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SP RING 2014


INSIDE U.S. Border Policies: Human Impact


Decision-Making Debunked Timetree Maps Plant Growth

The Science Behind the Destruction


ach year, raging wildfires destroy thousands of acres of land, homes, and lives. The staggering toll of destruction underscores the importance of predicting when and how wildfires occur—a feat Assistant Professor of Geography Michael Mann is helping to tackle. By examining statistical data on California wildfires dating back more than 60 years, Mann has created a model that forecasts the likelihood of wildfires in the state through the year 2050. His predictions are based on climate variations, indicators of tree and plant growth, population density, and potential ignition sources.

Sighting in the Sky In Brief

“California makes a great test case for this model because the ecosystems that exist within its borders are representative of the rest of the country,” said Mann, whose research was funded by the Nature Conservancy. Not surprisingly, Mann predicts wildfires will continue to increase in both number and intensity. Climate change and biological factors will play a critical role because increased energy in the climate system could dramatically shift rainfall patterns, a key indicator of future fires. And both wetter and drier than normal conditions can create fires in different ecosystems, Mann noted.

New Research Grants A Wine Cellar for the Ages

Curiosity, Creativity, and Passion

Dean Ben Vinson


protein that may help the human body fight cancer. A computer model that can predict

where and when devastating wildfires will strike. A

Michael Mann with his computer model that predicts wildfire strikes in California


For example, when a normally “wet” area with abundant vegetation—such as the rainforests of the Northwest—experiences unusual droughts, the potential for fires increases; the now dry foliage becomes a potential danger-area for fires. Conversely, when a formerly barren landscape —like the semi-arid deserts of the Southwest— incurs small increases in precipitation, denser CONTINUED ON BACK PAGE

project that may save the lives of migrant families who follow their dreams on a dangerous journey across the Mexican border into America. From classrooms and laboratories to treks around the globe, our faculty and students search for the answers to puzzling and profound questions, sparked by the curiosity, creativity, and passion that marks all great innovation. No matter the field—science, public policy, social science, the arts, the humanities—our world-class

Fighting Cancer One Protein at a Time

investigators take full advantage of the breath of scholarship within departments, across the disciplines, and into our community.


roteins have a vital function inside your body’s cells: They take out the trash.

Specific proteins actually mark other damaged or unwanted proteins and cellular machinery for disposal. Now, a research team led by Associate Professor of Chemistry Michael Massiah believes that one of these proteins also labels fellow proteins that may be implicated in many cancers—the first time a regulator of cancer-proteins has ever been identified. Massiah hopes the findings, which were published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry, will offer new insights into fighting cancer as well as some birth defects.

Alpha4 is found in high concentrations in several cancers, including liver and breast cancer. Until now “nobody knew how alpha4 was regulated and how it works,” Massiah said. “We showed that MID1 actually targets alpha4 for degradation, and we did that both in the lab and in cells. That’s exciting.”

In this publication, you’ll hear stories of the research adventures unfolding at Columbian College. You’ll travel to archeological ruins and uncover million-year-old artifacts, see celestial bodies never before revealed to our eyes, delve deep into the inner workings of the human brain. I am sure you will share in our excitement for these astonishing

Proteins are the workhorses that drive most of the essential functions in our cells, even the regulation of other proteins. MID1 belongs to a family of proteins that tags other proteins for disposal. Scientists were already aware of MID1’s other roles, like helping to regulate the integrity of the tube-like proteins that make up cell architecture.

accomplishments—and our pride in the amazing men and women who have achieved them. To hear about all we are accomplishing in the areas of learning and research, I encourage you to read our monthly e-magazine and join our Facebook and Twitter communities. There are many more adventures and discoveries to share.


The tale of two proteins involves the marker, called MID1, and alpha4, the “cancer-protein.”

