Archive | November, 2012

A Taste of Penn State in our Nation’s Capital

28 Nov

Penn State’s Research on the Road speaker series closed out its first season yesterday evening with a stellar event at the National Press Club in D.C.  This was our second program (but hopefully not our last–ideas abound for spring semester!) with the enthusiastic folks from the DC area alumni chapter. The talk was titled “The Science of Wine Tasting: Can Anyone Learn to Taste the Nuances in Wine?” with food science assistant professor and sensory evaluation researcher John Hayes. 

About fifty us gathered in the Holeman Lounge at 6:30 p.m., many alumni coming straight from work, for half an hour of socializing and networking—and eating!—before the talk kicked off at 7.

Some alums were longtime chapter members, but some were new Penn State graduates just starting their careers in D.C.

Attending their first event as new members of the Penn State Metro Washington DC chapter!

The National Press Club—where Penn State alum and chapter board member Joshua Funk works as director of business development—was a convivial location for our gathering, and has been host to other Penn State events, most recently President Erickson’s talk there earlier this month.

Faculty researcher John Hayes, second from left, with Metro DC alumni chapter members at our second Research on the Road event in the area.

Rather than being a talk about wine per se, John’s discussion centered on the science of taste buds and sensory perception, and guided us through the wine tasting to illustrate his points. Every attendee had four wine glasses with different varietals to sample, at John’s direction, throughout the talk.

John (who has given an NPR interview on this topic) debunked some common myths for us (the tongue map?—bogus!) for us and helped us understand how environment and biology work together to influence our taste preferences. Did you know we’re hardwired to like the sweet taste? Babies in utero like it when sugar is added to their amniotic fluid and make “the yucky face” when bitter flavor is added. Did you know that, despite bitterness being our least favorite taste, we learn to overcome the distaste—and even grow to like it, as with coffee or a bitter ale—because we appreciate the effect the substances have on us.

Did you know that there are tools such as flavor wheels that help us become “callibrated instruments” when it comes to being able to taste and describe the nuances in things like chocolate, coffee and wine?

Everyone learned a lot, with much laughter during the hour presentation, and some tough questions from the audience as well. (“Can we develop more protein in our saliva as a result of being exposed to astringent tastes, such as dry red wine?” asked one alum. Answer: “Great question. I don’t know.” I warned you, John! Penn State grads will keep you on your toes.)

John Hayes with chapter communications chair Maria Recupero

Many thanks to everyone at the Metro DC chapter—Dave, Josh and Maria, in particular—for making our two events with you such a success. And ongoing thanks to University Relations and all those supporting the Research on the Road initiative. It has been a busy and successful semester of travel with our faculty researchers, touching down for talks in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as the nation’s capital, and we look forward to good things to come this spring!

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Tackling concussions

19 Nov
woman fitting EEG cap on volunteer

Research and services coordinator Katie Finelli fits a test subject with an EEG cap to help determine brain structure and function.

Concussions are scary and yet fairly common. My brother and I both experienced concussions before turning 18 — and given the numbers I’ve found, we are not an unusual family (at least not when it comes to head injuries). The CDC estimates that nearly 4 million concussions occur in the United States every year. And the NIH says that of those 4 million, about 1.5 million concussions occur in children.

This past spring Penn State formally opened the Center for Sport Concussion Research and Service. They are equipped with a virtual-reality facility as well as brain-imaging technology, including an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and an EEG (electroencephalograph).

The new center has two main goals: to advance research in sport-related concussions and to provide services to local collegiate and child athletes by performing baseline assessments, which can help diagnose a concussion.

While working on an article for the Nov. 24 edition of the Beaver Stadium Pictorial football program, I learned that many athletic leagues are now requiring a doctor to sign off before a player is allowed back on the field after he or she sustains any head injury. This is not to say that 10 years ago, when my brother and I were in high school, concussions weren’t taken as seriously — but the importance of giving a traumatic brain injury enough time to heal is better understood now.

This understanding is in part due to the research that Sam Slobounov and Wayne Sebastianelli have been enmeshed in for many years. Slobounov is the director of the Center, as well as a professor of kinesiology and of orthopedics and medical rehabilitation. Sebastianelli is the principal investigator of the Center, and also serves as the director of athletic medicine and team physician for the Nittany Lions.

In a study published last December, Slobounov and colleagues reported that testing athletes for concussions may induce mental fatigue, whether or not the subject has a head injury. The results of the study advocate for baseline testing, something that the Center is providing for local athletes.

“Testing for a long period of time can induce fatigue,” Slobounov told me. “But at the same time, fatigue is a symptom of concussion. How do you rule out fatigue if you get fatigued while taking the test?”

As well as learning how quickly an athlete may become mentally fatigued, baseline testing includes gathering images of the brain so that a physician can compare the images pre- and post-concussion. The physician can then make an assessment of the injury and create a concussion management plan. This helps to minimize the athlete’s chances of suffering permanent brain damage by returning to play to soon.

Check out the full feature this Saturday in the football program when the Nittany Lions take on the Wisconsin Badgers!

Ending on a high note!

16 Nov

Research Unplugged ended its fall series on a literal and metaphorical high note on Thursday with a presentation and performance by Anthony Leach and the Essence of Joy chorus.

