Health and Science

Cherry Bombe Jubilee cultivates community for women changemakers in the food world

By Maia Welbel
Medill Reports

Between sips of Direct Trade coffee and hard kombucha, women at Cherry Bombe Jubilee this April in New York City talked food, business, and how they are making a difference in a male-dominated industry.

The Cherry Bombe Jubilee conference brings together and celebrates women in the food industry. Created by the founders of the indie magazine, Cherry Bombe, the Jubilee turns the tables on the lack of female attendance at the world’s most prestigious food conferences. Founders Kerry Diamond and Claudia Wu host the event and curate a lineup of chefs, bakers, restaurant owners, food writers, and more to speak and socialize. Continue reading

Science and tourism in the Rio Secreto caves of the Yucatan Peninsula

By Brittany Callan
Medill Reports 

Rio Secreto, Yucatan Peninsula – The first thing that struck me was the darkness.  The feeble light from our helmets struggled to illuminate the cave around us.  You could either walk with your light pointing at the ground or use it to look around the cave.  Not both.  That was a challenge –  this was my first time in a cave and I wanted to see everything.

Where we start walking, the cave’s natural decorations of dramatic stalactites and stalagmites look ancient and fossilized.  These are the older formations. Geologist Patricia Beddows explained that she looks for younger stalagmites to monitor drips, but either can be sampled as a paleoclimate record.  All of the formations come from water moving through the calcified rock and soil, sometimes aided by tree roots.

As we walked further off of the tourist trail, we could see the difference between old and new.  The stalactites and stalagmites that are younger look more yellow, with a texture resembling  candlewax after a candle has been burning for awhile.  This  was the room in which Beddows did her research and affectionately called “the lab.”

A group of us gathered with Beddows at one of her data loggers in Rio Secreto. (Photo by Edward Mallon)

We also walk past a table and chairs where the highest paying tourists get to drink wine and enjoy food in a kind of cool and mysterious cave cafe. Beddows and our guide Fernanda Lases Hernandez ponder whether having a few higher paying tours rather than multiple cheaper ones can help reduce the impact of tourism on the cave system.

We were walking into the depths of Rio Secreto so that Beddows, a professor and researcher at Northwestern University, could check on her fleet of sensors that were busy collecting data on the number and frequency of drips of water hitting them from the stalactites above.  Each time a drip hit  the plastic drum of the data logger, a green light flashed.  Beddows is studying the groundwater recharge in the cave system, the process in which water moves from the surface  above into the cave. Recharge is a term for replenishing freshwater supplies. Working in Rio Secreto lets Beddows gather an entire population of drips.

Beddows checked to make sure all of her data loggers were working and pulled some that weren’t.  As we were walking on the way out, she stopped Lases and told me and my colleague, journalism student Tiffany Chen, how to guide ourselves out of the cave.  I looked for the red guide strings that led to the exit and tried to walk in between them to find the way out.  At times, it was difficult to find the strings and the path seemed mostly unfamiliar.  It felt easy to get lost here.

Small parts of Rio Secreto are devoted to guided tours. Photo provided by Rio Secreto.

Two days later, Chen and I came back to the cave to see it from a tourist’s perspective.  Ecotourism is wildly popular in the Yucatan Peninsula.  Rio Secreto is only partially commercialized for tourism, though.  Lases estimates that 10 percent is used for guided tours, and the guides switch routes to try to contain the direct impact.  The rest of the cave system is sequestered for research and conservation. The total  length of the Rio Secreto cave system is 38 kilometers (about 23 miles) and the total area of the cave we experienced is only a few hundred meters.

Lases and guide Raul Padilla Borja stopped before the tour to talk to us about the importance of conserving the cave ecosystem.  They warned us about keeping our heads down to prevent  breaking any of the stalactites.  Later, when we were in the water,  Padilla rubbed his hand on the side of his nose and then put it in the water to show us how the calcite in the cave rafts. It looks  like ice and disperses immediately.

“It is very important to inform our visitors, people that are coming as our guests to Rio Secreto, about the fragility, the importance, and the uniqueness of the aquifer of Rio Secreto,” Lases said.

Rio Secreto, like many other places in the Yucatan Peninsula, is in a struggle  to conserve the purity of  the groundwater.  I talked to a dry cave explorer, Peter Sprouse, about how he thought the cave operators were doing.

“They have made pretty significant efforts in conserving the watershed that leads to the caves. They have to fight off some developments from Playa del Carmen to the north.  It’s a constant battle to them, to keep the water clean,” Sprouse said. There is a threat of seepage of wastewater as the development accelerates.

But for now, the ecosystem seems to be doing well.  On our tour, we were lucky enough to see two blind fish – white fish that have empty eye sockets because they have evolved to live without eyesight since it isn’t useful in the cave.

