Research Magazine 2010
New and Noteworthy
A bold strategic plan in 2007 called for the creation of 100 new faculty positions over the next decade. Boston University is continuing to move forward with this goal today, even as the global economy has slowed. By recruiting talented junior faculty in a range of fields, we are strengthening and expanding a vibrant, diverse community of committed scholar-teachers.
Ketty Nez was only six months old when her family immigrated to the United States from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Nonetheless, the music she composes is rooted in her homeland’s musical traditions.
“My father is an amateur violinist, and my aunt is a pianist,” Nez says. “When I was a child, they would play duets.” A musical prodigy of sorts, she took up the piano at age three, with her father’s encouragement. As a teenager, she practiced upwards of 10 hours a day: Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart.
Today, Nez is an assistant professor at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, where she teaches classes in musical composition, theory, orchestration, and analysis. While versed in numerous musical genres including classical, chamber, contemporary, and electronic forms, her most recent compositions explore the music of the cultures surrounding her birthplace.
Mostly an agricultural and pastoral people, Macedonians passed on their folk songs orally through generation after generation of cattle farmers and sheepherders. “Few villagers could read,” Nez says, “so they preserved their histories through spoken stories and song.”
Since the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe, contemporary folk and pop musicians throughout the Balkans have tapped into the region’s time-honored folk songs. Among the most famous earlier projects—and one that particularly inspired Nez—is Postcards from the 1930s, a setting for violin and piano that uses transcriptions of Bosnian and Herzegovinan folk songs by renowned Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók.
Nez is referencing those traditions in a different medium: opera. “The opera project is a by-product of my everlasting curiosity for the sounds and rhythms of my own ethnic background,” she says, “a mixture of Slovenian and Slavic Macedonian.”
Thanks to generous support from the BU Humanities Foundation, the opera, called The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia, will be performed in spring 2011 in collaboration with Xanthos, a young professional ensemble directed by violinist Brenda Van der Merwe. The story begins with the title. “Rumelia is the name of the former Ottoman province which encompassed the Balkan areas whose music I’m studying,” Nez explains. “And the capital was Bitola, my mother’s hometown.”
“The challenge is to preserve the musical sources as
untouched transcriptions—a musical photograph, if you will.”
While most of the opera will be sung in English, Nez may use some of the original language with subtitles. “It depends on how difficult it is for the singers,” she says.
At this point, she does not intend to incorporate any traditional folk instruments into the production; instead, Nez plans to imitate their sounds with Western ones. “The violin mimics the sound of the gadulka, a Bulgarian bowed instrument,” she says, “and the oboe and saxophone can fill in for bagpipes.”
At present, Nez is working on the plot. “I’m fleshing out the intriguing stories which the folk songs seem to allude to,” she says. “My cast of characters includes a village ingénue, a dashing and murderous outlaw, a spry card-telling Roma, and a crusty old epic singer. The challenge is to preserve the musical sources as untouched transcriptions—a musical photograph, if you will.”
This is not Nez’s first opera. While a composer-in-residence at the École Nationale de Musique in Montbéliard, France, she wrote A Devolutionary Opera: Drama in 540 Seconds, which premiered in 2003 at Munich’s annual A•Devantgarde Festival. A collaboration of seven composers, each of whom contributed a chapter, the opera is about two scientists who study the effects of a viral epidemic among humans. Nez chose in her piece for the virus to cause people to behave like animals, and she incorporated iconic cartoon characters, including Batman, Catwoman, the Pink Panther, and King Kong, into its narrative.
“The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia will be nothing like that,” she says with a laugh.
Straight Talk and Spin
For decades, health educators have been trying to rise above the hubbub of college life with wellness-centered campaigns that urge students to eat better, exercise more, sleep longer, and otherwise adopt healthy behaviors.
But often these efforts meet with little success, says Cheryl Ann Lambert, an assistant professor in the College of Communication’s Department of Mass Communication, Advertising & Public Relations. “These fabulous, wonderful messages—whether they’re about alcohol or sexual health or nutritional health—exist separate and apart from the students.” she explains. “I am trying to figure out how to bridge the divide.”
Employing both quantitative and qualitative research methods, Lambert hopes to understand how students respond to the health-related information they receive from various sources. What makes some outreach tactics more effective than others? And in a landscape inundated with advertisements and announcements, what support can health educators provide to help students sort out the jumble?
“All of us want the same thing: we want the students to be healthy,” says Lambert. “But are we going about it the right way?”
Cheryl Ann Lambert
In her latest project—a study exploring sexual health attitudes and behaviors on college campuses, starting with BU—Lambert partnered with Teri Aronowitz, a nurse-practitioner in Student Health Services who is also an adjunct clinical professor at the College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College and an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the BU School of Medicine.
Last spring, Lambert and Aronowitz designed and implemented an online survey to gauge student opinions about different aspects of sexual health. They followed up the survey with focus groups, where students gave more in-depth interviews on the topic.
