General Interest

Chicago’s Natural Healer

By Gwen Aviles
Medill Reports

Not too long ago, most “real” doctors would not consider employing natural medicine. In fact, naturopathic procedures were so stigmatized that even Dr. C. Leslie Smith, one of the pioneers of holistic medicine in the Midwest and an acupuncturist with her own practice in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, never foresaw herself practicing it.

Smith was training to become a general surgeon at the University of Illinois College of Medicine when hardship struck. With only one year of school remaining, she developed a repetitive stress injury in her arms, which impeded her ability to operate.

“The more I tried to compensate with my left hand, the more my right hand became inflamed and vice versa,” she says. At one point, her arms became completely immobilized and nothing—not the physical therapy she was completing nor the narcotics and anti-inflammatories she was prescribed—could mollify her acute pain.

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The Maritime Maya and building an ancient island pyramid

By Brittany Callan
Medill Reports

Vista Alegre, Mexico – Exploring an overgrown Mayan temple in the old Mayan port city of Vista Alegre – located on an island off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula – wasn’t quite what I expected.  Videogames such as Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag set up romantic over-the-top temples that I’m sure are responsible for my love of crumbling ancient ruins.  I knew better than to expect environments resembling the ones portrayed in my fantasies.  But I don’t have an archaeologist’s trained eye – I wouldn’t have been able to notice an archaeological pit on my own.

We were stopping at the island so that Northwestern University geologist Patricia Beddows could check on and replace some of the flow and temperature sensors she had deployed nearby.  She is an associate professor of instruction in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern and has spent years researching in the Yucatan. She decided to give a tour of the archaeological site while we were here.  I was following Beddows for an embedded reporting assignment.

The pits are typically divided into units, a meter square and 10 centimeters deep.  Archaeologists and their students sift and sort all of the material dug out of the pit, once used by the Mayans as storage chambers.  Anything that isn’t just geological material gets carefully collected and this includes pottery, shells and bones.  The rest of the material is put back into the pit at the end of the digging season and then covered up to look like the rest of the jungle floor.  There are about 20 to 30 pits at Vista Alegra and almost all of them included  some human remains, showing that the island didn’t have enough room for people to bury their dead.  All of the artifacts and remains are gathered for safe-keeping at a building owned by the multinational archaeologists who work on the site.

The site has a couple of different holes in the ground that are built by the Maya on high points. These holes, called “chultun,” were used for water or food storage.  However, because they are on high points, it seems unlikely that they were used to capture water, leaving a mystery as to where the people living on the island got their water.  People lived at the site intermittently from 800 B.C. to the mid-16th century.  Beddows lived on this site for a month at one point and says her group of a small number of people had challenges  maintaining a water supply.  Hundreds of people lived on this island in ages past. It served as a connection point between coastal and inland areas on a trade route for Mayan freight canoes.  Beddows says the site might lead to a piece in the basic equation of the area’s water budget that scientists are currently missing.  There might have been areas of coastal freshwater discharge that the ancient people could use.

One chultun goes deeper than the current water table where archaeologists were still finding material.  This material had clearly been on dry land when it was used, but it now is flooded by groundwater.  Beddows says that this might mean there is something scientists are missing about how the sea level has changed over time.

“There’s something here we don’t fully understand,” she says.  The site challenges what scientists currently accept about the tectonic stability in the area.  The archaeology at this site and at others nearby are forcing a fundamental rethinking of tectonic stability, which has been assumed to exist since a paper published in 1970.  Beddows compares the potential movement to a teeter totter where parts of the platform are rising while others are dropping.  This could mean that what looks like sea level rise actually is the land going down, or the opposite, which would inform the way adaptions measures to climate change are implemented.

