War Paint: 2015

We gathered at midday. It was unseasonably hot, the sun beating down uncomfortably on our backs as we put on our gear. We barely noticed the sweat soaking through. We were there for a purpose. We knew what needed to be done.

chickswithpaintguns

Sweet Tea and Pork B’Ellie preparing for the fight.

Dexter “The Cannon” Myrick was the first to get hit. It was his trigger hand—a costly loss. But he wouldn’t be the last to see the angry red welts rising on his skin, to fight on through the pain. None of us made it through unscathed. My own injuries have yet to heal. Perhaps they will remain with me always.

We got separated almost immediately. I found myself with Sweet Tea, hunkered down behind a wooden wall that suddenly seemed too thin to hide me from the enemy’s onslaught. We aren’t going to help our team by hiding, she told me. We have to move on. And with a sudden lunge and a tuck and roll, Sweet Tea abandoned me. I am not proud to say it, but I was too scared to move, too scared to fight back.

boyswithpaint

May they rest in peace.

We were not without heroism. I will never forget watching He Who Shall Not Be (Nick) Named O’Flaherty weaving through enemy fire, reaching our target and raising that beautiful flag that let our enemies know that we will not yield. His family should know that he perished with honor. Nor will I forget watching Phil “The Price is Righteous” Price take a hit for Pork B’Ellie, going down with such bravery and selflessness. Pork B’Ellie honored his death as she bellowed out a war cry and landed a headshot on her aggressor. We fought our way through that abandoned town, hiding behind cars, abandoned buildings, even headstones to press on. We left that battlefield bruised, battered, and covered in paint. Most importantly, we left that battlefield triumphant. We came as friends with nothing but a groupon and a free Sunday afternoon, but we left as warriors, comrades in arms, victors.

paintballgroup

Classic Paintball features 5 playing fields and a large urban city to accommodate both recreational and advanced players. They have covered pavilions and picnic tables in the staging area that are provided for you convenience. The fields are open Saturday and Sunday 10:00am-5:00pm.

Address:
1320 Blairs Bridge Rd.
Lithia Springs, GA 30122
Phone: 770-732-1110

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Atlanta Science Festival 2015: The Science of Beer

By Don Noblebeerscience

One of the highlights of this year’s Atlanta Science Festival (held March 21-28) is sure to be the Science of Beer series, sponsored by Georgia Bio and organized by our very own Neuroscience Graduate Program alum, Dr. Jacob Shreckengost (affectionately referred to as Dr. Cupcake by those in the know). This two-part event will encompass exciting talks, tours, interactive demos, and surprise!… plenty of beer to make you forget everything you’ve learned and come back next year!

Each event consists of a brief lecture and several activities designed to fully immerse you in the theme of the day. In both cases, you will hear from scientists and brewers, taste some of the relevant beers, tour the brewery, and explore interactive demos on the science of beer.

Part I on Monday, March 23rd from 6:30-8:30 @ Orpheus Brewing: The first Talk, Tasting, and Tour (modeled after former presidential candidate Herman Cain’s T-T-T plan) will focus on discovering the biology of bacterial fermentation and its role in making certain beers sour. The lecture, given by Dr. Chris Cornelison of Georgia State University, will explore the bacterial processes that give your favorite farmhouse ale and saisons just the right amount of funk, and will be accompanied by beer pairings crafted by Orpheus Brewing. After the talk and discussion, participants will have the opportunity to take tours, view and participate in demos on the science of beer, and mingle with fellow beer nerds and novices. Tickets are available here.

Part II on Wednesday, March 25th from 6:30-8:30 @ Monday Night Brewing: The second event will focus on discovering the neuroscience of taste and how the brain experiences hoppiness. The lecture, given by Emory’s Dr. Kerry Ressler, is titled “From the Brain to the Bulb: How Your Head Handles Hops”, and will explore the neuroscience of taste and how the brain experiences the floral, citrusy and piney bouquets of different hop varieties. It will be accompanied by beer pairings crafted by Monday Night Brewing. Again, after the talk and discussion, participants will have the opportunity to take tours, view and participate in demos on the science of beer, and mingle with fellow beer nerds and novices. Tickets are available here.

