U of R boffins find that language evolution is based largely on convenience

Ever wonder why different languages seem to have similar roots and structures? Well you probably haven’t, seeing as most people only speak one language. But a study at University of Rochester has found some discoveries that still might interest you, in which they have established exactly how our brains process language.

A team from U of R and Georgetown University created an experiment in which they made two miniature artificial languages with all new verbs, nouns, and pronouns. In four 45-minute sessions, 40 undergraduate students learned the new language by focusing really hard on studying computer images, animated clips, and audio recordings.

They were then shown a clip and asked to describe it in their new language. When faced with problems in the word structure of this language, they chose to alter it in a way that made them understand it more. From this experiment, the team discovered how the human mind alters and changes language to mold it into what’s clearer and much simpler for them to understand.

These findings also support the idea that people learning new languages make common patterns, or what scholars call “linguistic universals.” Says T. Florian Jaeger, co-author of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Our research shows that humans choose to reshape language when the structure is either overly redundant or confusing. This study suggests that we prefer languages that on average convey information efficiently, striking a balance between effort and clarity.

An article written by Brian Macwhinney supports the study conducted by University of Rochester. In it, Macwhinney talks about language being an instinct constantly changing based on human evolution.

So basically, the human mind can structure language in a way that makes it’s easier for them to process. This can be a reason why many of our human languages are similar. And it makes it easier for us to learn to communicate with each other.

Rochester Science Technology

Remember: fall means hunting season, but hunting season doesn’t have to mean falling.

Hooray for hunting season! Yes, that time of year is once again upon us. Bring on the beer, guns, and climbing birds-eye-view tree stands all before the crack of dawn! Nothing could possibly go wrong with that recipe for disaster, right?

According to URMC, usually not; to be specific, only about 10% of the time do hunters find themselves injured in a given year. Well, that’s not so bad, right? Actually, it’s downright terrible, considering the solution to preventing these injuries is an extremely simple one: wear a safety harness. Sounds easy enough, but how long did it take people to get in the habit of wearing seat belts in the car? For some reason, we humans just don’t like being inhibited by contraptions meant to protect us from life altering – or ending – accidents.

According to Jason Huang, M.D., URMC neurosurgeon specializing in head and spine injuries,

“We are still seeing hunters who have taken unnecessary risks by not wearing the safety belt or harness and endure significant injuries from a fall. Compared to a decade ago, we have made no progress in preventing these neurological injuries, despite safety advances – which is unacceptable.”

In a review of 54 hunting accidents or falls between the years of 2003 and 2011, neurosurgeons saw injuries ranging from cervical spine fractures, traumatic brain injuries, collapsed lungs, internal damage to the spleen, liver, and kidneys, and even paraplegia and quadriplegia. According to Huang, most of these accidents would have been prevented if the hunters had worn a safety harness.

Let’s be honest:  hunting season is a great time! Where I grew up in Pennsylvania, they even close schools and businesses during the first day of each game season because they know everyone wants to participate – but let’s make sure we can all make the most of the day without falling 30+ feet to the hard ground. Remember: if you fall, the deer wins!

Rochester Science

U of R redesign of the Marshmallow Experiment proves kids are hip to your bullshit.

Who remembers the famous Marshmallow Study of the late 60s? Maybe it sounds vaguely familiar, but for those of you who recount the 60s with a distinct haze, weren’t born yet, or don’t actively study psychology, I’ll give you a refresher.

The experiment went like this: a group of preschool age children were monitored separately, each being placed directly in front of a fluffy, tasty marshmallow with the promise that if they could wait and not eat the marshmallow now, they would receive two marshmallows later. Over the course of the past four decades, this study has been regarded as a classic experimental measure of children’s self control (or lack thereof).  As time progressed, researchers found that individual differences in the ability to delay gratification with the marshmallow correlated strongly with success in later life, including higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, and better social skills.

