All posts by valerienikolas2019

Art and science in the time of Cajal: How paying homage to neuroscience’s founder helps scientists frame new research

By Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

“Undoubtedly, only artists devote themselves to science.”
– Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 1900 interview

Art and science may seem like complete opposites to some. But for Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, blending the two led him to groundbreaking discoveries about the human mind. Growing up in the late half of the 19th century, Cajal dreamed of becoming an artist, but his father encouraged him to pursue medicine instead.

As a neuroscientist, Cajal found a way to blend his talents by drawing detailed diagrams of the brain as he observed it through a microscope. “Cajal represents a good example of the bridge between science and artistic inspiration that existed in an earlier age,” said Javier DeFelipe, a researcher at Cajal’s namesake research institute in Madrid.

Novel at the time, scientists still use Cajal’s drawings and techniques in research today. He won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his pioneering work.

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Madrid’s Cajal Institute fosters collaboration among international neuroscientists

By Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

A Japanese postdoctoral fellow, two Spanish doctoral candidates, an Italian undergraduate and an American journalist walk into a neuroscience research institute in Spain.

It’s 2 p.m. and the Cajal Institute’s break room is abuzz with the sounds of scientists eating packed lunches, discussing the latest episode of Game of Thrones and debating which country has the best coffee.

I’m at the Cajal Institute for a three-week embedded science reporting assignment, during which I will work closely with scientists here to learn about their research and communicate their findings. The Cajal Institute—the oldest neuroscience institute in Spain—was founded by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Nobel Prize-winning father of modern neuroscience.

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How to celebrate Madrid’s San Isidro Festival

Text and photos by Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

Madrid’s San Isidro Festival is a multisensory experience filled with music, dance, historical and religious folklore, poetry, food and drink. On May 15 and the days leading up to it, Madrileños (residents of Madrid) honor the patron saint of their city, San Isidro (Saint Isadore) with events that take place throughout the city. On the saint’s feast day, thousands gather in San Isidro Park, located in the Carabanchel district of Madrid, to celebrate a festival with origins that begin almost 1,000 years ago.

San Isidro was a peasant farmer who lived in Madrid from 1070 to 1130 A.D. Legend says that when his son fell into a well, San Isidro prayed to God that the well would fill with water. It did, and his son floated to safety. Since then, Madrileños have prayed to San Isidro to bring rain, especially during this springtime festival. The scorching 90-degree heat on the day of the fest emphasizes this point.

“According to tradition, San Isidro performed a lot of miracles, and many of the miracles were about the water,” said Margarita Gonzalez, who works at the San Isidro Museum in Madrid. “This is important because many people in Madrid believe in these types of miracles.”

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Dads who exercise may pass down cognitive benefits to their offspring

Mouse study shows offspring of active fathers are better at learning and remembering

By Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

Men, if you want smarter kids, it may be time to hit the gym.

When it comes to baby-bearing, women often get the brunt of the responsibility, especially before a child is born. But new evidence shows that a dad’s morning run or lifting session may be responsible for more of his offspring’s cognitive traits than previously thought.

Researchers at the Cajal Institute, a neuroscience research center in Madrid, found in a study with mice that offspring of active fathers learn and recall information better than the offspring of sedentary dads. The study, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), cites “paternal physical activity as a direct factor driving offspring’s brain physiology and cognitive behavior.” Continue reading

Scientists explore using bacteria as building blocks for alternative fuels

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Jewett Lab use E. coli and other strains to innovate new renewable compounds

By Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

At Northwestern University’s Jewett Lab in the Center for Synthetic Biology, researchers aim to create sustainable chemicals and materials out of existing organic compounds. Using cell-free metabolic engineering, they isolate the structural components from existing organisms, such as E. coli, and manipulate them to create new compounds. These types of reactions are called “cell-free” because they occur outside the confines of a cell.

“We focus on E. coli because it is super well-studied,” said Ashty Karim, research fellow and assistant scientific director at the Jewett Lab. “We know a lot about how it functions and how to manipulate it to do our engineering objectives.”

The lab’s engineering objectives are to create sustainable and renewable chemicals that can be used for biofuels and in manufacturing.

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Puerto Rican superhero wrestles hurricanes and empowers her culture in comics

By Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

SAN JUAN – The typical comic book thriller culminates with a superhero fighting an evil villain. In Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez’s “La Borinqueña,” the title character fights not a mere villain but, rather, a hurricane.

An art director, designer, and most recently a graphic novelist, Miranda-Rodriguez created La Borinqueña, a female Afro-Boricua superhero who represents Puerto Rican culture and identity. His comics also address hurricanes and other environmental issues threatening the island.

