>'s <a href="">Department of Mental Health</a> and the <a href="">Whiting School of Engineering</a>'s <a href="">Department of Biomedical Engineering</a>, where he will be mentoring students and teaching an undergraduate course in epigenetics and epigenomics. He currently holds the position of King Fahd Professor and Gilman Scholar in the <a href="">School of Medicine</a>'s departments of <a href="">Medicine</a>, <a href="">Oncology</a>, <a href="">Molecular Biology and Genetics</a>, and <a href="">Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences</a>, and the Bloomberg School's <a href="">Department of Biostatistics</a>. Feinberg directs the <a href="">Center for Epigenetics</a>, one of the leading research centers in the world focused on the chemical tags of the human genome that tell the cell which genes should be turned on or turned off.</p> <p>Bennett and Feinberg are the 17th and 18th Bloomberg Distinguished Professors appointed across Johns Hopkins. The professorships are supported by a <a href="">$350 million gift to the university from Johns Hopkins alumnus, philanthropist, and three-term New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg</a>. The majority of this gift is dedicated to creating 50 new interdisciplinary professorships, galvanizing people, resources, research, and educational opportunities to address major world problems.</p> <p>"It is with great enthusiasm that we name Andy and Chuck as Bloomberg Distinguished Professors," says <a href="">Robert Lieberman</a>, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. "These colleagues have long represented the best of Johns Hopkins—rigorous exploration, dedication to students, a collaborative spirit, and research that not only defies, but truly redefines, traditional disciplines. We look forward to the fruits of increased interdivisional partnership across the university that come with their new appointments."</p> <h4>Charles L. Bennett</h4> <p><em>Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Physics and Astronomy</em><br /> <em>Applied Physics Laboratory</em></p> <p>A world‐leading researcher in experimental astrophysics and cosmology, Chuck Bennett focuses on extending our understanding of the universe by observing the cosmic microwave background. He designs and builds novel instruments to study this faint afterglow of energy from the infant universe.</p> <p>Bennett joined Johns Hopkins in 2005 after 20 years at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he held the roles of Infrared Astrophysics branch head, senior scientist for experimental cosmology, and Goddard Senior Fellow. While at Goddard, he was the deputy principal investigator for the Differential Microwave Radiometer on the NASA <a href="">Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE</a> and principal investigator for the <a href="">Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP</a> space missions.</p> <p>Through his observations of light traveling from the edge of the observable universe, Bennett is able to observe how the universe began. In fact, Bennett's research has already greatly clarified our understanding of the universe. WMAP provided spectacular and unprecedented results, precisely revealing the curvature, age, history, and composition of the universe. The series of papers that present the revolutionary WMAP results have together been cited more than 40,000 times, making them among the most influential series in the history of modern science.</p> <p>"Chuck's vast experience with new technologies, instrumentation, and scientific space mission design and development uniquely qualifies him to bridge the Applied Physics Laboratory with the Krieger School," says <a href="">Ralph Semmel</a>, director of APL. "He is exactly the type of scientist who exemplifies the interdisciplinary goals of the Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships, and we look forward to many meaningful collaborations."</p> <p>Bennett serves as co-director of the <a href="">undergraduate minor in space science and engineering</a>, which is open to students of both the Krieger and Whiting schools. With his newly expanded role, he will now be able to connect Homewood students to research opportunities at APL. He will continue to teach undergraduate courses and provide substantive undergraduate research experiences while leading the new Space@Hopkins initiative.</p> <p>"I am truly honored and excited about the opportunity to expand beyond the position I already hold in the <a href="">Department of Physics and Astronomy</a>. I foresee an ever more promising future of space studies at Johns Hopkins by strengthening the ties between the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the Applied Physics Lab," Bennett says. "Together we will strive to answer really big questions from our observations of the sun, Earth, and Pluto, all the way out to the edge of the observable universe."