Fall 2019

‘Grandmaster of climate change’ Wally Broecker remembered at climate conference

By Zack Fishman
Medill Reports

Dozens of scientists convene every year  at the Comer Climate Conference to share new research about rising oceans and melting glaciers, both today and in the past. The event, funded by the family of late billionaire philanthropist Gary Comer, has been organized since 2004 by famed climate scientists Wallace Broecker, Richard Alley and George Denton.

But this fall, the conference was overcast by Broecker’s death in January. Colleagues, students and friends shared stories and memories of the influential scientist, who passed away at the age of 87 still actively engaged in climate research. The 2019 conference honored his legacy with the latest findings in global climate science. Continue reading

Herbal supplements gain popularity as alternative treatments

By Xinyi Zhang
Medill Reports

Herbal supplements as alternative and complementary medicines continue to gain popularity as consumer health products. Approximately 80% of the world’s population depends on them for some form of primary healthcare.

Along with the considerable growth in the global intake of herbal treatments, their safety is currently shrouded in prejudice and misinterpretation, according to Kaysie Lingo, an acupuncturist at Anatomy & Alchemy Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine, 70 E. Lake St. in Chicago.

But, despite increased consumption, the efficacy of many herbal treatments is considered untested by western medical standards. This is one of the main reasons that the public remains skeptical about herbal alternatives.

Advocates of herbal remedies emphasize that these treatments originate from nature, assist in green therapy, and show fewer negative side effects.

When people consume herbal supplements, they are typically not getting only one herb, but several herbs altogether, which creates a  mild and balanced way to help the body function properly, said  Lingo.

Herbal supplements haven’t been tested under western standards, “but they have been used for more than 2,000 years in Asian culture,” Lingo said.  Pharmaceutical testing times don’t match that record, Lingo noted.

Supporters of herbal medicine believe that plant-based remedies help fight illnesses. Surveys show that participants associate herbal remedies with good health and natural healing.  Despite the biases against traditional medicines, many users believe in their positive impacts.

A lot of acupuncture clinics in Chicago have been using herbal medicine for clinical treatments for a long time. According to Lingo, the most commonly used herb is cinnamon. Of course, there have other herbs to mix with cinnamon to treat upset stomach or diarrhea depends on what herbs go with the cinnamon.

“Some herbal medicines use cinnamon as the main supplement. What harm can cinnamon do to a body?” said Cheryl Kujawinski, an acupuncturist at Anatomy & Alchemy.

Kujawinski also mentioned the pharmaceutical industry has a lot of power to control the market. “They got a lot of money – there are a lot of lobbyists [ for them] in our government. But things are starting to change in the realm of acupuncture,” she said. “People are more comfortable with it, I think herbs will soon follow,” said Kujawinski. “People don’t want to be on the pill for the rest of their lives, but they are kind of trained to think that’s the best they have,”

A customer who has been treating sinus issues with herbal supplements from Anatomy & Alchemy for over a year said that he used to depend on pills. Now, with the supplements and acupuncture treatments, he said he does not take pills anymore.

Lingo suggests that if people are taking pharmaceutical medicine, they  should talk to their doctor first before adding an herbal remedy. She and her staff are able to adjust the ingredients of the herbal supplements based on the doctor’s suggestions, she said. And there are situations when people should not choose herbal medicine.

“Patients with an acute medical situation shouldn’t choose herbal medicine over modern medicine.” However, patients with chronic diseases may consider adding an herbal medicine, said Chongzhi Wang, associate professor with Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research at the University of Chicago.

Wang also said to check with your doctor before adding an herbal supplement.

The World Health Organization (WHO) introduced guidelines for the practice of alternative traditional medicine. The agency states, “A few herbal medicines have withstood scientific testing, but others are used simply for traditional reasons to protect, restore, or improve health.”

It called for extensive scientific studies on herbal medicines to curb the perceived threat to human health. Continued research on herbal medicines will improve their effectiveness and probably attract even more users.

Photo at top: A shelf is full of traditional herbal medicines that staff at Anatomy & Alchemy use in their treatments. (Xinyi Zhang/Medill)

Tailor-made models for preventing suicide may soon be a reality

By Madhurita Goswami
Medill Reports

A recent study based on social media data shows that chat features of conversations between help-seekers and therapists can be used to predict suicide risk and develop models to reduce the risk.