If you don’t pass out trying to drink Jacob under the table, you’ll leave with a greater appreciation for the expanding and innovating scientific and brewing community in Atlanta, as well as a collectible Atlanta Science Festival Science of Beer 400mL beaker/pint glass.

Look forward to seeing you there!

Tickets to the event can be purchased below:

http://atlantasciencefestival.org/events/event/1053 (Part I)

Orpheus Brewing: 1440 Dutch Valley Pl NE, Atlanta, GA 30324

http://atlantasciencefestival.org/events/event/1054 (Part 2)

Monday Night Brewing: 678 Trabert Ave., Atlanta, 30318 

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Neuroscience and Juggling

by Claire McGregorClaireJuggling1

When I first learned to juggle, my teacher, a man whose workouts consisted of running for miles while juggling which he called “joggling,” told me that juggling changes your brain and gives you more gray matter. This meant pretty much nothing to me at the time, but it wouldn’t be the first time neuroscience and juggling collided in my life.

While I was visiting Emory for recruitment, I told some students that I liked to juggle for what I’m sure were totally relevant reasons. During a break between interviews, I was asked to prove it, and while juggling some squishy tangerines, one of my hosts (who has since graduated) decided to chuck a couple more tangerines at me for what I’m sure were equally sound reasons. The tangerines exploded all over my interview clothes, and for the rest of the weekend I was known as the recruit who Dave threw an orange at.

ClaireJuggling3My teacher had only gotten it partially right about juggling and gray matter; a lot of things change our gray matter. The interesting thing about juggling is that it was the exercise used to show long term changes in white matter for the first time in a paper by Heidi Johansen-Berg in Nature Neuroscience in 2009. Twenty four adults were given a six-week course in juggling, and then made to quit their new skill for four weeks. Diffusor Tensor Imaging (DTI) was performed before and after their training, and then again after their juggling abstinence, and it was found their white matter increased after training and stayed increased during juggling prohibition. The regions that were affected are involved in arm movement, grasping, and peripheral vision, which makes sense, but interestingly the magnitude of changes had no relation to the level of skill reached. Juggling enthusiasts have since used this paper to claim that juggling makes you smarter, sharpens concentration, and can prevent neurodegenerative diseases, though it’s hard to take anything seriously from people who literally run five miles a day through forests while juggling.

ClaireJuggling2

Juggling at a holiday party in China

I personally believe that juggling was responsible for my admission to Emory, though probably not because it enhanced my brain connectivity. I just think getting pummeled with rotten fruit during interviews makes one memorable and leaves a favorable impression. But if anyone wants to increase their gray AND white matter, I can teach you to juggle and promise not to throw any fruit at you.

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Wikibombing with Emory’s Women in Neuroscience

by Laura Mariani

We all love to roll our eyes at stories of undergrads trying to cite Wikipedia (or in one memorable case from a class I taught: copy and paste from Wikipedia, without even bothering to make the font match the rest of their paper). We also know that without Wikipedia, we’d be so screwed. Whether you’re looking up obscure science terms that no one bothers to define in their journal articles, or just killing time during an incubation by reading about weird animals (ocean sunfish don’t have tails and must swim by “waggling their anal fins”), Wikipedia is an important source of information. But it can always be made better.

Why edit Wikipedia?

Since Wikipedia is a public resource, editing Wikipedia can be viewed as a form of public outreach. In fact, the Society for Neuroscience has previously offered a professional development workshop on writing for Wikipedia. Furthermore, it seems only fair to contribute to a resource that you personally use. If you always ignore the annoying banner ads that pop up during Wikipedia’s fundraising drives, consider donating some of your time instead. As a scientist, you have a combination of expert knowledge and obsessive interest in an obscure topic that make for the best kind of Wikipedia editor.

One serious issue with Wikipedia is that it is a total boys’ club. Somewhere between 84% and 91% of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors are men. This gender disparity behind the scenes leads to many forms of bias, which, while not necessarily intentional, lead to an under-representation of women on Wikipedia’s digital pages. With that in mind, Emory Women in Neuroscience (EWIN) took to the internet on February 27 to increase the number of women scientists featured on the 7th most popular website in the world. At the time of our event, there were only 37 names linked from the “Women neuroscientists” category. As of this writing, the tally is at 93. We made progress, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.