The base of the central pyramid at Vista Alegre, looking up. (Brittany Callan/Medill)

We wander for a bit on the pathways that have been cleared for researchers as we look for the central pyramid.  A massive, beautiful carved stone of a snake head used to lie in front of the temple but was taken away by the National Institute of Archaeology out of concern that it would be stolen.  Looting – even in a remote site such as this one, only accessible by hiring a fishing boat – is still a real risk.  We find the pyramid, which is actually next to a plaza we encountered earlier. The pyramid, after centuries of erosion, looks like a pile of worn rock with weeds growing out from between them.  When it was first created, the outside of it would have been plaster.  The pyramids at popular tourist sites once also looked like this before clearing the vegetation and putting surface stones back in place.

We scramble up the rocks to the top, where we can see above the treetops of the jungle.  The pyramid is extremely steep.  Beddows says the reason for that is because it reduces the total volume of building materials needed to create it, which is important when all of the rock on the island would have been moved here from somewhere else.  The only methods of transport meant carrying the rocks or bringing them by canoe, both of which would have been difficult.

“It actually made more sense for them to invest in making more cement, which is made by burning lime,” requiring wood and labor,  Beddows says. “But that’s probably easier than hauling rocks.”

We carefully walk sideways down the pyramid, sliding and trying not to knock any of the rocks out of place or erode them.  We leave the scientific mysteries of the site behind us, where it awaits the next expedition of researchers to visit.

Photo at top: Northwester University geologist Patricia Beddows pulls out a disintegrating wooden ladder used by previous researchers to descend into a chultun, an underground Mayan storage chamber. (Brittany Callan/Medill)

Stop The Violence

By Richard Foster-Shelton
Medill Reports

In recent years, Chicago has made international headlines for the sky-high murder rates in the city. Unfortunately, this problem has cast a shadow on the people that are doing their part to reverse the trend. During this episode of Medill Newsmakers, Richard Foster-Shelton highlights the people in Chicago that are making a positive impact – from 1st District Commissioner Richard Boykin to Jenesis Scullark of the Jeremy Scullark Foundation.

Photo at top: Chicago’s iconic skyline masks the truth about the city. (Richard Foster-Shelton/MEDILL)


Local blogger on healthy food in Chicago and beyond

Loumay Alesali
Medill Reports

From Havana to Athens to Lima and many more destinations around the world, Sapna the Chicago vegetarian traveler, blogger and Instagrammer delivers international journeys to people’s fingertips with one click, or swipe.

She started her blog,, six years ago to share her traveling experiences with people and help them find the best of food out there in the U.S. and anywhere abroad. Her 15,000 followers on Instagram turn to her when they want to find restaurants that accommodate their vegetarian and gluten free dietary needs. Sapna’s goal is to make it easier for people to experiment with food while traveling and escape the daunting fear of food restriction.
“It makes places less scary, so that you yourself can feel comfortable, like okay I’ve seen all these pictures on Instagram or I’ve read a couple of blogs and people said it’s okay not to worry,” Sapna said.
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Esports: A new era of professional sports

By Jourdan Kerl
Medill Newsmakers

Professional video gaming, formally known as esports, is transforming ordinary people who play games into professional paid athletes through leagues like the NBA 2K League and Madden Championship Series. In this edition of Medill Newsmakers, we take an in-depth look at one of the fastest growing sports that is sweeping across the world.

Photo at top: Fans at COMBO BREAKER 2018 in Illinois observe Tekken 7 main stage competition. (Jourdan Kerl/MEDILL)

Berkshire Hathaway’s Governance Unique Among Public Companies

By Brian Baker
Medill Reports

Todd Combs, an investment officer at Berkshire Hathaway Inc., received $376,750 in total compensation last year for serving on the board of directors at JPMorgan Chase & Co. That’s nearly 140 times what Bill Gates earned as a director on the board of Berkshire.

“No Berkshire director is in it for the money,” said Charles Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire during the company’s 2017 annual meeting. “It’s a very old-fashioned system.”

Despite Berkshire’s wide following and general admiration for CEO Warren Buffett, its approach to corporate governance remains an anomaly. As the day when Buffett is no longer running Berkshire gets closer, some are beginning to question whether that governance can continue without him.