Ben Vinson III Dean, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences

Michael Massiah with post-doctoral student Haijuan Du, left, and undergraduate Wei Ting Lee

GW Arts & Sciences Research


U.S. Border Policies

Decision-Making Debunked


hat factors guide the decisions we make? Past experience? The influence of loved ones? Our

environment? The answer is none of the above, according


eyond the political debate surrounding immigration reform, there are the tragic personal stories of separation, imprisonment, and loss. In two recent studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology Daniel E. Martínez took a sobering look at the plight of unauthorized migrants and the often staggering impact of border crossings on their own lives and those of their families.

to Sarah Shomstein, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience. Her research indicates that choices, both voluntary and involuntary, are ultimately based on the perception of whether or not we will receive a reward. “Think about when you’re at the supermarket, picking

“These are ordinary people we’re talking about—families, members of our communities, our churches, schools, and neighborhoods,” said Martínez, who is originally from Mexico. Daniel E. Martínez

out fruit,” Shomstein said. “You will most likely refrain from picking out a mango if you got food poisoning after eating a mango salad the week before; however,

Martínez examined medical investigator reports of people who died when trying to cross the border into southern Arizona, and he interviewed hundreds of recent deportees. He found that migrant deaths are near all-time highs. “We see women are more likely to have died of exposure in the desert, young men are more likely to have died of homicide, and the old and the young are more likely to have been killed in car crashes while crossing the border,” Martínez said.

you will not hesitate to choose a fruit that has not led to any recent discomfort.” The study—which was co-authored by Jacoba Johnson, a clinical psychology graduate student at Bryn Mawr, and published in Psychological Science—contradicts

When arrested by border patrol, unauthorized migrants are often charged with an aggravated felony and detained in facilities alongside drug and human traffickers. “I don’t think we understand the consequences of the laws and the systematic criminalization of unauthorized migration,” Martínez said. Aside from the wrenching mental and emotional toll of incarceration, Martínez noted, a felony charge on a migrant’s record can make it nearly impossible for him or her to later obtain a green card.

several long-held research assumptions. Shomstein demonstrated that not all attentional selection is automatic and involuntary, and that some involuntary behaviors are fully determined by an expectation of reward. “Reward is not only the primary factor that determines

Equally as devastating can be the impact on families split by deportations, particularly on children whose parents are sent back to their homelands years after crossing the border. The long-term effects on these children growing up without their parents haven’t been studied extensively enough to draw conclusions, Martínez said, “but we know it can be detrimental.”

voluntary behavioral choices, but reward also strongly influences involuntary attentional control,” she explained. In her study, funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health,

He recounted the story of a Minnesota family who were separated after being stopped by police while driving to church. The officer employed a new law that gives police wide leeway to ask for immigration papers. The father had no documentation, was arrested, and sent to a detention center. He was incarcerated and, eventually, deported back to Mexico. Missing his wife and teenaged son, he tried to re-enter the U.S., but died while crossing the desert. After his father’s death, the son became depressed and twice attempted suicide. Through continued research, Martínez plans to use sociological concepts to add to the academic body of research on unauthorized migration. He is concerned that a focus on punitive approaches to immigration control will result in more deaths in the desert. “The solution to this problem lies in addressing social and economic factors causing it,” he said, “not in enforcement.”

Timetree Maps How Plants Evolved for Chilly Climates


Amy Zanne

old weather isn’t kind to flowering plants. As

“Freezing is a challenge for plants. Their living tissues

colleagues created a database of more than 49,000

temperatures dip, leaves wilt and branches

can be damaged—a plant’s equivalent to frostbite.

plant species, detailing shifts of evolving-species, such

become barren. It’s a wonder many plants survive a

Their water-conducting pipes can be blocked by air

as maintaining above-ground stems, losing leaves, or

freezing winter.

bubbles as water freezes and thaws,” Zanne explained.

narrowing water-carrying pathways. Then, using resources

“Over time, if plants moved into colder climates, they’ve

from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and a

had to figure out how to get around these problems.”

global climate database, the team examined whether

In fact, their ancestors would not have made it to the spring; they would have perished in the mildest frost

the plants were ever exposed to freezing temperatures.

because early flowering plants were never found outside

Zanne identified three evolutionary shifts that armed

Next, the evolutionary information was combined with

of warm, wet tropical environments. How exactly these

flowering plants to fight the cold. Over time, plants either:

the “timetree.” That map of 32,223 species allowed

plants took root in chillier locations is a question that

• dropped their leaves seasonally, shutting down the

them to model the evolution of species’ traits and

has long vexed researchers. But now scientists can closely trace this evolutionary blossom thanks to Assistant Professor of Biology Amy Zanne, who led a team of scholars in constructing the largest-ever dated evolutionary tree. It maps the order in which flowering plants evolved specific strategies—

pathways that would normally carry water between roots and leaves; • created narrower water-conducting pathways, allowing them to keep their leaves while reducing the risk of developing water-blocking air bubbles; or • avoided cold seasons altogether, losing their

such as the seasonal shedding of leaves—to prepare for

above-ground stems and leaves and retreating

survival in colder winter climates. This “timetree” study,

underground as seeds or storage organs, like

published in Nature, is the most comprehensive view

tulips or tomatoes.

