Thursday, April 5, 2018

Science Art Wonder: Students team with labs to bring research to life

Art by Emory senior Pamela Romero, Science.Art.Wonder. founder and president, portrays how aphids can develop wings in response to environmental changes. The DNA painted along the edges of the canvases is the same, except that different genes are switched on. Photo by Ann Watson, Emory Photo/Video

By Carol Clark

A small crowd gathers in Emory’s White Hall before the menacing sight: Large rubber worms arrayed on triangular red spikes. The jagged spikes, from a few inches to more than a foot tall, lean crazily in all directions. Some of the worms — suspended on near-invisible fishing line — appear to rise off the spikes, escaping to a circular mirror hanging from above.

“This is how evolution works!” says Ethan Mock, a sophomore majoring in ancient history, who created the sculpture, titled "The Crucible." He looks dapper in a leather vest and tweed cap and speaks with theatrical flair to the crowd. “The spikes represent the trials and tribulations of the worms’ struggles. Most are trapped in the spikes but a few climb out, not realizing that they are simply climbing into a new trial, a new test.”

The onlookers include a mix of college students, children and their parents, brought together by campus events during the recent Atlanta Science Festival. Joining the regular attractions of Physics Live! and Chemistry Carnival is the debut of an art exhibit by a new, student-run program called Science.Art.Wonder., or S.A.W. Just over 100 artists — most of them untrained college students — teamed with scientists from Emory and Georgia Tech to translate their research into art.

Ethan Mock and his art, "The Crucible"
Mock worked with the lab of Levi Morran, an assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Biology who studies co-evolutionary dynamics by experimenting with a host (a microscopic worm called C. elegans) and a parasite (a bright red species of bacteria called Serratia marcescens that is lethal to C. elegans upon consumption).

“This is so cool!” says Pareena Sharma, a first-year biochemistry major at Emory, as she snaps a photo of the sculpture. “It’s so relatable to me. I’ve been doing this same experiment since the first of the semester in Biology 142.”

Two young boys draw near the spikes. “Look up into the mirror,” Mock encourages them. “Now tell me what you see.”

“The same thing,” one of the boys replies.

“That’s right!” Mock says. “The process of evolution keeps repeating, going in a loop.”

Morran, arriving with his eight-year-old daughter, Maggie, is impressed. “You could see the light come on in those boys’ eyes,” he says. “They understood what Ethan is trying to convey. And it’s not an easy concept to grasp — the continual evolutionary struggle.”

Both artists and researchers engage with visitors as they peruse more than 140 works of art, set up on the Quad, in White Hall, the Math and Science Center and the Atwood Chemistry Center during the festival.

“This artwork gives you a snapshot of how much research is being done in Atlanta. I’m taken aback by how cutting edge and varied it is,” says Pamela Romero, president of S.A.W. The program is the brainchild of Romero, a senior majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology and minoring in computer science.

Young visitors to the Emory campus peruse science-inspired art on the Quad. Photo by Ann Watson, Emory Photo/Video

The Emory S.A.W. contributions span labs across the University and beyond. The artists picked their mediums, from acrylic to watercolor and everything in between.

Emily Isaac, a first-year Emory student majoring in environmental sciences and theater, stands on the Quad next to a large watercolor she painted. “Art can help scientists make a point without using any scientific jargon,” she says.

She teamed with Robert Wallace from Georgia Tech’s Agricultural Technology Research Program. One of Wallace’s projects gave plots of farmland to women in India who had been victims of an acid attack. Isaac did a portrait of a woman with a scarred face. The woman’s head is partially wrapped in strips of bandages that Isaac painted to look like rows of newly sprouting plants. “I wanted to show hope, and how connecting with the environment can help people,” Isaac says.

This year’s 36 Emory S.A.W. artists are mainly undergraduates — many of them science majors — but they also include a few graduate students, faculty and staff members. Georgia Tech makes up the bulk of other contributing artists and researchers in this year’s S.A.W., although 10 independent artists also got involved, along with Georgia State University undergraduates and the Atlanta campus of SCAD.

