Lauren Rubenstein

Associate Manager of Media & Public Relations at Wesleyan University

Devoto’s Study Contributes to the Understanding of Birth Defects, Muscular Diseases

By studying a gene in zebrafish, Stephen Devoto and his students have a better understanding of what causes birth defects and diseases affecting human musculature.

Professor Stephen Devoto and his students have identified a gene that controls a critical step in the development of muscle stem cells in vertebrate embryos. This discovery will allow scientists to better understand the causes of birth defects and diseases affecting human musculature, such as Muscular Dystrophy, and opens doors for the development of effective stem cell therapies for such diseases. Devoto is professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior.

The study, “Fss/ Tbx6 is required for central dermomyotome cell fate in zebra fish,” was published in July in Biology Open. Though the research was done on zebrafish, the gene, known as Tbx6, exists in all vertebrates, including humans. The lead author was graduate student Stefanie Windner. Other co-authors, all part of Devoto’s lab, were Devoto, post-docs Nathan Bird and Sara Patterson Ph.D. ’08, and lab manager Rosemarie Doris. Funding was provided, in part, by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.

A number of undergraduate students also assisted in the research, and are extending this work further.

“Chantal Ferguson ’13 and Jaewon Chung ’13 are deeply involved in every step of research—from grant writing to discussing theories and models to doing experiments,” Devoto remarks. “They’re working side-by-side with graduate students and post-docs, part of the kind of research group typically seen only at research universities.”

For this paper, members of Devoto’s lab studied a mutant strain of zebrafish, which were missing a functional copy of the gene Tbx6. They observed that the embryos of these mutant fish had a defect in the dermomyotome—a tissue comprised of stem cells that can give rise to muscle fibers. These stem cells can either proliferate into other dermomyotome cells, or differentiate into muscle cells—which, themselves, cannot divide further. Thus, when the stem cells develop into muscle, they hit a dead end of sorts, precluding any additional muscle fibers from developing in the future. The group concluded that Tbx6 functions as a key part of the mechanism which either triggers the development of the dermomyotome, or inhibits the development of muscle.

“Tbx6 is a critical component of the switch that regulates the proportion of embryonic cells that become stem cells as opposed to muscle fibers,” explains Devoto.

Barth’s Study Finds Mental Connections between Space and Time

Hilary Barth, associate professor of psychology, associate professor of neuroscience and behavior.

“We’ve moved the meeting/truck forward.”
“That was a long wait/ hotdog.”
“We’re rapidly approaching the deadline/guardrail.”

English speakers use a shared vocabulary to talk about space and time. And though it’s not something we’re necessarily conscious of, psychologists have found that the identical words we use to describe our wait in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the length of an especially impressive hotdog are not a fluke, but rather are telling of the cognitive processes involved in thinking about time. Past studies have shown that priming people with spatial information actually influences their perceptions of time. For example, people primed to imagine themselves moving through space will make different judgments about the temporal order of events than people primed to imagine objects moving through space toward themselves.

Hilary Barth, associate professor of psychology, associate professor of neuroscience and behavior, is working to better understand the mental connections between space and time. She recently published an illuminating new study in the June 2012 issue of The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. According to Barth, it seems we use the more concrete world of space to think about the more abstract world of time.

Barth and co-author Jessica Sullivan ’08—formerly one of Barth’s student in the Cognitive Development Labs, now a graduate student at the University of California-San Diego—noticed that though past studies in this area attribute the effects on participants’ temporal judgments to the spatial qualities of the prime used, most of the primes involved both space and movement. For example, previous studies have used primes that involve a stick figure walking toward a plant or pulling on a wagon—scenes that use motor words like “run” and show actors engaging in self-powered motion.

5 Questions With . . . Richard Grossman on the Libor Scandal

Richard Grossman, professor of economics.

In this issue of The Wesleyan Connection, we ask “5 Questions” of Professor of Economics Richard Grossman. In July, Grossman spoke to the Canadian news magazine Maclean’s about the Libor scandal rocking the global financial industry. Grossman’s 2010 book, Unsettled Account: The Evolution of Banking in the Industrialized World since 1800, reviews banking crises over the past 200 years in North America, Europe and other regions, and considers how they speak to today’s financial crises around the world. He blogs at Unsettledaccount.com.

Q: Professor Grossman, what is the Libor, and what is this scandal all about?