In the next phase of the research, Lambert says, the findings will be used to create an intervention program focusing on “how to respond and react when people are suffering from rape and sexual trauma, and to teach healthy sexual behaviors and awareness.”
Lambert’s work in communications extends beyond health issues to examine other ways specific information is distributed and processed in today’s world. A public relations manager who worked for seven years before pursuing graduate studies, Lambert has developed an interest in how the public relations profession is depicted and perceived outside the field.
“People have a skewed understanding of public relations,” she says, pointing to the prevalence of negative catchphrases associated with the industry, such as “public relations nightmare” or “public relations problem.”
“That got me thinking about why that is, and what does it mean for our students who are studying public relations.” In particular, Lambert has been studying portrayals of public relations professionals in film. From Samantha Jones on Sex and the City to the heroine of Bridget Jones’s Diary, PR agents in the movies appear oversexed, flighty, shallow, or generally lacking the commitment and ethical principles their jobs require.
These observations, coupled with earlier work on the subject, inspired Lambert to launch a study on how graduate communications students relate to these silver screen stereotypes. She is working on the project with Candace White, an associate professor in the School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where Lambert earned her PhD. Lambert and White hope to present their conclusions at a conference in the fall.
In the meantime, Lambert has been providing students with a less biased model of the public relations sphere, and encouraging them to turn to organizations like the Public Relations Society of America as a guide to the standards to which PR professionals should adhere. “We are advocates on behalf of clients or companies or brands,” she says. “But while we’re doing that, we can’t leave our ethics at the door. We can’t focus too much on the client at the expense of the public and what the public needs.”
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Students from Cheryl Ann Lambert’s class talk about marketing Mark Williams’ book, Uncontrolled Risk.
Secrets of the Stars
Can the smallest stars in the night sky shed light on the structure, dynamics, and evolution of the entire Milky Way galaxy? Assistant Professor of Astronomy Andrew West is staking his career on it, and the data he has collected and analyzed so far suggest that he is onto something.
Occupying between one-thousandth and one-tenth the volume of the Sun, red dwarfs are the smallest stars in the Milky Way. They are also the coolest and least luminous. But what they lack in size, temperature, and brightness, they make up for in number, with red dwarfs accounting for 70 percent of all stars in the galaxy.
“These stars are very dim but fuel efficient, and on average could burn for trillions of years,” says West, who dubs red dwarfs the “VWs of the Milky Way.” “Because they’re so huge in number and last almost forever, large samples of them can allow you to probe the shape, structure, and evolution of our own galaxy like no other stars.”
Drawing on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and other deep, all-sky surveys that show millions of red dwarfs extending across the night sky, West and his collaborators have built a sample set of about 50 million. Likening the Milky Way galaxy to a Frisbee, he has devised a way to determine the likely age of each star based on its position with respect to the center line of the Frisbee, that part of the galaxy where all stars are born.
“As stars age, they interact with other stars and cold molecular gas, and their velocity increases,” West explains. “These aging stars gradually move away from the central plane of the galaxy. At any one moment, the youngest stars tend to orbit closer to the plane; the further you go from the plane, the older the stars are.”
An edge-on view of a spiral galaxy shows stars divided into strata, with the younger stars located mostly in the middle layers and older stars in the outer layers.
Image courtesy of Andrew West
By deducing the relative ages of the red dwarfs and obtaining light spectra that reveal information about their physical composition, temperature, and magnetic fields, West is tracing how the Milky Way has evolved over time. To achieve that objective, he is leading a research team that includes BU graduate and undergraduate students, Astronomy Department colleague Professor Daniel Clemens, and other astronomers from Cornell, MIT, and the University of Washington.
Noting that red dwarfs are the most common stars around which planets are likely to be found, West is homing in on how old a star needs to be for its magnetic field (and resulting large stellar flares) to dissipate sufficiently to sustain orbiting planets, and for its atmosphere to contain heavy elements indicative of the presence of carbon, oxygen, and other elements that support life.
“While we already understand the basic sequence of the chemical and magnetic evolution of stars in the galaxy, it’s the timescale for that evolution that’s not well known,” says West. “The more we learn about this timescale, the more we will come to understand about the abundance of stars that can support habitable planets in the galaxy.”
Reverse Engineering Birdsong
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a single image produced by neuroscientist Tim Gardner can capture as many as 1,500. In his case, though, the “words” in question are the distinct vocalizations of a songbird, represented in visual form.
Gardner, an assistant professor of biology in the College of Arts & Sciences, uses these images to understand how birds build and retain the songs they use to communicate with one another. His work could shed light on how the neural circuits of learning and memory are encoded and maintained not only in birds, but also in humans—potentially boosting our understanding of the normal and diseased states of the human brain.
Gardner has chosen to focus his investigations on birds, rather than laboratory mice, or even humans, because few organisms exhibit such a quantifiable behavior. “In the last two years we have succeeded in translating sound into a new kind of image to capture the structure and the variants of birdsong,” he says, “and we’re now at the point where we can detect subtle changes in specific birdsongs.”
