2017 Thesis Excerpts

Greta Friar Ghost Forests of the Mid-Atlantic: How Sea-Level Rise is Killing Our Coastlines
Giorgia Guglielmi Media of Mass Destruction: How Fake News is Killing Italy’s Olive Trees
Robin Kazmier The Parataxonomist Revolution: How a group of rural Costa Ricans discovered 10,000 new species
Brandon Levy The Angelman Approach: Hacking DNA to Treat a Rare Disease
Raleigh McElvery Trial and Error: Medical Marijuana, the absence of evidence, and the allure of anecdote
Bennett McIntosh SuperAgers: Do Octogenarians with Exceptional Memory Hold the Key to Healthy Aging?
Kate Telma Senses Lost: The impossible dilemma of Usher Syndrome, and its possible solutions
Maria Temming Melvin Calvin: Nobel Winning Chemist and SETI Scientist Wannabe

Greta Friar
Ghost Forests of the Mid-Atlantic: How Sea-Level Rise is Killing Our Coastlines

It’s a beautiful day in the Palmetto-Peartree Preserve in North Carolina. The sun-soaked beach of the Albemarle Sound is warm, but the breeze rolling in across the water is cool with a hint of salt. Gentle ripples lap at the shore, making indents in the sand. A few feet back from the water, bright green marsh grasses rustle in the breeze, and further inland the fernlike foliage of cypress trees casts its shade. But there’s something out of place.

A pair of dead cypress trees stand in the sound, several feet out from the shore. The thick, pyramidal bases of the trees emerge from brackish water, and a ring of damp, dark bark above the waterline reveals that the tide is receding. The narrow trunks curve up into broken, leafless branches. Nearby the water breaks around jagged stumps – more trees grew here once.

The drowning cypresses are captivating in their incongruity, and visitors to the sound like taking photos of them. They are “very picturesque,” says Marcelo Ardón, an assistant professor in the department of forestry and environmental resources at North Carolina State University, who studies the drowning trees. To broaden his view of what’s happening in the region, Ardón has created Sentinels of the Sounds, a citizen-science program that encourages visitors to upload their photos to a larger database online, where a thick layer of pins on a Google map shows a growing collection of stressed, dying, and dead trees.

These trees are not dying off one by one. There are places in the preserve, and elsewhere in North Carolina, where entire groves have died. In fact, coastal forests are dying up and down the mid-Atlantic, creating what are often called “ghost forests.” The name is easy to understand. Rows of barren trunks and leafless branches seem to haunt the places where a healthy forest once thrived.

Sentinels of the Sound gives Ardón’s lab useful data points and lets curious visitors learn more about the problem of ghost forests. Ardón hopes that the program will encourage visitors to stop and think about what the drowning trees mean as they take their photos. Cypress trees cannot germinate except on dry land, so when those trees were seedlings, the places where they are standing must have been dry. Now they are covered by estuarine water. This raises a question that Ardón wants visitors to ask themselves: Why?

Surprisingly few people seem to be asking this question. The scientists researching coastal forest decline are few in number, and the general public seems unaware of the problem or its cause: sea-level rise.

Giorgia Guglielmi
Media of Mass Destruction: How Fake News is Killing Italy’s Olive Trees

It was a warm night in August 2013 and Donato Boscia, head of a plant pathology laboratory at the National Research Council in Italy, had just arrived at his in-laws’ house in Taviano, a small town in Salento. Boscia was dining on the white porch when his father-in-law, a 84-year-old retired Carabiniere—a member of the Italian paramilitary police—approached him, concerned. The olive trees that he had inherited from his father had inexplicably started to dry out a few months before. Even after pruning, the trees did not recover.

Salento is the “heel” of Italy, a thin peninsula that juts south into the Mediterranean Sea for 100 miles and is famous for its pristine beaches and the baroque churches of its capital, Lecce. The arid soil, due to hot summers and mild, rainless winters, makes it difficult for plants to grow. The only ones that can tolerate the climate are the olive trees. These strong trees have grown in the region for centuries, providing wealth to generations of people.