“There is an interesting link between language and health that hasn’t been explored in real-time fashion,” said Carlos Gallo, a research assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. For instance, expression of positive or negative emotions compared to “yes” or “no” answers is linked to reduced suicide risk. Help-seekers who are less engaged tend to fare the worst, Gallo said.

On the other hand, he said a counselor can improve suicide prevention by using sentences such as – “it’s understandable that you are feeling sorry for your loss” or “thank you for sharing that awful experience” or “what would it feel like if you were to take a walk around the park?”

Carlos Gallo is using text analysis to come up with a computational model to guide counselors in reducing suicide risk. He spoke at this month’s Data Science Night at Northwestern University. (Madhurita Goswami)

Gallo and his colleagues have linked suicide risk to chat features of help-seekers such as length of sentences, number of times a positive or negative emotion is expressed, response time (which is a measure of engagement), typing mistakes (which are related to stress), and function words. They have also linked risk reduction to the type of questions counselors ask, the number of times they ask those questions, number of words in their sentences (or complexity of sentences), and safety planning. Safety planning, including advice such as “toss away your pills” or “call a friend right now”, reduces suicide risk, Gallo said.

He presented these preliminary findings at this month’s Data Science Night in Northwestern University’s Chambers Hall in Evanston.  According to World Health Organization, one person dies due to suicide every 40 seconds across the world.

Talking about the significance of function words, Gallo said help-seekers use articles, prepositions and auxiliary verbs, subconsciously. “If I want to talk about a table, I make the choice to talk about the table. But the architecture of language used to talk about the table is so automatic that I am not necessarily choosing the actual function words,” he said, adding that such words allow counselors to echo help-seekers and find common ground with them.

The researchers are now developing a computational model to monitor counseling services and guide crisis intervention. “The model has to be tested before being integrated into counseling services,” Gallo said. Moving forward, he said models could be tailored to fit the needs of various vulnerable groups, including teens, Hispanics or immigrant communities. Such models, designed to better meet needs based on age, race and gender, could become starting points for counselors to provide care to suicidal individuals.

Gallo said his group analyzed data from 1,800 online chats and then focused on help-seekers who were suicidal. The participants were mostly young women and their anonymity is protected. Observers tracked the chats and subjectively assessed their outcomes. They also took feedback from help-seekers into account. Gallo, who is with the department of psychiatry, said, “Only around 5% of counseling services are monitored now. We have to find out what’s happening and then improve it.”

“Gallo has some significant results from a small data set,” said Thomas Stoeger, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern’s Amaral Lab which facilitates study of complex systems such as metabolic pathways, the ecosystem and the Internet.  “There is a lot of confidentiality in this kind of research and considerations of what you can research on or not. But from Gallo’s results, it seems we can actually improve suicide prevention,” said Stoeger, who is also an organizer of the Data Science Nights.

Gallo was invited for a talk because many attendees were interested in applications of text mining (converting a huge number of texts into structured data suitable for analysis) in social sciences, said Sarah Ben Maamar, another organizer and postdoctoral fellow at Amaral Lab. “Also, he is collaborating with social media, which is now a big thing in data science. It (data science) acts as a bridge between researchers and industry.”

Data Science Nights, launched in 2017, bring together researchers and students working on data science techniques and their applications in fields ranging from medicine to journalism.

Photo at top: Analysis of huge sets of unstructured data can help tackle challenges such as suicide risk and intervention. (Open access photo. Blue computer internet technology background with binary data code from https://torange.biz/fx/blue-computer-internet-technology-backund-173390)

A festival that binds Bengali students and professionals in Chicago

By Madhurita Goswami
Medill Reports

Students and professionals belonging to the Bengali community in Chicago came together for a recent religious and cultural celebration.

Started at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) campus by a group of students in 2007, the celebration is centered around Durga, a Hindu Goddess.

It, however, has turned into “a huge picnic” and “a version of Christmas for Bengalis in Chicago”, according to 26-year-old Indrani Banerjee who is completing her Ph.D. in chemistry at UIC.