</p> <p>Bennett is currently the co-principal investigator, with Assistant Professor Tobias Marriage, of the <a href="">Cosmology Large Angular‐Scale Surveyor, or CLASS</a>, leading an international team in developing and employing an innovative next‐generation facility that will observe the cosmic microwave background from Chile's Atacama Desert. With unparalleled capabilities, <a href="">CLASS</a> will search for a pattern of cosmic microwave background polarization imprinted by primordial gravitational waves generated at the beginning of the universe. In other words, CLASS will allow us to view what the universe was like 13.8 billion years ago. Detecting this signal has become one of the holy grails of physics: It will not only test the quantum-to-cosmos theory called "inflation" about how the universe began, it also may provide evidence on the connection between the two great pillars of modern physics: Einstein's theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics.</p> <p>Bennett is also part of the <a href="">Euclid Consortium</a> and NASA's <a href="">WFIRST space mission</a>, and is collaborating on the Japanese-led Prime Focus Spectrograph instrument, now under construction in the university's Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy. Each of these initiatives aims to solve the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter in the universe.</p> <p>Bennett earned his bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy from the University of Maryland and his doctorate in physics from MIT. He also trained in astrophysical instrumentation at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.</p> <h4>Andrew P. Feinberg</h4> <p><em>School of Medicine, departments of Medicine, Oncology, Molecular Biology and Genetics, and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences</em><br /> <em>Bloomberg School of Public Health, departments of Mental Health and Biostatistics</em><br /> <em>Whiting School of Engineering, Department of Biomedical Engineering</em></p> <p>One of the nation's most influential scientists, Andy Feinberg is considered the founder of the field of cancer epigenetics. During his postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins, he and Bert Vogelstein, the Clayton Professor of Oncology and Pathology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institution investigator, discovered epigenetic alterations in human cancer. Whereas the gene sequence provides the alphabet of the genetic code, epigenetics provides the grammar that tells genes whether they should be on or off.</p> <p>Over the decades since, Feinberg and his collaborators have shaped the landscape of our understanding of DNA methylation and other epigenetic changes, and their applications to epidemiology and medicine, and have introduced <a href="">groundbreaking statistical and laboratory methods</a> to the study of the genome. Regarding the latter, Feinberg is studying the epigenetic effects of spaceflight on the Kelly identical twins as one of 10 principal investigators on <a href="">NASA's Twins Study</a>.</p> <p>To explore the possibility of astronauts sequencing their own DNA on future longer flights, Feinberg recently tested laboratory techniques for sequencing at <a href="">zero gravity in NASA's reduced-gravity aircraft with successful results</a>.</p> <p>"Andy is a fantastic scholar and is a wonderful addition to the Department of Biomedical Engineering and to the Whiting School," says <a href="">Ed Schlesinger</a>, the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering. "Much of Andy's research brings together experts from disparate fields in order to make major contributions to our understanding of genetics and of epigenetics. Andy is engaged in promising research collaborations with Engineering faculty members and pursuing partnerships that have the potential to make significant advances in medical research."</p> <p>Together with his insights into loss of imprinting in cancer, Feinberg's work on Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome established the first causal link between epigenetic changes and cancer risk. Cancer epigenetics has become one of the core areas of cancer research and therapy. Feinberg expanded beyond cancer research to create the first epigenome center in the country to develop tools to understand the role of epigenetics in all aspects of human disease and, in fact, in <a href="">evolution itself</a>. Discovering most of the previously unknown epigenetic targets that distinguish one person from another, and disease from normal, his center was a major driver of the explosion of epigenetics research worldwide.</p> <p>"The Bloomberg Professorship is a dream job for me," Feinberg says. "With my colleagues such as John Goutsias in Engineering, we are seeing a deep mathematical structure to epigenetic information, which connects nuclear structure to normal development and disease. With my colleagues in Medicine and Public Health, we can apply these insights to identify risk of disease and even new treatments for cancer that are simply not possible when one studies only the naked DNA sequence," he says. "By working with faculty and students across the university, we finally have the opportunity to understand the relationship between genetics, epigenetics, the environment, and disease—and to use this information to improve human health."