L’oiu te ulia lu male porta via,” people in Salento used to say. In English, “olive oil takes away all ills.” Olive owners would leave their trees as a valuable inheritance to their children. Until a few decades ago, every time a baby was born, an olive tree was planted as a symbol of a long, peaceful, and prosperous life. Today, with over 11 million olive trees, Salento produces around 12 percent of the national olive oil, contributing to make Italy the second largest producer in the world after Spain.

The morning after their conversation, Boscia and his father-in-law drove along the narrow, dirt roads in the fields outside the house to take a look at the olive trees. “As soon as I saw them, I thought there was something wrong,” Boscia told me. All the surrounding olive groves presented the same symptoms: scorched, brown canopies, and withered fruits.

Alarmed, Boscia alerted a handful of colleagues, and asked for the help of his mentor Giovanni Martelli, Professor Emeritus at the University of Bari. Martelli had spent some time at the University of California, Davis in the 1960s studying grapevine diseases. One he remembered was Pierce’s disease, caused by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, a microbial killer of vines, peach, and citrus trees. Martelli suggested checking the trees for Xylella, though the bacterium was usually only found on the American continent.

The scientists working with Boscia collected and analyzed samples from trees that showed the scorching symptoms. They found Xylella DNA sequences in all the samples. Incredulous, Boscia had the tests repeated. The following day, the scientists got the same results. The DNA sequences found in sick plants belonged unambiguously to Xylella fastidiosa.

Robin Kazmier
The Parataxonomist Revolution: How a group of rural Costa Ricans discovered 10,000 new species
Carolina Cano crosses the empty floor of a low, wide barn in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, softly tapping a series of 75 puffed-up plastic bags attached to strings drawn between two rafters. Each one is scrawled with an ID number, species name, and collection date in black marker. Cano, a stout 45-year old woman, seems to be moving too quickly to see inside the bags, but when one of her taps causes a tiny flutter, she unclips the bag and takes it with her.

The barn is part of the San Gerardo Biological Station, a converted farm property off a muddy road up the mountain from the town it’s named after. A cool wind blows through one open side, sending hundreds of bags bobbing on their lines, each gently weighted by a few leaves and a single caterpillar plucked from the nearby forest. Cano zips up her jacket and pulls her coarse, black hair into a ponytail, which accentuates a few silver strands and exposes her small pearl earrings. She gathers the bags containing newly emerged butterflies and leaves the barn, closing the wooden gate behind her.

Outside, the overcast sky hints at rain, and palm and waxy-leafed citrus trees rustle in the breeze. Cano walks over to a boxy, yellow concrete house, where she marks each bag with the date before dropping them into a chest freezer so the butterflies die before they damage their wings on the bag. As Cano works, laughter comes from the kitchen, where the rest of her four-person team is clearing breakfast dishes and preparing for the morning’s collecting trip. In a few minutes, they’ll put on jackets and rubber boots, strap on fanny packs full of neatly folded plastic bags and trimming snips, and head out the back door into the rainforest.

The banter of the group feels more like family than coworkers, which is no surprise, given that some of them are family. Gloria Sihézar and her longtime partner, Osvaldo Espinoza, met on the job a quarter-century ago, when she was 17 and he was 23. They spent their first years as a couple living at the biological station to be closer to their work. “My son learned to crawl here,” Sihézar says. Elda Araya, Sihézar’s aunt, is the veteran of the group, with 30 years’ experience. None of the workers live at the station anymore; instead, the group gathers here each morning of their 20-day shifts.

Cano and her team are just a fraction of the 34 active parataxonomists that work in a large protected area in northwestern Costa Rica known as Área de Conservación (ACG). Just as a paramedic provides immediate care before sending a patient to a hospital, a parataxonomist does the on-the-ground work of taxonomy—collection, preparation and data gathering—before sending a specimen on to be analyzed. The parataxonomists are scattered across 11 biological stations in the ACG, spread over areas ranging from sweltering rainforests to blustery volcanic peaks. Combined, they have discovered some 10,000 new species over the past 30 years.