“This fish is in the red list [of threatened species] and they are also very fragile to pollution. But, at the same time they are an indicator that everything is going well.  The presence of a blind fish means the ecosystem is in very good shape,” said Padilla.

Photo at top: Looking for the blind fish. (Photo by Rio Secreto)

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.

Continue reading

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)


Scientists follow clues in Alaska to illnesses moving from animals to humans

By Samantha Yadron
Medill Reports

Medill News Service journalist Samantha Yadron is an embedded journalist with scientists from the University of Anchorage, Alaska, reporting on the dangers of micro-plastics to wildlife consuming it. In this blog, she follows scientists with the One Health initiative on a multinational research tour gathering clues about the  transfer of illnesses from animals to humans .

Portage Valley, Alaska, Thursday, May 24—It’s around 10:30 am and the sunny, warm day near Anchorage feels far away from the Arctic research at the Begich Boggs Visitor Center,  an intricate but severe -looking building erected with windowed tunnels and walls  to display the view of Portage Lake and Valley. The heavy rain typical of this valley seems to be falling sideways.

the Begich Boggs Visitor Center, an intricate but severe -looking building erected with windowed tunnels and walls to display the view of Portage Lake and Valley. (Samantha Yadron/Medill)

A large, white tour bus sits in the parking lot. It’s passengers, more than 10 ecologists, veterinarians, biologists, public health specialists, and state representatives from Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and the United States—six of the eight countries on the Arctic Council—have de-boarded and now stand atop a small hill looking at the few icebergs speckling the water. They take  pictures with their phones.

The scientists have spent the last seven days traveling across Minnesota and Alaska, attending meetings with government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, talking with other scientists, and visiting what some call “the real Alaska,” near Denali and Fairbanks., This refers to the more rural, more indigenous, subsistence-based communities compared to  heavily-populated Anchorage.

Brought to the U.S. through a State Department initiative called the International Visitor Leadership Program, these current and emerging foreign leaders from multiple disciplines  came to collaborate on a concept called One Health, a way of looking at public health through human, animal, and environmental lenses.

In Anchorage, they were guided by Thomas Hennessey, director of Arctic Investigations Program at the CDC, in the Anchorage Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections. They are researching the potential threats of disease transfer between animals and people, a threat that increases with the warming temperatures of climate change. Doug Causey, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and who does fieldwork in this valley, had the idea to bring them to Portage Glacier Valley and this center.

Located just under 55 miles southeast of Anchorage, the center resides within Chugach National Forest, the second largest forest within the U.S. Forest Service.  At 6 million acres, it is roughly the size of New Hampshire. The center, when built in 1986, offered visitors the rare opportunity to see a glacier in-person, even while standing where Thursday’s visitors stood. Now, to see the shrinking glacier, visitors need to take a cruise on Portage Lake.

A photo of Portage Lake, filled with icebergs and the glacier in the mid-1980s, on a PowerPoint for one of Doug Causey’s classes.
The Portage Valley Glacier is rapidly melting. This May 24 photograph shows it has receded a half-mile since the image above was photographed in the mid-1980s. (Samantha Yadron/Medill)

“People get really excited about seeing a glacier,” says Tim Charnon, having gathered the group indoors around a large, circular, topographical map of the forest. Containing the largest ice field in Alaska, Chugach is really “on the frontlines of Arctic studies,” says Charnon, which becomes evident when you consider the glacier’s history.

In just over 20 years, the glacier has receded a half mile. “It’s around the corner, but it’s a long way around the corner,” Charnon says. In another 20 years, Charnon says the glacier will transform into a “hanging glacier,” which, according the National Snow and Ice Data Center, happens when former glaciers recede to the point that all that’s left are smaller, tributary glaciers high above the surface.

Even the icebergs in the lake have diminished. It’s unusual now to see any icebergs in the lake, when, in the 1980s, the lake would be filled with them. “You’re all lucky,” Charnon says. “There will be a few years remaining where you’ll see icebergs in the lake. But the calving events will get less common.”

Working through healthcare practitioners and veterinarians, One Health strategizes on global public health issues through interdisciplinary means as part of organizations such as the CDC. As an officially adopted concept, it dates back to 2008, when 120 countries and 26 international and regional organizations recognized it as a way to combat Avian Influenza. But the CDC’s timeline for One Health as an idea shows its origins as early as 1821, with Dr. Rudolph Virchow, who coined the term “zoonosis” to describe diseases that can be passed between humans and animals.

“It’s an approach that makes you take a step back and look at the broader picture of your study system,” says Emily Jenkins, a member of the group and an Associate Professor in the Department of Veterinary Microbiology, with a joint appointment in the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan.

But the Portage Glacier isn’t the whole story of this valley, says Charnon; another part has to do with wildlife. “People like Doug Causey at the University of Alaska and his students are our boots on the ground to do some biology work.”