yet into the evolutionary history of flowering plants.

climate surroundings. “Until now, we haven’t had a compelling narrative about how leaf and stem traits evolved to tolerate cold temperatures,” Zanne said. “Our research gives us this insight. It shows us the when’s, how’s and why’s behind plant species’ trait evolution and movements around the globe.” In a follow up study, Zanne plans to use the “timetree’s” data stream to explore other aspects of plant

Plotting such plant adaptations required the team to

evolution, particularly the way plants have responded

build two massive sets of data. First, Zanne and her

to environmental pressures beyond freezing.

Spring 2014



Sarah Shomstein

But Massiah’s research pushes MID1 to a new level of significance as a possible indicator of how the body can target cancer cells. To test their findings, his team compared two cell lines: one created with non-functioning MID1, and another in which the marker-protein operated normally. In the cells with malfunctioning MID1, the team found a three-fold increase in alpha4 compared to the normally functioning cells. The results indicate that MID1 actually curtails the amount of the alpha4 protein in cells.

In Brief A

ida Gómez-Robles, a hominid paleobiology postdoctoral scientist, led a team of international

scholars in a groundbreaking study of ancient teeth that sheds new light on human evolution. By analyzing 1,200 teeth representing 13 types of ancient humans, the team determined that none of the species suspected of being the ancestral link between modern humans and Neanderthals actually fit the bill. The study also suggests that, while

Shomstein developed experiments to determine the factors that influence choice. Does a reward-based choice involve a separate cognitive process from an

The discovery may also lead to a better understanding of a genetic condition called Opitz syndrome. Caused by mutations that alter the MID1 protein, Opitz can lead to everything from throat discomfort to cleft lips and palates to mild intellectual disabilities.

modern humans and Neanderthals evolved together for

In unpublished data spurred by his MID1 findings, Massiah’s team mimicked the MID1 mutations seen in Opitz syndrome and found they affected the ability to regulate alpha4 proteins. That led to a buildup of alpha4, suggesting that the cancer-protein may also be a primary factor in these birth defects.


involuntary choice? To test that idea, subjects viewed identical visual stimuli, but Shomstein manipulated whether these objects were linked to a reward—and the type of reward, such as money. She found that the reward, not the objects themselves, guided attentional selection and predicted behavior.

a time, the two species may have diverged hundreds of thousands of years earlier than previously thought— findings that may alter science’s timeline of the steps involved in human evolution. ssistant Professor of Geography Melissa Keeley’s research into environmentally-friendly urban

planning has been enacted by the Washington, D.C. government as part of an initiative to adopt new sustainable zoning measures for buildings. The Green Area Ratio will create minimum standards for sustainable land use and site design within city limits. It will require sites to incorporate key sustainable features to reduce storm water runoff,

In other words, you may believe you picked that supermarket fruit for its color or shape or even its accessibility in the aisle. In truth, Shomstein noted, it ended up on your kitchen counter largely because your brain was expecting a reward.

“The knowledge that alpha4 might be part of that equation changes the game,” Massiah said. Further research may lead to drugs that can adjust the concentration of alpha4 proteins in Opitz cases where MID1 is not functioning normally.

improve air quality, and keep the city cooler.


ncestors of snakes and lizards likely gave birth to live young, rather than laying eggs, according to

research by Alex Pyron, the Robert F. Griggs Assistant Professor of Biology. Scientists have long assumed that ancient reptiles laid eggs, and that if a species switched to live birth, it never reverted back. Pyron’s findings prove that species have actually switched back and forth

Sighting in the Sky


ew people star-gaze quite the same way as Oleg Kargalstev. When the assistant professor of physics looks into the sky, he doesn’t just spot constellations and comets. He sees celestial phenomenon no one has ever laid eyes on before.

in their preferred reproductive mode over time. His discovery pushes researchers’ understanding of the evolution of live birth back 175 million years.