How you can help

Three ways to improve women neuroscientists’ representation on Wikipedia: 1) linking existing articles to the “Women neuroscientists” category (to make them easier to find), 2) adding more information and citations to existing articles about women scientists, and 3) creating new articles about notable women who don’t yet have their own page. These tasks were organized into a public spreadsheet so that anyone, whether or not they were able to attend the EWIN event, can see the work that needs to be done and chip in. With help from Sarah Melton, a PhD candidate in the Institute of the Liberal Arts and Digital Projects Coordinator for the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, EWIN members learned the basics of how to edit a Wikipedia page and got to work.

EWIN’s to-do spreadsheet is still live, and we could use your help! Here are some things that you can do right now to help us build a better public reference for people interested in neuroscience:

  1. Add women scientists to our spread sheet. Identify notable women scientists who should be on Wikipedia, or who are on Wikipedia but who have crappy articles, and add their names to our spreadsheet. Wikipedia does use certain notability criteria, so we are not able to create pages for all of the scientists on our list… yet. But if you add someone, we will look into it!
  2. Edit the pages listed in the spreadsheet under “Scientists whose articles need improving.” This is easier than writing a brand new article and sometimes can be as simple as adding a few references. To cite a journal article, use the “cite journal” template under the “Cite” menu on the Wikipedia editing page. Just enter the PubMed PMID, click the magnifying glass icon, and it will autocomplete the rest of the citation! Wikipedia is officially better at citation management than me.
  3. Dive in and write a whole article. Anyone highlighted in green under “Scientists w/o articles” has given permission for us to write about them. (We also took the liberty of assuming it’s fine to write about dead people.) I personally tackled a biography of Sue McConnell for this project. It took several hours, split up over a couple of days, but it turned out to be really fun. I learned that in addition to teaching at Stanford and studying cerebral cortex development, Dr. McConnell is a wildlife photographer whose work has been featured in places like National Geographic. I also had the pleasure of contacting her to let her know that she was getting a Wikipedia biography and to request a photograph. It feels really good when a member of the National Academy of Sciences replies to your email with “This is fabulous! Thank you!!!”

Although the Wikipedia interface is not as user-friendly as it could be, there are lots of tutorials available. The “preview” feature also lets you check your edits before publishing them, so it’s possible to empirically determine an optimal editing strategy (aka, randomly try some stuff and then check to see if it worked correctly). Finally, any member of the EWIN executive board should be able to help you out with novice-level Wikipedia questions.

With that in mind, EWIN encourages everybody to participate! EWIN is also planning more group Wikipedia editing sessions (with snacks) for the future, so stay tuned for announcements about that. Happy editing!

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Grad School Feelings

by Kristen Thomas

We all enter graduate school knowing that we will be challenged intellectually. We’re prepared to take more tests, to memorize more obscure brain regions, and to learn the finer details of experimental design. Yet no one warns us that the journey to a PhD will be at least as demanding emotionally. On a particularly difficult day in lab, I sat down to describe a few of these feelings that are truly unique to the graduate school experience.

Shameless Science Sorrows

jess cryingSometimes nothing is going right in science. Nothing. Add onto that the fact that life doesn’t always cooperate and make the non-science parts of your day any better. It’s okay to cry: in the bathroom, in the dark microscope room, in the cell culture room. Just preferably not in your advisor’s office. Trust me.

First Year Humility

Too-much-science-gifAfter months of advertising how smart and talented we are, we finally enter graduate school and realize we’re at the bottom of the science totem pole. I feel like my first year was the peak of my perky science optimism. Then exams, rotations, quals, and lots of science failures hit and I felt my scientific spirit breaking. Science is hard, very hard. Nothing could have prepared me for discovering that I’m not nearly as smart or talented as I once though, but I’m grateful for the experience because it came with a huge dose of humility. I know my limits. I can ask others for help, and I’m open to other people’s input. It’s made me a better scientist and a far better human being. (And if you have no idea what I’m talking about here and you’ve made it past your second year, there’s a good chance everyone secretly hates you.)