“We live in an era where people are consumed by popular culture, and have more conversations around it than they do around the real world,” said Miranda-Rodriguez. “So I said, let me create a superhero, and use that as a vehicle to address real world issues—the problems affecting real people.”

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The battleground in suburbia: Illinois’s 6th Congressional District

By Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

The congressional race is tightening in Illinois’s 6th District as Democrats vie for control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Incumbent Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) is fighting to keep his seat against Democratic contender Sean Casten. If elected, this would be the clean energy executive’s first time holding public office.

With the midterm elections barely one week away, a New York Times poll from Oct. 26 shows Casten leading Roskam 45 to 44 percent, well within the margin of error. Casten’s victory is not certain, but this race is closer than any of Roskam’s previous six winning campaigns for Congress.

This race, which echoes battles in suburbs across the country, is one of the most closely watched nationwide. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to take control the House for the first time since 2011.

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With new storms surging, Puerto Ricans still feel lasting scars from Hurricane Maria

By Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

In the aftermath of Michael, the most catastrophic hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland in 26 years, Americans are still healing from the destruction a year ago in Puerto Rico. NASA reports that warmer ocean temperatures due to global warming are a factor in adding energy to hurricanes and maintaining the power they pack.

After Michael’s devastating wrath last week disaster workers and state and national resources are pouring in to restore power and homes for hundreds of thousands of people in the Florida panhandle. Looking at how Puerto Rico is still rebuilding after Hurricane Maria last year can give insight into the effort and toll of rebuilding communities and lives.

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Grassroots organization helps Chicagoans in need experience their periods with dignity

By Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

Homeless and impoverished women in Chicago can stress less about their periods, thanks to a local organization that provides them with feminine hygiene products. The Chicago Period Project brings together local volunteers and community organizations to help homeless and in-need people experience menstruation with dignity.

The Chicago Period Project (CPP) partnered with Girls Pint Out to throw “Beer, Period,” an event that brought together 30 participants to make period kits at Lo Rez Brewing and Taproom in Pilsen on Sunday.

Period kits are filled with tampons or pads, wipes, hand sanitizer, water bottles, chocolate and underwear according to size. Once assembled, CPP partners with local schools, transitional centers and community organizations to distribute kits to those they serve.

Participants filled paper bags with wipes, hand sanitizer, water bottles, chocolate, tampons or pads, and underwear according to size for to in-need women in Chicago. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)

“I think the event was really great. You get to meet some other girls that have a similar interest in helping other women,” said Liz Peterson, 28, a photographer from Wicker Park. “It was a pretty good vibe today.”

Founder Ashley Novoa started CPP after watching a Bustle video about the struggles homeless pdeople go through during their menstrual cycles. The 31-year-old stay-at-home-mom hadn’t previously thought about the issue, and she decided she wanted to help women in her native city of Chicago experience better access to hygiene products.

A recent City of Chicago report found that 5,657 Chicagoans were living on the streets in 2017, while another report found that more than 80,000 were living “doubled up” in other peoples’ homes. Beyond that, 21 percent of the Chicago population, or more than half a million people, live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which poses economic barriers to feminine hygiene.

At $10 per box for tampons, menstrual hygiene products can cost close to $150 each year. For the homeless and impoverished, this can mean having to forgo these products in favor of food or other necessities for themselves or their families.

In the 18 months since Novoa launched it, CPP has donated 200,000 menstrual supplies to people throughout Chicago. Although the 501(c)(3) and its team of five has made great strides in this short time, Novoa still sees room for improvement, particularly when it comes to education and changing the stigmas surrounding menstruation.

“We feel that this whole period poverty situation takes place because people do not talk about menstruation, unfortunately,” Novoa said. “We’re here to break down those barriers by talking about it, getting those supplies out there, and doing whatever we can to end this period poverty.”

Lo Rez Brewing and Taproom and Girls Pint Out were ideal co-sponsors for the Beer, Period event. Girls Pint Out is a group of female beer enthusiasts who want to participate in charity work. According to Lo Rez marketing manager Emily O’Keeffe, “the majority of events we do focus on grassroots fundraising, specifically for nonprofits that we want to support.” Lo Rez hosts regular charity events, particularly for groups that help women. This is the second event CPP has hosted at Lo Rez, and they are planning on expanding to monthly events in the near future.

Sunday’s Beer, Period event yielded more than 2,000 donations and 150 period kits. They will be distributed over the next few weeks at the Howard Brown Broadway Youth Center and the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project.

Photo at top: Ashley Novoa, founder and president of the Chicago Period Project, shows off one of the period kits assembled at the Beer, Period event Sunday, August 5. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)