“S.A.W. is collaborative, not only across disciplines and institutions, but also across students, faculty, staff and members of the Atlanta community,” Romero says. “We even have one international artist, from Puerto Rico.”

A painting by Georgia Tech student Bianca Guerrero portrays a virtual reality game used to measure players' perception of time as well as eye movement. The art is based on research by Georgia Tech psychologist Malia Crane. Photo by Ann Watson, Emory Photo/Video.

As long as she can remember, everyone thought Romero would become an artist, or maybe an architect. She began taking art classes at the age of three in her home town of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. She continued making and studying art, developing a surrealist style.

In ninth grade, however, a psychology course sparked a fascination for neurobiology. Romero took online classes and started reading up on subjects like optogenetics and deep-brain stimulation.

By the time she was accepted to Emory, she had decided to forge a career as a scientist. “A lot of people told me that if I chose neuroscience I would have to forsake art, because I would be a bad scientist if I tried to do both,” she recalls. “I was determined to prove them wrong.”

Romero sought out kindred spirits like Nicole Gerardo, associate professor of biology, who also grew up with twin passions for science and art. Gerardo once had students create artwork using microbes in her lab under the direction of Nancy Lowe — a former lab technician at Emory who went on to create a retreat center in North Carolina called AS.IF: Art and Science in the Field.

Gerardo later paired students with labs to create ceramic representations of research under the direction of Diane Kempler, who formerly taught visual arts at Emory.

“Art provides a way to reach people who may be intimidated by science,” Gerardo says. “And working with an artist lets scientists see their own work in a different way. That could lead to new scientific approaches.”

When Romero first joined forces with Gerardo it was simply to produce art for her lab, which focuses on evolutionary ecology. “We were test subjects for S.A.W.,” Romero says.

Emory senior Maureen Ascona, a neuroscience and behavioral biology major, discusses her art with visitors to the Quad. Ascona teamed with Helen Mayberg, from the Emory School of Medicine, who uses deep-brain stimulation to help patients with treatment-resistant depression. Photo by Ann Watson, Emory Photo/Video.

One of the pieces Romero created consists of triangular canvases that can be shifted into different positions. The acrylic painting depicts how aphids develop wings in the presence of predators, like ladybugs, or if food becomes scarce. “When Dr. Gerardo explains her work to people, she can move the canvases to show how the aphids change in response to their environment,” Romero says.

Romero wanted to give other students the chance to enter research labs and experiment with art.

“Pamela is an amazing woman, a force of nature,” says Gerardo, who is the faculty mentor for S.A.W. “What she has done with the support of her fellow students is incredible. I had envisioned maybe 20 pairings of scientists and artists. I’m still surprised by how big it became.”

Connections from across the University helped S.A.W. grow. Wei Wei Chen and John Wang, student leaders of Emory Arts Underground, provided the platform for Romero to launch S.A.W. and encouraged her to form a charter, bylaws and an executive team. That team includes Emory undergraduates Alex Nazzari (vice-president), Aila Jiang, Veronica Paltaraskaya, Anne Pizzini, Deborah Seong and John Wang, along with Georgia Tech students Olivia Cox, Siyan Li and Iris Liu.

The students’ efforts paid off with S.A.W.’s smash debut at the Atlanta Science Festival.

“One of my favorite parts was guiding artists through the process of disentangling the science, reassuring them that they could do it,” Romero says. “Many of them felt overwhelmed after first talking to a scientist. Some of them were first-year students who hadn’t even had introductory biology or chemistry.”

A piece by Alice Yang, a first-year Emory student majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology who teamed with researchers of human genetics in the Emory 3q29 Project. Photo courtesy of S.A.W.

Exploring a lab through an art project allows students to develop a relationship with a researcher and often find a mentor, Romero says.

Alice Yang, a first-year Emory student majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology, teamed with Jennifer Mulle, assistant professor at Rollins School of Public Health. Mulle is co-principal investigator of the Emory 3q29 Project, which seeks to understand a genetic deletion associated with an increased risk for schizophrenia.

“I’m so grateful for the experience,” Yang says of spending time with the 3q29 Project team. “I learned what it’s like to actually do science. And I caught their passion. People are just now realizing how genetics can be involved in mental illness. It’s a very new field.”

To create her art pieces, Yang ordered special scratch-off paper from her native China. “This paper’s easy to work with and it’s great for showing patterns and textures,” she says. She explains how she carefully cut slices from the black top layer of the paper to reveal the glowing, rainbow colors beneath. Her pictures portray the nanomapping of fluorescent-labeled alleles from the 3q29 lab while also paying tribute to Salvador Dali’s surrealism.

Even those who are not aspiring scientists can catch the science-art bug. Independent artist Aaron Artrip teamed with scientists Matthew Jackson and Dan Cook at Georgia Tech to demonstrate interaction with sound. A group of children buzzes around Artrip’s exhibit in White Hall. A piece of paper sprinkled with powdered black ink is taped to a wooden speaker, which is plugged into an electronic synthesizer. As Artrip taps a keyboard, the powder moves across the page, creating patterns.

“I’m making drawings with vibrations. Forcing sound through the ink causes it to move,” he explains.

“Would you like to try?” he asks a young girl watching him.

She doesn’t have to be asked twice.

A painting by Georgia Tech student Kate Bernart, "Connecting the Cycle," portrays Austin Ladshaw's research at Georgia Tech's School of Environmental Engineering on the nuclear fuel cycle and ways to prevent excessive accumulations of radioactive waste. Photo by Ann Watson, Emory Photo/Video

Ultimately, S.A.W. hopes to find ways to integrate its art-science model into grades K-12. “We would like to have artists and researchers go into K-12 classrooms to talk about the art and the research together,” Romero says.

She presented S.A.W. at the recent Georgia Tech STEAM Leadership Conference, which brought together educators and policymakers to explore new ways to teach science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM. S.A.W. is now working to put together an anthology of its art into a booklet, to include descriptions of the science. The booklet will be aimed at high school students “to give them a glimpse of some of the possible fields available to them in college,” Romero says.

S.A.W. is also creating a web site where the art will be accessible in digital form, including videos of some of the interactive art pieces, along with other resources for K-12 teachers.

After graduating this spring, Romero plans to take a gap year, then go on to graduate school with the aim of becoming a professor with a research lab. “S.A.W. has an incredible executive team and I’m making sure that the program continues after I leave Emory,” she says. “I would also like to stay involved with it in some way.”

As she prepares for graduation, Romero is working on an art narrative piece funded by the Emory Center for Creativity and Arts. The work will combine acrylic painting and sculpture to represent the element Vanadium, discovered by Mexican mineralogist Andrews Manuel del Rio in 1801. A series of circular canvases will each represent an atom in Vanadium. Each canvas will also represent a country or group of countries in Latin America, on which Romero will depict the research of a scientist from that area.

“My main goal with this piece is to celebrate and encourage more Latin American science,” Romero says. She is calling the piece “Elementally Latino,” to describe how Latinos are an elemental, or basic, part of science and how they also embody an elemental force. “Latinos are such a passionate people that I can only adequately describe them as a force of nature,” she says.

Related:

The art and science of symbiosis
Frankenstein and robots rise up for Atlanta Science Festival

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Peeps experiments: A seasonal celebration of science

Why experiment on Peeps? "Because they're there!" says Emory chemist Douglas Mulford.

It’s that time of year again when Peepus Marshmalleous, commonly known as Peeps, pop up everywhere — even in an Emory University chemistry lab.

Emory's groundbreaking Peeps research began in 1999 when researchers Gary Falcon and James Zimming investigated the effects of smoking and alcohol on Peeps health and performed the medical miracle of separating quintuplet Peep siblings, conjoined at birth. You can read more here: peepresearch

Douglas Mulford, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Chemistry, continues the tradition by treating students every spring to a Peeps show. “Basically, it’s 45-minutes of every chemical thing that you can do to a Peeps,” Mulford explains. “It’s amazing what they can survive.” 

Watch a brief video summarizing the show, below. And check out Emory’s new Instagram account, Science Seen, for more quick, behind-the-scenes looks at science at Emory.