Doug Causey shows the group where he discovered bats are sleeping in the Portage Valley, which is in those globs of moss attached to the tree branches. (Samantha Yadron/Medill)

The visitors left the center and followed Causey in their tour bus to two of his field sites, just a short drive back North up the road.

Along a stream that, because of the way the water runs down from the glacier, stays warm enough to run year-round, a perennial ecosystem that includes otters, fish, birds, bugs, and bat thrives. As the group gathered around, Causey explained that where they all stood was the northernmost part of the temperate rainforest.

The inhabitance of bats in this valley, according to Causey, serves as one of his most interesting (and most recent) discoveries there. “Five years ago, no one knew Alaska even had bats,” Causey said. “There are no caves here,” says Causey. So where do the bats sleep?

By setting up microphones that record bats’ supersonic sound, Causey gradually moved the microphones closer and closer to where he heard them. Pointing to green balls of moss that form around the tree branches, Causey showed the group that he discovered this is where they rest during the day. “It took us four years to find this place,” Causey said.

Bats are important to One Health advocates because of the many pathogens they can carry, including the  Ebola virus. One-Health places emphasis on emergent zoonotic diseases. “Emergent disease is, ‘oh my god people are falling over dead with something we’ve never known before. We’d like to know about the disease before people are dead. That’s where One Health comes in,” says Causey.

Vigdis Tryggvadottir, group member and a veterinary officer of Zoonoses at Icelandic Food and Safety, agrees. “You realize quickly that we need to be talking. For example, the AMR issue, it’s not a human issue or a veterinary issue; it’s our issue. We need to be working together,” Tryggvadottir says, referring to the problem of antimicrobial resistance, which means bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi becoming resistant to treatments like antibiotics.

One Health might seem like an intuitive idea, and, according to Jenkins, to First Nations, Inuit, and Indigenous peoples, it is. To them, “One Health is absolutely no big news. They get it that human and animal and environmental health is linked. It is not a surprise to them.” And yet, she says scientists “tend to get a little fixated on our pet parasites or pet species or pet locations. One Health makes you take a step back.”

After Causey finished showing the representatives his field sites, the international group re-boarded their bus for the next stop: Seward, Alaska, where they will visit the Alaska Sealife Center to study how veterinarians treat marine wildlife, a central theme of the One health mission.

Samantha Yadron


A glimpse into the atmosphere – Balloons still at the forefront of forecasting

By Morgan Levey
Medill Reports

Norman, Oklahoma. Just around the corner from the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma, a small cylinder-block building with antennas and a sphere on the roof marks the site of crucial weather data collection. Reinforced to withstand a gas explosion, it’s the base for Norman’s daily weather balloon launch. Yes, balloons — one of the oldest forecasting tools reliably capturing weather warnings today.

Every day at 0 Z and 12 Z (6 a.m. and 6 p.m. CST) over 700 locations worldwide release a weather balloon. “It’s a picture of the atmosphere around the world at a given hour,” says Forrest Mitchell, the observations program leader for the National Weather Service in Norman. A weather balloon is a helium-filled vehicle that lifts a radiosonde, an instrument that takes atmospheric measurements every second, to 100,000 feet above Earth’s surface.

While the process of launching a balloon hasn’t changed since 1938, the instrument technology keeps progressing. Through its antenna, the radiosonde sends the data it collects back to the National Weather Service headquarters in Silver Springs, Maryland — between six and 7,000 readings. Computers crunch the data into figures on wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure. These combined measurements provide a baseline for weather models and forecasts for severe weather over the next 12 hours.

Weather balloon operators Forrest Mitchell and Daryl Williams have been launching balloons for almost three decades. “So we’re starting to get the hang of it,” Mitchell jokes. On a windy evening at the beginning of May, Mitchell and Williams explained the process of launching a balloon.

While the weather balloon inflates, Forrest Mitchell explains that operators inflate the balloons to rise about 985 feet per minute. The balloon will expand as it rises and the atmosphere’s pressure decreases, growing to almost 40 feet in diameter — the size of a pick-up truck. (Morgan Levey/ MEDILL)

Continue reading

Space-like chambers deliver the wetlands of a warmer world

By Mollie McNeel
Medill Reports

Wetlands are typically filled with the sounds of crickets chirping, bees buzzing and frogs croaking. But at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Maryland, those are all accompanied by the whirring of motor-powered pumps. The pumps drive air from hexagonal carbon dioxide chambers to a greenhouse gas analyzer, helping scientists create a “wetland of the future.”

Scientists at SERC are attempting to predict how the warming climate associated with rising carbon dioxide levels will impact coastal wetlands with an experiment called SMARTX—Salt Marsh Accretion Response to Temperature eXperiment. It’s one of many futuristic experiments on the center’s Global Change Research Wetland. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading