Public Affairs

Indiana kids meet an opossum, a skunk and an owl. Oh,my.

By Stephanie Fox
Medill Reports

Sitting cross legged on the floor, a group of children smiled excitedly as a small creature walked up to each of their feet, wiggled its nose and moved on. The children’s hands fidgeted in their laps, itching for a chance to touch an animal that most people are terrified to even look at.

“Can I pet her?” one of the smaller girls asked as the creature waddled out of the semi-circle the children had formed.

A child watches as Toona the opossum explores. (Stephanie Fox/Medill)

“No. We’re not going to pet her,” said Nicole Harmon, who has the title of “humane educator” at the Moraine Ridge Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Valparaiso, Indiana. The center falls under a parent organization called Humane Indiana which initially only took in domestic animals until July of 2014 when it decided to expand to accommodate the large number of calls received about injured wildlife.

As Harmon spoke, she walked over and scooped up the wandering opossum from the floor and cradled it like a baby. Continue reading

Stoned drivers targeted by new breathalyzer technology

By Brady Jones
Medill Reports

Slowed reaction time. Reduced ability to make decisions. Impaired coordination. Memory loss. Difficulty in problem-solving. These are some of the symptoms listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describing people who drive under the influence of marijuana. And right now, it is very difficult for law enforcement officials to determine when these drivers are sharing the road with you—and may be responsible for causing an accident.

Detecting recent marijuana use by drivers is far more difficult for law enforcement than detecting the presence of alcohol. Currently, testing can’t be done for marijuana using on-site breath samples. Now, a new device that aims to provide a reliable solution to this growing concern is being developed—and law enforcement officials welcome the potential of the new technology.

As more states move to legalization for recreational purposes, marijuana is more accessible to people with limited or no experience using it. The ability to successfully detect drivers that have smoked or ingested the drug becomes paramount to keeping drivers safe. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that produces the feeling of being high, does not show up on current, traditional breathalyzer devices used by law enforcement to detect blood alcohol content.
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Students apply science to make an environmental difference in Cambodia

By Karyn Simpson
Medill Reports

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – From looking at religious merit release practices in and around Siem Reap, to exploring “pet culture” and animal welfare in households, to investigating the effects of noise pollution on a vulnerable bat population, students at The School for Field Studies in Cambodia are doing more than just studying abroad.

These students are investigating environmental concerns that face Cambodian communities today with hopes that their research can help inform environmental policy and action in the future. Through their programs, SFS is training students to do community-relevant research – that is, research that can make a difference.
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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

The trials and tribulations of freeze-casting to manufacture materials in space

Medill News Service journalist Lauren Robinson is embedding this spring with Northwestern University researchers studying freeze-casting for a planned space launch.

Click the first photo in the gallery above for a photo essay showing how a freeze-casting suspension is created.


Krysti Scotti’s enthusiasm for her pioneering freeze-casting work at Northwestern University is contagious enough to brighten the coldest and wettest days.

Scotti is hosting my embedded-reporting assignment at SpaceICE, where scientists in professor David Dunand’s lab are preparing to test freeze-casting — a way to manufacture materials — in a NASA satellite mission and on the International Space Station. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is building the actual CubeSat satellite for the mission.
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Hyderabad, India, captures a nexus of ancient and modern culture

By Aaron Dorman
Medill Reports

I traveled to India for the first time in my life for an all-too-brief three weeks’ of learning how farmers are adapting to increasing drought in the central province of Telangana with water conserving greenhouses.

Hyderabad and environs are about as far inland as can be at this latitude.  But in the heart of the city, the human-made Hussain Sagar Lake serves as a community hub. The lake is surrounded by parks and temples, and you can take a ferry to a statue of the Buddha in the middle of the lake.

Hussain Sagar Lake at sunset. Aaron Dorman/Medill

My first day in Hyderabad, I walked along the beautiful lake’s east side. It’s cut off from the rest of the city by an elevated highway, the “Tank Bund,” and layered with litter and trash along the banks. Near the hotel where I stayed, a family of feral pigs picked at garbage on a dry river bed that feeds into the lake.