Physicists show why it's hard to clog a drain with soft particles

Emory sophomore Mia Morrell conducted the experiments with hydrogel balls. "You can learn a lot from them because they provide a simple model for physics, kind of like fruit flies do for biology," she says.

By Carol Clark

For decades, scientists have studied how groups of solid objects — everything from falling grains of sand to a rushing crowd of panicked people — can get stuck as they try to pass through a small opening. The classic result is known as “faster is slower.” When the objects flow out, if an arch of the objects forms across the opening, then a large pressure can stabilize the arch and cause a clog.

Now scientists have shown that when the objects are squishy instead of solid, the reverse is true. The journal Physical Review E published the findings by physicists at Emory University, demonstrating that when soft particles feel a larger pressure, they squish together and the arch breaks, and so clogging is less likely.

“We’ve quantified the clogging dynamics of soft objects for the first time and identified the parameters that seem to explain why it’s completely opposite physics to that of hard objects,” says Emory physics professor Eric Weeks, whose lab conducted the research. “One surprising result is that, while friction is often suspected to be important for arch formation, our particles are frictionless and yet still form arches.”

Questions about how clogs form have implications for everything from improving highway design and the flow of traffic to avoiding jam-ups of people fleeing a burning building.

The dynamics of soft objects that the Weeks lab investigated could give insights into biological processes such as the flow of cells, bacteria and other “squishy” particles through blood vessels.

“It’s new physics and yet it’s so simple,” Weeks says. “We used tools such as a basic physics formula from 1882 and some cheap hydrogel balls that we ordered from Amazon.”

"Hydrogels have interesting properties and that makes them fun to work with," says Mia Morrell, a member of the Weeks lab.

Weeks, who specializes in the study of soft condensed materials, became intrigued by the growing number of studies on how solid objects clog. It sounds counterintuitive — after a rush of solid particles through an opening forms an arch, greater pressure behind them solidifies that arch. But the process appears to work similarly to a keystone arch in architecture: The pressure from the weight of stones above presses the stones in the arch below more firmly together.

Weeks and his students decided to explore the process of soft-particle clogging. Graduate students Xia Hong and Meghan Kohne worked on experiments involving tiny oil droplets and then computer simulations.

Motivated by those preliminary results, Emory senior Haoran Wang (who graduated in 2017) conducted early experiments with the marble-sized, water-filled hydrogel balls. They are sometimes called plant balls since they are commonly used to hold up stems in flower vases. Wang built a two-dimensional, Plexiglas hopper that allowed gravity to pull the hydrogel balls down through two triangular wedges that could be adjusted in width to change the size of the opening between them.

Mia Morrell, a sophomore, continued the work when she joined the Weeks lab last year.

“I loved doing the hydrogel experiments because it’s really hands-on — not just sitting at a desk,” Morrell says, adding that the project also required her to learn how to become handy with a drill and a laser cutter.

The hydrogel balls start out as deflated polymer husks. They are left in a tray of water until they swell up into squishy, slippery, plastic spheres that feel almost like living tissue.

“Hydrogels have interesting properties and that makes them fun to work with,” Morrell says. “You can learn a lot from them because they provide a simple model for physics, kind of like fruit flies do for biology.”

Morrell loaded the hydrogels into the two-dimensional hopper. She tilted the hopper to vary the effects of gravity and checked to see if the particles would clog as they flowed through it. This process required her to reload the hopper more than 400 times to investigate different conditions.

The Hertzian force law, an 1882 formula by Heinrich Hertz, allowed the researchers to measure the displacement and compression force of individual hydrogel spheres and compare the hydrogel results with the oil droplet experiments and the computer simulations. The comparison showed that these different systems all have the same physical behavior, apparently universal to soft particles.

“We quantified the dynamics of soft particles in a two-dimensional environment under the influence of gravity and what happens when you present them with an obstacle,” Morrell says. “What we learned from this single system may have many broader applications.”

Related:
Physicists crack another piece of the glass puzzle
Crystal-liquid interface made visible for the first time

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Frankenstein at 200 sparks wonder and debate

Emory's Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library holds an 1881 original edition of "Frankenstein" and an 1831 edition, above, with a depiction of the "creature" and a prologue by Mary Shelley.