Durga Pujo/festival is celebrated in India and Bangladesh in honor of a warrior goddess, who defeated the dark forces. The festival has become an integral part of the social and cultural fabric of West Bengal, an eastern state in India, and is also observed in other locations where Bengalis move in.
Approximately 500 people joined the celebrations in Chicago. The idea is that Bengalis will come together as a community, according to Banerjee, the president of the organizing body.
This is the second idol of Durga that has been brought to UIC from Kumortuli, the porters’ quarters in northern Kolkata, by air. The first was handed over to the National Indo American Center near Little India after being worshipped for at least six years. After the celebrations, the idol is taken to the house of a volunteer, where it stays till the next year.
Former students who are now working in Chicago are actively involved with the volunteer-based festival. This provides incoming students a chance to network and find new friends, said Banerjee.
Volunteers include current and former students from different Chicago area universities. Sumit Bhattacharyya (left), an assistant professor of medicine at UIC, who arrived in the US from Kolkata in 1998, has been involved with the event since 2007. “This is about revisiting our growing up years in Kolkata. Students wanted to organize a festival as they couldn’t afford to go to the suburbs for Durga Pujo and they asked for my help,” he said.
The cultural program kicked off with a dance performance by former student Debasmita Paul depicting Durga’s triumph over evil.
The performances included songs in Bengali, Hindi and English by various groups, Bollywood dances and a theatrical act.
Food is one of the most important aspects of the festival, according to Bhattacharyya. This year, the culinary fest included a traditional meal of “khichudi” – an Indian comfort dish made with rice and dal, Indian-Chinese dishes such as chili chicken, biriyani – a mixed rice dish with meat, and fish cooked with mustard.
Photo at top: Bengalis across generations celebrate Durga Pujo in Chicago. (Madhurita Goswami)

“Why we should care” – Calling on Asian Americans to demand environmental justice

By Madhurita Goswami
Medill Reports

Asian Americans are increasingly pushing for environmental reforms to address the issues impacting their communities across the country. A new advocacy group in Chicago, Asian Americans and Environmental Justice (AAEJ), recently held a workshop at the Institute of Cultural Affairs to drive home the importance of the community’s political involvement for climate action.

AAEJ is led by Andrea Chu, who has been organizing these workshops for the past year. Chu, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, has studied environmental planning and management. She is also involved with Chicago Asian Americans for Environmental Justice (CAAEJ), an environmental group urging residents of Chinatown and Bridgeport to test their garden soil for lead.

Chu said that an overwhelmingly large number of industrial factories are located in the South and Southwest sides of Chicago and it is a matter of concern for immigrant families who grow their vegetables in backyard gardens. “We are encouraging lead testing and trying to figure out what the situation is,” she said, adding that Chinese families are also being advised to move towards raised beds for growing bitter melon, bok choy and other garden staples.

Andrea Chu (right front) stressed on the importance of political involvement for action against climate change. (Madhurita Goswami)

Lower-income communities and communities of color have historically been at a higher risk of environmental hazards and disasters. However, there is a lack of racial diversity in non-profit organizations and government agencies working towards a better environment. Groups such as AAEJ and CAAEJ offer Asian Americans the opportunity to formulate actionable ideas in this regard and exert their voices in the decision-making processes.

Chu started the discussion by asking: “Why should Asian Americans care?” On the local level, she said poorer Asian Americans – like other disadvantaged groups in the US – have a higher level of exposure to toxic substances and criticized the model minority myth, which has created a false impression that all Asian Americans are financially well-off. From the global perspective, she said the coastal cities of Southeast Asia are under the threat of being submerged due to rising sea levels and a huge number of people live in these cities, so it is high time to demand for changes.

She also questioned the ethics of individual responsibility. “We now know that the richest 10% are responsible for half of lifestyle emissions,” Chu said. “But we have been going after individual consumption of people who may not have the time or the capacity to think about something like recycling, which we don’t make easy for anybody in this country.”

She said that protests to shut down a polluting pipeline or seeking greener policies will go far and have a more immediate impact on preventing global warming.

At the workshop, participants criticized the current U.S. attitude on
emissions and President Donald Trump’s decision to walk away from the Paris Agreement on global climate change mitigation. “When I was in school, the American media had this narrative that we are doing the right thing, but India and China won’t play nice and lower their emissions,” said Chu.

However, participants discussed how that narrative ignores that the U.S. has pumped out more carbon dioxide per capita than any other country since the Industrial Revolution. The history of colonization in Southeast Asia has left many countries stuck in time, critics said. They also agreed on the imbalance between the East and the West in terms of population. Chu illustrated this with a study showing that an average American currently leaves more carbon footprint than people belonging to other nations.

Seventeen-year-old Suzy Schlosberg, who participated in the  workshop, moved to the U.S. from China when she was only eight years old. She has been an environmental activist for the past four years. “But, I didn’t identify as an Asian-American environmental activist because I didn’t know what that part of my identity could mean for the movement. As someone who grew up in China and belongs to the immigrant community, I can now work not only for the environment but also for my community,” she said.