Minions: The full emotional spectrum

I think many of us have forgotten how useless we were when we first started in lab as undergrads. We broke equipment, mixed up samples, contaminated cells, and created lab chaos that our mentors had to deal with until we slowly gained experience. Now that I’m a mentor with a small army of my own minions, I get to see the process from the other end. I was prepared for the chaos and the constant demands on my patience, but I wasn’t expecting to feel so proud of my students when they finally start to get it.

Imposter syndrome

funny-gif-squirrel-stuffed-animalAlthough Emory offers plenty of opportunities for us to learn more about this phenomenon and try to overcome it, I know many of us continue to experience imposter syndrome: the feeling like we don’t belong here and if we aren’t careful everyone will find out that we’re imposters. While this feeling isn’t unique to graduate school, I feel like it’s particularly heightened here. We’re high achievers who spend most of our days surrounded by other high achievers. When I feel like I don’t belong here, I take a trip outside the ivory tower and talk to the non-scientists about what I do on a daily basis. Instant ego boost.

N=1 joy

FUScienceMany, if not most, of my experiments have worked the first time I’ve tried them. That’s when I think, “Oh yeah, I’m starting to get the hang of this science thing.” If I could trust this feeling, I would have graduated already. Early success is a trap, designed to lure unsuspecting graduate students into months of repeated failures. I no longer feel any joy about science until p<0.05, and even then I’m a little suspicious.

Data envy

popularMost people are jealous that their neighbor has a nicer car, their friend is in better shape, or their co-worker got a promotion: I’m just jealous of your data. It’s usually when I’m convinced that I’m never going to graduate and I see one of my classmates presenting an endless stream of statistically significant data that tells a coherent story. I have to remind myself sometimes, that posters and presentations are the scientific equivalent of facebook; no one wastes space on obstacles and failures. They only show the good stuff. Now I try to stay focused on my own project and my own life.

Quals prep panic

science dogThe autumn weeks leading up to my oral qualifying exam are a bit of a blur. The more I read the literature relevant to my proposal the more convinced I became that I knew nothing and I was doomed to failure. I think this panic is a necessary part of the process. Without it I never would have finished the near-endless stacks of papers I kept on my desk, in my backpack, and on my dining room table that fall.

When I started making this list, I knew I was going to have a hard time filling out the positive end of the emotional spectrum. (I’ve already expounded on the joys of alcohol in another post.) Grad school isn’t all depressing though, mostly because we’re all going through it together. I’m lucky to be in an environment where we support each other. But even without our friends, there’s one emotion that I think keeps us all here:

Eureka!

Every once in a while, we manage to get something right, p<0.05, and we get to put a * (or even two!) on our graph. Then we remember why we’re here.

Science Pepsi

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Science Book Review: Braintrust: What neuroscience tells us about morality

by Patricia S. ChurchlandBrain Trust

Reviewed by Mandy Bekhbat

Where do moral values come from? To date, most moral philosophers have proposed pure reason (e.g. Kant) – reason exempt from emotion and passion – or innate knowledge of basic, universal moral principles (e.g. Plato, Marc Hauser) as a source for moral behavior. In this thought-provoking, data-driven book, neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland rejects both camps and proposes an alternative hypothesis on the origins of morality. Her hypothesis takes into account the social aspect of human behavior and its underlying biology. While the author does not believe that science provides an authority on what is moral and what is not, she hopes that understanding what it is that makes humans and other animals social, and why we care about others will lead to more effective ways to cope with social problems.

She begins by noting that the idea of reason detached from emotion as the source of morality ignores the fact that emotions are Mother Nature’s way of dictating how we ought to behave in a social setting. Employing a variety of findings from the fields of neuroscience and cognitive science, Churchland extends the views of David Hume, a naturalist who believed that “moral behavior, though informed by understanding and reflection, is rooted in a deep, widespread, and enduring social motivation.” Churchland poses morality as part of social behavior consisting of two components. The biological component of morality is the urge to be social, a behavior reinforced by the evolutionary benefits of group-living. The cultural aspect of morality depends on our capacity to learn and solve complex problems in a social context. Therefore at the core of morality are social behaviors shaped by four main brain processes: 1) caring for self and others, 2) recognizing others’ state of mind, 3) problem-solving in a social context, 4) social learning.