Brandon Levy
The Angelman Approach: Hacking DNA to Treat a Rare Disease

Allyson Berent was instantly recognizable from the photo posted online by the Foundation for Angelman Syndrome Therapeutics (FAST). My first meeting with the young, lanky, New York veterinarian who serves as FAST’s Chief Scientific Officer took place in the coffee shop on the first floor of Chicago’s Hyatt Regency Hotel. But barely an instant after shaking her hand, our introduction was interrupted by a squeal of delight erupting from behind us. A short, bespectacled woman with salt-and-pepper hair dashed over, wrapped Berent in an enthusiastic embrace, and burst into tears.

This moment was also Donna Young’s first time greeting Berent in person. Affectionately known as “spamming nana” due to her zealous activity on social media, Young had only communicated with Berent on Facebook about Young’s 14-year-old granddaughter with Angelman Syndrome, the genetic disorder responsible for the “AS” in “FAST.” Since 2008, FAST has worked tirelessly to raise money and stimulate research into treatments for this rare neurological illness. Berent is a key part of that mission, and seeing her in-person for the first time overwhelmed the passionate grandmother. “I am forever grateful to her,” Young would later say. “I adored her from afar and finally met her face-to-face.”

Angelman Syndrome afflicts approximately one in every 12,000 to 20,000 individuals, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders. The disease causes a wide array of symptoms including cognitive disability; delays in hitting major developmental milestones like walking; difficulties with balance and movement; seizures; sleep problems; and a severely limited – and often complete – inability to speak. Intriguingly, individuals with the condition – called “Angels” in the Angelman community – possess a sunny disposition and outgoing personality. This trait, in combination with patients’ typically jerky and uncoordinated movements, led the man who first described the illness, Harry Angelman, to (somewhat pejoratively) call it “happy puppet syndrome.”

Young was among nearly a thousand parents, scientists, and others who converged in the windy city in early December 2016 for the 5th annual FAST Global Summit on Angelman Syndrome, a two-day event organized by Berent and her FAST colleagues to bring together the Angelman community and inform them about the latest research. The event concludes each year with the FAST Gala, a major fundraiser that many Angelman parents look forward to all year. And this time, there was even more excitement than usual. A mere eight years after FAST’s inception, the Angelman community believes the outlook for those with AS looks very promising. Pharmaceutical company Ovid Therapeutics will soon begin human trials of a drug, called Gaboxadol, that could ease Angels’ seizures and movement problems and potentially even improve their cognitive abilities. But perhaps even more exciting is the research being done by two other pharmaceutical companies, Agilis Biotherapeutics and Ionis Pharmaceuticals. Each company is working towards clinical trials for therapies aimed at correcting the genetic defects that cause AS. Unlike Gaboxadol, which targets a specific system that is abnormal in Angels’ brains, these genetic treatments may do more than relieve a few symptoms. Berent and Young hope that, within a decade, they could get the one thing they have always wanted for their loved ones: a cure for Angelman Syndrome.

Raleigh McElvery Trial and Error: Medical Marijuana, the absence of evidence, and the allure of anecdote

Christy Shake gets her marijuana from a local dispensary. Since the blossoms contain most of the plant’s medicine, she crushes them, soaks them in sugar cane alcohol, strains them twice, freezes them, strains them yet again, and evaporates the alcohol. Once the remaining resin has become thick and dark like molasses—but far more bitter—she dissolves it in coconut oil and feeds it to her 13-year-old son, Calvin.

Christy and her husband, Michael, learned something wasn’t right thirty-two weeks into her pregnancy. A fetal ultrasound showed that the lateral “ventricle” spaces in his brain, containing the cerebrospinal fluid, were abnormally large, threatening healthy development. Calvin came six weeks early, missing more than half his brain’s white matter—the fatty connections that allow nerve cells to conduct electrical signals—according to one doctor.

Today, Calvin suffers from epilepsy as well as a set of developmental disorders impairing his ability to walk, talk, and speak. The neurologist predicted he might never even crawl, but Christy refused to accept the prognosis and spent a year physically moving Calvin’s hands and knees along the floor. As a teenager, he is now relatively mobile, but his balance and coordination are poor, and he depends on Christy’s assistance to get from place to place.