</p> <p>With Daniele Fallin of the Bloomberg School of Public Health, he has pioneered the field of epigenetic epidemiology, demonstrating for the first time how genetics, epigenetics, and the environment interact to cause disease. From the epigenomics of autoimmune disease to <a href="">rheumatoid arthritis</a> to autism to obesity, Feinberg's leadership has positioned Johns Hopkins at the vanguard of this burgeoning interdisciplinary field.</p> <p>As a recipient of an NIH Director's Pioneer Award for scientists of exceptional creativity, Feinberg is now pursuing a novel idea that epigenetics might regulate randomness, varying how similar or different one's offspring are, or how different the behaviors of cells might be within a person's tissue. This could provide an advantage in natural selection in a changing external environment, and it also might lead cancer cells to survive internal changes in the body, such as metastasis and chemotherapy.</p> <p>Feinberg studied mathematics and humanities at Yale University in the directed studies program, received his bachelor's and medical degrees from the accelerated medical program at Johns Hopkins, and completed a master's in public health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. He held a postdoctoral fellowship in developmental biology at the University of California, San Diego, did clinical training in medicine and medical genetics at the University of Pennsylvania and genetics research at Johns Hopkins, and was an HHMI investigator at the University of Michigan before returning to Hopkins in 1994.</p> Mon, 14 Dec 2015 05:00:00 -0500 Research traces cause of organ dysfunction in Down syndrome <p>While most Down syndrome research has focused on the brain, a new report by Johns Hopkins University biologists uncovers how the disorder hampers a separate part of the nervous system that plays a key role in health and longevity.</p> <p>The paper, <a href="">published in the journal <em>Nature Communications</em></a>, traces complex biochemical signals leading to peripheral nervous system dysfunction found in people with Down syndrome.</p> <p>Scientists studying the condition have mostly concentrated on the central nervous system, but <a href="">Rejji Kuruvilla</a>, an associate professor in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Biology, said that leaves out a lot.</p> <p>"There's been a whole aspect of the nervous system that has been ignored in Down syndrome, and perhaps in other neurological disorders," said Kuruvilla, the co-author of the <em>Nature Communications</em> paper who runs the lab where the research was conducted. The lead author among eight collaborators is Ami Patel, who has since moved to Northwestern University after earning her doctorate in biology at Johns Hopkins.</p> <p>Down syndrome is a genetic condition characterized by impaired physical and cognitive development. The peripheral nervous system has no known role in intellectual ability, but it does regulate organ function including heartbeat, blood pressure, and blood glucose. Peripheral nervous system impairment could contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and immune disorders that are associated with Down syndrome.</p> <p>One of the most common genetic disorders, Down syndrome is caused by the appearance of a third copy of chromosome 21. It appears in one of nearly every 700 babies born in the United States; roughly 400,000 Americans are estimated to have the disorder.</p> <p>While the connection between Down syndrome and peripheral nervous system disease has been known for some time, the phenomenon has not been understood at the molecular and cellular level. Kuruvilla's lab pursued the question by examining mice engineered to approximate a human Down syndrome genetic profile as well as studying human organ tissues from Down syndrome infants.</p> <p>In the mice and in human pancreatic and spleen tissue, the scientists found stunted peripheral nerve growth early in life. The question was why.</p> <p>The research focused on nerve growth factor, or NGF, a protein identified in the 1950s—the two scientists who made the discovery later won a Nobel Prize—that regulates peripheral nervous system development.</p> <p>Kuruvilla's lab group, which has been studying the peripheral nervous system for years, found that abundance of a particular gene product in Down syndrome puts a brake on NGF's actions in fostering nerve development. The culprit emerged as a gene, RCAN1, which in Down syndrome appears in three times the number that would be found in normal chromosomes. This gene regulates a protein, calcineurin, that enables NGF to stimulate nerve growth and also support neuron survival. In a mouse model, tripling RCAN1 alone caused the loss of neurons and nerve growth; reducing the extra dose of RCAN1 improved survival of neurons and nerve development.</p> <p>In other words, too much RCAN1 results in not enough calcineurin activity. Insufficient calcineurin activity leads to impeded NGF functions and, thus, impaired peripheral nervous system development.