n a recent study, Lori Brainard, associate professor of public policy and public administration, demonstrated

the effectiveness of social media sites in helping law

That was the case with Kargalstev’s recent sighting. Using images captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope camera, Kargalstev and his colleagues detected an ultraviolet emission from a double pulsar binary system—the only one of its kind known to exist.

enforcement inform and collaborate with community members in Washington, D.C., and nine other cities. She found that ordinary citizens are responding to the digital platforms in large numbers. Police posts were less

A double pulsar binary system occurs when two neutron stars circle each other in a very tight orbit. In this case, the orbit was just 2.4 hours, an extremely short time period when compared to the earth’s year-long orbit. By examining images taken at shorter wavelengths than those of visible light, Kargalstev and his collaborators detected a faint pulsar emission, which they traced back to the binary system.

interactive but did include tips about drug activity in neighborhoods. Currently working with Brainard on a broader study of social media use by police in the nation’s 25 largest cities are undergraduate students Andrew Beauregard and Jessica Clarke.

He theorizes that the ultraviolet readings emanated from either the neutron star’s surface, which is super-heated by particles in the magnetosphere, or from the heat stored in the neutron star’s own interior. “The finding potentially allows scientists to gain insight into the properties of the exotic, super-dense matter that only exists inside neutron stars, and cannot be obtained on earth,” Kargalstev said.


et the Fire Burn,” an award-winning documentary by Assistant Professor of Media and Public Affairs

Jason Osder, recently premiered in theaters around the country. Produced with support from GW, the film depicts the 1985 encounter between Philadelphia police and the African-American community group MOVE. The film won the Tribeca Film Festival award for Best Editing in a Documentary and received a Special Jury Mention for

The discovery was part of a systematic multi-year effort devoted to examining emissions that escape from neutron stars or from the winds produced by pulsars, which are highly magnetized, rotating neutron stars. Kargalstev is also leading two other Hubble Telescope research projects: The first involves examining the Crab Nebula to learn how pulsars manage to be the most powerful and continuously operating particle accelerators in our galaxy. The other project examines the Vela pulsar wind nebula, the closest supernova remnant to earth. Kargalstev is using polarized optical light to date the nebula’s optical emission.

Best New Documentary Director. Osder was also named one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine.


he new GW Confucius Institute welcomed Liu Yandong, vice premier of the People’s Republic

of China, to celebrate the university’s commitment to bringing together two cultures through teaching, research, and outreach. Liu announced that the GW

Kargalstev, whose passion for the field of high-energy astrophysics was sparked by the science fiction books he began reading in high school, focuses much of his research on compact objects—an exotic state of matter, such as neutron stars, black holes, and white dwarfs. Previously, he led an international study of another pulsar using space-based cameras aboard NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission-Newton. The team found abnormalities in the radiation emitted by the pulsar star, offering possible new insights into ordinary pulsars. The study’s findings were published in the journal Science.

Confucius Institute will receive 10 scholarships and donations of 1,000 books and Chinese reading materials from the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, which will also invite 30 faculty members and students to a language-focused summer program in China.

GW Arts & Sciences Research Akos Vertes





plant life grows. These new plants can spark wildfires when the intensely hot regions later undergo droughts.

opping the list of grants received in recent months was a $14.6 million award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to a team led by Akos Vertes (chemistry). The researchers are tasked to develop a method that will rapidly identify the root of biological and chemical threats and thereby bolster national security efforts in combating future dangers.

• Aleksandar Jeremic (biological sciences): $1.3 million from NIH and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases to examine the role of the human pancreatic hormone in the development of type 2 diabetes

The following are among the college’s other major new research grants:

• Joel Kuipers (anthropology): $208,121 from NSF for a comparative study of Arabic language use in three communities on the Indonesian island of Java

• Africana Studies Program (and GW Libraries): $496,000 from the Council on Library and Information Resources to establish the D.C. Africana Archives Project • Lynne E. Bernstein (speech and hearing science): $305,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study speech perception impairments in healthy normal-hearing adults • Charlene Bickford (history): $125,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to help fund the research of the First Federal Congress Project • Christopher Brick (history): $187,500 from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission to support the work of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project • Evangeline Downie (physics): $285,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore nucleon with electromagnetic probes

• Dina Khoury (history): $100,185 from NEH to examine citizenship in the late Ottoman and Russian Empires

Between 1999 and 2011, California reported an average of $160 million in annual fire-related damages, with nearly 13,000 homes and other structures destroyed in so-called “fire jurisdictions,” according to Mann. During this same period, California and the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $5 billion on wildfire suppression.