Once a year, she goes to his grade school in Brunswick, Maine, to tell his classmates about his condition. Lacking so much white matter, she explains, his brain is like a one-lane street with a hundred cars; there’s a traffic jam of information.

Four years ago, Christy began researching cannabis treatment online. After consulting with an experienced herbalist and fellow parents, she began treating Calvin daily with homemade cannabis oil to assuage the four daytime grand mal seizures he was experiencing roughly each month. (These seizures cause a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions, which can be especially dangerous if the patient is awake and mobile when the episode occurs.) Christy has perfected her recipe over time—culling bits and pieces of information from various parents on the Internet.

After all this, Calvin’s condition seems to be improving. “He’s only had three daytime grand mal seizures since about six months after we started using the cannabis oil,” Christy said.

This is not another story about the miracles of medical marijuana. Yes, Calvin’s seizures have eased remarkably since he started the regimen. But even in light of thousands of other cases emphasizing the plant’s many therapeutic benefits, it’s not enough. Lacking rigorous, “scientific” studies, these anecdotes are essentially all we have.

Even as the pro-marijuana movement continues to unfold one state at a time (29 have legalized medical use and eight permit recreational), the strict federal laws have stood unrevised for decades, labeling cannabis a Schedule I substance and thus illegal. The most highly regulated of the five possible scheduling categories, this designation is reserved for drugs that currently have no approved medical use and a high potential for abuse. It places cannabis in the same tier as heroin and ecstasy. It also means many clinical researchers—interested in investigating the therapeutic aspects of the drug—must jump through numerous hoops to secure federal approval and financial support.

The result is a Catch-22 of epic proportions: more than half the states in the U.S. have voted to legalize medical marijuana, as thousands contend it’s the only viable treatment for a growing list of conditions. Yet as more and more patients gain access to cannabis, neither they nor their physicians understand exactly what they’re receiving from local dispensaries.

Although the U.S. government has gradually begun permitting more research to this end, there remains a maze of state and federal laws that renders this endeavor forbiddingly difficult. Marijuana must stay in Schedule I until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines it has medicinal use, but its tangled legal status continues to hinder that process.

Bennett McIntosh
SuperAgers: Do Octogenarians with Exceptional Memory Hold the Key to Healthy Aging?

Barb Shaeffer begins every morning with two cups of coffee and the Chicago Tribune crossword. To keep it interesting, the self-described “crossword freak” gives herself an extra challenge: she completes as many of the “across” answers as possible before even deigning to look at the “down” clues.

This ritual has remained nearly unchanged for the 90-year-old Shaeffer since her retirement 14 years ago. She even brings along books of Tribune and New York Times puzzles with her on her frequent travels, which range from weekend trips around the country to boating with friends around the canals of Europe. After finishing her coffee-and-crossword routine, Shaeffer might go out to meet friends for lunch or a matinee, walking through the Chicago neighborhood where she moved after outliving two husbands. “I love living downtown. I love that you can walk anywhere,” she says. She also keeps busy both taking and leading classes in theater and literature at Northwestern University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), where, the Institute’s motto states, “curiosity never retires.”

Shaeffer’s active brain may hold the solutions to more puzzles than mere crosswords.
Eight years ago, Shaeffer met Dr. Emily Rogalski, a recently hired Northwestern University neurology professor, when the latter gave a talk to Shaeffer and her peers at OLLI. At the time, Rogalski was trying to solve some puzzles of her own: Why do some people’s brains age so much better than others? And is there something they can teach us about staving off dementia, or even the seemingly inevitable decline of aging?

Scientific ingenuity has eliminated smallpox, driven polio to the brink of extinction, and pushed life expectancies forward by decades across the developed world. The world’s population now reflects these advances: in 2010, there were about 2 million Americans over 90; by 2050, that number is projected to be 9 million or more. In their old age, Shaeffer and her peers encounter a host of problems driven by long-running breakdowns in the body’s own systems. Some, like cancer or dementia, are caused directly by these declines, while others are exacerbated by the breakdown of the body’s natural structures and defenses, turning otherwise survivable injuries or diseases into mortal threats. Curing these problems will not be a matter of simply fighting a foreign invader, but of carefully tinkering with the way the body itself works.