Tony Leach, professor of music and music education, is the group’s founding director. To watch him conduct the student singers is to watch a master in action. They are attuned to every nuance of his directions through his voice, his gestures, even the most subtle body language, and the respect and affection they feel for him as a mentor is palpable to all who observe them working together.

Before the attendees arrived and before they sing even one note, Leach runs them through a number of warm-up exercises, including shoulder massages…

…and techniques to relax their facial muscles…

When the audience started pouring into Schlow Library’s Downsbrough Community Room, it soon became clear we’d have a “standing room only” situation! People were eager to hear the acclaimed Tony Leach’s thoughts on the forms of secular and sacred music in the African-American tradition, and of course to hear the sublime sounds of Essence of Joy demonstrating the different types of music they perform.

What did the music sound like? The group was polished and positively soul-stirring, as made evident by the enthusiastic applause and the audience clapping along with the spirituals.  (“Join in by clapping with the chorus,” said Leach, joking “but just don’t sing along!”)

We’ll be posting a professionally taped excerpt of the talk and performance soon, but meanwhile, check out this clip of Anthony Leach explaining the role music plays in his life.

In the words of one of our Research Unplugged regular attendees, Mr. Dick Kustin, a Penn State alum himself…

“You have certainly chosen a fitting Grande Finale for the Fall series of Research Unplugged with the concert by Dr Leach and the Essence of Joy students. The audience was thrilled to have had the experience and even those who have attended the concerts, regularly, recognized a certain spontaneity to this particular show…I think the smiling, singing, and dancing participants created a contagious effect that filled the hall with good humor!”

On that note, we at Research Unplugged will take a bow for the semester and will retreat to the conference room where we’ll be busy planning (let us hear your ideas!) six new community events for spring.

Ah, spring…now that’s a thought that makes me feel like singing!

What’s the rush? Research Unplugged tackles college traditions

9 Nov

This week’s Research Unplugged tackled American college traditions, always a popular topic in these parts! Our speaker? Acclaimed folklorist Simon Bronner, Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore at Penn State Harrisburg, and Director of their Doctoral Program in American Studies.

Drawing from his just-published book (among over 30 he has authored or edited) titled Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University—and showing many images of college life found in Penn State’s archives—Bronner delved into issues such as hazing, drugs and alcohol abuse, sports and extreme college rivalries, and sexuality, and tracked their changes over time.

Some of the college traditions at Penn State and elsewhere included the underclassmen participating in a “rush” (also called a scrap or a push) where they would “rush the field” and try to win the turf against the opposing school class, in a sort of precursor to college football. This tradition often resulted in blood being shed, explained Bronner, and drew passionate responses from both its supporters and detractors. One of the supporters at Penn State was revered faculty member Fred Lewis Pattee who nonetheless noted that when classes became too large, “the scraps assumed dangerous proportions” and had to be discontinued.

These contests also became less popular, explained Bronner, when students began to declare majors and their primary identification switched for class to major.

There were many Penn State alumni in attendance—as well as Penn Stater magazine editor Tina Hay who later blogged about the event; thank you Tina!—and many questions were asked about the history of these traditions at universities nationwide. There was a bit of nostalgia, and some bewilderment at the traditions of the past—as well as a lively discussion about the size and significance of “dinks” or “beanies” and other headwear that signified one’s standing in the student body hierarchy!

Rushes, scraps, and beanies: oh my! We can only imagine how future folklorists will analyze the traditions of our time.

Tobacco: An unlikely lifesaver

5 Nov
tobacco plants in greenhouse

Tobacco plants in Medicago greenhouse. Credit: DARPA

I recently had the opportunity to visit Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, when I attended the National Association of Science Writers annual conference. There are many perks to attending the NASW conference — including meeting amazing science writers and learning about the great research going on at other universities around the country. But one of my favorite perks is the field trips!

This year as part of the field trip portion of the conference, I visited the newest facility built by Medicago Inc. with 20 or so other science writers. While I had a general idea of what I was getting into — checking out a flu vaccine plant — I was in for a treat at this super-efficient greenhouse and laboratory.

When we rolled up on our tour bus, we were quickly escorted into a conference room where I swear a version of the cast of The Big Bang Theory awaited us. Everyone was friendly and seemingly eager to tell us all about what they do. And no wonder. They’re pretty much going to save the world.

Medicago — rhymes with Chicago — was basically given a challenge by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency): create and perfect a process to produce 10 million doses of a pandemic influenza vaccine. Oh wait, and not just that — the process needs to take no more than a month.

My new Medicago friends rose to the challenge.

The most common way to develop a flu vaccine is to incubate the virus in a fertilized chicken egg. Medicago is using tobacco plants. The plants can be created more quickly and the virus incubation time in the tobacco plant is less than in the egg.

Medicago succeeded, and received a $21 million dollar grant from DARPA. So should the nation face a flu pandemic anytime soon, DARPA will call on them to produce these vaccines, stat.

We got a tour of their very new facilities — they were completed about a year ago — and saw the greenhouse and the equipment used to infiltrate the tobacco plants with the virus.

I might have been exaggerating a bit when I said Medicago is going to save the world, but their technology is pretty neat. And I think it’s awesome that we can do something healthy and possibly even life-saving with tobacco.

What will researchers come up with next?

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