• Michael Larsen (statistics): $155,271 from the U.S. Census Bureau to examine the design and estimation methodology in the Current Population Survey of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics • Xiaofeng Ren (mathematics): $149,696 from NSF to investigate structured patterns that arise in many physical and biological systems as orderly outcomes of self-organization principles • Stephen Smith (economics): $698,698 from the U.S. Agency for International Development to study the effects of scaling up international economic development in Senegal and Uganda • Adelina Voutchkova-Kostal (chemistry): $323,597 from NSF and the Environmental Protection Agency to develop tools that help molecule designers predict toxic hazards when evaluating new and existing chemicals

“Fire managers are at the mercy of expensive and damaging cycles: They are required to suppress fires because of the people who live in fire-prone areas, but face more fires because of the people living there,” Mann said. “In the end, you have more frequent and more expensive fires.” Mann’s model estimates that fire damage will more than triple by mid-century, increasing to nearly half a billion dollars annually. “This information is critical to policymakers, planners, and fire managers, to determine wildfire risks,” he said.

• Victor Weedn (forensic sciences): $525,000 from PerkinElmer Health Sciences, Inc., for research on the use of mass spectrometry to characterize forensic specimens

A Wine Cellar for the Ages

• Susan Dudley (public administration): $219,140 from the European Commission to support her work with the Transatlantic Regulatory Commission

Humans are responsible for igniting more than 80% of the wildfires in California, usually by dropping cigarettes, downing power lines, or leaving campfires unattended. At the same time, the housing boom and enhanced government subsidies prompted a rush to build on the fire-prone edges of urban and natural systems. The result is an incendiary combination: More people living in fire-hazard regions.

Eventually, Mann hopes to build a model that can forecast wildfire occurrences throughout the nation.

Alumnus Zach Dunseth (BA ’09) assisted in the excavation of ruins at the Tel Kabri site

“The wine cellar was located near a hall where banquets took place, a place where the Kabri elite and possibly foreign guests consumed goat meat and wine,” said Dr. Yasur-Landau, chair of the

Department of Maritime Civilizations at the University of Haifa and co-director of the project. “The wine cellar and the banquet hall were destroyed during the same violent event, perhaps an earthquake, which covered them with thick debris of mud bricks and plaster.”


nthropology Professor Eric H. Cline and a team of American and Israeli researchers have unearthed

At first, the researchers were uncertain if the jars

what could be the largest and oldest wine cellar in

once held wine or other liquids. Brandeis University’s

the Near East.

Andrew Koh, the excavation’s associate director, analyzed jar fragments for organic residue. He found

The group made the discovery at the 75-acre Tel Kabri

traces of tartaric and syringic acids, both key components

site in Israel, the ruins of a northern Canaanite city

in wine. He also detected compounds suggesting

that dates back to 1700 B.C. As they excavated the site,

ingredients popular in ancient wine-making, including

once the vast palace of the city’s rulers, they uncovered

honey, mint, cinnamon bark, juniper berries, and resins.

a three-foot-long jar which they christened “Bessie.”

The recipe is similar to medicinal wines used for

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2,000 years in ancient Egypt. “We dug and dug, and, all of a sudden, Bessie’s friends started appearing—five, 10, 15, ultimately 40

“This wasn’t moonshine that someone was brewing

jars packed in a 15-x-25-foot storage room,” Cline

in their basement, eyeballing the measurements,”

said. “This is a hugely significant discovery. It’s a wine

Koh said. “This wine’s recipe was strictly followed in

cellar that, to our knowledge, is largely unmatched in

each and every jar.”

its age and size.” A few days before the team wrapped up its work, The 40 jars have a capacity of roughly 2,000 liters,

they discovered two doors leading out of the wine

meaning the cellar could have held the

cellar to the south and west. Both probably lead to

equivalent of nearly 3,000 bottles of

additional storage rooms—to be explored when the

reds and whites.

teams return in 2015 for another dig.

GW Arts & Sciences Spring Update 2014  
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