Churchland adeptly observes that social emotions, values, and behavior have adopted existing mechanisms which serve basic physiological functions. Natural selection has deemed self-preservation as a core value in mammals, and in times of homeostatic need the self-preserving circuitry for homeostasis are swiftly activated through the autonomic nervous system, limbic system, and the brainstem. Along with the activation of these “self-preserving” circuits, a motivational emotion such as fear and unpleasantness is generated. Consequently an appropriate behavioral response is shaped by integrating signals from brainstem-limbic circuitry as well as structures such as the insula and anterior cingulate cortex. In this way the circuitry for self-caring gives rise to the core value of being alive and well. Caring for others is made possible by extending self-preservation to the preservation of kin and kith, through the oxytocin/vasopressin systems. The reward/pain circuits mediate the experience of pain and anxiety when separated from kin, and pleasure when reunited with kin, and thus reinforces the values of social living.

While social living affords many survival benefits it also leads to within-group and inter-group social competition and conflicts. Similar to her presentation of the neural basis for caring, Churchland discusses in-depth the distinct neural mechanisms underlying trust and cooperation, the ability to predict another person’s inner state, imitate another’s behavior, and solve complex problems in a social context. Extremely attentive to details and nuances of the studies cited, Churchland cautions the readers against overgeneralizing and making conclusions unsupported by the data. In the spirit of good scientific writing she emphasizes the importance of delving into hands-on studies in order to derive meaningful insights about how scientific findings help create an explanation for aspects of human behavior.

Braintrust does an excellent job in providing compelling neuroscientific data in order to support her hypothesis on the origins of morality. However, Churchland doesn’t address exactly how understanding the neural underpinnings of morality could guide the reader through moral dilemmas that we face in our contemporary society. For example, the finding that cortical areas important for social interactions such as the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex are smaller/less functionally active in psychopaths only seems to add to the complexity of the question of whether psychopaths should be punishable for their criminal actions. Given her arguments in this book, she would likely say that each moral decision ought to be inferred by carefully weighing all relevant factors and analyzing the situation at hand, rather than deriving what we ought to do from a set of hard-set rules such as Kant’s categorical imperatives.

Such a view is consistent with moral relativism, the idea that different cultures/people have differing ideas of what is right or wrong. Human cultural practices and conventions continuously change as solutions to social problems emerge and evolve. If one is to accept morality as part of social behavior then it follows that morality is relative and that nothing is inherently good or bad. Also consistent with moral relativism is the author’s rejection of innate, universal knowledge of moral conduct as a source of human moral behavior. Researcher Jonathan Haidt proposed that humans make moral decisions by appealing to an innate, universal “moral organ” which allows us to decide what is right or wrong without much deliberation. Churchland thinks that universality of a moral practice such as a preference for truth, is certainly consistent with the idea of innateness. However, she points out, universality of moral values can alternatively be just a good solution to a common social problem much like convergent evolution of the eye is a good solution to sensing the environment. While we do not possess an innate moral organ, she concludes, we can make fairly solid attempts at tackling complex moral questions by analyzing the facts and circumstances, examining our moral intuitions, and understanding of how our brains have evolved to value certain social behaviors and practices.

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Sports Science: How Statistical Analysis is Changing Sports

By Chris Sinon

Sports fans love to argue. Who’s the best player? Who wins tonight’s game? What will Oregon’s jerseys look like?

oregon montage

So many choices…

With January being an especially great time of year for sports, these debates will only get louder and more aggressive. People nationwide will turn to statistics for help justifying their picks for this year’s championship teams and all-star game selections.