A: “Libor” is the London InterBank Offered Rate. Produced daily for the British Bankers’ Association, it is calculated by asking a group of banks how much they estimate it will cost them to borrow money. Banks are asked to provide estimates of borrowing costs for 15 different maturities ranging from overnight to one year in ten different currencies, so Libor is not one interest rate, but 150. Because not all of the banks deal in all maturity-currency combinations, somewhere between 6 and 18 banks are polled. The highest and lowest estimates are thrown out and the remainder—about half–are averaged to yield Libor. Libor plays a vital role in the world financial system because it serves as a benchmark for some $800 trillion in transactions–everything ranging from complex derivatives to simple home mortgages.

Because so much money is riding on Libor, traders have an incentive to pressure their banks into altering submission estimates to improve their profitability. The scandal is that they did just that. Even a small movement in Libor can lead to millions in extra profits–or losses–for banks.

It has also been alleged that the British authorities encouraged banks to lower their submissions in the wake of the 2008 Lehman Brothers bankruptcy to give the impression that banks had access to plentiful and cheap funds and were therefore less vulnerable to the crisis than they actually were.

Q: Sounds like a big deal for the banks, but why should an average person like me care?

A: If the interest rate you pay on your mortgage, home equity loan, or credit card balance is tied to Libor—and it may well be—then you should be concerned that the rate is set fairly.

Shusterman, Students Teach Local Pre-K Summer Program

Wesleyan students taught a five-week pilot Kindergarten Kickstart at Macdonough Elementary in Middletown this summer.

Inspired by her students’ passion for education reform, Assistant Professor of Psychology Anna Shusterman and several of her students launched an innovative five-week pilot program this summer to prepare children entering kindergarten at Macdonough School in Middletown.

Fifteen children participated in this research-based program, with a curriculum designed by Shusterman, her students and a Macdonough teacher. According to Shusterman, children in low-income neighborhoods start kindergarten with academic skills up to two years behind their peers. Research shows that quality early childhood education makes a huge difference in helping to shrink this achievement gap. In fact, economists estimate a $7 return for every $1 invested in early childhood education, resulting from lower spending on school remediation, incarceration, unemployment and other programs that become necessary when children do not start out on the right foot. About 80 percent of Macdonough students are on free and reduced lunch programs.

The summer program was taught by Taylor Deloach ’13, Sydney Lewis ’14, Julia Vermeulen ’14 and Andy Ribner ’14 in collaboration with Shusterman and an early-education certified teacher, Felicia Johnson. Julie Kastenbaum ’06, who is working toward a Ph.D. in school psychology, volunteered her time to administer a standardized assessment at the beginning and end of the program.

Rani Arbo, a local folk singer, visited the Kickstart program.

The daily and weekly lessons were designed to help children walk in as ready as they can be for the first day of kindergarten. According to Shusterman, activities were designed to boost a few high-impact target areas based on current research in child development and school readiness. These included dramatic play; outdoor play; science and math games; stories and letters; focus games and goal-setting conversations. The group also took weekly field trips to the local children’s museum and the library, and participated in daily activities led by Wesleyan students, including dance, yoga, sign language and music. Children were also provided with free breakfast and lunch.

A graduation ceremony will be held Aug. 2 at Macdonough School.

The project was made possible by an intensive collaboration between Shusterman, Macdonough Principal Jon Romeo, and Izzi Greenberg ’05, executive director of the community organization NEAT. Shusterman and her students independently raised funds to run the program.

Ongoing updates are available at a blog written by Lewis. Ribner ’14 shares photos of the program on his web site.

Wang is an Expert on Medieval Chinese Poetry, Chinese Literature

Ao Wang, assistant professor of Asian languages and literatures, assistant professor of East Asian studies, will teach “Third-Year Chinese” and “Man and Nature in Classical Chinese Literature” this fall.

For the past two years, Ao Wang has shared with his students at Wesleyan a passion for Chinese poetry and intellectual debate over East Asian cultural issues.

Wang came to Wesleyan in fall 2010 as a visiting professor. He was hired in the 2011-12 academic year as an assistant professor of Asian languages and literatures and East Asian studies.

Originally from Qingdao, China, Wang was drawn to the United States because of his love of American culture, particularly music and poetry. Though he didn’t have a specific career goal at that time, he eventually decided to become a translator of poetry—from Chinese into English, and English to Chinese. Wang went on to earn a Ph.D. from Yale in East Asian languages and literatures.

Prior to teaching at Wesleyan, Wang taught briefly at the University of California-Davis, and then for two years at Trinity College in Hartford. He was attracted to Wesleyan because of its vibrant and active intellectual community. “The students at Wesleyan are serious about their studies,” he says. “They dedicate themselves to their work, and push their teachers to do a better job.” In fact, Wang says, his students actually ask for more homework—the opposite of what he encountered in previous teaching jobs—and push for more intellectual challenge.