Fruit vendor along the Take Bund in Hyderabad. Aaron Dorman/Medill.
A temple on the banks of Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad. Aaron Dorman/Medill.

A province  conservation group has put up signs asking people to keep the lake shore clean and trash free. The group established  a row of planters filled with palm trees to beautify this portion of the waterfront. On the other side, fruit vendors and cane juice stalls offer respite from the 95-degree weather. A cold bottle of water will only set you back 20 rupees, or about 30 cents USD.

Swastika graffiti is a common site in Hyderabad; here it is a symbol for peace. Aaron Dorman/Medill.

Visitors should come prepared for the high volume of swastika graffiti and understand that it means “all is well” in its use by Hindus and Buddhists long before Nazi Germany adopted the symbol. Here, the former meaning persists. Tthe swastika also has been used as a symbol for the sun dating back millennia.

Elaborate mosques and temples line the other side of the Tank Bund.  Some of these structures are ages old, such as the one across the street from my temporary home in Secunderabad.

My first friend in India, the stray who has discovered that the Kheyti staff will give him food and water. Aaron Dorman/Medill.

Meanwhile, at the Kheyti Project office where I am embedded as a reporter, a street dog has discovered that benevolent humans there will feed him. He and I have become friends. Kheyti’s work here involves providing farmers with efficient greenhouses that help them grow crops in this drought-ridden area, providing harvests and easing poverty.

Kheyti has installed nearly 100 greenhouses already and project founders hope to have as many as 1,000 in place by the end of the year. My reporting will focus on the moving target of sustainable farming as climate change threatens the farmers’ crops and livelihood within coming decades – or even sooner.

A Hindu Temple in downtown Hyderabad. (Aaron Dorman/Medill)

Pests or pets: a history of how pigeons took over the Windy City and what organizations are doing about it

By Stephanie Fox
Medill Reports

After spending the day with family celebrating her husband’s birthday, Chava Sonnier received a call that made her heart skip a beat.

“I don’t think he’s going to make it,” her friend said on the other line.

Despite the call coming in at around 10:30 at night, Sonnier hopped in her car with the hope of saving a life.

When she encountered the wounded, he was paralyzed, crippled with his legs bowing out at right angles. Blood oozed from his chest and face. His eyes barely opened.

Despite Sonnier being a certified nurse, her patient that night wasn’t human. He was a pigeon. 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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59th Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival celebrates D.C.’s cherry blossoms

By Stephanie Fox
Medill Reports

Slideshow: The 59th Annual Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival. (Stephanie Fox)

A few blocks from the National Mall, families, friends, dogs and anime enthusiasts crowded through a gated entryway placed on Pennsylvania Avenue to experience the 59th Annual Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival.

Some effortlessly used chopsticks to eat mango sticky rice on-the-go. Others sipped bubble tea, or stared admiringly at a newly-purchased bonsai tree while taking a selfie. Everyone enjoyed the company of a welcoming community while celebrating the significance of the U.S.-Japan relationship and the final day of Washington, D.C.’s three-week Cherry Blossom Festival. Continue reading

Guam residents demand change: “There is No Planet B”

Text and photos by Hannah Magnuson
Medill Reports

About 60 residents gathered at Paseo Stadium in Agana, Guam, on Saturday, April 13, in an act of solidarity with the island’s natural resources.

As Earth Month hit mid-swing, they carried homemade signs that said things like, “There is No Planet B” and “Certified Tree Hugger.” From local advocacy leaders to college students and schoolchildren, they assembled to participate in the second annual March to Protect Mother Earth.

The march came at a time when the U.S. territory is under considerable strain: forces including invasive species, coral bleaching and wildfires threaten the small Pacific island’s natural resources and wildlife while its consumption and population remain sky high.

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