Toward that end, Gardner subjects a bird colony of about 300 zebra finches and canaries—kept in soundproofed cages—to a variety of computer-controlled, quantitative behavioral experiments in his Laboratory of Neural Circuit Formation.
Gardner and his colleagues notated the song patterns of juvenile canaries, top diagram, that had never heard normal species-specific songs, and found that they imitated abnormal synthetic songs with great accuracy, even when the tutor songs lacked phrasing, or what Gardner’s team calls “short stereotyped syllables” that are repeated as the bird sings.
A newborn cell tagged with green fluorescent protein, above, shows overnight growth in a song control center of the zebra finch brain as observed in vivo before sleep, left, and after a good night’s rest, right.
Diagrams courtesy of Tim Gardner
In one experiment, Gardner studied canaries raised in isolation from birdsong. While “tutoring” the birds with computer-generated, synthetic songs that departed from species-typical songs, he and his lab recorded every sound the birds uttered through their development. Initially, the subjects imitated the synthetic songs with great accuracy, but as they matured, they reverted to species-typical songs, even in the absence of other canaries.
“There’s a complex program that ultimately builds each species-specific song,” Gardner says, noting that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the process. “We’re interested in determining the local neuronal rules that govern this amazing process.”
To home in on these rules, Gardner is now investigating regions of the brain that encode song patterns. These areas produce a dynamic pattern of song while the birds are singing—and also, surprisingly, when they are asleep. Gardner has produced time-lapsed images of neuron growth in vivo which show the development of new neuronal processes in sleep.
Gardner hopes to learn more about the growth of these processes by introducing small perturbations to the spontaneous activity that occurs during birds’ sleep, and then observing the impact of those perturbations on their neural networks and songs. As the bird dreams of its own songs, or sings upon awakening, a computer detects the sleeping pattern and triggers a stimulating electrode or implanted optical fiber to induce slight changes in neuronal electrical activity at specific locations in the song pathways. A brain-machine interface implant measures the activity.
“If we can increase or decrease the neuronal activity of the bird during sleep, we can see if there’s a change in the sequential order—and creativity—of the songs it produces,” says Gardner, noting that such studies could help us understand how similar neuronal changes in humans might impact our performance during the day.
Zeroing in on Epilepsy
Representative networks, in blue, constructed from the brain activity of a human patient during a seizure. As the seizure evolves, the number of connections in the network changes.
Images courtesy of Mark Kramer
Mark Kramer always had an interest in public health. His father was a doctor, and his mother and grandmother were nurses. While his aversion to blood dashed any aspirations of attending medical school, he did not let it deter him from seeking a career in medicine.
“You don’t have to be a physician to have a clinical impact,” Kramer says. “You can be a biologist, engineer, mathematician.”
Or, in Kramer’s case, a physicist.
As a doctoral student in the University of California, Berkeley’s program in Applied Science and Technology, Kramer helped develop a mathematical model that describes what happens in the brain during an epileptic seizure. The purpose of the study, published in the March 2005 issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of London Interface, was to help neurologists better understand and treat epilepsy.
When epilepsy patients fail to respond to various drug treatments, Kramer explains, doctors may take an alternative course of action. “They remove the part of the brain that causes the seizure,” he says.
While numerous measures are undertaken to ensure patient safety, the surgery is nonetheless invasive, and it is not always accurate. According to a 2007 Cleveland Clinic study, 60 percent of patients who have the surgery continue to have seizures.
Now an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics, Kramer wants to reverse those numbers. To that end, he is using his background in math and physics to help doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital determine which parts of the brain to target.
“Up until now,” he says, “the primary way to analyze data retrieved from the brains of epilepsy patients has been through a painstaking visual inspection. Epileptologists stare at complicated traces of brain activity and try to determine where in the brain the seizure is starting.”
Before surgery, neurologists must map the region where the patient’s seizure originates to ensure that they remove only what is necessary. This involves lifting a section of the skull and putting electrodes directly on the surface of the brain.
“The patients stay in the hospital for about a week,” Kramer says, “during which time they may experience a number of seizures.”
Kramer and his collaborators study the voltage data collected from the electrodes using sophisticated mathematical techniques. “Rather than looking at individual voltage traces,” he says, “we’re examining them collectively. Are there any relationships between those traces? Is there any sort of pattern?”
While the recordings reveal the consequences of abnormal brain activity, he continues, they do not identify the cause. “If we understand why and how seizures progress over the surface of the brain,” he says, “eventually we may be able to prevent the seizure by disrupting the activity preemptively with medication or stimulation.”
To date, Kramer’s team has analyzed only a handful of seizures from a small group of patients. It is a minuscule percentage of the 50 million people worldwide who suffer from the disease, but still a strong start. “The scientific process is filled with wrong turns,” Kramer says, “but I truly believe we’re on our way.”