It’s the 200th anniversary year of “Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus,” an enduring novel at the nexus of major questions of our time. Emory faculty explore many of them in a newly published anthology, “Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon, the Science and Enduring Allure of Mary Shelley’s Creation.”

“When you see a contemporary film about androids, like ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ you’re seeing the ‘Frankenstein’ story in a 21st-century guise,” says Sidney Perkowitz, Emory emeritus physicist and co-editor of the new anthology. “The androids are sleek and modern instead of the shambling, stitched-together creature in ‘Frankenstein,’ but they have the same questions swirling around them. Even as we’re on the verge of artificially generating life, we’re no closer to knowing whether we should.”

You can read more here.

Related:
Chemists boldly go in search of 'little green molecules'
Prometheus: Seeding wonder and science

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Biologists unravel another mystery of what makes DNA go 'loopy'

Interior of a cell showing the nucleus with the chromatin fiber (yellow) arranged in the three-dimensional space by loops formed by the CTCF protein (shown in pink). DNA is represented by thin blue lines on the chromatin. Graphic by Victor Corces. 

By Carol Clark

Scientists discovered another key to how DNA forms loops and wraps inside the cell nucleus — a precise method of “packing” that may affect gene expression.

The journal Science published the research by biologists at Emory University, showing that a process known as hemimethylation plays a role in looping DNA in a specific way. The researchers also demonstrated that hemimethylation is maintained deliberately — not through random mistakes as previously thought — and is passed down through human cell generations.

“In order for a protein called CTCF to make loops in the DNA, we discovered that it needs to have hemimethylated DNA close by,” says Emory biologist Victor Corces, whose lab did the research. “Nobody had previously seen that hemimethylated DNA has a function.”

Chenhuan Xu, a post-doctoral fellow in the Corces lab, developed experimental methods for DNA methylome mapping to conduct the research for the Science paper.

Chromatin is made up of CTCF and other proteins, along with DNA and RNA. One role of chromatin is to fold and package DNA into more compact shapes. Growing evidence suggests that this folding process is not just important to fit DNA into a cell nucleus — it also plays a role in whether genes are expressed normally or malfunction.

The Corces lab specializes in epigenetics: The study of heritable changes in gene function — including chromatin folding — that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence.

DNA methylation, for example, can modify the activity of DNA by adding methyl groups to both strands of the double helix at the site of particular base pairs. The process can be reversed through demethylation.

As cells divide they make a copy of their DNA. In order to do so, they have to untangle the two strands of DNA and split them apart. Each parental strand then replicates a daughter strand.

“When cells divide, it’s important that they keep the methylation the same for both strands,” Corces says, noting that altered patterns of methylation are associated with cancer and other diseases.

Hemimethylation involves the addition of a methyl group to one strand of the DNA helix but not the other. Some researchers observing hemimethylation have hypothesized that they were catching it right after cell division, before the cell had time to fully replicate to form a daughter strand. Another theory was that hemimethylation was the result of random mistakes in the methylation process.

The methods developed by Xu in the Corces lab allowed the researchers to observe hemimethylation on DNA in human cells in real-time before, during and after cell division. They also mapped it as the cells continued to replicate.

“If the parental DNA was hemimethylated, the daughter DNA was also hemimethylated at the same place in the genome,” Corces says. “The process is not random and it’s maintained from one cell generation to the next over weeks.”

The researchers found that hemimethlyation only occurs near the binding sites of CTCF — the main protein involved in organizing DNA into loops.

“If we got rid of the hemimethlyation, CTCF did not make loops,” Corces says. “Somehow, hemimethylation is allowing CTCF to make loops.”

And when CTCF makes a loop, it does so by binding ahead, going forward in the DNA sequence, they observed.

“Research suggests that some disorders are associated with CTCF binding — either mutations in the protein itself or with the DNA sequence where the protein binds,” Corces says. “It comes back to the story of how important these loops are to the three-dimensional organization of chromatin, and how that organization affects the gene expression.”

Related:
Small steps lead to big career
Teen scientists bloom in lab
Epigenetics zeroes in on nature vs. nurture