On the Human Condition
Volume XXVIII Number 2
Where do the stars end?
Astronomy graduate student Aaron Boley, from Indiana University Bloomington, probed the spiral galaxy NGC3596 using different wavelengths of light. In this image, the red light traces recent star formation; the white, or visible, light traces past star formation, which shows as an old stellar disk; and the blue light indicates fuel for creating new stars. Last fall, Boley won an honorable mention for his image in the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's first annual Radio Astronomy Image Contest. Working with Assistant Professor of Astronomy Liese van Zee, Boley created the image using data from NRAO.
Educating in Afghanistan
Indiana University's Center for Social Studies and International Education, affiliated with the IU School of Education, is part of a new consortium to restore and improve the educational system in Afghanistan. Terrence C. Mason, who directs the center located on the Bloomington campus, says the overall goal of the Afghanistan Higher Education Project is to help re-establish teacher education programs in Afghan colleges and universities to support the growing demand for secondary schools across the country. "With the political events over the last couple of decades, there have been huge difficulties for schools," Mason says. "Teachers were dismissed; they fled the country. Now, refugees are returning. Part of the effort at stabilizing the country involves restoring the educational system, which requires qualified and competent teachers." Over the next five years, IU faculty will focus on sharing contemporary teaching methods with future and current Afghan educators, especially how to understand and teach English, a key element in the war-torn country's international re-emergence. The U.S. Agency for International Development awarded $38 million to the Academy for Educational Development (a Washington, D.C.-based agency specializing in international educational programming), IU, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst for the project, much of which will involve improving the information technology infrastructure at 16 teacher education programs in the country. IU's part of the project also will involve exchanges of students and faculty between Bloomington and Afghanistan.
It's no Googlearchy
As search engines have become our main way of accessing the Web, it seems clear that search engines bias user traffic toward already popular sites. It's called "googlearchy"--a vicious cycle in which pages highly ranked by search engines are more likely to be discovered and linked to, further increasing their popularity at the expense of new, less visible pages. But researchers from the IU School of Informatics say it isn't so. In a paper noted by The Economist and widely debated on blogs around the world, the researchers conclude that "contrary to prior claims and our own intuition, the use of search engines actually has an egalitarian effect." The team compared two models, users browsing the Web using only random links and users visiting only pages returned by search engines. They found that a combination of "non-linear mechanisms"involving search engine algorithms, the nature of the search query, and users' searching and surfing behaviors actually "mitigates the ‘rich-get-richer' dynamics of the Web, providing low-degree pages with increased visibility." Informatics faculty Santo Fortunato, Alessandro Flammini, Filippo Menczer, and Alessandro Vespignani collaborated on the study.
An Indiana University research team has shown that a fish-oil diet lessens the severity of exercise-induced asthma, a condition in which vigorous exercise triggers an acute narrowing of the airway, making breathing difficult. In research reported recently in the journal Chest, the researchers, led by IU Bloomington Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Timothy D. Mickleborough, found that for the study's 16 asthmatic participants, a diet supplemented with fish oil reduced airway inflammation, improved pulmonary function by about 64 percent, and enabled participants to reduce bronchodilator use by 31 percent. Fish oil is rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are known to inhibit and reduce inflammation. Adding fish oil to the daily diet offers a potentially beneficial treatment with fewer side effects than asthma medications, says Mickleborough. "Alternative therapies for EIA, or therapies that reduce the dose requirements of traditional medications, would be of benefit to the asthmatic and potentially reduce the public health burden of this disease," he says. IUB co-authors of the report include Martin Lindley, research scientist in the Department of Kinesiology and Alyce Fly, associate professor in the Department of Applied Health Science.
Meet the Flockers
What sounds do artificial life forms make? IU Bloomington professors Larry Yaeger and Norbert Herber created A(rt)Life 2.0, a "composition-instrument," to explore one possibility. Yaeger, who specializes in research on artificial life (using computers to model biological systems), designed artificial life software that simulates birds and flocking behavior. Herber, who is interested in the aural component of interactive systems, created a program that responds directly to the swarming and flocking motions with a constantly changing "musical soundscape." Herber, who teaches in the Department of Telecommunications, says the creation is an "instrument of sorts because it is ‘performed upon' by the flock. I like to think of it as a music of possibilities." Yaeger, a former designer and developer with Apple Computer and now professor of informatics, says that among the simulated birds, "there is no leader of the flocks, yet they exhibit graceful, coordinated motions that are aesthetically pleasing in their own right." To learn more about Herber's work with music and interactivity, see www.x-tet.com. For more on Yaeger's artificial life research, see www.beanblossom.in.us/larryy/. A(rt)Life 2.0 opened at the School of Fine Arts Gallery earlier this year.
Only gene deep?
An international team of scientists has discovered a gene directly related to human skin coloration. Led by Keith Cheng of Pennsylvania State University, the team included Nancy Mangini, associate professor of anatomy and cell biology at the Indiana University School of Medicine's regional center on the IU Northwest campus. The team's research, supported by the National Science Foundation and featured on the cover of the journal Science in December, first determined that a gene called golden is responsible for the pigmentation differences between zebrafish variants. The researchers then used an online database of human genome information to find a similar gene in humans. They found that a specific change in the human genetic counterpart to golden was prevalent in lighter-skinned European populations, while the gene without the change was linked to the darker pigmentation of West Africans and East Asians. "This gene controls calcium, and we discovered that a minor change causes differences in pigmentation," says Mangini, who does research on the importance of calcium transport in the eye and teaches pharmacology at IUN. Mangini adds that the discovery of a gene that regulates skin pigmentation has potentially wide-ranging health implications. "In cells other than pigment cells, this gene might cause differences in the way cells react to medicines," she says. "So skin color might be an indicator of the potential for other health problems."
Just a Spoonful of Sugar
Sugar--it does a lot more than simply make the medicine go down. Like genes and proteins, sugars are major molecules that play various roles in the human body, from affecting the immune system to contributing to cancer. Until recently, the complexity of sugars in the body was a stumbling block for researchers, but new technologies have improved the ability of scientists to understand the structures and functions of the molecules. As members of the new National Center for Glycomics and Glycoproteomics established with a $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Milos Novotny, Distinguished Professor and the Lilly Chemistry Alumni Chair at IUB, and IU colleagues from chemistry, informatics, and biology will study sugar chains in the body (glycomics) and examine the differences in the ways these sugar chains are attached to proteins (glycoproteomics). A better understanding of biological sugars, how they work, and how changes in these molecules cause illness or are affected by medicines could lead to new treatments for many diseases. The IU center will use mass spectrometry to generate a complete analytical system for glycoprotein studies and will conduct investigations of glycoprotein markers associated with cancer and alcoholism, endocrinology-centered studies including fertilization, and comparative research involving plants and animals. The NIH award adds to a $2 million award for glycomics research from the Indiana 21st Century Research and Technology Fund.