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We’ve moved!

18 Feb

Hello there, reader. We are so glad that you came by to check out the Research Matters blog!

Our blog has relocated to live at researchmatters.psu.edu. The look of the blog has changed a little bit, but we hope that your experience remains a good one — perhaps an even better one than before. You will be able to find all of our past posts at our new home, and be able to continue to read about the stories behind the news of research and creative activity at Penn State. If you follow us or subscribe to our RSS feed, please be sure to change your subscription.

We welcome your questions, comments, and ideas for future blog posts either in the comments section for individual posts or via email to researcheditor@psu.edu.

The Research Communications Staff

Raptor in residence

10 Dec

I don’t like birds. They creep me out. Sparrows and chickadees and all those tiny birds that peck around when you’re eating your lunch outside. From a distance I don’t mind them — in fact, I think birds can be quite majestic creatures.

However, raptors are a completely different story. I love them. They totally fascinate me; I could watch them for hours. I know that raptors are birds (“birds of prey,” in fact), but somehow they seem like a different species* to me.

Red-tailed Hawk hanging out in a tree behind Ritenour Building. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

Red-tailed Hawk in a tree behind Ritenour Building. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

So you can imagine my delight when a red-tailed hawk visited our office building the other day. The juvenile hawk perched in a tree just outside of our second-floor office windows. She was beautiful! And hunting. (Sidenote: It was unclear whether our feathered friend was male or female, and so for ease of reading our hawk will be a lady.) She hung out in the tree for a long while, surveying the parking lot full of construction workers’ trailers, the sidewalk, and the ivy. And maybe us.

Eventually our visitor hopped to some lower branches toward the ground, where we could no longer see her. Of course, several of us felt the need to go find out what she was doing. And we found her in the ivy, between our building and the sidewalk, devouring a squirrel. It was pretty awesome and gruesome at the same time.

The next day she returned to her tree, and eventually snagged a squirrel again — this time eating him while perched on the 8-foot fence next to the sidewalk. It was so gross I couldn’t stop watching. From my office window, that is.

Red-tail with squirrel in ivy. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

Red-tail with a squirrel in ivy behind Ritenour. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

One of my coworkers refused to be excited about the appearance of the hawk. “What is happening to our world?” he exclaimed. “The hawks shouldn’t be this close to humans.”

Which led me to ponder why indeed the hawk was here on campus — our building is close to the HUB — the student union building — and we are very much in the midst of human traffic. Turns out this is not unusual behavior for a red-tail at all.

I spoke with Doug Steigerwalt, director of the Raptor Center at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, who confirmed that our hawk friend was indeed an immature red-tailed hawk. Red-tails are what Steigerwalt called generalists, because you can find them all across North America — they are possibly the most common hawk on the continent.

Steigerwalt also told me that red-tails do well around people because we tend to create a good habitat for them to hunt. And he pointed out that there are a few known red-tails who reside in New York City — one of whom hatched in 1990 and is still living and breeding on a 5th Avenue building.

A view of the red-tail from behind. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

A view of the red-tail from behind. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

Back to our resident raptor, Steigerwalt said that she could easily have flown in from elsewhere in the country. Red-tails are partial migrants — they can spend winters in the same area that they breed in, which is not true of all birds.

This is our hawk friend’s first winter, said Steigerwalt, so she doesn’t have a pattern yet. If she survives this winter, she’ll be in good shape. Winter is basically the make-or-break period for red-tails. Many don’t make it through the winter, but those who do are likely to be able to survive many winters afterward.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a hawk outside your window, you can visit the Raptor Center where Steigerwalt works. There are two red-tails in residence there — a male and a female. They aren’t housed together, because they would compete for food and such, so they are separated. But interestingly, (to me, at least) one hawk bunks with a turkey vulture.

We haven’t seen our hawk in a while now, so she has probably moved on to a different area to hunt. I probably would have moved away from the clamor of campus as soon as possible if I were her, too. Although she certainly had many fat squirrels to feast on while she was here — if you’re a regular reader, you know how I feel about squirrels.

*Addendum, Dec. 16: My uncle (who read my post — hurrah!) kindly pointed out to me that raptors are a different species — “several in fact,” he says. He is right, and shame on me for not catching this. In terms of scientific classifications, a species is as specific as you can get.

As many of us were taught in general biology class, there are 7 major classifications, remembered by a mnemonic device such as “King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti” — Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Genus, Species. All birds are in fact in the same class (Aves), not the same species. Thank you, Uncle Erich, for keeping it real!

Anxiety on the brain

17 Jun
jack-in-the-box

A jack-in-the-box. Photo from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

I am an anxious person by nature. Crowds make me anxious. Driving at night makes me anxious. Loud noises in general, but shouting in particular, make me anxious — even if the shouting is not directed at me. But why? What makes me react to crowds this way, while others are not bothered in the least by crowds or loud noises?