Peter Cheung, who works for the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club,
became interested in the workshop because “I am often the only Asian American in the room and currently, the only Asian American on staff at the chapter level (of the Sierra Club).”

He said he is working on political organizing in the northwest suburbs to turn the tide in favor of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a state-level bill pushing for sustainable energy development.

Photo at top: The new advocacy group Asian Americans and Environmental Justice is calling on residents of Chinatown and Bridgeport to have their garden soil tested for lead, one of several priorities of the organization. (MEDILL)

iO’s new show breeds space for fresh, diverse voices in comedy

By Junie Burns
Medill Reports

Six brand new performance teams took the stage in iO Theater’s two-night New Team Smell Season 2 premiere on Oct. 29 and Nov. 5. These new groups of students are selected by audition, and earn a spot performing at iO on Tuesday nights throughout the eight-week season.

Lincoln Park’s iO Theater, formerly the ImprovOlympic Theater,  1501 N Kingsbury St, is one of Chicago’s prestigious venues and schools for improvisational comedy. The star-studded theater alumni include Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Tim Meadows and many more. And the theater’s writers and performers frequently feed into Saturday Night Live.

Chicago has a reputation as a breeding ground for aspiring comedians and has been home to successful artists such as Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert and Aidy Bryant. It is no surprise that so many young performers come to Chicago to perfect their craft.

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Comer Conference scientists show global impacts of climate change

By Chris McConaghey
Medill Reports

The glaciers are melting faster, accelerating sea level rise. Ocean currents are changing, altering weather and rainfall that millions of people rely on. And wind patterns are shifting as the climate heats up. These are among the global climate challenges deliberated at the annual Comer Climate Conference in southwestern Wisconsin this fall.

Veteran researchers with some of the most decorated backgrounds in climate science as well as the next generation of researchers gathered to present their findings from Nepal, the North Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the glacial mountains of Uganda, Mongolia and Europe. They came to present findings that can help tackle the troublesome state of our planet with the urgent need to address climate change.

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Northwestern University researchers offer innovative solutions for Chicago’s growing climate challenge

By Selah Holland
Medill Reports

The American Lung Association declared Chicago the 18th most polluted U.S. city, with an ‘F’ rating for ozone pollution on the organization’s annual “State of the Air” report this year. Ozone levels rise with the heat index in summer and Chicago, like many cities, is seeing more heat waves.

This is one indicator that Chicago is facing serious climate change implications, said Northwestern University environmental researchers who are determined to do something about it.

Northwestern’s Climate Change Research Group (CCRG) leader  Daniel Horton and researcher Irene Crisologo presented a climate action plan — Systems Approaches for Vulnerable Evaluation and Urban Resilience (SAVEUR) — to area residents in Evanston recently. An audience of more than 75 people learned about their plan and why it’s critically urgent. Continue reading

Meet ‘Big G’s’ Spicy Pizza Pioneer Jaime Gamez

By Harrison Liao
Medill Reports

Picture your dream pizza.

Whether it’s monstrous Chicago deep dish or a bright, red Naples style pie, you can envision a few common savory traits — cheese stretching at the seams with the physics-defying grace of an Olympic gymnast, steam rolling off of shimmering tomato sauce and crust decorated with deeply blackened blisters.

But one feature that might not come to mind for most pizza lovers? Sizzling spiciness.

That’s one thing Jaime Gamez, 38, hangs his hat on at his Chicago pizzeria, Big G’s in Wrigleyville at 3716 N Clark St.

Gamez believes, “without a doubt,” that he has the spiciest pizza in Chicago. He calls it the “Dance with El Diablo.”

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How athletes manage the mental toll of injury

By Krystina Iordanou
Medill Reports

The physical health of your favorite athlete can determine the season’s success of their your favorite team. Sprains, fractures, concussions and other injuries can take a player off the field for several weeks or more.

Physical injury is a recurring aspect of sports that can’t always be avoided, but its the mental hurdles that accompany recovery that can be underestimated. We took a deeper dive into this topic and talked with Joanna Boyles, a professional soccer player for the Orlando Pride, as well as, professionals in the wellness and sports psychology field.

Photo at top: Joanna Boyles has overcome two anterior cruciate ligament injuries and is a current player for the Orlando Pride in the National Women’s Soccer League.(Mark Thor/ Orlando Pride)