By the time Rogalski met Shaeffer at OLLI, she had already seen the neurological side of these problems first hand, both as a Ph.D. student and then as a Professor at Northwestern’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center (CNADC). But to Shaeffer and her peers, Rogalski described a new approach she and her colleagues were taking to untangle this problem. Rather than study any particular disease, or even the “normal” course of aging, they were looking to study people whose memory had largely remained intact: to qualify, participants had to be older than 80, but have a memory that would be above average for someone aged 50-65.

With criteria that daunting, Shaeffer said, she figured she had “absolutely no” chance of qualifying. “I’m one of the ones who walks into a room and forgets why I’m here,” she says. But with her family history – her mother died of Alzheimer’s at age 95 – Shaeffer decided she could stand to learn more about the disease, so decided to give the study a shot.
To her surprise, Shaeffer passed the tests, gaining admission into a group for which the Northwestern scientists coined a special term: “SuperAgers.” For the last eight years, Shaeffer and a growing cohort of SuperAgers have given the Northwestern scientists an unprecedented view of what Rogalski calls “the sunny side of aging”—a view of the aging brain that seeks to understand not how humans grow old, but how the lucky ones stay healthy nonetheless. Like everything else in our brains, SuperAging is an interconnected tangle of genes, nerves and their networks, and more intangible ideas like wisdom and willpower. Every discovery brings more questions than answers as scientists search for clues to fill in a small part of the puzzle of aging memory.

Kate Telma
Senses Lost: The impossible dilemma of Usher Syndrome, and its possible solutions

As Beth Lacourse took her first child, Reagan, home from the hospital in 2009, she knew she had been put on earth to be a mother. She lives with her husband, Jake, a hardware engineer, in a suburb between Boston and Cape Cod. She describes those first heady days of motherhood as “falling in love again.” Several years later Beth found out that, after a miscarriage and with the help of medications and a number of doctors’ appointments, she was pregnant again. Reagan would have a baby sister.

Rebecca Lacourse was born last January. Reagan came to meet the newborn at the hospital, and the family soon brought Rebecca home. She left the natal care unit without one standard test, the newborn hearing screening, because of a simple snafu: the ear muffs for the test machine were missing. When Beth took her back to the hospital the next week, Rebecca didn’t pass the test, and the nurse explained that this was probably because she had residual amniotic fluid in her ears—they saw this in lots of babies, and there was nothing to worry about. But the following week, Rebecca failed again. At home, the Lacourses conducted hearing tests of their own—banging on pots, yelling, and clapping—but Rebecca didn’t respond. An auditory brainstem response test at the Durfree Center in Fall River confirmed what Beth already suspected. Rebecca’s ears weren’t full of fluid. They just couldn’t hear.

Beth and Jake participated in deaf community events around their neighborhood, and started learning ASL. The family joined a Shared Reading program at Northeastern University, and even seven-year-old Reagan began learning to sign. They signed stories. They gave Rebecca a signed name, combining the signs for “R” and “beautiful.” When Rebecca whimpered in her car seat on the drives back and forth to Boston, they would twist around from the front and sign comfort, reassuring her that they were there even if she couldn’t hear their voices soothing her.

It’s not that bad, Beth and Jake thought. We’re learning so much. Rebecca grew, her brown hair now long enough to be pulled back with a hair bow. But when Rebecca reached four months, Beth noticed that she was still holding her as she would a new baby, supporting her back and neck with her arm. Rebecca couldn’t hold up her own head. She also resisted being handled. When Beth picked her up, she pushed against Beth’s arm, howling until Beth laid her flat. “She just wanted to be laid on the floor. And that would calm her down right away,” Beth told me. Beth posted on a deaf-community Facebook group, asking other parents if this sort of “head lag” was typical. “I expected people to write back and say it’s because she’s deaf and she wants to see everything around her, and that’s not at all what people wrote,” she says. Responses flooded in: had she heard of Usher Syndrome?

Maria Temming
Melvin Calvin: Nobel Winning Chemist and SETI Scientist Wannabe

To come.