There are probably lots of reasons. And, as with anything as complicated as the human brain, most of the reasons are probably intertwined with each other.

My therapist tells me anxiety is seeded in fear. I was recently talking with Koraly Pérez-Edgar, an associate professor of psychology here at Penn State, for last week’s episode of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Distillations podcast. She told me that shy people often have an overactive amygdala, but you can listen to our conversation here as part of a segment titled “Inside the brain.”

Fear, shyness, overactive amygdala. Hmm.

Pérez-Edgar explained that the limbic system is what shapes your response to threat and novelty in the environment. And at the center of the limbic system is the amygdala. The amygdala is known to be the seat of emotion and your fight-or-flight reaction. When stimulated, it triggers your nervous system to momentarily freeze, assess the situation (likely quicker than you have time to process it), and then either stay put and defend or run away — the basic survival instinct.

So somehow, my amygdala has decided that nighttime driving and shouting are reasons for me to run away. While I am not a shy person, as the people Pérez-Edgar studies are, many of the things she described match my gut reactions. Perhaps I have an overactive amygdala after all.

I also discovered during our conversation that the children’s toy the jack-in-the-box can be a terrifying experience for many babies who turn out to be shy and have an overly sensitive amygdala.

“A lot of babies, they giggle, they laugh, they think it’s funny,” Pérez-Edgar said of the jack-in-the-box. “But these [shy] babies are terrified. They’re crying, they arch their back, they move their arms back around, their system has just said DANGER.”

As she described these reactions to me, I thought about a jack-in-the-box and how unappealing that experience seems to me, as an adult.

Immediately after we were done talking, I texted my mom, wanting to know if I hated jack-in-the-boxes when I was a baby. She didn’t remember. How can you not remember your first-born’s every experience?? My boyfriend pointed out that the jack-in-the-box was not really a popular toy when we were growing up. He insists on being the reality check in my life.

In any case, a baby’s overactive amygdala is likely linked to either his genes or his environment — in utero, during early development, or both. Or both his genes and environment influenced the amygdala.

Do I have an overactive amygdala? And if I do, why? It’s probably not worth my time to figure out right now. Meanwhile, I’ll keep practicing yoga to help keep my anxiety in check.

‘Like riding a bicycle’? I beg to differ

31 May

National Bike to Work Month is coming to an end today. I’d like to take a moment — and this blog post — to reflect on bicycling to work.

640px-Cambridge_CMS_Bicycle_Racks

Photo: Christian Mercat/Wikimedia Commons

I know many people who bike to work, and use biking as their main mode of transportation in general. I have friends who biked to work when I lived in Center City Philadelphia. I imagine they still do. My man bikes to work, about three miles each way. To me, this seems awesome yet terrifying at the same time.

I love the idea of the bicycle. It kills three birds with one stone — you’re exercising, you’re getting places faster than if you had walked, and you’re helping the environment! Finding parking for your bike is probably not as annoying as parking a car, you don’t have to pay for it, and you can often get closer to your destination before needing to park.

Yet…the bicycle and I are not friends.

This fact seemed to be glaring at me over the past few weeks. As mentioned, the entire month of May is dedicated to bicycling to work. Also, my department was reminded that our offices will be moved to a location that is not easy to get to by bus (my current mode of transportation to work). And I was writing an article with Penn State kinesiology researcher Melissa Bopp about active commuting.

Bopp’s study found that those who actively commute — read: walk or bike to work — can have a significant influence on their partners and co-workers to do the same. Whether or not an employer supports active commuting and availability of sidewalks and bike paths are also important factors.

And it turns out that men are more likely to actively commute than women. Why is this? Bopp’s current research doesn’t address the why, but I could guess. The appeal of arriving to work sweaty and with helmet hair is indeed overwhelming. And how does one bike to work in professional clothes and successfully still look professional when arriving to work? I know some people can do it, but this is yet another deterrent for me. But mostly, it’s that I haven’t been able to get over my bike-riding phobia.

My boyfriend has been trying to get me on a bike for a solid two years. I haven’t been on a bike for nearly 20. But one day a couple weeks ago, I told my boyfriend I was ready to attempt biking. He immediately got on Craigslist and found a bike. “It’s a pretty green color,” I replied…

We went to look at it, where boyfriend told me I had to ride it before we bought it. I’m pretty sure my apprehension was tangible. I’ll spare you the details, but just know there were tears of frustration, eventual pedaling by me while boyfriend held onto the bike and jogged along next to me, and a purchase, mostly because we were embarrassed by the whole fiasco and the amount of time this nice man let us take up on a Sunday.

I have gotten on a bike twice since then. However, I would not say I’ve achieved success quite yet. Or even close. But I’m not ready to give up. I am jealous of everyone I see riding a bike with ease these days. Maybe that will boost my determination, and I can join the ranks of people who encourage their coworkers to bike to work, too! Maybe. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

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!

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