Brian Tayan, a corporate governance researcher at Stanford University, said Berkshire’s challenge when Buffett is gone will be to shift its governance strategy from being built around Buffett to being built around the company. Although he doesn’t expect immediate changes, Tayan said he expects Berkshire will look more like other businesses in the future.

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Is Your Plant Dead or Just Dormant?

Mollie McNeel
Medill Reports

If a gardener tells you that their plants had died and now have come back to life years later, you might think they’ve gone crazy. But actually, they may be on to something.

Some fully-grown plants can “hibernate” in the soil for up to 20 years, researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) discovered and reported their findings in a study published in the May issue of Ecology Letters.

The so-called “Rip Van Winkle” plants, nicknamed after the fictional character who slept for two decades, include many species of orchids and some ferns.

Pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule), an orchid that can remain dormant for over 20 years. (Credit: SERC)

An international team of researchers, including two Smithsonian scientists, have been working to understand the patterns and causes of dormancy in a variety of adult plant species. Dormancy only occurs in some plants in a population in any given year, and depends on individual plant circumstances. If a plant produces a new shoot that then gets destroyed, the plant will more than likely remain dormant through upcoming growing seasons to allow time to stock up on its necessary nutrients. While dormancy in seeds has been widely acknowledged and studied for decades, dormancy within fully-grown plants is far more mysterious.

“There is this hidden stage we didn’t know about, and it’s much more widespread than people had previously appreciated,” said Melissa McCormick, contributing author on the study and SERC molecular ecologist.

Dennis Whigham (left) and Melissa McCormick (right), two Smithsonian ecologists who study dormant orchids. (Credit: Peter G. Cane and Yini Ma)

To date, this research is the most comprehensive and widespread study conducted on dormancy in adult plant species. Scientists studied 114 plant species in 24 different families, using data from a vast array of datasets and published studies on plant dormancy.

The team realized that whether or not a plant will go dormant often depends on what it will “cost” the plant to produce a sprout—and found that plants with shorter lifespans (around five to seven years) are more likely to go dormant.

This may be because plants with longer lifespans are able to stock up on nutrients and store them underground, which can then be used as a backup source to produce another shoot in case the first one dies. Plants with shorter lifespans may not have this ability, giving them fewer opportunities to produce a shoot and making it much more “costly” if it dies, McCormick explained. Therefore, plants with shorter lifespans and shorter root systems may be more cautious prior to initiating aboveground growth.

In McCormick’s words, plants have to decide, “If I produce a shoot and it gets eaten, do I have anything left to use to produce a shoot again in another year?”

Plants that go dormant have been found to remain underground for anywhere from one to over 20 years. Since the dormant plants aren’t adding any resources by photosynthesis, they’re likely obtaining resources from fungi—another key to being able to go dormant and emerge in the future.

Almost all plants on land form beneficial relationships with certain kinds of fungi. But fungi play a special role in helping orchids and other dormant plants survive underground. These fungi provide essential nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus while the plant is nestled under the soil and unable to photosynthesize.

The base of an Isotria orchid, dug up by an animal so its underground roots are visible. This plant has gone dormant in the past. The tiny green bud shows where it’s preparing to grow a shoot for next year. (Credit: Melissa McCormick/SERC)

“The fungal side [of this research] has changed over time,” explained Dennis Whigham, SERC plant ecologist and co-author. “It initially started out as asking which types of fungi are present and if we can grow them in the lab.” However, as genetic research evolved, researchers were able to use DNA to search for fungi in the soil. This allowed them to be able to take a soil sample, look at that sample and see if the fungus was present near specific orchid species. “Now, we not only can determine if the fungus is present, but we can see how much of it in the area as well,” said Whigham.

Prior to the international study, the research team thought dormancy would be more prevalent at colder latitudes and higher elevations, where the growing season is shorter. But to their surprise, they discovered dormancy was more common near the equator, where threats like disease, competition and predators are more severe.

