Health and Science

Feral cats hunting down lizards in the Yucatan

By Tiffany Chen
Medill Reports

Quintana Roo, Mexico – The lush forests, cobalt  blue waters and and rich biodiversity leaves the tourists in awe in the Yucatan Peninsula. Yet, over the past 20 years, locals and tourists at the coastal town  of Akumal noticed a drop in the population of lizards. And stray cats are to blame.

Something rattled in the bush. A cat with a grey-speckled coat gazed intensely into the green. Tip-toeing towards a tropical bush, the cat lowered its shoulder-blade making its belly closer to the floor. It stopped. It pounced. And it turned towards me. There, a gecko- looking reptile, waved its limbs and squirmed between the cat’s teeth. The cat held the amphibian hard enough so it couldn’t escape and light enough, so the cat didn’t kill it. I thought I’d just witnessed a lion hunting an antelope in the safari. But for these cats, the hunt isn’t for food, necessarily. It’s for sport.

Domestic cats are listed among the “100 of the world’s worst invasive alien species” in many areas, according to the Invasive Species Specialist Group. An estimated 1.4-3.7 billion birds and 6.9-20.7 billion mammals are killed annually in the U.S. by feral cats who have shed domestic life. These cats are posing threats to birds, amphibians and small mammals around the world.

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For one urban farmer, the future is fungi

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

Terry Noland’s 1958 rockabilly hit “There Was A Fungus Among Us” may not have been a direct reference to mushrooms when it was released. But the title merits momentum today, when there are many fungi among us in nature and in our kitchens. Researchers  have recruited them for soil remediation, water filtration and even oil spill cleanup.

“I call them the digestive system of the Earth,” said Belkacem El Metennani, owner and sole operator of a small Chicago mushroom farm. “When a tree falls down, mushrooms decompose it and turn it into a compost, into a fertilizer, for the rest of the trees.”

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Chicago leads a national-level push towards mental well-being within poetry slam circuits

The 2018 National Poetry Slam, in Chicago this week, is addressing longtime wellness problems plaguing the slam world

by Vangmayi Parakala
Medill Reports 

CHICAGO – On Monday afternoon, the conference room at the Palmer House Hilton was abuzz. Under the ornate ceiling décor were busy-but-excited-seeming groups of volunteers streaming in for their official check-in. The National Poetry Slam 2018 is to begin in four hours.

Many of these people — they were loud, happy and welcoming each other with hugs — were meeting for the first time. Already, the group was making the Palmer House Hilton their home. The hotel in Chicago’s Loop district is playing host to the five-day poetry festival-and-competition which will end with the National Poetry Slam finals on Saturday August 18.

Over heaped plates of falafel and hummus, rice and pita, the group coordinators were getting to know their volunteers, distributing name tags, and briefing them about the duties that lay ahead. Sitting to one far corner of the conference room were the Wellness Team volunteers – three of the total 40 expected to join the team through the week. This is the first time that mental and physical health is being given dedicated attention of this scale at a national poetry event.

Since its early days in the late ’80s and early ’90s, slam poetry has been criticized for encouraging a certain type of poetry. The format rewards verse that is easily consumable and drawn from heart-wrenching personal stories of grief and trauma. Picked at random from the audience, judges tend to score highly poems that are powerful, moving and emotionally compelling. This, coupled with slam poetry’s being a genre heavy with stories of everyday and marginalized voices, can mean that violence, abuse, or oppression of some kind are dominant themes.

Add to that the very stress of competitive events, and the need for on-site mental and physical healthcare becomes obvious.

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‘Renaissance Woman’ embraces new phase of life and gender identity at 75

By Lauren Robinson
Medill Reports

Stefanie Clark describes her regular stints volunteering at the Art Institute of Chicago as a way she can give back to the community that kept her moving forward during a tumultuous time in her life.

“This is one of my things I look forward to the most,” said Clark, 75, her gray hair swept into a small bun as she greets people at the doors of the museum. Indeed, the former financier, whose business card and email signature bear her self-ascribed moniker “Renaissance Woman,” wears many hats.
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As Chicago’s five-year housing plan expires, local organizers call for rent subsidies

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

Members of the Chicago Housing Justice League want increased access to safe, affordable housing and greater protection for people from the 30,000 evictions filed in Chicago every year. The league  calls for rent subsidies and local input to troubleshoot the problem.

The league and dozens of other housing organizations on Wednesday released recommendations for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, aiming to influence the city’s forthcoming five-year housing plan.

Recent Chicago housing developments are “glass boxes, looming down, of people that live self-contained lives trying to avoid interacting with anybody else, if they can help it,” said Frank Avellone, senior attorney and policy coordinator Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing. That’s the opposite of an effort to strengthen renter rights and improve eviction protection, he said.​ Continue reading

Big Ten Media Days continues with Urban Meyer and Lovie Smith

By Nick Mantas
Medill Reports

Day 2 of Big Ten Media Days featured coaches with different realistic goals. Ohio State Head Coach Urban Meyer is searching for another national title while Illinois Head Coach Lovie Smith is looking to win a single game in the Big Ten conference this year.

Our reporters weighed on on both coaches and how one team is looking to heal after a death in the off season.


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Big Ten Media Days kicks off with Fitzgerald, Harbuagh & more

By Nick Mantas
Medill Reports

Big Ten conference head football coaches stepped up to the microphone to face the media and talk about their upcoming seasons. The Medill Reports sports team was at the 2018 Big Ten Media Days as well.


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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.

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