Celeste Kidd, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, has revisited this study and taken it a step further, finding that the ability to delay gratification is influenced just as much by the environment as by innate ability – meaning that nature as well as nurture are playing equal hands.

Kidd and her research team set up two contrasting environments to split between 28 preschoolers: a reliable environment, and an unreliable environment. In both settings, the children were told twice to wait for something better; first for art supplies, and second for stickers. The difference was the promises were delivered in the reliable environment, while the unreliable environment came up empty-handed both times.  The third promise followed the same steps as the original marshmallow study: wait 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow, and then receive two marshmallows instead.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, children who experienced reliable interactions immediately before the marshmallow task were able to hold out longer – by a lot. The children in the reliable environment were able to wait an average of four times longer than the children in the unreliable environment.  Additionally, only one of the 14 children in the unreliable group waited the full 15 minutes, compared to nine children in the reliable condition.

Previous studies that explored the effect of teaching children waiting strategies showed much smaller effects. This large result provides evidence that wait times do reflect rational decision-making about the probability of a reward.  According to Kidd,

“Being able to delay gratification—in this case to wait 15 difficult minutes to earn a second marshmallow—not only reflects a child’s capacity for self-control, it also reflects their belief about the practicality of waiting. Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay. If you are used to getting things taken away from you, not waiting is the rational choice.”

However, don’t worry if you try this trick at home with your own kids and they gobble up the marshmallow immediately. This doesn’t mean you’ve failed at being reliable. It just means things are different when you’re the person they’re with day in and day out. And besides – maybe it’s just snack time.

Rochester Science

The Rochester Nomogram will revolutionize LASIK eye surgery

Imagine a world of blurry images and words, where contact lenses and glasses are the only way to see clearly. For some people, this world is a reality. But as of recently there is a solution to the problem that is FDA approved and has a success rate that is guaranteed for an individual’s eyesight to be perfect.

Scott MacRae, M.D. and Manoj Venkiteshwar, Ph.D., invented a complex formula to better improve LASIK surgery by helping physicians determine how refractive surgery will affect the patient’s eyesight. A U.S. patent has been recently issued for the technology to help thousands of people around the world boost their eyesight. The formula is called Rochester Nomogram.

For those of you who don’t have any background information on the subject, there are a few things you must know. The cornea is the part of the eye that helps focus light to create an image for you to see. It almost works just like the lens of a camera and how it focuses when a person takes a picture. What takes place in a LASIK surgery is the corneal tissue is removed by a special laser that reshapes the cornea to change the focus of the individual’s eyesight.

Nomogram adjusts the way the laser in the surgery interacts with the patient’s eye tissue without risking the patient’s eyesight. The formula also reduces the number of repeat surgeries that most patients must endure in order to perfect their eyesight and not rely on contact lenses or glasses.

Said MacRae at the European Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons meeting,

Eyesight is crucial to everyone’s quality of life. As a physician, I am required to do everything in my power to make sure each of my patients has the very best vision possible.

Tens of thousands of people around the world have had vision procedures that have been associated with Nomogram. As of now, 99.3 percent of MacRae’s patients are seeing 20/20 vision or better after their surgery.

“It’s also gratifying that our work is benefiting not only our own patients but also others around the world,” added MacRae.

Rochester Science

Have U of R researchers discovered the kill switch for the flu?

“Make it stop. Please, please make it stop.”

That was my impression of myself during every flu I’ve ever had, ever. I hate the damned flu, hate being sick. And the idea that a flu might kill us all is actually the furthest thing from my mind when I’m suffering from one. Hell, I’d like a little company, myself.

So I’m not generally one to push the HOLY SHIT THERE’S A FLU GOING AROUND button. The difference between a “super flu” and just another shitty season of flus is really a numbers game, though mainstream media outlets like to push that button hard and often. They do so knowing that the fear of illness – hypochondriasis to its friends – is a remarkably effective marketing tool. It sells, in other words.

Still, the flu sucks. And yes, it kills. And good news! Folks at the U of R may have just found the kill switch that can turn that mountain back into a molehill:

The scientists singled out a messenger RNA (mRNA) in their research because it allows the production of two proteins needed for viral propagation. Production of the second protein requires the mRNA to undergo the process of splicing, in which two remote sites of the long molecule join together, while the intervening segment is discarded.

In other words, the messenger chemical that allows the influenza virus to reproduce itself relies on this splicing process and the U of R researchers have isolated the locations where the splicing takes place.

Short-circuit that splicing process and you stop propagation. Do that with enough of the virus in your system, and the virus just dies out like 8-track hipsters. Now you see it, now you don’t.

Options for how they prevent the splicing process include hiding one of the splicing segments or chemically shielding the site from its splicing partner. This research only involved finding the splicing sites, further research would be needed to find the proper process of halting the splice.

The funny thing is: it seems that this was not an intentional discovery, at least not originally. The researchers were looking into an entirely different facet of influenza – how it packages itself – to discover a means of preventing it. But when that research proved to be too complex, they switched to this second line of attack.

For the sake of all mankind myself, I certainly hope this is the key to ridding ourselves of the nastiest strains of the flu. Because again: it sucks.


U of R boffin analyzes cool, kills Schrodinger’s cat in the process

For those of you who are not quantum physics enthusiasts or fans of The Big Bang Theory, Schrodinger’s Cat is a thought experiment. To be clear: no cats were harmed in the making of this metaphor.

As a means of explaining the complex characteristics of subatomic particles and their various states, Schrodinger proposed to Einstein that if you put a cat inside a sealed box whose fate rests on the state of a subatomic particle, the cat could be thought of as being both dead and alive so long as the box remained sealed. There is no way to know what the cat’s fate is without peering inside the box. [1. We presume that there were air holes in the box.. somewhere. Perhaps on the bottom. Because otherwise, the fate of Shrodinger’s cat would have been very obvious, indeed.]

More importantly, quantum mechanics tells us that the cat does exist in both states while the box is closed. Opening the box forces reality – according to some theories – to coalesce around a single definition, leaving all other states to disappear.

And while its doubtful that either Shrodinger or Einstein would have applied the same thought experiment to “cool,” I think it an apt metaphor. Because the one thing everybody who is or would like to think themselves as “cool” tends to eschew on pain of death is…  definition. Clearly, this particular researcher did not get the memo:

“James Dean is no longer the epitome of cool,” Dar-Nimrod said. “The much darker version of what coolness is still there, but it is not the main focus. The main thing is: Do I like this person? Is this person nice to people, attractive, confident and successful? That’s cool today, at least among young mainstream individuals.”

No, James Dean is not the epitome of cool, but that’s doubtless because James Dean is dead. Like, not Shrodinger’s Cat dead. Just dead. 67 years dead and counting.

But “cool” also predates James Dean, nor is James Dean its only model. The original model of “cool,” would, if history is any guide, be considerably darker-skinned, for a start.

It is a term that means many things – and nothing – from whether a person is “cool” as a state of being, to whether a person is “cool” as a social queue. If you’re passing a joint at a concert and say, “don’t worry, that guy’s cool,” you don’t mean that he’s “attractive, confident and successful,” but you also don’t mean he looks like a 2/3 century dead teenager. You mean he’s fine to pass the joint to.[2. Also, god help you if you’re in a band and your friends tell you the show was “pretty cool.” Kiss of death, that.]

“Cool” is contextual, ephemeral and esoteric. Its also nowhere near as complex as any of those words. And unfortunately for this researcher, a passing glance at the results of his research prove that there are Shrodinger’s Cat experiments which will never fail in the end to kill that cat deader than a door nail every. goddamned. time.

Rochester Science

This frog and the University of Rochester may someday cure your cancer.

Science – especially biological science – is often an exercise in comparison. Where complex systems are too vast to understand on their own, the best way to figure them out is to compare many similar yet significantly different systems to see what is the same and what is different.

To this end, the University of Rochester is hosting a third year of a conference known as the North American Comparative Immunology Workshop, aimed at exploring the immune systems of frogs, catfish, sea squirts and others to glean insights into the tricky world of microscopic interspecies warfare.

Frogs have very similar immune systems to human systems. But they develop significantly faster – a few weeks rather than months. And it was recently discovered that frogs and humans both use the same type of highly-speciallized T cells to fight off cancer. It is thought that by observing and better understanding the frog’s immune reaction to cancer, we might find new methods and cures for cancer in human bodies.

Just one more thing to think about this summer while you’re sitting out by the lake and listening to the frogs chirp in the quiet of the evening. One of those guys may just hold the cure for cancer. You never know.

Rochester Science

U of R boffins use Beijing Olympics data to link pollution to cardiovascular health problems

The extraordinary lengths to which the Chinese government went to avoid the embarrassment of hosting the Olympic Games in a smog-choked city offered researchers at the @UofR a rare opportunity to study the effects of air pollution on the day-to-day cardiovascular health of those who live under its pall.

Probably the most amazing part of this story is the fact that China’s efforts to curb pollution actually did work. For weeks prior to the Games, they restricted automobile traffic, closed factories and seeded clouds to produce more rainfall. The results were a significant – albeit temporary – reduction in airborne pollutants. Once the Games were done, however, they relaxed those rules.

This gave researchers the opportunity to measure some of the markers for cardiovascular problems – high blood pressure, heart rates, and blood clotting – before, during and after the moratorium on pollution. The results were unmistakable:

The authors found that the markers used in the study essentially mirrored pollution changes – improving as anti-pollution controls were implemented and rebounding once the air pollution controls were relaxed. For example, two key indicators of blood coagulation – von Willebrand factor and soluble P-selectin concentrations – were reduced by 13 and 34 percent respectively during the games. After the games, these two indicators returned to near pre-Olympic levels. The study also saw similar, but not statistically significant, patterns of change in blood pressure and white blood cell count during the period of pollution controls.

The study goes on to say that the participants in the study were young and healthy, and that the effects of pollution would likely be harsher in more vulnerable demographics.

Rochester Science

Sick of being broke? Why not get sick for cash? U of R’s norovirus vaccine tests

The @UofR Medicine department is currently testing out a new vaccine for the norovirus – the virus commonly known for its disastrous outbreaks on cruise ships in recent years, but which the CDC identifies as the culprit for the majority of food-borne illnesses in the country. They’re looking for twenty volunteers willing to submit to both the vaccine and the virus and in return, they plan to pay out $1,165. Which buys a lot of ginger tea.

But before you head to the mall for your get-well-soon shopping experience, you should be aware of just what you’ll be subjected to. Subjects will be given two shots containing either the virus or a placebo, spaced four weeks apart. Four weeks after that, they will be exposed to the virus to see how they react. During this testing phase, subjects will be held in isolation for five days, to avoid the risk of spreading the disease or of contaminating the results by getting sick.. you know.. “the old-fashioned way.”

All you have to be to participate is between the ages of 18 and 50, not working in select professions, and of course willing to withstand a nasty stomach ache for a few days. Sound good? Well, by all means, give them a call at the Vaccine Research Unit at (585) 273-3990 or click here to read the press release.

Rochester Science

Researchers at the U of R find a new way to look at a killer cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, about 28,000 people will be diagnosed with liver cancer this year and at the same time, about 20,000 other patients will die of that same cancer. Both of those numbers have been increasing at a steady rate for decades now, and scientists aren’t entirely sure why.

But the researchers at the @UofR Wilmot Cancer Research Center have recently discovered an entirely new way to analyze the formation of liver cancer, which typically happens in an area of the liver known as the bile ducts. Bile is a substance produced by the liver that is essential to the digestion of food, and obviously, the ducts carry that bile out of the liver.

Researchers working in conjunction with researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have found a way to genetically engineer mice to produce what is thought to be the most common vector for developing cancer of the liver, known by the charmingly-accessible name Intrahepatic Cholangiocarcinoma (IHCC). This allows the researchers to reproduce the same results over and over again to observe how it functions, and also to apply therapies to it to see what can be prevented.

Wilmot Researchers Create New Way to Study Liver Cancer – News Room – University of Rochester Medical Center.

Rochester Technology

Finger Lakes LEGO League competes at the @UofR

EDITORS NOTE: Breanna Carter is a journalism student at Saint Louis University who currently building up an online resume. She submitted the below article for publication on DFE, which I am happy to do. Are you looking for web publication? Please contact me and we’ll talk about how you might get published on DFE!

This past month, the Finger Lakes FIRST LEGO League Championship Tournament celebrated its most successful year to date. The event, held at the University of Rochester, began in 2005 with just a couple dozen teams from the local area. The number of teams, the quality of the competition, and the stakes at hand have all increased regularly since then, and this year the robotics program included around 130 teams representing an area that includes large swaths of upstate New York.

The competition is open to students from the age of 9 to 14. An entering team is required to construct robots out of LEGO pieces, give presentations regarding their robot’s ability to tackle a given theme, and then demonstrating this ability in a 4 by 8 foot arena. This year’s theme was food safety, specifically methods and techniques to preserve food and insure that it is safe. Successful demonstrations had robots removing bacteria from food and depositing it in a sink, inspecting food for animal contamination, and regulating a refrigerator’s thermostat.

In the final round of the tournament, 36 teams competed for the ultimate prize: a chance to represent the region at the World Festival this spring, in St. Louis Missouri. Hundreds of students congregated in UR’s Goergen Athletic Center with robots, PowerPoint presentations, posters, and various other accessories in town. In the first half of the competition, teams were required to give presentations to the judge about food safety, sans their robot. Points were awarded for research quality, delivery, and creativity. Then, in the second half, the judges and the audience gathered around the robot arenas to watch the demonstrations in action. Teams were furthermore given three rounds of tasks that needed to be completed, with each round lasting just two-and-a-half minutes. The goal, of course, was to accumulate as many of the available points as possible.

The winner of the tournament was the Hippi Pandas, a team made up of Girl Scouts from Churchville-Chili. They won the Champion’s Award and a spot in St. Louis in April.

At a time when many people bemoan the disinterest shown by American children in the sciences, the competition is a welcome and worthy one. Our world of smartphones, video games, the reverse phone lookup, and Google searches has simultaneously broadened our technological abilities while narrowing the sense of exploration and technological creativity inherent in many children. The growth of this tournament is a great counter to the perceived trend, and I wish the Hippi Pandas the best of luck in St. Louis. I’m sure they will make the region proud.

Rochester Science

@UofR and IBM partnership puts the University at the front lines of respiratory health research.

The recently-announced partnership between the @UofR and IBM is starting to bear fruit already. The National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases (NIAID), which is part of the National Institutes of Health have awarded the school $4.7 million in funding – extensible for up to 7 years and as much as $50m – for continued research into the germs which cause various lung diseases.

The University press release cites the Health Sciences Center for Computational Innovation (basically, a shit-ton of expensive computing power, aimed at crunching medical research numbers) that is the partnership between IBM and the University as the key factor in winning the grant. The State of New York has also awarded the U of R $5m in grant money for this project. The University expects to create as many as 250 jobs in Rochester for research assistants, nurses, info analysts and other support personnel.

Aims of the research include investigating the relationship and interaction between the beneficial germs that are native to our bodies and the harmful germs that cause the flu, research into better vaccinations for elderly patients against pneumonia and clinical trials of drugs and vaccines.

For more information on the research initiative and the federal grant money, see the below-linked press release:

University Lung Research Awarded $4.7 Million Contract to Establish a Respiratory Pathogens Research Center – News Room – University of Rochester Medical Center.