For most of the 20th century, the stats used by the sports community have been fairly simple, often referring to just pure raw data (like goals or assists) or simple averages (like shooting percentages). While traditional sports stats make for great trivia and sporting lore, teams and fans have realized that these numbers alone won’t help them project future performance or predict team success. A statistical revolution that any scientist could respect is underway in professional sports, and here are a few examples:

  1. Baseball: Batting Average vs. On Base Percentage
    The most famous example of the statistical revolution in pro sports was popularized by the book Moneyball and the film of the same name. You need to score runs to win baseball games and the players who are the best at hitting score lots of runs. Success as a hitter has been popularly represented by a player’s Batting Average (number of hits divided by number of at bats) and MLB teams sought out and paid more money for players with the highest Batting Averages.However, hitters can also get to first base in other ways, most commonly by a walk, and this isn’t accounted for by Batting Average. A new metric, On-Base Percentage, was created to track how often a player reaches a base by any means necessary and it fared better at predicting how often a team could put itself in position to score runs. For context, Ted Williams, one of the best baseball players of all time, had a batting average of 0.344. When Williams played in the 1940’s and 50’s, his ability to get a hit on one third of his at bats was considered extraordinary. But using today’s statistics, his On-Base Percentage of 0.482 shows he was actually reaching first base almost half the time. That’s a huge difference in evaluating a player’s ability to score a run for their team.

    Ted

    Ted Williams: Baseball Hall-of-Famer, 17-time All-star, super underrated

  2. Hockey: Plus/Minus vs. Corsi Numbers
    Great players in any sport have a way of controlling the outcome of a game, but how can that happen in a sport where even the best players play less than half of the time? The plus/minus statistic has been used to get a rough idea of whether a player is an asset or a liability to the team. It works by adding up goals scored by a player’s team while that player is on the ice and subtracting how many goals are scored against a player’s team during that same time. Even though this system may credit and discredit players unfairly for goals they have hardly anything to do with, the thought was that over time this stat would reveal trends related to their performance.It turns out, that’s not the case. Plus/minus has been shown to capture too many variables that are simply outside of a player’s control. The best hockey players maximize their team’s ability to win by keeping possession of the puck and creating scoring chances. These qualities can be estimated using a stat called a Corsi Number, which is calculated by adding up the team’s shots (you can’t shoot if you don’t control the puck) and shot blocks (the shot can’t hit the net if you just blocked it) while the player is on ice and subtracting the other team’s shots and shot blocks. Even better, it’s possible to compute a team’s Corsi Number and compare it to a player’s individual Corsi Number to determine how much better a team controls the game when that player is on the ice.

    It’s important to note that for a good Corsi Number it doesn’t matter if shots hit the net or not, your team just needs to try to shoot. The statistic assumes that players won’t try shots unless they think they might score and that the percentage of shots that lead to goals will remain fairly standard over time, and both of these assumptions tend to be true.

  3. Football: Turnover Differential                                                                               Here’s an example where a statistic that was used previously to determine potential success ended up being a red herring. In football, turning the ball over by interception or fumble is just about the worst thing that can happen to your team, other than signing Terrell Owens. History has shown that football teams that turn the ball over more than they take the ball away end up doing very poorly. Only 6 out of 48 teams to ever win the Superbowl did so after committing more turnovers during the season than their opponents. This is normally represented as a team’s Turnover Differential, computed similar to the hockey plus/minus stat (Total Team Turnovers minus Total of the Opponents’ Turnovers, for each week of the season), and this statistic has been used to predict future success.The problem is there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest any football team has ever been able to control their Turnover Differential. A lot of this is due to fumbles. Because footballs take unpredictable bounces and there are a variety of situations where a fumble can occur, a team’s likelihood to recover any hypothetical fumble is at chance. For this reason, the argument has been made that Turnover Differential may actually be a better measure a team’s luck each NFL season. In fact, some equations that attempt to predict a team’s future win total assume that a team with a high Turnover Differential one year will experience a regression towards the mean, and the team’s luck will run out next year.
seahawks

Pictured here: An NFL coin flip

Improving the statistical analysis of sports performance is viewed as a low-cost, high-reward method for gaining an advantage over rivals. As a result, there is no sign that the current quantitative overhaul of sports logic will stop any time soon.   With huge databases of box scores from every sport available on the internet, motivated fans looking to land jobs with their favorite teams or just improve the performance of their own fantasy teams will continue mining the data and searching for patterns in the numbers. But some things will always remain unpredictable…

oregonwhite

Really, Oregon? That’s what you’re going with for the National Championship Game???

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