“Plants up in high latitudes grow really slowly and are really long lived. These plants store a lot more materials such as nutrients below ground,” said McCormick. “In the tropics, factors such as climate are often more benign and predictable, but predators, competition and plant diseases are not.”

Discoveries like this could be critical for conservation in the coming years. When looking at plant populations—especially those of endangered orchids—it’s important to know that there could be more than meets the eye.

“We can’t just go out one year, see what’s going on and move on,” said McCormick. “It’s not going to give us the answers we need in terms of the species or understanding how these plants are reacting to environmental changes.”

This story was originally posted on the SERC website.

PHOTO AT TOP: Pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule), an orchid that can remain dormant for over 20 years. (Credit: SERC)

Former Athlete Helping Others Find Their Identity

By Nick Mantas
Medill Reports

High school athletes who don’t play sports in college all go through a transitional period of what life is like without a practice schedule.

Chloe Barnes went through that same transition and her experience, like that of thousands other athletes, wasn’t a smooth one.

So she created Elle Grace Consulting in order to help her fellow athletes find who they truly are underneath their jerseys.

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Getting to know sharks one tag at a time

Mollie McNeel
Medill Reports

Sharks. They’re everyone’s favorite underwater enemy. Between nerve-wracking drama’s like Jaws to stories about prehistoric mega-sharks, we have all but made the shark species a completely fictionalized being. But, scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, are changing that one tag at a time.

May 14, 2018—Our shark tagging adventure began with an eight-hour car ride from the SERC campus outside of Baltimore, down the East Coast of the United States to Morehead City, North Carolina. While others had planned on joining us, I was the only team member making the journey with Chuck Bangley, a SERC marine ecologist at SERC. So, we loaded our government issued mini-van, stopped at Dunkin Donuts and hit the road.

May 15, 2018, 7:00 am— “If you start feeling sea sick just remember, feed the fish not the birds,” instructed a crew member on the R/V Capricorn as he addressed the 10 passengers that would be heading out on today’s trip.

Chuck and I are among other researchers from the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Science. Some of them are interested in sharks, just like Chuck, while some are looking for squid or eels.

Captain Joe stops for gas, filling up the 200-gallon tank before we head out to sea. “I don’t see many white caps out there yet, but storms are in the forecast, so it might get rough,” he says, clearly excited as he steers the vessel towards the open ocean.

Fisherman on the R/V Capricorn brings in a large net of fish.Photo: Mollie McNeel

First item on today’s agenda is to “trawl” for about 15 minutes. To do this, the deckhands lower a large net with wooden and metal pallets at the ends to drag along the seafloor, collecting bait for the rest of the journey. As we float along, our net following behind, we catch the attention of a pod of dolphins that trail the net closely, making an easy meal out of the fish that narrowly avoid the net and an exciting spectacle for all on the boat.

As we reel in the net and dump its contents on deck I hear Chuck call out with excitement, “Dogfish!” That’s the shark he was searching for.

Smooth Dogfish that was tagged by SERC. Photo: Mollie McNeel
A student from UNC places the shark on its back putting it into an unconscious state. Photo: Mollie McNeel

A UNC undergrad student grabs the small shark and places it in a black plastic tank filled with seawater. “Flip it over onto its back,” instructs Chuck. Doing this helps subdue the shark by putting it into an almost unconscious state. He readies his surgical equipment, slips on blue latex gloves and grabs a scalpel to tag the shark.

In order to implant the acoustic tracker, the study procedures require Chuck to perform a small surgery on the sharks. He gives the aquatic patient a small shot of lidocaine to numb the area, makes a small incision on the shark’s underbelly, inserts the small black cylindrical instrument and stitches the wound closed—all in under five minutes. After the procedure is complete, they roll the shark back onto its stomach, making sure it is alert and moving well before it gets tossed for a dive back into the ocean.

After sorting through the rest of the net full of fish – squid, crabs and some of the biggest shrimp I’ve ever seen (which the crew happily set aside for their dinners) we were ready to continue fishing for the “big dogs”— more sharks.