This past year, Wang taught “Introduction to Chinese Poetry.” Students in this course, who were not required to know the Chinese language, compared different translations of classical Chinese poems to examine how the image of ancient Chinese poetry was constructed in the process of cultural exchange.

Wang also taught “Gender Issues in Chinese Literature and Culture,” which he called a “fun class.”

“The students are very interested in the daily lives of ancient Chinese women—how they saved money, how they raised and educated their children—and Confucian ideas about Chinese women. These are all very interesting ideas, and still relevant for our time,” he says. The class read excerpts from Yale Law School professor Amy Chua’s parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and watched debates on YouTube over its messages. A diverse classroom make-up, with about half the students of East Asian descent, made for a very interesting discussion, says Wang.

Wang’s own research focuses on Medieval Chinese Poetry, which he says is not well studied. “There are still numerous important and great poets who have not yet been introduced to the Western world,” he says. “They need study and translation, and eventually will become part of world literature.” Wang is currently co-editing an anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry.

When not working, Wang enjoys reading, playing drums and guitar, and practicing a form of martial arts known as Kuntao.

Grossman Speaks on Banking Regulation in Canadian Magazine

Richard Grossman, professor of economics.

In the wake of the LIBOR banking scandal, Richard Grossman, professor of economics, commented in the Canadian news magazine Maclean’s on July 13 about banking regulation throughout history. “It’s guaranteed to be a losing battle,” he said. “The incentives in banking are so strong and the money is so big. As soon as you close off one area, someone is going to think of a new way to do things.”

Grossman stressed that governments and the public have a short memory when it comes to financial crises, so that regulations that seem prudent in one era become the next generation’s “political red tape.”

“The short answer is probably no, we can’t trust the banks to regulate themselves,” he said. “People and institutions react to incentives and there’s a lot of money to be made in financial sectors as long as that incentive is there.”

Burke Teaches Human Anatomy in Nepal as Fulbright Specialist

Ann Burke

Professor of Biology Ann Burke recently completed a Fulbright Specialists project in Nepal at The Patan Academy of Health Sciences. It is the mission of this new medical program to train students from rural areas of Nepal who are committed to returning to their villages to provide desperately needed health care. Burke’s project, which involved training local faculty in the teaching of human anatomy for medical students, was completed during the months of May and June.

Burke was one of over 400 American faculty and professionals who will travel abroad this year through the Fulbright’s Specialists Program. The program, created in 2000 to complement the traditional Fulbright Scholars Program, provides short-term academic opportunities to prominent U.S. faculty and professionals to support curricular and faculty development and institutional planning at post-secondary academic institutions around the world.

The Fulbright Program, in existence for 60 years, is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Barth Published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology

Hilary Barth

Hilary Barth, assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior, is the co-author of “Active (not passive) spatial imagery primes temporal judgements.” Written along with Jessica Sullivan of the University of California-San Diego, the article was published in the June 2012 issue of The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

For this article, Barth and Sullivan looked deeper into the previously demonstrated cognitive connections between how we think about space and time. They found that only when people are asked to imagine actively moving themselves through space are their perceptions of time influenced. When participants in the experiment were primed with a similar scenario involving passive motion through space, the same influence was not seen on their temporal judgments.

The article can be read online here.

Kurtz Co-Edits Book on Schizophrenia

Matthew Kurtz

Matthew Kurtz, associate professor of psychology, associate professor of neuroscience and behavior, is the co-editor of a new book, Clinical Neuropsychological Foundations of SchizophreniaThe book, co-edited by Bernice Marcopulos, was published on July 11 by Psychology Press.

A resource for practicing neuropsychologists, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and neuropsychiatrists, as well as students of these disciplines, the volume provides knowledge and tools for providing professional neuropsychological services to patients with schizophrenia. It offers an overview of developmental models of schizophrenia and associated neuropathologies, and covers contemporary evidence-based assessments and interventions, including cognitive remediation and other cognitive-oriented interventions.

Birds, babies learn how to vocalize in similar ways

John Kirn, professor of biology, professor and chair of neuroscience & behavior, recently spoke to McClatchy Newspapers about a new finding in his field of expertise–the neuroscience behind song learning and production in birds. The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, found that birds use the left side of their brain for perceiving and producing song, just as humans do for speech.

“Showing left side dominance for auditory memories, which is very similar in humans, is novel,” said Kirn, who was not part of this study. However, “within songbirds the whole idea of left side dominance is not ironclad, even within the same species.”