</p> <p>Kuruvilla said the finding raises other questions that her lab plans to pursue. One is how RCAN1 affects neurons in a portion of the brain called the basal forebrain, which also responds to NGF. That brain area deteriorates in Alzheimer's disease patients.</p> <p>And there is the question of possible treatments, given the array of medical conditions—including cardiovascular problems and hypertension—associated with peripheral nervous system dysfunction in individuals with Down syndrome.</p> <p>"When you think about therapeutic interventions that could affect life quality, it's important to not ignore this important aspect of the nervous system," Kuruvilla said.</p> Thu, 10 Dec 2015 14:10:00 -0500 Bedtime Math program improves kids' math skills <p>Parents teach young children to love books by reading to them, often at bedtime. Laura and John Overdeck love math, so they started giving their kids a word problem to solve each night before tucking them in. They made the little math puzzles relevant to something the family had done that day: "When we made milkshakes after dinner, we made two chocolate shakes and three strawberry shakes. How many total milkshakes did we make?" As the kids' abilities grew, Mom and Dad Overdeck raised the bar, making the problems a tad harder: "If it took two minutes to make each milkshake, how long did it take us to make all of them?"</p> <p>When her third child came into his siblings' bedrooms at age 2 demanding his own math problem, Laura, who is a member of the advisory board of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, knew she was onto something. She had made math so much fun that a kid—at least her kid—was clamoring for it. So in 2012, she began writing daily word problems, posting them to a blog she called <a href=""><em>Bedtime Math</em></a>, and sending the link to friends.</p> <p>Her email list grew by word of mouth, gradually. Things got out of hand, in a good way, when Maria Blackburn, a communications and marketing manager at CTY, shared the math-at-bedtime idea with some of her blogger friends. One of those friends was KJ Dell'Antonia, who wrote about <em>Bedtime Math</em> in the <em>New York Times</em> parenting blog, <em>Motherlode</em>, in April 2012. Months later, NPR's <em>Morning Edition</em> aired a story about Overdeck's blog, and <em>Bedtime Math</em> has grown exponentially ever since. It's now a nine-person nonprofit organization producing the website <a href=""></a> with daily problems for "wee ones" (preschool), "little kids" (kindergarten to second grade), and "big kids" (third to fifth grade). The nonprofit has organized math clubs in all 50 states and created no-frills apps to access the word problems on mobile devices. Overdeck has published three collections of the problems with kid-friendly illustrations; royalties from the books help fund the nonprofit.</p> <p>From the start, Overdeck targeted math-phobic parents as much as their young children. "When our oldest was 7, we were already hearing parents say they couldn't help with their child's homework," she says. Recently, psychology faculty at the University of Chicago validated her belief that engaged parents could help kids' math skills. In the October 2015 issue of <em>Science</em>, the researchers reported on a yearlong study in which they asked 587 socioeconomically diverse first-graders and their parents in the Greater Chicago area to use <em>Bedtime Math</em> on the tablet app for a year. Compared with a control group of families who read stories but did not pose math problems, the children using <em>Bedtime Math</em> improved their skills within months. The gains were most dramatic in families of those adults who had identified themselves as anxious about math, resulting in those children's math grade levels jumping by an average of 1.2 months when tested at the end of the year. "When parents and children interact about math story problems—even as little as once a week—children show increased math achievement by the end of the school year," wrote Sian Beilock, one of the study's lead authors.</p> <p>In another study led by Lisa Feigenson, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the Krieger School, researchers are measuring the impact of <em>Bedtime Math</em> after-school clubs on kids' attitudes toward math. Launched about a year ago, the Crazy 8s clubs provide an eight-session activity guide and some school supplies. The clubs now number more than 1,500. "Five hundred was our stretch goal," Overdeck says. "It's just going bonkers." She's pleased that the clubs serve kids of every income level. One day, she says, she took a request for a club from the Dalton School, on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and 15 minutes later a school in rural Appalachian Ohio called.</p> <p>Ultimately, the math clubs re-create what Overdeck wishes could happen in every child's home: kids bonding with others while doing fun activities that strengthen their math skills. She loves hearing reports that when sign-up sheets go up for Crazy 8s clubs, they fill in a day. "That is probably our singular achievement," she says. "There's a waitlist for math club!"</p>