Our first stop was just a mile off the coast. The crew began lowering a line of buoys and metal fish hooks loaded with our bait, impaled but still flailing, into the water. One buoy, 10 hooks. That was the order we followed in a smooth and practiced routine.

Once the hooks were out there, we did what fishermen do best – we waited. An hour passed easily with talk of science, fishing stories and dreams of catching a great white. As our boat circled back around to pick of the first buoy, excitement filled the air. Members of the crew were ready pull in whatever was attached to the hooks, scientists ready to tag and measure sharks and me, ready to take photos and come face-to-face with “jaws.”

The first couple of hooks come up empty but then the frenzy starts – one, two, three sharks about 3-feet long each are pulled aboard. They are Sharpnose sharks, not a species Chuck is looking for, but ones UNC scientists are tagging in a separate study. Grab a shark – measure to the fork in its tail, to the tip of the tail – tag it – throw it back – repeat. Over and over I watched as this series was performed in a shark assembly line.

A scientists measures the length of a shark. Photo: Mollie McNeel

After about 30 hectic minutes, we had pulled in 15 sharks, none that can be used for SERC’s study but still an impressive population size that scientists rarely see on these trips. “I’m your good luck charm,” I say joking. To my surprise, the team agrees and tells me to forget the rest of graduate school and join the crew instead.

Next, we move farther off the shore to about seven miles out. We no longer can see land in any direction and the captain’s gadgets show that we are floating in water about 57 feet deep. The wind has begun to pick up causing swells about three feet tall to rock the boat side to side harshly. As I look out the window from the boats cabin one second I can see nothing but blue sky and the next the boat shifts and the window only shows dark blue water.

We repeat the buoy and hook pattern as we cast again in the deeper water. Everyone takes the opportunity to eat some lunch while we wait. “Goldfish crackers are a must while out on a boat,” says Lewis, a student from the UK who is at UNC working towards his doctorate. We take bets on how many sharks we will catch this round. The buy in is a quarter and I bet high with hopes that my luck will continue — “12,” I say.

Unfortunately, I didn’t win the bet since we only brought in two sharks. But, while the number was disappointing, the last catch was not. As we were nearing the end of the hooks, we pulled in a large Sandbar shark spanning about 5 feet long. She was not happy to be pulled up onto the deck and was flailing around violently, mouth open, teeth visible and bloodied from the hook. A deckhand jumped on top of the shark, straddling it and pressing down on its head to keep it from biting anyone on deck. The shark was quickly measured, tagged and shoved off the back of the boat into the deep waters.

Sandbar shark that was the last catch of the day. Photo: Mollie McNeel

After that excitement it was time to make the long trip back to the docks. Some people on board began conversations while others, me included, settled in for a nap in the sunshine.

As we reached the dock and gathered our belongings someone in the background asked Chuck if he thought the trip was successful. “Well, we are leaving with one more shark tagged than before, so I would say that is a success,” exclaimed Chuck with a smile as he stepped of the boat and back onto dry land.

PHOTO AT TOP: Smooth Dogfish Shark caught and tagged off the coast of North Carolina. (Mollie McNeel/Medill)

Chicago is stepping up to be a trading hub for crypto

By Jinman Li
Medill Reports

Chicago is becoming a honeypot for cryptocurrency and will attract more and more crypto companies in the future, panelists said Tuesday at a luncheon panel hosted by the Executives’ Club of Chicago.

The birth of stock futures trading in the last century in Chicago demonstrated the city’s innovative spirit, said Sunil Cutinho, the president of CME Clearing. Compared with other metropolitans such as New York and San Francisco, Chicago focuses more on markets and has a unique ecosystem as a financial center, he added.

The different players in the ecosystem such as exchanges, financial institutions and technology companies are entering the cryptocurrency space, forming a concentration of upgrading power in Chicago, said Peter Johnson, vice president at Jump Capital, a Chicago-based venture capital firm.

Johnson said that Kraken, a bitcoin exchange based in San Francisco, is going to open its largest office in Chicago in 12 to 18 months.

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